Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

 

On the Oceans of Eternity

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

 


CHAPTER NINE:

 

"Why fire?" Tidtaway said suddenly, pointing to the columns of smoke rising from the settlement; he'd been hanging back, listening intently, but Peter Giernas had no idea how much he'd followed.

"Fire to burn out sickness," he said, and the Indian nodded.

An hour after he'd burnt the dead village the expedition crouched by a fire on the ridge above. Dark smoke rose into the air from the lovely valley, and Peter Giernas shivered again as he thought of what the flames fed upon.

"Death like you can't imagine," he said. "Men, women, children... death."

"You've seen it before?" Jaditwara asked quietly.

"Ayup, back east, among the Sea-Land tribes, the Lekkansu and their kin. 'flu, in the Year Two -- chickenpox the next year, and again the year after." He shivered again, hugging his shoulders. The soft leather of his second hunting shirt crinkled under his fingers. "I wasn't there when the measles hit, thank Christ."

That plague had travelled from band to band as far as the Great Lakes and Florida. His head came up, and his eyes caught Sue's:

"This didn't look like any of them, though. Some of the bodies were pretty fresh."

He described the marks, the red pustulent sores, skin and flesh peeling away in layers where matter had glued it to the sleeping-mats beneath the sick and those had tossed and writhed in the delerium of high fever - and probably of thirst, for there had been none to tend the last of the dying. From the looks, everyone had crowded in around the sick to comfort them, at first; most locals had that custom. Before the Event this had been a continent without much in the way of epidemic disease. Some VD, yes, and plenty of arthritis and whatnot, but not contagious fevers.

"That's not measles or chickenpox," Sue said quietly. She'd had some training, and was the closest thing they had to a doctor since Henry Morris decided to stay with the Cloud Shadow people after his leg healed. "I think... Pete, I think that was smallpox."

Giernas nodded, raised his eyes to meet Spring Indigo's; they were huge pools of darkness holding a terror controlled by an iron will. She hugged her child against the breast he fed from.

"I told you a little," he said. "About how our diseases can be so deadly to the people of these lands."

She nodded. "But husband... you said there were medicines to protect our son?" she said softly.

"And you, honey. There are in Nantucket. Not here."

They had vaccines for chickenpox and measles now, and there hadn't been more outbreaks of influenza since the Year Three; the doctors said the population wasn't big enough to keep it going, and that new strains had mostly come from Asia before the Event anyway. That didn't help people outside the regular Islander contact-points much, but he'd get Spring Indigo and Jared done as soon as they Nantucket Town, and they ought to be all right -- especially if they settled off-Island, which was what he'd planned. He'd lived in Providence Base on the mainland since it was established, anyway, right after the Event. Most of his family worked in the sawmills there.

And nobody has smallpox on Nantucket, for Christ's sake! Nobody we've run into, either. That we know of. One thing that this trip had driven home was how little they knew, though. The ones who'd set out from the Island were vaccinated; otherwise they might have been nearly as vulnerable as the locals.

"Not everyone would have died," Sue said. "Ninety percent, maybe, if they were unlucky, from what the books said and what we've seen on the mainland near Nantucket. But not everybody."

Giernas nodded; that was the worst of it. In a virgin-field epidemic a lot of people would be too weak to move within hours, but some would be strong enough to travel for a week or so, and at least a few would take the disease but recover. Those who could run would have, run to neighbors and kinfolk, and the same thing would happen there, and -

And half the humans living west of the Sierras could die in the next six months. Maybe three-quarters or more. Nor was that all.

"There's that hoof-print," he said.

"Your people?" Tidtaway asked, his face unreadable.

"No." Giernas shook his head emphatically. "No, I know all the outposts of our folk and there are none near here... bringing horses here by ship would be hard. Not worth it for a brief visit, and I don't think our ships have even done that."

The Islanders looked at each other. Not likely to be William Walker's men, for which they all thanked their various Gods, not while he was pinned in the Mediteranean. Isketerol's would be bad enough...

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"Well, hell," Peter Giernas muttered very softly to himself, in the topmost branch of the valley oak that would support his two hundred pounds.

