Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

Against the Tide of Years

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>

 


Chapter 10

April, Year 9 AE

"Lot of work," Kathryn Hollard said, looking up at the bulky three-step shape of the water-purifying works.

"Worth it," Clemens said fervently. "Come along -- you should see this."

The Base hospital wasn't far away, and its priority had been high enough that it was more or less finished. The walls were thick adobe brick, whitewashed inside, with a number of bays off a long I-shaped block, and smooth tile floors. Light came from tall narrow windows high in the walls, under the cross-timbers that supported the low-sloped tile roof. The wards were airy and cool; adobe made good insulation. Mostly they smelled of fresh mortar and new wood, and of disinfectant; but Major Hollard wrinkled her nose slightly as Clemens lead her into one of the bays. An orderly pushed past with a basket of soiled cloth pads.

"Sorry, but there's only so much you can do when the diarrhea hits," Clemens said.

They walked down the line of beds; a few near the door were Marines, the other several dozen locals, from among the thousand-odd hired to help with the construction. Their faces were alike, though; drained and pale. One or two looked better, with bottles of saline solution dripping into their veins. Another orderly was pushing a wheeled cart down the row of bedsteads, stopping at each to make the occupant down a glass of what looked like water. Several of the locals were alive enough to try and reject the water, squirming in mute terror -- and looking the worse for it because their hair and beards had been shaved, a dreadful shaming thing to a Babylonian of this era.

Clemens walked over and helped with the dosing, speaking soothingly in their own language. Hollard's brows were up when he returned.

"What is it?" she said.

"It's the reason we spent so much time on that slow-sand filter setup. Specifically? Damned if I know. It's a form of bacterial dysentry; I think I've isolated the causative agent. It's not cholera, strictly speaking, but it works a lot like it. Rehydration with a sugar-and-salt laced water works fine, or by IV for the worst cases -- a fair number died before we realized what was happening. The locals are afraid of our magic, I had to get a guard detail to bring some of these men in. That's what I thought you might help me with."

"You need a couple of squads?" Hollard said.

Clemens shook his head, frustration turning his naturally sunny expression to a scowl. "No, what I need is help. More hands. I need some people who can be taught basics -- changing bedpans, giving them the solution, getting them to the jakes if they're ambulatory. It would help if they could speak Akkadian. I thought of using some of the laborers, but they're too frightened -- and the peasants... well, thick hick might have been invented for them. They're even more ignorant and parochial than an Alban fresh off the boat."

Kathryn nodded. "I'm not surprised. Albans have to look after themselves, mostly. These peasants, they're pretty firmly under the thumb of their bosses, and they don't encourage them to think, from what I've seen." Suddenly she grinned and snapped her fingers. "Tell you what, I think I can do something for you. Come on."

She turned and strode decisively away. Clemens followed, walking a little faster than he liked to keep up with the tall woman's stride, squinting under the brim of his floppy canvas campaign hat and conscious of how salt was soaking into it and leaving another ridge of stain all around.

Have to remember to check on the salt tablets, he thought.

The tent they came to was theoretically the officer's mess; in practice a lot of the work of the camp was done there, especially with most of the permenant buildings still under construction. Tables and benches stood under an awning, with the sides drawn up to let what breeze there was circulate. Clemens stopped and pointed to several plates of bread, cheese and cold meat.

"There!" he said. "That's what I mean!"

Colonel Hollard and a pair of other officers were sitting talking to the Councilor for Foreign Affairs and his assisant, with stacks of papers in front of them. The commander of the 1st Marine Regiment looked up at the doctor's outburst.

"What is, Lieutenant?" he asked mildly.

"That sort of thing is why we're having this problem with dysentry," he said. "Sir," he added after a moment, remembering hasty classes in military courtesy.

"I thought that was the water?"

"It's usually the water. But the locals won't dig the latrines deep enough, or remember to throw in dirt after they use them. Flies to feces to food -- it's a wonder we don't have more than a couple of dozen down as it is."

"A wonder and your good work, doctor," Hollard said. "What's this in aid of, Kat?"

Kathryn grinned, sat, and tossed her hat down, reaching for a pitcher of the weak, cloudy local beer and a straw. The Babylonians always drank it that way, to avoid sucking in the sediment, and none of them drank water if they could afford the brewer's product.

"Now I see why they avoid the water, after what Jus has been showing me," she said. "This rush of runny-guts is overburdening his sickbay, and he needs some help. I thought it might kill two birds with one stone, so to speak."

"Ah, yes, the King's embarassing generosity," Ian Arnstein said, stroking his beard.

