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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Wed Aug 16 20:53:53 EDT 2017

 

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.

 

 

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"The Amber Arrow" by Tony Daniels, last updated Wed Aug 16 20:53:53 EDT 2017

 

The Mistake

    Wannas found Ursel at the end of the first watch. “I will spell you,” he said. “Are you sure this is the right thing to do? We have such pressing business but there are children wandering around in the woods here.”

    “I know more about them than I let on,” Ursel said. “I was out here looking for them when I came upon you. They aren’t the first changelings to come over the mountains. Something is happening in the Wild Kingdoms and it’s bad. Whole families of were-creatures and changelings are being slaughtered. I didn’t want them to know that their parents are probably dead.”

    “Then you will send them to a place where these refugees are being kept?”

    “If and when they come back.”

    “Why let them go at all?”

    Ursel shook her head. “You know why. They need to know there’s nothing they can do to save their parents and kinfolk. Then they can live in some kind of peace with us.”

    “You’ll take them in?”

    “Yes, we have a spot on the western side of Massanutten Mountain where we are keeping them until we can sort them out. There’s a lot of bad feelings against changelings in Shenandoah. It comes from the early days when werewolves had teamed up with some death-cult Skraelings. We called them the Wutenluty. It was six hundred years ago, but people still remember. Old Duke Tjark led the first settlers to take them on and defeat them. He had a magical weapon called the Dragon Hammer. All of this is part of the founding story of the Mark of Shenandoah.”

    “Does your father know about this camp?”

    “Yes, he’s the one that suggested it. He’s always had a soft spot in his heart for changelings.”

    She considered saying more to him, but they already had so much on their minds trying to find Wulf and deliver a message that Potomak needed help. There was no reason to bring up details that didn’t have anything to do with the mission she#8217;d taken on to help them.

    Ursel stood up from the rock she’d been leaning against and stretched. Then she crouched back down. She counted her arrows. Wannas leaned over and gently touched her arm. She turned to face him.

    “Mistress Keiler. Ursel,” Wannas said in a low voice. “I’ve been watching you the past few days and I’ve never met a woman who was so sure of herself. You’re the best shot I’ve ever seen with a bow. Your form is beautiful.”

    “Even with muddy boots and a face covered with scratches?” Ursel said, trying to lighten up where she feared this conversation was going.

    “I meant your archery,” Wannas replied

    “Oh,” Ursel answered, embarrassed.

    Wannas smiled. “Your face looks fine, too,” he said. “Lovely.”

    So much for keeping things lighthearted, Ursel thought.

    “I wonder if . . . are you supposed to remain a spinster so you can take care of your foster-father into his old age? Is that why they adopted you?”

    Ursel could feel the flush coming to her face and she was glad it was night so that Wannas couldn’t see her. Both of them were squatting. Ursel reached over and quickly pushed him back over his haunches. He fell splaying into the leaves.

    “You shouldn’t talk about things that you don’t know anything about,”#8221; Ursel said.

    “I didn’t mean to offend you,” Wannas said. He sounded shocked that she had taken his words the wrong way.

    But how could I not, Ursel thought. He practically called me a spinster-in-the-making!

    I’ll bet he’s used to everyone making allowances for him being disrespectfully candid. He’s definitely a rich kid who thinks that people admire his always being truthful no matter what. But actually they are probably just afraid of losing trader status with his big, rich family.

    Ursel knew the type.

    Raukenrose, the capital, was crawling with men like that.

    That was one of the reasons she felt relieved when she’d left.

    “To answer your nosey question,” Ursel said. “No. I am not expected to stay unmarried. The opposite is true. My father is going to give me a dowry. At first, it was in silver thalers. But I told him I didn’t want that. So it’s going to be land instead. And it isn’t a dowry, despite what people call it. I get the land either way, whether I get married or not.”

    “That must be nice,” Wannas said. “I’m supposed to become a factor at Kitty Yards. That’s my father’s tobacco market in Potomak. He hopes I’ll take over the business one day. I don’t know if that’s what I want. I wanted to go to Raukenrose University. Well, before the Romans decided to take over my city and box me in.”

    “Well, you got to Raukenrose, at least,” Ursel said with a laugh.

    “Yes, I guess I did. I even met the head of the university. He is a very little man.”

    “He’s a gnome.”

    Wannas nodded. “Yes. I told him I wanted to study the history of my people, the Powhatan. He was excited about that. He said he was looking forward to meeting me again in more peaceful times.”

    “I’ll probably go. Women study at Raukenrose University, too, not like in Sandhaven,” Ursel said. “University colleges are for male and Tier. The sections called ‘houses’ are reserved for women. But everybody mixes when they are taking classes.” Ursel smiled. She reached out a hand and helped Wannas to sit back up. “Maybe you’ll meet a girl at the university. Somebody right for you.”

    Wannas touched her arm gently again. “Maybe I already have,” he said softly. He leaned over toward Ursel, moving in for a kiss.

    But she couldn’t have this. Not here and not now. She moved her head away and said gently, “No.”

    Wannas took a moment and withdrew. “I’m sorry. That was stupid.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Ursel replied.

    “Is there already somebody?”

    Ursel considered for a moment then smiled mischievously. “What makes you think I have to be in a relationship with someone else to reject you?”

    “I guess . . . you don’t.”

    “Listen, I know what it’s like to make a fool of yourself in front of somebody else because you feel something that they don’t.”

    “Is that what just happened?” Wannas replied, bitterness in his voice.

    “I’m just saying that there’s no reason to be embarrassed. You and I are from completely different worlds. We’re on the same path for a while, but soon the path will fork and we’ll probably never see each other again. I don’t take you for a one-night sort of man. Are you?”

    Wannas puffed out his shoulders. “No,” he said. “I am not.”

    “I know I’m not a one-night sort of woman. So this just can’t work.”

    Wannas hunched silently for a moment. In the darkness she couldn’t tell whether he was angry or not. Finally he spoke. “You’re probably right,” he said. “But I do think there’s somebody else. Got to be. I won’t ask you any more about it, though.”

    “Please don’t.” Ursel put the arrow quiver around her shoulder and stood up.

    “Probably some noble guy, right? I never have understood you monarchists, with your rules about firstborn and second-born inheritance. In a democracy like I come from, the father can decide to give his children whatever he wants, or nothing. What would the adopted daughter of a bear person get set up with? Some fields near the ancestral hall? Maybe the yearly lord’s share from a village or two? That land around Bear Hall is prosperous. Some prime tobacco land would make a pretty good lure for a man.” He chuckled at his own wit.

    Just when I thought you might be not a donkey’s ass, Ursel thought, something like that comes out of your mouth.

    “No villages,” Ursel replied. “Not even any farmland. Just some woods.”

    Wannas nodded. “I’m sure that’s very generous. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings again. So where are those woods of yours going to be?”

    “You’ve been traveling through my land for the past five days,” Ursel replied dryly. She reached down and patted him on the shoulder.

    “All of this forest?”

    “Just the western Shwartzwald,” she said. “My brothers will have the farmlands and the eastern woodlands. But it’s all a family kind of arrangement. Bears are like that.”

    “That’s . . . a lot,” Wannas said.

    She took several steps away, then turned back to Wannas. She spoke with a more serious tone in her voice. “Please keep a watch over these children tonight. Who knows what kind of mischief they could get into out here. I feel kind of responsible.”

    “We saved them from wolves.”

    “They’re just children. Orphans, probably.”

    “I will. Nootaw says he will take third watch.”

    “All right,” Ursel said. She lay down within the saplings. She’d given her bedroll to some of the children, so she just rested on her back in leaves. Overhead, the stars were burning brightly. The temperature was pleasant enough, and it wasn’t going to rain. With her bow and arrows tucked under a shoulder, Ursel was asleep within moments.

    When the morning dawned, Nootaw had fallen asleep at his watch.

    The coyote pups were gone.

 

 

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"Iron Angels" by Eric Flint and Alistair Kimble, last updated Wed Aug 16 20:53:53 EDT 2017

 

    After an abbreviated tour of the immediate area of the University of Chicago, Ed ushered them into one of the empty stadium-style lecture halls he used for the lower level science courses he taught.

