The Bear, the Doyen and the Portal (Pt. 2)

(Part One here.)

The Alligecko shot up the side of the dome, his aura clinging to the wall much like the lizard he took half his name from. Momma Bear took the direct route, the dull rustic glow of her aura quickly building up into the form of a fifteen foot tall bear that leaped straight from one level of the spiral ramp to the next, heading straight towards the center of the room and the crackling portal there.

Unfortunately that left Galen alone at the bottom of the ramp – a ramp that he now realized was much higher than the outside of the building suggested. The inside of the building occupied at least twice the volume of the outside, which made about as much sense as everything else that had happened in the last few months. Galen gave it a philosophical shrug and went on.

With nothing but a voice in his head to carry him on his way he had no choice but to take the long way around and go up the ramp in a more normal fashion. Galen pelted up at top speed but, after all that time cooped up in a tent with no real exercise he wasn’t in the best shape of his life. Not that the best shape of his life was anything to write home about. Galen was out of breath before he was even half way to the top where the portal was located, cursing whatever brilliant mind had decided that they had to make getting up to the level of the portal so difficult.

The ramp wasn’t that long, the real problem was how out of shape Galen had gotten combined with all the walking of the past two days. He just didn’t have the stamina to go for long. About half way up the ramp he started wheezing and slowed to a walk, splitting his attention between gasping for breath and watching the action unfold on the platform by the portal.

The flagstones beneath his feet were shot through with metallic tracery in patterns that looked vaguely familiar. All sharp edges and sudden corners but built out of curving lines it looked kind of like a circuit board that had been partly melted like a blow torch. The patterns nagged at the edge of his mind like-

Infinite uniqueness in infinite regression.

-like fractals. That was it.

A spear crashing onto the ramp a few feet ahead and bouncing away towards the wall of the building got his attention back on the portal up ahead. Momma Bear had gotten up there only to be stopped in a cloud of the shards of light the portal guard wielded. It looked like she couldn’t take a step forward without getting sliced by them and, even as Galen watched, a trio of larger panes of energy slashed across her extended arm of her aura. The energy lost cohesion and then, to Galen’s amazement, seemed to flow into the blades of light.

For a brief second Galen got a glimpse of a spiderweb of lines connecting the shards of energy and the blonde man at the center of the vortex they formed, the entire matrix forming a fractal pattern much like that beneath his feet.

Wind. Wind on windows wielded by one beyond weariness.

It was weird that the voice was so chatty at such a lousy time but that didn’t bother him nearly as much as the bad attempts at alliteration.

Momma Bear looked like she was going to end up on the ropes but just as she started to give ground the ceiling above them shifted subtly and the Alligecko dropped down from it, teeth flashing. There was a shout from down by the door and the guard reacted fast enough to swing his cloud of light slivers up between himself and the Alligecko. The barrier bent in slow motion, like a sheet of plastic, giving the guard enough time to roll out of the way.

Galen looked towards the shout and saw three new men, all dressed in the ubiquitous white coats and wearing masks but armed with a grab bag of weaponry, one with a pair of hook swords, one with a spear and one with the heavy gauntlets, making their way up the ramp behind him. As he watched the one with the hooks reached up and snagged them on the next tier of the ramp then used them to half drag, half walk up the wall and cut a huge loop of his trip. Then he turned around and held one hook down for the one with gauntlets, who grabbed it with one hand and the third man with the other. In less time than it took to tell all three were up on the next level of the ramp and preparing to repeat the procedure.

Thrice born.

That didn’t mean anything to Galen but he did realize that the three of them were probably going to cut him off if he didn’t do something about it. Drawing on reserves he didn’t know he had, Galen managed to get up to the third section of the ramp before the masked trio were ready to start trying to climb it. As the hook user snagged his weapon over the lip of the ramp at his feet Galen gave it a swift kick. Since the masked guard had been in the process of starting up the wall at the same time he wound up falling unceremoniously on his back side.

Just as Galen was congratulating himself the one with the gauntlets flicked his hands out and made a motion like he was twisting a doorknob. The weird riot of lines and shards of light flickered between them for a split second, then the light sprang forward like a striking snake.

“Skata,” Galen whispered.

The curse had barely left his lips when the torrent of light hit him. Or rather, it broke on the sides of a bubble that sprang into existence as soon as the curse was spoken.

Of course being in a little bubble of light didn’t completely void the laws of physics. That would have been too convenient. Instead of knocking him flat the impact knocked him up the ramp like a stray ball. On the bright side he was close to the top and skidding in his barrier brought him almost all the way to the top. The floor of the portal platform was at waist height when the shield dissolved and deposited him unceremoniously on the ground again. He’d have to figure out what the heck was going on with that.

In the mean time he needed to get through the portal and out of trouble fast. Galen jumped up onto the platform and started towards the center, ducking under the swaying tail of the Alligecko before he even realized he’d heard it coming, rather than seen it. Beyond them the guard was wrestling with Momma Bear.

To Galen’s amazement the massive ursine aura she took her name and power from had shrunk until it was barely larger than she was, and it had grown transparent enough that he could see her through its outsides. The Alligecko’s tail swung back and slammed into the matrix of lines and shards of light that stood between him and the guard but the defensive wall just bent and popped back into shape. In the mean time energy kept draining out of Momma’s aura, trickling out in wisps and dribbles before being absorbed into a whirling collection of glowing orbs that swirled around the guard’s left hand.

On a hunch Galen yelled, “Charon take him!”

It was the only directed curse he could think of at the moment but it worked. As the words left his mouth a river of power formed, rushing towards the guard and slipping through the cracks in his wirework wall with almost no resistance. It swept him up and dashed him to the ground, which was good. It also hit Momma Bear and swept her down as well, which wasn’t quite what he’d been hoping for.

The weird mess of light and lines that had been between them broke up as the guard went down and the Alligecko shifted as if to go and grab Momma Bear but almost as soon as he did the three masked guards were up on the platform. The first guard made to get to his feet but Momma tripped him and yelled, “Go through! I’ll get back!”

Galen started to protest but the Alligecko grabbed him with his tail and dashed towards the portal. When the giant reptilian aura came into contact with the tear in reality there was a moment of resistance, as if it didn’t want to let the two of them through. For a split second Galen saw what looked like an identical room on the other side then suddenly the portal seemed to spasm, folding in gut wrenching ways, and the two of them spilled through the portal into a back alley that looked a lot more like home than anywhere he’d been in months. The Alligecko’s aura faded almost as soon as they were through.

Galen wound up landing hard in an undignified heap so he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem like the Alligecko even lost his feet. All Galen knew for sure was that the other man was dragging him to his feet almost immediately. “Welcome home,” the Alligecko said, dusting him off. “What do you think?”

“Somehow,” Galen said, catching his breath, “this is not what how I expected heroes to start out.”

The other man just laughed.

——–

“Did you work out where the portal led after it was diverted?”

“Yes, my Doyen. Or at least, we know what the general characteristics were, if we wanted to cross the horizon there again.”

The cartographer handed Dmitri a scroll with the exact details written on it in the usual notation then folded his hands behind his back. To his left, the Regulus for the instillation cleared his throat. “Forgive me, my doyen, but are we sure that the information is trustworthy?”

“I had ben-Gideon keeping an eye on the recording team right up until the moment the intruders arrived,” Dmitri said absently, peering over the information on the scroll. “If he didn’t notice any tampering I’m sure there wasn’t any. I have every confidence in the accuracy of this information. And it looks like they went to a sleeping world – no functional magic there at all.”

“That was our conclusion as well, my doyen,” the cartographer said, pulling a small book out of the bronze folds of his robe. “In addition, their world matrix suggests that-”

“Thank you, but I was only really interested in the magic potential of their destination.” Dmitri rolled the scroll and handed it back to the cartographer. “Now. We’ve clearly determined that the portal was being used by outsiders, not people from the camp. It seems to me that the cartographers and the Throne of Locke have little to gain by sending total strangers there repeatedly.”

He took a moment to look up at the ceiling of the portal chamber, now much lower since the energy of the portal didn’t warp the shape of the room. “Particularly since the portal collapses every time it’s used this way and takes them a week to reset. Nor do I see any reason for the guards to be complicit in sending small groups of total strangers to a world without magic as part of some strange plan to annex it into the empire. Terra Eternal hasn’t annexed anything in almost a century and we’re better for it, plus a world without magic is of very little benefit to us. Are there any objections to that assessment?”

An uncomfortable look passed between the cartographer and the guard captain. Finally they both said, “No, my doyen.”

“Excellent. Then I’ll strike your mutual accusations of treason from the records and pass a recommendation up to Palatinus Sollenburg to do something to tighten security even more.” Dmitri gave the ramp beside him a rueful kick. “You can’t be calling in specialized forces every time something goes wrong in a portal chamber, after all. Someone should look into toning down the magic sapping properties of these places.”

“I notice you and the intruders did just fine,” the guard captain said suspiciously.

Dmitri held up the pendant that doubled as his power source and badge of office. “Just a reminder but I have a full strength core tap. You’re not going to be able to siphon off all the power here with just a portal chamber. And our friends were using bruja magic. No telling what kind of results that will have. Speaking of which, where is our prisoner?”

“Your Blade of One has her over there,” the cartographer said, nodding towards the wall.

“Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” Dmitri said, bowing slightly with his hands spread slightly and palms out. The two men returned the gesture, bowing much deeper, and waited until their doyen turned away before departing themselves. Dmitri found Solomon ben-Gideon about half way around the circumference of the room standing guard over the attractive, powerfully built woman he’d found under the spectral bear he’d fought with earlier. At some point they’d decided it was more expedient to slap irons on her than just hold her down all the time so now her wrists and ankles were chained together in front of her, giving her an almost piteous look. The fierce defiance in her expression kept Dmitri from feeling any pity, however. That and the fact that she’d tried to twist his head off like a lid.

As soon as he got up to them Mons handed him a necklace of flat silver plates and said, “She was carrying this. It seemed to serve as a magic reserve. Plus,” here he gestured towards her hair, which was braided and pinned up in a number of loops behind her head, “this is a hair style that was popular among first and second rank cartographers at court a few years ago, favored for its storage capacity. We’ve siphoned off the stray magic and left it in storage here.”

“Excellent.” Dmitri examined the necklace for a moment. It was well crafted but didn’t have any of the markings you’d expect of an artifact crafted specifically for magic storage. Most likely the woman had owned it before and simply discovered it functioned as a magic reserve when she discovered magic. “What phoneme does she speak?”

“I can understand you,” the woman interjected. “Mostly.”

“Good! That saves trouble.” He knelt down beside her and looped the necklace back around her neck. “There. I return what’s yours to you. And to go with it, I add another present.”

He pulled a small black box out of one pocket and removed a pair of silver bracelets from it. Each one glowed as bright as a lantern. “Key.” Mons handed Dmitri the key to the shackles without protest and Dmitri unlocked the wrists, replacing them with the bracelets. As he slipped each one over the woman’s wrists he pressed on it until it shrunk and became skin tight. “Now. What’s your name?”

“Why do you care?” The woman countered.

Dmitri sighed. “Do you see the way these bracelets glow?”

“It’s hard not to.”

“It is, indeed.” Dmitri waved his hand at the domed room they were in. “This room, and most of the buildings in this camp, run of a very specific frequency of magic – you understand frequencies, yes?”

The woman snorted in exasperation. “Yes. We have them at home, too.”

“Everyone has them, the question is whether they understand them.” Dmitri tapped one bracelet to draw attention back to them. “These glow only when exposed to that frequency of magic. Which means they will glow like this whenever you come here again, or whenever you trespass on the territory of Terra Eternal again. You will be found. You will be executed. I ask for your name only because, should it prove necessary to execute you, I feel your grave marker should have a name on it.”

The woman’s expression lost some of it’s huffiness and became a bit more curious. “You’re very young to be so jaded.”

“I deal with the fallout of shortsighted hubris day in and day out. Believe it or not, people who shut down a major part of our infrastructure, making commerce difficult and potentially ruining our ability to react to trouble here are not the biggest problem I’ve seen in the last year.” He rocked back and looked her over once, matching curiosity with curiosity. “Let me just say that I know a woman of breeding when I meet one. Do you really want us to remember our first face to face meeting to end with a bad impression?”
“Maybe I’m just waiting for a rude boy to give me his name, first,” she countered.

Dmitri laughed and nudged Mons in the leg. “If it’s a full fledged introduction you want, then by all means I will give you the courtly treatement.”
The three men removed their masks and bowed in perfect sychronization. “May I present Dmitri Dostoyevski, Doyen of Terra Eternal, who speaks with the full authority of the Eternal Throne.”

Dmitri added a slight nod of the head and said, “I greet you in the name of my self and my brothers and my father and his brothers.”