Rumor made the Councilor an absent-minded polymath genius. Clemens hadn't seen much of him, apart from a few dinings-in with the Commodore, but he suddenly wondered how much of that was a pose. The russet-brown eyes under the shaggy brows were disconcertingly shrewd, and he suspected that was a twinkle of humor.

"Generosity, Councillor?" he said.

Doreen Arnstein sighed, in chorus with Colonel Hollard; they looked at each other and chuckled. The Marine commander took it up: "King Shuriash decided to be really hospitable, so he just sent us two hundred palace servants," he said dryly. "Slaves, to be precise."

"Oh," Clemens said.

He knew the Republic's policy; they couldn't go crusading against slavery all over the planet -- or a dozen other abominations -- but the Islanders didn't tolerate it where they had the chance to do something. Ur Base was sovereign Nantucket territory; and, of course, there were severe penalties for any citizen who dabbled in slavery. Doing a Walker, it was called informally, the name for any sort of unethical dealings with the locals. The Commodore enforced it with humourless strictness, too.

"At the same time," Ian said, obviously following his train of thought, "we can't just manumitt them and turn them lose. For one thing the King would be mortally offended; for another, they'd starve or get re-enslaved or something of that nature right away."

"That is a problem," Clemens said. "Ah... sorry I hadn't heard about this, colonel."

"We're all busy," Hollard said tolerantly. "As a matter of fact, we're all insanely busy. Kat?" He looked at the younger Hollard.

"Well, we've got them understanding that they're free," she said. "And they understand who does not work, does not eat; this place's run along those lines anyway. So when Jus explained his problem, it struck me that he could use fifty or sixty of them -- start them off at fifty cents a day and keep, like the construction workers."

That was about a third of what an unskilled worker made back on Nantucket, but extremely generous by the standards of anywhere else.

"Not the singers or dancers or most of the... ah... entertainers," Kathryn went on. "But the cooks and housemaids, it wouldn't be a big change for them."

"That would be more than I need," Clemens said, alarmed.

"It'd be part time," Kathryn said. "They could do the language and literacy classes say, two days a week, and work four."

"And that many would be out of our hair," Hollard said. "Good idea, Kat, and it'll free up our own people. All right with you, Lieutenant?"

"Ah... yes," Clemens said. Well, at least the people I'm working for don't dither, he thought. "It'll pay off in the long run... might be very useful indeed, down the way. I'll keep an eye out, and have the brighter ones taught real nursing when we get some time."

"Good idea," Doreen Arnstein said. "If -- forbid it, God -- we've got a really big war on our hands, that could be crucial." She smiled, a hard expression. "And it'll give us an advantage over Walker. I doubt he wastes his precious time on clean water."

Ian Arnstein shook his head. "I only wish that were so, Doreen. More's the pity, I think he's too smart not to. And he has Hong to advise him."

"She's a monster."

Clemens cut in: "I met her a few times -- I started understudying Doctor Coleman right after the Event. He says she was a monster, all right -- but a pretty good physician, for all that. She'll be able to give him good advice, if he takes it."

"With our luck, he probably will," Kathryn said mournfully. The pitcher made a gurgling sound as she sucked on the straw. "Pah! That last mouthfull was solid ground barley. Well, Jus, let's go -- you can look over the dancing girls and make a selection, like a Sultan!"

Clemens cursed the blush that rose to his cheeks. At least the sunburn hides it, he thought. A small compensation for increased likelihood of melanoma, but you had to count your blessings in this post-Event world.

And at least I don't have to see Ellen every day. That was a comfort as well.

@@@

"So, we have to ask ourselves, before we can become virtuous, what is virtue?" Doreen said, nibbling a pistachio.

The priest of Ninurta began to answer, then stopped, suspicious. He was an old man, his beard white and his olive face deeply seamed; the years had left him sunken and scrawny in his flounced, fringed robe -- the Sumerian style, that left one shoulder bare -- but his eyes were snapping with intelligent anger.

"Virtue is the knowledge of what the gods, the great gods our masters, require of us!" The priest thumped the inlaid sisso wood of the table for emphasis.

"Ah, thank you," Doreen said politely. "Then that knowledge is something that can be taught?"

"Of course, woman!"

"Then from whom should we learn it?"

"From the priests of the gods, the great gods our masters -- they who know the wisdom of old, that which is written on the clay, that which is difficult to learn."

"The High En priest of Ninurta, here in Dur-Kurigalzu, he would be a very wise and virtuous man?"

