“Young man?” said a voice behind me. “Might I look at your equipment, please?”
I turned fast and felt embarrassed when I saw it was just the man in gray. He was even older than he’d seemed at a glance–really old. His tunic and trousers were loose enough to suggest bulk, but his face was as thin as a stork’s.
“Ah…,” I said. I looked toward Easton and my friends–May’s friends anyway, and they were sure acting as friends to me–and didn’t see need to rush.
“Sure,” I said, and unhooked them. “My name’s Pal,” I said, giving him first the shield.
Instead of replying, the old man stared silently at the shield he held in both hands. I opened my mouth to say something more, then realized that he was in a trance.
He blinked and looked up. He smiled brightly at me; it made him look a lot younger. “This is quite remarkable, Pal,” he said as he returned the shield to me.
“You’re a Maker, sir?” I said. I rehooked the shield and gave him my weapon.
Instead of entering it in a trance as he had the shield, the old man said, “I’m sorry, I was impolite. It happens too often, I’m afraid. My name’s Guntram and yes, I’m a Maker, but I’m really retired now.”
Only then did he look down at–and into, I now knew–my weapon. When he raised his eyes to me again and handed back the weapon, he said, “This was originally a drill, was it not? How quickly does it recover?”
“A rock drill, yes,” I said. “Mining equipment. I found some memories of previous use when I was working on it.”
I made a face because I didn’t like to admit this, but I was going to say it: “Recovery time from a full discharge is five minutes or next thing to it. It’s designed it for setting charges in hard rock, and the Ancients weren’t much concerned about recovery time. I was able to trim a little off the original, but only a minute or two.”
“Rocks usually stay where they are for as long as you need, in my experience,” Guntram said. “A clever repurposing, though. But what really amazes me is the way you’ve turned an umbrella into a shield. What gave you that idea?”
I laughed. I’d been embarrassed to talk to another Maker, but Guntram put me at ease. “Necessity, I guess,” I said. “Beune is way out on the marches. I used what I could find myself. It must’ve been a pretty quiet place in the time of the Ancients, because there’s no weapons that I’ve been able to find and no real shields either. It struck me that this weather shield had the right concept, if I could just beef it up to repel more than raindrops.”
I shrugged. “I wasn’t sure it’d handle the extra power,” I said, “but it turned out that was no problem. Thing is, it has a lot of inertia at full power. That makes it hard to change position in a hurry.”
“Yes, it would,” said Guntram, frowning as he focused on things inside his own mind. “I wonder….”
Then he broke off and smiled again. “Who was your teacher, if I may ask, Pal?”
“Sir, I didn’t have one,” I said, embarrassed again. “Weapons aren’t the only thing that’s hard to find around Beune. There’s plenty of Ancient hardware, though much of it’s been ground pretty smooth. But I’m the only person I know who’s trying to rebuild it.”
Reaves came walking back along with one of Easton’s attendants, a fellow my age with a really white complexion and short blond hair. “We’ve got Easton’s weapon set on 20%,” Reaves said, “and Morseth’s staying with him to make sure that doesn’t change. Time to set yours, laddie.”
I had already turned the power setting to what I guessed was about 20%. I hadn’t bothered to fit the dial with detents, and I honestly didn’t have a way to calibrate it precisely anyway. I guessed I’d accept whatever the others thought was fair.
“What in hell is this?” said the servant, taking the weapon from me.
“I made it myself,” I said. I was getting tired of explaining that. “I think it’s set right, but I can’t swear to it.”
The servant looked hard at me, then turned to Reaves and said, “How does this hobby come to have a pair of Champions for seconds, hey?”#8221;
“That’s something your master might’ve asked himself before he started this business,” Reaves said. He took the pea-sized ball of something he’d been warming in his palm and squeezed it onto the edge of the power dial. Wax, I’d thought, but it had a slightly pine smell so it must’ve been resin. “Here you go, Pal.”
I hung the weapon back on my belt. I hadn’t realized he and Morseth were Champions. I hoped I wouldn’t make them look bad.
“We’re ready here!” Reaves called. Morseth waved back. The servant who’d handled my weapon looked at Reaves, then started back toward his fellows.
“Any time you want, boy,” Reaves said quietly to me. He gestured toward the field. “And good luck to you.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And please thank Morseth if, if you see him before I do.”
I strode out into the field and switched on first my shield, then my weapon. The light changed. Instead of coming from the sun overhead, it was soft and even from all directions. I could see other pairs sparring on the field.