Most people Dmitri had met failed to recognize the form of his greeting, or if they did they were too overawed by the title of doyen to give the correct counter greeting. His prisoner didn’t even pledge fealty to the Throneworlds but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, she managed a better proper greeting than any he’d had in a long time. She rose, in spite of the chains on her ankles, and said, “I am Maria Berggolts, by blood, daughter of the Boyar of Italy. Though that is a title that means little, these days. I do apologize for any trouble I or my companions have given you.”

With great effort Dmitri managed to keep his expression neutral. He knew the natural-born-lord-of-all-Terra type, the Empire was full of them, but Maria didn’t quite fit the mold. For starters, you’d never find any of them breaking into secure military instillations wrapped in bruja magic and fighting with their bare claws.

“Unfortunately an apology isn’t enough to pardon your intrusion.” He rose to put himself back on eye level with the prisoner. “You remain banished from our territory on this world and all other fifty one words that swear fealty to the Throne of Terra Eternal.”

Her eyes widened. “Fifty one?

“Plus this one,” Dmitri added dryly. “For a total of fifty two. Anyone else we catch trying to use this portal as you did will be given the same warning and marked as you are. But do try and spread the warning around.”

He handed the scroll that detailed profile of her world to Mons, who took it and started looking it over while also removing the shackles from Maria’s feet. Dmitri wished, for just a moment, that he had six hands and three sets of eyes like his three-fold companion. But that came with its own problems. “In compensation for being our messenger to your world we’ll even give you a hand in getting home. But I recommend not coming here again. Your world built itself without magic. Best not to unbalance it adding too much.”

He turned to go and wrap things up, there was still paperwork to do and a report to write and no good place to do it in the portal chamber. But he stopped as Maria called out, “What do you mean don’t come here again?”

“Magic used in your world doesn’t go away, you know,” he said over his shoulder. “It just sort of disipates. And the kind of magic you find here – well, it’s not safe by itself and you don’t have the expertise to sterilize it. Leave it be, Maria Berggolts.”

He couldn’t see her expression from where he stood but her tone was slightly bitter. “Sometimes trading safety for the power to make a difference is the right choice. Surely you realized that when you sought out your position, doyen.”

Mons burst out laughing, three voices in eerie harmony. Dmitri turned to face them fully, annoyed, but Mons spoke before he could. “Doyen Dostoyevsky has never once in his life been weak.”

He blushed. “Thank you, Mons, that’s enough.” Mons just shot him a grin and slipped his mask back on. Dmitri looked at Maria once more and said, “Don’t assume power is a blessing. As often as not, it’s a curse greater than weakness.”

He stalked back towards the entrance, the last words he heard from Maria Berggolts echoing in his mind. “Jaded indeed.”

Part One
Fiction Index
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Motivation

Johnny Cochran dropped his magcycle down the far side of the massive tube, the gripping the handlebars has as it bobbed and dipped. The main launching tube of the mass driver threw off erratic magnetic fields as it warmed up and prepared for its next launch which made using maglev vehicles nearby difficult at best and downright dangerous at worst. Every couple of years some idiot thrillseeker misjudged the fields or his vehicle’s ability to compensate for them, or worse didn’t shy away from the tube before it launched and the sudden magnetic spike threw his ride like it was a toy. Regardless of what happened it ended with a dead magrider in the streets of Kalteisen and a brief period of tighter security around the mass driver that made it harder for all the other magriders to make good time.

Of course, the ones who didn’t meet that fate were the smart ones, and Johnny prided himself on being one of the smartest. There wasn’t a thing they could do with spaceport security that he couldn’t deal with. And like all the smartest magriders in Kalteisen, he knew the fastest way across the city was to run along, above or below the section of the Cochran Mass Driver that cut through the northern half of the spaceport. It was dangerous, sure, but it also cut almost twenty seconds off the time it took you to make the east/west run from Gaffer’s Rock to Canal Street. No one raced seriously without hopping the CMD Superhighway.

Besides, the mass driver was a Cochran and they stuck by their own.

But today it did seem to be playing favorites. He was having a hard time keeping the maglev output on his cycle optimized, not an easy task in any situation and made doubly hard by the facts that one, he was running alongside a gigantic electromagnet and two, the area surrounding the mass driver wasn’t intended as an access route. Keeping an eye on the shifting magnetic fields was hard enough without having to dodge support struts, antenna broadcasting keep-away warnings to autonav programs – helpfully disabled on his own magcycle – or the random junk that seemed to accumulate in any out of the way place in a major city on any planet.

Yet even though Johnny struggled he could see his cousin Pat a few hundred feet ahead bobbing along at top speed, threading his way through obstacles along the path of least resistance so fast you’d think he’d never even heard of wind resistance. Sure, he was two years older and he was in the military but that didn’t exactly lend itself to getting lots of practice magcycling. The Space Forces did make extensive use of magnetic drives but Patrick was in the Biocomputing Corps.

A little voice in the back of his mind pointed out that the ability to think twenty eight  times as fast as the normal human might have something to do with Pat’s performance but Johnny did his best to ignore it. He’d always been the better driver ever since he was old enough to be trusted with a cycle of his own. No way he was loosing just because Pat had some new hardware in his skull.

The Mass Driver fired every twenty minutes, barring maintenance or technical problems. Trying to keep a magnetically driven vehicle on course while the Mass Driver was engaged was suicide, it was big enough to throw fifty kiloton containers from ground to orbit after all. That was quite a feat, even with the nothing but relatively low Martian gravity and thin atmosphere to deal with, and it required a huge amount of power to make it work. Piggybacking on all that electricity as it primed the launcher was part of what gave magcycles the speed that made it an effective short cut.

Unified Field Theory said that the closer two magnets were, the stronger their attracting or repelling power. And on top of the mass driver was not the closest point to its magnetic drivers. If you drew a square through the circular tube so that each corner touched the circle of the tube, the magnets would be at each corner of the tube. There was enough junk sticking out of or scattered around the mass driver that  you couldn’t get close any of those lines of magnets, though.

Not until the last two miles of it, that is.

Johnny spotted the support strut he had been looking for coming up fast and dropped his magcycle off the top of the mass driver’s length, the autonav system running in his helmet heads up display – but not connected to his bike! – protesting as he momentarily strayed away from the strongest magnetic fields in the area. Then he fired the emergency compressed air thrusters to spin it almost exactly a hundred degrees and latched almost directly onto the magnetic line that ran through the mass driver at about eight o’clock.

Now he was hanging onto the side of his cycle for dear life and struggling to keep it in a more or less straight line as it hummed along, his head closer to the ground than his feet, knees clinging to the bike, front electromagnet pulling him forward towards opposite charges in front of him, rear electromagnet pushing him away from like charges behind, the autonav once again happily pointing him towards the strongest magnetic sources.

And that was all he had to do for the next fifteen seconds. There was nothing along this stretch of the mass driver – no support struts, maintenance buildings, diagnostic antennas, spaceport walls or random debris high enough to clip his head. In fact, there was just enough time to glance out at the spaceport itself and catch the sight of a Combined Orbital/Deep Space military drop ship coming down on one of the farther bounce pads like some kind of flying whale, graceful despite its bulk. He wondered if it had come for Pat. He was shipping back out in a day or two.

The walls of the city were coming up on them again. The mass driver was one of the oldest structures still standing on Mars, when it had been built there hadn’t been a city, just a spaceport and a preliminary settlement twenty miles away. Now the three were almost one and the same.

Since the Cochran Mass Driver was both a valuable resource and something of a historical landmark, not to mention still privately owned, the city had been forced build around it. Getting through the  the city walls, which held in the atmosphere suitable for human habitation, was the single most dangerous part of running the mass driver. Sure, there was the danger of loosing your helmet or suit integrity in the thin Martian atmosphere, or worse when diving through the vents that filtered pollution our from the city’s atmosphere and forced it into the world at large.

But the biggest danger was still the physical barriers humanity had to maintain between their living area and the more hostile world outside.

The wall of the city rushed up at them quickly. Pat was still at least twenty feet ahead, effortlessly bobbing his bike back and forth to take best advantage of the fluctuating magnetic fields around the mass driver. Johnny had gained some distance by taking the straight shot along the side of the tube but not nearly enough. The next hurdle would be going through the vents.

No one had ever come up with a scheme that would let Mars retain a breathable atmosphere so settlements on the planet were still enclosed. But buildups of toxic gasses from industrial processes that couldn’t be reprocessed into anything useful weren’t allowed to stay inside the biospheres and were instead vented out into the atmosphere. When Kalteisen had built around the mass driver the architects had apparently figured why not kill two birds with one stone and positioned vents in a ring around the mass driver tube. The Cochran Trustees hadn’t been happy about it but eminent domain left them with little in the way of legal recourse.

Magcycle racers loved them because not only did they represent a sizable shortcut by letting you through the city walls but they could kill you in three separate and exciting ways. Getting through them safely brought a corresponding level of admiration from other racers.

The first hurdle was catching them when they were open, since leaving them open all the time defeated the purpose of enclosing the city. Johnny could see over Pat’s shoulder well enough to tell that, for better or for worse, they were closed at the moment. They opened every few minutes, for about a minute at a time, but waiting for the vanes of the vent to snap open had changed the outcome of more than one race across the city.

Come in to fast and you slammed into the wall and an exciting new life as a cripple, best case. Come in to slow and gutsier racers would beat you through.

Pat suddenly slowed down, the front of his bike kicking up slightly to increase its wind resistance and it’s magnetic fields suddenly reversing polarity on the autonav readout. It was the maglev equivalent of kicking on the brakes and it was also a good time to pass. Sure, the shutters on the vents were closed but that didn’t mean you couldn’t speed up. It just meant it was risky.

But Patrick was a savvy magracer too, he kept his bike bobbing back and forth, its magnetic polarity fluctuating rapidly and always in opposition to Johnny’s so that the two magcycles repelled each other whenever they got close. Even when Johnny tried doing a complete loop around the launch tube to shake him off Pat managed to cut him off and push him back, nearly shoving him clear of the mass driver entirely and sentencing him to a fast meeting with the ground of the Martian desert.

They were less than a mile out when the vents to the city snapped open and started spewing out clouds of dark vapor into the world outside. Both racers kicked their magnetic drives into high gear and shot towards them, jockeying for position forgotten.

Those clouds were danger number two. The whole point of opening those vents was to pump all that toxic air out but the clouds only really cleared up as the vanes were closing again. By then it was too late to sneak through the vents. But the vents were barely tall enough to let a magcycle and its rider through if the rider crouched low. Since the smog clouded a driver’s ability to see it was easy to clip one of the vanes on the vent and spin out, pancaking onto the wall, the mass driver or the ground and giving the local EMT teams a new story to tell at the bar that night.

But, as he had with just about every other problem on that run so far, Pat plunged through the clouds without hesitation. It was hard to hear through the thin atmosphere but it didn’t sound like he’d wiped out, not that Johnny really had any time to change anything if he had. A split second later he kicked his magcycle up just a fraction, flying up at an angle through the vents in what experience and other magcyclers had taught him was the safest way to clear the hazard. For values of safety, of course.

Almost as soon as his brain processed the fact that he’d once again timed things perfectly and wasn’t going to paste himself all over Kalteisen’s outskirts he had to deal with third and final complication of reentering the city as he had. Gravity was rapidly cranking back up to normal.

After all, human bodies don’t function right in low gravity and Unified Field Theory, correctly applied, made keeping one G of gravity a simple matter of producing enough power. Not all local governments could afford to keep Earth standard gravity within their confines but Kalteisen could and did as a matter of public health. So as soon as Johnny was back inside the walls of the city he started falling, and fast.

Which was good, since for the racer speed equals opportunity. Patrick had been out on deployment for nearly a year and before that he’d been in training. He didn’t know the neighborhood as well as he once did.

The old Chinese restaurant on the corner of Laughlin’s Way and Straight Street had added in a new and outrageously powerful “back-up” generator two months ago. It ran all the time and gave new life to the rumors that they were connected to the Triad somehow. And gave it an outrageously powerful magnetic field bounce off of, cutting a loop off the route they’d used last time they raced. And it was nearly half a block away from the old route.

Johnny bounced his magcyle just enough to point it in the right direction then, instead of grabbing onto the local maglev relay that would pull him into the official “lanes” of traffic that crisscrossed the city he matched polarity with it and shot skyward in a long parabolic arc that took him towards the restaurant.

Too late he noticed Pat’s magnetic field on his autonav, not running down Ender’s Way like he should be but instead hovering just over the Chinese place! As Johnny dropped towards him Pat’s bike suddenly bounced up and matched polarities with his, sending Johnny hurtling off course. He caught a relay over Laughlin nearly a block out and wound up making Canal Street long after Pat, not only loosing the race but posting a time of 7:23, a personal worst.

