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THE PROTECTOR'S WAR

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


CHAPTER TWO:

 

Larsdalen, Willamette Valley, Oregon

March 17th, 2007 AD/Change Year 9

—Gunpowder Day

 

"Sometimes you have to break heads," Michael Havel said.

"To be sure, Mike, that's the way of it in this wicked world," Juniper Mackenzie replied.

She gave him an urchin grin, and tossed back curls whose bright copper glinted in the fresh morning sun. More of the lilt and burble of her mother's people crept into her voice as she went on:

"But I'll be pointing out once more that it's cheaper to break them open from the inside. And they're of more use afterwards that way, sure. We'll find ways to tweak his nose, never fear, but this grand alliance you've been wanting won't happen soon."

Havel gave a snort of unwilling laughter. "Ah, the hell with it, Juney, I'd rather subvert the bastard than kill his grunts too. I just don't know if we can. Anyway, we've been talking politics for days. Now I've got some gunpowder to test."

The other visiting dignitaries formed up, in no particular order; Abbot Dmowski from Mt. Angel in his black Dominican robe, a group of self-appointed SCA nobility from just east of there, Finney and Jones from Corvallis and the University Council, a raggle-taggle of the smaller communities. He sighed and put on the helmet he'd carried tucked under one arm; it was a plain steel bowl with a riveted nasal strip in front, hinged cheek-guards and a leather-lined chainmail aventail behind to protect the neck. This particular one had a tanned bear's head mounted on it, the snarling muzzle shading his eyes. His wife Signe came up on his right side, ignoring Juniper's friendly nod. She flicked at the cape-like fall of fur that spread back from the bear-head, to settle it on his mailed shoulders. Even though he'd killed the bear himself—with a spear, less than a month after the Change—he still felt mildly ridiculous wearing it; it had been Signe's younger sister Astrid Larsson who came up with the idea.

The first of her crimes against common sense, he grumbled inwardly. But not the last.

The crowd below cheered at the sight of the ceremonial helm, and started chanting; some drew swords and waved them in the air to the beat of the words:

"Lord Bear! Lord Bear! Lord Bear!"

"You deserve it, Oh Lord Bear," Signe Havel said, smiling at his tightly-controlled embarrassment. "And so do I—I was shooting arrows into it while you shiskabobed its liver, remember? Sort of our first date..."

"I remember it better than I like," he said, with a smile that drew up one corner of his mouth.

He touched a finger to the scar that ran up across his forehead from the corner of his left eye; remembering the hoarse roaring that sprayed blood and saliva in his face, the blurring slap of the great paw and the glancing touch of one claw-tip, agony and black unconsciousness coming up to strike him like the ground itself.

Just an inch closer, and there'd've gone my face and eyes.

"Let's get on with it," he went on, his voice a little rougher, letting his left hand fall back to its natural position on the hilt of his backsword.

She put on a helmet that sported a crest of yellow horsehair from brow to nape, almost the same color as her own wheat-blond mane. An attendant handed her a small metal tray with half a dozen smoldering pine splints on it, and they stepped out. The skirts of their knee-length chain hauberks clashed musically against the steel splints of their shin-guards, and the plate of the vambraces on their forearms meet with a dull tink as they linked hands, his right to her left.

Their path led down the broad staircase which led from the upper garden to the great lawn where the ceremony would be held, between banks of Excell early lilac already showing a froth of lavender blossom; militia with sixteen-foot pikes lined the route, their mail shirts and kettle helmets polished for dignity's sake. The crowd was hundreds strong and good-natured, cheering as they saw the leaders, ready for the barbeque and games and entertainments that would follow throughout the day—it seemed a little odd that they'd turned the memorial day of humanity's worst disaster into a holiday, but things had turned out that way. It was a brilliant spring morning, the air washed to crystal by yesterday's rain, and cool.

Around sixty, he thought. Perfect.

The flowerbanks nearer the house were just starting to bloom, sheets of crocus gold and blue, rhododendrons like banks of cool fire in white and pink and purple around the tall oaks; he caught faint wafts of their scent, and the smell of crushed grass was strong and sweet, stronger than that of massed indifferently-clean human or the occasional tang of livestock and their byproducts. You could see clear across the Valley from up here in the Eola Hills, right over to the snowpeaks of the Cascades floating blue-and-white against the horizon, but the sunlight still had a trace of winter's pale glaze. If you distilled spring and poured it over a landscape like spray from a mountain river, this would be it.

All the same he was already sweating under the armor. Over the last nine years he'd gotten so used to its heat and constriction and weight he scarcely noticed it any more unless something called it to his attention; the gear he'd carried as a Marine back in the early 90's had been much heavier, and awkward to boot.

Trouble is, I'm being reminded.

Juniper Mackenzie looked indecently comfortable in her tartan kilt and saffron-dyed shirt of homespun linsey-woolsey, a brooch holding her plaid at the shoulder, a flat Scots bonnet on her head with a raven feather in a clasp shaped into the antlers-and-crescent-Moon sigil of the Clan. The Chief of the Mackenzies was six inches shorter than his five-eleven, a slender woman, perhaps a year or two older than Havel's mid-thirties. She had the long sharp-boned triangular face that often went with Scots-Irish ancestry, softened by an expression that seemed to bubble laughter even at rest. She'd told him once that the pale freckled complexion, green eyes and fox-red mane were from her mother, who'd been Irish plain and simple—born and raised on Achill Island off the west coast at that.

She smells better than I do, too, he thought; soap, clean female flesh, a herbal hair-wash of some sort and a hint of woodsmoke. Better than Signe right now too, for that matter.

Even with the leader's luxury of more than one gambeson, so that they could be switched off and washed occasionally, you never really got the old-socks-and-locker-room smell out of the thick quilting you wore under armor. Mingled with horse-sweat soaked into leather and the oil you rubbed on the metal of the armor to keep it free of rust, it was the smell of a trade; the trade of war in the Changed world.

He walked to the center of the stretch of grass; sheep kept it cropped now, not so neatly as it had been when this was a rich man's toy, Ken Larsson's summer place. The others dropped back; the troopers who stood to keep a circle cleared here were from the Bearkiller A-lister elite, armored as he was, their long single-edged swords drawn and points touching the grass before them. Sunlight flashed and glittered and broke from the honed edges as they flourished them upright in salute.