I could see the spectators, too, but for the most part they were blurred like I was looking through thick glass. Morseth and Reaves were exceptions because they’d turned their shields on so that they could watch the details of what was happening on the field.
I was really lucky to have met May. Of course if I hadn’t, I might not be here now.
The thing is, there’s always going to be a bully who wants to chivvy the new guy, and I was new in Dun Add. This was a better reason to be fighting than because some oik turned my bowl of stew over in my lap. That might even have been Easton….
He was coming toward me now. I decided to walk well out into the field so that none of the spectators would get hurt. I glanced at the sidelines again to make sure of that. To my surprise, the old Maker, Guntram showed up just as sharply as the men with weapons did; he was on the same plane. If I got a chance, I’d like to chat with him.
Easton was feinting with his weapon, the bright line of it quivering above his right hand. I cocked mine to slant across his stroke if he made one.
He sidled right. I turned with him, but my shield was cranked full on: it was like lifting an anvil with my left hand and pivoting. I moved my thumb to reduce power on the vernier control, but Easton came in fast and slashed at my left elbow through the edge of the shield.
It was like running full-tilt in the dark and hitting the edge of an open door. My left forearm went numb, which was the last thing I needed right then. I was wondering if I ought to throw the shield down so I could move, but he got behind me and slammed my left knee from the back. It buckled and I went down.
I had no real choice but to drop my shield then: the way I’d fallen, it didn’t protect me against anything but the earthworms. I tried to roll over, but Easton cut at my right forearm and my weapon dropped also.
He jabbed me in the ribs. 20% power wasn’t enough to penetrate, but chances were he’d broken one or two ribs. It was like a really hard kick
I reached for my weapon with my left hand. I could at least close the fingers on that side into a grip. Easton whacked me across the temple and things went gray. You’d think I’d have hurt less, but instead it felt like my whole skin was wrapped in buzzing white fire.
I could hear people shouting, but I was far away from everything. I suppose they were calling on Easton to stop the fight. If he heard the cries, he ignored them: another blow caught me in the middle of the back.
Everything went black. That was no surprise, but I didn’t seem to be unconscious. The great God knows I felt every one of the strokes that had hit me, but the darkness fell on me like a blanket and there were no more blows.
I just lay there, feeling the grass tickle my nose and wondering if I was going to throw up. That lasted what seemed a long time.
The mead hall of the Apfelwein Inn was filled with Jager’s men and with many locals, too. It was now the third night of staying in one place.
In the inn were centaurs, Tier, and humans. By the fire, Wulf saw Abendar sitting in a rocking chair. He was smoking a long-stemmed clay pipe provided by the inn. Beside him stood Ahorn, who was smoking his own personal pipe, a hollowed briarwood root that looked extremely well used.
Wulf did not smoke, but he was overcome with the desire to take in the odor of good pipe tobacco. Pipe smoke reminded him of his old tutor Albrec Tolas.
Tolas was a gnome less than six hands in height, but he would always loom as a giant in Wulf’s regard.
When he’d left, Tolas was mad at him.
His old tutor had told Wulf that his expedition to Eounnbard was reckless. He’d said Wulf could send Lady Saeunn there with others if he had to, but that the heir needed to stay in Shenandoah.
Besides, Tolas knew that the dragon was calling again. He said he could see it in Wulf’s worried expression. Wulf was the heir. It was his duty to answer.
To cold hell with the dragon and with Tolas’s attitude, Wulf thought.
He was tired of feeling bitter about it. He just wished he could talk to Tolas now when he had so many doubts about the way forward. Saeunn had gotten so sick on the way.
Now she seemed to be getting stronger, but could he trust it?
Tolas would have given good advice. He always did, even if it was often something you didn’t necessarily want to hear, at least at first.
The least Wulf could do to bring Tolas to mind was to take in a little pipe smoke.
Wulf told Rainer he’d eat later, and went to join Abendar and Ahorn where they seemed to have set up shop near the fire.
The elf bowed his head toward Wulf, but did not get up. Ahorn bent a knee, and said, “My lord.”
I’m never going to get used to being treated like I already have Father’s position, he thought.
They shouldn’t do this bowing. The duke was still alive. But he didn’t have the energy to scold them. Instead, he sank into the deerskin-covered rocker next to Abendar and sighed.
“Maybe tomorrow we take to the woods again,” he said.
Ahorn nodded. “It may also be the day the princess leaves us. Ahorn here tells me that the road south leads to a border crossing less than a league from here. After that, the way goes onward into the Vall l’Obac piedmont.”
Ravenelle was going home after sixteen years as a hostage fosterling in Raukenrose.