    “The University’s changed since you stumbled through here, my friend.” Ed gestured to the flat panel monitors on the wall. “Not to mention all the kids these days carry laptops, tablets, phones, you name the gadget and they’ll have one.”

    Temple glanced about the hall. “Much different than the small school I attended.”

    “Things couldn’t have changed that much since you attended college, what a few years back?” Ed grinned.

    “Really, Ed? This guy,” Jasper thumbed toward his old professor, “thought women would fall for his Billy Dee Williams routine, but — ”

    “Hey, you’re the one who invented all the Billy Dee nonsense,” Ed put up his hands as if fending off an attack. “Tell me this woman doesn’t look youthful.”

    Temple averted her eyes from Ed’s and turned her head ever so slightly.

    “You’re falling for this load of crap, Temple?” Jasper grinned.

    “Well, I’d say Ed’s a lot classier and more refined than some people I’ve been associating with lately.”

    “I like this lady,” Ed said.

    Jasper shook his head. “Ed, I hate to tell you this, but Temple is about as old as you are. Well, maybe not quite as old — ”

    “What is this, high school?” Vance dropped his bag on the lab-sized table and rustled through the contents.

    Ed coughed. “This guy right here, this so-called Special Agent, once raised his hand during a lecture and asked — ”

    “Yeah, a truly painful and boring lecture,” Jasper said, laughing, “I said something like, ‘Hey Lando, is it true you just made a deal to keep quality education out of here forever?”

    “You believe this guy?” Ed chuckled, deep and good-natured.

    “I don’t — oh, I get it, Billy Dee, Lando from Empire Strikes Back,” Temple said. “What did you do?”

    “I answered him like Lando, and even got the line correct.” Ed smiled broadly.

    “Hey guys?” Vance peered at them from behind his bag of whatever, a gigantic grin on his face. “Let’s talk science.”

    Temple, Jasper, and Ed laughed long and hard.

    “What?” Vance looked at each of them in turn and held up a sample he’d taken from one of the scenes they’d visited.

    “Forget it,” Jasper wiped tears from his eyes. “Ed, I’m gonna sober this up a bit — we’re investigating a few disturbing matters with bizarre occurrences we’d like to run by you.”

    Ed’s brow furrowed. He clunked the metal thermos down on the table and pulled a pair of glasses from the breast pocket of his dress shirt. Ed ignored Jasper and peered over octagonal framed glasses at Vance. “You seem eager to discuss science, at least.”

    Ed reached for the sample and peered at the liquid within the vial. “Light pink in color, non-viscous in appearance. What am I looking at here?”

    “Well,” Vance said, “this was the only liquid found at a crime scene, the remains of a human. I also found — ”

    Ed turned to Jasper. “You didn’t mention anything about human remains. Was this a murder?” He’d turned deadly serious and professor-like on a dime.

    “We can’t figure out what is happening,” Jasper said. “It’s beyond my understanding.”

    “Perhaps you should start from the beginning. Provide me some perspective, you might say.” Ed spread his arms wide, palms up.

    “Coffee,” Jasper said, “I’m in need of some good coffee, preferably a dry cappuccino.”

    “Oh, sure,” Ed said, “and here’s a profiterole. I can get you some coffee, can’t vouch for the quality.”

    “Couldn’t be any worse than the battery acid forced upon me on the way over here.” Jasper frowned at Temple.

    “You’re such a whiny coffee snob. You don’t like what I brought, get up earlier and make your own.”

    “I’m liking Ms. Black still more,” Ed said.

    Jasper got his coffee, and they briefed the entire affair to Ed and what they’d witnessed and found so far.

    The lecture hall was still and devoid of any sound. Ed sat, an intense expression on his face. Finally, after a long pause, he spoke. “I’m not sure I’m following the part with the haze and the dragon and these, what did you call them?”

    “She called them demons,” Jasper said. “I’m not sure that part of this equation is even real. Did we imagine fantastic creatures? Or perhaps the mist congealed in such a way — ”

    “No. I don’t think so,” Temple said. “You obviously aren’t familiar with certain books of the Bible.”

    “I have read the Bible, you know.” Jasper folded his arms.

    Temple huffed. “This is fire and brimstone stuff. I can’t help but think we need to pay attention and not dismiss a possible Biblical origin of these… creatures, if the word ‘demon’ bothers you too much.”

    “I’m not disputing any of your religious beliefs.” Jasper sipped at his coffee. “But too many other factors exist. You’re acting like this is the start of the End Times, for crying out loud.”

    “And why not? God promised not to send another flood, but — ”

    “Yes, yes. I’m familiar with that part of Genesis,” Jasper said.

    “But he didn’t make a covenant not to send forth demons and therefore pave the way for the second coming of Christ, did he?”

    Jasper threw his arms up.

    “I’m not sure I understand why the Bureau is getting involved in this,” Ed interrupted, peering over his glasses. “I didn’t think you investigated murders, unless they involved something like national security.”

    “Oh, allow me to explain,” Jasper said. “Temple and Vance are assigned to SAG.” He let the acronym hang —

    “SAG? Like Screen Actors — ”

    “All right,” Temple said. “I can’t help the acronym. SAG wasn’t my first choice but people at headquarters have zero imagination. SAG stands for Scientific Anomalies Group. And by the way, Jasper is assigned to us now as well, and I am his supervisor — ”

    “Temporarily assigned,” Jasper added.

    Ed rotated the vial in his fingers. “Vance, if what you told me is correct, well — this would be the discovery of a lifetime. You’re talking alien life, alien elements. I can’t even imagine how such chemistry could exist on our world.”

    “It could if supernatural forces were involved,” Temple said.

    “You mean divine intervention?” Jasper shook his head. “And why would God send some terrible creature, one resembling a Chinese style dragon, down here to digest people outside its body? Can you explain that?”

    “I didn’t say anything about divine intervention,” Temple replied.

    Ed flipped through a textbook lying on the table. “All right, are any of the materials you’ve shown me here classified information?”

    “No. I haven’t made any of this classified,” Temple said. “So far, this is a criminal investigation, not national security.”

    “In my mind,” Jasper said, “our discussions have no choice but go down the path of weaponization.”

    “I don’t think so,” Vance and Ed said at the same time then regarded one another, as if in unspoken respect.

    “I’m no scientist, but if Temple asserts divine — or satanic, whatever — intervention in the daily lives of people and Vance asserts alien elements? Well, I’m afraid the government, and specifically the military would say otherwise. Almost everything has weapon potential.”

    Temple smacked the table. “That is the whole reason I’m not classifying anything right now. I want to keep all talk of aliens off the radar.”

    Jasper pursed his lips. “Damn. I hadn’t thought of that angle. Good call, Temple. Withholding information from headquarters, since they typically stick their noses in places they shouldn’t.” He laughed.

    “What’s so funny?”

    “Oh, nothing really, only that you’re headquarters, right? And SAG is sticking its nose in fieldwork. But you’re rather not like them, you’re not even close to resembling standard HQ bureaucrats.”

    “Gee, thanks for the compliment,” Vance said, “I think.”

    Jasper shook his head. “We’re letting speculation get too far ahead of us. As of now, mangled bodies are our only concrete evidence.”

    “I wish I’d seen the specimens in person,” Ed said.

    “Specimens? I’m not so sure.” Jasper made a face. “It’s one thing to view bodies and speak of bodies in a clinical manner, but on a crime scene, when they’re bloody and mangled, well — ”

    “Yes,” Temple added, “when confronted with the brutality of man directly, it’s sobering.”

    “Horrific, I’m sure, but you didn’t witness the acts.” Ed peered at them from over his glasses. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to diminish or downplay any of what you’ve all been through.”

    “I witnessed two men incinerate themselves by way of thermite.”

    Ed winced. “Sorry. Nasty stuff. I can’t imagine a human being making a conscious decision to end their life in such a horrible manner.”

    “Me, either.” Jasper’s shoulders twitched, as if suppressing a shiver. “I saw what the stuff did to metal during my time in the Marines.”

    “All right. Let’s discuss what we actually have here.” Vance spread a line of photos on the table. “This is what the bodies looked like.”