Johnny broke the seals on his helmet and threw it to the ground in a flurry of cursing that fought to be heard over Pat’s laughing. Finally Johnny got a grip on his temper and said, “How did you do that?”

Pat threw one arm around Johnny’s shoulders and thumped him in the chest with the other, the impact mostly lost in the padded, airtight suits they wore for racing. “Simply strategy, Johnny my boy! Know the terrain and you’ll win the battle.”

“Not that! Well, okay, that too.” Johnny fumed for a moment. He probably should have guessed that Patrick would think to scout out the ground before the race, they’d only been promising to do this for the last two months, since the family learned his cousin would be getting leave. “But how did you bump me like that? You jumped straight up then pushed straight down again. I’ve never seen anybody that good at straight mag repulsion flying by the seat of the pants, it takes a nav program or something.”

Tapping one finger against his temple Pat said, “What am I again?”

Johnny groaned. “A biocomputer.”

“Exactly. Overclocking at 28X is good for more than just fast reaction times. And there’s other perks, too.” Pat gave his bike an affectionate kick. “While I can’t do a direct gel interface with this thing I did rig some modifications in the controls to suit me better.”

“You what?” Johnny stared, openmouthed. “That’s cheating!”

You upgraded your magcoils while I was gone,” Pat said. “It’s the same thing. I just tweaked out my bike in a different direction. Face it, Johnny Boy – you lost.” He turned Johnny back towards his bike and gave him a little push, then hopped back on his own magcycle. “Now as I recall, this means you owe me some Chinese!”

Johnny snorted and snatched his helmet up off the ground. “I’ll get you for this next time.”

“Dream on!” Pat snapped his helmet into place and then made his way back towards the restaurant they’d just passed over at a much more leisurely pace.

Eight Months Later

“Are you Mr. John Cochran?”

Johnny set aside the old balancing gyro he’d just pulled of his bike and looked over the top of the seat. An unfamiliar man wearing a ComODS dress uniform and a grim expression stood there. The drab gray almost let him vanish into the concrete walls of the garage and made the glimmering silver oak leaf that denoted his rank stand out all the more.

“I’m seventeen and I don’t have my citizenship papers yet,” Johnny said, dragging himself to his feet as a feeling of dread started to build in the pit of his stomach. “No one calls me mister anything.”

“Sorry. My mistake.” He took a few steps into the garage, his flat topped, black brimmed hat held in front of him like a shield. “Actually, your mother asked me to come out here and talk to you.”

“Is this about Pat? Because I can’t think of any other reason for a ComODS major to come out here and talk to us.” Johnny folded his arms over his chest and glared. “We’re not the important Cochrans, you know.”

“Yes, actually.” A ghost of a smile cracked the man’s stern face. “There are thousands of Cochrans just descended from Zachariah Cochran. Only a couple hundred are involved directly in running the mass driver. Everyone in the family is different. I served with several Martian Cochrans over the years. They all gave the same speech and it was true every time.”

Johnny cocked his head to one side, surprise warring with his other emotions briefly. “Yeah? Well. So why are you here?”

He glanced down at his hat briefly, then up to look Johnny in the eye. “I regret to inform you that your cousin, Captain Patrick Cohen has been declared missing in action.”

“Missing in action?” Johnny felt some of the tension relax. “Then you’re looking for him?”

The major didn’t break eye contact. “Son, he’s been declared MIA because we no longer intend to actively look for him.”

“Why not?” Johnny demanded, coming around the bike and stopping almost toe to toe with the uniformed man.

“Captain Cohen was on a deep space deployment when his vessel went missing. I’m afraid details beyond that are classified.” The major, who’s uniform had the name Williams over the left pocket, put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Son, deep space is huge. We could look for your cousin for decades and never turn him up.”

“But-”

“Listen for a minute, son.” Major Williams turned and walked around the garage, looking at the tools, parts and programming equipment that made up a magcycler’s workshop. “Your mother tells me you two were close. Not just his closest living family but real buddies.”

Johnny nodded slowly. “Our dads worked space traffic control, they were buddies. Died when the Braggadocio wrecked in Katleisen Synchorbit. Pat’s mom… didn’t live long after that. So he lived with us.”

Williams nodded. “I remember that fiasco. Mr. Cochran, I know you’re probably never give up on finding your cousin. Honestly, we never will either. That’s part of what makes MIA cases so difficult. You never know when to give up hope. Every commander who takes a vessel through deep space keeps his ear out for signals from missing ships. But right now you need to focus on the family you’ve got left. If Captain Cohen is still alive out there he’s tough enough to make it until we can rescue him.”

“Yeah?” It took a lot of effort but Johnny managed to keep his voice from trembling. “And what guarantee is there that you’ll really keep looking?”

Major Williams ignored the question, instead poking at a half rebuilt maglev coil on the workbench. “You a racer or just a tinkerer?”

“A racer,” Johnny said suspiciously.

“Any good?”

He drew himself up defensively. “I’ve run the CMD Superhighway in under three minutes. Crossed the city in 7:09.”

Major Williams raised his eyebrows. “Better than good, then. So, here’s something to think about. No one has more time to sift through deep space background noise for traces of lost ships than fighter pilots flying battle space patrol on boring escort missions. A lot of the same skills you’ve gotten pulling stupid stunts on that bike will be useful as a pilot. If you absolutely have to look for your cousin, that’s the best way to do it. Just talk to your mother before you sign up. She’s already had enough holes punched in her heart for a couple of lifetimes.”

“There’s always been Cochrans in the military,” Johnny said before his brain caught up to his mouth. When it did a split second later he added, “But I’ll talk to her. If I were to sign up, wouldn’t I need a recommendation or something? Pilots are officers and that means the Academy, right?”

“Did you really make it from Gaffer to Straight in under 7:15?”

Johnny patted his magcycle. “Want to see me do it again?”

The major snorted. “You’re right under a major synchorbital space station and a military shipyards and the security there likes to watch races on the slow nights. If you’ve done it less than six months ago odds are there’s still footage of you doing it floating around. That’s really all the recommendation you need for the fighter program.”

“That’s all?”

He shrugged. “That and decent scores in math, science, physical ability and the rest. You plan to take a shot at finding your brother?”

“Yeah. Can you think of a better reason for taking a job that could get you killed?”

“This from a magcycle racer.” Williams laughed. “Well, greater love has no man than this, I suppose. Best of luck, son. Best of luck.”

Fiction Index

Code Red (Part One)

Well here we are just two stories into the summer plans and we’re already off schedule. This story took me all of two and a half days to write so I figured it must be short – but when I went to post it I discovered it was about twice as long as what I would consider ideal post length. Looks like it’s perfect for a two part story!

——–

The position of chief technician on a Trenchman sub was a weird blend of chemical expert, mechanical engineer and botanist with a smattering of really weird expertise thrown in for flavor. They were very smart, very well respected people who the crew listened to as a matter of course, even when they didn’t personally like the technician in question. Captain Oscar Duffy had always gotten on fine with Old Phil, his chief tech, so when Phil called him off the bridge Duffy assumed it was important and made his way down the length of the Erin’s Dream to the rear Oxygen Processing compartment without protest.

“It’s turned red,” Phil said, as if that explained.

“I can see that,” Duffy said. He was, unfortunately, unenlightened by his chief tech’s explanation. “Unfortunately we’re not going to have a replacement on hand any time soon. The salvage bays are going to be mostly empty on our return run, though. Could we just load some extra air in tanks and use that to get us home? We could run part of the way on the surface.”

Old Phil gave him a disbelieving look. “You don’t know what this means, do you?”

“Assume I’m not entirely current on the nuance of every system on this ship.”

“Fine.” He rapped his knuckles sharply on the bulkhead just a foot from where the two men were standing. “You know what’s on the other side of this?”

“Oh.” Duffy felt himself turning pale. “That’s bad.”

“Yes, Captain, it certainly is. The pressure hull isn’t the only thing that’ll need fixing when we get to port.”

——–

Lauren Cochran looked up when Vern walked, or rather shuffled, into the assistant harbor master’s office. He wasn’t the type to intrude without cause, in fact he wasn’t the type to do anything at all to draw attention, so there was really only one possibility if he was crossing her threshold of his own volition. “Something the matter, Vern?”

Vern cleared his throat twice, an annoying but predictable sign of nervousness, and said, “Yes, ma’am. You know we’ve got a sub in port right now?”

“New Darwin’s always had a little Navy presence, Vern,” she said, fingers absently skimming over touchscreens as she tried to bring up the current listing of Royal Australian Navy ships in port. Was there an attack sub at dock just then? “Are they causing problems?”

“Not that I know of.” He fidgeted for a second. “Actually, I’m talking about a civilian sub?”

Flicked fingers sent the military berths away and she started flipping through the larger public listings. “A research sub or a salvage vehicle?”

“The latter.” He handed her the tablet he was holding and said, “The dock inspector found something you should see.”

Lauren grimaced as she took the tablet. It was clammy and sweaty and she did her best to surreptitiously wipe her hands dry as she woke up the device. “You could have just copied me the memory stick, you know.”

Vern shook his head vigorously. “You don’t want this running around the wifi, Lauren. Trust me.”

Erin’s Dream, huh,” she muttered, thumbing through the screens of data. She stopped when she reached the fourth. “Does the harbormaster know about this?”

“Not yet.” Vern looked down at his hands as if ashamed of the fact. “He was in a meeting with the deputy mayor when we noticed. He should be back in half an hour but…”

“You didn’t want this in the datastream. Okay, you made a good call.” She pushed herself up and out from behind her desk. “Have him meet me at Pier 42 as soon as he can.”

“Do you want security there?” Vern asked tentatively. “Or the police?”

“If it was going to be anyone I’d have the military there. But there’s still a chance this is a misunderstanding.”

“You think so?” Vern asked hopefully.

Lauren sighed. “No. Not really.”

——–

The cramped surface deck of Erin’s Dream was cluttered with equipment, parts and crew. With the sub at dock there wasn’t much call for the Waldos so Herrigan found himself doing his best to keep order among the chaos. “No, not the welding equipment. What if Graham needs that to patch the hull? Put it aft with the other stuff going back down into engineering storage.” He scowled around at the rest of the junk on the deck. He’d thought nothing could be as tough as keeping an underwater salvage op from tangling in it’s own power and communication cables but he didn’t even know what half this stuff was, much less whether they’d need it below decks in the next few weeks. “Keep the spare parts for the Waldos and Eddie separate. I don’t want to try seeing if a Waldo battery is compatible with our power supply system, you hear me? Don’t get them mixed up!”

“Hey, Harry?” Herrigan looked down from his vantage up on the conning tower to spot Tank, one of his salvage sub drivers, down on the main deck by the gangplank, waving for his attention. “Harry, some guys here to see you. One of ’em says he’s the harbormaster.”

“Coming!” He rattled down from the conning tower muttering curses. He’d chosen his salvage pilots for experience, since bad salvage pilots were almost entirely weeded out by their first two jobs. If you survived that long you were good. That was the way the job went. But that kind of competence didn’t always come with good manners, something people like harbormasters tended to appreciate.

It was pretty easy to tell with a glance which one the harbormaster was and, just as Herrigan had feared, he didn’t look happy at Tank’s offhand way of referred to him. The kind of man who came out to look at a salvage sub in a three piece suit most likely expected to be addressed with respect, too. There were maybe half a dozen people with the harbormaster too, a pretty large group just to pay a visit to a lowly salvage sub. To say nothing of how unusual a personal visit from the harbormaster was, period.

For the second time that month Herrigan was hearing damage control alarms. Problem was, this time they were entirely in his own mind and he wasn’t sure what kind of damage he was dealing with.

“Hi, I’m Herrigan Cartwright,” he said, holding out a hand to the harbormaster. “Welcome aboard the Erin’s Dream.”

“A pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” the harbormaster said, giving the offered hand a quick shake, his tone making it clear they were just words. “This is a fine looking ship you have.”

Eddie’s got it where it counts…” Herrigan racked his brains quickly and, just as he was about to skip it remembered the name he’d heard during the ship’s initial inspection. “Mr. Bainbridge. What can I do for you today? Or are you perhaps a connoisseur of submersibles? Ours is a pretty unusual model.”

Bainbridge’s expression sharpened momentarily. “It is at that. We weren’t able to find anything like it in our records.”

Which was because Erin’s Dream had been build in Purgatory Ward’s shipyards at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, something the Australians weren’t supposed to know existed. Herrigan mentally kicked himself for that slip up, comparing submarine design and customization was a typical middle class topic of conversation for Trenchmen but he couldn’t expect others to share it. “She was a custom job, actually,” he answered, hoping it didn’t come off as lame as it sounded. “Would you like a tour?”