And when Ravenelle turned south, that meant that Rainer would leave, too. He had promised to take her to Montserrat.
What Rainer would do when he got there, Wulf did not know. Probably turn around and head back. Rainer did not talk about his feelings much, even to Wulf. But Wulf knew how conflicted he was. Rainer was all about loyalty.
Even though he is walking straight toward a broken heart. Ravenelle wanted him to take her to Montserrat, so Rainer was going to take her.
It seemed to Wulf as if all the safety and certainty of his childhood had come apart in the past year and a half. His two older brothers were dead. Now his foster-siblings were intentionally splitting apart. All of them seemed to be moving on a path Wulf could not follow even if he wanted to.
“Your face is clouded with worry, m’lord,”#8221; said Abendar. He took a puff on his pipe and looked a Wulf quizzically.
“Almost stormy,” Ahorn agreed with a wink and a nod.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Abendar continued.
Turn back time and bring Saeunn back to health and happiness, Wulf thought.
“No,” Wulf replied. He sighed. “It was another long day.”
“It was,” Abendar said. “I spent it tending to the horses. I am skilled at it. That wonderful mare Kreide does not like to show it, but I could tell that even she was tired from the ride. On the way here, she was careful to step lightly with Lady Saeunn on her back.”
“Kreide is a good horse,” Wulf said. “That’s why I picked her out for Saeunn.”
“I would be very happy to have her among my brood mares one day,” Abendar put in. “I suppose I’ll go back to raising and selling horses once I settle in Eounnbard.”
“I didn’t realize you had a job.”
“It is my main occupation. It’s an Amberstone and Anderolan specialty. Saeunn’s family owns Amberstone Ranch, where she grew up. They have always been horse breeders. They turn out the best travelling horses for the Elf Road.”
“I never heard about breeding horses,” Wulf said. “I knew she grew up on a ranch of some kind.R#8221;
“I remember Lady Saeunn when she was a toddler,” Abendar said. “Very happy. But she had her own mind even when she was very young.”
“Like in what way?” Wulf asked.
“She loved animals, especially the big ones. She loved buffalo, even the ones that might have trampled her. I saw her once running beside a big heifer buffalo when I was visiting her father. Saeunn must’ve been about three or four years old. She was running along a meadow lane holding a handful of daisies, trying to get the heifer to follow her. Which it did. I was scared for her. I was about to go and get her, but the buffalo seemed to know it was a game, too, and was being very careful.”
“Finally her mother thought she’d teased the heifer long enough. She went and scooped Saeunn up.”
Wulf smiled. “I’d liked to have seen that,” he said. “Seen Saeunn when she was little, I mean.”
Abendar nodded. “I suppose that was about, oh, sixty years ago,” he said, and took another draw on his pipe. He puffed out a smoke ring. “Elves do not have many children. Even for us, she was special. That’s why her family sent her to the Old Countries after she was star-melded. They wanted the best education for her.”
“She learned to be a healer there,” Wulf said.
“And many other things,” said Abendar.
“I wish we could take her home to Amberstone Valley,” Wulf said. “That was the original plan.”
Abendar took his pipe from his mouth, looked at the stem. It was getting blackened. When the taste got bitter, it was time to break a small piece of the clay stem off. The elf carefully snapped off a section and dropped the broken bit onto the wooden floor beside his rocking chair. This was the custom at the Apfelwein. It would be swept away in the morning.
Taking time with the stem caused the elf’s pipe bowl to go out, however. Beside him, Ahorn took out a wax-coated punk stick from a pouch he wore about his flank. He dipped it in his own pipe bowl. The centaur took a couple of deep draws, and the tobacco in his pipe crackled with building heat. This ignited the punk stick. Ahorn then handed this to Abendar to relight his own pipe with.
The elf did this, then blew out another cloud of smoke. From the odor, Wulf guessed it was Valley Orinoco, which was the more popular tobacco brand. Ahorn’s brand was Perique, which had a stronger odor with more bite. This was also the type of tobacco Albrec Tolas smoked, so Wulf knew the odor well.
Finally Abendar spoke.
“I would gladly have taken her home,” he said.
“We were going to,” Wulf put in. “We.”
Abendar smiled playfully. “Yes, I understand, Lord Wulf,” he said. “You’re not the only one to have ever felt Saeunn’s allure, though.”
Sounds like you’re one of those, Abendar Anderolan, Wulf thought, a twinge of jealousy passing through him. Everyone seemed to want to kid him about his feelings for Saeunn. Well, let them.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one,” Wulf replied curtly.
“I meant no offense, m’lord” Abendar said.