    Ed leaned over the photographs and picked up a magnifying glass. After perhaps a minute of examining the images, he said: “If I didn’t know better, and without getting overly technical, I’d say this was an attempt to digest food outside the body.”

    “My thought as well,” Vance said.

    “But what kind of creature is capable of such destruction?” Temple demanded. “Certainly no land animal I’ve ever heard of.”

    “Man, for one, though I don’t want to believe a man or men performed such heinous acts,” Jasper said. “But we talked about a few possibilities last night, while stomping around the old man’s backyard. You mentioned a sea creature, didn’t you, Temple?”

    “Close enough.” Ed kept his head down, continuing his examination of the photographs. “Certain types of starfish are known to extend their stomachs outside their bodies.”

    “I’m not a biologist. Not by any stretch, but are there any land animals capable of this?” Temple asked.

    “Fungi are saprobrionts and engage in extracellular digestion. But this is odd and combined with the samples you provided and from all you’ve told me, well, the lack of foreign digestion enzymes precludes an entire line of reasoning and type of animal. However, the evidence does suggest an animal that savages its prey.”

    Temple stood straighter, leaning back a little from the photographs. “But we never saw an animal.”

    “It has to be an animal,” Jasper said. “There is no other explanation.”

    “I disagree,” Vance said. “I found material suggesting an alien world.”

    “Are you saying we’re being invaded by aliens from another world?” Jasper asked. “Look, aren’t we getting carried away? Innocent people died at the hands of what we believe are a cult operating in the area.”

    “What, all the sudden you’re buying into the cult idea?” Temple asked. “Seriously?”

    “After the van last night and the proximity to the Euclid Hotel, linking the kidnapping with the first one, the little girl, is easy. Look,” Jasper said, “I’m accepting the initial theories you proposed when we first met. As I was saying, we have insanely carried out suicides, kidnapped people — one living and one dead, and two other dead bodies, both human, but mangled beyond recognition. And we’re worrying about aliens and demons? Am I the crazy one here? How about we focus on reality; what lies within the realm of possibility on earth?”

    “Relax, folks.” Ed placed a hand on Temple’s shoulder, and she didn’t flinch or attempt to pull away. “Jasper’s got a point, but how about this: we ask another type of expert around here, an astrophysicist. Also, I’m gonna suggest Vance stick around. We should take all of the material you’ve gathered and run some more conclusive tests in my lab.”

    “An astrophysicist? Why?”

    “Vance said that some of the material he collected points beyond our world, and should be examined, no? I’m not discounting anything at this point,” Ed said. “But, and this is my opinion as a non-law enforcement type, you all should be on the street trying to find the cult members. Makes me not want to leave Chicago. You Indiana folks are just plain weird.”

    “I’m not from Indiana,” Jasper said. “But going out and catching bad guys is exactly what I’d like to do, and we have other leads to follow-up on.”

    Ed grinned. “Now you’re sounding like some cop show on television.”

    “I’d be impressed if you somehow came up with answers as fast as they do on all the crime scene investigation shows on TV,” Jasper said.

    “I thought the FBI crime lab was world class. Why not use them rather than me then, wise guy?” Ed removed his glasses.

    “Come on, really? They’re good, but if you need an answer now, not so much.”

    “So true,” Temple added.

    “Indeed,” Vance said, “why do you think Temple brought me on to her team?”

    “You and I both know, my friend.” She winked at Vance. “This was not only my last chance, but yours.”

    That was so true, also. They’d both been misfits — well, Vance was. For her part, Temple had pissed off all the wrong folks along the way, even though her case work had been outstanding over the years. Hers was a permanent exile to headquarters. Vance still had a shot at a normal career, whatever that was in the modern day Bureau.

    “I’ve missed quite a few things, I think.” Ed twirled his glasses. “Does the plan work for you?”

    “Yes, let’s ask this physicist of yours, but how about later? We’ll leave Vance here with you.”

    “This’ll likely take most of the day,” Ed said. “How about you guys come back this evening, we’ll chat and grab some drinks?”

    Jasper grinned; glad the topic of drinks came up. “Hey Billy.”

    “Will you please stop with the Lando crap?” Despite the harsh sounding warning, Ed was all smiles — Temple could tell he loved this sort of banter and doubted any of his professor and scientist buddies acted like this around him.

    “You know, speaking of drinks,” Jasper said, “I hear there are two rules to having a good time.”

    Vance was looking confused again.

    Temple rolled her eyes. “Jasper thinks he’s a real comedian with all these Billy Dee Williams jokes. You probably don’t remember those beer commercials Billy Dee did back in the day, Vance. It isn’t that funny, so don’t worry about it.”

    “What?” protested Jasper. “Come on, that was a pretty good joke. Even Lando thought so.”

    Temple smiled. “Me, I think Ed is more attractive than Lando Calrissian, just the way he is — and I’m guessing, and really going out on a limb here, way more intelligent.”

    “Why, thank you.” Ed stood taller, beaming.

    “Though, I’m not sure how much given your choice of friends.” Temple rolled her head, aiming her gaze at Jasper.

 

 

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"Chain of Command" by Frank Chadwick, last updated Wed Aug 16 20:53:53 EDT 2017

 

7 December 2133 (ten hours later) (fourteen days from K’tok orbit)

    Sam’s relationship with Captain Huhn had proved as constant and predictable as the energy output of an eruptive variable star.

    The day after the attack, and after the first promising conversation, Huhn had ignored Sam when in the same room and sent a series of increasingly brusque orders by commlink.

    The next day Chief Navarro had given Sam a badly needed education in his duties.

    The day after that Huhn had called Sam to his cabin during the afternoon watch, delivered his rambling monologue about his trust in Larry Goldjune having vanished, and sent Sam away with the admonition that the two of them needed to stick together in the face of their “enemies.”

    For the entire next day and the following one, Huhn remained in his cabin with orders not to be disturbed except for contact with the enemy or incoming communications addressed to him. Sam should handle everything else. Those were the two days before the scheduled rendezvous with Combined Task Force One. Sam knew that Huhn and Goldjune had been close and Goldjune turning on him must have shaken the captain up badly. He hadn’t know the cause of the break then, but he now suspected that Ensign Lee’s take on Huhn freezing on the auxiliary bridge the day of the attack was at the core of it. Lee had shared her thoughts with Marina Filipenko; wouldn’t she do the same with her department head and lover?

    Six hours after Sam’s conference with Commander Atwater-Jones in the afternoon of the rendezvous, Puebla and the other boats of their division–Destroyer Division Three–received a tight-beam burst transmission to be ready for a holo-briefing by senior staff of the task force in two hours. The briefing would include the command teams of all four DDRs of DesDiv Three: USS Oaxaca, Tacambaro, Queretaro, and Puebla, all patched into the same virtual conference space. Each DDR’s command team was limited to three officers: captain, executive officer, and Tac Boss.

    Perhaps Huhn would settle down after the briefing–it had only been five days since the attack, only five days of war. They knew the barest outline of a plan but no details, few specifics of what they were expected to do beyond hang back with Hornet and act as a reserve. Maybe this briefing would do the trick, give Huhn something to focus on. Sam hoped so.

    Whatever animosity he had felt toward Delmar Huhn had faded, although he could not say why. He felt no affection for the captain, not even sympathy. Instead it was as if Sam drove an aged ground car across the desert and Del Huhn was its engine–sputtering, overheating, losing power. He felt no emotions for the engine except anxiety and desperation to keep it running until he reached safety.

    Perhaps it would have been different if Huhn had stalked the boat, finding fault with officers and crew, delivering harangues, but Sam had not seen him in almost three days. As far as he knew no one had, except probably the mess attendants who delivered his meals. The captain communicated occasionally by voice commlink, more often simply by text memos. Perhaps Sam’s animosity had faded because Del Huhn seemed to have faded.

    Twenty minutes later, Sam’s commlink vibrated and he squinted up the ID tag of Yeoman Fischer.

    “What’s up, Fischer?”

    Sir, the captain said to ping you and say you won’t need to show for the holo-briefing. Lieutenant Goldjune will take your slot.

    “Understood. Thanks, Fischer.”