“Actually, I would. In a manner of speaking.” Bainbridge gestured behind him to a tall, careworn woman with gray streaks beginning to work through her black hair. “This is the assistant harbormaster, Lauren Cochran. We’ve come down here because there were some discrepancies in your registration we’d like to sort out. The two of us would like to take a look through your vessel if you don’t mind, Captain Cartwright.”

He flicked his gaze from the harbormaster to his assistant and back again. Best to buy time to work out a clearer picture of what was going on. “Actually, I’m not the captain. He’s below decks with our XO, getting a feel for some repairs that need doing.”

“You’re not the captain or the fist mate?” Lauren asked. “Then why did they call you over?”

“Because I am part owner. Captain Duffy and I each own half shares in the ship. So far as business decisions go I’m just as capable of making them as he is.” Herrigan offered her a casual shrug. “Tank must have figured this was about some of the repair supplies we’d requested.”

“Well, ‘Tank’ was close but not quite correct.” The harbormaster held up a flat device about the size of a notepad. “Our visit is related to the salvage you’re offering for sale. I notice you haven’t visited New Darwin before, so you might not be aware of some of the rules we have governing what kind of salvage we can and can’t take. We’ll need to inspect it, and do a second inspection of your vessel for possible illicit salvage.”

“Illicit salvage? That some kind of joke?” A glance between the two officials faces convinced him that no, it wasn’t. Herrigan sighed and waved to get Tank’s attention again. “Ring down to the galley and get Duffy up here, will you?”

“The galley?” Lauren asked.

“Yeah, like I said we’re doing some repairs down there. It’s a long story. I’d take you there but the place isn’t in any shape for company.”

“This is an inspection, Mr. Cartwright.” Bainbridge crossed his arms over his chest. “We’ll need to see all sections of the ship eventually.”

“All right,” Herrigan said, keeping a firm grip on his building annoyance. “We’ll go meet Duffy there. Then, since I’m sure we’re all busy people, I’ll take Mrs. Cochran to inspect our salvage holds and Duffy can give you the grand tour. Sound good?”

“Splendid,” Bainbridge replied. “Lead on.”

——–

The crew of Erin’s Dream was almost as strange as the ship itself. Almost everyone they passed in the corridors was wearing the same kind of slick, plastic shelled jacket that Herrrigan wore. Lauren hadn’t seen that many people on deck wearing them but that may just have been to keep cool. It quickly became apparent why they wore the jackets, temperatures belowdecks weren’t that bad but the humidity bordered on stifling. The jackets collected condensation and wicked it down to the floor quickly. She couldn’t tell what happened to the moisture after that, there certainly weren’t any puddles visible leading her to assume some kind of drainage system was at work.

The humidity was probably the driving force behind the almost total lack of hair on all of the men she’d seen. Most had just shaved their heads bald but some, like Herrigan, had enough fuzz on the top of their heads to be confused for a peach. The one woman she’d seen so far, the XO by all accounts, wore her hair short enough to be mistaken for a man most other places.

That might make things seem drab except the crew all seemed intent on wearing the brightest colors possible. Herrigan and at least half the crew had chosen a bright canary yellow for their waterproof jackets, most of the rest were an equally bright shade of blue. As nearly as Lauren could tell, the color didn’t correspond to job description in any way. While clothes tended to be loose cut and shapeless the crew seemed to favor crazy patterns on the fabric and, when mixed with tools sticking out of pockets,  bandanas on heads or broad leather belts, the whole crew had a vaguely piratical air.

Even Captain Duffy, who out of the whole crew wore the only gray waterproof jacket she’d seen and wore a button down shirt, accessorized with a bolo tie and iron gray hoop earrings.

Herrigan’s black trimmed, yellow clothes would have made him unremarkable in comparison to the rest of the crew except for the fact that he was armed.

Lauren caught sight of the weapons as he cranked open the pressure door leading into what he called the salvage bay. On the side of his belt he wore what looked like an ionizer with an unfamiliar control scheme. A knife handle stuck out from behind his back. She couldn’t tell more because as soon as she realized what they were he was pushing the door open and his jacket fell to cover them again.

“Tell me, Mrs. Cochran, what exactly is illicit salvage?” He asked, ushering her into a comparatively large compartment that, for all it’s size, was nearly crammed full with a set of six minisubs painted the bright sky blue she was starting to suspect was the signature color of Erin’s Dream.

Lauren cleared her throat, suddenly a little nervous. Herrigan Cartwright didn’t strike her as a particularly dangerous man, with no hair on his head his ears seemed comically prominent and the rest of him was a bit too gangly and awkward to be really threatening. If anything he looked kind of like a forty year old man who’d never outgrown his teenaged gawkiness. But an armed man was an armed man, and he might not like what he was about to hear.

“Australia has a law against salvaging any vessel that’s been on the ocean floor less than five years. Ships that do so can be barred from our ports and scrap companies that purchase such salvage can be fined.”

Herrigan’s brow furrowed. “Really? How can you tell? It’s not like they’re dated when you find them on the ocean floor, after all.”

“We have a process for that,” Lauren said, waving the tablet she’d brought with her and hoping Herrigan didn’t want any details she didn’t have. “It won’t take more than an hour to run the inspection, depending on how much scrap you have.”

“We only got the front hold half full before we had the mishap that brought us here,” Herrigan said, waving to their left. “There’s nothing in the aft hold right now, although you can have a look there if you want.”

“We can do that after.” He didn’t seem interested in what the tablet was supposed to be doing in all this and that was a relief. “Lead on.”

“You got it.” He threaded his way between the minisubs and the wall of the bay, taking a moment to stop and examine the manipulator arms on the vehicle as he went past. They passed a total of three minisubs and Herrigan stopped to look at each one.

“Can I ask what exactly it is you do?” Lauren said as he straightened up from inspecting the arms on the third sub. “You said you’re part owner of the ship but if that was all you are I think you’d be back at home, letting the crew do the earning for you.”

Herrigan laughed. “I’m not sure a crew like this would work for a guy like that. Still, since you asked, I’m the salvage team commander when we’re working on a wreck. The rest of the time I’m the deputy and assistant – well, chief cook now, I guess.” Lauren’s face twitched towards a scowl before she could catch herself and Herrigan caught it. “The food’s not that bad, honest.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” she said, absently rubbing at her wrist. “Deputy, you say? Are you a union man or something?”

“Or something,” he agreed, nodding vaguely. “But mostly, I cook.”

“I just don’t like the idea.”

“Of cooking?”

“Salvage.”

“Oh.” He was quiet for a moment as the finished crossing the bay. As he cranked the next pressure door open he asked, “Any particular reason?”

She mulled over what to tell him as he swung the door open and ushered her into the next compartment. The lights clicked on as he stepped in behind her. Finally, Lauren said, “My husband died at sea. I wasn’t… I didn’t really think anything about salvage before. But after… I have a hard time with the idea of total strangers pulling his ship apart around his body.”

Herrigan was quiet for a few minutes, leaving her with her thoughts and the sight of a dozen or so racks of neatly cut hull plates, crates of more complex parts like pumps or electrical boxes and who knew what else. Finally she gathered herself together and brought her tablet to life, pulled up the utility she needed and went to work.

“Ever heard of Erin McClain?” Herrigan asked after she’d been engrossed in looking over the salvage for a minute or two.

“No.” Lauren glanced up from her tablet. “Did she design this ship?”

“Not exactly, although it is named after her. She died a good five or six years before it was built.” Herrigan offered a casual shrug. “Kind of well known in shipbuilding circles. She was a big advocate of recycling. Said reusing what others left us furthered their legacy, rather than harming it. When Eddie was built I guess the christeners thought a salvage ship ought to be named after someone like that.”

“A nice sentiment, anyway.” Lauren went back to the salvage and tried not to think about where it came from or who it might have once belonged to. Or, for that matter, whether it was radioactive.

——–

“This is spare parts storage but most of that is up on deck right now. You’d be amazed how that kind of thing gets jumbled up over the years.” Duffy forced a smile. “Finding the patches and equipment to fix the hull breach you saw in the galley gave us a good excuse to sort it.”

“I was amazed to see a part of your ship look so… empty,” Bainbridge agreed, a hint of condescension in his voice.

“It’s a salvage sub,” Gwen said, ice in her voice colder than the Trench itself. “Space is at a premium.”

“Of course.” Bainbridge peered around at the empty shelves for a moment, boredom evident on his face. “Forgive me, Captain Duffy, but I’m beginning to suspect that this whole visit is a waste of everyone’s time. Maybe-”

“Captain?” Young Phil’s head poked through the pressure door at the other end of the compartment.

Duffy resisted the urge to try and shoo him away, after twenty minutes of the ship’s most boring features they’d almost gotten rid of the harbormaster. But shooing the young tech away now would look bad. “Yes, Phil?”

“Gramps wants you down in aft oxygen processing.” Old Phil and Young Phil were actually related, grandfather and grandson, and they had certain qualities in common. A tendency to ignore anyone that didn’t strike them as important was one of them and, given the fact that he didn’t even glance at Gwen or the harbormaster meant that whatever Old Phil wanted it was strictly Captain’s Business.

“I’m sorry, if you’d excuse me for a minute, my-”

“Captain, in case you’ve forgotten this is a total inspection,” Bainbridge said, immediately attentive. “We’ve started, we may as well finish. Let’s have a look at this oxygen processing compartment, shall we?”

“If you insist,” Duffy said, hiding a smile.  This might be to his advantage after all. It looked like the snappily dressed harbormaster just needed one more push to get him off the boat and oxygen processing would do nicely. “Right this way, gentleman.”

Their destination was several compartments aft and one deck down, requiring a little backtracking and a lot of edging past damp, sweaty crew. Once, when Graham came by leading a pair of crewmen carrying bags full of spoiled food from the ruined galley, he thought the harbormaster was about to bolt. But Bainbridge sucked in his stomach, smoothed down the front of his snazzy suit and let the three men by. A few moments later Duffy cranked open the pressure door into oxygen processing and let the harbormaster and his two men in first, sharing a smile with Gwen behind their backs.

“What is this?” Bainbridge exclaimed a moment later, a hand going over his mouth and nose in a vain attempt to combat the smell of compost and seawater. “Captain Duffy, why do you have a compartment full of seaweed?”

“It’s oxygen processing,” the Phils said in unison. The younger finished the thought, pushing into the compartment and trotting over to his grandfather. “We pump air through here and the seaweed breaks down the carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen and emergency food staples.”

Bainbridge looked around at the room in horror. The compartment was actually just a couple of narrow pathways through floor to ceiling water tanks crammed full of fernlike seaweed and clinging pillows of algae. “And this actually provides you with enough oxygen?”

“Well, this and the other two similar compartments throughout the ship handle about two thirds of our needs under normal circumstances,” Duffy said, pulling the pressure door closed behind him.

“Or they would if we could get that leak fixed,” Old Phil said, pulling an unhealthy reddish plant out of one of the tanks and tossing it into a bucket by his feet. Dozens of other dying plants already filled it to overflowing. “Captain if this keeps up we’re not going to be able to count on this compartment for more than half it’s usual output. The plants are dying off and it’ll take weeks, maybe months, for new splittings from the other compartments to get up to full size.”

“So we’ll take on some tanks of oxygen along with the other supplies. We’re already bankrupting ourselves on this run anyways.” Duffy shook his head ruefully. “We can handle running a little heavy in O2 reserves if we-”

A pinging noise from one of Bainbridge’s two men cut him off. The lackey, a big, tattooed guy with enough gut to suggest he spent more time in paperwork than honest work, pulled out one of the tablet computer gizmos that most of the dock workers seemed to carry and consulted it for a second. Then he said in alarm, “Harbormaster, this compartment is radioactive!”

“Well what do you think’s killing the seaweed?” Old Phil demanded. “Our reactor hasn’t cooled down enough to apply a patch yet.”

“It’s not dangerous to humans if we avoid long term exposure,” Young Phil added. “The seaweed is only affected because it’s been stuck next to the reactor for a week and a half.”

Bainbridge slowly turned to look at Duffy, sheer horror written across his features. “This ship is powered by a nuclear reactor?”

“Yes?” He hadn’t meant to be snide but Duffy’s answer still came out more like a question. The growing storm of emotions on the harbormaster’s face prompted the captain to add, “Is this going to be a problem?”

“Is it-” Bainbridge actually sputtered for a full five seconds, his men shifting nervously and exchanging glances as they waited for some cue on what to do. “This is an outrage, captain! Your ship will be impounded immediately! And you, Mr. Duffy, if that’s really your name, you will…”

At that point it looked like no more useful information was forthcoming. And really, after threatening to take his ship what more could there be to hear? Duffy looked at Gwen and said, “Tell Cartwright he needs to get up here. Now.”

