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 3

The scream was high and shrill, a wailing shriek of agony and helpless rage. Marian Alston-Kurlelo sat bolt upright in bed, then turned to shake the figure beside her gently on the shoulder.

"Wake up," she said firmly. "Wake up, 'dapa."

The Fiernan woman tossed, opened her eyes. They were blank for a moment, before awareness returned; then she seized Alston in a grip of bruising strength.

"I was -- the Burning Snake had me, the Dream Eater," she gasped. "I was the Sun People's prisoner again, but you didn't come, it just went on..."

Alston returned the embrace, crooning comfort and stroking the long blond hair. Had my own nightmares about that, she thought. Presumably in the original history -- if original meant anything -- Swindapa had died among the Iraaina, instead of being given to the mysterious strangers who arrived in Eagle, the Coast Guard training windjammer. Her whole people had vanished, overrun and swallowed up. And I went on alone, back up in the twentieth. The room was very dark; an internal clock developed by a lifetime at sea told her it was the end of the midnight watch, around three in the morning.

She felt tears dropping on her shoulder, and tenderly wiped them away. "There, there, sugar," she whispered. "I did come."

Rescuing Swindapa had been sort of a side-effect; they were there to trade for stock and seed-grain, that first month after the Event. She certainly hadn't expected them to end up together... In fact, 'dapa had to pretty well drag me into bed, after months of my dithering -- all those years in the closet made me timid. Christ, was I stupid.

The bedroom in Guard House was quiet; evidently the children hadn't woken. Alston waited until her companion's shuddering died down into quiet sobbing, then turned up the lamp on the bedside table. The period-piece splendors of the house were a bit faded now, slightly shabby at the edges eight years after the Event, but with a squared-away neatness that was solely hers.

Swindapa wiped her eyes and blew her nose on a handkerchief from the dresser; Marian smiled a little, remembering teaching her to do that with something besides her fingers. The blue eyes were clear now, with the mercurial mood-shifts she'd come to know since the Event. The only thing reliable about 'dapa is 'dapa, she thought with a rush of tenderness. Odd that they got on so well.

"What were you thinking?" the Fiernan said. "I could feel your eyes touch me."

"That you're my other half," Marian said. "And about that night down in the Olmec country."

She remembered that; one hand went to her left thigh, touching the dusty-white scar. Remembering the darkness and wet heat, mud under her boots, the light of the flares and the burning temples of San Lorenzo above shifting through the jungle. Breaking in shatters of brightness off the obsidian edges of the Olmec warriors' spears and club-swords, the quetzal feathers of their harnesses, on paint and precious stones and snarling faces. The cold sting of the spearhead in her leg; at the time all she felt was an enormous frustration that her body wouldn't obey her, that they might not get out with Martha Cofflin after all. And then Swindapa, face streaked with burnt cork and hair spilling out from under her cap, sword flashing as she stood screaming over her fallen lover...

The Fiernan nodded. "Moon Woman has woven the light of our souls together," she said.

"And I was thinking that you're cute as hell," Marian added, grinning.

That's God's truth as well, the black woman thought. Swindapa was her own five-foot-nine almost to an inch, and they had similar builds, slender and long-limbed. There had still been a bit of adolescent gangliness when they first met, but it had gone with the years between. The oval straight-nosed face looked firmer now too, tanned to a honey-color and framed by the long fall of wheat-colored hair.

"Woof!" Alson said, as the Fiernan's leap and embrace took the air from her lungs.

"And you are as beautiful as the night sky with stars," Swindapa murmured down at her; that was as strong as compliments came, in the Fiernan Boholugi tongue. It sounded pretty good in English, too. "Let's share pleasure. I want--"

Marian stopped her with another kiss that turned long and lingering; loving someone didn't make them more like you, and she was still embarassed by Fiernan bluntness at times.

@@@

"Thanks," Vicki Cofflin said, taking the thick mug of sassafras tea.

The warmth was welcome in her hands; the early morning was chill enough to make her wool-and-leather flight uniform only a little too heavy.

"Well, this is it," Alex Stoddard said, looking up at the huge structure that creaked above them, secured by a dozen mooring ropes along either side. Its blunt head was pointed into the southwest wind, and it surged occasionally against the mooring ropes as if it were eager to be gone.

She nodded, feeling the excitement hit her gut with a chill that counterbalanced the warm astringent taste of the tea. Scary too, she thought. She'd had her share of risky business over the past eight years, over with the Expeditionary Force in Alba -- she'd carried a crossbow to the Battle of the Downs -- and bad weather at sea. This was a little different. The design studies said the Emancipator would work; she'd helped crank up one of the mothballed computer workstations to run the stress calculations for the frame, and worked on the design phase as well as the construction. She knew it should work. Knowing it was one thing, but trusting yourself to this flying whale made out of birch plywood and cloth was still a bit nerve-wracking.

"Especially when I was going to fly shuttles," she muttered wryly, then shook her head when Alex looked up from his checklist. "Let's get on with it," she went on aloud.

The Emancipator did look a little like a whale; like an orca, the type misnamed killer whale; some wag had wanted her named Free Willy, but the Commodore had stomped on that good and hard. Vicki did one more careful walk-around; checking everything one last time was something that was drilled into you at Fort Brandt OCS very thoroughly, and even more so as a middie on a Guard ship. The strong smell of the doping compound on the fabric skin filled the air about her, and the scents of glue and birchwood.

The looming presence of the airship was a bit intimidating too. Objectively she knew it was light and fragile, strips of wood and whale intestine gasbags, but it felt formidably solid looming above her like this. And it was big, bigger than the Eagle, which was the largest mobile object in the world, this Year Eight After the Event. Bigger than the 747's of fading memory; right up there with the space shuttles she'd once dreamed of flying.

"I hope you get the command," Alex said behind her; she concealed a slight start. He was a tall young man -- six gangly feet -- but he moved quietly. "You deserve it."

"The Commodore will appoint whowever she thinks can do the job best," Vicki said, then grinned. "Thanks for the thought, though, Ensign Stoddard. I'm supposed to have dinner with the Chief and the Commodore on Harvest Night, so we'll see..."

The Emancipator's gondola was a hundred feet long, a narrow swelling built into the airship's frame. When it was grounded the craft rested on outriggers, wooden skis much like a helicopter's skids. The rear ramp flexed and creaked a little beneath their rubber-soled boots as they walked up; everything on board was built as lightly as possible. Beneath their feet were the tanks for water ballast and liquid fuel, and compartments for cargo -- or, under other circumstances, Leaton's hundred-pounder cast-iron bombs, or incindiaries. Three tall wheels stood along each side with a member of the crew at each. Another came climbing down a ladder that stretched up into the hull above, access to the gasbags.

"Captain on deck!"

"As you were," she said, feeling a spurt of pride.

