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 9

March, Year 9 AE

"Ayup," Jared Cofflin said into the microphone, looking down at the text of the treaty. Christ, a treaty with Babylon. "Those are good terms. Ian must have them buffaloed."

"Not exactly," Marian Alston's voice said, a little scratchy with distance. "I think they were gettin' worried about their strategic situation all on their ownsome -- it's as bad as we thought from the histories, maybe worse. And this king of theirs, Shagarakti-Shuriash, he's one sharp man; Ian thinks so too. We'll have to watch him, of course."

"Of course."

Cofflin leafed through the terms again; trade, of course -- a couple of the new merchant houses were already salivating at the market reports the expeditionary force had sent back -- and alliance, first against Babylonia's enemies, then against Walker. That was excellent, provided they could get the Hittites in later... He read on. Hmmmm. An Islander base near Ur, under the Republic's sovereignty; joint courts for any civil or criminal case involving Islanders in the Kingdom of Kar-Duniahsh...

"Good work, the lot of you," he muttered; damned if he was going to leave any citizen, under any circumstances whatsoever, to what passed for ancient Babylonian justice. From Ian's research that tended to amputations and eye-gouging.

"Let's see..." Right of passage up the Tigris and Euphrates for Islander ships and boats; an embassy in Babylon itself; consuls; technical aid; mineral concessions...

"Crackerjack job, Marian," he said. "I'm not going to have any trouble getting this past the Town Meeting, I can tell you. It reads pretty much like our wish list. We'll post it right away."

"Ian's doing; I stayed in the background." A chuckle. "The locals are having to put up with enough culture-shock as it is. He and Doreen are sleeping the sleep of the overworked. Now, if we can just get past the Tartessians next year or the year after, it'll be Walker who's caught between two fires."

"Big if."

"Very big. We've finished disembarking and unloading and shipped our return cargoes, so we'll sail tomorrow -- take a day or two to get through those damned reed-swamps, and then it's 'all plain sail'. Thank God the ships could get this far upstream. See you in two months or so."

"Ayup. Give our love to 'dapa and the kids."

"Same to you and Martha and the tribe," Alston said. "Over."

"And out."

Cofflin sighed again and tossed the treaty into his 'out' tray; the shortwave set stood on a side-cabinet. It was a cold wet early-March day outside, branches still bare; he could see a rider going past, the slow familiar clop-tock of shod hooves on asphalt through the window, and a blurred vision of a head bowed under a rain-slicker and the pony's drooping dejection. He half-envied the Expeditionary Force, off in the warm lands, and the hardwood fire crackling in the fireplace was more than welcome. His hands hurt a little, the way they'd taken to doing in weather like this. Better a bit of an ache than the crotch-rot I caught in the Delta, he thought.

"Linda!" he called aloud. His secretary came in and he indicated the treaty with a toss of his chin.

"Linda, get this down to the Bookworks, would you, have them set it and print up, oh, three hundred copies for the Athenaeum to distribute -- and tell 'em it's going in the next Warrant as well. Thanks."

"Sure, Chief," she said, leafing through it avidly; her younger sister was with the Expeditionary Force, he remembered. "I'll run it right over, and they can start printing tomorrow." She hurried out; he could hear a clatter as she grabbed an umbrella from the stand by the front door.

Printing that many would take a while, with a hand-press; it would also put it on the agenda for the next Meeting. There were times when direct democracy drove him crazy, but it had one great merit -- when a decision was finally made everyone felt they'd had their say. In a way he'd be sorry when the population got big enough for the House of Delegates provision in the new Constitution to kick in -- that would be soon, too, the way things were going.

"Next," he muttered, and looked at his 'in' box.

A proposal to license and inspect day-care centers... ask Martha. Leaton wanted to import a trial run of coal from Alba for the forge-works... ask him whether it's really necessary. Angelica Brand was always going on about how valuable wood-ash was as a way of importing fertility to an island that was, when you came right down to it, nothing but a big sand-bank. There was the proposal to establish a new Base down around the site of Buenos Aries.

Hmmm. That's a tough one. It was a long way away, and they were already spread out thinner than he liked. On t'other hand, that was the edge of one of the biggest areas of good farmland on the planet; bigger and better than the Midwest, and right on the ocean, with a damned great navigable river running right through it. The preliminary survey said the locals were very thin on the pampas, too, even by the standards of the 1242 BC Americas, which meant an Islander settlement wouldn't be too disruptive. In the very long run, it meant a big chunk of the world modelled on the Republic's ideals.

Put it in the discuss-with-the-Council file, he decided after a moment.

And it looked like Peter Giernas was going to get enough votes before the Meeting to finance his expedition... He scanned down the list of names on the petition form, stopped, read three times to make sure, and then began to laugh. After a moment Martha stuck her head in the office door.

