Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

 

On the Oceans of Eternity

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

 


CHAPTER SIX:

 

King Kashtiliash -- Great King of Babylon, King of the Four Quarters of the Earth, King of the Universe, viceregent of the great god Marduk, overlord of Assyria by right of conquest and of Elam by treaty of vassalage, and ally of the Republic of Nantucket in this the Year Ten -- slept with a Python revolver beneath his pillow.

His hand clenched on the smooth checkered wood and metal of the butt as he woke. The gesture was so familiar that it was instinctive, although for most of his twenty-seven years it had been the hilt of a dagger he grasped on waking. It was no less necessary this last year since his father died and he took the throne; more so, if anything.

The royal bedchamber was large and dim, and thick brick walls and cunningly contrived vents in floor and ceiling made it delightfully cool even in the summers of the Land Between the Rivers. That slight breeze sent a ripple through the rich hangings on the walls amid a scent of musk and incense, as well as a welcome breath across sweat-slick skin. For a moment his sleep-dazzled eyes thought that that was what had awoken him. An animal alertness learned in desert hunting sojourns, soldiers' bivouacs, the camps of his nomad hill-country kinfolk, brought him fully alert. A shout would bring guards with sword and rifle... but if an intruder had come this far, it might well be that the guards had been corrupted. He did not think so, but he did not intend to risk his life on the question, either. And Ku-Aya was gone from her place beside him... His thumb drew back the hammer of the weapon, softly, slowly, still beneath the muffling pillow, all to mute the distinctive click.

The bed was raised on a low platform, with tables of inlaid sissu-wood on either side. One of those held a kerosene lantern, its flame turned down to a slight red glow. He let that be, and took instead a steel fighting-knife of the kind his Nantukhtar allies called a Bowie in his left hand. The pistol in his right felt absurdly light after the bronze swords he had born since toddlerhood, but intensive practice had made him adept with the Islander weapon that bore the deaths of half a dozen men in its cylinder. His bare feet touched silently on the tile and soft rugs of the floor -- an advantage of royal rank, for mats of reed or straw would have made a sound, rutching under his weight. Kashtiliash son of Shagarakti-Shuriash was tall for a man of Kar-Duniash, broad-shouldered and thick-armed, his hairy muscular body compact and strong, tanned to bronze on face and limbs, fading to his natural dark olive on his torso. Waving blue-black hair fell to his shoulders, loosed for the night from its usual bun at the nape of his neck, and his curled beard was thick and dense, growing up to the edges of his high cheekbones, framing a beak-nosed, full-lipped face and eyes of a catlike hazel.

They quickly found the source of the disturbance that had troubled his sleep, and grew wide at the sight. A sliver of light was showing beneath the doors of what had once been an antechamber... and was now led to the private rooms of the Lady of the Land, Queen of Babylon, Lieutenant-Colonel Kathryn Hollard. Who was hundreds of miles away this night --

I will see what this betokens, Kashtiliash thought grimly.

His feet moved with a hunter's silence, despite the solid weight of muscle and bone they upbore. Slowly, carefully he moved his left arm until the knuckles of the hand that held the knife touched the slick inlaid cedarwood of the door. He slitted his eyes -- it would not do to be blinded by the sudden wash of light -- and pushed sharply, wheeling to bring the Python up.

He froze, as astonished as the figure in his sights -- more so. It was his concubine Ku-Aya, naked as he, her pumply pretty face going slack in astonishment, then pasty-white with terror. She cowered back against the spindly dressing table, nearly overturning the lamp. Then she dropped to her face on the carpet; her hand moved, until he put his foot on it.

"Do not stir," he said harshly.

This was forbidden ground to all save him and a few servants. Something dark had fallen from the woman's hand. He bent and picked it up. His hand jerked as if to throw it away again when he realized what it was; a little folded tablet of lead, with a figure scratched on it, and some lines of writing.

A cursing tablet! Kashtiliash thought, stomach crawling with the sickness of horror.