He approached the brass bowl that stood on a stone plinth; it was heaped with a gritty gray-black powder. A hush fell over the crowd, broken by the susurrus of breath, the voices of children running around on the fringes, somewhere the neigh of a horse. Birds went loud overhead—honking geese, tundra swans, V's of ducks heading north—and a red-tailed hawk's voice sounded an arrogant skree-skree-skree.

Signe offered her tray of pine-splints. Havel took one and waved it through the air until flame crackled, sending a scent of burning resin into the air along with a trail of black smoke.

Then he tossed it neatly into the bowl of gunpowder.

Fumphsssssss....

The powder burned slowly, black smoke drifting downwind with a stink of scorched sulfur. The flame flickered sullen red; an occasional burst of sparks made people skip back when clumps were tossed out of the bowl like spatters from hot cooking oil. There was none of the volcanic woosh it would have produced before the Change; the sharp fireworks smell was about the only familiar thing involved. When the sullen fire died, nothing was left but a lump of black ash; a gust of wind swept it out in feathery bits to scatter across grass and clothes and faces.

"Well, shit," Mike Havel murmured softly under his breath.

They did this every year on the anniversary of the Change, just to make formally and publicly sure that it hadn't reversed itself; it had grown into something of a public holiday, too—more in the nature of a wake than a celebration in the strict sense, but boisterous enough for all that.

The watching crowd sighed. Some of the adults—men and women who'd been adult that March day nine years ago—burst into tears; many more looked as if they'd like to cry. The children and youngsters were just excited at the official beginning of the holiday; to them the time before the Change was fading memories, or tales of wonders.

Though by now we wouldn't get the old world back even if the Change reversed itself, he thought grimly. Too many dead, too much wrecked and burned. And would we dare depend on those machines again, if we knew the whole thing could be taken away in an instant?

He felt a sudden surge of rage—at whomever, Whoever, or whatever had kicked the work of ages into wreck, and at the sheer unfairness of not even knowing why. Then he pushed the feeling aside with a practiced effort of will; brooding on it was a short route to madness. That hadn't killed as many as hunger and the plagues, but it came a close third, and a lot of the people still breathing weren't what you could call tightly wrapped.

"Sorry, no guns or cars or TV, folks," he said, making his voice cheerful. "Not this year of the Change, at least. But a pancake breakfast we can still manage. Let's go!"

 

@@@

 

"You're supposed to eat it, my heart, not smear it all over your face," Juniper Mackenzie said to her son; she spoke in Gaelic, as she often did with him, something to keep her mother's language alive a little longer.

Alive in Oregon, at least, she thought. On the other side of the world... who knows?

She suspected Ireland had done better than most places, uncrowded as it was and protected by the sea. And Achill island... it was likely lonely places in the Gaeltacht had done better still than Dublin, but who could tell for certain?

"Was it your face you put in the dish, instead of your fork? What would the Mother-of-All say, to see you wasting it so?" she went on, plying the cloth as the boy wiggled and squirmed.

She was only half-serious as she wiped sticky butter and syrup from around Rudi Mackenzie's mouth, but the serious half was there too. Nobody who'd lived through the Dying Time right after the Change would ever be entirely casual about food again. Some survivors were gluttons when they could be, more were compulsive hoarders, but hardly anyone took where the next meal was coming from lightly. Nobody decent took the work involved in producing food now lightly, either.

"The Lady? She'd laugh an' tell me to lick my fingers," Rudi said, also an Gaeilge, and did so.

Then he grinned an eight-year-old's grin at her, and stuck out his tongue. "So there."

"I expect She would," Juniper said. "And yes, you can go play."

The boy's smile grew dazzling, and Juniper felt her heart turn over as he threw his arms around her neck.

"Graim thu, maime!"

"I love you too, son of my heart. Scoot!"

She tousled his hair before he jumped off the bench and ran shouting to join an impromptu soccer game not far from where the trestle-tables stood on the great lawn, bare feet flashing and kilt flying—that and a Care Bears t-shirt were all he was wearing; most had a broader comfort range with temperatures these days, too. He had something of her pale coloring, though there was as much gold as red in the hair that fell in ringlets to his shoulders, and his were eyes gray-green. Feet and hands promised he'd have a tall man's height when he got his growth; right now he was all arms and legs. He was already agile as a young collie, though; vaulting across a friend's back and cartwheeling from sheer exuberance. Even in youth his face had a promise of jewel-cut handsomeness, square-jawed and straight-nosed, and a trace of the exotic—high cheekbones, a tilt to his eyes. Both were a legacy of his father's blood, east-Karelian Finn mingled with Norse and Swede and a dash of Ojibwa.

That was the problem, this last little while. Turn the bright hair raven-dark and he was his father's spitting image, minus a quarter-century. His actual blood-father, not her handfasted husband who'd died with so many others when the Change hit precisely nine years ago, caught in an airplane taking off from Eugene's airport. Young Rudi had been born nine months later, but this year it was finally unmistakably clear that he'd been conceived some time after Rudi Stern's life ended in flame.

Juniper and her party were sitting at the upper table, near Mike Havel and his—the Bearkillers were hosts here, and the Mackenzies honored guests and allies. She could see Signe Havel turn her head and follow Rudi with her eyes, and those eyes narrow, anger the hotter for her suspicion not being quite certain.

It's too bad, she thought as the younger woman turned to glare at her. And we were good friends before she realized. Perhaps we should have told her. I wanted to. Well, done is done.

In self-defense she loaded her plate with buckwheat pancakes studded with dried blueberries, slathered on applesauce and butter, added bacon on the side, and poured herself a big glass of rich Jersey milk. Then she dug in, making small-talk with her neighbors. She'd learned acting skills as a traveling musician before the Change, and more since; being a leader was mostly keeping up a show.

Signe Havel—nee Larsson—was a Nordic beauty in her mid twenties, tall and sleekly curved, her hair a golden fall and her features perfection, save for a slight nick in the straight nose and a corresponding scar on her cheek... and the small blue mark of an A-lister between her brows. Her own twin girls were playing with the pack, and a two-year-old son sat in a high chair not far away. She was younger than Juniper by just over a decade, but a power in the land nonetheless. Larsdalen had been her family's country home before the Change; her brother Eric was Mike's right-hand-man, and her father Kenneth his close advisor.

"Well, it's off to the clachan we'll be going, then," Juniper said cheerfully, pushing the plate away after she mopped it with a piece of pancake and swallowed that. "It's been grand guesting here, Mike, and meeting you ladies and gentlemen, but there's much to do at home."