Captain for at least a day. The crew relaxed and went back to the preflight checkpoint. The Commodore's idea of discipline was strictly functional; ceremony had its place, but that wasn't getting in the way. Another good thing about working for her was that if she thought you were competent enough to do a job, she didn't stand over you or joggle your elbow. Or go in for that zero-defect horseshit; if you screwed up stupid or lazy, she'd have your tits for teryaki, as the saying went, but she didn't expect you to avoid all misfortune.

Just deal with it competently, quickly and without unnecessary fuss, Vicki thought. So let's get on with it.

She walked forward, past the engine stations, the folded-up bunks, the tiny galley with its electric hotplate -- no exposed flames on this craft, by God! --- the map boards and the big clunky spark-gap radio and smaller smoother-looking pre-Event shortwave set. There was a swivel chair at the point where the decking came to an end, with the sloping windows that filled the curved nose of the gondola surrounding it on three sides. Low consols surrouned it as well, mostly pre-Event instruments adapted to their new tasks; airspeed, pressure, fuel, temperature gagues. The windows looked down on a shadowed section of the Nantucket Airport runway; the area outside grew brighter even as she watched. There weren't many people here. The whole project wasn't exactly clandestine, but it had been kept on the QT. That was possible, in a community as close-knit as this, where a couple of strong hints would usually stop people prying if you didn't shove something in their face.

And I'm supposed to leave by dawn and come back by sunset, barring emergencies, she reminded herself, running an eye over the instruments. Everything still nominal...

"All hands to stations," she said. "Raise the ramp."

"All hands," Alex echoed. "Ramp up!"

Vicki Cofflin turned and looked down the long space. It was still a little dark in here, with only the dim lights over the duty stations. Engine crew; buoyancy control; ballast control; radio; navigation -- that was Alex's department, as well as being XO; and vertical and lateral helms just behind her. Good crew, she thought. Fourteen in all, enough for watch-and-watch. Only the radioman was older than she, a ham operator back before the Event. Only five Albans, and they'd all come to the island as teenagers, Alex' age or younger, enough to get the basic education required.

"All right, people," she said. "We've all worked long and hard getting the boat ready. Now we're going to take her up and see what she can do."

Nobody on Nantucket had any lighter-than-air experience, if you discounted people who'd been up on rides in Goodyear blimps, which included Ian Arnstein, oddly enough. She smiled inwardly at the thought of trying to turn the Councilor for Foreign Affairs into airship crew. They'd all read everything they could find, but there was no substitute for hands-on experience.

She slapped the back of the chair. "Emancipator's going to give us some surprises, unless she's completely unlike any land, sea, air or space vehicle human beings have ever made. So stay alert."

"Aye aye, ma'am!"

Vicki nodded, took off her peaked cap and sat. "Let's go."

@@@

"Sleepin' like babies," Marian whispered in the predawn darkness, moving carefully so that the armor wouldn't rattle.

"They are babies," Swindapa answered softly, giving her hand a squeeze.

The nursery down the corridor from their room held two beds, each with a girl and a stuffed animal -- Lucy had a blue snake, and Heather a koala bear. The redhead was lying on her back, snoring very softly, almost daintily; the dark girl curled on her side, as if protecting her goggle-eyed serpent. More stuffed toys stood on shelves around about, and dolls, blocks, puzzles, picture books, a dollhouse Jared Cofflin had made and Martha painted for a birthday last year, wooden horses carved in Alba, a fanciful model ship on wheels from Alston's own hands. The girls were seven almost to a day; they'd both been newborns, orphaned by the Alban War.

Well, Lucy's father is probably still alive, Alston thought meticulously. He'd been the only black with Walker, and they hadn't found his body. Her mother had died in childbirth, just after the Downs battle, and been left behind when Walker and his gang ran for it. Alive until I catch him. The big black ex-cadet from Tennessee hadn't gone over to Walker for wealth or power; it had been his damned fetish about the imaginary Black Egyptians, and Walker's promise to send him along to them with the secret of gunpowder and whatnot to protect them against the Ice People White Devils. That didn't make him any less of a traitor in her eyes. It was actions that mattered, not intentions.

"Let's go," she said quietly.

They padded down the stairs, the wood creaking sometimes. However much renovated, the house was still a hundred and seventy years old -- years on its own timeline, however much the world had looped around. Through the twin parlors, through the dining room, and into the big kitchen at the back of the house, flanked by the sunroom that overlooked the rear garden. For a moment they busied themselves with preparations for tonight's dinner, seeing that the woodstove was fed and bringing out the suckling pig from the pantry. Alston chuckled at that; two women in Samurai-style steel armor with long swords across their backs, feeding the 19th-century woodstove in a house last remodelled by a Californian investment banker in the dying years of the twentieth century...

The breakfast oatmeal was bubbling quietly in an iron pot atop the stove and had been all night, but it wouldn't be ready for another hour and a half. They cut themselves chunks of bread, and washed it down with whole milk from the jug in the icebox, then fastened their boots and took the wooden practice swords in their hands as they let themselves out. Nantucket was cool in the predawn blackness even in late summer, the air damp and smelling of salt, fish, whale-oil from the streetlamps, woodsmoke from early risers. The two women crossed over to the north side of Main Street, turned onto Easy Street and then South Beach and began their run, bodies moving with smooth economy to the rattle and clank of the armor, hands pumping in rhythm.

"Better you than me!" a wagoneer called to them, yawning at the reins.

Marian recognized him and gave a wave; he'd been with the Expeditionary Force in Alba. Odd. So many got killed, and instead of throwing stuff at me, the survivors like me. Mysteries of war, I suppose.

"Easy day," she said to her companion, timing the words to long slow breaths. "Only an hour --" running out to Jetties beach, down the sand-cliffs, some kata on the wet sand at the ocean's edge, then back "--and we'll have to head in to start dinner."

"It is a holiday," Swindapa answered, then sprinted ahead, laughing in sheer exuberance at the day and being alive.

Very much alive, Marian thought. And that makes me feel like livin' too.

@@@

"I never thought I'd be nostalgic about living in fear of starving to death," Jared Cofflin said.

"You aren't," his wife replied succinctly. "You're just feeling hard-done-by."

The Chief Executive Officer of the Republic of Nantucket stared down at the papers on his living-room table; the tall sash windows of the Chief's House were open to the warm evening air and the sounds and smells of summer, and roses bloomed outside in the narrow scrap of garden. It'd been an inn just up from Broad, originally built as a shipowner's mansion back in the 1840's. Sort of a running joke between them and Marian and Swindapa, the Cofflins on Gay Street and the Alston-Kurlelos on Main... Plenty of office space; which meant he could never get away from the job, even less than when he'd been a cop.