    Now that was odd. As far as Sam knew, the task force staff’s instructions had been specific. Huhn must have gotten permission to change the line-up. And had he patched things up with Larry Goldjune? Possibly. Or maybe he’d rather be surrounded by fellow-regulars, not a reservist like Sam.

    He tasted something sour, felt his face flush as resentment bubbled up within him. He should be in that briefing, goddamnit –either as executive officer or as Tac Boss. Huhn turning the tactical department over to Filipenko was asking for trouble. She was smart enough, but so far she hadn’t shown the fire in her to own the job rather than just go through the motions. What was Huhn thinking? What was that coward, that pathetic emotional cripple, ever thinking about but his own sense of aggrieved entitlement?

    Sam leaned back and took a deep, shuddering breath.

    Damn! Get a grip.

    Right, it wasn’t about Del Huhn’s grievances or disappointments, and it wasn’t about his either. It was just about the boat.

    So suck it up, Bitka.

    Sam looked at his desk display. He had been in the middle of finishing the certifications for promotion of seven petty officers. Two of them, including Joyce Menzies, were to fill chief slots they badly needed to fill–actually were just formal confirmation of the acting promotions they’d already made. He already had his hands full with work that needed doing, right?

    He looked around at the walls of the office, set to mimic the view from a small island in the Pacific, kilometers of slowly rolling ocean stretching all the way to a horizon made indistinct by low scattered clouds.

    “This job stinks.” he told the ocean.

    He shook his head, pushed the mass of contradictory thoughts and emotions aside, and got back to work.

 


 

    An hour and forty minutes later, when the holo-conference was to start, Sam’s commlink vibrated and he heard the ID tone of Captain Huhn.

    “Yes, sir?”

    Bitka, I know you think your paperwork should take precedence but I need you to helmet up for the briefing.

    “Aye, aye, sir, if that’s what you want.”

    Of course it’s what I want. Why else would I say it?

    “Well, Yeoman Fischer told me you wanted Lieutenant Goldjune to take my place, sir, but I’m happy to sit in.”

    Sam snapped on his helmet and immediately found himself in the holo-conference, flanked by Huhn’s virtual self to his left and Filipenko’s to his right. Both of them looked embarrassed and he saw a variety of grins and scowls on the other faces, which made him realize he had been live to the conference during his exchange with Huhn. What had the captain said earlier that made Sam’s words so embarrassing?

    “I’ll have to speak with Yeoman Fischer,” Huhn said with anger in his voice. “There was apparently a misunderstanding.”

    Ah! Huhn must not have gotten permission to alter the conference attendee list, then when he’d been called on it had lied, and then had his lie exposed.

    “I may have misunderstood, sir,” Sam said. Whoever was at fault, it sure as hell wasn’t Yeoman Fischer. Better for Sam to take the heat.

    “Very well,” Huhn said without looking at him.

    Commander Bonaventure–Captain Tall, Dark, and Greasy, as Jules had once described him–captain of Oaxaca and commander of the Third Destroyer Division (ComDesDiv Three in Navy parlance), sat with his team to Huhn’s left. The virtual images of the command teams of Tacambaro and Queretaro sat to Filipenko’s right, all of them forming a shallow crescent.

    The images of three senior officers faced them, floating slightly below their level and looking up. Two wore the white shipsuits of US Navy officers. The man on the right was vaguely familiar but Sam did not recognize the short, stocky, and formidable-looking woman in the center, who was clearly in charge. She wore the four stripes of a full captain–not the job, but the rank, one step short of an admiral Her hair was gray, her expression ferocious, and her build reminiscent of a fireplug.

 

 

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"Iron Angels" by Eric Flint and Alistair Kimble, last updated Mon Aug 14 20:24:30 EDT 2017

 

    Jasper slouched in the passenger seat eyes masked by sunglasses, sipping black coffee, and judging by the wrinkled nose hating every second of the burnt liquid. He glanced at Temple.

    “I have no time to baby you,” she glanced back at him, “and by the way, nine a.m. is not early.”

    “I suppose, but bearing foul coffee did nothing to improve upon the early call.” He slouched in his seat. “Where in the hell did you get this crap, anyway? And you know what?”

    “I’m listening.” Temple grinned.

    “You’re too made-up,” Jasper lifted his sunglasses, “and well, perky for this time of the morning.”

    “Excuse me? Made. Up?” She didn’t bother looking at him, but kept her eyes on the road. “Stop your bitching and tell me which way I’m heading. This is your neck of the woods, not mine, remember? Oh, and by the way, you look like shit. Perky my rear end, never been accused of that once.”

    “I’m trying to sleep back here, you two mind?” Vance protested from the back seat.

    “From here on I foresee a productive morning with no arguments or strife.” Temple focused on the road, but Jasper sat up —

    — put the passenger side window down and dumped the coffee she’d picked up for him.

    “Such foul stuff,” Jasper said.

    “Hey!” Vance cried from the back seat.

    Jasper turned and looked at Vance who wiped at his face and hair frantically.

    “You ass,” Vance said.

    Jasper slumped and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Vance, really. I didn’t mean to splash the nastiness on you.”

    “You should rush me to the burn unit — ”

    “See, Vance? Now that comment was funny.” Jasper grinned.

    “Put the window up,” Temple chided. “It’s like I’m driving a couple of arguing brats to school.”

    “Yes, mother,” Jasper said, “but don’t you believe in air conditioning? I’m roasting.”

    “Yes.”

    “Okay, so why aren’t you using it, then?” Jasper returned to the slouched position.

    “It’s morning, and it’s not yet sweltering. And I’m cold.” She paused. “And I’m driving.”

    “Fine, but I didn’t ask you to drive.”

    “Yeah, but if I hadn’t picked you up, it would have been lunch time before you dragged yourself to the office.”

    “It is the weekend still, you know. I was up even later trying to explain to my boss, Johnson, why he needed to get a team out to recover that body behind the shed. And then I received a phone call from ASAC Masters. Not happy, but they complied. I’m walking a tightrope with my executive management. Oh, and we’re lucky my contact agreed to meet with us.”

    “Thanks for talking your office into assisting. Didn’t you say the contact lived near the campus?”

    “Well, yeah,” Jasper said.

    “So quit your bellyaching — you’re already up and might as well get into the spirit of things,” Temple said.

    Jasper dialed her in and they made their way over to Chicago.

    “You know, this area we’re driving through, Hyde Park, is sort of known for its cultural diversity. African-Americans are known to — ”

    “Known to what?” Temple asked forcefully.

    “Uh, live in this area? The Obamas lived here.”

    “And?”

    “Nothing, I guess.”

    “Hyde Park also at one time tried to keep black people out,” Temple said. “And I don’t want to hear about South Shore and Farrakhan either, that’s close by too, right? I’m a Christian, you know, so why would I give a damn about Farrakhan?”

    “I never brought him up.” Jasper shrunk in his seat.

    “Spare me the lessons in black history,” she said. “But it’s nice to see that apparently someone has been paying attention to the Bureau’s black history month.”

    “Wiseass, and it’s African-American appreciation month.”

    “Pfft. You really have been paying attention.” Temple laughed and smacked the steering wheel. “But how about this: Why don’t you tell me about this guy we’re meeting, this biochemist buddy of yours, before we get there. That’d be swell.”

    Temple grinned, knowing Jasper would be thankful for the change of topic. Why did he think she’d care about Hyde Park, anyway? Simply because she was black? That’d be like her telling him something about backwoods rednecks while traipsing around the Ozarks.

    Was she that sensitive to get upset over the Hyde Park nonsense? Not really, and even she had grown tired of the Bureau’s weak attempts at diversity awareness.

    “Not much to tell,” Jasper said into the window. “He wasn’t exactly a buddy back then, but a professor of mine. We became friends later.”

    “Oh? He an older man?”

    “Why,” Jasper glanced over at Temple, “you have a thing for older men?”

    “Oh, but she does,” Vance chimed in from the back seat. “Tell him about the old guy from HQ that — ”

    “Vance?” Temple glared at him in the rearview mirror. “You’d do yourself a favor if you keep that trap of yours shut.”

    “A pleasant start to the day,” Vance said. “Donuts, some chiding, and coffee — which I received in the face I might add.”