“I know, Friend Abendar. I’m just . . . worried.”
“Neither one of us can take her back to her homeland. The Elf Road is impassable. My traveling band was attacked over and over on the way here. Brothers and friends were killed. When our sulfur wagons burned, all the profits went up in smoke. The ones like me who fought through to the east are lucky to be alive.”
“I get that the way west is closed,” Wulf said, irritated by having to hear yet again why his first plan had been a bad one. “That’s why we’re going to Eounnbard. To the Mist Elves. To find help there.”
“If there is help.”
Wulf stared at the fire. He rocked back and forth. Finally he spoke.
“This can’t be for nothing,” he said. “There has to be.”
“I like him, this professor friend of yours.”
The smile hadn’t left Temple’s face ever since they’d departed the University, leaving Vance behind with Edwin White. Temple was happy to meet Ed, but what could possibly come of it, what with her being exiled to the Washington, D.C. area and Ed out here in Chicago? Unless she swung a transfer to the Chicago field office someday after all the people she pissed off retired from the Bureau. Yeah, right. Once more Temple was getting ahead of herself. And Jasper sure as the Lord above made little green apples wasn’t playing matchmaker. There was no way he’d want her steaming in on his buddy, Ed. Call her old fashioned, but she wasn’t down with long distance or internet-based relationships.
“He’s a doctor, no kidding, but he’s not all that braggadocios.”
“Excuse me,” Temple said, “but did you really say braggadocios?”
Jasper grinned. “How about we chat about Hyde Park a little more, you’ll be back to your old self in no time.”
Temple huffed. “When I gave you a hard time on the way to meet your wonderful old crusty white guy professor buddy — you thought that was my ‘old self’?” Temple glanced over at him, and raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, I never said Ed was white. You made the assumption, remember? After giving me a hard time about what’s his name — Farrakhan? Oh, you’re gonna wanna hit the exit here and then straight on down Indianapolis Boulevard. We’re gonna have to meet up with the source I told you about, Carlos.”
“Let’s back the conversation up a bit. I need to apologize,” Temple said.
“Not what you think.” She reached over and turned on the air conditioning. “I was a bitch early this morning and not at all cold — temperature wise,” she added, glancing at him. “You thought I was gonna apologize for the racial stuff, didn’t you? Well, think again.”
Jasper scratched his cheek, and a smile fought its way on to his lips. “I sorta hoped you’d apologize for the nasty coffee you brought me this morning. Where did you get that motor oil anyway?”
“My little secret. But don’t get on my bad side, I can get more where that came from.”
This ride was much better than the morning’s. Temple’s mood had improved considerably, and Jasper was much less of an ass now that he was awake and caffeinated.
A stream of steady clunks rocked the rental car.
“Great roads you have in this neck of the woods,” Temple said.
“They’re constantly repairing,” Jasper said. “But with such heavy daily traffic and rough winters, keeping the roads in navigable condition is nearly impossible. I think the roads on the Indiana side are much worse than Chicago’s.”
“I’m guessing a lot of trucks go along with all the industry in a relatively confined area,” Temple said. “Right?”
“Yes. There’s no question this area benefits greatly from industry, but it is or was no friend to the roadways or the ecosystem. This is mostly steel country, and still is — although a lot of jobs in the steel industry have been lost.”
“Plants moved overseas?”
“No, automation mostly. A lot of the secondary industries got hurt worse. That’s why you see so many abandoned buildings and plants in this part of Indiana.”
“Where are we headed?” Temple finally asked, happy to change the topic to the task at hand. “You don’t want to hit your rez first and change before we meet the source?”
“What? No. What I’m wearing will work for the purposes of this meeting.”
“If you say so.” Temple glanced sideways at him and pursed her lips.
“It’s fine for a diner.”
“I suppose,” Temple said. Jeans and an old olive green t-shirt, likely left over from Jasper’s Marine Corps days, were unacceptable in her version of the Bureau, and certainly in Hoover’s Bureau of the past. Of course, in Hoover’s bureau, Temple would never have been a Special Agent. Not simply because of her skin color, but also because of her gender. Despite all that, the Bureau enjoyed a reputation built on Hoover’s ideals — and one of those was agents looking the part. Suits. Clean cut, that sort of thing.
“So anyway,R#8221; Jasper continued, “I want to do a daylight drive by of a few areas before we meet with Carlos. The diner has decent food, but don’t ask for a cappuccino. We’re going out of the way, but unless we get caught on the wrong side of a long train, we’ll be fine.”
“No worries there.” Temple was pursing her lips again.