"Balance of payments? Balance of payments? The whole damned island is sent back to 1250 BC --"

"-- that's 1242 BC now, dear. August 23rd, Year Eight."

"-- 1242 BC, and I'm supposed to worry about the balance of payments. Christ, I remember when we were all wondering about how we'd get through the winter with everything running out."

"Marian! Get away from that!" Martha called.

A seven-year-old girl with straw-blond pigtails snatched her hand away from a cut-glass decanter and went back to pulling a wheeled model ship across the floor. Cofflin's expression relaxed into a smile. If the island had stayed in the twentieth, he'd never have met Martha -- not beyond nodding as they passed in the street, at least. No little Marian, then. No Jared Jr. or Jennifer or Sam, either. Two of their own, and two adopted from the orphans of the war in Alba. He and his first wife had never been able to have children and never gotten around to adopting, and then Betty had died back half a decade before the Event... Strenuous, youngsters are, but worth it, he thought. Of course, ending up with four at his age was more than strenuous.

"And then this bunch want to start a new settlement down in Argentina," he went on. "As if we weren't spread out enough as it is."

"Dear, you have to remember, there's no law against emigrating. We can scarcely send Marian out to bomb and shell them back for leaving without permission."

"Speaking of which," he said, tossing down the papers. "There's young Pete Girenas and his group of let's-get-ourselves-killed enthusiasts. Christ. I liked him, what I saw of him; should I have sat on it instead? They might have given up..."

"What's their average age, Jared?"

"He's the oldest, and he's all of twenty-one."

"Well, then."

Cofflin sighed. "Let's get going. I'll think about that later. Marian's expecting us for the anniversary party." His daughter looked up at the sound of her name. "No, sweetling, Aunt Marian."

Young Marian's middle name was Deer Dancer; that was what Swindapa meant, in English. Damn, but I'm glad the Eagle was close enough to get caught up in the Event. Not just the ship. God knows how I'd have pulled us through without Marian. Or without Martha, or Ian, or Doreen, Angelica Brand, Ron Leaton, or Sam Macy, or... Well, particularly without Marian.

He looked at his watch. "Speaking of which, where's --"

"Hi, Unc, Martha,." Vicki Cofflin came through the door with a bound, and scooped up the child. "How's it going, midget?"

Cofflin smiled as his niece tussled with his daughter and Martha rounded up the rest of the offspring. Vicki daughter didn't have the Cofflin looks, but then, her mother had married someone from away, as Nantucketers said --- from Texas, at that. He'd been off-island when the Event happened, a particularly final form of divorce.

Vicki was stocky rather than lanky, with a snub-nosed freckled face and green-gray eyes. She wasn't in uniform, this being a family-and-friends evening -- he tried to keep some distinctions between that and government work. The jeans were pre-Event, faded and patched, but their origins made them more-than-casual wear now; her shirt was Murray's Mills product, Olmec cotton spun and died with wild indigo here on Island, the shoes hand-cobbled from Alban leather. Sneakers were kept for special occasions, nowadays.

"Evening, Vicki. How's your mother?"

"Ummmm... fine, Unc. You know how it is."

He nodded; Vicki didn't get along all that well with her stepfather, and her mother had started a new family -- one of her own and three Alban adoptees. Well, you pick your friends, but you're stuck with family, he thought. Though it was natural enough, seeing as how Mary had lost her elder two boys to the Event as well as her husband; that was as final as death. Although presumably they were still -- the word made no sense, but English grammar wasn't well-adapted to time travel -- all right, up in the 20th.

He pushed down a crawling horror that they all felt now and then. What if we destroyed the world, by being here? Planet Earth wasn't going to look at all like the history that had produced them, in three thousand years. We could have. They could all have gone out like a match in the wind as soon as we changed something back here; all dead... not even that, all of them never existing, a might-have-been. The Arnsteins thought that the Event would produce a branching, two trunks on the tree of time... but nobody could know for sure. Nobody knew anything about the Event except what it had done, come to that.

He shook his head and kneaded the back of his neck against the sudden chill. Martha touched him briefly on the arm, a firm warm pressure; the equivalent of a hug to them. Their breed wasn't demonstrative, but he felt the tension slacken as he smiled back at her.

It was a warm late-August evening as they stepped out, shepherding the children before them; the big American elms lining the brick sidewalks were still in full leaf, and the whale-oil lamps on their cast-iron stands were being lit by a Town worker with a long pole topped by a torch. The tower of the old Unitarian Church stood black against the red sky ahead, still showing a little gold at its top in the long summer twilight.

"Ummm... unc..." Vicki dropped back a little to walk beside him, lowering her voice. "I'm a bit nervous. Having dinner with the Commodore."

He raised a brow. "Thought you did that as a middie," he said.

"Well, yeah, but that was... structured." Commodore Alston made a point of inviting groups of officer-candidates to dinner now and then. "I didn't serve under her when I was doing my qualifying cruises, though, and then I was in the engineering program over at Seahaven mostly."

"She doesn't bite," Cofflin said. "I read your report on the Emancipator's trials, too. Looked good."

"We did have that problem with longitudinal stability."

"Ayup. That's why they call it a test flight, girl. Looks like the modifications won't take all that long, or cost much," he replied, hiding a smile.

The first time he'd really talked with Marian, back right after the Event, they'd instinctively headed for the kitchen -- blue-collar reflexes, both of them. It still seemed a bit odd that they were the equivalents of the President and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, enough to make a level-headed young woman like Vicki sweaty-palmed. Of course, she wasn't nervous around him, since he'd been family and around from her toddler days.

"And she's going to give you good news, next time you see her in her official capacity," Cofflin went on. "You can take the second off the lieutenant, but you didn't hear it from me."

"Yes!" Vicki whooped, pumping a fist, then self-consciously calming when Martha looked back over her shoulder with a raised brow. Cofflin had noted that the younger generation were a bit more spontaneous than his; probably influence from all the Albans around nowadays.

"I was a little afraid somebody else would be put in to command the Emancipator when it was finished," she said, burbling a little.

"Doubt keeps you on your toes," Jared said, and then: "Evening, Ian, Doreen," when they met the Arnsteins outside the John Cofflin House.

"Evening all -- hi, Vicki. Got the whole tribe with you, I see," Ian said. David was waving to the Cofflin's four from his father's shoulders, and prompting a chorus of give me a ride, daddy!

"Ayup," Cofflin said. Then: "All right, Jenny, up you go."

He hoisted his adopted daughter to his shoulders; she wrapped her arms around his forehead and crowed glee. Cofflin gripped her feet, partly for stability and partly to keep sharp little heels from drumming on his ribs. Marian went up on Vicki's shoulders, and Jared Jr. on Doreen's; somehow, it didn't occurr to anyone to ask Martha. She took a small hand in each of hers instead, smiling with a slight closed curve of the lips at the childrens' giggling and the mock-horse-noises coming from the other adults.