    “I agree.” Jasper grinned. “So, back to my old professor. He’s become a friend over the years, especially since I got assigned to the Merrillville Residence Agency.”

    “This old coot got a name?”

    “Ed White.”

    “Sounds like your standard crusty old white guy.”

    Jasper snorted, and pushed himself up. “Ed isn’t all that old. Let’s see, he was in his early thirties when I met him. So he’d be in his mid to late forties now.”

    “Oh,” Temple said, realizing at once how that sounded.

    “Ah ha, so you do wish he were older. How interesting,” Jasper said.

    Vance tapped on Jasper’s seat. “Oh, that’d be so perfect.”

    “What?” Temple asked, annoyed.

    “Black and White,” Vance said. “You see? Your name is Black, and his is — ”

    “Yeah,” Temple said, “I get it. You’re a riot, now sit back and shut up.”

    Jasper burst out laughing.

    Temple shook her head. “I’m dealing with juveniles here. Okay, children. Not another word until we get there, and no uncouth or childish jokes please, we’re professionals.” Temple glanced in the rear view mirror. “And Vance? You’re not amusing.”

    “All right, we’re almost there,” Jasper said. “Turn down this street right here and try to find a spot. It’s early enough and a weekend, so we shouldn’t have too much trouble. There he is, he’s waiting for us.”

    “Where?” Temple asked.

    Jasper laughed.

    Temple parked. Jasper hopped out and headed toward a middle-aged black man who was perched against a nearby fire hydrant. The man rose, smiling, and extended his hand to take Jasper’s.

    “Ed, how in the hell are you? Still carrying that beat up old thermos, I see.”

    Inside the car, Temple spent a few seconds silently cursing herself. Without ever thinking about it, she’d just assumed a biochemistry professor at the University of Chicago would be white.

    She got out of the car and headed toward them, Vance trailing behind her. “This is Ed, I take it,” she said.

    Jasper nodded. “Ed, these are my colleagues, Vance Ravel and Temple Black. And this is Edwin White, but as you can see, he is — ”

    “Yeah, all right,” Temple said, “you got me. Ha ha.” Lord above, was that boy’s face one hundred percent full of smug right now.

 

 

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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Mon Aug 14 20:20:01 EDT 2017

 

Finding My Place

    I reached the line just as the clerk processed Rilk, the last person from the group I’d arrived with. The old potter hadn’t set his pack down while he waited, I guess because he struggled so hard to lift it again.

    I’d helped him mornings on the Road and I’d have helped him again here, but I’d been off watching the warriors. I felt a little bad about that, but Rilk wasn’t my business either except because I tried to be courteous to other people.

    The clerk looked about as beat down as Rilk did, but in case it was the weight of overseer on his back, the Herald the Gate as the steward called him. “Name and business,” he said. He didn’t raise his eyes, which meant he could see my trousers and sheepskin boots; and maybe the wooden closure of my belt that Jimsey had given me after I chased the creature back into the Waste. I’d just knotted the leather before then.

    “I’m Pal of Beune,” I said, standing straight. “I’ve come to Dun Add to join the Company of Champions.”

    The clerk looked up then, his eyes opening wider. He was young, not much older than me, but I could see the strain at the edges of his eyes.

    I don’t know what he might’ve said next, but he didn’t have time to. The overseer jumped like I’d goosed him and shouted, “Are you mocking me, hobby? Do you think I’m just another yokel that you can jape? I’m the Herald of the Gate, and if you think you’re so funny you can just take yourself back into the Waste!”

    “Sir, I’m not mocking you,” I said, keeping my voice as calm as I could. Right now I was bubbling with anger and fear too. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong, but it sounded like I might not even get into Dun Add. “I’m not the kind that does that sort of thing.”

    For a moment it looked like the Herald was going to bust. I guess he didn’t know how to take me. That could happen even back home where most folks knew me or at any rate had heard about me. It’s too bad when people figure there’s got to be something underneath the words when I just tell the truth, but it’s happened enough that it doesn’t surprise me any more.

    That was when the boat appeared right in the middle of the landing place. It quivered back and forth a couple times, coming into balance with Here and shifting a hair to get above the short grass.

    “Oh!” the Herald said. “That’s Lord Mofflin’s boat, surely it is.”

    He went bustling off toward the boat, a cylinder thirty feet long, lying on its side. “Sir?” I called after him.

    The clerk grinned at me and made a mark on his notebook. He thumbed me toward the castle and said, “Good luck to you, buddy. Whatever that means for you.” Then he followed his boss, walking a little straighter than he had a moment ago.

    I headed for the path that seemed to lead straightest toward the castle above. It may seem funny, but as rare as I knew boats were, I’d nonetheless seen two of them in the past.

    Beune isn’t close to much of anything by the Road, but if you travel by boat it turns out to be on the way to a lot of places. That isn’t a reason to stop, of course, unless your boat needs repairs or restocking. Which at least the two I saw did; repairs and restocking, I suspect, but restocking for sure.

    The first boat landed when I was only six. I’d started fiddling with the bits of Ancient artifacts that had drifted to Beune. I’d go into a trance and enter the piece, and after a while I started to fill the places with what it seemed to me that it needed. I didn’t talk to anybody about what I was doing, and I don’t know that I’d heard the word Maker.

    The boatman wore black leather and had a full red beard. I thought he was God Almighty come down to Beune. It was just him and his client alone in the boat, and I know now that the client must’ve been rich enough to buy all of Beune. That was nothing to me when I was six; and tell the truth, it isn’t much to me now.

    I’d have sold my soul to be the boatman, though. He superintended my neighbors as they loaded the boat’s hoppers with all sorts of things, rock and wood and corn and twenty products besides.

    Now that means to me the fellow didn’t have a clue as to what was missing and was hoping the boat’s automatic systems would find enough in the hoppers to let them limp to wherever they were going–or at least to a node with different selections where they could try again. Then to me it was all wonder and wonderful, though.

    I was fourteen the second time a boat landed, though, and by then I think I could’ve done them some good if they’d let me. They didn’t, of course; I was a kid and a hick, and they–a fine lady with her maid and her fancy boy; their boatman was less impressive than the first one I’d seen–had me chased away. I think the gigolo would’ve clouted me if the maid hadn’t grabbed his arm.

    They loaded up with wood after tossing out the decomposed wood that’d gotten them this far. Though they wouldn’t let me aboard the boat, it was easy to get hold of some of the waste and check it in a trance. The boat had drawn out the carbon.

    Well, the wood the strangers bought would give them that; father and some of our neighbors made nice money by selling brush that was too small to build with and too prickly to be anything but bedding at the bottom of a haystack to let the fodder breathe. Thing is, we’ve got a thick seam of coal on Beune, and that would’ve provided the carbon in a load that would’ve packed might tighter.

    I was willing to bet that I could’ve done something about the processor that was making the boat go through carbon so fast too, but the only one I’d have given the time of day to was the maid. I wasn’t sure who owned the boat, the lady or the boatman himself just hiring it to her, but it sure wasn’t the maid.

    As I looked at the choice of paths now, I heard a woman with a pleasant voice call, “I’m back, George,” behind me as I neared the trees. I turned. A really pretty girl with pale blond hair had come in from the Road. She had a three-colored cat in the crook of her left arm and a basket of tulips in that hand. She was waving her right arm to the Herald and his clerk.

    “We’ve got you, Miss May,” the clerk called back, and the Herald himself even turned and swept off his puffy hat with a bow. I wondered which one of them was named George.

    I paused for a moment, because she was coming my way. I waited till she looked around and noticed me. “Ma’am,” I said. “I’m new here. Can you tell me which of these paths best leads to the castle?”

    “You can follow me, I suppose,” she said, and her tone wasn’t much more friendly that the set look on her face. I guess a girl so pretty must have a lot of men pestering her.

    I didn’t let it bother me, just said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and followed as she swept past me. Buck looked up at her cat and it was giving him the eye, but Buck’s well behaved.

    Miss May’s dress was the same as girls on Beune wear in weather this warm: a knee length skirt and short sleeves. The waist was pinched just a bit by a fabric belt, enough to give it shape without being a couple layers of cloth tight against the skin. Thing is, back home the dresses were wool, maybe with a little embroidery on the sleeves or neckline. May wore silk, and I couldn’t tell if the light peach color was dyed or the silk came that way from the worm.