Mike frowned in disappointment and his wife hid a smile.

Mike, you are a darling man, strong and handsome as the dawn, and clever in a heavy-footed male way, and I wouldn't regret that lovely night even if it hadn't given me Rudi... but it's surprised I am Signe hasn't knifed you. Yet, Juniper thought, and went on aloud, wiping her fingers on the napkin:

"Ah, there's some good in every turn of fate. Now calories are what keep you alive, not what make you fat."

"We all have things to talk about," Mike said, waving a hand to the others at the head table. "We're not finished yet, Juney."

You've gotten used to telling people what to do, Mike, she didn't say aloud. Now when you have to persuade them you should remember there's a time to talk, and a time to stop hammering and let the arguments filter through on their own.

Besides the Bearkillers and Mackenzies, most of the other Willamette communities had envoys sitting along the high table. There was her friend Luther Finney, a whipcord-tough old man who'd been a farmer near the town of Corvallis and still was—and sat on the University Committee as well, since the Ag faculty of Oregon's Moo U had ended up taking over that area. Captain Jones of the University's militia, too. A scattering from the smaller groups south of the empty zone around the ruins of Eugene; some of those were Witch-folk like her clan, some the saner type of survivalist, some just survivors. The abbot of the warrior monks of Mt. Angel was wearing armor under his brown Benedictine robe at table—presumably to mortify the flesh; they'd gotten rather strange there. Nobody from further north than that; the abbey's lands were a thumb poked into the Protectorate, and the Protector was no man's friend.

"We've had three days of talk and we've all agreed to wait and see," Juniper replied. Much to your displeasure, Mike, and a bit to mine, but the Corvallis people aren't coming 'round this month; I think Abbot Dmwoski scared them green with his talk of a Crusade to crush Evil. "He's not going to attack tomorrow, is he now?"

Unwillingly, Mike Havel shook his head. "Nah, he's too cautious," he said. "But—"

"But we Mackenzies need to prepare for Ostara."

That argument was true—the spring equinox festival came very soon—and had the additional merit of being religious and hence unanswerable. Goodbyes were made, horses rounded up—so was a protesting Rudi—and the Mackenzies mounted, a double-twelve of them not including her son on his pony.

Mom? her daughter signed.

My heart? Juniper replied.

Eilir Mackenzie had been born long before the Change; fourteen years before, to be precise, and on the day of Ostara, the festival of the vernal equinox in the Old Religion. Not that that had meant anything to the teenage single mother Juniper had been then; she'd been a nominal Catholic then, and only started to study the Craft after the fight to keep her child. That hadn't been made any easier by the daughter being deaf.

Now she's twenty-three herself! Juniper thought, bemused. Well, twenty-three in four days. How swift the Wheel spins!

Astrid wants to come along, Eilir signed. And Reuben—it's Ranger business. That OK?

Juniper hid a sigh. The two girls had come up with the Rangers the year after the Change, and she'd thought it an excuse to play-act with their friends, an equivalent of the Scouts. Maybe it had been, then, but they hadn't grown out of it. She looked over the heads of the crowd and raised a brow to Mike; he nodded. Astrid Larsson was his sister-in-law, for all that she'd been adopted as an honorary Mackenzie years ago, and Reuben one of his people.

Eilir waited, taller than her mother and black-haired, but with the same green eyes, straight-featured face and pale freckled skin; slender and strong, able to outrun a deer and ride like Epona Herself and dance the night through. Back in high school her blood-father had been Juniper's first lover, if you could call it that—the back seat of a Toyota had been involved, just the once. He'd turned out to be a faithless fink as well, but at least Eilir had gotten the good points of his splendid athlete's body and his charm, with a lot more character; Juniper flattered herself she'd supplied some of that.

To be sure, Juniper went on. I'll be as glad of Astrid's company as any of her friends, and Reuben is a good lad.

Astrid had spent a good part of her time among the Mackenzies, these past nine years, and she was a dear, and much admired by the younger generation. Also wild and... not crazy, but perhaps touched by a Power more mischievous than kind.

But she'll have to stay a few weeks, maybe a month. Rangers or no, they can't come back across the Valley alone. It'll have to wait until we drive that horse-herd over, and it's not in from the Bend country yet.

Eilir grinned. No problemo, Supremely Autocratic Clan Chieftain Mom. She wants to be there for the Circle on Ostara, too.

Juniper nodded, and gave a final wave to the Larsdalen folk. Then she made the Invoking sign—a pentagram, drawn in the air from the top point down—before she chanted:

 

"Lord and Lady, bless this journey

Keep it safe to wandering's end;

Yours in parting and in meeting—

Guard loves and hearth as home we wend.

 

The rest of her riders and a fair number of the bystanders joined in with the final Blesséd Be. The youth beside her had the pole of the Mackenzie banner socketed into a cup welded on his left stirrup, proudly holding the ashwood flagstaff as the green and silver horns-and-moon flag snapped in the cool spring breeze. He unslung his cowhorn trumpet from the saddlebow with the other hand and blew:

Huuuu-huuuu-huuuuu!

Folk shouted farewells as the horses' hooves beat out a grinding clop on the old crushed shell and new gravel of the long driveway. Juniper looked over her shoulder for a moment; Mike raised his hand in salute and turned.

Looking that way, the big yellow-brick house with its white pillars didn't seem very different from the time before the Change when it had been a Portland industrialist's toy; set at the head of a long east-facing valley in the Eola Hills, gracious with a century's mellowing amid gardens and lawns and giant trees.

It was when you turned and looked down the broad V of the valley that you returned to the Changed world with a vengeance. The Bearkillers hadn't been idle since they got here towards the end of the first Change Year, nor the folk they gathered around them. There were buildings flanking the roadway; the original manager's house and sheds and barns, and others ranging from the rawly new to seven or eight years old. Some were log-cabin style, in squared timber; if there was one thing you weren't going to run short of in western Oregon, it was logs. Others were frame, disassembled and re-erected here. Digging, an earth dam and berms turned part of the creek into a pond; below it a waterwheel turned to power sawmill and gristmill. Next were the big storage warehouses and grain elevator, the rows of workshops; then the cottages, and the low-slung barracks last, closest to the fortifications.