The Pacific Bank and some of the shops were closing down, but the restaurants and bars on Main were full, spilling cheerful lantern-light and noise and cooking smells onto the cobbles, underlighting the leaves of the elms and turning them into a flickering tracery against the paling sky of evening. He could see right through the Cappuchino to their little garden-plaza beyond, hear the fiddle and guitar and flute from the trio performing there and the voices of the customers signing along, clapping and tapping their boots to the tune.

"That's a new one," he said, humming the jaunty melody:

"We just lost sight of the Brandt Point light
Down lies the bay before us
And the wind has blown some cold today
With just a wee touch of snow.
Along the shore from Eel Point Head, hard a-beam Muskeget
Tonight we let the anchors go, down in Fogarty's Cove!

It had a nice swinging lilt to it. "Sounds different now, that sort of song," he said.

One of the many small compensations of the Event was that with electricity a strictly rationed rarity, most of the types of music he hated with a passion were impossible. He wasn't alone in that, either. Marian had told him once that to get rid of gansta rap she'd have been willing to be stranded in the Jurassic along with a pack of velociraptors in white sheets.

My Sal has hair like a raven's wing,
But her tongue is like her mother's
With hands that make quick work of a chore
And eyes like the top of a stove
Come suppertime she'll walk the beach,
Wrapped in my old duffle
With her eyes upon the masthead reach
Down in Fogarty's Cove!

A girl was up on a table, dancing to the tune, but he'd give odds she wasn't American-born. Fiernan, from the wild patterned grace of the movements -- dancing was a big thing in their religion and they got a lot of practice. A soaring leap that you'd swear would stretch her out on the floor, turning to a whirl...

She will walk the sandy shores so plain,
Watch the combers roll in
'till I come to Wild Rose Chance again
Down in Fogarty's Cove!

"Certainly does have a different ring," Martha replied. "For one thing, half the people singing it really do make their living at sea."

Jared nodded a little wistfully. His job kept him ashore and pinned to his desk much of the time -- although he did insist on getting some time away this time of year, usually harpooning bluefin tuna. He could easily afford to pay the Town tax straight-up in money, the salary was generous and he'd invested well at Martha's prompting, but there was a satisfaction to doing something useful with your hands. Not to mention doing a hard dangerous job well enough to gain the respect of youngsters...

He worked his big fisherman's hands. It got harder every year, and sometime he'd have to let nature take its course. There was always the Boojum, his little twenty-footer. Someday he'd teach his kids how to single-hand a ketch...

She cries when I'm away to sea,
Nags me when I'm with her
She'd rather I had a government job,
Or mebbe took up a farm --
But I love her wave as I put about
And nose into the channel
My Sally keeps a supper and a bed for me,
Down in Fogarty's Cove!

"Folkie stuff was always popular here," Ian said. "Like you said, it has more of a, hmmm, resonance now. I understood a lot more about Homer once I'd seen a real battle with chariots and spears... although that's something I could live with not knowing."

"Let 'em sing," Cofflin sighed. "Got a difficult couple of years coming, unless I miss my guess. They've all worked hard, they deserve a party."

It was the last evening of what some bureaucrat at the Town Building had named, with stunning originality, the Civic Harvest Festival. They still celebrated Thanksgiving in November, of course, but this marked that first harvest of rye and wheat and barley, the year of the Event. Getting in the small grains marked the beginning of the school year now, too. The rest of the autumn harvest could be done gradually, since it didn't hurt corn or potatoes much to stand out in the cold.

The Councilors nodded and waved to friends and acquaintances as they turned south up Main; it was still a fairly small community and nobody was much in awe of the government, which answered to the Town Meeting anyway. Jared returned a mounted policewoman's salute as she rode by with her double-barreled flintlock shotgun on one hip; the horseshoes beat a slow iron clangor on the stones with an occasional bright spark.

Have to think about putting down asphalt here, some note-taking mechanism in the back of his mind prompted. The tourists had liked authentic Ye Olde cobblestones, but they were as inconvenient as hell now, unlike the other features -- lots of fireplaces, for instance -- of Nantucket's mainly early 19th-century downtown. The noise when a lot of iron-shod wagon wheels hit them had to be heard to be believed, for starters.

"I'll be damned," Ian said suddenly, craning his neck around so fast that his son whooped and buried his hands in the hair over Arnstein's ears.

"What?" Doreen said.

"I saw --"

"Saw what? Your jaw's dropping, Ian."

"I saw a tattooed Indian with a harpoon walking down towards the docks."

"Why not?" Cofflin asked. "There are a few of them working the tuna boats, they're good hands with a --"

Then he wheeled about himself. A barbed steel point glittered for a moment in the streetlamp beside the Hub, but the bearer was lost in the crowd spilling along South Water street and out of Vincent's and the Atlantic Cafe.

"Gave me a bit of a chill," Ian said. Doreen nodded, and Martha gave a slight dry chuckle.

"Problem is," she said, "we've all had our sense of the impossible wrenched about, badly. I'd say one real impossibility is enough for one lifetime."

Cofflin nodded. He still woke up some days with that sense of dislocation, a feeling that the solid tangible world he saw and smelled and tasted around him was just a veneer over chaos. Something that might spin away, dissolve like a mist at sea and leave... nothing? Or another exile beyond the world he knew. If once, why not again?

"What's wrong, daddy?" Jenny said anxiously, feeling the moment of shivering tension in his shoulders.

"Nothing's wrong, Jenny," he said, reaching up for a reassuring pat and putting the same into his voice. Jenny'll grow up without that, he thought. The Event would seem quite reasonable, if you grew up with it. In a couple of generations they'd probably think of it as a myth, and 'way down the road some professorial pain-in-the-ass would 'prove' that it was a metaphor and hadn't happened at all.

They quieted the children and walked further up Main, past the Pacific Bank. Coast Guard House had been known as the East Brick back before the Event. A whaling skipper had built it and the two others beside it in the 1830's, red four-square four-story mansions in the sober Federal style rich Quakers had favored back then, with twin white pillars beside the entrance, cupolas on the roofs and beautiful gardens in the rear. All three and the Two Greeks, their neoclassical rivals across the street, had been owned by coofs, rich mainlanders not on the Island at the time of the Event.

Vicki swallowed and ran her hands back over her hair; probably had memories of being called on the carpet here, since it was Guard H.Q.

Jared Cofflin grinned; he'd turned the East Brick over to Marian Alston for residence and headquarters when the Eagle returned from its first trading voyage to Alba, that spring right after the Event, and he'd done it with glee.

Part of his pleasure in that was the thought of the Californian financier who'd paid three-point-seven million dollars for it just six months before, and God knew how much in renovations and furnishings. One very irate moneyman, wandering through the primeval Indian-haunted oak woods of the Bronze Age island the twentieth century had presumably gotten in exchange, looking for his missing investment. Jared Cofflin had always been a working man. Maybe Jesus could love an investment broker, but he didn't intend to even try.