“You’re a former marine — ”
“Not former. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
“Yeah right, so you’re a former marine and you sip cappuccinos? You expected one from a diner?”
“Whatever, but once a Marine always a Marine, there’s no former,” Jasper said. “Turn down this road, I think we can do two things — speak with the old woman who’s van was stolen, she’s at St. Catherine Hospital, and why not pass by the Euclid Hotel and the house we visited last night?”
“You’re thinking it’s odd so much is happening in such a confined area, aren’t you? See? You’re predisposed to working SAG type leads.” Temple grinned.
“It’s logical for any type of investigation. For instance, the animal control place would make sense if the attacks were easily explained, but the fact that the mangled bodies were found near the Euclid Hotel is too coincidental.”
“Okay, but IR#8217;m not sure what we’re looking for.” Temple didn’t argue and simply followed his directions to the diner.
After a minute of silence, Temple said, “Wow, this route seems circuitous. Have you ever worked counterintelligence?”
“No, not really. Not beyond helping out some of the other squads when necessary, why?”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re performing a surveillance detection route.”
“Maybe I am. This route wouldn’t exactly be the one most people take to where we’re going, and I wanted to ascertain if any interested parties tailed us, but what I said a few minutes ago, still applies.”
“Since you brought up the subject, anyone following us?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t want to tell you the plan simply because you may have driven differently. You’re not upset, are you?”
“Do I look upset to you?”
“To be honest, I have a hard time reading you.” Jasper sighed. “Not that my expertise ever rested in reading women, obviously, based on my ex-wife Lucy.”
“Something tells me you’re being a little too hard on yourself. It takes two people to tango, you know. We all have relationships go pear-shaped on us.”
“See all those train tracks on your right?” Jasper nodded out the window. “We’re on Chicago Avenue now, cutting across East Chicago.”
“Train tracks, so what?”
“Yes, but look at the sheer number all lined up. More rail runs through northwestern Indiana than almost anywhere else in the United States.”
“Again, so what?”
“I’m thinking if I’m part of a cult, we hide in this area, what with all the noise, trains, and industry. The exact location of these events is niggling at me — why are so many strange things happening in or around the Euclid Hotel? There are plenty of train tracks around, but the hotel overlooks a fairly busy intersection with residences not far off. There are better, more deserted places in the area, and even more in the next city over, Gary, where anything goes.”
“Hiding in plain site most likely,” Temple said. “And in an abandoned building no one cares about and no one visits.”
Jasper shrugged. “Let’s drive through and see if any ideas shake loose. Perhaps we’ll have some questions for Carlos when we meet him at the diner.”
At least plenty of green remained in this part of the state. Industry hadn’t destroyed all the plant life — and there must be plenty of animals roaming about despite the large number of people and dangerous surroundings.
At Jasper’s direction Temple headed down Elm Street, toward St. Catherine Hospital.
“The building looks old,” Temple said.
“I think it was built in the twenties. I’m a big fan of that time period,” Jasper said.
Temple’s eyes widened. “You? Really?”
“Yeah. The area needed a hospital because of the heavy industrial focus and number of workers in the East Chicago area. The exterior has changed over the years, but the original spirit of the building has been preserved by keeping the brick and the original arches resting in the middle of the main entrance. They’ve increased the size of the hospital substantially over the years.”
“Come on,” Temple said. “That sounded as if you recited it from a book or some Wikipedia entry.”
The third briefer wore dark blue: Commander Cassandra Atwater-Jones, Royal Navy. She seemed quite amused by whatever had gone before.
“So you’re the famous Lieutenant Bitka,” the gray-haired staff captain said, making famous sound like an epithet. Her mouth seemed sculpted into a permanent frown, accentuated by her heavy jowls and deep-set eyes. “I better let you know neither I nor Commander Boynton thinks much of your theory of the uBakai attack profile. Commander Atwater-Jones disagrees with us, but I do not believe either she or you appreciate how tricky the astrogation set-up for that attack must have been.”
Boynton. That name was familiar. Where did he know him from?
She glowered at him and after a second or two he realized she expected a reply.
“I still believe the problem must have been an intelligence leak.” She turned her glare on Atwater-Jones, who returned a cheerful smile. “Do you have anything to add to that, Commander?”
“If I had,” Atwater-Jones said, still smiling, “and as it would involve an on-going intelligence investigation of a most sensitive nature, it would of course be for your ears only, Mum.”
So apparently Sam was not the only one who occasionally felt the urge to bait the bear.
