I'm getting peopled out, Lieutenant Vicki Cofflin thought. God knows the crew are all stand-up types, but it would be good to get away from 'em for a while.
The long gondola of the airship RNAS Emancipator had few places where privacy was possible, except the little cublicle that held the head. The great orca-shaped hull above was much larger, but the gasbags filled it.
And I'd like to see some stars, she thought. Although the downward view from the commander's chair at the nose of the gondola was grand, a huge sweep of moonlit plateau and mountains three thousand feet below, and she still felt a thrill sometimes when she realized Emancipator was hers. They were heading for the passes of the anti-Taurus now, and they'd be in Babylon by late afternoon. A routine voyage... which was exactly what you wanted. Excitement meant adventure, and adventure meant bad luck or somebody screwing up.
"Take the com, Alex," she said to her XO. "I'm going
topside." Then aloud
"Mr. Stoddard has the deck, aye."
Wicker creaked as she unstrapped herself and rose, turning to let Alex Stoddard by in the narrow space. She took her sextant from the rack beside the ladder, although there wasn't really any need for a navigational fix, with the Euphrates right there below them like a river of silver through the huge tawny spaces of Anatolia. It couldn't hurt, though, and it gave her an excuse for taking a break topside. Besides, it was procedure, and if you made procedure a habit it was there when you really needed it.
She put hands and feet to the rungs, unsealing and resealing the flap-door on the roof of the gondola, then went up further through the creaking dimness of the hull, throbbing with the sound of the engines. A few of the duty watch were on their endless round of checking; for frame stresses, cracks, evidence of chafing that might lead to leaks as the bags surged about within their nets. The maintenance crew carried rechargeable flashlights, jerking and spearing through the gloom of the Emancipator's interior. More pre-Event technology that couldn't be replaced as yet, incongruous against the balsa-and-plywood frame of the airship.
We know how to do so much more than it's possible to do, goddammit! ran through her with a familiar frustration, like a toothache that had been with her since the Event had crashed into her world a few weeks past her eighteenth birthday. The problem is all the things we know about and need but can't make, she thought.
Councilor Starbuck thought that the whole United States would have been just barely large enough to maintain one microchip factory. As it was, they could just barely maintain the recycled Cessna engines that pushed Emancipator.
In her more pessimistic moods, she thought that they'd have done worse without Tartessos and Great Achaea to goose and terrify the Sovereign People into forgoing current consumption for investment. On good days, she concentrated on how much better the Republic could do this time around once those nuisances were put down. They had the knowledge. And an entire unplundered, near-empty planet to apply it to.
Someday we'll have everything they did in the Twentieth, and more. We'll hit the ground running and not stop this side of the stars, and we'll do it without screwing the place up. That would take generations, though. She'd planned on Colorado Springs, before the Event, and dreamed of eventually joining the astronaut program...
With a sigh she unlatched the rubber-rimmed wooden hatchway at the top of the ladder and stuck her head into the observation post.
"Oh," she said. Oh, damn. Must have come up here while I was in the head. "Good very early morning, Colonel Hollard."
"Couldn't sleep, Captain Cofflin," the other woman said. "Nice view up here, too."
It would be impolite to duck right down. There was plenty of room for two; the observation bubble was domed with what had started life as a shopping-center plexiglass skylight, and rimmed with a padded couch. It was cold, but not as draughty as the wickerwork-sided main gondola below, and anyway her generation had gotten used to a world where heating was often too cumbersome to be worth the trouble. You put on another layer of clothing or learned to live with being chilly, or both.
A continuous low drumming sound came from outside, under the whistle of cloven air, the sound of the taut fabric of Emancipator's outer skin flexing under the sixty mph wind of her passage.
Well, you've got reason to be nervous, Vicki thought as she
sat and looked at the other's impassive face. She didn't know all the
details, but everyone had heard something
I thought we had culture clash in our family, Vicki Cofflin thought. Her father had come from the piney woods of east Texas. I didn't know the meaning of the word, back then.