Valley oak ran to big branches; he was sixty feet up, lying on his belly with his long legs wound around the limb below him, screened behind a flickering barrier of green leaves. That was distracting while he peered through the binoculars, but much safer. He'd also taken care with the sun angles to make sure the lenses wouldn't flash and betray him. Now he handed the instrument up to Jaditwara, who could get a good deal further up. She took them silently, sweat running down her face from the fur cap that covered her buttercup-colored hair, something that nobody would think was a local Indian's if they saw it through a telescope. The Fiernan woman raised them to her eyes, hand moving slightly as she scanned, then let them drop to hang on her chest, made a correction to the drawing on the big pad before her, repeated the process with exquisite care.

Giernas stared in the same direction, although without the glasses his target was simply a dark blur in the distance, north beyond the river in the middle distance. It was the only break in the dead-flat plain ahead, until the abrupt volcanic pimple of Sutter's Buttes ten miles nortwestward, and unlike those it was manmade. Every detail was burned into his memory.

The Tartessian settlement sat north of the point where the Yuba river flowed down from the mountains and joined the Feather. Everything looked normal on this side of the river. The alienness started on the other shore. Furthest out from the settlement were herds of sheep, cattle, horses, and sounders of swine rooting around in the tule-reed marsh by the water's edge. Mounted herdsmen directed locals on foot, and he could see enough of the riders to know that they were white men. The fort-town stood well back from the river, on a natural levee. Not very big, a couple of acres surrounded by a ditch full of sharpened spikes, a turf-sided earth wall twenty feet or so high, with corner bastions of squared logs snouting cannon -- twelve-pounders, he thought, though it was hard to be precise. There might well be rocket-launchers and mortars inside, of course. There was certainly a wooden palisade all around atop the wall, black-oak logs tightly placed and trimmed to points, about twenty feet tall -- probably the butts of the trunks were rammed seven or eight feet deep, with bracing and a fighting-platform behind. He could see an occasional flash of metal from along the row of sharp points. Soldiers with Westley-Richards rifles like his.

All in all not very formidable, if there were any way for the Republic's armed forces to get at it, which at present there wasn't. Even in peacetime getting an expedition here would be a stone bitch, assuming you could get the Meeting to put up the money.

Against locals, this fortlet would be as invulnerable as steel and concrete with electrified wire and machine-guns, and it looked formidably permanent. As if to emphasize the fact, cultivated fields surrounded it, wheat and barley waist-high in the warm May sun, only a month from harvest; corn coming along well, alfalfa, vegetable plots, flax, a low scrubby bush that he thought might be cotton. And small orchards; olive, fig, pomegranite, citrus, peach, pear, cherry, walnuts, almonds. The vineyards were showing long green shoots; they looked a little odd, goblet-trained rather than on T-stakes in the Islander manner.

Hmmm. The biggest of those fruit trees, I'd say they were seven, eight years along, judging by ones I've seen back home. But could the Tartessians have done this in the Year Three? Maybe, if they used the Yare and started right after Isketerol's takeover, but that would tie everything up for them... no, wait a minute. This is a lot warmer climate than back home; trees grow faster if you water them. Cut that estimate in half... yeah, they could managed it then, sure.

Unlike the Republic, Tartessos wasn't short of people, just people with the more complex of the new skills. The major cost for this would be tying up ships and navigators.

Hmmm. Lessee... The herds hadn't been very numerous, except for the pigs, which bred like flies; the sheep were in between. So, ship in young pregnant mares and cows and ewes, a few sows, with only a bull and a stallion and ram or two --

Ayup. Say eighty in the first batch, a medium-sized square-rigger craft could do that, allowing for wastage. Two round trips in the first year, drop down to the Canaries and across, then down the trades, and allowing for a hard time around the Horn -- three trips if you had good luck running your westing down. That would give you useful locally-reared numbers of horses ready to be broken to the saddle in four or five years. If you bred all the mares as soon as possible, the herd would grow by a quarter to a third every year. Likewise, make steers of all the male cattle to use as oxen -- no need to eat any to start with in this natural stockyard -- and in six years... In a generation, they'd have more than they could use; the animals would swarm like escaped honeybees in slow motion, even with cougar and bear and wolf to deal with. Geometric progression started slow, but the curve went up fast.

So let's see, two hundred, mebbe three hundred acres under cultivation all up. Enough to support three hundred people say, with hunting and fishing as well.

Or to produce a surplus if there were less, but the Tartessians most certainly hadn't come this far for food or farmland, no matter how wonderful. They had plenty of that closer to home, where it could do them some good. Apart from sticking a thumb in the eye of the much-resented Cofflin Doctrine, which banned outsiders from trading or making settlements in the Western Hemisphere without the Republic's leave, what point was there in all this?