The formal briefing got going after that. The formidable gray-haired captain running the show turned out to be Marietta Kleindienst, chief of staff to Admiral Kayumati, the commander of the task force. Atwater-Jones was obviously there as the N2–smart boss. Sam still couldn’t place the other officer.
The plan was essentially as outlined before: a direct descent on K’tok, two cohorts of mike troops landed to seize the needle, another cohort in reserve, the fleet to engage and destroy any uBakai warships in the area of operations, then provide orbital bombardment support and secure the orbital space from interference by any arriving uBakai forces.
Sam was unfamiliar with the terminology of the planetary assault itself, never having served in assault transports or in exercises involving deployment of ground troops. He kept squinting up glossaries to guide him through the maze of jargon. “Mike” stood for Meteoric Insertion Capable–soldiers dropped from orbit in individual re-entry capsules and accompanied by clouds of decoys to confuse missile interceptors.
The five heavy cruisers would hold low planetary orbit (LPO), positioned to bombard the area around the Landing site. The four destroyers of DesDiv Four would form the outer screen in much higher planetary synchronous orbit (PSO). The transports and logistical support vessels, along with USS Pensacola, the task force flagship would take station as needed.
Captain Kleindienst also told them a Nigerian and a British cruiser–NNS Aradu and HMS Exeter–had been detached to secure the system gas giant, Mogo. The four destroyers of DesDiv Five had been dispatched to Mogo; they would arrive later than the cruisers but relieve them on station there so the heavier ships could rejoin the task force.
“Any questions?” Captain Kleindienst asked and looked at the twelve men and women in the crescent.
To his surprise, Sam heard Filipenko clear her throat.
“I have one, ma’am.”
Kleindienst’s frown deepened and took on an added layer of impatience.
“Very well, but make it fast.”
“I’m a communications officer by training and principle experience. Usually communication back to Earth takes weeks, because there is no communication except by data transfer by jump craft. This is only our fifth day of war.
“I know our emergency procedure calls for an automated comm packet dispatched by jump missile to Bronstein’s World, where it will be received, transferred to a similar jump missile to Earth, where it will be received, acted on, and the procedure then repeated in reverse. But even the emergency process takes days, usually many days.”
“Yes, what’s your question?” Kleindienst snapped.
Filipenko took a breath, perhaps to steady herself, and then spoke.
“This plan was given to us in outline the day of the attack. I don’t see how consultation with superior authority was possible. Is this attack authorized?”
That was a hell of a question. What Filipenko said was true, obviously true, but Sam hadn’t thought to wonder about it. He faulted the astrogators for not thinking tactically, but Filipenko just showed him what it meant to think as a signaler.
Opposite them, Kleindienst paused, apparently to let her glare grow even more fiery.
“Given the very problems you enumerate,” she said carefully and slowly, “and given the volatile nature of the situation here, Admiral Kayumati sailed with sealed orders covering a variety of anticipated contingencies. Yes, Lieutenant, this attack was authorized at the highest level. Admirals don’t go around starting wars.”
Sam did not find that particularly reassuring. Of course the attack was authorized. But if the task force had sailed with contingency plans this detailed, how peaceful had the original intention been? The uBakai had struck the first blow, taken the role of aggressor. But what if they hadn’t? Maybe they had been very obliging to strike that first blow. Maybe that’s just what the coalition had wanted when the task force was sent, but that left Sam more unsettled than the idea of a rogue admiral swept away by desire for revenge would have. If their side had wanted this to happen, then they had wanted Jules and the others to die. But that was a very big “if.”
“Very well,” Kleindienst said, eyes narrowed with irritation. “The smart boss will update you on our current threat assessment.” She nodded to Commander Atwater-Jones.
#8220;Right,” she began. “Our best estimate, based on communication traffic analysis and sensor tracks over the last six months, is that the uBakai have four cruisers in the star system, of which two are currently in orbit around K’tok. One had been in orbit around Mogo but withdrew upon approach of Task Group 1.4–that’s Aradu and Exeter. We don’t know its angle of departure as it made its escape burn when Mogo was between it and our task force. Very clever boots, these uBakai. One cruiser is currently unaccounted for, but did depart K’tok orbit at a time consistent with Lieutenant Bitka’s theory of the initial uBakai attack profile.”
“That doesn’t prove anything,” the dark-haired male officer with a squat face and bulbous nose said. He wore the three broad stripes of a commander and Sam finally placed him: Holloway Boynton, who had been Ops Boss on USS Theodore Roosevelt where Sam served as a sensor officer until three months earlier. He knew him by name but had never spoken to him.