——–

“Impound the ship?” Herrigan stared at the intercom in disbelief, as if doubting Gwen would somehow change what he was hearing. “Because of a reactor leak?”

“That’s what it sounds like. I – What?” The last bit was indistinct, not said into the pickup on the other end. There was a click and the speaker went dead.

Herrigan sighed and switched his own end of the conversation off. “Come on, Mrs. Cochran. Your boss is pitching a fit about our reactor.”

Lauren came out of the salvage stacks, her face noticeably paler. She could almost pass for a natural Trenchman. “Your what?”

“Our power plant has been leaking radiation since our accident. We’re planning to patch it tomorrow, once things cool a bit more.” Herrigan looked back through the door way as he waited for Lauren to catch up. She seemed oddly reluctant to get any closer. “I’m not irradiated or anything, it’s not a big leak. We can patch it, at least long enough to get it looked at by someone certified.”

“Who are you people?” She asked quietly. “And where are you from?”

“We’re salvagers,” Herrigan said, stepping back into the salvage bay slowly, wondering what he’d said that was wrong. “Our home port is Norfolk.”

“I thought that’s what your paperwork said.” She held her tablet between the two of them like it was a shield. “But no one calls it that anymore. Everyone calls it the Greater Chesapeake Port Authority, they have ever since the docks had to be moved out. And the Living States wouldn’t let a nuclear powered ship use that as home port.”

“The Living States?” The question was out before Herrigan could stop it.

“Who are you?” Laruen demanded, Herrigan’s confusion apparently making her bold.

He pulled in a lungfull of air and sighed. “Okay, fine. Game’s up. I’m Herrigan Cartwright, part owner and salvage commander of Erin’s Dream. And I’m a fully deputized constable of the Third Ward of the Alcatraz Pact, born and raised on the bottom of the Marianas Trench.”

Lauren stared at him in what he took to be an open invitation to continue. “We’ve been down there for almost ninety years, you know. It was a joint project, mostly Brazil and the US – you still got the US?” She nodded mutely. “That may not be good for us, then. Anyway, back then people were trying to combat global warming and decided to round up all the most committed skeptics and exile them some place where their ‘harmful practices’ couldn’t reach the world at large. And I think the sealed biosphere they were stuck in was supposed to help them see the errors of their ways, force them to adopt sustainable living and be less greedy or drive themselves to extinction. I’m not surprised you never heard of it, the project was kept hush-hush. At least to the public, other governments must have heard about it because we wound up getting people from just about everywhere except Australia – probably have your history to thank for that – and many of the later ones weren’t people exiled for views that didn’t match the political climate.”

Herrigan leaned against the doorframe and watched Lauren’s expression. He’d been hoping for a good mix of conflicting emotions – our at least outrage over his bad joke at the end – but all he was really getting was shock. Maybe a final push. “Funny how that worked out, given as how we finally get back up to the surface and, as near as we can tell, you’re stuck in the middle of an ice age with falling sea levels and everything. What caused that?”

Lauren finally looked him in the eye. “Nuclear winter.”

It was his turn to process things, and he took his time doing it. Then summed up his thoughts. “Huh.”

Fiction Index
Part Two

Summer Plans

This summer the plan is to write stories.

Shocking, yes, but I hope not entirely unpalatable to the majority of my audience. Of course, you may want to know what kinds of stories, how long they’ll be and things like that. Worry not! I have actually put some thought into that and I have plan. Of course, I had a plan last summer and things wound up going awry more than once. Hopefully this time things will work out better.

The current plan calls four a total of seven short stories, one of which was posted last week in honor of Memorial Day. Memorial to a Saint was a Sumter short but only one of two that I’m planning for this summer. The second will come at the end of the other five and will in no way serve as a prelude to Thunder Clap. Seriously, it’s related in only the most tangential fashion.

That gives us five stories to spread across three other sets of narrative worlds. We’ll start next week by going back to the divided futures and seeing what the crew of Erin’s Dream is up to and what Port Darwin looks like in a hundred years. Then we’ll jump a couple of hundred years further into the future and see how of the most powerful families on Mars lives. In three weeks we’ll be back on Earth, visiting a group of the Weavers of the Heartlands that live right here in my home city of Fort Wayne. Finally we’ll abandon Earth as we know it entirely and tag along with Dmitri Dostoevsky on the business of empire for a couple of weeks before we jump back to Project Sumter’s neck of the woods. Of course, with all that world hopping going on there’s no telling where in time we might come down, so be prepared for anything.

With all that out of the way it will be time to start the third and final novel planned for this visit to Project Sumter’s timeline. Thunder Clap is the culmination of all the work I’ve been putting into Circuit and Helix over the past couple of years and I’m excited about it. Further, there’s not much I could say by way of introduction that wouldn’t steal from the story itself so I don’t plan to write an introduction so we’ll be swinging straight into the meat of things. By my count that means that, if everything goes as planned (ha!), the first chapter of Thunder Clap will come out some time in early August. I hope you’re looking forward to it. I know I am.

In the mean time, please enjoy the short stories and let me know what you think!

Trial By Winter

When the pipes in the house froze they started to get really nervous. The snowstorm in the New Mexico had surprised them a little, more because it rattled the thin walls of the house like a ghost rattled chains than anything. The sense of high flying altitude had been unsettling too, but after a while they got used to it. But when they got thirsty and realized they couldn’t get any water out of the pipes, that’s when they started to get really nervous.

They had just made their third complete round of all the faucets in the house and come back to the kitchen sink to try and think up something to unfreeze it when they noticed someone was coming.

It wasn’t like they heard footsteps or anything. But there, on the edges of their minds, like a small weight, something pushed down on the edge of the cold. It was getting warmer in a small area. That usually happened when people wandered into an area they had frozen, usually attracted by the snow. But if they weren’t prepared for the cold, and in New Mexico who would be, they tended to leave pretty quickly. But this warm spot was making it’s way in to the house and towards the door.

The two girls exchanged a glance. “Do you think Frau Nagel is back?”

Her sister shook her head. “She can’t move the cold. She wouldn’t come here alone.”

“When she finds out that we made cold without her permission she’ll be mad enough it won’t matter,” the first girl said.

They shared a knowing nod and started to move towards the laundry room at the back of the house. They hadn’t gone far when the door to the house rattled. The girls stopped and exchanged another glance. Both Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt had keys, had the only keys to the house. Anyone who didn’t have a key wasn’t supposed to come in.

Reluctantly, the sisters stepped back to the kitchen counter and set their water glasses there. They were still thirsty, how could they not be after so long in the cold? But robbers breaking into the house couldn’t be tolerated. Herr Schmidt had been quite clear on that. It was one of the few things he and Frau Nagel agreed on.

The girls had gone half way to the door when the sound of the lock clicking brought them up short. They didn’t have time for anything else before the door swung open. It wasn’t Frau Nagel, which made things a little easier.

Things like lock picks were beyond the two of them, so they simply assumed that the two men at the door had gotten a key from somewhere – most likely, Frau Nagel, as she had gone out to “look in on someone” before the cold. One of them was fairly short, only a few inches taller than they were. He was saying, “How often do you have to do that, anyway?”

The taller man tucked something into his jacket pocket and then shrugged. “Often enough that it’s better not to talk about it.”

Once again the sisters exchanged a dubious glance. If these were the people Frau Nagel had gone to look in on they were certainly a strange pair. The taller man was plain, except for his goatee. The shorter man had light brown hair and blue eyes, except for his height he looked every bit the good German, so that was something at least. But they were both speaking English. With a silent nod, one of the sisters stepped forward.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “May I ask why you are here?”

The shorter man jerked, as if surprised. On closer inspection, the girl decided he couldn’t be that much older than they were. He didn’t have lines on his face like Frau Nagel or Herr Schmidt did and, of course, he was not that tall. Surely he must be young then.

The plain man murmured, “Field work means being on your toes, Double Helix.” Then he knelt on one knee and rested his hands on the other and gave the two sisters an evaluating stare. “Now what do we have here?”

“Has Frau Nagel sent you for the eugenics test?” The same girl asked.

“Eugenics?” An eyebrow went up on that plain face. “I’m not sure. I’ve never met Frau Nagel, is she around here?”

“Oh.” The other sister shrank back behind the one who had been talking up until then. “Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt are very insistent that we not talk to strangers.”

The shorter man rested his hands on his hips and nodded. “That’s really good advice, ladies.” The girls blushed slightly at being called ladies. “I don’t suppose Herr Schmidt is here either?”

There was a short pause for a whispered conference between them, then the girls nodded solemnly. The older sister swallowed once and said, “He’s in the back room. Do you want me to take you to him?”

“That’s all right, honey,” the plain man said. “Why don’t you just ask him to come out here? We can wait.”

“I will take you to him,” the older sister said firmly. Then she wavered a bit. “Unless one of you would rather remain here?”

The plain man stroked his goatee once and looked at her thoughtfully. He seemed to be wondering why she was suggesting that rather than seriously considering staying behind. “No,” he said finally. “I’m afraid that without my friend close by it would be a chilly here for me.”

“You can push the cold?” The younger sister asked. Both girls gave the shorter man an expectant look.

“Well…” The young man wavered for a second, and it was time for the two men to exchange a glance. But his older companion just gave a quick shrug, leaving him to figure out an answer on his own. The girls leaned forward a bit, eager to hear the answer. “I guess it’s something similar. Close enough that it doesn’t make much difference, probably.”

“Did Frau Nagel really not send you?” The older sister asked.

“Never met her,” he said. “I’d like to, though.”

It was a hint and the girls knew it. The sighed and started towards the back of the house. The younger hesitated as they reached the kitchen, and her sister stopped and gave her a gentle nudge towards a chair, saying, “Wait here.”

“We’re not getting you into trouble, are we?” The young man absently cracked his knuckles as they walked, although it seemed more like a nervous habit than anticipation.

“We are already in trouble,” she answered.

“Well, maybe when we talk to Herr Schmidt…” His voice trailed off when the girl opened the door.

Herr Schmidt stood there, his skin a pale blue, two fingers snapped of the brittle end of his hand. The girl looked back at the two men and said, “We are not supposed to move the cold unless someone is here to supervise us. My sister is worried that Herr Schmidt won’t recover. We’re keeping him cold until Frau Nagel can tell us what to do.”

The older man swallowed hard. “Uh. I don’t think that’s going to help any.”

“Agent Templeton,” the younger man said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Can I talk to you for a second? Outside?”

——–

“Double Helix, you’re in over your head.” Darryl Templeton folded his arms and gave the kid a hard look over. “Maybe you should head back to the van.”

“Aren’t you the one who just told those girls you’d freeze without me around?” The kid planted his hands on his hips, a posture he used whenever he was feeling stubborn. Darryl had only known Double Helix a few days, but he’d spent a lot of that time being stubborn. “I’m not going to wander off and let you freeze. And I’m worried about those girls.”

Darryl sighed. “And it’s not a bad thing that you are. But do you even have any idea what’s going on here?”

“My best guess is they’re related to Jack Frost.” Helix glanced over his shoulder, back at the house, where the two blonde girls were waiting, huddled in the doorway. “The names of their guardians and their German accents, along with their talking about eugenics, all make them-“

“Wait.” Darryl held up a hand. “You’ve lost me. Who’s Jack Frost? Outside of fairy tales, I mean.”

Helix looked back, seeming a bit surprised. “You’ve never heard of him? Do you know anything about Sergeant Wake or Operation Underworld?”

“I’d never heard of Sergeant Wake until I read about him in your file. I suppose this has something to do with the founding of Project Sumter during the Second World War?”

“Yeah.” Helix grew more animated. “He was assigned to-“

“Hold up.” He wasn’t glad to cut the kid off, it was the most positive expression he’d seen out of Helix since they met. The kid seemed to brood a lot, although that might not be surprising given all the scrutiny he was under at the moment. But rules were rules. “You probably shouldn’t tell me anything more about the Sergeant or his activities. I’m not cleared to know it and you’re not even a part of the Project, so you might get in trouble for even thinking about it.”

“Whatever.” Helix snorted and chewed his lip for a second. “This is bad stuff, Agent Templeton. These girls are so brainwashed and out of it they think keeping Schmidtsicles in the back room is a good idea. The kids need help-“

“Kids!” Darryl laughed. “They’re maybe twelve. That’s what, five years younger than you?”

“Not the point.” Helix fumed for a minute. “Look, they’re identical twins with talent and-“

“They both do?” Darryl’s jaw sagged a bit. “That’s… the file only has one codeword…”

“You’re worried about your paperwork at a time like this?”

“No, it’s just…” Templeton hesitated. “Identical twins, with the same talent? The eggheads will have a holdiay with this.”

