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 7

January, Year 9 AE

"Uh-oh," Ian Arnstein said.

"Thunderclouds," Doreen agreed, looking at the Commodore as she lowered her binoculars. The full African lips were clamped tight, the eyes narrowed... more than the bright sun of a tropical morning warranted.

"Mom?" David said. "Why's Aunt Marian looking so mad?"

"Shhhhh."

The Nantucket oupost on the uninhabited island of Mauritius was one of a chain the Republic was founding as time and resources permitted, nails to stake down a claim to a global thassalocracy of seaborn trade and influence. Eventually it was supposed to be a jumping-off point for the settlement of the giant and equally human-empty island of Madagascar to the west, and a base for trade throughout the Indian Ocean. The flotilla was two weeks out of a similar hamlet at the site of Cape Town, officially known as Mandela Base. That had met with Marian Alston's approval; neat little earth-and-turf fort, pier, warehouses, sawmill, smithy, tavern, a bored-log pipe to bring water down to the ships from a spring on Table Mountain, and half a dozen farms up the Liesbeck river to supply fresh produce.

Here...

The Islander ships stood in on an easting breeze, their sun-faded canvas white against the brilliant blue of the Indian Ocean, only a trace of white foam at their bows as they ghosted along at five knots. Eastward was a broad natural harbor where a river ran down to a silver-sand beach. Beyond rose mountains, densely green in the foreground, fading to blue-green as they rolled away inland. Green was the overwhelming first impression, huge broad-leaf trees growing almost to the water's edge, and dark mangroves whereever a mud-flat allowed; the white of sails, gray of hulls, and the broad red diagonal slash of the Guard along the ship's flanks were the only manmade color to break it. The settlement had run a pier into out into the deep water, made of upright ebony logs and looking massively solid. On shore...

Half-built, Ian decided; that was the best way to describe it. A couple of biggish buildings of dark basalt rock, but one of them had only the skeleton of a roof, and some of the tiles were missing on the other. A windmill by the river looked broken, its vanes unmoving. Logs lay in untidy piles, and the patches of cleared land were weedy. Here and there were the signs of frantic last-minute effort that only served to make the rest seem more slovenly.

"By the mark, ten! By the mark, nine!" the leadsman standing braced in the bowsprit netting said, whirling the leadline around her head and throwing it far out to plop into the greening water. "By the mark... Christ, by the mark, seven. By the mark, six!"

"Captain Nguyen, I suggest you strike all sail," Marian Alston said tightly. "Signal to the flotilla. I'm not fully confident in the bouys marking the channel, here."

The officer nodded curtly, gave orders. Feet thundered on the Eagle's crowded deck, and teams bent to pull on ropes. Many of them included Marines; the soldiers of the Expeditionary Force had taken to helping out on the long voyage. The men and women clambering aloft in the ratlines all wore the blue sailor-suits of the Guard; that was specialist work, hard and skilled and a little dangerous even in calm weather. They swarmed out along the yards and bent over them, gathering up armfuls of sail as the clewlines hoisted them up.

"Put your backs into it!" called a petty officer from the boats towing Eagle up to the dock. The dark-blue water was fading to green as they neared the shore, and white foam curled as the ashwood oars stroked into it.

More thick ropes flew out, the loops were fastened around bollards, deck teams heaved. The steel flank of the big windjammer kissed the coconut-fiber baffles. Further out sails furled up to yards and anchors splashed, whistles sounded and the steaming ensigns came down, the national flag breaking out at the tops; he could see the party that stood ready to greet them on the dock bracing. Some had sickly smiles, others expressionless mask-faces. The gangplank swung out and thumped down; Ian used Councilor's rank shamelessly, crowding in behind the initial quartet of Commodore Alston, Swindapa, Colonel Hollard, Major Hollard and Captain Nguyen of the Eagle. A bell rang from the quarterdeck.

"Eagle departing!"

"Welcome, Commodore," the commandant of Mauritius Base said.

Marian Alston returned his salute. He was a heavyset man in his early forties, balding, and sweating until his scalp glistened through thinning black hair, dressed in shorts and sandals and loose shirt.

Might be the heat making him sweat, Ian thought. It was in the eighties. Mebbe not. He put Jared Cofflin's dry, skeptical Yankee voice to the thought.

"We've a luncheon laid on," the man -- Marvin Lockley, he remembered -- began.

"Later," Alston snapped. "I think we need to have a discussion, Mr. Lockley."

Not using his militia rank, Ian noted.

She turned. "Colonel Hollard, Captain Nguyen, please see to disembarking the troops and passengers," she went on in a flat even tone that anyone who knew her knew for the danger-signal it was.

She turned on one heel and strode away, the luckless Lockley trailing in her wake. Ian followed, looking about. A cat lay in the shade of a thatched hut, nursing kittens. For a moment he accepted the sight, then grunted in shock.