A steep-sided earthwork thirty feet high and twenty thick spanned the valley's cut. The Bearkillers were pushing it up the hills on either side and along the summit of the steep scarp in back of the house, and now a thick stone curtain-wall stood atop it—big rocks set in concrete mortar hiding a framework of steel I-beams, and more cement plastered over the surface until it was fairly smooth, albeit patchy where the sides of the bigger boulders showed. A massive stone blockhouse sat over the cleft where the roadway went though the middle of the berm, Four round towers of the same construction flanked the gatehouse, crenellations showing at their tops like teeth barred at heaven; nothing else broke their exteriors except narrow arrow-slits, and more towers walked down the wall to either side at hundred-yard intervals. A tall flagpole on one of the gate-towers flaunted the brown-and-red banner of the Bearkillers. A militia squad guarded the open gates, farmers and laborers and craftsfolk in kettle helmets and tunics of boiled leather or chain-mail doing their obligatory service, polearms or crossbows in hand.

Their mounted leader was in the more elaborate harness of an A-lister—the Bearkiller elite force—and there was a crisp lordliness in the gesture he made to the troops:

"To the Mackenzie—salute!"

His squad lined the road and crashed the ironshod butts of pike and halberd and glaive down on the pavement. The leaves of the inner gate were pulled back to either side—massive doors of welded steel beams running on tracks sent into the concrete of the roadway.

Juniper led her people into the echoing gate-tunnel, under the chill shadow of the massive stone. As she rode, she looked up at the murder-holes above, where boiling oil or water, flaming gasoline or hard-driven bolts could be showered down at need; and at the fangs of the twin portcullis that could be tripped to drop and seal the passageway off.

You could call Mike Havel a hard man, but not a bad one; he and his friends were capable, rather, and realists. But you could say they were businesslike to a daunting degree, which was mostly a good thing, and had saved her life and others many times, but...

There was still a hulking brutal strength to the stonework; when she looked at it the ancient ballads she'd sung for so many years came flooding back, with a grimness added to their words by hard personal experience since the Change. You could hear the roaring shouts and the screams, the wickering flight of arrows and the ugly cleaver sound of steel in flesh, smell the burning.

"My, and haven't we come a long way in nine short years," she murmured, as they rode out into the bright sunshine and the rolling vineyards beyond the earthwork, their hooves beating hollow on the planks of the drawbridge.

 

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It's a good thing that there's no more copyright, Mike Havel thought. Astrid would be going to the big house for all the places she ripped off the details for this, not on a visit to her friends.

This ceremony was much more private than the testing of the gunpowder, although it also involved a circle of watchers standing with swords drawn. It was on the rear patio behind the big house, with all the registered A-list members not on inescapable duty standing in serried, armored ranks on either side of the broad pathway that led to the old swimming pool. Otherwise only the apprentice-candidates were present. There were seven this time—inductions were held every few months—all sternly controlling their excitement, all between eighteen and twenty-one, and showing the effects of a night spent sleepless and fasting. They were in the full kit of the Bearkiller elite, except for the helmet and blade.

Havel stood beside the brazier where the iron heated, near a trestle that bore seven swords; the light crinkle of sound from the charcoal could be heard clearly; the only other sounds were the sough of the wind and an occasional chinking rustle from two hundred and ninety-one chain hauberks.

Not that I've got any objection to ceremonies. Any force needs them; like uniforms and flags and medals and songs. The Corps had some great ones... well, people have already died for the Bearkillers. All it takes is time to add majesty, I suppose. To these kids it's the biggest deal there is. Let's make it perfect for them.

The military apprentices approached. Will Hutton stepped out to bar their path, resting the point of his backsword against the breast of the first; he was a wiry man well into his forties, with blunt features and skin the color of old oiled walnut-wood and tight-curled graying hair, the drawling Texan rasp still strong in his voice.

"Who comes?" the second-in-command of the Bearkillers asked. "And why?"

"Military apprentice Patrick Mallory, sir," the young man answered clearly. "I come to claim membership in the Outfit's A-list."

"Have you passed all the tests of arms and skill and character?"

"Sir, I have."

Hutton raised his voice: "Is there any Brother or Sister of the A-list who knows why Patrick Mallory, military apprentice, should not seek enrollment? Speak now, or hold your peace ever after."

Silence stretched. Hutton lowered his blade and stepped aside. "Pass, then."

The A-lister-to-be strode on past into the circle, his boots clacking on the flagstones, came to a hallt at arm's length in front of Havel and saluted; he was a broad-shouldered young man of medium height, eyes and hair an unremarkable brown, skin pale with the long gray skies of winter.

Havel answered the gesture and reached aside to pick up the sword resting across the trestle, standing with the steel across the leather palms of his gauntlets.

"This is a sword," he said. "An axe can chop wood; with a bow or a lance you can hunt. The sword is a tool men make solely for the killing of their own kind; and those who don't carry them can still die on their blades. Only an honourable man can be trusted with it. What is honor, Apprentice Mallory?"

"Honor is the debt we owe to ourselves, Lord Bear. Honor is duty fulfilled."

"If you take the sword you take death: in the end, your own death, as well as your enemy's. What is duty, next to death?"

The reply came proudly: "Duty is heavier than a mountain. Death is lighter than a feather."

"You take this sword as token of the support and respect our community gives its defenders. The price is your oath to do justice, to uphold our laws, to put your own flesh between your land and people and war's desolation. Are you ready to take that oath?"

"I am, and to fulfill the oath with my life's blood."

"Do you swear to stand by every Brother and Sister of the oath, holding them dearer than a parent, dearer than children?"

"I do, unto death."

Havel reached forward and slid the sword into the empty scabbard at the other's waist, and went on:

"Kneel."

The apprentice went down on one knee and held out his hands with the palms pressed together. Havel took them between his own and looked down into the fearless young lion eyes as he listened to the words:

"Until the sea floods the earth and the sky falls, or the Change is undone, or death releases me, I will keep faith and life and truth with the Bearkillers' lord; in peace or war, following all orders under the law we have made."

"And I will keep faith with you likewise," Havel said. "Let neither of us fail, at our peril. Now accept the mark that seals you to the Brotherhood."

He released the boy's hands and reached for the wooden handle of the thin iron resting in the white-hot charcoal. Mallory's face was unflinching as he touched the brand between his eyebrows; there was a sharp hiss and scent of burning. Signe stepped forward with a quick dab of a herbal ointment for the burn; despite the pain, there was an enormous grin breaking through the solemnity as he stood.

Havel struck forearms with him, outside and inside, then pulled him into a quick embrace and turned, one arm around the young man's shoulders.