“No,” Atwater-Jones answered, “but if that cruiser made both attacks, and if it made its final evasive course correction using its MPD thrusters at a low enough energy level to escape thermal detection by us, we have a reasonably limited sphere in which it must be.”
“Commander, we’ve had HRVS optics looking in your sphere for days, and haven’t found anything,” Boynton said.
“Which means,” Atwater-Jones shot back, “either Leftenant Bitka’s theory is incorrect or the vessel is where we cannot detect it by visual stellar occlusion–which is to say it is directly between us and the asteroid belt, which I note we have not completed mapping.”
“That’s enough,” Kleindienst snapped. “This is a briefing, not a staff debate.”
“Quite right,” Atwater-Jones said. “As I was saying before I was interrupted, our best estimate is that they have four cruisers in the system, two around K’tok, one somewhere near Mogo, and one unaccounted for, but it’s bloody-well somewhere and up to mischief.
fandom: Home, AKA The True Meaning of Smek Day, the Movie
song: UFO Has Landed In the Ghetto by Ry Cooder
format: mp4, 39MB
link: on Google Drive. I'm trying a new thing for where to keep my vids. Let me know if you have technical issues downloading it, please!
warnings: I can't think of any, there's a couple of explosions but it's an animated kids movie, they're not exactly graphic.
The last time I got a new computer was just about seven and a half years ago. Then, it was because there were genuine hardware difficulties - something had gone wrong with the interface and if I used the mouse, the keyboard went unresponsive for a few minutes, and even the trackpad wasn't working propery. I got used to a lot of keyboard shortcuts before I went in for the one I've got now. Which is still working fine, if slowly, and I don't want to disrupt the balance of anything right now. So, buying one before there's any pressing need.
Also, thank goodness my building has a doorman to sign for the package.
I figure that when the new one comes, and I have everything set up and working and reasonably sorted out, I can take all my stuff off this one and have it as a standby backup. Just put it in the closet with its peripherals unless circumstances arise it's needed.
The part I'm most dreading about all this is having to remember my passwords to everything. Maybe it's time I started writing them down.
Being Put in My Place
Easton walked out of the hall, straightening as he moved. I kept watching. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d turned and belted me if I gave him a chance to do that.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” May said. She started for the door, then paused and bent, making a basket of her left arm. The three-colored cat leaped up; she hadn’t as much as mewed since I first saw her, even when May carried her into the stables.
I grabbed my pack in my left hand and the pitcher of flowers in my right. I just left the bowls on the table because I didn’t know what else to do.
“That bloody man!” May said. “That bloody man.”
“Ah, May, should I get Buck?” I asked as she started off across the courtyard.
“It’s not normal for sparring,” May said. She looked over at me and said, snarled really, “You could’ve kept out of this, you know! There was no reason for you to get involved!”
“Ma’am,” I said, as calm as I could. “I did have to get involved. He was going to hit you. And anyway, I didn’t like listening to him.”
“That bloody man,” May repeated, but this time she just seemed tired. She forced a smile and said, “And you brought the flowers. My God, what am I going to do with you?”
“Well, if you can tell me how fights are run on Dun Add, I’d appreciate it,” I said. We were going back through the passage we’d entered the castle by, so I figured we were heading for the jousting ground that I’d seen when I arrived. “I think the rest is on me, now.”
“I’ll find somebody to take you in hand at the grounds,” May said. She looked at me hard again. I thought she was angry.
“Now you listen to me!” she said. “Sparring’s usually done at 20% power. There’s no reason for a squabble like this to be any more than that. Do you understand? Insist on 20% power!”
We were heading down the slope again. I didn’t even remember seeing the doorman.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “But ma’am? I’m not afraid. If Easton beats me, then that’s something I needed to learn.”
“Pal, listen to me,” May said. “Easton’s father was one of the Champions. Easton didn’t apply for a seat in the hall, he’s in the purser’s office; but he’s got top equipment. It’s not if he beats you, it’s how badly you’ll be hurt when he beats you.”
I figured that if Easton hadn’t tried to join the Company of Champions, he didn’t have the balls to take a knocking around. It was just a matter of sticking with the job until he decided he’d had enough.
I felt my lips smiling, though they were sure dry. I was due for a bad morning, like enough, but I ought to have a better chance than May was saying.
“He wouldn’t really have hit me, you know,” she said. “He wouldn’t dare! There’s a dozen Champions who would challenge him if he did.”
I took a deep breath of air scented by the flowering trees. There was a lot to like about Dun Add, more than I’d been afraid when I left Beune for the capital.