"Cocoa?" Hollard asked, holding up a thermos. Those were within Nantucket's capabilities, if you didn't mind paying three weeks' wages for it.
"Thanks, ma'am." The cocoa was dark and strong, sweetened with actual cane-sugar from Mauritius Base.
"You're welcome... let's not be formal. I was just looking at the stars, and thinking about the Event," Hollard went on meditatively.
"Oh? Nothing better to do?"
Vicki grinned, glancing up herself. Thinking about the Event had become a byword for useless speculation and idle daydreaming; they just didn't have any data to go on. There was also what amounted to an unspoken rule against talking about it at all, among the older generation.
The stars were enormous through the dry clear air, a frosted band across the sky. Skyglow's one thing I don't miss about the Twentieth, she thought.
"It occurred to me," Hollard went on, looking up and sipping, "that we may be wrong about what happened up in the Twentieth when we... left. That they got the 1250 BC Nantucket swapped with us, that is. That's what most people assume, but there's no reason to believe it."
"Oh?" Well, a fresh untestable hypothesis. "What else could have happened?"
Everything uptime of us could have all vanished the moment we arrived here, like a stray dream. Certainly this world won't be anything like the Twentieth was in another three thousand-odd years. She didn't mention that; it was another unwritten courtesy rule. The thought that they'd unwittingly wiped out billions of people and their own country and kin was just too ghastly to contemplate. Those inclined to brood on it had made up a goodly portion of the rash of post-Event suicides.
"Well, I don't think the Event was an accident," Hollard
said. "The transition was too neat
"Well, chunks of land just don't get displaced three millenia, either," Vicki said, but she nodded. That was the reasoning behind one of the major schools of thought about the Event. No way to check, of course. "Whoever or Whatever it was that did it could have integrated the ancient Nantucket into our slot just as easily," she pointed out.
"Yes, but a technology that advanced
Vicki gave a low whistle. "You know, that's a really clever idea. And completely, utterly useless!"
"It beats thinking about my family problems," Hollard said, with a wry twist of her mouth.
"Mmmmm, if you don't mind me asking..."
Hollard shrugged. "Why not? Everyone else is going to know, soon
enough. You know Ken
Vicki nodded. "Way I heard it, she'd killed the Assyrian king."
"Tukulti-Ninurta, yes. His father killed her
"Yeah. Then we came along and retumbled the bingo-balls."
"Mmmm-hmmm. This time around, Tukulti-Ninurta showed up there with some odds-and-sods of his guard and court, after we and the Babylonians smashed their army. Made her dance for him, then he was going to drag her off and rape her. She got him first, knife in her sleeve and slit his throat neat as you please when he grabbed her. Then Ken arrived, just before they lit the fire under her feet."
Vicki nodded. Even by the ungentle standards of the ancient Orient, the Assyrians were first-order swine; the locals all hated them. That didn't make the memory of bombing runs over Asshur much more comfortable, though. She went on, to push aside the thought of burning rubble collapsing on kids like her Uncle Jared's:
"Yeah, I've seen the Princess a couple of times. Smart girl, and charismatic as all hell. Asked a lot of questions the time we had her up in Emancipator, and I got the feeling she really understood about atmospheric pressure and buoyancy."
"Mmmm-hmmm," Hollard said. It was a verbal tick
Vicki had noticed Commodore Alston use. "Learned English fast, and
all the rest of it
"Was it the Babylonians' idea to make her Queen of Mitanni, or ours?" Vicki asked curiously.
Officially, it had been Kashtiliash's father's notion all the way, but that was diplomacy for you. Limp as an official explanation wasn't a proverb for nothing.
"Oh, ours, but Kash and his father liked it. As a vassal kingdom, they'd get tribute and troops from Mitanni and without the bother of garrisons and officials. It was Princess Raupasha who shovelled the manure into the winnowing fan, right after the battle with those Hittites, the ones Walker talked into rebelling against their king."