"Brothers and Sisters, I give you Brother Patrick Mallory, enrolled on the A-list of the Bearkillers! So witness earth—so witness sky!"

"By Earth, by Sky—Brother Mallory!"

Metal-backed gauntlets punched into the afternoon air as near three hundred voices roared the name.

"Take your place in the ranks, Brother Mallory. We have the work of the Outfit to do."

He walked to the rear with a growing jauntiness. Will Hutton's voice sounded again:

"Who comes? And why?"

"Military apprentice Susanna Clarke!"

 

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Kenneth Larsson had always kept a workshop here at Larsdalen, ever since he was twelve and reading Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth-Borer and Citizen of the Galaxy, back in 1960. There was more room at the family's summer estate than at the house in Portland, and making things on holiday had been just as much fun as woods-rambling and reading. He'd kept it up even in his hippy-dippy student rebel phase, bellbottoms and blond Fu-Manchu and all, when it had been the only thing he and his father agreed on. Then when he inherited Northwest Holdings, puttering around with a little hands-on engineering kept him sane when the managerial side of the family business threatened to drive him bughouse.

The oscilloscopes and electric furnace and other fancy toys were useless now, and there wasn't any room in Larsdalen proper; the big house his grandfather had built back in 1906 was crowded to the gills with four families and the staff. But rank still had its privileges; he might not be the bossman any more, but he was the bossman's father-in-law and close advisor—closest, in anything to do with technology. In his fifty-second year—the first Change Year—his childhood hobby had become his life's work. The big technical library still helped, too.

He'd had this building run up at the west end of the back meadow as soon as they had any hands to spare, or sooner; a long frame rectangle with a brick floor and running water, plenty of skylights and windows, forges and machine-tools, desks and work-tables and drawing boards, storage closets, kerosene lamps hanging from the rooftree. It all had a smell of solvents and woodsmoke and scorched metal; designs were pinned to corkboards along the walls—for reapers and mowers and threshing-machines, for pumps and windmills and Pelton-wheel water turbines. And for war engines, trebuchets and catapults and a flywheel-powered machine gun he knew he could get working eventually.

My very own Menlo Park, he thought wryly.

"You can go now, Vicki," he said.

His young assistant ducked her head, shed her many-pocketed leather equipment apron and left; she didn't say anything, but then, she rarely did. Whatever she'd gone through while prisoner of that band of Eater cannibals in central Idaho hadn't left her mute, but she was wary of human contact beyond all reason even after the newly-formed Bearkiller Outfit rescued her.

Larsson smiled grimly. That was back when he'd still thought his family were unlucky to be in a Piper Chieftain over the Selway-Bitterroot National Wilderness when the Change hit. And Ken had the good luck to get Mike Havel as their pilot when he hired a puddlejumper to run them up to the ranch in Montana.

Speak of the devil, he thought.

A teenaged military apprentice from one of the A-lister families knocked and then swung the door in the middle of the workshop's long west wall open, letting in a flood of afternoon light and cool damp spring air:

"The Lord Bear is here, Lord Kenneth," she said formally, her face and voice serious; she would have been about ten at the time of the Change.

Mike Havel stood in the doorway, still in the war-harness that doubled as formal dress for ceremonies; he was eating ice-cream out of a cup with a little wooden spoon, which was a rare treat these days—sugar was an expensive luxury again. A glance at the apprentice, and he handed her the bowl; Larsson hid a smile of his own, as she fought to conceal her delight.

"You might as well finish this," Havel said. "And don't let anyone but the names on the list in."

"Yes, Lord Bear!" the apprentice said; when the door swung closed Larsson could see her through the panes, eyes watchful on the open ground as she spooned up the fruit-studded confection.

Havel shrugged at Larsson's look. "Lost my taste for the stuff, anyway," he said a little defensively. "Too sweet."

He was a big man, but without quite the height or burly thickness of his father-in-law—a finger under six feet, broad shoulders and narrow hips showing under mail and gambeson, long in leg and arm. He moved lightly, hugely strong without being bulky and graceful as a hunting cat, his boots scarcely raising a creak from the boards of the stairs even with the weight of metal and leather he wore. When Larsson first met him he'd been twenty-eight and already had a weathered outdoorsman's tan, with the sort of high-cheeked, strong-boned face that didn't alter much from the late teens into middle age. Apart from new scars and deep lines beside his pale slanted gray eyes, what had changed was something indefinable...

Perhaps it goes with being a king, Larsson thought, and grinned.

The expression looked more piratical than it had before the Change; the older man had lost his left eye and hand to a bandit's sword in Change Year One, and the patch and hook added something too.

"Hi, Lord Ken," Havel went on, smiling a crooked smile, stripping off the metal-backed leather gauntlets. "Got the initiations over with, at least."

In the distance a roaring chorus of voices rose in song, or something close to it, as booted feet clashed in unison to the beat of drums and the squeal of fifes:

 

"Axes flash, broadswords swing

Shining armor's piercing ring

Horses run with a polished shield

Fight those bastards 'till they yield!

Midnight mare and blood-red roan,

Fight to keep this land your own—

Sound the horn and call the cry:

How many of them can we make die!"

 

"I like that song," Havel said, grinning. "It's becoming sort of traditional; another favor Juney Mackenzie did us. What's better, everyone else on the A-list likes it, too."

He winced slightly as Ken Larsson raised a brow, and continued:

"That is, everyone likes it except Signe. I ducked out when she started glaring at me again—everything associated with our red-haired friend puts her on edge now. Christ Jesus, I don't need this. Can't you talk to her? She's your daughter..."

Ken Larsson laughed until he wheezed. "Oh, no, son-in-law, I got out of that job at the altar. Beside... can you blame her?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I can! Yes, Rudi's my kid... but Signe and I weren't married then. She was still back in Idaho when I came west on that scouting mission and ran into Juney. Hell, Signe and we weren't even involved then, not really, and she'd made it pretty plain no hanky-panky was in prospect. OK, she said no, I folded up my tent and rode away."

"She'd had a rough time," Larsson said, looking aside: it had been even rougher on him, the night his first wife died.

"And I haven't touched another woman since we did get involved," Havel said bitterly. "Christ Jesus, I'm getting the punishment for adultery without having the fun!"

Larsson cleared his throat: "Anyway, Mike, expecting a woman to be reasonable about something like that is about as futile as trying to fly to the moon by putting your head between your knees and spitting hard. Have you actually confessed yet?"