"Something funny, dear?" she said, arching an expressive eyebrow.

"Mebbe, or mebbe I'm laughing so I won't curse. Take a look at who's backing young Giernas & Co.'s petition for a grant."

She came over to his desk, putting the quill of her pen behind an ear. "The usual suspects... Emma Carson?"

"And all her friends." He shook his head. "I guess she thinks his chances of coming out of it alive are even worse than I do... and Emma never did forget an injury."

"Plus she thinks with him out of the way, the Rangers might not be so hard on her," Martha said thoughtfully.

"Not if we have anything to do with it," he replied. "But she'd think that way."

On impulse, he pulled his wife down into his lap. She gave a small snort and arched that eyebrow again, but put an arm around his shoulders and kissed him.

"Am I correct in assuming you're thinking that way and want to quit work early?" she said, stirring strategically.

"Ayup," he grinned. "Why not? We do have a treaty to celebrate."

@@@

The door of the Wild Rose Chance opened, letting in a blast of cold air and a few drops of stinging March rain, plus a brief glimpse of gray muddy street and skeletal trees. Peter Giernas looked up and waved his friends over. They came, after they'd wiped their boots and hung their rain-slickers of oiled canvas on pegs driven into the wall to drip into the trough beneath. Several paused sheepishly when one of the waitresses pointed to a sign: NO WEAPONS ALLOWED, and handed her their rifles or crossbows to be racked behind the bar.

Eddie Vergeraxsson was the first to reach him; he was a chief's son from Alba who'd been brought over as a hostage after the Alban War and decided he liked the Republic better and stayed; about twenty, brown-haired and hazel-eyed, not tall, but lean and fast like a bundle of whipcord. He wore the fringed, cammo-patterned Ranger buckskins as if he hadn't been brought up to kilts, and the bowie at his waist and tomahawk thrust through the back of his belt as if they'd grown there.

"Why so much ammunition?" he said, reading over the older Ranger's shoulder. "Gonna be heavy."

Peter Giernas sighed a little, in the privacy of his head. Eddie was a good Ranger -- perhaps the best tracker and woodsman in the corps, after Peter, good at languages, brave as a lion, deadly with any weapon. A nice guy to sit down and have a beer with, too. But he was Alban, and he had the manyana attitude of his tribe deep in his bones; they were Zarthani, a teuatha of the Sun People in Kent. Or where Kent would have ended up, without the Event. They took to guns like Lekkansu to firewater, though.

"Eddie, we're going a long ways from home. We can't drop over to the Mill and trade some venison for another hundred rounds. That's why I'm taking two stallions along as well as a dozen pack-mares. Just in case everything takes longer than we thought. It's why we're taking crossbows, too."

"Oh. OK, Pete, that sounds sensible."

He leaned back and took a pull at his beer-mug The table they'd taken at Wild Rose Chance was littered with notes and letters and files, plus plates and bowls and jugs. Peter propped the paper he was reading up against a milk-jug and pulled his plate closer, forking up ham-steak in red gravy, potatoes, succotash and coleslaw. There was a bowl of pickled vegetables on the table too, set out for them all; he reached over and speared one from time to time.

"I think we're going to make it," he said. "What the Meeting voted, it'll just cover what we need."

Nods went up and down the table. "You did good, Pete -- made those lost geezers back on the Island sit up and take notice," Sue Chau said.

He felt himself puffing up a little, and supressed it, although it was never unpleasant to have a woman like Sue looking at you that way. "Not too hard," he said. "Hell, I even got the Carsons rooting for me."

Eddie laughed into his beer. "Diawas Pithair, won't they turn red and blue when we come back richer than kings? And even richer in glory."

Peter nodded; he wouldn't have put it quite that way -- glory wasn't a word he was comfortable with -- but there was no denying that was part of the reason. Even more than the gold or the cheers, though... I want to see it. I want to be the first Islander to see it, while it's still... fresh.

He looked around the table. There were probably as many reasons as there were people in his group; more, since each of the six probably had more than one.

Eddie wants to shine, and get enough gold to buy a big farm here and a horse-herd and throw parties and maybe take a vacation back in Alba and impress the hell out of his relatives, he thought. And travel, and see some sights and fight some fights and meet some interesting new girls.

Beside him was Henry Morris, the oldest in the group -- over thirty. A big slow strong redhead, a pupil of Hillwater's; trained by Doc Coleman too. He had a thing about animals and plants and such. Not just a hunter's interest, but an ecologist's, and he was looking for a long-term career with the Conservation Office. This would make up for a youthful indiscretion; he'd been involved with Pamela Lisketter, back 'when. Not much, but enough to make it difficult for him to get a Government job. He'd be worth his weight in gold, no knowing when they'd need a sawbones.