He gave another spare chuckle as they walked up the brick sidewalk, careful where the roots of the elms bulged the surface.

"What's the joke?" Ian asked.

"Thinking of the fuss back up in the twentieth, when they woke up and found us gone and nothing but trees and Indians on the Nantucket they got," he said. "Christ, can you imagine what the National Enquirer crowd must have done?"

It was an old joke, but they were all laughing when Cridzywelfa opened the door. She smiled in her turn, a stocky middle-aged woman who'd been a slave among the Iraiina tribe before the Alban War.

"The ladies are in the kitchen, Chief, working all day after the morning," she said with a quick choppy Sun People tang to her English. "They said to park yourself, and I'll take the children on to the back yard through."

Cofflin nodded, chuckling again the way New England vowels went with the Bronze Ager's accent. Paak the caa in Haav'd yaad 'n go to the paaty. With no TV or recorded sound to sustain General American, it sounded like the native Nantuckters' clipped nasal twang was gradually coming out on top in the island's linguistic stew.

Revenge of the Yankees.

@@@

"My ladies, they're here at the door," Cridzywelfa said.

"And we're ready, by God," Alston said, looking at the clock. Half-past seven p.m. exactly. Good. She'd always hated unpunctuality, any sort of slapdash doings.

The cream for the bisque was just right, very hot but not boiling. She used a potholder to lift the heavy crock from the stovetop and pour it into the soup-pot while Swindapa stirred it in with a long wooden spoon.

Thank you, momma, she thought. Her mother had gotten her started as a cook, back on Prince Island off the South Carolina coast. And it had been on a cast-iron monster much like this; their little truck-farm hadn't run to luxuries. Though how she managed with six of us, I'll never understand.

"Heather! Lucy!"

That last out the window to the gardens, whence came a clack of wood on wood and shrill imitations of a kia.

"Mom, we were just playing at bokken," Heather wheedled. "You and momma Swindapa play at swords all the time. Even with real swords, sharp ones."

"That's not playing, it's training, and you'll hurt each other with those sticks," Alston said, forcing sternness into her voice. "When you're old enough, you'll get real bokken to train with. Now put the sticks down and come in and wash your hands and faces. You can play with David and the other kids until dinner."

"Oh, David's just a baby," Lucy said, with the lordly advantage of two year's extra age.

The children dashed up the steps and through the sunroom

"That all smells good, mom," Heather said expectantly. "Really, really..."

Alston hugged the small form to her, meeting Swindapa's eyes over her shoulder. All right, you were right, she thought. The kids were a good idea, better than good. Alston had lost her own children in the divorce after John found out about Jolene... God, was that fifteen years ago? Or whatever; up in the twentieth, at least. No solitary chance of getting custody, not when John could have destroyed her career in the Guard with one short sentence and ruined her chances of being awarded the children in front of a South Carolina court. And I'm glad I didn't snap your neck, you son of a bitch.

Swindapa couldn't have any children of her own. Pelvic inflammation, from the way the Iraiina had treated her.

Alston cut two slices from a loaf and spread them with wild-blueberry jam; the bread was fresh enough to steam slightly. "That ought to hold you two the long half-hour until dinner's on the table."

"Run along," Swindapa said gently, bending to kiss the small faces. "Get those hands clean."

@@@

"Ahh," Jared Cofflin said, pushing the empty bowl away. "Now, that's how to treat a lobster soup."

"Lobster bisque, dear," Martha corrected, helping herself to one of the broiled clams with herbed-crumb crust.

"Ayup."

The dining room had changed a little, since this became Guard House. The burgundy wallpaper was the same, with the brilliant gold foliage around the top; so were the Waterford chandelier, the Philadelphia-Federal sideboard and the long mahogany table, but the rugs on the floor were from Dilmun at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. A pair of crossed tomahawks over the fireplace had bronze heads shaped like the bills of falcons, lovely and deadly. Those were from the Iraiina, a tribe settled in what would have become Hampshire, in the history from which Nantucket had been exiled -- plunder of the Alban War.

Elsewhere were mementos of the Eagle's swift survey around the globe in the Year Two and voyages since; a Shang robe of crimson and gold silk made in Anyang, and a square-section bronze sacrificial axe covered in ancestral Chinese ideographs; a moa egg twice the size of a football, from a New Zealand the canoe-people had yet to reach; a blazing indigo and red-green tapestry of dyed cotton from coastal Peru, covered in smiling gods and geometric shapes...

Cofflin helped collect the soup-plates and take them out to the kitchen to soak; off that in the sunroom the children were eating, with just as much noise and chaos as you would expect with ten healthy youngsters between three and seven, plus the housekeeper's two teenagers and the Colemans' youngest, who was still in a high chair. Cridzywelfa was presiding, with a smile that seemed genuine. He'd noticed that the locals just weren't as fastidious about mess and confusion as those born in the twentieth.

God knows I love 'em, but it's nice to eat without the kids now and then, he thought. At least his were all past the dump-your-porridge-over-your-head stage. Most of the time. The way Marian's redhead was squealing and waving her fork looked like a danger to life and limb.

"Why did you name her Heather?" Cofflin asked idly, as everyone came back in with fresh dishes and exclaimed over the suckling pig borne aloft in glory with an apple in its mouth. Swindapa began handing around plates. He picked an olive from a bowl and ate it.

"Why do you think, Jared?" Marian replied, carving with quick skilled strokes.

The savory meat curled away from her blade; the lobster bisque had gone over well. She looked down the table, visibly estimating portions; the Cofflins, the Arnsteins, Captain Sandy Rapcewitz and Doc Coleman -- Sandy had been Executive Officer on the Eagle when all this started, and she'd kept her maiden name when she married the island's senior medico. Victor Ortiz, who'd been a lieutenant back then; his wife was a relative of Swindapa's named Jairwen, hugely pregnant now, and the two were chattering away in the soft glug-glug sound of Fiernan, the tang and lilt of a language that had died a thousand years before Christ.

"Wouldn't have asked if I knew," Cofflin said, and smothered a mild annoyance when most of the rest of the table got the allusion and he didn't; Martha was chuckling into her wineglass. Only Vicki looked as baffled as he was.

"Heather Has Two Mothers, dear," she said. "Don't you remember?"

"Well, of course she has two -- oh." He thumped the heel of his hand on his forehead. "Hell of a thing to do to a kid's name, though."

"It's a perfectly good name," Alston said. "'dapa, this load is for the other table... One of my grandmothers was named Heather." A slight quirk of the lips. "Doubt she expected to have any red-haired great-grandchildren, though."