"No," the younger man said shortly.

"Well, you should. Grovel and apologize and beat your breast and promise never to do anything wrong again. Keep on doing it while she yells and throws things, and then while she sulks and gives you the cold shoulder beat yourself up some more."

"Shit, I didn't do anything wrong!"

"And that is relevant... how?" Larsson snorted. "Listen to the voice of experience, son. Besides, there's young Mike. She's probably worried about him."

Havel's lips curled into a smile at the mention of his son's name; then he frowned in puzzlement.

"Worried?"

"About who inherits all this," Larsson said, waving his good hand.

Havel blinked, obviously surprised. "Well... well, shit, Ken! Who said the position's hereditary, for Christ Jesus', sake? Last I heard, the assembled Outfit chooses the bossman when the old one dies, retires or is impeached; and I should know, seeing as how I wrote the damned law-code. I've gone along with a lot of Astrid's pseudo-medieval horse manure, but enough's enough! No golden crowns for this country boy."

Larsson sighed. "Mike, you might have made the distinction between political and military authority and private property a little more distinct... or distinct at all... when you were setting things up. Or maybe I should have reminded you, even busy as we were. But done's done; if the Outfit were to select somebody else after you were gone, who owns the house? And the lands—the stuff we manage directly from here? The heirs of Mike Havel, guy-with-a-growing-family, or the successor to Lord Bear, ruler of all he can see? And if it's the latter, what do your kids get? Parents are supposed to be anxious for their childrens' futures, you know: you can't blame Signe for living up to the job."

"Hmmm," Havel said. "Point. Distinct point."

"Besides which... let me ask you a question: how many of those apprentices you just enrolled were relatives of people already on the A-list?"

Havel frowned, thinking. "Four out of seven. Why? Anyone can take the tests."

Larsson sighed again. "Mike, you're a smart guy, but you're kind of... focused. This is a low-productivity economy we've got; not as bad as the Dark Ages, more 19th-century in a lot of ways, except it's also a pre-money setup most of the time and our population's too small for much specialization. And we've made schooling compulsory, which I approve of. But what do a tenant farmer's kids do in their munificent free time, school holidays being scheduled to coincide with the growing-and-harvest season?"

"Work their asses off helping their family get the crop in," Havel said promptly. "Same as I did back in the Upper Peninsula, before I graduated high school and joined the Corps. Only a lot more so. We ran that farm part-time, mostly the family lived on what my old man made in the Iron Range mines."

Larsson raised his metal prosthesis and made a checkmark in the air. "Bingo. Now, what does an A-lister's kid do? You know, the people with the big land-grants and tenants and full-time household workers."

"Pitches in on the home farm a bit, usually... but I see your point."

"You betcha. You insisted on high standards even for getting into the apprentice program, and it's hard learning to shoot a bow from the saddle of a galloping horse, or handle a lance. The A-lister's kids have the gear and the space and the trained horses and the leisure to practice, not to mention expert coaching from their parents and siblings. Plus one hell of an incentive; the land goes with the A-lister rank, and without money, how do you build up alternate investments? Plus the family has to be willing to let the kid go when they're sixteen to be a military apprentice, just when they're getting really useful on the farm or in the workshop and starting to pay off the parental investment. A-listers don't need their children's labor so badly."

"It's not all family members," Havel said defensively.

"Not yet. The original A-listers are too young to have many adolescent children; it's mostly their younger siblings so far. But when their offspring are old enough, you're going to find they're a lot more than half the apprentice uptake. And watch who marries who, too, which'll push the process along even faster. The more so since it's a coed setup. I watched the same thing happen in the business world back before the Change in the seventies, eighties. When lawyers and executives were all men, they sometimes married secretaries. When women professionals arrived in numbers, they married other lawyers and executives."

"I hadn't... Ouch."

"So it's pretty likely the A-listers will vote in one of your kids as successor. Because by then it'll be unnatural to do anything else. So Signe's worrying, maybe unconsciously, if it'll be her kid, not just yours. Pam tells me that there were a lot of systems like that in the old days—where the throne was elective within a certain family, broadly defined. Like in the sagas; read about what the dozen sons of Harald Fairhair did to Norway sometime... If you acknowledge that Rudi Mackenzie is your son, everyone will believe it who's got eyes. He's older than young Mike, too. Old enough to start getting hints of what sort of a man he's going to be; he's smart, and he could charm a snake out of its skin, for starters."

"Well, shit," Havel said, pushing back his helmet by the nasal and rubbing his jaw. "But even if the position goes to one of my kids, I'd want to pick the best when they're old enough—for that matter it could be Mary or Ritva, as easily as Mike or Rudi."

"That was probably Alexander the Great's plan, watching his kids grow and picking his own successor from the best of them. Unanticipated events sort of took a hand, and nobody's immortal. You ought to be thinking about this now, Mike. We don't have a tradition on how to handle succession yet. Note that I have an interest here too—if it's going to be hereditary, I want one of my grandkids to get it."

They looked at each other, and Larsson changed the subject:

"When did they start that Lord Kenneth business?" he asked. "It fits for you and your shining-armor crowd, but why me?"

"You know perfectly well, and it's your own damned fault," Havel replied, smiling. "They started it when your youngest talked them into it. She'll have them forsoothing next. You're not an A-lister, but you're my father-in-law and you're our... wizard, I suppose. Astrid loves that idea, by the way."

"Astrid's perverted imagination is not my fault!"

"She's your daughter, isn't she? You let her slide into the Mistress of Ceremonies position, didn't you? You're also the one who let her wallow in all those doorstopper books with the lurid covers and knights and princes and warrior elf-maids and wizards and walls of ice and magical charm-bracelets and whatever."

"I thought she'd grow out of it," Ken Larsson said weakly.

Havel's boot knocked the sheath of his backsword aside with practiced ease as he sat on the stool before a drill-press and went on:

"She landed me with the Lord Bear nonsense before we'd finished who-eats-who with Mr. Bruin. I'm surprised it hasn't turned into a talking bear conjured up by an evil sorcerer, and gotten slapped down in that goddamned illustrated journal she keeps."

"Illuminated, not illustrated," Larsson said.

They shared a chuckle at the thought of the—profusely illustrated—Red Book of Larsdalen. Sheer dogged persistence had let Astrid Larsson hang names out of her favorite books on a good many things, post-Change. A fanatic for Tolkein and his imitators could do a world of linguistic damage, particularly when things were in flux anyway and she was part of the ruling circle of families; Astrid hadn't shown any signs of growing out of it at the ripe old age of twenty-two, either. The younger generation was alarmingly given to humoring her... or even to taking up her enthusiasms simply because they sounded cool and torqued off their elders.