Fact is, I don't know yet, he thought ruefully. Decision: We'll have to do some scouting and sneaking and key-hole listening find out. Gathering information was a Ranger's job.

"Jaditwara," he called softly. "I don't see any real buildings outside the wall -- do you?"

"Nothing but some sheds, haystacks, windmill pumps, that sort of thing," she replied. "And the boatyard by the water."

That meant everyone came back inside the walls at night. There was a jetty on the river, a mill with an undershot wheel and a boat-shed, with smaller craft and a big two-masted flat-bottomed sailing barge that looked to be about eighty, maybe a hundred tons burden. Supplies must come in through San Francisco bay, or more likely the barge took stuff out there, after a ship's boat had come upriver to let them know, and came back with the return load. A minimum inbound cargo, metals and manufactures, the base as self-sufficient as possible. That was crafty. Even if a ship was caught out, there would be no evidence of anything but a casual visit.

"How many --"

"Two hundred sixty-three horses, with one hundred seven two years old or older. Four hundred sixty-two cattle. I couldn't get all the sheep or swine, they're too small at this range. Lots of them, though."

"Ah."

Jaditwara hadn't had the full Grandmother stargazer-and-mythos training, but she'd done enough that her ability to instantly count things at a distance never failed to startle him. For that matter, she'd memorized his journal and Sue's, sort of a living backup system, and she had a couple of reference books stored in that long shapely skull.

"Pete," the Fiernan's soft sing-song voice went on. "You notice the flagpole?"

"Hard to miss," Giernas said. "Two hundred feet if it's an inch."

"One hundred ninety-eight," Jaditwara said absently, touching her fingers together briefly in the Counting Chant. "Why so large?"

"'Mine's bigger than yours'," he guessed.

Tartessians thought that way, from what he'd heard of them and the few he'd met. The flagpole was made out of a whole old-growth Ponderosa pine, for starters -- that was a big piece of timber to get down from the mountains, just for swank. The flag with the Tartessian mountain in silver on green looked absurdly small at its top. He didn't envy anyone who had to climb up the ladder of crosspieces to fix a jammed pulley. There was a platform around the top just below the flag, too. Hmmmm. It would make a crackerjack lookout post.

They dropped down the sloping trunk. Perks rose from concealment and came over, serious with the emotions he smelled on the humans. Peter Giernas took his rifle in his right hand and began to trot, careful to keep tree-trunks between him and the river, although his buckskins would fade into the vegetation and all the metal on him was carefully browned. Once there was a swell of ground between him and the enemy he picked up the pace -- lope a hundred yards, walk a hundred. The horses and the rest of their party were with the locals they'd met ten miles away; two hours travel, without pushing it harder than was sensible.

Then he'd have to figure out what the hell to do. He hoped some of the others had an idea.

@@@

"This is frustrating as hell," Sue Chau said.

Giernas nodded. The dark somber face of the chief stared back at him out of the night, from across the low embers of the oak fire. The local leader was short and lean and walnut-colored, with silver in the black hair gathered up on the top of his head through a rawhide circle; he was either called Chief Antelope, or was chief of the Antelope clan. Or "big man", "important person" might be more accurate than chief... Tatoo-marks streaked his cheeks beneath a thin, whispy black beard; four more bars marked his chin; bear teeth were stuck through pierced ears, and a half-moon ornament of polished abalone shell hung from his nose. He was quite naked save for a rabbitskin cloak thrown around his shoulders, a belt, a charm that looked like a double-headed penis on a thong, and several necklaces of beautifully made shell beads. An atlatl and bundle of obsidian-headed darts lay at his feet.

Tidtaway spoke a little of the chief's language; about as much as he did English. He'd been exposed to it far more often, but only in brief spells years apart, as opposed to the continuous months with the expedition. And the chief spoke Tartessian, a little; so did Jaditwara... also a little. Sue had made the most progress over the winter with Tidtaway's dialect, which by happenstance was a tonal language like the Cantonese she half-remembered from her father's efforts to teach. Nobody was talking their native tongue, and sometimes they had to go from one badly-learned foreign language through another to a third. That meant mistakes, painful misunderstandings, patient endless repetition, and no chance of conveying anything subtle or abstract without an ordeal like negotiating a barbed-wire maze blindfolded.

"I think he understands that we're not Tartessians," Sue said.