He recognized the scorpion-tailed, four-winged, lion-pawed drawing. In his studies in the House of Succession he had read the mighty collection of incantations known as Utukku Lemnutu, 'The Evil Demons'. The lines pressed into the lead were crude, but there was no doubt that they showed Pazuzu, the Lord of the Demons of the Waste -- master of sandstorms and bringer of all ill-fortune for travellers. But the words inscribed below were not a prayer or spell to foil the demon's wickedness. They were an invocation, a summoning.

"The punishment for sorcery directed at the King's person is flaying alive," he grated.

"Not you! My lord King, your handmaiden lies at your feet -- it is not against you! Look inside the lead, and my lord will see!"

She did lie at his feet. He carefully bent the soft metal back, and a fine dusting of hairs fell into his palm. They were the color of desert sand, light and fine -- hair such as was almost never seen in the land of Kar-Duniash. Cropped short, in the manner of the Nantukhtar warriors; Ku-Aya must have plucked it from a hairbrush of the Queen's. He raised the pistol then, rage washing red across his vision. A curse against someone travelling... as the Queen did this night, in the Nantukhtar ship of the air, over the deserts where Pazuzu had most power. Memory made him lower the pistol; Kathryn would not thank him for such a deed. She did not believe any curse of this land held power over her, either.

"You conspire against the Queen, the Lady of the Land," he said. "For that also the punishment is death."

Ku-Aya surprised him, wrenching her wrist free and hunching backward, hissing like an Egyptian cat. "The Queen! The sorceress who has bespelled our lord!" Her voice rose to a shriek. "The unnatural bitch, not even a woman, a man with breasts -- the doer of evil, they plot against my lord and he will not see --"

"Silence!"

Kashtiliash controlled himself with an effort, his breath slowing. He dropped the knife and pistol on the table, grabbed the woman by her neck and pitched her into the royal bedchamber. Then he belted on a light kilt -- it was unlawful, unlucky, for ordinary men to see the King's nakedness, at least here in the Palace -- and shouted for the guards. They came, along with a sa resi, a eunuch chamberlain.

The armed men bristled at the sight of the anger on his face, facing outward and bringing their rifles to port-arms as they glared about for intruders.

"Stand easy," Kashtiliash said, gesturing impatiently. "There is no enemy here." He nudged the woman with his toe. "Captain Mar-biti-apla-usur."

"Command me, King of the Universe!"

"This woman has gravely displeased me," he said. "She is to be expelled from the Palace. As she is, taking nothing."

The guard captain bowed. "What shall be done with her then?" he asked.

"I do not care. She is become a weariness to my spirit."

The guardsman bowed again, grabbed the blubbering woman by her hair and pulled her out of the chamber as she scrambled to rise. The officer would probably add her to his household, or sell her -- Kashtiliash had spoken truth when he said he was indifferent.

"Oh King, live forever," the eunuch said, rising from his prostration. "Do you wish another woman?"

"At this hour? Leave me, go, go," Kashtiliash said.

His sigh was half groan in the silence as the chamber emptied. There is only one woman that I wish were here, and I am angered with her. Or at least with her brother, the general of the allied Nantukhtar forces here in Kar-Duniash.

Raupasha had claimed Kenneth Hollard for her consort. Did that mean a plot to sieze Mitanni from his control, or could it be only the foolishness of a girl?

@@@

"Officer on deck!"

Private Kyle Hook swung his legs down from the bunk and came to attention. Sick call beat lying on the hospital bunk looking out window -- though it was pleasant enough to watch everyone else working for once. The Colonel had arrived, red-haired little I-am-at-God's-Right-Hand O'Rourke himself, and everyone was running back and forth like ants in a hill someone had poked with a stick.

Prancing around on that fancy horse of his like he's something special, Hook thought. Dumb mick was working as a fucking waiter when the Event happened. I should be out there, not him.

The doctor made her rounds, small and neat in a blue Coast Guard uniform and white coat; most of the ones in this second-story room were ambulatory cases, but there were a few pale and drawn with fever that she stooped over as they lay. Her face hardened when she came to Kyle Hook. Sage Wenter cut him no slack because they'd both been born American, another reason for dislike.

"So," she said, looking him over. She was a slight gray-haired woman with a pawky-unimpressed blue eye that made nothing of his four extra inches of height. "Malingering again, eh, Hook?"

"No ma'am," he said, working his left arm slowly and cautiously. "Shoulder hurts something awful, ma'am."