"I think it's the isolation, too," Larsson said. "If we had more outside contacts, people would laugh us out of it. As it is, every little bunch of us is free to go off on their weird tangent of choice."

Havel nodded. "Sounds plausible, in a horrible sort of way. So, what's up?" he went on, dropping his bear-topped helm on a table and running his hands over his bowl-cut black hair. "I've got to go read some reports by Signe's intel people about bandit trouble up on the northern border. Anything you've got to say will be more interesting than more goddamned reports."

Larsson's single blue eye gleamed. He turned to a desk piled with papers and bearing a mechanical calculator he'd salvaged out of a museum, and pulled out a sheet covered with graphs from beneath his slide rule—the results of months of experiment over the winter.

"I think I've got a handle on the Change!"

Havel snorted. "How many times have we chewed the fat about that? Starting the morning after. I thought you'd gotten the reaper-binder working. That we can use. Harvest is tricky. Or more penicillin. We could get another outbreak of the Black Death anytime and we're clear out of tetracycline."

"No, not just a hypothesis this time—a theory with experimental confirmation."

"You can do something about it?" Havel said, sitting bolt upright.

"Oh, hell, no, Mike. Do I look like an Alien Space Bat from an arbitrarily-advanced civilization? Arbitrarily Advanced Alien Space Bats... But I've gotten some idea of what's happening. Look at this."

Larsson pointed to a piece of apparatus on a bench, one that involved a gasoline lantern burning under a blackened cylinder. He turned up the wick with the tip of the metal multi-tool strapped in place of his left hand, and tapped the metal casing with it. The flywheel off to one side gave a half-hearted turn and then stopped.

"This is what they called a Stirling-cycle engine—sort of like a steam engine without the water, using a gas as the working fluid in a closed cycle. This one comes from a museum in Eugene; I traded some moonshine to a scavenger who had it in a load of miscellaneous junk. I wanted it because it doesn't depend on fast combustion—explosions—like IC engines. Result: it doesn't work any more either."

"Why am I not surprised?" Havel said.

He sounded patient, in a heavy sort of way. But then, he puts up with Astrid, too. Larsson went on:

"A Stirling engine is like the theory of heat engines made manifest. Put concentrated heat in here, raise the temperature of the gas, and you get mechanical work out there. OK, mechanical work and diffuse heat. All you need to make it work is a temperature gradient between one end and the other. And like all heat engines since the Change it just doesn't work to any useful degree."

"What about guns?"

"Guns are heat engines—first ones to be widely used. But."

He swung the lamp out from under the cylinder, engaged a crank and worked it with his good hand. Crankshaft and piston and flywheel spun up with a subdued hum; after a moment he released it to run down.

"You see, one of the interesting things about a Stirling engine is that if you run it in reverse—if you put mechanical work in—it acts as a refrigerator. You get cold out the other end. They were used for that in labs and some manufacturing back before the Change. And that still does work."

Havel's brows went up. "Well, that could be very useful," he said. "We could really use some refrigerated storage for food, particularly if we could do it in bulk. It just doesn't get cold enough in the Willamette to make icehouses practical—one of the few advantages we had back when I was growing up on the Upper Peninsula, and man, did we have ice and to spare. We could run this Stirling thingie in reverse off a waterwheel or a windmill?"

"Yes, or the sort of horse-gin we use for threshing machines now. But think about it for a moment. Why would the heat-to-work cycle not function, while the work-to-cold cycle does? And when you're cranking it, it works exactly the way it did pre-Change. It's like you can only play a film backward."

Havel shrugged again. "Presumably your Alien Space Bats, or Juney's gods, or the reverend Abbot's Lord Jehovah, wanted it that way. I never did think the Change just happened."

"Neither did I. It's too... focused. A random change in natural law would mostly likely just collapse everything into quark soup. And everything is too neatly scaled, the effects kick in at the precise level necessary and no earlier; it lets any biological process go on just fine, our nervous systems work, fish can still use their swim bladders, but that—" he pointed at the engine "—is screwed. Somebody did this to us."

Havel slapped a hand against the brass bars that made a protective basket around the hilt of his backsword. "Give me a clear run at whoever did it, and I'll carve them a new one."

"Yes, yes," Larsson said, a testy edge to his voice. "But this gives me a handle on how the Arbitrarily Advanced ASB's are screwing it up—the heat engine side, at least, that's easier to get a grip on without instruments than the electrical problems. It isn't nanobots with Unobtanium force-field generators watching our every move and selectively intervening whenever we try to fire a gun or run a generator. What's happened is a change in the Ideal Gas laws—or more accurately, a forced change in the behavior of near-ideal gasses—"

"Woah, partner," Mike said, raising a hand; there was a rustling chink as the elbow-length mail sleeve of his hauberk brushed the vambrace on his forearm. "I knew my way around a motorcycle engine, but that's about it tech-wise. You're talking to a high school graduate who just squeaked by in math and fudged a lot to get his pilot's license."

"OK, it's a change in the way gas molecules act under certain very specific circumstances, so there's no increase in pressure with heat beyond a low threshold. Like there's some added force that glues molecules together, so instead of producing work, the heat-energy or the work put into mechanical compression gets locked into some weird form of potential energy."

He pointed to another apparatus, a cylinder with a gauge attached, a piston rod sticking above it, and a framework for dropping weights on that.

"This is the one that's really been driving me nuts. It turns out the pressure limitation is same-same with pumping air mechanically into a reservoir. After a certain point, all you get for more pumping is sweat—same glue-the-molecules effect."

Havel looked at the apparatus and frowned. "You mean if you drop that weight, it doesn't compress the air in the cylinder? OK, we've got infinitely efficient shock absorbers?"

"Oh, yeah, it does compress it—up to a point. Then the volume of air keeps getting smaller as you push, same-same as it would have before the Change if you exerted the same force, and it resists a push just as it would have before, but more like a liquid or solid than a compressed gas. The pressure doesn't get any higher after that cutoff point. There's a fall-off in the extra push-back pressure you get for each input of energy applied; it starts small and then goes up in an asymptotic curve. Ever-steeper curve, to you scientifically illiterate types. Pretty soon it reaches something close to infinity—like trying to go faster than light with a rocket."