    The trees were nice, horse chestnuts about thirty feet tall. They were in flower, too. May took me along a path that forked twice, first to the left and the second time to the right. I didn’t know where the other branches would’ve led me–I couldn’t really get lost in a belt a hundred yards thick–but I was glad to have a guide.

    I stayed a pace behind her, keeping a bit off to the left. There was plenty of room for us to walk side by side, but she pretty clearly didn’t want that to happen and I’m not one to push in where I’m not wanted.

 

 

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"The Amber Arrow" by Tony Daniels, last updated Mon Aug 14 20:20:01 EDT 2017

 

The Changelings

    Several of the half-breed children were sharing blankets that the Skraelings had rolled out from their bedrolls.

    “They done run us out of the West,” said the little boy who had been Bandage-leg. His leg looked even more hurt than before. Changing form definitely did not mean that wounds were healed.

    There was a gash down his calf that split the muscle in two. The gash was at least a half-finger-length deep. Nootaw, one of the Skraelings, had taken a look at it. Without asking, he’d sat down next to Bandage-leg and taken out an iron needle and thread.

    The boy looked warily at the man, but continued talking with Ursel.

    “Who ran you out? How long have you been traveling?” Ursel asked.

    “Days and days,” said the boy. “Our folks set us to running when the bad ones came in to burn the camp.”

    “You’re from the Cantuck?”

    “I reckon you call it that over here. We just call it the Happy Hunting Ground. It’s supposed to be ruled by old King Gil Yarmo, but he’s more of a bandit. Least that’s what folks say.” He glanced at Nootaw, who had finished threading his needle. “What’s he going to do with that?” he asked nervously.

    “He’s going to help you. He’s going to sew up that wound,” Ursel replied.

    “I don’t like that.”

    “If you don’t let him, you’re going to bleed to death,” Ursel said. “So is this king the one who attacked your camp?”

    “Naw, it wasn’t him. There’s been a bunch of bad ones pushin’ in from the south and out west toward the Mississipp. Men. Trolls. A few Tier with ’em. The Romans put a bounty out on us, they said, and they aimed to collect. Bring in a were skin and get a hogshead of tobacky. Float it down the river to Orleans and make your stake for a year.”

    “Why would the Romans do that? They’ve left the Wild Kingdoms in peace for a hundred years.”

    “Don’t rightly know. Paw and Maw didn’t say. So we ran a long way and I been showing them others how to cross the mountains on account of I’ve been over to Shenandoah before once or twice. We got into the valley okay and we were living off a sick heifer now and then. Then you was following us, I think.”

    “I was.”

    “Didn’t know that for sure. You’re crafty.”

    “Thanks.”

    “And you didn’t seem to mean us no harm.”

    “I don’t.”

    “Anyhow, then these here men rustled and bustled up, and we took off. But that pack of wolves picked up our trail and they been running us since yesterday. We was about to just lay down and die when we come across your sign again. I figured you might help. Don’t know why. But I did. We’d just about give up.”

    “I was looking for you before. I knew you couldn’t be wolves, because you weren’t being a danger to any people, or dragging down healthy cattle.”

    “We was hungry,” the boy said. “And we have to eat to get enough strength to change back, you know. So we needed to do that so we could talk about where we was going and whether or not to go back now and see if we can find our folks, or if they’re all dead. Last we saw them they was fighting the bounty hunters so’s we could get away.”

    “You’ve had a really hard trip,” Ursel said. “I wish I could take you back to my father’s hall and feed you. But we have to be pressing on. Do you want to go with us?”

    The boy seemed to think about it. He started to speak then hesitated. He looked to the others. The bedraggled children gazed at him. None of them spoke. They all seemed very tired and scared. “I reckon we’ll stay here,” the boy said. “There’s a lot of food now.” He nodded toward the dead wolves.

    He means to eat them, Ursel thought. Well, turnabout is fair play, I suppose.

    “We’ll get that meat up, and then I reckon we’ll head on back to see what become of our folks.”

    “I want to give you something,” Ursel said. “I can write you out a note of passage through the mark. You could maybe wear it on a little bottle around your neck or something to keep it safe. If anybody tries to stop you, you pull that out and show them my signature. Everyone in these parts knows who I am. I’ll even tell them to feed you if they have any extra food.”

    The boy gazed at Ursel for a moment. Tears came to his eyes. “Thank you, Mistress,” he said. “We didn’t know there was any kin in these parts no more.”

    “Now you have to let this man sew up your wound,” Ursel said. “You’ve got to be brave and let him do it, okay?”

    “Does he have to?”

    “He has too.”

    The boy clenched his hands and scrunched up his face. “Then let’s get it over with.”

    Ursel walked a few paces away while Nootaw put several stitches in the whimpering, but obedient, boy.

    “What’s he talking about?” Wannas asked. “These are not coyote people. These are were-creatures. Human-Tier changelings. They would just as soon rip your throat out as look at you, I’ve always heard.”

    “These kids aren’t going to rip anyone’s throats out,” Ursel said.

    She went back to the children. The wound was pulled shut on Bandage-leg. It was seeping blood, but the major flow had stopped.

    “If you go back and find that your parents are not there, I want you to come back to me,” Ursel told the whole group. “Come to Bear Hall. You can bring anyone you pick up along the way, too. There shouldn’t be any children wandering around in the wild. That’s the way changelings got the bad reputation they have in the first place. You go see about your parents, then come to me if you need to.”

    “What do we call you? You have the bear look, and there’s no mistaking it.”

    “My name is Ursel. Ursel Keiler. Everybody in this forest knows who I am, and they will be able to show you how to get to me.”

    “Okay,” the boy said. “But I guess we’d better be eatin’ if we want to keep our strength up.”

    “Are you sure you want to go back?”

    “Wouldn’t you want to go back if it was your folks?”

    Ursel nodded. “I understand. My offer stays open. Come to me if you need to. You won’t be harmed in my forest.”

    “Thank you, Mistress.”

    The boy raised a hand to signal the others and soon the writhing and growling came back. This time they were transforming from human into coyotes. The only thing that marked them as different from regular coyotes was the purple glowing ring in their eyes around the iris.

    They picked themselves up and went over to the wolves. Soon they were yapping and playfully fighting each other for a chance to feed on the carcasses.

    “We’ll rest here tonight,” Ursel said to Wannas. “I want to make sure that those wolves don’t come back to bother the children. They ought to get at least one night of safety.”

    “I don’t get it, Ursel,” Wannas said. “I understand that they are just children, but they are interlopers on your father’s land. You don’t really know whether you can take them at their word or not. We’ll have to set a guard to make sure they don’t rip our throats out in the night.”

    “I’ll take the first watch,” she said. “I’m not worried about getting my throat ripped out. I’m worried about what is happening in the Wild Kingdoms to send kids as refugees here. Anyway, I have a special interest in weres.”

    “Really, why?”

    “Because nobody else does,” Ursel replied. “Everybody thinks they are evil. I’ve always thought they are just ignorant. And they never get a chance to learn any different, because they are always being chased like animals.”

    “Maybe there’s a reason they get chased,” said Wannas. “Maybe there’s a reason that people think Tier hybrids and human changelings should be stamped out.”

    Ursel smiled slyly. “These puppies?” she said. She shook her head. “These cute little puppies? Come on, Wannas. Really?”

    “They could grow up to be killers and cutthroats. They likely will.”

    Ursel pointed over toward the coyotes tearing into the wolves.

    “They get a bad reputation.” She stood up and cinched up her belt holding a quiver of arrows. She unstrung her bow. Then she wiped the blood from the wolf off its end. Finally, she looked around and found a place to set up her guard over the changelings.