That litter are half a dozen feral cats in the making, he thought. Dane Sweet will have kittens himself. -- the Councilor for Conservation had been nervous about colonizing the home of the dodo anyway, and he and his faction had insisted on safeguards. Which, evidently, Mr. Lockely had let slip. A pregnant Fiernan girl waved to them; she was wearing nothing but a palm-frond hat and driving a sow ahead of her with a stick. Feral pigs, too. They were supposed to be strictly penned. A man in ragged shorts sat propped against a wall, a jug beside him...

"I notice that the water-furrow and sawmill are incomplete," Alston said, in a conversational tone.

"Ah... we've had some difficulties... hard to get parts..."

"I see. I think we should discuss this, Commandant."

They turned into what was evidently the commandant's quarters, a series of thatched rondavels. Swindapa halted outside, and made a sign to Ian and Doreen; they did likewise, and shushed their son. Voices came from within. He couldn't follow them for the most part, not until near the end, when Alston's voice rose to a quarterdeck bellow:

"-- this may be an island, and it may be a tropical island, BUT IT ISN'T GILLIGAN'S GOD-DAMNED ISLAND, YOU HEAR ME, MISTER?"

A moment later they came out; Lockley was gray-white under his tan, and shaking. Alston stood blinking in the sunlight for a second. The troops on Eagle were filing ashore, then being dismissed; they broke up into a chattering clot, some staggering with their lost land-legs, others running and whooping and wrestling in the best cure for that. The civilian technicians and specialists and their families followed. Her eyes came to rest on Lucy and Heather, and a little of the stiffness went out of her shoulders.

"Mr. Nguyen," she said.

The Vietnamese-American officer came to attention as the Commodore went on: "Mr. Lockley has decided to resign his position here and ship out on Eagle as a foremast hand. Rate him 'seaman recruit' and see that he's assigned some fatigues."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Ms. Stearns."

The former commandant's second-in-command swallowed and braced herself. "Ma'am?"

"In the light of Mr. Lockley's resignation, I'm provisionally appointing you Commandant of Mauritius Base. With the Expeditionary Force and the crews, we have more than a thousand pairs of hands here; we ought to be able to get things shipshape in fairly short order." A pause. "Shouldn't we?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good." She sighed. "Now, let's see about that lunch."

Doreen gave him a silent whistle behind the Commodore's back and waggled a hand. Ian nodded agreement. As they walked away, Swindapa dropped back beside them for a moment.

"Ian," she said, frowning slightly. "Who's Gilligan?"

@@@

"Let go, and haul!"

A squared ebony log jerked up off the pier, then swung out over the deck of the Eagle as the yard acting as crane pivoted on the mast.

"Heave... ho! Heave... ho!"

"Handsomely there, handsomely!"

Lighter lines on each end of the baulk of timber guided it through the rigging and down into the hold; profane cries greeted it, as the line team on the dock let it down a little too handsomely. Captain Nguyen lowered his speaking trumpet and turned to Marian Alston.

"That's the last of them, Commodore," he said with quiet pride. He bent a critical eye on his ship. "I'm glad we finally got around to installing a proper hold. She trims well, even so."

"That she does, although I'd like to see her under way," Alston said. "She's a little by the stern."

"Better that than dead-level, I'd been meaning to come at the ballast and shift it a bit anyway. Less likely to press her forefoot down under full sail that way."

"She's your baby," Alston agreed, supressing an inner pang. Promoted away from ship command, God-dammit, she thought. Then: do your job.

"That's the last of the cargo loaded, and we're wooded and watered," Nguyen said. He nodded to the other ships of the flotilla. "Ready to sail with the evening tide, ma'am."

"Well, we're not in that much of a hurry," Alston said. Theoretically, the stopover on Mauritius was supposed to rest the expeditionary force's people before the action at the end of it. Instead they'd spent an efortful week getting the base itself shipshape.

"Watch crews only," she went on. "We'll give everyone a day or two of leave, then get under way. Morning tide on Monday -- 0900 hours. Lieutenant-Commander, pass the word."

"Yes, ma'am," Swindapa said, with the faintest ghostly hint of a wink, conscientiously marking it in the daybook to be issued as a General Order.

Cheers and flung hats rose to the sky as Nguyen announced it, and then exchanged salutes with the Commodore. Alston removed her billed cap, sighed, and ran fingers over damp forehead and close-cropped hair as they walked back up the single street of the little settlement. Sweat stung her palm, despite the callus put there by rope and sword; everyone had pitched in for the past week.

"Looks better," Swindapa said.