Vicki nodded. She'd ferried wounded from that fight back to Ur Base. "Offered your brother the crown, or something, wasn't it?" she said.
"Damn, I knew we couldn't keep it under wraps for long. No, not quite that bad," Kathryn said, and gave the details. "She is only seventeen, still..."
"Ouch," Vicki Cofflin said. Local politics weren't her
department, thank God, but
"Mega-ouchies," Hollard agreed. "Yeah, Kashtiliash hit the God-damned roof. Akkadian is a great language for swearing in, and he nearly blew out the circuits on the radio set we were using... I don't blame him for that, or for suspecting that Ken or the Arnsteins put her up to it."
"Yeah. My sympathies." She hesitated. "How does your brother feel about it?" Kenneth Hollard wasn't married, except to the Marine Corps. She'd had the odd daydream about him herself...
This time Kathryn Hollard's laugh was long and loud. "Oh, he thinks he's horrified, and he thinks she's a sort of unofficial kid sister," she said. "You know how men are."
"Ayup. Emotional idiots."
A nod. "Well, with some exceptions, some of the time. Kash, for instance."
Vicki hestitated again. Damn, but I've got a bump of curiosity bigger than the Elephant's Child, she thought. You couldn't pick up a copy of People Magazine these days to find out details, either. The monthly Ur Base Gazette was a feeble substitute.
"He's not exactly what I'd have expected, for the son of one of these absolute monarchs," she said cautiously. "Of course, I've only met him a couple of times. Lots of... ah... presence." They both knew what she meant; a maleness that blazed.
Kathryn grinned. "Oh, yes indeed; smart too, and likes new
ideas. Did you know that his family have run Babylonia for nearly four
hundred years? Originally they were from up in the hills, but there's
never been a rebellion by the Babylonians. They foster their kids out
with their kinfolk who stayed in the highlands, and then put them in the
House of Succession
Vicki nodded. She couldn't imagine marrying a local herself, king or no king, but tastes differed. "What about your kids, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Oh, we agreed on a Nantucket tutor, and a spell on the Island with my relatives." She sighed. "Not that I'm going to have time to be pregnant until this damned war is over, probably."
"Yeah, it is inconvenient," Vicki said. She'd been thinking about a family of her own... False dawn showed in the east; time to get back to work. "Best of luck, then."
"It's all such a monumental distraction from the real war," Hollard said.
"Or at least our part of it," Vicki replied.
Hollard chuckled. "Yeah. At least we don't have the Chief's worries, or the Commodore's."
"Good to find you on this side of the pond, Ron," Marian Alston-Kurlelo said.
It was also good to be full, dry, dressed in a warm fuzzy kaftan and slippers instead of a sopping uniform and wet boots, eating something because of the way it tasted, not because you were so hungry that hardtack and jerky went down easy.
"That's why I dropped by," she went on. "Didn't want to pass up a chance of settling some details with you in person."
She looked down at her half-finished dessert and pushed it away with a sudden memory of what her older sisters had looked like after forty-odd years of chitterlings, ham-hocks and sweet-potato pie. Swindapa snagged the dish and began to finish it off; it was baked apples with honey and cream, one of her favorites. They were sitting in the snug, a booth by the fire, with Councilor Ron Leaton and the manager of the Irondale Works, Erica Stark. She was a competent-looking woman in her late thirties, with the pale bony face and faded blue eyes of an old-stock Nantucketer. Leaton was as abstracted as ever, despite more gray in his light-brown hair and beard. The long pianist's fingers with their ground-in patina of machine grease toyed with a cup as he spoke.
"I was up on Anglesy, some problems with the drainage engines in the copper mines, then dropped down to troubleshoot the Merrimac project with Erica. I was surprised to hear you were coming," he said. "I expected you and the fleet to be off by now."