Giernas sighed and worked his fingers into the deep ruff around Perk's neck. The dog was content enough, or as content as he could be around strange-smelling outsiders; he gnawed at a rack of grilled elk-ribs that his master had finished, crunching the hard bones like candy-cane in his massive jaws but keeping a sharp ear cocked for the start of trouble. Sparks from three campfires drifted up towards the branches of trees whose leaves were a flickering ruddiness above. Through them the stars burned many and bright in the clear dry air, like a frosted band across the sky.

"OK, then does he understand that we can protect him from the smallpox?" Giernas said. I hope, he added to himself.

Sue, Jaditwara and Tidtaway went to work again, hands moving, sometimes looking as if they were trying to throttle or pound comprehension out of the air.

"I'm not sure," Sue said at last. The others seconded her. "I'm really not sure that I got the idea of the percentage risk of the innoculation process across. I do know he's disappointed that we can't cure the ones already sick."

He nodded wearily. You couldn't get idea of probabilities over, sometimes -- some peoples just didn't have the concept, because they didn't believe anything happened by chance; if someone got sick it was the will of malignant spirits, or witchcraft, or the evil eye. Eddie'd thought that way as a kid; he knew better consciously these days, but deep down his gut didn't think that there was such a thing as coincidence. It made him act strangely now and then, but he was sweet reason itself compared to a raw local.

The chief broke in with an impassioned speech, switching from his own language to Tartessian now and then. Tidtaway and Jaditwara translated, sometimes overstepping each other; Jaditwara's sing-song Fiernan accent grew much stronger as she drew on words learned long before she came to the Island. Giernas sighed and settled in to a job of mental cut-and-paste, uneasily aware that his reconstruction might be missing great chunks and just plain wrong here and there.

"The Taratusus came seven summers ago this spring."

God, Year Four, they got an early start, Giernas thought. Give that bastard Isketerol his due, he's a planner. It took malignant forethought, to start up something like this when Tartessos was just getting its first home-built three-masters and using its new guns to settle old scores with the neighbors. Or maybe he thought of it as long-term insurance... And he did have all those books. And mebbe Walker gave him the idea.

"At first they were very few. They gave wonderful things --" he touched an iron knife at his belt "-- and they helped my people in their feud with the Sairotse folk who dwell downstream. All they asked in return was help with hunting, some food, and a few basketfuls of the heavy rock from the streams that they showed us how to find."

He touched his necklace, which had rough-shaped gold nuggets between the abalone beads, and continued: "They killed many of the Sairotse men with their death-sticks and thunder-making logs. They took all the others and made them dig their ditch and build their wall, cut timber, haul earth and wood to build their great houses, or took them downriver to dig the red rock from the hills near the sea. They took the women of the Sairotse, but few as wives -- instead they make them work like their Big Dogs."

Horses, Giernas translated to himself. It wasn't the first time they'd run into that name, among peoples whose only domestic animal was canine.

"We didn't like all that. We fought the Sairotse sometimes, yes, but also they were our marriage-kin. It's a bad thing that they are all gone, a whole tribe, a very bad thing. And so the spirits became angry, we knew that because there were fevers and sickness around the big houses. More and more of the strangers came -- now they are more than all the people of my Nargenturuk clan. They rip up the ground to plant their eating grass without asking our leave. They trade like misers, making us bring more and more heavy rock for less and less; they make us bring captives of other tribes, to dig the red rock and burn it - those get the shaking sickness and die. Last year they told all the peoples here that we must bring the heavy rock, and young men and women, and furs, many other things, for nothing, or they would destroy us!"

"Red rock?" Giernas asked.

"Cinnabar," Jaditwara said, after searching her memory for a moment. "Mercury ore." She frowned. "The Tartessians had their own mine for that, we bought it from them before the war, but I think I heard it was damaged in a revolt just after they got it going -- I know the price they asked for it went, how do you say, sky-high. The people who live near it are very fierce. The Inquirer & Mirror had an article about it. They thought Walker was also buying it from Isketerol."

"What's mercury good for?"

"Thermometers, barometers. Anti-fouling paint for the hulls of ships. Tanning furs. Medicines. For refining many ores, silver especially. Some chemical things I don't understand. And... explosives. Blasting caps, percussion caps for guns."

"There's a deposit near... San Jose, I think was the name," Sue put in. "Just south of the big bay."