Steaming layers of sliced pork lay on the edge of the platter, cut with a surgeon's neatness... of course, doing that Japanese sword stuff was her hobby, Cofflin thought, passing the applesauce. Other hobby, besides cooking, that is.

All the same, he was glad he'd never had to get all that close to the people he was shooting at, back in the Mekong Delta when he'd been brown-water Navy.

"Say," he went on -- it was all old friends here -- "do Heather and Lucy ever have much in the way of, ah, problems about that? Now that they've started school."

"About their parents?" Marian gave a slight cold smile; Swindapa looked briefly furious. "Yes, sometimes. A few times."

"Sorry about that," Cofflin said, flushing with embarassment.

"Oh, no problem. They're very athletic little girls, for their ages."

The smile went slightly wider at his look of incomprehension. "I gave them some pointers and told them to ambush whoever gave them serious trouble about their mothers, two on one, and beat the living shit out of them. And if the parents complained... well, they could come complain to me."

He looked into the dark eyes of the person who he knew was, after Martha, his best friend in this post-Event world. And the embarassment turned, just for a second, to a jolt of pure cold fear.

Shit, but I'm glad Marian never had any political ambitions. Walker was an overgrown teenager by comparison.

"Barbarians," Swindapa muttered under her breath.

"What was that?" Martha said.

"Nothin' much," Marian said, smiling slightly. "Swindapa has a low opinion of some Eagle People attitudes, you know."

"Fully justified, in some cases," Martha said dryly.

People started passing things; gravy, bowls of scalloped potatoes, roast garlic, cauliflower au gratin, sliced onions and tomatoes in oil and vinegar, steamed peas, butternut squash, wilted spinach with shallot dressing, lentils with thyme, potato and lobster-claw salad, green salad, bread.

"Oh, Mother of God, but I got so sick of edible seaweed," Ortiz said, biting into a piece of tomato with an expression of nearly religious ecstasy.

"Saved us from scurvy the winter of '01," Martha observed, very slightly defensive. "My Girl Scouts did a good job there, finding wild greens."

"Oh, they did," Ortiz said. "No dispute. I'm just so glad to see vegetables again."

Murmurs of agreement broke the chomping of jaws.

"The economy's doing reasonably well," Starbuck conceeded, grudgingly. Christ, and they think I'm stingy, Coffling thought. The ex-banker went on: "Despite the lavish use of public funds on projects such as yours, young lady."

Vicki looked down at her plate for a second. "Defence takes precedence over affluence, sir," she replied.

Starbuck's shaggy white brows went up. "Nice to hear one of the younger generation quoting Adam Smith at me," he said grudgingly. "Well, I suppose it won't bankrupt us. Not quite yet."

Things had improved. Cofflin spread butter on a piece of the chewy, crusty whole-wheat bread. Butter, for instance. There hadn't been more than two dozen cows on the whole island, fortunately including a couple of bull-calves of Angus and Jersey backgrounds. The breeding program was going well, though.

"You Eagle People complain about the oddest things," Jairwen said, tossing back her long brown hair. "You've ways to have got vegetables in the middle of winter, and then complain you that they aren't fresh picked as were."

"You've got a point," Doc Coleman said. "This diet is actually healthier than what we had before the Event; a little heavier on salt than I'd like, especially in the winter with all the dried fish, but plenty of fiber and roughage, not much sugar and less fat -- look how lean this pork is, even. Plus I doubt there are fifty people on the island who don't do more physical exercise than they used to, just getting around." Luxury transport these days was a bicycle. "And no tobacco or recreational drugs, thank God. Pass the gravy."

"It's back to dried dulse for some of us," Alston sighed.

"You're ready so soon?" Cofflin blurted. Hell, I thought I was following things closely!

"Oh, not for the real push," Alston said. "We need more ships, more -- sorry, 'dapa, just a little business... but it occurs to me that we just can't wait until we've got enough ships and people to do it directly, so we'd better start laying the groundwork through the back door. Lieutenant Cofflin -- sorry, Vicki, -- has her pet coming along right nice. We can run the tests on her, and then start taking it apart again."

The younger Cofflin glanced between her uncle and the black woman, suddenly alert. Alston smiled slightly and nodded. "Time you were brought into the loop, and everybody here's cleared."

She sketched out a plan. Cofflin pondered. A little way down the table, Ian Arnstein sighed and rolled his eyes.

"Oh, God," he said. "Another two languages to learn."

He couldn't quite conceal the grin that broke through. His wife hit him with her napkin and groaned.

"The first part, that'll be more in the nature of a long trip than a military expedition," Marian said. "Then..."

"Enough business," Swindapa said firmly. "I will work tomorrow. Today is for play. Dessert, and then we dance."

"All right," Jared Cofflin said, chuckling and leaning back with a cup in his hand. "You know, one of the few good things about this job is that it lets you meet every nutcase in the Republic, and just yesterday I met one even crazier than the gang around this table. Let me tell you about a young man named Giernas over at Providence Base, and his crazy idea. That should take us through dessert, and then 'dapa and the other youngsters can make the rest of us groan and creak."

Waltzes and foxtrots had made a big comeback, since the Event.

@@@

Peter Girenas looked at himself anxiously in the small mirror by the washstand. His chin was smooth as Providence Base's barber could make it; he wore the mottled green leather jacket and trousers, laced boots, soft cap that were Ranger uniform, with knife and shortsword at his belt and tomahawk through its loop at the small of his back. Swallowing, he glanced around the room. It wasn't home, just the place he lived when he was in town; the owner of the Laughing Loon was glad to let him have it in return for a deer every week or two. Bed and floor were mostly covered in skins of his own hunting, bear and wolf and wolverine; there was a Lekkansu spirit-mask on one squared-log wall, a coverlet of ermine pelts, a shelf of books, his rifle and crossbow, some keepsakes and a photograph of his mother. And on a table beside the bed was a sheaf of papers.

"Stay, Perks. Guard."

The dog curled up on his favorite bearskin and settled his head on his paws, watchful and alert. Girenas picked up the papers and took a deep breath, then carefully closed the door behind him and trotted down to the taproom of the inn.

That occupied most of the big rectangular box of logs that made up the Loon. It was quiet now on a weekday afternoon, spears of sunlight through the windows catching drifting flecks of dust, sand rutching under his boots against the flagstone floor. Sally Randon was idly polishing the single-plank bar at one end with its ranks of bottles and big barrels with taps, and the chairs were empty around the long tables. Except for one. Girenas scowled at the sight of the three seated there.

He recognized them all. Emma Carson and her husband Dick; they were big in the Indian trade. And Hardcase. That wasn't really his name, most Nantucketers couldn't pronounce it anyway, but the nickname had stuck. He was a big man among the Lekkansu, one of the first traders with the Americans -- and he'd been pulling together the shattered clans after the epidemics, trying to get them back on their feet after the chaos and despair of losing more than half their numbers two years running. The Ranger didn't particularly like him, not like some of the Lekkansu warriors he'd hunted with or the girls he'd known, but Hardcase was an important man.