Sue... well, maybe I flatter myself, but Sue wants to come along because I'm going, I think. Partly, and partly for the sheer fun of it.

Dekkomosu the Lekkansu was quiet, down at the other end; beer hit him that way; he was short and stocky and muscular, hair still in a roach but dressed in a white woods-runner's buckskins rather than his native not-much. He and Peter were blood-brothers, and there wasn't much left of the tribesman's family, they'd been hit heavy in the plagues. Figure he just wants to get far away and forget things.

And Jaditwara... she's just so goddamned strange. A tall slim blond, Fiernan -- she had the Spear Mark. Hard to tell what her motivations were; she'd just said that the Stars told her Moon Woman wanted her to do it, and as far as she was concerned that was that. But Jesus, she could draw! No way they were going to let a camera and rationed film along on this, and the Island-made equivalents were far too heavy and cumbersome.

"Good thing the Meeting wasn't held in Fogarty's Cove," Sue said.

Peter nodded, looking around the warm crowded room. He had friends in Fogarty's Cove, that and looking at some horses was why he was here, but most of the Long Island settlers were against anything that distracted from pushing the frontier further west up-island.

The taproom of Wild Rose Chance was pretty full . They'd had a week of mild weather, but the March rain outside was near-as-damn sleet, and people near the door yelled whenever someone came in, bringing a little of it with them. Further in that wasn't a problem; the big fireplace along the south wall was blazing, with a huge iron pot of pork stew bubbling over it, a four-foot moa roasting on a spit turned by an ingenious little arrangement of vanes that caught the hot air going up the chimney, with a yearling pig right next to it. The air was thick with the good smells of roasting meat, bread baking, woodsmoke and the leather coats drying on pegs around the wall

The staff were busy ladling and carving and running in and out of the kitchens with things that required more cooking than the hearth could provide; the bar was four deep too, and the bungs of the barrels on trestles behind it were getting a hard workout with the crew of a ferry that'd just come in from Nantucket Town -- pitching logs into the boiler was thirsty work.

"Hey, Judy!" Peter called. "Some of that mulled cider!"

"Here," she said. "And here." She unloaded plates for the others. "And I hope you all remember it when you're freezing and chewing on acorns in the middle of a snowstorm next winter, God-knows-where."

"That's a promise," Peter said.

@@@

"Bin'H0tse-khwon," Swindapa said, putting aside the sheet of daily returns from the flotilla that she'd finished reviewing.

Darling, Marian translated mentally.

"Mmm, sugar?" she said, looking up from the cabin table, where she had been pricking the map. They'd been making good time from Mauritius Base on their return; the crews were well shaken-down and the wind steady... steady so far, at least. Two and three hundred miles a day from noon to noon, and hardly a need to touch the lines. It would have been even faster if she hadn't insisted on frequent firing drill, but it was too good an opportunity to miss -- the more experienced gunners the Guard Reserve had, the better.

"What will we do, when Walker has been put down, and the war is over?"

The Fiernan was sitting on the semicircular couch that lined the stern-windows. Those were open, slid back to let in the mild silky warmth of the sea-air above Capricorn, and strands of her yellow hair floated free in the breeze. Alston gave an inner sigh of pleasure at the sight, drawing in a deep breath full of sea, salt, tar and wood, of morning. Woman, you are dead lucky.

Behind the frigate ran her wake, a curling V of white against aching-blue sea. The sun was in the east, adding the slightest tinge of red to the foam of the wake, and to the sails of the ships following behind. They were strung out like beads on a necklace to the north, their bows throwing spray as they travelled with a long rocking-horse surge through billows just high enough to toss an occasional whitecap of their own. It was very quiet, under the continuous creak-and-groan of a wooden vessel speaking to itself; the rush of water along the hull, the constant humming song of wind in the rigging, an occasional crisp order-and-response from the deck above, the cry of a seabird. Above that came the high piping of children's voices through the quarterdeck skylight; with the Expiditionary Regiment's Marines and civilians landed at Ur, they'd brought Heather and Lucy on Chamberlain. School was out for the summer.

Alston glanced upward and smiled. "Well, watch the children grow. Look after the Guard, of course. Design some more ships." Her grin grew wider. "Spend a lot of time making out."

"Oh, yes," Swindapa said happily, adding a sentence in her own language, going into more detail.

Odd. It doesn't sound so goddamned... blunt... in Fiernan, Alston thought.

"I was thinking, though," her partner went on. "Perhaps we could get a place in the country, as well as Guard House? That's the Town's, really. I'd like to raise horses, and it would be a place for our... what do you call it... retirement."