"Take off your shirt, then," she said briskly, and put her black bag down on a windowledge.

"I'm not well, Dr. Wenter, really I'm not, ma'am," Hook said, muffled by the t-shirt he was cautiously removing.

"You're a malingerer, a liar and a thief, Hook," the doctor said briskly, yanking it free and bringing a yelp from him.

He kept himself meek; if you shaved a gorilla and stuffed it into a blue sailor-suit, it would look a lot like the orderly behind the medic.

"Turn your ugly face to the wall, and shut up. How you ever made it through Camp Grant mystifies me. Even the marines..."

Because I didn't have any choice, bitch, he thought, bracing his hands against the mud-brick.

It had been Camp Grant or Inagua Island Detention Center and shovelling salt for five years. He'd thought the Marines would be a better choice, seeing as he was an Islander born; thought he'd be sure of promotion, maybe a commission. But it was always the same story, persecution wherever he turned. Nearly washed me out to Inagua anyway, the motherfuckers. He'd had to bust his balls just to end up a rifleman here in the ass-end of nowhere, after a reaming-out full of threats he knew were no bluff. If there hadn't been a war on, he would have ended up shoveling salt.

"Ah," the doctor said, after a probe brought another yelp out of him. "As I thought, nothing but a boil. There's one fat glistening boil for every Nantucketer in this God-forsaken country. Well, I can lance it for you and the fever'll be down in a day or two."

"Lance --" he began in alarm, catching the glint of the blade out of the corner of his eye.

"This will hurt you a lot more than it will hurt me," the doctor said cheerfully. "Hold still."

He did, while the cold sting of the metal made equally cold sweat start out on his torso. Call me a thief! Well, yes, he'd taken things now and then, but he needed them. Mother and father dead right after the Event, murder-suicide, foster-parents the Town assigned him doddering oldsters busy with four young Alban brats... what did they expect? A good dutiful student and then a good dutiful fisherman or potato-grower. Not Kyle Hook, no indeed. He remembered what life had been like in New York, clung to it when others let themselves forget. His father had told him he'd go to Princeton or Yale one day... Then the Event had come along and taken away his youth, the best years of his life; nothing but blister-hard work and school and endless boredom left.

He stifled a scream as the wound-ointment was irrigated into the opened boil like burning ice over the raw flesh. You couldn't let something like that show in the Corps; too many Alban bastards who'd despise you if you did, and life would be even more hellish without some respect. Stinking savages, but there were a lot of them -- and he had to kennel with them. The doctor applied a dressing and stepped back, wiping her scalpel with disinfectant.

"You'll be fit for duty in four days, Hook," she said. "You'd never have been unfit if you'd reported that immediately."

"Well, I couldn't see it there, could I? Ma'am," he said reasonably.

A few of the others laughed when the doctor had gone. Hook glared them into silence; he was a big young man, six feet, and strong in a lanky long-muscled fashion; few cared to meet his flat hazel eyes for long. Unarmed combat had been one of his better specialties; that and marksmanship had saved him from washing out after repeated 'marginal disciplinaries' on his Recruit Evaluation Forms. When everyone was quiet he swung back onto his pallet and lay on his stomach as he looked out the window again.

"Lucky... the boil wasn't on your ass... Hook," a voice said from the lower bunk, with a strong choppy Sun People accent. "Then everyone... would see... you're a half-assed... excuse for a Marine."

He leaned over, glaring at the sweat-wet face of the sick man below him. "Get off my case, Edraxsson!" he said. "You've been biting my ass for a year now, and I'm fucking sick of it, you hear?"

"That's because you're... a disgrace to my beloved... Corps," the noncom said. "But I'm going to make a Marine out of you... yet, Hook," he said, eyes beginning to wander and then brought back by an effort of will.

"Shut the fuck up, Edraxsson," Hook barked. "You're just a useless cripple here, not a fucking noncom, so shut up!"

Edraxsson smirked, despite the fever from his infected foot -- a pack-mule had stepped on it, and driven filth into the wound while he was out on patrol. Hook felt something spark behind his eyes, like a small white explosion, and reached for his webbing-belt where it hang on a wooden peg driven into the adobe wall.