 

 

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"Chain of Command" by Frank Chadwick, last updated Mon Aug 14 20:20:01 EDT 2017

 

7 December 2133 (two days later) (fourteen days from K’tok orbit)

    PLAN OF THE DAY

    USS Puebla, DDR-11

    7 December 2133

    LCDR Delmar P. Huhn, USN

    COMMANDING OFFICER

    LT Samuel M. Bitka, USNR

    EXECUTIVE OFFICER

    Uniform of the Day Officers: White shipsuit

    Chiefs: Khaki shipsuit

    All Others: Blue shipsuit

    0000 Mid Watch drills and training

    0500 Breakfast

    0530 BLUE Watch relieves RED, LT Goldjune OOD, LT(JG) Ramsey DEO

    0600 Morning Colors

    0630 Morning drills and training

    1100 Lunch

    1130 WHITE watch relieves BLUE, ENS Lee OOD, LT(JG) Sung DEO

    1200 Afternoon drills and training

    1700 Supper

    1730 RED watch relieves WHITE, LT(JG) Filipenko OOD, LT Hennessey DEO

    1800 Boat’s company muster for inspection

    1830 All hands General Quarters. Anticipated rendezvous with Task Force 1

    2000 Anticipated stand-down from General Quarters

    2300 Late Supper

    2330 BLUE watch relieves RED, LT Goldjune OOD, LT(JG) Ramsey DEO

    NOTES

  1. MORNING COLORS: All hands not on watch will assemble for morning colors. Colors will be presented at half-mast in honor of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
  2. DRILLS: Departments will drill on-duty watch personnel as follows

OPERATIONS: Navigation by HRVS optics only

    Reestablishing lost communication tight link in battle situation

    TACTICAL: Detection of hostile craft with HRVS optics using stellar occlusion method

    Simulated target engagement at high closing rate vectors

    ADMIN: Casualty clearance

    ENGINEERING: No drills. All available personnel tasked to damage repair

  1. TRAINING: Department heads will insure personnel coming off watch immediately spend at least one hour on review training on their MOS and one hour mastering their next grade or a parallel MOS in their department. Review. Train up. Train across.
  2. TASK FORCE RENDEZVOUS: All drills and training suspended during the Evening Watch due to rendezvous with Combined Task Force One. All hands will go to General Quarters following inspection.
  3. CREW APPEARANCE: Crew to remove all facial hair and non-permanent ornamentation by inspection at 1800, haircuts high and tight. We will be holo-conferencing with other craft of the task force from this evening forward, including a large number of WestEuro craft, and every member of the crew must present a professional and squared-away appearance at all times. Don’t make us look bad in front of the Europeans.
  4. P. Huhn

LCDR, USN

    Sam read the Plan of the Day again and shook his head. Two years ago he never would have imagined he’d be where he was, in the middle of an interstellar war, writing a Plan of the Day about haircuts.

    He had never imagined that he would be in the first combatant action of the war, nor in the first craft damaged by such action, nor in the forward screen of the first offensive space task force assembled in Earth history, nor that he would suffer loss so early, nor that it would affect him so deeply that he would not be able to just put it from his mind and carry on. He did carry on, but it was as if Jules’s ghost silently accompanied him, watching everything he did. He had seen her three times, fleetingly, out of the corner of his eye, after that first time when her presence had unnerved him.

    Most of all, he never imagined that almost a week into the war it would remain so ordinary, so routine, as if that first burst of terror and violence, which had lasted less than half an hour, had been simply a dream. He never imagined that when the vagaries of war catapulted him into a position of responsibility for which he felt entirely unprepared, and while hurtling toward what could be the climactic battle of the first campaign in the war, he would spend his time filling out forms, posting plans of the day, and overseeing the minutiae of crew training and discipline. Was this what war was really like?

    “Haircuts, Bitka? What the–?”

    Sam looked up from his workstation to see Marina Filipenko, the new Tac Boss, floating in the open doorway.

    “Yeah, haircuts. You want the Euros to laugh at us for looking like a pirate crew?”

    She gave a soft tug on the doorframe and coasted into the XO’s office. “So instead they’ll laugh at us for looking like a bunch of circus geeks. Jesus, what’ll he come up with next?”

    Sam sighed and stretched. He’d argued with Huhn for fifteen minutes about this stupid order but hadn’t been able to talk him out of it, not that Filipenko needed to know that.

    “Just do it, okay? And get some perspective: nobody’s life is going to be shattered by a haircut. While you’re here, what’s the progress on getting Ensign Robinette certified to stand watch as Officer of the Deck?” Sam had to make a conscious effort not to call the young ensign The Jughead.

    “Slow. He’s trying but he’s got a long way to go.” Filipenko looked away and her attention seemed to wander.

    “Something bothering you, Filipenko?”

    “Bothering me? We’re up to our ears in a war, taking on the largest military power of the most technologically advanced race in known space, and we’ve got a weak spot in the crew roster.” She paused and looked at him, eyebrows raised. “You know who I mean.”

    She meant the captain. Sam’s first instinct was to bark her down, but he’d done a lot of barking in the last couple days. He took a deep breath instead.

    “You want a coffee? Fresh brewed, right here in my dispenser.”

    She shook her head.

    “It’s been a lot to absorb in just a few days,” Sam said after a moment, “a lot to get used to. You don’t need to tell me that. But the person you’re talking about is going to be fine–maybe not the easiest guy in the fleet to work with but so what? Best thing you can do about him is concentrate on doing your own job, okay? Stand one watch at a time.”

    “I’m not talking about being easy to work with, or this haircut silliness,” she said. “I’m talking about freezing on the bridge in the first attack. I’m talking about who made the call to realign the boat.”

    Sam felt his face flush. He’d thought that was only between Captain Huhn and himself. If the crew were talking about it, that was trouble.

    “Since the cloud missed us anyway it wouldn’t have made a difference, but I think you have things mixed up, Filipenko. I recommended realigning the boat–which was my responsibility as TAC Boss–and asked the Captain for permission. He gave it and we realigned. End of story.”

    “That’s not what Barb Lee told me. She said he froze and you gave the order. It’ll be on the bridge holo-log.”

 

 

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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Sat Aug 12 8:46:15 EDT 2017

 

    Neither of us spoke until I could see flashes of the white walls of houses through the trees ahead of us. Then I said what I’d been thinking as I walked along behind her: “I like your tulips. My mom planted them in front of the house, and I always forget about them until they come up again in the spring. This year they hadn’t come up before I left home, though.”

    “That’s nice,̶#8221; May said without looking back at me.

    I bent and stroked the back of Buck’s neck. I couldn’t complain. I try to be friendlier to strangers than May was being, but we don’t get many strangers on Beune. Anyway, not everybody has to be like me.

    The houses at this end of Dun Add were two or three stories high. The shops on the ground floor generally spilled out onto the street. There were grocers along with a general line of the same goods as I’d seen on the fringe of the landing place; maybe a little better quality.

    I didn’t have either the time or the inclination to browse much, as May strode along more briskly on the cobblestones than she had through the woods. She hadn’t been dawdling there, either.

    The street was steep enough that sometimes it had steps in it, two or three and once as many as a dozen. My pack hadn’t been heavy even when I left Beune. Now that I’d eaten all the bread and cheese it was lighter still, but I’d walked a long way during the past three weeks. Besides which my weapon and shield were heavy enough that the belt I hung them from was chafing my hip bones. Well, I was almost there.

    The houses were built around courtyards–occasionally a large gate was open and I could see inside. There were a few people outside. Sometimes they bowed or curtseyed to May and even nodded to me. I guess they thought I was her attendant instead of just being somebody she was giving directions to.

    The girl stopped. We’d reached a terrace beyond the houses farthest up the slope. Ahead of her, ahead of us, was the castle.

    The first thing I noticed was that though it was all stone, it wasn’t all the same kind of masonry. The center part was big, roughly dressed blocks, while the wings had more finish and were built with smaller stones.

    The second thing I noticed was that there were eight doors just on this side, and a paved path running all the way the length of the front. In the middle of the old part was a double gate twenty feet high. It was closed, and though the leaves were wood, they were strapped with steel. There was a dusting of rust on the higher parts of the metal. Set into the right gate-leaf was a regular door covered with either polished brass or gold.

    May turned her head toward me and said, “There’s the castle.” Then she started down the path to the right.

    “Thank you, ma’am,” I said. Then I swallowed and said, “Ma’am? Which door do I go in to be a Champion, please?”

    “Champions use the gold door,” she said without looking back again.