Havel ran his hands over his hair. "That's crazy."

"Well, duh, my armor-plated son-in-law. Of course it's crazy. It simply fucks parts of the laws of thermodynamics, just for starters. That's what confirmed my mental certainty about the glue-the-molecules effect. Watch."

He walked over to the cylinder and tripped a release.

Whank!

The weight slammed down, and the gauge twitched. Ken jerked a thumb at it:

"OK, as far as I can tell, the piston went down exactly as far as it would have before the Change under the same weight. But see the pressure gauge? Barely a fraction of what it would have been with that reduction in volume. As far as I can tell, what happens is the air gets sort of... thicker... as it gets compressed... the molecules get closer together and the energy input goes into mashing them tighter and tighter, but they don't leap apart when it's removed. They just expand again, they fill additional volume but they don't push at it the way they should. The same thing happens with any other compressible gas, by the way, but not with non-compressible liquids like water. Which means you can use hydraulic systems just fine."

Larsson rubbed his good hand on the leather support of his multitool. "You know, if you could get that energy back quickly, this would make a hell of a battery, or an explosive."

"You can't get the energy back? It's gone? Conservation of energy—"

"Oh, you can get it back; thermodynamics isn't totally screwed up. You just can't get it back very fast, or in any form that's any fucking use at all."

He turned a valve, and there was a long hiss; the piston-rod sank down. "When you do this, the exit valve and the air around it heat up more than they should. For that matter, the air in the cylinder gets hotter than it should when you drop the weight; not much hotter, just barely enough difference that I can detect without electronic instruments. I think the potential energy trapped by the glue-together effect leaks away gradually in the form of diffuse low-level heat as the molecules 'unbind'. The slow burning with explosives is probably part of the same effect; the extra force keeps the molecules of a fuel from spreading fire as fast. There seems to be a relation between pressure and... never mind. I think something similar was done to set an upper limit on permitted voltages, too, maybe by increasing the degree of electron localization in solids. That would—"

"Whoa, Ken. Look, this is all very interesting, and I even think I understand parts of it..."

"That's more than I do," Ken said, grinning. "I understand what, but I've got no earthly idea how, much less the theories behind the effects. I'm like Imhotep the Pyramid-builder confronted with a TV set, trying to understand how the wizard got all the miniature people in the funny box. We're multiple paradigm shifts away from being able to understand it. We just don't have the intellectual vocabularies... hell, the grammars. And with our toys taken away, we can't get from here to there."

Havel frowned and continued: "...but I'm trying to keep thousands of people alive around here. And we're running out of stuff. Things are wearing out. We've got plenty of food and enough basic shelter now, and a fair start on weapons, but we don't have enough tools or cloth or shoes and we certainly don't have enough medicine if the plague breaks out again, and every time we shift people from one thing there's another that goes undone, and Christ Jesus but that bastard Arminger up in Portland is going to take another slap at us soon. So could we please concentrate on things that'll actually help us?"

"Eventually this could be useful, a heat sink can—oh, all right, Mike. I get your point. It does have some practical implications, though. It means we can get enough concentrated heat to run a foundry, say... but a lot of other industrial processes, most high-pressure chemistry, are just... forbidden."

"Thanks. That'll save us time and effort." Havel slapped a hand on the older man's shoulder. "We couldn't have done it without you, Ken."

Kenneth Larsson unscrewed the multitool from the hardened-leather cup strapped over the stump of his wrist. As he fastened on the hook-grasper he used for everyday work he shook his head.

"No, Mike, we couldn't have done it without you." He held the hook up like an open palm. "Yeah, I've done a lot of useful work for us, and I'm damned proud of it—prouder of it than of anything I did as CEO of Northwest. So have my kids, and so have Will Hutton and Josh Sanders and Pamela. But you're the guy who found us all—"

A knock at the door interrupted them. The apprentice opened it:

"My lords, it's A-lister Naysmith. He says you told him to look you up, Lord Bear."

Ken got up and left, giving his son-in-law a slap on the shoulder. He waved his hand at the man entering, who ignored it—but that was probably from the terror that left his face like a mask carved out of lard. With the crowd at Larsdalen for the holiday, this was about as private a place as could be found without ostentatiously riding out somewhere beyond the defenses. For a moment Larsson paused at the bottom of the verandah steps. Somewhere a rooster crowed; behind the workshop was a broad stretch of pasture where horses grazed, slanting up southwestward to a fringe of forest; the foundations of a citadel showed there at the highest point of the Larsdalen plateau, raw earth and sacks of cement, rebar and quarried rock. Beyond, the steep scarp of this outlier dropped to the flatlands around Rickreal; beyond that was the low green line of the Coast Range.

And behind him he could hear Mike Havel's voice. The workshop's walls were thin.

"—there's a reason you got the big farm and the help to work it and the rents and the Justice of the Peace appointment, Naysmith. And it wasn't so you could sit on your ass and drink beer and chase girls who didn't want to get caught. You're supposed to keep yourself and your people ready to fight, and administer justice. Christ Jesus, you do know what the word means, don't you?"

An inarticulate murmur, and then Havel's voice rising to a roar:

"—will not abide trash behavior, Naysmith! This is your last warning; next inspection, I expect your holding's A-listers and the militia to perform by the numbers and on the bounce. And the next complaint about you bullying your people or taking more than the Compact allows will be the last; if there's a petition against you I will have that hauberk off your back and I will strike you off the Brotherhood's rolls. And your assessment is doubled for this harvest—it'll come out of your share too, not the farmers. If you want to work for a squeezing bandit, you can take your sorry ass over the border and try your luck with the Protector."

The apprentice stood stiffly at the foot of the stairs, eyes front, left hand on her swordhilt, right hand carrying her targe—small round shield—tucked across her chest. She was a little pale around the mouth; listening to a chewing-out from Mike was alarming at the best of times.

Another mumble, and Havel's voice was kinder: "Look, Fred, you've been with me since Idaho. We fought Iron Rod together. I know you can do better than this. So what's the problem? Tell me, for God's sake, and I'll help you."

Larsson grinned, taking a deep breath of the cool air. Think I'll go visit my newborn, or my grandchildren, he thought, and ambled off.

He'd had his belly-full of being CEO back before the Change. It was good to have someone else to handle that stuff.

I'm a pretty good engineer, and I was passable as a businessman, but I really don't think God gave me what it takes to be a warrior-king.

 

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