Right across the face, he thought. That'll shut him up, I'll give him the buckle --

"Hey, heads up!" one of the other patients said, craning her head to get a better view through the narrow window and the thick mud-brick wall it pierced. "Something going on out there!"

Hook had a better view. The gatling was crewed up, and the Colonel leading it out at a gallop. His eyes went wider; something was up. When he heard the crackle of shots and then the ripping-canvass sound of the machine gun in operation, an icy trickle reached up from groin to stomach and cooled the rage there the way salt-spray would a candle-flame on deck.

@@@

Marian Alston-Kurlelo ate slowly, with conscious pleasure, in anticipation of the long voyage to come. She loved the sea, but there were things you just couldn't expect on salt water, and a good ham-and-eggs breakfast was one of them. They were due to leave Westhaven today; touch at Portsmouth Base, and then south with the Fleet. At least they'd be sailing out of Alba's late fall into the Mediterranean's mild winter...

There was even tumeric for the scrambled eggs, and acorn-fed Alban hams were better than anything Smithfield, Virginia, had ever turned out. They were going to be far foreign for a good long while soon, probably eating hardtack -- what the enlisted ranks called dog-biscuit, with reason -- and salt cod. She ignored the occasional courier who came into drop off a written message or consult in whispers with her hostess; the last thing a busy subordinate needed was their elbow joggled.

"What's the status on the Merrimac?" she asked, in a quiet moment.

"The dockside people were working all night in shifts, Commodore," Commandant Hendricksson said. "They're putting the finishing touches on stowage now, completing her provisioning."

That had had to wait until the cargo from Irondale was loaded, since stores needed to go on top to be accessible during the voyage south. Which they wouldn't, under tons of rolled steel plate, boiler, engine-parts and cannon.

"Talbott and the Severna Park finished their loading yesterday, so that's six hundred tons of coal along with it -- yah, should be ample."

Alston nodded, calculations running through her head. "Plenty, if we whip the coal ashore and send the ships back for a second load as soon as we're set up," she said. "Very good work, Greta."

Hendricksson nodded; she was a tall fair woman, in her late thirties now, built with a matronly solidity and usually showing a calm, stolid reliability. "It may not be spectacular, but we do get things done here," she said.

The Commodore inclined her head. The ex-Minnesotan had been an officer on Eagle before the Event. She didn't have quite the touch of the buccaneer you needed for ship command in this era, more of a routiner. Thoroughly brave, of course. She'd been one of the commando of five who went with Alston into the Olmec city-fort of San Lorenzo in the Year One, when Martha Cofflin had been kidnapped and taken south by Lisketter's band of Save the Noble Native American imbeciles. At least, San Lorenzo was what the archaeologists would have called it, in a history where its lords hadn't sacrificed most of Lisketter's crew to the Jaguar God, and where it wasn't burnt and abandoned after the Islander punitive expedition and the unintentional plague of mumps that followed. The jungle was growing back over the temple-mounds and giant stone heads now, though the other Olmec centers were flourishing.

She and Greta and Swindapa had reminisced about that night-raid among the burning temples and palaces over a drink or three the night before.

Martha's back in Nantucket Town... Pulakis is farming on Long Island, Alonski drowned on that fishing boat, poor bastard... And Greta's been in charge here since the Alban War. Hasn't even been back to the Island more than a couple of times.

She'd done well, though; it was a post that suited a lover of schedules and lists and proceedures, sometimes for their own sakes. Her husband was a civil engineer of like outlook, out since the crack of dawn supervising the laying of a new water-main.

"In fact, you've been doing a damned good job here overall," Alston went on, and Hendricksson glowed. The Commodore didn't give praise lightly.

They were breakfasting in the Commandant's residence. Fort Pentagon was garrison and civil headquarters here in Westhaven. The commander's house was inside it, built around a courtyard of its own, mostly cobbled, but with a small rose-garden and a wooden jungle-gymn set amid grass with trampled bare spots here and there. A groom lead a horse by, sparrows hopped about picking oats from the cracks between stones, someone went through the courtyard gate with a basket of laundry on her hip and laughed with a Marine who'd leaned his rifle against a wall to offer her a hand. This kitchen looked over the yard, flooded with light from the big south-facing windows; it had a pleasant austerity of flagstones and scrubbed oak, stone counter-tops and big cast-iron stove from Irondale. Pans and dishes were racked on the walls, sacks of onions hung from the rafters with bundls of herbs, and the ham stood in carved pink glory near the big black frying-pan. The air smelled of sea and cooking.