The priest permitted himself a dry, wintry smile. "Of course. Although he is not of my temple, his piety and learning are well-known; all this city knows of it." He was also a collateral relative of the king, which made the priest's words wise in themselves.

"Thank you again, O priest of Marduk," Doreen said. She paused for a moment, then went on: "I suppose priests would strive to teach virtue to their sons, then?"

The priest settled back on his stool, arranging his robe. "Surely."

"Then, for example, Yasim-Sumu, the high priest's son, should be a man of exceptional virtue?"

The priest opened his mouth, closed it again, and flushed darkly. But he was an honest man, in his way. "No," he bit out.

Doreen smiled politely and inclined her head. I'll say. Yasim-Sumu was also out of the Babylon area, after the relatives of several ex-maidens had come looking for him with pruning hooks; eventually his relatives would probably be able to buy them off, but the sons of a nobleman he'd killed in a drunken brawl might be less forgiving.

"Then apparently virtue is not something that can be taught, O en-priest of Marduk?"

The Babylonian stabbed his bronze stylus into a fresh clay tablet. "Well, what in Nergal's name is virtue, then, woman?"

"Oh, I don't know either," Doreen said cheerfully. "It seems we're both equally ignorant!"

A few seconds later, Ian Arnstein stuck his head through the door and caught her still giggling.

"What had him storming out so fast?"

"Oh, I used the First Sophistic on him," Doreen said, taking another nut out of the bowl. "The negative elenchos. Have a pistachio."

Ian accepted, groaned, and sank down on a stool beside the table. The room was dim but quietly sumptuous, with embroidered rug-hangings like a stylized spring meadow and a floor of white gypsum slabs; light came from an opening in the ceiling, that could be closed at need with a mushroom-like cap of baked clay.

"Doreen, you've got to watch that. Remember what it got Socrates?"

"Well, yes, but he didn't have diplomatic immunity, did he?

"Jesus, Doreen, we're supposed to be making an alliance here! These people believe in omens the way Americans believe -- believed -- would have believed -- in vitamins. If we get the priesthoods against us, how do you think every divination will turn out? And no, we can't bribe them all -- for one thing, some of them are honest."

Doreen hung her head slightly. "Sorry... but old Samsu-Indash is such a doddering reactionary twit! The King sent him to pick up our math, and he's utterly incapable of believing I can add up to twenty without looking at my feet, for God's sake."

"Yeah, but he's a Babylonian, you can't expect him not to be a sexist pig," Ian said. "Anyway, there's news."

She sat up at his expression, alarm chilling her despite the hard dry warmth of the land between the rivers.

"From the fleet. The broadcast was incomplete, but they've run into some really bad weather."

@@@

"I want everyone on a line," Marian Alston said grimly. "Storm canvas, and do it now. Signal to the flotilla, in case any of them haven't."

The swell had been increasing for hours, and the light had taken on a weird, sulfur-tinged quality. To the north was only blackness, towering up to swallow the late-afternoon sky. And heading our way very fast. She set her teeth and looked around, trained her binoculars on the other ships of the flotilla -- four of them, since they'd left the schooner Douglass at Mauritius, to shuttle back and forth to Kar-Duniash. They all looked as ready as possible.

This is bad. This is very bad.

Her skin was prickling all over, as if every tiny hair was writhing in its follicle. She waited impatiently until the last work aloft was done, and ran her eyes over every inch of it, sails on top of the yards and lashed with double gaskets; the forward staysails, the gaff and two close-reefed topsails still up, to keep way on her once the hurricane hit. A ship without sails couldn't be steered, and that meant death. There was an ominous, naked angularity to the masts with only those scraps of storm canvas up.

"Commodore," a petty officer panted. "The kids are strapped in to their bunks, and Martinelli's with them."

"Thank you, seaman Telnatarno," Alston said.

She exchanged a brief glance with Swindapa, and a nod; that was all they could do. Now she had a ship to sail, and that would require all her attention.

Something was coming towards them across the sea from the north, a mile or more before the darkness. A line of white, a giant semicircle racing across the water, as if the sea were being churned by an invisible laser.

"It's coming across the swell," she said mildly. "Damn."

Jenkins shouted warning through his speaking trumpet. Those on deck braced themselves, clutching at rigging and rail and belaying pins.