“That’s part of what I’m worried about.” Helix folded his arms. “These girls have been a commodity all their lives. If my grandfather was right, the remains of the Nazi talent management program have been trying to get talents to pass from parent to child for nearly a hundred years. These kids are brainwashed and they plan to use them like they just won the National Dog Show. Breeding, or something. What they need is to learn to use their abilities from someone with a conscience.”

“Did you have someone in mind?”
“Clear Skies taught me the ropes.” Helix spread his hands. “I figure she’ll do for these two, as well. Cold spikers and heat sinkers are close enough in nature that at least she won’t get herself the liquid nitrogen treatment.” He gave a quick glance at the dusting of snow around them. “And Project Sumter won’t have to try and explain why winter has shown up in the middle of the desert.”

Templeton thought about that. Clear Skies may have been able to handle a young and rambunctious Double Helix, but she’d been younger then. He’d never met Helix’s grandmother, but he was willing to bet she wasn’t as spry as she used to be. And there was the whole disturbing question of what had happened to Herr Schmidt in the first place. At least there, the girl’s conditioning was likely to play in their favor.

Darryl walked back to the door of the house and motioned for the girls to come out and join them. After a moment’s hesitation, they did. He dropped into a crouch to get a little closer to their eye level, hoping to engender a little trust, and said, “Okay. My name is Darryl Templeton, and my friend here is Double Helix.”

The girls nodded solemnly but didn’t say anything, so he pressed on. “We’re going to take care of Herr Schmidt.” True, although ‘taking care’ would probably involve a plain coffin and quiet burial. “Then I’m going to go and try and find Frau Nagel. Double Helix is going to go with you somewhere, but where depends on your giving me a truthful answer to one question.”

“Of course. Anna and-“

“No names,” Helix said quickly. “Agent Templeton is going to give you new names, and we need you to use those as much as possible.”

“Oh.” The girls nodded sagely. “Yes, we always get new names when we move.”

That made Darryl feel a little queasy, but he did his best to ignore it. He pointed to the girl on the left and said, “From now on you’ll be Frostburn.” He turned to her sister and wavered. There had only been one new code name for a talent opened. “You can be…”

“Coldsnap,” Helix suggested.

“Coldsnap,” Darryl repeated. “Okay?”

“Those are funny names,” Coldsnap said, wrinkling her nose.

“You could be stuck with Double Helix,” Darryl pointed out. Helix grumbled something but Darryl ignored it. “Now, I need you two to tell me what happened to Herr Schmidt.”

There was a moment of embarrassed silence from the girls, then Coldsnap said, “It’s because of the eugenics.”

“Huh?” Helix’s question wasn’t the most intelligent, but it did kind of summarize Darryl’s reaction as well.

“You see, Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt say we are some of the best Germans there are,” Frostburn said, sounding a little proud of the fact. “So we must be very careful not to look at men who aren’t also of good Aryan blood.”

“That was why, last year Frau Nagel told us very strictly not to go into a room with Herr Schmidt if she was not there,” Coldsnap added, sounding a bit apologetic. Darryl realized she was probably referring to the fact that, from what he’d seen, Herr Schmidt had dark, curly hair that didn’t really mesh with the Aryan ideal.

“So when Herr Schmidt came into her room,” Frostburn nudged her sister, “we were surprised. And…”

“It was an accident,” Coldsnap hastened to add. “We were surprised, and rushed out and he grabbed at me and…”

The girls trailed into silence and Darryl sighed. The worst part was, he couldn’t tell if this was just some kind of simple misunderstanding or if the man had actually been some kind of pervert or if it had been some kind of combination of the two. Probably the latter, with the idealized position the girls held in Schmidt’s twisted ideology not helping matters at all. “All right. If the two of you will turn down your cold and let the desert go back to normal, Double Helix will take the two of you to meet his grandmother.”

“Really?” Coldsnap seemed surprised. “Will that be all right?”

“Relax,” Helix said. “If there’s one thing Clear Skies has always wanted and never gotten, it’s more grandchildren. She’s only got me, and I think she always wanted a granddaughter or two.”

Darryl took his arm and led Helix off a few paces, then lowered his voice. “Look, kid, I know this is a big deal for you, but seriously, in my book you’re already qualified for field work. If you want to work for the Project I think it’s just a matter of finishing the paperwork. You’ve made it past the Senate Committee and kept a level head in the field. The deal isn’t going to fall apart if this doesn’t work out, so don’t put too much pressure on your grandma, okay?”

Helix just gave a wicked smile. “Agent Templeton, all I can say is you’ve never met Clear Skies.”

The girls flanked Helix as he led them back towards the waiting vans, which had to park half a block away to stay outside the worst of the girl’s unnatural cold. Of course, with the girl’s cold spikes gone, the temperature was rapidly climbing back up to desert norms. Frostburn was saying, “Your Grandmother must have very good German blood as well, if you could make it through the cold. It’s too bad Frau Nagel couldn’t give you the eugenics test. I think you’d have good, German children.”

Helix gave a nervous chuckle. “Listen girls, let’s not mention eugenics tests or children around Clear Skies, okay?”

“Why not?” Coldsnap asked.

“Because if there’s one thing Clear Skies wants and hopes to have in the near future, it’s great-grandkids.”

Darryl just shook his head and started back into the house. There was still a lot of clean-up to do, and the mysterious Frau Nagel to look for. One thing he was certain of, if Double Helix did come to work for Project Sumter, whoever his supervisor wound up being would have a lot more paperwork than normal to deal with. Not an appealing prospect, that. Not appealing at all.

Fiction Index

The Doyen and The Dragon

“You know, Mons, you would think that, as a society that has discovered a way to fling the thousands of tonnes of gold and silver in a Terra Front from one fold of the world to another-“

“To say nothing of all the copper, steel and rockmelt.”

“To say nothing of them. In short, a society that can move buildings from world to world should be able to make a man a pair of boots he can use to climb a mountain without chafing his feet raw.”

Mons paused for a moment as they trudged up the side of the mountain in question. “You are still young, my doyen. They might no longer fit. Do you wish to stop for a rest?”

“What I want is a reevaluation of our priorities,” the doyen said, waving Mons on ahead of him. “We have magic enough to travel from one face of Terra to another, but we cannot solve the simple problem of cramped shoes.”

Mons resumed his hike and affected a lofty tone. “Perhaps you should apply yourself to that problem next. I’m sure the agenda of Terra Eternal shall suffer not a whit as it is put aside so that Doyen Dmitri Dostoevsky might pause and invent the Magic Boot – the universally acknowledged foundation of any civilized society.”

“Ha! That attitude is why I’m the doyen and not you,” Dmitri responded, allowing himself a slight limp now that Mons’ attention was once again focused forward.

“I remind you that many people don’t consider being a doyen a privilege.” Mons suddenly whipped around in time to catch his younger charge in mid limp. “A case in point: You frequently find yourself hiking all over unknown worlds in boots that no longer fit. We should pause for a bit.”

Mons didn’t wait for an acknowledgment, he just moved to the side of the narrow path they had been following and took a seat on a smallish boulder. Rather than squeeze in with him, Dmitri took a seat on a log that looked to be wedged in place by a pair of smaller rocks, pulled off his calf high boots and admitted, “That does feel much better.”

“Perhaps after this assignment you should look into the problem of keeping yourself supplied with the appropriate footgear,” Mons said, trying but not quite succeeding at hiding a smirk.

“Logistics is not my strong point,” Dmitri said with a shrug. “The fact that I have to draw out any teleport or sky folding matrix myself, rather than carry a pre-etched charm, is a real discouragement from learning anything in that school of magic.”

“A doyen shall not move himself from world to world,” Mons murmured, “nor take more with him than he may carry. I have to confess, even after watching you in action for over a year, I don’t understand the prohibition.”

“Can’t say as I do, either, but it’s one of the few things Locke and Goltermann agreed on, so I guess we can assume it makes sense.” He sighed and leaned back, resting his back against a larger stone behind the log. As he did, his elbow bumped into something and he turned to pick it up.

“Find something, my doyen?”

Dmitri turned the length of wood over in his hands. “Looks like part of the handle off a pickaxe.”

He passed it over to Mons, who gave the stick a glance and nodded. “We must be getting close to the mine.”

“You’re probably right. It looks like the magic is…” Dmitri pushed his sleeve up to let the bracelet on his wrist dangle freely. The copper disks there swung back and forth as if in a strong wind. He let the long sleeve slide back down and cover the bracelet again. “About half sail. The briefing said we can’t expect much more than that under this sky.”

“We should try to get there before the sun sets and the magic weakens,” Mons pointed out.

Dmitri pulled his boots back on. “Just as well. Short rests are fine, but once we’re done here we’ll actually get some relaxation in. Let’s go see what makes this mine so interesting to a herd of dragons, shall we?”

——–

Kor’aj Thrinnaeveous snapped his head around when his seeg stepped into the tent of meeting unannounced. The talk had gone so well that Thrinnaeveous had hoped to finish the day without crisis, but he should have known better. His own kor’aj had warned him that life was one continuing crisis, and the one who did not hear the crisis of the moment was simply not listening hard enough.

Still, the interruption was frustrating. Thrinnaeveous set the small silver trinket he’d been examining down and gave Seeg Rallaj his full attention. The seeg’s posture and nervous sway spoke of discomfort, and not, he suspected, because he had interrupted his kor’aj. Thrinnaeveous pulled himself up to his full height. “I listen.”

Rallaj dipped his head once in acknowledgment. “A group of humans is climbing the mountain. Their methods speak of caution, but not open hostility.”

“How many?”

“Four in all. And…” The seeg’s tail swept across the ground nervously. “Some of them are quite strange.”

To Thrinnaeveous, such a careless choice of words was strange. The differences between humans and the tribes were many and obvious. Why speak of them at all? “Strange how?”

Rallaj dipped his head once again, this time in apology. “Perhaps it is best if you saw for yourself, Kor’aj.”

With a quick bob of his head and sweep of his tail, Thrinnaeveous asked his guest to excuse him. On his way out of the tent he paused to gently bump his seeg with his shoulder, sending the younger one out first in a mild reproof. Then he stepped out into the cold mountain air and followed his seeg down the side of the peak.

——–

It turned out that they were even closer to the mine than Mons had originally suspected.

Not more than five minutes after they resumed the trek up the mountainside they were stopped short by a sound vaguely like a hunting horn, only much deeper and richer, that seemed to roll down the mountain like an avalanche. In fact, for a brief moment that’s exactly what Dmitri though was happening. The note sounded as they approached a narrow pass through a much steeper wall of rock, and as soon as it rang out the air was full of the sounds of breaking stone.

Except no rock came rolling down the mountainside. Instead, the narrow pass disappeared as the rock on either side seemed to bend inward and seal off the path entirely. As soon as that was accomplished the note faded from the air and, once the echoes had died away, the mountain seemed quiet again.

Dmitri stared at the solid rock wall for a moment, slowly relaxing his guarded stance as it became clear there wasn’t any immediate danger. “Mons.”

“My doyen?”

“I think the natives are getting restless.”

He quickly ducked the swipe Mons took at the back of his head and moved to a safer distance. “Is this really the time for that?”

Rather than rise to the bait, Mons was focusing his attention on the top of the newly formed stone wall. And why not? There was definitely something worth seeing there.

The first dragon recorded in the history of Terra Eternal was chanced upon by Veronica Locke, who took very detailed notes on how not to be eaten by one and included them in her Bestiary of Two Worlds, the revised and expanded version of which was still required reading in many institutions of higher learning. Since then, many different things had been discovered on other worlds which were at least somewhat similar, and generally classified as a dragon (although scholarly debate on that grouping continued.)

Although dragons tended to be much more different than one another than, say, dogs or horses or even humans, they all shared a few basic characteristics. They tended to be built like reptiles, although some had feathers instead of scales, they had voracious appetites and they were big.

Really, really big.

So big, early versions of Locke’s Bestiary actually devoted a page to sketches that showed a dragon with various other animals to press home just how big they were. (Later versions used the Great Clock Tower on the Throneworlds instead of animals.) When Dmitri had been told the locals were complaining of a herd of dragons he had laughed. Whether they were intelligent or stupid, it was common knowledge that dragons were too big and hungry to be able to move in groups. A herd of dragons would strip continents of food in a matter of days.

Of course, what Dmitri had forgotten in that moment, but remembered once he got out on the mountainside, was the first rule every person who crossed the horizon into a new world learned: Never laugh at the natives.

There was a trio of creatures crouching on the top of the stone wall and staring down at the two of them. The best word for them was long. Long, snakelike necks, long, powerful arms, long, sleek torsos and a long, restless tail. Almost hidden behind the rest of their bodies were short but well muscled legs. When two of them rose off their haunches and moved along the ledge of rock, spreading out in either direction, Dmitri realized they walked as much with their arms as with their legs, almost like a gorilla. From the tip of their tails to the end of their nose, Dmitri guess they couldn’t be more than ten to twelve feet long.