Alston nodded and glanced over her shoulder. Over at one of the long
common tables the Marine escort were enjoying themselves with food,
drink and local company caught by the glamor of the uniform. She caught
Swindapa conscientiously checking in that directon occasionally as well.
They were good troops, but young, and only Ritter was actually something
approaching a native Islander
"When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,
You'll understand why you came this way
Nobody was getting too loud, and nobody minded. OK, that's well in hand, Alston thought, relaxed.
She sighed as she replied to the engineer-entrepreneur. "I expected to be away by now myself, but the first casualty in any war is your battle plan," she said. "Sometimes even before the war starts... Two clans of the Uarwasorii teuatha started another round of one of their God-damned blood feuds on their way to the muster point."
"And none but Marian could deal with it," Swindapa said pridefully.
Alston smiled a crooked smile. "I do have the baraka, the keuthes, they call it," she said. "Or the Sun People think I do, which is 'bout the same thing."
"So they could surrender to you without losing too much face," Stark said shrewdly.
To the Sun People, keuthes was rather like having Fate putting a finger on your side of the scales, or a big spiritual battery-pack full of capital-L Luck. The way the charioteer tribes looked at it, she, Alston, had a monstrously unfair amount of war-keuthes, giving her a unbeatable edge in anything involving fighting, raiding or plundering. They called her the Midnight Mare, and it was a title of high respect and fear, which were much the same thing in their terms. It invoked both the feared black-hued demons of the night and the wild power of Hepkonwsa, the Lady of the Horses.
Ron Leaton nodded. "You're the one who beat their war-host and wizard chief on the Downs. They believe in legends and heroes, not institutions and governments."
Marian shrugged. She did not add aloud: What I'm needed for here is to keep our local allies together, and convince them we'll win. Luckily, I've got a good general staff trained as well, who can handle things at home under Jared. A moment of worry: Do the enemy? It wouldn't necessarily be obvious to our agents. She didn't think so. Walker would be too suspicious of possible rivals, and the concept would be alien to Isketerol of Tartessos.
Instead she went on: "'dapa and I had to take a company of Marines from Portsmouth Base up north to kick ass and take names. We had a radio along, heard Ron was here, sent most of the party back and dropped over ourselves to consult."
The actual slaying that started the whole mess had been a fair enough fight, which helped. The fact that the Republic was offering weapons and the prospect of plunder in a real war did more. Raiding had been an essential part of Sun People life, a sort of primitive redistribution tax that cut the greedy and over-mighty and too-lucky down to size, or made them spend some of their wealth to win the loyalty of followers who'd fight to help them keep the rest. The peace of the Alliance meant cattle accumulated in the hands of the old and rich, and everything else from women to land went along with it.
Alston was glad they hadn't had to actually open fire; she'd gone armed and in uniform all her adult life, but not from any love of combat. I leave that to maniacs and Sun People warriors, which is much of a muchness. Killing human beings was a disgusting incident of her real job, which was winning safety for her children, partner, friends, people.
Now, William Walker and Alice Hong, a few of their collaborators, I'll make an exception for them, yes. I'll have to repress an impulse to swing on the bastard's ankles when we hang him.
Everyone nodded; that sort of thing could get very ugly very quickly. Every clan of the eastern tribes had a feud with somebody waiting to flare up again, and everyone was related to everyone else by descent or marriage or blood-brotherhood, so a single killing could sprawl out into an uncontrollable free-for-all of ambushes and lethal brawls like a sweater unravelling from a single tug. When things got to that stage you had to send in a punitive expedition, which nobody liked.
"Swan-eating savages," Swindapa said, in her own language; that was a vile insult, to a Fiernan.
Stark nodded agreement. "We get a fair bit of that sort of trouble," she said. "There are a lot of migrant laborers from the Sun People tribes working here." A grimace of distaste. "Had to hang a couple for this and that."