The air went... limp, she decided. Just for a moment the single close-reefed topsail sagged flat, all the roundness out of it. Then the wind struck, and tore the tough storm-canvas out of its bolt-tops with a single shrieking burst, turning it to vanishing scraps and tatters that snapped like whipcracks. She could feel the whole thousand-ton weight of the Chamberlain heeling as the wall of air and water hit, over, further, further under the fury of the blow, and she watched the port rail go under with fascinated horror. Above her a line snapped with a crack like cannonshot, and something whirred by her like a giant's flail. The scream from the wheels would have been deafening normally; she could barely hear it, or see through the froth of beaten seawater and air that filled the space between. She leapt for the circles of wood, staggered as a body slammed into her, pushed by as it fell to the deck clutching at ribs splintered by the whirling spokes.

Alston plunged on, vaguely conscious of Swindapa at her side. There had been six deckhands at the wheel; one was just gone, two more down with their faces and chests slashed open by the recoiling line, blood turning to pink froth in the Niagra that was pouring over the side. The two officers leapt to the platform beside the wheels, waited until the spokes slowed, grabbed them with a shock that thudded through arms and shoulders and strained into gut and legs. Alston barred her teeth in a grunting rictus of effort. The frigate had heeled to forty-five degrees, and she had to brace her foot against the mount of the wheels to stop herself hanging down like a loose rope-end.

Slowly, slowly, the Chamberlain roared upright again, shrugging tons of water overside and through her scuppers; the familiar outlines of the deck came into sight, as if she were a submarine broaching surface -- familiar except for things that should have been there but weren't. Lieutenant Jenkins was back on his feet, yelling orders through his speaking-trumpet. Alston raised her eyes beyond him, squinting through the stinging spray, twisting to look astern.

At least it isn't freezing, she thought with a splinter of her mind; she'd gone through storms in the North Atlantic and the Roaring 40's where the spray turned to ice three inches thick on every exposed surface. Then she saw the size of the wave that was bearing down on her ship... bearing down on the broadside of the ship.

"do Jesus!" she yelled. "Jenkins, get the staysails over!"

Thank God. He'd heared her, and plunged down to the waist to get the dazed line crews hauling. The wind was trying to force the nose of her ship toward the monster wall of water that would capsize it and crush it like a cup under a boot.

"Haul! Bring her around!" she shouted, and felt Swindapa's long slender body straining beside hers. The other two hale steersmen were with her, she could hear one of them screaming a prayer, but it wouldn't be enough. She could feel the sea fighting them, the savage leverage through the ropes and drum from the tiller to the wheel. Then one of the men whose face had been lashed open by the broken line staggered up onto the platform across from her, his teeth showing in a grisly smile through a loosened flap of cheek.

"She's coming 'round!" Alston shouted exultantly, and heard her lover's long hawk-shriek beside her. The staysails and gaff were keeping steerage-way on, and it might be enough.

do Jesus, I wish I could put on more canvas. Impossible; nothing would hold in this. What I've got up may be enough. May be.

Or maybe not. The light had vanished as if the sun had never risen, and the blackness was lit only by the endless stabbing flash of lightning. Come on, sugar, point a little further south for me, she thought to the ship, unconciously trying to will the bowsprit to turn through sheer concentration and clenching her stomach muscles. Come on, come on...

The stern began to climb, slowly at first and then faster, faster, as if they were climbing backward up a cliff of blue-black tipped with darkling white foam. Alston saw the curl hanging above her and to the starboard, waiting, waiting. Now. The cliff fell on them, and she could hear the timbers of the ship's frame screaming in protest, the rigging humming like some great harp in agony. The water cataracted forward, and she took a deep breath to hold as it broke over the quarterdeck. Sea filled eye and nose and ear, battering, levering at her body with huge heavy hands that tried to tear her away from the spokes of the wheel. The ship heeled again, further this time, over on her beam-ends, and the sharp bow dug deep into the trough of the wave, as if the Chamberlain were going to run down the side of the wave and straight to the bottom.

She's broached deep, ran through Alston. Hatchways caved -- she'll never come up from this. Fear of death was distant; an immense irritation was greater -- there was still to much to do -- and grief for Swindapa and Heather and Lucy harder still. At least her lover was by her side; the children were so young, and all alone in the dark --

Air broke around her; sin-dark, full of flying wrack, but the scream of the hurricane through the Chamberlain's rigging was the sweetest sound in the universe. The wheel bucked under her hands, and she felt the ship's living movement flow up through her feet, a lunging corkscrew twist that cut the water and threw twin jets from the hawseholes on the foredeck a third the hight of the mast. Waves buffeted her, a formless savage chop that twisted the masts through thirty degrees of arc, bending them like whip-antennas, and the ghastly flicker of lighting saw identical stunned grins on the faces of the others at the wheel. Jenkins fought his way back up to the quarterdeck, with a party at his heels to carry off the injured -- those who weren't just gone -- and relieve them at the wheel.