Swindapa looked up from where she'd been dandling the Commandant's youngest, a one-year-old. "I'll go see about getting our dunnage and files down to the ship, then," she said, handing the toddler back to the housekeeper; it gurgled and stretched chubby arms at her, and she paused to give it a kiss on the nose. "It won't be in the way, now. And I can check that the briefing papers are ready, and get the requisition chits from the Pacific Bank people."

"Thanks, 'dapa," Marian said. "I had some stuff with the armorer, too -- see to it, would you, sugar?"

Her Python, specifically; her katana and wasikashi she looked after herself, but something had been rattling in the pistol last time she had it on the firing range. Goin' to need that, she thought, with grim resignation. One of the better things about the Republic's miniature armed forces was that it wasn't practical to command from behind, and she disliked sending people into danger she didn't share even more than she hated combat. You wanted your tools in good shape when your life depended on them, and Westhaven had a first-rate firearms man, trained at Seahaven Engineering back on the Island.

"Let's go take a look at things in general," she went on, throwing down her napkin.

She and Hendricksson went out the front, returning the salutes of the Marine sentries, then up the brick staircase to the gateside bastions and above that to the grass-grown roof of the gun-gallery and the small paved stand around the flagpole; the Stars and Stripes flapped above them in the brisk onshore breeze. Fort Pentagon's walls were sloping turf above a brick retaining wall and dry moat, and the fall wildflowers that starred them contrasted oddly with the black snouts of the cannon. She'd put the fort in on the highest ground available on the south bank, and it gave a good view.

From here she could see the whole stretch of the docks along the Avon's south bank, a dozen long rectangles stretching out into the river. Low tide left a stretch of smelly black mud between the corniche roadway with its log seawall and the deeper water where the ships rested. It also left the great timbers of the inner sections of wharf exposed, black with pitch and trailing disconsolate green weed, overgrown with mussels and barnacles. Gull-wings made a white storm out over the blue-green water, stooping and diving; one let an oyster fall not far away, then flapped down to plunder the broken shell. Some of the ships were only the tips of masts over the oak planking of the warehouses stretching upstream; the wood was weathered brown near here, rawly fresh further away. Oats poured in a yellow-white stream from a grain-elevator into the hold of an Islander barque as they watched, and workers with kerchiefs across their faces toiled knee-deep in the flood to spread it evenly with long-handled rakes.

"It's like watching a stop-motion film, every time we visit here," Alston said quietly.

"Damned right, Commodore," Greta said. "Even living here, it's almost like that for me -- like waking up in the woods and finding a fairy-ring of mushrooms."

Out in the blue-green waters was a lighthouse on a rocky little island with white water foaming at its base, built of concrete at vast expense. A big metal windmill whirled atop it, doing duty as a wind-sock and charging banks of lead-acid batteries in the structure below, hand-made copies of pre-Event models from trucks. Inland from the docks was a checkerboard of tree-lined streets and squares with small green parks, shading out quickly into truck-gardens and farms and round huts; she'd based the design on the original street-plan of Savannah, Georgia. The public buildings were grouped around a larger central square, mostly in reddish sandstone or brick; a modest Ecumenical Christian cathedral -- this had been the first bishopric off the Island -- the Town Hall, half a dozen others. Between there and the docks were workshops, small factories, sailors' dosshouses and a tangle of service trades.

Form followed function; between them Bronze Age peasants and late-twentieth-century Americans from a high-end resort community had managed to spontaneously recreate most of the features of a classic North Atlantic port-town. In many ways it wasn't all that different from Boston or Bristol in their Georgian glory days.

Alston chuckled quietly at a memory; those functional features included a fair number of hookers. Until she actually saw it -- and went up and asked one of them -- Swindapa had thought her partner was pulling her leg about that. Like most Fiernans, she found the whole concept of prostitution unspeakably, wierdly funny in a creepy sort of way; as she put it, it was like paying someone to have dinner with you.