Alston chuckled a little ruefully. She was eighteen years older than her lover, almost to the day. She means my retirement, of course. Although she didn't expect Swindapa to stay in the Guard after Alston mustered out; she was a fine officer and loved the sea, but being a fighting sailor wasn't her vocation, it was something she did because it was needful. And I don't intend to stay on after my usefulness ends, she told herself. One part of command was knowing when to let go.

"I thought you wanted to study more astronomy and mathematics?" she said. That was big part of the Fiernan Boholugi religion, and in her quiet way Swindapa was pious. There were times when Alston's agnostic soul envied her.

"That too; Doreen will be back then, she wants to start some classes."

"Sounds good, then. We can pick up a place on Long Island, maybe." Not a raw grant; clearing temperate-zone climax forest was full-time work. Still, they'd invested their pay well, and developed land did come on the market. She'd been born a country girl, down in the Sea Islands. That's actually a pretty good idea. I wouldn't mind having a garden to putter in when I'm old and gray and baking cookies for the grandchildren. "I warn you, though, I'm always going to need some salt water now and then!"

"How not?" Swindapa grinned. "We'll get a place with a pier and a boat. And maybe we should adopt again. I'd like a little boy, too. Maybe more? A house lives with children in it."

"Mmmm, let's think about that," Alston said.

That'll be four, now! Her own children back before the Event, that she'd lost in the divorce, and Heather and Lucy these last eight years. Well worth while of course, but Swindapa's enthusiasm was a bit alarming -- even more so than her newfound passion for horses. There wouldn't be any real problem, even though the flood of Alban War orphans had died down there was still a steady trickle; she could probably arrange it through her relatives in Alba...

The ship's bell struck. Alston and her partner stood and put on their billed caps before heading out and up the companionway to the fantail.

"Captain on deck!"

"As you were," Alston said, returning the salutes. "Lieutenant Jenkins has the deck."

"It's freshening, ma'am," the second-in-command of the ship said. "Coming a little more out of the north, too, and tending eastward, I think. I don't much like it, somehow."

Alston nodded, looking up and squinting a little. Hmmm. She felt the motion of the ship beneath her, looked at sea and near-cloudless sky, tasted the wind. Not quite as... soothing... as it had been. There was a crackle of electricity to the air, somehow. Swindapa nodded slightly as their eyes met; they went over to the low deckhouse forward of the wheels and down the three steps into it.

"Carry on," she said to the watch there; this was the radio shack, as well as holding map tables, digital clock, log-readout, the new mechanical chronometer, and the barometer. "Give me the hourly readings."

Her eyebrows went up a little as she read them, and then took a look at the current level. Either the glass has broken or that's bad news. She flicked the instrument with a finger. Nope. Bad news.

"Signal to flotilla; two points to the east and make all sail," she said. Out on the deck, she stepped over to the wheels.

"Thus, thus," she said, giving the helm the new course. To the lieutenant: "Mr. Jenkins, topgallants and royals, if you please."

"Yes, ma'am."

He went to the rail and relayed the order; she could hear it echo across the deck until the mast captains' voices called Lay aloft and loose topgallants and royals! Feet thundered across the deck, and crew swarmed up the ratlines until they were doll-tiny shapes a hundred and thirty feet above. Others raced to the deck lines.

"Man the topgallants and royals!"

"Lines manned and ready!"

"Sheet home the topgallants. Belay!"

"Throw off the buntlines, ease the clewlines!"

"Haul around on the sheets!

The ship heeled as more canvas blossomed out high above their heads, thuttering and cracking, and the standing rigging funneled the force of the wind to the hull. At Jenkin's unspoken question, she went on:

"I want sea room, Mr. Jenkins; we're too damned close to the southern end of Madagascar, if it comes on to blow."

"Rig for rough weather, ma'am?" he said.

"By all means. Double breeching on the guns, bowse them up to the ports until the timbers groan. Preventer backstays, extra frapping on the boats, tarpaulins and battens for the hatchways. Lieutenant-Commander Swindapa, message to the flotilla: prepare for heavy weather, be ready to strike sail." The orders went out, and she added: "Oh, and get those two imps of Satan down from the maintop."

He grinned a little at that, and called to the tops. A dark head and a red peered over the railing of the triangular platform, with one of the crew hovering behind them, ready to grab.

"Mom!" came a faint call; then, in a treble imitation of the lookout: "On deck, there! Can we slide down a backstay?"

"No, you cannot!"

The wind blew away muttered complaints. They probably could slide down a backstay, she thought; they were nimble as apes after three months at sea. But not for a while, best to be cautious. After a moment, her mouth quirked. I've changed too. The definition of 'cautious' had undergone some radical mutations, back here in the Bronze Age.

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


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