"I thought we were sunk, skipper!" he yelled in her ear.

"So did I, Lieutenant!" Alston said, grinning in relief. "Keep her so -- if we get any more big surges, it'll be from that direction."

"Aye aye!"

Lightning flashed again and again, closer, closer. Then a crack like needles thrust into the ears, and a flash that blinded her through an upflung hand. Behind that came duller thunder-cracks and lower jets of flame as the forward two guns on either side fired, blasting out through their portlids. The change in the Chamberlain's movements beneath her feet and the crackling roar of white pine snapping told her their story in the second before sight returned.

Her eyes confirmed it. The frigate's hundred and twenty-foot foremast had been struck by lightning, had leapt in its socket like a living thing writhing in pain and then snapped off three feet above the deck. It plunged to port, drowning its flaming tip in the wild water. Already it was swinging the ship's nose away from the south, into the wind. And caught in a cradle of rigging the great mass of timber pounded on the ship like the stick of a mad drummer as wind and wave swept it about.

"Jenkins, take the helm!" Alston shouted. There was no time to think, only to do. "Everyone else, follow me. Axes! Axes!"

She led the rush down the quarterdeck and into the waist. They snatched the tools from the ready-racks as they passed in a staggering, lurching, grasping run; axes, hatchets, prybars, cutlasses. Then forward, past crew down moaning or crawling with the heave of the ship, injured or stunned by the fall of the mast and yards, the furled sails and the huge tangle of cordage that was rigging when whole and a demon's spiderweb dragging them all to death now. Crossing the two hundred feet was as much swimming as walking, more like tumbling in heavy surf on a rocky shore than either. The wild water and tearing wind battered, lifted, threw, wrenched at them, flinging bodies into each other and the unyielding fabric of the ship with bruising force, sucking at feet, pitching the deck beneath their feet. Even over the banshee scream of the gale she heard the slamming drumbeat of the mast against deck and hull, booming up through her feet with the promise of wreck.

She, Swindapa, a junior lieutenant, middies, petty officers dragged and pushed crew to the crucial lines, the remnants of the standing rigging that held the ruined mast to the hull as well as slashing themselves. Blades flashed, thumping into hemp rope and wood and more than once into flesh as desperation and the mad heaving of the hull sent them staggering.

It's going, it's going! she thought, and brought her axe around in a two-handed swing. Thunk. The last of the six-inch thickness of the stayline parted. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the next monster wave running down with the cold inevitability of a glacier. The mast swept away, then back one last time like a battering-ram in the hands of Poseidon. Oak shrieked under the impact, but that added its bit to the straining helm and shoved the bow away from the oncoming water. Alston threw down the axe.

"Hang on!" she shouted, pitching it to carry as best she could, but the wind snatched the breath out of her lips. Some of the crewfolk were still hacking mechanically at dangling bits of wreckage, heedless of everything else. She staggered to the nearest, shaking, pushing, looping ends of line around their bodies, vaguely conscious of Swindapa doing likewise.

There was a moment of almost-stillness. She rose from tying off a line under the armpits of a crewman lying dazed and bleeding and saw the wave strike her ship on the port quarter. Feet skidded out beneath her as the Chamberlain's stern flung upward and the ship pitched on her beam-ends. Water poured towards her in a torrent taller her than her head, driven by winds building over a thousand miles of ocean. She felt her body leave the deck, hurl towards the bow and the railing, then slam into something unyielding. Pain lanced through her chest, and the hands that scrambled at rail and rope were strengthless. Everything moved with the dreamy slow-motion inevitability of dream.

Always expected to drown eventually, ran through a corner of her mind, even as her will doggedly forced her arms to lock in an effort she knew would be empty. The wave would take her overboard, and that would be the end.

Swindapa fell down the canted deck towards her, hair trailing behind her like a banner of yellow silk, shocking in the lightning-shot darkness. The younger woman's right arm clamped around her waist with desperate strength; the left was wound into a bight of line.

"Don't you leave me!" the Fiernan screamed in her ear. "Don't you dare!"

Wasn't planning on it, she thought sucking in a last deep breath and holding it despite the salt spray that rasped at her lungs. And: Christ, 'dapa, you'll get yourself killed too!

The wave struck, lifted them, slashed them backwards like a plumb-weight at the end of a line, smashed them down again against the decking with casual brutality. Alston let the last of her consciousness drain into her arms, locked around Swindapa and the rope.

Blackness.

@@@

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Copyright © 1999 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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