"Mmmm, this is extra-territorial, isn't it?" Marian said. Places like Irondale were usually under the Republic's legal system. Fiernan law and custom had no provisions for towns, for any settlements of individuals who weren't related to each other; or any real conception of government or the State, come to that.
"We bargained for a perpetual lease on the land from the Telukuo
lineage," Leaton said. "They got a lump-sum and a one-fifth
stockholding in the Irondale Company, and a lot of them got in on the
ground floor as employees, so they're foremen and skilled workers now
"I hear Sam Macy is complaining about that," Alston said.
She and Swindapa had gotten a fair bit of cash last year; prize-money from some ships taken in a skirmish with the Tartessians before open war was declared, and they'd put much of it into Irondale Company stock. Money wasn't extremely important to her, but she'd been born ain't-no-doubt-'bout-it-grits-every-day poor, and disliked it. And there were the children to think of.
"Cheap-labor competition undercutting Nantucket industries, Sam says," she went on.
Leaton flushed. "I talked to him just before I came over, two weeks ago. Don't get me started!"
"Oh, by the milk of Moon Woman's flowing breasts, don't get him
started," Swindapa said
"Macy's not so bad," Alston said. "A representative
government has to have an opposition party
The engineer snorted. "Macy wants to stop the world and get
off," he said. "Nantucket's an island, for Christ's
sake, and not a very big island, either
Alston raised her eyebrows; she'd read a good deal of history, but mostly in the military and maritime fields. Leaton had run a computer store before the Event; more importantly, he'd operated a machine-shop out of his basement and studied the history of technology as an obsessive hobby. The hobby had turned into Seahaven Engineering, and those lathes and milling machines and gagues, the library of technical works and hard-won personal skills, had saved them all and gone on to grow and multiply and mutate in the years since. Making Leaton the most powerful of the Republic's new merchant princes along the way, if also the least worldly.
I like him. Usually do, with someone who really knows their work and is proud of it.
He continued: "Well, if you want to get technical, this"
Alston held up a pink palm. She saw Erica Stark put an affectionate hand on the engineer's arm. Well, well, perhaps the inveterate bachelor has met his match. Or at least someone who could stop one of his lectures in its tracks. When Leaton said "if you want to get technical", strong men blanched.
"You don't have to convince me, Ron," the Guard commander said. "Save it for the Council sessions, or the Town Meetin'. Just tell me about what I ordered."
"Oh." Leaton cleared his throat. "Well, yes, it's
about ready. All the plating, 3.5 inch and ready for assembly, edges
milled and bolt-holes drilled. That
"The lathing shed team did, rather," she said. "For once, everything was on schedule."
A Fiernan in Nantucketer clothes that didn't hide six months of pregnancy came with thick clay steins and a small glass on a tray; three beers, a mead, and a whiskey. Alston sipped at the liquor; wheat-mash bourbon, not quite Maker's Mark, but smoothly drinkable. Then she blew froth and took a mouthful of the beer, crisp hop-bitter coolness to follow the love-bite of the spirits.
"Not bad," she said.
Particularly compared to the flat, sour, spoiled-barley bilgewater she'd tasted on her first trip to Alba. Someone who'd worked at Cisco Breweries on-island had come back here with a bag of hop seed and a head full of tricks.
"Scheduling trouble?" she went on.
"Mostly Alban workforce," Stark said, in a tone that was
half groan. "Back on Nantucket they're the minority and work our
way. Here... There's a festival, they stop working to dance for the
Moon. Their second cousin twice removed visits, they get drunk, then
stop working. The salmon are running, they stop working to fish. They
feel like going off and hunting wild pigs for a while, they stop working
and hunt. It's haying time on their sister's farm, they stop working
here and work there. A swan flies over the plant, they stop working and
pray all day
Swindapa set down her mead, scowling. "Swans are sacred," she said, her tone unusually clipped.