Alston nodded. It did; the major buildings were all completed, the sawmill in action, livestock neatly penned, and the hollow-log aquaduct had filled the casks and tanks of each ship in turn as they were warped in to the dock. Good spring water too, not likely to go bad out in the middle of nowhere. Hollard's Marines were still hard at work putting the finishing touches on the fort, putting in stone retaining walls below the earth ramparts. The Colonel was lending a hand himself, stripped to the waist, sweat-shining skin rippling as he heaved an eighty-pound block into position. She caught Swindapa's frank look of appreciation and mock-scowled, a half-playful expression.

"Just looking," the Fiernan said. "I look at girls, too."

"As long as it's strictly a visual relationship," Alston chuckled. She added: "He's setting a good example for his troops."

"I had to look -- it's professional and visual," Swindapa said, and winked.

Alston's expression softened into a smile as they came to the circle of children sitting under a tall slender tree with a silvery-gray trunk -- a tambalacoque. Doreen Arnstein was taking the class, pointing alternately to a live dodo in a wicker cage and to a diagram on the portable blackboard. There were a round three dozen youngsters; mostly children of the technicians attached to the Expeditionary Force. This was a long-term project, and you couldn't expect people to leave their children behind for an indefinite stay.

They waited for a moment while the Assistant Councilor for Foreign Affairs finished her rundown on evolutionary biology; younger children were practicing the alphabet on their slates. Nantucket's still small enough to be informal, Alston thought. I like that. It was also small enough that Martha Cofflin had managed to thoroughly revamp the curriculum, and as a parent she liked that even better -- they saw eye-to-eye on phonics and drill, and even Lisa Gerrard had come around on most of it.

Gerrard's not a bad Councilor, Alston thought. Just a bit stubborn. She'd even shed most of her prejudices. After nearly nine years of working with a real, live, breathing, capital-L Lesbian. Just about stopped expecting me to display a forked tail and horns.

The class broke up. Heather and Lucy came running, and Alston crouched, grabbed the redhead under her arms and swung her up.

"do Jesus, either you're getting heavy or I'm getting older!" she said.

"Hey, mom, did you know these gonzo birds could fly once but they got too lazy?" Heather said.

"No, it was their 'cestors who could fly," Lucy said from Swindapa's shoulders. "That's why you get sunburnt and I don't. 'cause of your 'cestors. It's evolutionary adoption."

"That's adaptation," Swindapa corrected.

"Like I said, mom."

Heather stuck out her tongue at her sister, and Alston felt her heart turn over inside her. Nice to know what you're fighting for.

@@@

Fires starred the nighted beach, curving out to the north. Behind them the forest rustled, breathing a mild green breath out to meet the sea. Foam hissed up the sand to the high-tide line of wrack and seaweed, and crabs scuttled about, their claws making tiny chickchickchick sounds in the damp sand. Ian Arnstein pulled a skewer of shrimp and vegetables off the grill that rested over the fire and juggled it a minute before biting into the rich nutty-flavored meat. A cherry tomato popped in his mouth with a burst of flavor, just this side of painfully hot.

"At least Lockley didn't screw up the fishing or the gardens too badly," he said, looking up.

The stars were huge and bright and very many, the milky way a crusted diamond belt across the heavens. I still get surprised at that, he thought. He'd been a child of cities all his life long until the Event, raised in LA's glowing bath of electric light. Even Nantucketers born had been startled at how different the night sky looked without fluorescent streetlamps.

Marian was lying back on a blanket a little further from the fire, with her head in Swindapa's lap. She stretched and wriggled her shoulders as she answered:

"No, he liked eating too much. Ah told Jared not to appoint him."

"Too many friends with pull in the Meeting," Ian said, and Alston snorted.

"Jared's got to make compromises like that now and then," Doreen said. "Or we'd have someone like Emma Carson as Chief. Which God forbid."

"Carson! do Jesus, no!" Marian said. "I told him I couldn't do his job once, and I was right."

"Moon Woman set a star against it," Swindapa said. She snagged a skewer herself and waved it through the air to cool it for a moment, then began to pluck morsels off, popping some into her own mouth and dropping others into her partner's. "Honestly, though, sometimes you -- we -- Eagle People act as if it was harvest season all the time. There's more to living than doing things every moment."

"When you're plannin' a war, sugar, it is harvest season all the time," Alston said a little grimly.

"I know, my bin'H0tse-khwon," the Fiernan sighed. "Let's go swim. Nawakwa'URtogsazai!"

They rose, dropped their robes and ran down towards the water hand-in-hand.

Doreen smiled at her husband. "You know, sometimes I wish I could stop worrying and live for the moment as thoroughly as Swindapa does."

He nodded. "Odd she ended up with Marian," he said. Who's a worrywart if ever there was one.

Further down the beach Marines and sailors were singing; Barbara Allen from the sound of the tune, but it was too far to be sure. "Feel like a swim?" he asked.

"Not really."

"Tired?"

"Not really," Doreen grinned. "But there's a really nice little glade about fifty yards thataway."

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


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