All in all Marian Alston-Kurleleo liked Westhaven, though, more than any of the other outports of the Republic. Fogarty's Cove, for instance, tended to be a little too consciously the haunt of bold pioneers, given to hitching their belts, spitting and noting the crops look purty good this year, ayup. The older ones were probably modelling themselves on fragmentary second-hand memories of Last of the Mohicans and Frontierland, and it was contagious.

"How's morale?" she said. "The civilian population, particularly." Most of whom weren't Nantucketers, or naturalized for that matter. Westhaven was under Islander law and had a Town Meeting of its own, but the situation was a bit irregular, constitutionally speaking.

"Excellent, so far," Hendricksson replied. "Those posters Arnstein's Foreign Affairs people sent over really whipped up feeling. I had to have our resident Tartessians put under guard for their own protection."

Alston nodded impassively, hinding an inward wince. There were times when she felt... not exacty guilty... more like uneasy... about some of the things they'd been forced to introduce to this era.

Potatoes are fine, antiseptic childbirth is wonderful, democracy and womens' rights are excellent. I'm not so sure about the levee en masse, the Supreme General Staff and systematic propaganda, she thought.

"I'm surprised they were quite so effective," Hendricksson mused. "I mean, yah, yah, they were all true, but it was pretty blatant stuff. Maybe because they didn't grow up with TV commercials?"

"Mmmm-hmmmm. People here aren't... immunized," Alston said.

It wasn't that the folk of this era were inherently gentler than those of the Twentieth; what they didn't have was the accumulated experience and examples and recorded thought of...

Alexander, Sun Tzu, Caesar Augustus, Han Fei-Tze and the Legalists, Shi-Huang-Ti the First Emperor, Frederick II, Ieyesau Togakawa, Machiavelli, Elizabeth the First, Maurice of Nassau, Shaka Senzagakhona of the Zulu, Frederick the Great, Timur-I-Leng, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Marx, Claustewitz, Mao, Molkte, Bismarck, Uthman dan Fodio, Nyguen Giap, Lenin... and a lot more, Alston thought. War and politics are technologies too. They evolve, in their Lamarkian fashion.

She remembered how amazed she'd been to find that the Romans had no real concept of intelligence work -- it just didn't occur to them to keep contact with an enemy, or set up a network of scouts and spies and information-analysts. There were a thousand examples like that...

"Good," she said aloud, putting a hand on Hendricksson's shoulder for a moment. "Gerta, this whole campaign depends on Westhaven. I can't operate in the Straits of Gibraltar with a logistics train stretching all the way back to Nantucket Town. Portsmouth Base doesn't have the facilities or the hinterland to supply the fleet."

Hendricksson nodded in her turn. "Right, there aren't enough ships to run this from home," she said. "The salt beef and dog-biscuit will keep coming, Commodore, and the powder and shot." Then she shrugged. "Everything takes longer and costs more, yah?"

"You said it, woman." Alston smiled crookedly. The makeshifts they had to use were so damned frustrating at times. On the other hand, she thought snidely, the squids always got the fancy stuff up in the 20th; the Coast Guard got used to hand-me-downs and making do.

"We'll manage here," Hendricksson repeated.

"Excellent, but keep alert." Their eyes both went up for a moment to the orca shape of the observation balloon that floated over the town on the end of its long tether. "Isketerol isn't afraid to gamble. That attack on Nantucket in the spring was a bold one... and just between me 'n thee, Greta, it came far too close to success for comfort. A little less warning, or if we hadn't had the Farragut nearly ready to go, or if the weather hadn't turned wet and drenched their flintlocks -- it would have hurt us much more badly. I wouldn't put it past him to try something else, particularly if he's desperate."

"We'll manage here," Hendricksson repeated, her face taking on a bulldog look as she glanced around the town whose building had been her lifework. Marian recognized it; people got attached to what they made themselves.

She sighed; now she had to go tell the captain of the Merrimac what they had in mind for his ship. "Speaking of which, now I've got to go and give Mr. Clammp the bad news"

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Copyright © 1999 -- 2000 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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