Marian Alston-Kurlelo winced slightly; not only that, but they
carried the souls of the dead to the afterlife and back to be reborn, in
the faith of Moon Woman
Would have been with cows, she reminded herself. Right now, the Aryan ancestors of the Hindus were beef-eating, booze-swilling charioteer barbarians not much different from their remote cousins here in Alba.
"And people aren't machines, Ms. Stark," Swindapa went on.
"Fiernan aren't zorr'HOt'po, either." The word meant
something like 'maniacs' or 'obsessive-compulsives'. "Who in their
right mind would spend all their days in a coal mine, or a factory full
of heat and stink? You've told them that working for pay isn't like
being a slave, and that's how they behave
"Oh, no offense meant," Stark said soothingly. "But it
is inconvenient, sometimes. Machinery costs the same
whether it's working or not. We're having trouble just getting
enough people, too; we're importing labor from as far away as the
Alston nodded and took another mouthful of the beer. It wasn't that these Bronze Age peoples were lazy. They went after seasonal jobs like planting and reaping at a pace that would kill most people from the twentieth. The problem was that they were burst workers; much of the year they loafed, or worked a long day at a slow pace with frequent breaks as whim took them. The sort of steady, methodical clock-driven effort that post-industrial Western urbanites put in was alien to them, and usually profoundly distasteful. That prompted a thought.
"How did those, mmmm, 'Silicon Valley' types you mentioned deal with the problem?" she asked. "They must have been getting their miners and forge-workers straight off the farm too."
Leaton and Stark glanced at each other, and she caught similar looks of distaste. "Unpleasant ways," the man said. "Nearly as bad as the ones Walker uses."
Alston's lips pressed together. Flogging and terror, she thought. The reports from the Councilor for Foreign Affairs' agents were gruesome. Stark took up the story:
"And Britain had millions of people then, most of them day-laborers. It was take any work they could get or starve, for a lot of them."
Good point, the Guard commander thought. There were single American states up in the twentieth that had more people than the whole world of the Year Ten. It would take generations for Alba to get crowded, even with the medical missionaries at work. By then birth control might have caught on.
She shrugged. "The factories exist for us, not us for the factories," she said.
Specialists tended to forget that. Just as I occasionally need
Jared to remind me that the Guard exists for the Republic, not vice
versa. "You got what I needed done, and in time
"Right," Leaton said. "It'll all be aboard the Merrimac by the end of the week along with the technicians, and she ready to sail from Westhaven to join the fleet at Portsmouth Base."
"Most excellent," Marian said. "Isketerol of Tartessos is far too smart and making far too much progress for my taste. I want to have an ace up my sleeve besides the Farragut. 'Dapa and I will ride downriver with the cargo and around Cornwall with the ship. Faster, and I want another look at the Merrimac anyway."
Swindapa sighed. "I don't understand how Isketerol's done so much so quickly," she said. "Walker had twenty helpers from Nantucket."
"My fault," Alston-Kurlelo said with bitter self-accusation. "It was my idea to bring him back to Nantucket, when we came here right after the Event to trade for seed corn. I wanted him to teach the languages he knew, and about conditions in the Mediterranean. He learned far too much, far too fast."
"He got half of all the stuff that Walker stole," Leaton
pointed out gently. "Which was a cargo intended to set up a
self-sufficient base and included a pretty complete technical library.
Plus what Walker made here, and training for his crew from Walker's gang
while they were in Alba, and the ship they took as a model. Plus he's
snookered us more than once since then
Marian Alston-Kurlelo shook her head; there were no excuses for failure. "Well, have to do the best we can with what we've got."
Swindapa touched her arm. "Moon Woman will send us a fortunate star," she said, smiling gently. "Heather and Lucy are depending on it."
"Everybody is," Marian said, putting down a slight twinge of pain at the thought of their daughters. They grew and changed so quickly at that age... "A lot of them are going do die before we set it all right."
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