“Ma’am,” I said, “I think you’re wrong there. Easton was awful mad. I don’t doubt he’d have regretted it afterwards, but he was really going to hit you.”
I knew Easton was going to hit her. I’d been hauling back on his back on his arm, and his fist was clenched. He was a nasty fellow, no mistake, and he might well be a coward; but his temper had got away from him this time. I guessed there was a history there that I didn’t know.
May had taken me by a different path through the woods than before. We came out onto the jousting ground, not the landing place. I could see a broad, straight path that led down from the far wing of the castle.
A dozen pairs of warriors were sparring, including three who were globes of shattered light. Those pairs were with their dogs. They’d gone higher out of Here than you could follow without polarized lenses.
Besides the fighters, there were thirty or forty spectators. Several were women, but I guessed most were the attendants of those on the field. One old man didn’t fit in either category. He wore a gray tunic and full-length trousers.
May strode down the sidelines, pausing beside a group of attendants who chatted as they watched their principals. “Rikard, isn’t it?” she said. “Is that Lord Morseth out there?”
“Yes, mum,” said the man she’d spoken to. “He’s out with Lord Reaves. They’re just getting some exercise.”
Another of the attendants nodded enthusiastically. I figured he was Reaves’ man.
“Can you call him in?” May said. “No, don’t bother. They’re breaking up now.”
The nearest two warriors were trudging together off the field. They were big men in their early thirties. One was as tall as I am, and they both were a lot huskier.
“Hey, May!” the taller one called. “What brings you out here? I thought you were too soft-hearted for all this.”
“If it’s soft-hearted not to like watching men beat each other bloody, then that’s me,” May said sharply. “I’m here because I want a favor, Morseth.”
“You got it, May,” Morseth said, his voice suddenly grimmer. He’d caught the undertone in her voice.
“That goes for me too, May,” said the warrior who must be Reaves. “What d’ ye need?”
“My friend Pal here is on his first visit to Dun Add,” May said, nodding toward me. I felt my lips tighten and I hoped I wasn’t blushing. “He’s gotten challenged by Easton, who was being a prick.”
“When is Easton not a prick?” Morseth said.
“I want one of you to attend Pal,” May said. “I told him that it has to be fought at 20%. Can you make that stick with Easton?”
“I guess we can,” said Reaves. He was smiling in a way that was scary where bluster wouldn’t have been.
“Well, do it for me, then,” said May. “Easton was more of a prick than usual, and Pal got into it because he’s a good kid. All right?”
The two warriors looked me up and down. I realized I was holding a pitcher of tulips. I started to put them down, then froze because I didn’t want to look like I didn’t care if they got knocked over.
May took the pitcher from me. “Morseth, Reaves?” she said. “Do what you can, all right?”
She turned to me and said, “Pal, I’m sorry you got into this and I’m really sorry you got into it for me. These boys will keep things straight. Just do what they tell you.”
She swallowed and said, “I’m going back to the Consort’s suite now. Jolene is probably worried about how long I’ve been gone. And I really don’t have a taste–”
May turned quickly and trotted off by the broad path. I could just hear her final words: “–for this sort of thing.”
“Quite a lady, May is,” Morseth said musingly as he watched her go. He eyed me: “Known her long?”
“No sir,” I said, standing straight. “I just met her today and she was showing me around. Easton started hassling her and, well, I asked him to stop.”
Morseth’s smile was very slight, but I thought there was a little warmth in it for the first time. “Did you?” he said mildly.
“Let’s see your hardware,” said Reaves.
I unhooked my weapon and shield and handed them over, one to either man. They turned them over, then traded and repeated the process. Their faces had gotten as blank as stone walls.
“I made them myself on Beune,” I said. The silence was weighing on me.
They handed back my shield and weapon. “I guess he knows his own mind,” Reaves said to Morseth.
“There comes Easton,” Morseth said. He turned to me and added, “We’ll do the best we can for you, kid.”
“Yeah,” said Reaves over his shoulder. “But with Easton, don’t hold your breath.”
They sauntered toward Easton, who’d come with three attendants. He’d changed into a red outfit with reflective stripes up and down both tunic and breeches, and his modular shield and weapon had gilded highlights. Somebody’d spent time on the case, and that probably meant they hadn’t skimped on the insides either.
For all that, Easton looked like somebody’s lap dog facing a pair of Rottweilers as Morseth and Reaves approached him. He wouldn’t be fighting Morseth and Reaves, though.
I wasn’t afraid, really: I’ve gotten thumped in the past, especially before I got my full growth. Odds were I was going to get thumped again, is all.