Giernas grunted. Ok. That's why they came this far. And the gold. Lots of silver in Iberia, but not much gold. The chieftain waited out their interchange and continued:

"And now they have brought this sickness on us. They boast that only they can halt it, by a magic of their cows." He used the Tartessian word for the unfamiliar animal. "They say it shows their spirit-allies are stronger than ours, their -- gods is the word?"

"Vaccination," Sue murmured.

"And they say they will sweep aside any who will not be their dogs. Our people who go to the big houses to trade now are beaten sometimes, kicked aside like dirt. They give us the water-of-dreams, then laugh when we drink it and act foolishly, when we give all our trade goods for another flask. When they think we do not hear, the outlanders boast that one day they will sweep aside all the peoples of this land, take it for their own! And they have some magic, that their women bear many children and all live, so they grow fast even without new ones landing from their great canoes with clouds to push them." He shook his head. "I do not understand this magic. But I can see that soon they will be too strong for us, even if all the peoples united against them."

Giernas nodded sympathetically; he did understand, from Ranger training - dealing with the mainland locals was a big part of his corps' business. Hunter-gatherers like these usually had ways of keeping their birth-rates low -- low by the standards of the ancient world, of course. They had to, since a woman couldn't handle more than one child too young to walk; not when she had to hunt edible plants every day, and move camp too, and carry gear besides. So they made sure she had three or four years between kids; via a low-fat diet that lowered fertility, prolonged breast-feeding that did the same, taboos on sex for nursing mothers, sometimes abortion or infanticide, or a lot of kids just plain died of one thing or another in the hungry parts of the year.

The Tartessians had been peasant farmers for thousands of years. They bred a lot faster, since they lived in settled villages. Before the Event they'd also died a lot faster than hunters, particularly their children. From underfeeding, and from the diseases that came from crowding people together in one place when you didn't know about germs. Now they had lots of food, and pretty good preventative medicine, thanks to King Isketerol and Queen Rosita, who'd been Registered Nurse Rosita Menendez before the Event. Not many of their women died of childbed fever any more, and ninety percent of their kids were going to live to have kids of their own. When the average woman had eight or nine, that added up pretty damned fast. The same thing was happening in Alba, and in the Republic. Even if they didn't get any more people from their homeland, the Tartessian settlement here in California could double in numbers every twenty years, while the locals declined.

"Tell him again that we can do something about the smallpox," Giernas said.

The chief grunted, thought for several minutes in stoney silence, absently scratching at his head. Giernas sighed mentally; there would be another long siege against lice. What was the old joke? At least our fleas and nits will really mourn the passing of the human race...

"Will you fight for us?" the chief asked.

"Pete, I don't think we've got any choice," Sue said. "Unless we're going to turn around and run like hell, right now."

Giernas swallowed. Leaving most of the people in this part of the continent to die off, and a nest of Tartessians here where nobody suspects. We might not make it back to tell anyone, either. He looked over to where his wife and child sat.

"Honey?" he said softly. "What do you want to do?"

Spring Indigo gripped her son tightly, but her voice was steady. "The Tartessians are Eagle People enemies. How could I not stand beside my man, as my sister says?" A smile: "I know you will fight with a strong heart, Pete."

Giernas nodded. A Cloud Shadow woman adopted her husband's feuds as her own; and Spring Indigo was just plain brave besides. Throw that into the scale, then. He just plain didn't want to look into those dark lioness eyes and say he was going to skedaddle.

"Eddie?" he asked; no doubt there.

"I say fight, if there's anything we can do." A shrug and a grin: "They've got to have more gold in that fort than we can carry. You're the boss here, though."

Hmmm. Eddie's shed a lot of that bull-at-a-gate berserker stuff. Prudence rubbed off, evidently.

"Jaddi?"

The Fiernan-born girl nodded crisply. "Fight," she said. "It is evil, what they do here. I don't want Moon Woman to turn away from me when I ride the Swan."

Giernas sighed. "OK, let's see what we can do. For starters, we have to make Spring Indigo and young Jared safe." As safe as we can, gnawed at him.

The chief spoke. Sue and Jaditwara and Tidtaway consulted.

"He says the Tartessians come to collect their tribute soon, so we have to make up our minds, or some tribes at least will be their dogs for the sake of the cow-medicine they bring with them."

Giernas started to nod, then froze. A thought struck him, like the sun rising early over the low distant line of the Sierras to the east. Slowly, he began to grin.

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


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