Dmitri tapped his chin absently and said, “Mons. I think we’ve found that herd of dragons.”

——–

The spare scrub grasses slid past Thrinnaeveous in a constant susurrus, the whispers of late autumn. If not for Rallaj’s nervousness the entire mountain would seem to be at peace. Still, a seeg did not come to his station for nothing, and Rallaj’s caution was a powerful warning and Thrinnaeveous reminded himself that he would be wise to heed it.

The tribe was already gathering at the low wall, it’s strongest voices watching over the side of the stone barrier and quietly harmonizing with the songs of the earth. Thrinnaeveous paused to rear back and dip his head to them in acknowledgement. Humans had been coming to the mountain for the last two seasons of the moon, ever since his people had arrived, this batch could very well wait long enough for him to acknowledge his kin.

With propriety observed, Thrinnaeveous loped out to the edge of the ridge to look down and see what had so excited his seeg. At first glance they were nothing more than four humans, as Rallaj had said. The size and face of one spoke of youth, not yet come into its full strength or wisdom. But young or no, he stood with a stillness and watchfulness that Thrinnaeveous knew humans often considered a mark of a listening ear and thoughtful words. He carried no weapon and wore a long cloak or coat. In fact, the garment was so long it nearly touched the tops of his boots and the sleeves covered his hands, as if saying that the man who wore the coat had no need to use his own hands.

As for the other three… Thrinaeveous looked from one to another, then back across the three again. They were dressed much like the younger man, except their sleeves were not as long. Beyond that, he saw few differences. Even their appearance… He looked once more, this time stretching his knowledge of humanity to its limits. It was hard to be entirely sure. “Their faces are identical?”

“It seemed so to me,” Rallaj answered immediately. “And every other who has seen them. I do not know what it says of them.”

Thrinnaeveous narrowed his eyes and drew a deep lungful of air, tasting the skies nervously and stretching his senses to the utmost. But no new revelation came to him. Defeated, he let the breath out in a rush. “Neither do I.”

“I listen.” Rallaj slid a half pace back and waited to follow his kor’aj’s lead.

Unfortunately, Thrinnaeveous wasn’t quite sure where they were going to go. The other humans who had come up the mountain had come under arms or making angry demands. These were simply waiting.

Then again, they were so few, and lightly armed. Two of the three identical humans carried weapons, one a spear the other a pair of odd looking swords, but it wouldn’t be enough to fight a small chorus, to say nothing of a full tribe. Hardly the approach of thinking creatures who had come looking for a fight. He pulled his head back over the ridge and looked up at Rallaj. “We shall go and hear them.”

——–

“Why do you think they’re humming?” Mons asked softly.

Dmitri wasn’t sure he would call it humming, but the deep, bone rattling sound that the dragons had been making for the last two or three minutes certainly had something in common with that kind of music. With over a dozen dragons in sight, all apparently making noise together, it was hard not to wind up thinking about it. “I think it’s a kind of magic. Except, instead of placing a sail to catch magic and syphon it storage, the sounds make a pattern that can hold the magic ready at hand.”

Mons did a double take. “You mean like power words?”

“Except I’m willing to bet they have more than a half a dozen of them. And they probably don’t have to work for years to get the pronunciation just right.” He waved a hand at the line of dragons who were singing, pacing and keeping watch all without apparent strain on their faculties. “Look at that, Mons. These dragons must have a natural affinity for sound and-“

He was cut off when two dragons suddenly dropped down the ridge in a single graceful and seemingly effortless leap. It was easily a twenty foot drop, if not more, but neither creature seemed the least put off by it as they flowed towards the two humans like some strange dun and green liquid. That alone wouldn’t have prompted Dmitri to stop, but Mons had quickly pushed him back a few steps and taken up a position between the dragons and the doyen. Dmitri suppressed a huff and watched what the dragons would do next.

What they chose to do was come to a stop about ten feet away and pull themselves up on their hind legs. With them so close at hand Dmitri was forced to increase his estimate of their size by another foot or two. Or perhaps these were just unusually large specimens. Both dragons dipped their heads down on their long, sinuous necks until they dropped lower than their shoulders, then snapped them back up again, almost like a snake preparing to strike.

Except instead of lunging forward the dragon with scales of a darker green started to talk. At first Dmitri didn’t realize that was what was happening. It wasn’t until the dragon made it’s second attempt that he recognized that the dragon was speaking a human language. The first time around the dragon had chosen a language from some phoneme he wasn’t familiar enough with to identify on hearing it. But the second time he could identify obvious shades of the twelfth phoneme, Mons’ native tongue. The third attempt was a recognizable greeting in the fourth phoneme. The dragon was apparently determined to run through languages until it found something they both spoke.

Highly unusual but not necessarily a bad thing. Dmitri waited until the dragon paused for a response, then said, “Do you speak the language of the Throneworlds?”

The creature stopped for a moment and canted its head to one side. “Little.”

Dmitri stifled a sigh and switched to his native language. “Then how about Cyrillic?”

“That is a more comfortable language for us to speak in,” the dragon said. “I am Thrinnaeveous, the Kor’aj of this tribe. I will listen to your words and speak on our behalf.”

Dmitri easily recognized a ritual greeting when he heard one. Since it seemed the polite thing to do, he did his best to match the dragon’s earlier nod with a bow and said, “I am Dmitri Dostoevsky, a Doyen of Terra Eternal. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers, and my father and his brothers.”

——–

Thrinnaeveous tried to pick apart the human’s greeting. He knew that humans naturally respected family, although they did not go so far as to band together into tribes as dragons did. But he wasn’t sure what this human’s father or brothers had to do with the situation at hand, if anything. By the same token, any fool could see that the earth would last forever, but what a doyen was or what it had to do with that was not something he could fathom.

Worse, it was the younger human who was speaking. Not only would a younger dragon never think of speaking before his elders, at least in matters such as these, until that moment Thrinnaeveous had assumed that the same was true for humans. Now, he was not so sure. And Dmitri had made no move to explain his strange trio of companions as of yet.

“I welcome you to this dragon’s mount,” Thrinnaeveous said, shifting his feet slightly to display his desire to get to the point. “And ask what brings you to it.”

“Simply this: It is not your mountain.” The doyen gestured to encompass the path they stood on and everything above it. “This territory belongs to the city of Lienz, in the nation of Ligare, who’s king and nobles have sworn loyalty to the Throne. You are trespassing here, and preventing the people from working the mines and enriching the kingdom.”

Thrinnaeveous shifted back a step, surprised. “No humans lived here when we arrived.”

“Of course not,” the young human replied. “They work here, but live at the foot of the mountain.”

“How can you claim land you do not live on?” Thrinnaeveous demanded.

“Whether you acknowledge our claim or not, the fact is we have made it.” He gestured back down the mountain. “I admit the Ligarans were not exactly diplomatic when they initially approached you. Perhaps if they had explained the situation before you became settled here there would have been less of a conflict.”

Thrinnaeveous dropped his hands to the ground and rested on all fours, prompting the doyen’s two armed companions to bring their weapons up, showing a surprising degree of synchronization. Rallaj slid forward and bared his teeth but Thrinnaeveous waved him back. “Dmitri Dostoevsky. My people have traveled long and hard. We have come to this mountain, who’s stone does not sing the song of our home, and now you wish us to continue on our way?” Behind them, the voices of the tribe rose in unison, their objection adding force to his words. “Where are we to find rest and a welcoming voice from the earth if not here?”

For a moment the doyen was silent, although whether he was considering what Thrinnaeveous had said or simply marveling at the chorus of dragons was not clear. “Kor’aj Thrinaeveous. I cannot say where you will find a home, or if it will be soon or far in the future. But this cannot be your home. I have a duty to the people of Lienz, to restore their livelihood to them before they are forced to leave their homes. You will not allow them to return to their mines?”

“You know as well as I that such work weakens the mountain and makes it unsafe.” The chorus shifted key and matched his derisive tone. “To allow you to undermine the mountain is to allow you to undermine our homes.”

“Then I’m sorry.” For the first time the doyen took notice of his companions, gesturing for them to lower their own weapons and line up to his left. Once they had done so, Dmitri turned his attention back to Thrinnaeveous and said, “This is Solomon ben-Gideon.”

Thrinnaeveous waited for a moment, expecting to hear the names of the rest. When the young human said nothing more he swept his neck to include all three. “Which?”

“Yes.” The three men answered as one. Thrinnaeveous jerked away as if confronted by a wolf, but the three ignored his reaction. “I am Solomon ben-Gideon. A soul of One. Thrice I have been born under different skies but now I walk the worlds as one.”

“I am impressed with what your people are capable of,” Dmitri said, once again encompassing the mountaintop with one hand, the sleeve that covered it flapping in the breeze. “But I assure you that the souls of One are capable of much more. Mons has prepared a demonstration for you, I believe.”

The doyen drew a small pendant from inside his coat and did something with it. A second later the sound of the earth and the air changed, as if a a storm had flown up the side of the mountain and was now about to break. Though Thrinnaeveous felt no wind, the cloth of their coats seemed to fill and drift as if the earth itself was exhaling beneath them. The three identical men, no, perhaps it was better to say the man who was in three places, swept an intricate pattern through the air before them, deftly avoiding one another and completing the movements in less than two full heartbeats.

The one with a spear touched it’s point to the ground and the side of the mountain shook. A great crack formed across the path, separating the humans and the dragons, and from the depths of it Thrinnaeveous could hear the sound of liquid earth roaring. As the tremors faded away the doyen called across the chasm. “Know that a threefold soul is not the greatest of the souls of One, nor are they the most dangerous weapons in our arsenal. In two weeks time, Terra Eternal will come and seal this gap. If we still find you beyond it, we will cast you from these mountains by force. Until then, Kor’aj Thrinnaeveous.”

The young human tucked away his pendant and the air fell still again. Then both he and his companion turned and walked back down the path they had come by.

Rallaj and Thrinnaeveous watched them go, then Rallaj went to the crevasse and peered into it. “This is beyond even our stone songs, Kor’aj.”

“Well said, Rallaj.” Thrinnaeveous went to stand by his seeg, joining him in his grim contemplation for a moment. Then he gently dripped his head down to be level with Rallaj’s and nudged him away from the gap. “Come. We have much to do, it seems.”

The guest from the tent of meeting was waiting for them at the top of the ridge. Like the other two, he was human, but he carried no weapons, but rather a heavy sack of trade goods. He had already packed it away, perhaps having sensed that there would be little market for what he brought now. “Quite a difficult choice your people face now, Thrinnaeveous.”

“And we must make it on our own,” he replied. “We will take no more of your time. Perhaps the people of Lienz will be more interested in your wares.”

The man set aside his heavy sack, carefully holding his long hair to one side so as to ensure it would not get tangled in the strap. Then he straightened up and fished around in the pockets of his coat until he produced a scroll. “You may be right, old dragon. But before I go, let me ask you one last thing. Have you ever heard of the Jovian League?”

——–

“You know, if they stick around they might cause more problems for whoever’s sent to evict them.” Mons looked up from the matrix he was carefully monitoring. “It’s not like the Throneworlds are likely to dispatch a group that includes a soul of One to deal with them.” He nodded his heads towards the pendant at the center of the spellwork. “To say nothing of a full blown Coretap.”

“Maybe not,” Dmitri said with a shrug. “But overestimating the opposition is just as crippling as underestimating them. In the mean time, our side will have a decent idea what to expect. I mean, a race that can create power words out of music? Can you imagine the panic that would cause if it caught you by surprise?”

“What really gets me is the way the back up was harmonizing with the lead dragon.” Mons’ heads shook in sequence, one of the weirdest gestures in his admittedly weird repertoire. “They either work on it from birth or do it intuitively. I’m not sure which possibility scares me more. They may not be able to match me for precision, but there’s far more raw power there than I’d ever like to see up close.”

Dmitri sighed and got up from the log where he’d been happily resting his feet just before their confrontation with the dragons and started pacing the path. He was fairly sure the tribe wouldn’t follow them down the mountain, but if this was going to take much longer they’d need to move further along. He wasn’t sure if the dragons were native to this face of Terra or not, but if they were there was no point revealing how they traveled from one point on the horizon to the next. “Are you still not ready, Mons?”

“Properly calibrating to the beacons can take time,” he said. “But I prefer to take that then to wildly jump to an unexplored Terra. Why, are you in a hurry?”

Dmitri shrugged. “It just wasn’t a very difficult problem. I’m ready to move on.”

“And let the other shoe drop in someone else’s lap?” Mons asked teasingly.