Or would be, if he could stay off the booze. The Carsons had no business encouraging him like this.

"I greet you, elder brother," he said in the Lekkansu tongue, walking over to them. "Have you come to trade?"

"Trade pretty good," the Indian said, in fair if accented English. "Lots of deerhides, maple sugar, hickory nuts, ginseng."

The two Nantucketer traders were glaring at the Ranger, and the man made a motion as if to hide the bottle of white lightning the three were sharing. Dick Carson didn't bother him, a beefy blowhard, but Emma... heard a snake bit her once. The snake died. She had a lot of pull.

"Emma, Dick," he said, nodding. Then in the other tongue: "Will you get many knives, hatchets, fishhooks, fire-makers, blankets?"

"Hardcase trades smart," the Indian said, his grin a bit slack. "Other families will pay well for break-the-head water. Easier to carry than lots of heavy things."

"But when the water is gone, you will have nothing -- not tools, or weapons, or blankets."

Hardcase's eyes narrowed. "Rifles even better than break-the-head water," he said. His voice was slurred, with more bitterness that it would have showed sober. "You're such a friend to us, why don't you get us some rifles? Friends do that."

Dick Carson's eyes were flickering back and forth between the Indian and the Ranger in frustrated anger. Emma's were cold; he suspected that she talked more of the local tongue than she let on.

Girenas' eyes were equally chill, and his lips showed teeth in what was only technically a smile.

"You know, Ms. Carson," he said softly, "there are fines for exceeding quota on distilled liquor sales to the locals. And of course selling firearms is treason." Or the ratchet-cocked steel crossbows that Seahaven had turned out for the Nanqtucketers' armed forces before gunpowder production got under way.

"Hardcase must go. His brothers are always welcome in his camp," the Indian said abruptly, staggering a little as he collected his bundles and headed for the door.

"Goddam it, you punk bastard!" Dick Carson hissed. "What'd you have to go and queer our deal for!"

"After you've given him the third drink it isn't dealing, Carson. It's stealing, and that isn't the sort of reputation we need with the locals. I'm a Ranger, I'm supposed to keep the peace... and it works both ways."

"You'd better remember who you're working for, boy," Emma Carson said. There was no theatrical menace in her voice, not even a conspicuous flatness. She pulled a worn, greasy-looking pack out of a pocket in her khaki bush-jacket and began to flip cards onto the board for a solitare game. "Or the Town Meeting might remind you."

"Let's leave that to the Meeting, shall we?" he said pleasantly. "Have a nice day."

He forced his fists to unknot as he walked out onto the stone sidewalk of Providence Base. You couldn't cure everything in life, and that was a fact. All you could do was your best.

He walked out onto First Street, blinking in the bright gold sunlight. The name was not a number. It was literally the first the Nantucketers had built, when they made this their initial outpost on the mainland not long after the Event. A street broad enough for two wagons sloped down the hill, bound in asphalt at enormous expense and trouble, lined on either side with log buildings -- squared logs from the forests about, many of them a hundred feet long and thicker through than a man could span with his arms. Down by the water and the wharves were warehouses, plank over timber frames; off to the northeast a little was the water-furrow, and a row of the sawmills it powered.

The tall wheels turned, water splashed bright; steam chuffed and a whistle blew from others, for the need had outgrown the first creek the Nantucketers damned. Men and women skipped over the floating treetrunks with hooked poles, steering a steady train of them to the ramps where chains hauled them upward. Vertical saws went through wood with a rythmic ruhhh... ruhhh, a deep growling sound. Newer circular ones whirled, meeting tough wood with earsplitting howls -- errrrraaaaaah, over and over. The air was full of woodsmoke, the fresh sappy scent of cut wood, horses and whale-oil grease and the overwhelming smell of the sea.

Little of the surrounding woods had been logged off; the Meeting had decreed that, saying only mature timber might be harvested and only a proportion of that in any square mile. Even in town enough had been left to give welcome shade; their leaves were beginning to turn, but the afternoon was hot enough to bring a prickle of sweat. He walked uphill, past wagons and folk and a shouting crowd of children just out of school waving slates and satchels of books.

The public buildings of the little town stood on a plateau, around a green with a bandstand in the center; school, church, Meetinghouse, and a three-story blockhouse of oak logs with the Republic's Stars and Stripes flying from its peak.

Peter Girenas took a deep breath, nodded to the guard -- the town's main arsenal was inside -- and walked in. The first floor was racked rifles gleaming against the walls, bales and crates of gear, barrels of powder in a special metalless room with a thick all-wood door. It was also dim and shady, smelling faintly of brimstone. He trotted up the ladder-staircase, through to the third story. Broad windows there let in enough light to make him squint. It wasn't until he stood to attention that he saw who waited.

Not just Ranger Captain Bickford behind the table. Chief Cofflin, and Martha Cofflin, the Secretary of the Council. Stricken, he swallowed past a throat gone tight. His eyes flicked to his own commander. Bickford was smiling, so things couldn't be too bad.

"No, son," Cofflin said. "You're not in trouble over that fight. As a matter of fact..."

Martha Cofflin slid a paper out of a folder. "Had Judge Gardner expedite the papers a bit. On the deposition of Sue Chau and your own statement, there's no grounds for any proceedings. Self-defense."

"And why don't you sit down, Ranger?" Cofflin said.

Girenas juggled the sheaf of papers awkwardly for a second, then brought up a chair and sat with them in his lap.

Older than I thought, he decided, meeting Cofflin's level gaze; he'd never happened to see the Chief at close range before. The long lumpy Yankee face had deep wrinkles around the eyes, and there was a lot of gray in the thinning sandy hair. Seaman's wrinkles though, and the big hands looked to be powerful still.

"How did you feel about it?" Cofflin asked.

Surprised, Girenas paused for a minute to marshal his thoughts. "Well, at the time, there wasn't time to feel much of anything, sir," he said. "They started it, so I'm not tearing myself up over it. But yeah, I'm sorry it happened. Usually I like the locals, get on well with 'em."

Bickford nodded. "Speaks Lekkansu like a tribesman," he said. "Lived in one of their camps for six months a couple of years back, done useful go-between work. Trade supervision, that sort of thing. About my best scout, and I'm grooming him for a lieutenant."

"Sir?" Cofflin looked up. "Speaking of trade, I saw something today you'd better know about."

Cofflin's face grew into a frown as he described what he'd seen in the taproom of the Loon. His wife's stayed wholly impassive, but Bickford's fist clenched on the table before he spoke:

"Chief, we need some sort of an Executive Order about this sort of thing. Better still, we need a law rammed through the Town Meeting."

Cofflin leaned back. "That's one opinion. What's yours, son?"

Girenas spoke: "The Captain's right, Chief. The Carsons are the worst, but not the only ones. The locals, they just can't handle hard liquor, even worse than Albans that way. But they know right from wrong, well enough, when they sober up and realize they've been diddled. Just wrong one, and see what happens! Not just big men like Hardcase, either. You know how they're set up; there's nobody can tell a Lekkansu warrior not to get even if he thinks he's been cheated. We could stumble into a war, if we're not careful. Already would have, I think, if it weren't for the plagues. A lot of them, they don't like us Nantucketers much, sir."

"Ayup. Can't say as I blame 'em."

Martha Cofflin spoke: "Problem, though. First -- are we entitled to tell the Indians they can't buy liquor? They're adults, and not citizens of the Republic, either. They don't have a government or state at all, come to that. Second, could we enforce a law like that if we did pass it?"

Cofflin smiled; Girenas had rarely seen an expression more bleak. "There was a little thing called Prohibition. Before your time, Ranger; even before mine. Showed the costs of passing a law just to make yourself feel righteous. Little ditty about it I saw once, went like this:

Prohibition's an awful flop.
We like it.
It doesn't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime;
It's filled the land with vice and crime;
It don't Prohibit worth a dime.
Nevertheless, we're for it."

Girenas frowned. "Is that a fancy way of saying we can't do anything, sir?"

The Cofflins smiled dryly, an eerily similar expression. The man spoke: "Not at all, son. We might have trouble enforcing a law; the Carsons or someone like 'em would find a way to wiggle around it. I can just lean on them, though, until they cry uncle. Nobody can get much done businesswise if the Town's hostile -- and that sort of thing operates by more... flexible rules. What's more, I've got more friends than they do, and my friends have friends, so if they complain to the Town Meeting, they'll get voted down."

His wife nodded. "We do need to establish a tradition of dealing decently with the locals. It's going to be more and more of a problem, anyway. Looks like our numbers are going to double every fifteen or twenty years, probably for the next century or two at least, between immigration and this enthusiasm for reproduction everyone's showing. Geometric progression starts slow, but it builds fast."

Girenas nodded slowly. "Thank you, sir, ma'am," he said.

Bickford cleared his throat. Cofflin lifted one knobby paw slightly. "Ayup," he said. "Time to get to the main business we came for."

Martha Cofflin produced a sheaf of papers from a knit carryall lying on the table. Girenas swallowed; it was a copy of the one resting on his knee.

"I, ah, hadn't expected it to go so high so fast, Captain."

Bickford shrugged. "Advantage of having a small government, Ranger." He grinned, his lean face transformed for a moment. "I won't bore you with a story of what dealing with Uncle Sam was like. Know you youngsters don't like us to go on about things like that."

Chief Cofflin tapped the papers. "Had a tirade all set up," he said, his mouth quirking slightly. "About reckless young fools, and how we can't afford to divert effort, and how anyone hankering after adventure -- which Marian rightly says is somebody else in deep shit far away -- can ship out on a trader or join the Expeditionary Force. Then I realized I was starting to sound like the old farts I hated when I was twenty-one, and took another look. Ayup, it is about time we got at least a survey knowledge of what's going on in the interiors of the continents, something like what the Eagle did for the coastlands in '02. And it is logical to start with this continent here."

Girenas felt a wave run through him, like a wash of warm water from his chest down to knees grown weak. Glad I'm sitting down, he thought. It would have been pretty damned silly for his knees to buckle at this point.

"Two problems," Martha Cofflin's dry, precise voice went on. "First, are you the man to lead it? No offense, Ranger Girenas, but you're extremely young. Second, costs."

"He may be young, but he's not reckless," Bickford said. "Got as much experience as any of us post-Event, too, been in the Rangers since we branched off from the Eagle Scouts. If I were putting together an expedition like this, I'd pick him."

Cofflin was glancing through another file, as if to remind himself. "Hmmm. Your family's working in the mills here... immigrants before the Event, eh?"

Girenas nodded. "Three years before, Chief, from Riga. That's where my dad's from; my mom's Estonian, though, if that means anything to you."

"Let's see, a brother and sister, and your parents adopted two... Too young to go with the Expeditionary Force to Alba, but plenty of time in the woods here. Looks like you prefer camping out, mebbe?"

Girenas answered slowly, cautiously. "Yes sir. I... I'm good at it. Like to stick with what I'm good at, seems more... efficient that way."

"No argument. You've done a good proposal here, too, well-organized, everything justified and costed out. I've talked with people who know, and they think you've some chance of pulling it off. Let's see... six of you in all."

Suddenly he grinned. "Christ, I'd like to go with you myself, if I were twenty and single."

"Costs, Jared," the Secretary of the Council said.

"Ayup."

"I included an itemized list of necessities, sir," Girenas said.

Cofflin chuckled. "Son, they say I'm cheap. And I am, with the Republic's money. I could pay for this out of the discretionary funds, but I won't." He held up a hand. "Yes, it'll be useful, if you pull it off. Not essential, though, and certainly not an emergency. Remember, every penny I give you comes out of someone's pocket will they-nill they."

"Sir, this expedition will pay for itself and more, and not just with information. The gold --"

"Would be mighty useful. If you survive. Meantime you're asking for horses, weapons, trade goods, the services of six strong young people, even a radio. And yes, we do have ships in the Pacific now and then --" trading for cotton textiles with the Chavin peoples of Peru "-- but running up to the California coast to pick you up is still a big risk. Mind you," he went on, "even with a family to support, I'd personally be willing to kick in some. So, son, it's up to you."

The Ranger gaped at him. "Sir?"

"You're a free citizen of the Republic of Nantucket. Circulate a petition, then get up on your hind legs at the Town Meeting and persuade the other citizens. I'll even say I'm in favor... personally, not officially."

"Sir?" Girenas felt his voice rise almost to a humiliating squeak. "I'm no... no speechmaker!"

Martha Cofflin's expression mingled sympathy and unyielding resolution. "Then learn. You've got until spring." Kindly: "Your age ought to help. Lot of younger people will be glad to see one of theirs proposing something."

"Lord," Girenas muttered.

He scarcely noticed his dismissal, until he was out in the street again, looking dismayed to the southeast. Hell, I haven't been in Nantucket more'n once a year, he thought. Then: They didn't tell me to forget it, either. Resolution firmed. "I can do it, by God!"

He turned west. Hills rose on the edge of sight, blue and dreaming. Hills and mountains, the rivers like inland seas and the plains full of buffalo, Alder Gulch and its gold... grizzlies and Indians and wolves, oh my!

His stride was firm as he set off downhill. Getting his friends here in Providence Base together would be the start of it.

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


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