“If your worries become a problem, I deal with it then.” Dmitri shrugged. “In the mean time, there’s fifty two worlds that offer fealty to the Throne, and only five doyen to smooth out the problems that come with all that implies. There’s still plenty for us to do.”

“Always so serious,” Mons said. But it was gentle and good natured, not teasing or sarcastic. “Well, then I suppose we should move on.”

The spell he had been holding collapsed in on itself, and the horizon line bent until it seemed it would swallow them. Then, as soon as it had happened it all snapped back into place. And with that, they were gone.

Fiction Index

The Valley of the Shadow of Dagon

The Valley of Dagon’s Disapproval was not exactly what Veronica had been expecting. Of course, no one under the age of fifteen had ever been there, supposedly, although some of the older children talked about sneaking out there at night, but just enough failed to come back from such expeditions to make such trips, and the stories that went with them, very rare. What Veronica found there didn’t resemble any of those stories anyway. Even in her addled state, she could see enough to realize most of those stories were told by people who had never been to the place in person.

There weren’t rolling banks of fog oozing over the edge of the Valley, nor did jagged stone line the cliffs on the northern side like the teeth of a great beast. The ground did not rumble with the hunger of the god that dwelt within. It looked just like any other valley around the province, a strip of dry, low laying land full of scrub that clung to the sides of cliffs for dear life.

It looked totally innocuous. Even standing on the cliff’s edge and looking down at the stony floor of the Valley, Veronica could see no sign of its long history as the seat of Dagon. They did not give her long to look over the Valley before they threw her over the edge. When she figured that when she reached the bottom  what the Valley looked like wouldn’t matter so much anymore.

But the Valley wasn’t out of surprises for her yet. Almost as soon as the hands had left her back and her feet had left the cliff she felt the change. For just a moment the sky seemed to flex and bend, Veronica felt like she was being turned inside out. Then, as quickly as it came, it was gone. After that, she would have been hard pressed to say what exactly happened next. There was a brief glimpse of a vast expanse of bright blue, very different from the gray overcast skies a moment before, then something solid whacked her in the back of the legs and sent her tumbling.

Veronica went spinning through the air for a heart stopping second, then slammed roughly onto a a steep, grassy slope and rolled, scrabbling frantically for purchase. She had just enough time to realize that a river had somehow managed sneak into the bottom of the Valley where it hadn’t been two seconds ago before she rolled into it.

In three seconds the biggest problem in her life had gone from being unable to fly to being unable to swim.

The current of the river probably would have swept her away entirely if it hadn’t first slammed her into the pylon holding up the bridge. By this point, Veronica was well and truly sick of slamming into things but, since she had expected her life to end with a much more violent encounter with the ground five seconds ago, in many ways it was a step up. Of course, she didn’t have much time to be philosophical about it just then. What she did manage to do was grab hold of the rough wood and clung to it for dear life.

For just a moment she held perfectly still and tried to gather her wits. She was, unsurprisingly, at the bottom of a valley. But instead of the dry desert floor, scoured by the passing of many rains, the ground was covered in thick, green grass that ran down to the river. She was clinging to the side of a strange, patchwork bridge that looked like it had been sewn together by giants and dropped into the river from the sky. The idea made her giggle.

She was laughing so hard that she didn’t realize people were running across the bridge until one of them had shimmied down the column next to her and started yelling at her. “Oi, lass! Don’t just stare, grab me broom!”

At that moment the words didn’t mean much to her, but the intent behind his pushing a long pole with bristles at one end was clear. Veronica shifted her grip on the beam she was clinging to and grabbed clumsily for broom. The morning’s several falls, plus whatever was in that drink she’d been given before being taken to the Valley that morning, had left her quite dizzy and a little giddy. She did manage to grab hold eventually, and the man dragged her over and looped a rope around her waist. In a matter of moments she had been hoisted out of the water and into a crowd of half a dozen men of various ages, who all looked at her and muttered to one another incomprehensibly.

The man with the broom came climbing up the side of the bridge and threw himself over the railing with a final huff. For a moment he just stood there, brushing water out of his clothes and tsking. For some reason, instead of just splashing water around and leaving his clothes wrinkled, the action actually sent sheets of water running from them until, a few seconds later he was quite dry. The image was so funny Veronica found herself giggling again.

The men on the bridge, and Veronica noticed that they were all men and they were almost all armed with hammers, saws and other tools of the carpentry trade, clustered around her and started to babble at her incoherently. The man who had climbed down the bridge earlier waved them back, saying, “Break it up, boys. No call to all be hovering over her like a flock of vultures. Now,” he knelt down and gave her a quick lookover. “Who are you, lass?”

For the first time, Veronica noticed a few things. First, he didn’t have his broom thing anymore. Guiltily, she wondered if he had dropped it in the river trying to save her. She had no idea what such a thing might be used for, or if it was valuable. Second, if she listened closely, she could tell that this man was speaking the same language as everyone else, but for some reason he made sense when the other men didn’t. Third, everyone was dressed strangely but his clothes were strangest of all.

All the men were wearing loose fitting pants, a kind of clothing she’d thought only the wealthy wore – and she’d never met any wealthy carpenters. And their tunics were worn tucked into the pants, which struck her as a very hot way to dress. Her rescuer looked even more overloaded with clothes. His pants were cut off at knee length and some sort of close fitting cloth tubes were pulled over his feet and calves. He wore something that looked like sandals with closed toes and heels on his feet, just like everyone else, but he also wore what looked to be a leather cloak over it all except, instead of simple holes for his arms it had sleeves like a tunic. A weird kind of bag with a stiff brim slouched on his head. She would have though he would sweat to death except she was beginning to realize that it was actually much colder here than she had expected it to be. And she was beginning to suspect that wherever she was, she was a very long way from the Valley of Dagon’s Disapproval.

One of the carpenters said something to the now-broomless man, the only person on the bridge other than Veronica who wasn’t carrying something that looked vaguely carpenteresque. He took the strange bag off of his head and scratched his hair. “I don’t know. It looks like she’s been drugged.”

More strange talk, although Veronica knew enough to recognize a question when she heard one. Then the man said, “I can see she can’t be more than ten. Just because I can tell she’s been drugged doesn’t mean I know why, or what to do about it. Maybe-”

“Who are you?” Veronica asked, swaying dangerously as took a step closer to him. “Why is it so cold?”

He stared at Veronica for a minute, then slumped. He had great round cheeks that looked something like a pomegranate and even they seemed to wilt a bit. “Great. She’s not from around here, is she? Did anyone understand that?” No is recognizable in any language, and it was the first local word Veronica picked up. After hearing it a half a dozen times it would be hard not to. The man turned back to her. “Sorry, lass. I can’t understand you.”

She shook her head in dismay. “That’s not how talking works!” For a moment she planted her hands on her hips and braced her feet, just like she’d seen her mother do a dozen times and like she had often done with her younger brothers and sisters. She quickly regretted it because the wind stole the warmth from her like a greedy dog after meat. She quickly wrapped her arms around her middle and hunched against the cold, muttering, “If you can say the words you can understand the words.”

He sighed and said, “That’s not the way the gift works.”

This time, Veronica did her best to listen to what he was saying. The words weren’t familiar but somehow she was understanding them. That made picking out one to repeat fairly easy. “Gift?”

One of the other men said something and the leader, since that was what her rescuer looked to be, turned and irritably said, “Thank you, Franz. Why don’t you boys get back to work and let me handle this? She can’t understand what you’re saying anyway.” For all his chubby cheeks and slight build, the burly carpenters were apparently willing to take his orders because they went back to one end of the bridge with little protest and started to work. The leader sighed and reached into his coat, pulling out a folded blanket that looked like it had seen better days. Veronica had no idea where he had been keeping it. “Here,” he said, shaking it loose, “Wrap yourself up or the cold will be the death of you.”

Veronica eyed the blanket and backed away a step. So far she had been given over to Dagon, thrown off a cliff, nearly drowned in a river that hadn’t been there the day before and dragged out by strange men who couldn’t understand her. She wasn’t going to be brushed off by someone who thought getting dressed meant pulling a bag over your ears! Taking extra care to make sure it was pronounced right, she slowly said, “Gift?”

“That’s right. It’s one of me gifts, always being understood no matter where I go or who I talk to.” He held the blanket out for another moment, then sighed and folded it over one knee and looked her in the eye. “But I can’t understand other people the same way. When I was given the gifts, the Queen told me it was to make sure I was paying attention to the people I served. You see, I’m what you call a dustman. And that’s me name.”

“Dustman,” she said slowly, rolling the word over her tongue and trying it out.

“That’s right. I’ve got me broom.” He reached into a kind of pouch sewn into the side of his cloak and, even though the stitching that held the pouch in place barely looked big enough to hold his hand, he managed to pull the long bristled pole out of it in a single fluid motion. Veronica stared in disbelief, but the Dustman apparently didn’t notice. Or, it would occur to her later, he was used to it. “Of course, a broom ain’t much good without a dustbin, is it guv?” He stood and reached back to whack a round metal can with a fitted lid, setting it rattling. “Take it all together and what do you get? Your humble servant, the Dustman, here to cart off those things you no longer want.”

Veronica couldn’t quite suppress a grimace at the thought that his being there was particularly apt, in that case. Fortunately, he misinterpreted the gesture and quickly swept a few steps closer. “Why, it don’t even matter what it is you’re stuck with. Water?” He brushed a hand across one shoulder and, just like before, the water seemed to flee from his touch, running out of her clothes and onto the bridge in small streams. “Let old Dusty take care of it for you. Dirt on your clothes?”

He backed up a step and somehow produced a strange looking and admittedly filthy tunic from somewhere inside his cloak. The edges looked tasseled, except the threads of the tassel were woven into intricate designs. The Dustman fingered the strange tassels along the left sleeve. “Why, just look at this lace! A dozen washings and it will never come clean! Your dustman takes just such refuse away!”

He snapped the garment once and it released a cloud of dirt which, instead of settling on the ground, drifted over and seemed to melt into his leather cloak. The tunic now looked completely clean and, with a flourish, the Dustman slipped it up his sleeve with no regard for the fact that it really shouldn’t fit there. “It doesn’t matter the kind of mess you have on your hands. To be a dustman is to serve. And to serve, we’re given the gifts. Oh, there’s more than just a few of them.” He shrugged. “But they all help us do our job.” A flicker of something sad flashed across his face. “They help me, I suppose. And they keep me honest. So you can understand me, but I have to work to understand you, see?”

He thumped one hand on the railing of the bridge. “I can carry any kind of junk as far as I need to, however I like, and it will never make me tired, no matter how big it is.” The lid of his metal can lifted slightly and Veronica caught a glimpse of three heads, a goat, a lion and a lizard, all poking out from under it, before the Dustman quickly stretched his other hand out and hammered the lid back down. “Or how contrary it feels about it. But,” he picked the blanket up from the ground where he’d set it, “I cannot take anything a person actually needs.”

Then he held the blanket out to her again. “And I can’t keep it if I find someone else who does.”

Veronica took the blanket hesitantly and wrapped it around her shoulders. It wasn’t much but, now that she was dry, it was an improvement. She looked up at him and thought about what he had just said, and what his gift had told her it meant. She wasn’t sure she trusted it. The only other people who she’d seen capable of things like what he did were the priests of Dagon. At least, she had heard them speaking in other tongues, she didn’t know if they could stick long poles into their belt pouches. It didn’t seem like something priests would need much.

And the priests of Dagon were not people she loved overmuch. On the other hand, if these people didn’t speak her language, what were the chances they knew who Dagon was, or would care that she was under his censure? And what’s more, the priests never gave anything away. That, more than anything else, made up her mind. Once again she did her best to repeat the word correctly. “Honest.”

The Dustman grinned and patted her on the shoulder. “Glad to hear it. Now, maybe we should get you into town and some food in your stomach. You don’t look like you’ve eaten properly in a long time.”

Veronica just shrugged. Six mouths to feed was a lot, no one in her family had eaten well in some time. She was a bit suspicious of this Dustman still, but she figured she could work for her food as well as anyone else, and what more could they really want from her? At the very least, it had to be better than being sent to-

A commotion at the end of the bridge distracted her. A new man had arrived. Like the Dustman, he wore a long, brown cloak with sleeves, but it looked more ornate. At least, it had a belt and a few other strange attachments to it that the Dustman’s did not. But any ideas Veronica had about their being related vanished as soon as the man started across the bridge. He was saying something in a loud voice that carried without crossing the line into shouting, but he clearly didn’t have the Dustman’s gifts because Veronica had no idea what he was saying.

At least, not until he got closer and the last sentence in his speech included one word Veronica had hoped to never hear again.

“Dagon.”

Fiction Index