    “Come along, Buck,” I said. I took a deep breath and walked toward the metal-plated door. I wasn’t sure that I was supposed to take Buck in that way, but I guessed there was only one way to learn.

    I’d just about reached it–I was close enough to tell that it was gilded bronze–when the girl called, “Stop!”

    I stopped with my hand just short of the latch. She was about where she’d been when she’d told me to use the gold door; she must’ve turned a moment after she’d tossed her directions over her shoulder.

    “Ma’am?” I said. “I know I’m not a Champion, but I want to be one.”

    She started toward me, then stopped with a grimace and said, “Oh, come here. I’ll show you where to go in. You didn’t seem feeble minded.”

    “Ma’am, I’m not,” I said as I clucked to Buck to come toward her with me. It was an insult, but I had the feeling that she was embarrassed at her own behavior instead of looking for a chance to jab me. “I’m just arrived at Dun Add, though, and it’s really different from home.”

    “What’s your name, then?” she asked. “I’m May.”

    She turned when I came alongside her and we continued walking down the right front of the castle. There were people on the parapet above us and I think I heard somebody call May’s name, but she didn’t look up at them.

    “I’m Pal,” I said. “I’m from Beune. And this is Buck.”

    “Look, I don&##8217;t know what you’ve heard on Beune,” she said, giving me a serious look, “but it’s not easy to become a Champion. There’s testing by machines and then if you pass that, you have to fight for a place in the Hall. Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “The Leader’s raised the Champions to bring justice to all of Here. Bring it back. I want to be part of that.”

    May grimaced again. Her eyes sharpened and she said, “Say, have you eaten?”

    “Not in a while,” I said. “I was planning to find a place in the town after I’d gotten started with the business of joining the Company. I figured that was going to be complicated, so I started here.”

    Then I said, “Ah–I have money. I’m not a beggar.”

    I had a fair amount of money, thanks to Duncan paying me back. I hadn’t seen prices in Dun Add, but I figured they wouldn’t be much worse than at inns along the Road. Which were bad enough, in all conscience.

    “Well, you’re here on the Jon’s business for now,” May said, “so you ought to have one meal on him at least.”

    “Ma’am?” I said. “And Buck?”

    She looked down. Buck waggled his tail.

    “We’ll take care of him first in the stables,” she said. “And call me May, will you. ‘Ma’am’ makes me feel like I’m forty years old.”

    “Thank you, May,” I said.

    May led us to a door that stood ajar. An attendant sat on a stool just far enough down the passage beyond that his feet were out of the sunlight. He had a weapon but no shield. From the stiff way his left leg stuck out, I figured he was injured. Maybe he’d been a man at arms when he was younger and healthier.

    He tried to get up when May came through the doorway. “No need, Carl,” she said with a breezy wave.

    “Thanks, mum,” he said, settling back down. He eyed me as I followed her past, but he seemed about as interested in Buck as he was in me.

    The passage was thirty feet long. There was no lighting except what came through the doorways at the ends.

    They called Dun Add a castle, but I’d been thinking that it wasn’t really built to be defended. There were slots in the stone roof of this passage, though. I wouldn’t want to try forcing my way in here if there was somebody in the room above who didn’t want me to.

    There was a second gate at the far end, but it’d been propped back against the courtyard wall for so long that the hinges were rusty red lumps. We walked through into a park. There were ornamental trees planted at the west end, but for the most part the open area was sod&##8211;or dirt, where it’d gotten too much wear even for grass. I saw two ball games, one of kids of both sexes and the other of solid-looking men.

    “The stables are straight across,” May said, continuing to lead.

    She wasn’t acting like she’d like to toss me into a glacier any more, but neither was she being the chatty/friendly sort. I appreciated what she was doing, so I let her make the rules.

    The park wasn’t so crowded that we were pushing through people, but often enough we’d walk around a blanket or even a tarp raised for a sunshade. Folks called or nodded to May if they noticed her, and I got a few long looks myself. Not for anything about me or Buck, I was pretty sure.

    There were six archways in the middle of the north side of the courtyard, and the wall above the arches was pierced for gratings up to within a couple feet of the top. The noise was loud even before we got to the openings, yaps and yelps and howling. No snarling fights, though.

 

 

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"The Amber Arrow" by Tony Daniels, last updated Sat Aug 12 8:46:15 EDT 2017

 

    From the trees charged–

    Not wolves.

    Too little.

    Coyotes.

    Yipping, screaming, sounding like a cross between a barn owl and a squeaky door hinge. Coyotes in a pack, headed for her. As if their lives depended on reaching her.

    Looking over their surging backs, Ursel saw that this was true.

    They were being chased by wolves.

    “Don’t shoot the little ones!” Ursel called out. She turned to Wannas. “Tell your men in Algonquin. Don’t shoot the coyotes.” She took aim over the coyote shoulders. “Do shoot the wolves.”

    Wannas translated what she said in a commanding voice.

    Ursel let fly her arrow. It sank into the chest of the closest wolf, and the animal collapsed, rolling around and whimpering in pain.

    She didn’t wait to see if it died. She nocked an arrow, took aim at another. This one didn’t give her an easy shot at its vitals. So instead she shot it through the eye. It collapsed as if it had run into an invisible tree trunk.

    The other Skraelings were letting their first arrows go. Most found their mark and at least distracted a wolf. Ottaniak’s tomahawk neatly split one through the skull. Ursel had her third arrow nocked. But the wolves were turning to retreat. They scampered for the forest. She almost released a shot after them, but she didn’t want to waste arrows. They were going.

    The coyotes collapsed on the ground nearby panting. There were ten of then. One was bleeding from a mauled rear leg. It tried to lick the blood away, but the flow was too fast. Ursel saw that it was a male. He was a little more muscular than the others.

    Maybe he was injured so badly because he had stayed behind to fight and drive away the wolves, Ursel thought.

    “Let’s make sure those wolves are dead,” she said. She nodded toward the carcasses of the downed wolves which they could see through the saplings. She took a step toward the bodies. When she did the coyotes all got up and moved with her. Even the one with the badly hurt leg. She turned back to look at them.

    They were all arranged in a semicircle behind her. She spun around and took a few more steps. The coyotes matched her pace staying just behind her. She turned again.

    “I’m just going to make sure we are safe from the wolves,” she said to them. But the coyote pack kept following her. She stopped. They stopped. She moved, they moved.

    Ursel sighed. “All right. I don’t want you going over there. I’ll just stay here.” She turned to Wannas who was a few paces away. “Can you see to the wolves while I try to figure out what is going on here?”

    Wannas nodded. There was a curious smile on his face as he looked at Ursel. “They seem to think you’re their mother,” he said.

    “Well I’m not,” Ursel replied. She turned her gaze to the coyotes. “I’m not!” she said again, this time to the coyotes.

    When they saw that she was not going to move anymore, they lay down again. Ursel went to tend to the coyote with the bleeding leg. There wasn’t much to do except to wrap it in a strip of muslin cloth with enough pressure to stop the blood flow. The little coyote limped, but it was able to stand up on its four feet after being bandaged.

    Ursel looked over the pack. Their panting was dying down, and they didn’t seem to be whimpering and whining as much. Then the muscular leader started to growl. He hunched up and backed away. For a moment Ursel thought he was about to attack her. But then she realized he was gazing at something over her shoulder.

    She didn’t think. Didn’t look, just reacted.

    Ursel swung her bow around with two hands. It was good that she didn’t wait a moment longer. The wood of the bow connected with the skull of a wolf lunging toward her throat. Its teeth were bared and she could actually see the saliva strands in the wolf’s mouth, a hand away from her neck. She’d swung hard, and the bow knocked the wolf to the side. It already had an arrow in its side. When it hit the ground, it tried to get up, but the arrow stopped it from being able to roll over.

    Then the coyotes were on the wolf.

    They attacked with fierceness. And they were led by Bandage-leg. The wolf was already wounded to the point of death. It couldn’t withstand ten coyotes pouncing on it. Biting. Tearing

    Ripping fur. Skin. Meat.

    The coyotes took the wolf apart. Then, almost as if they’d gotten a signal, they went back to sit near Ursel. They stared up at her.

    She looked into Bandage-leg’s eyes.

    And she understood.

    Around the pupil was a shining purple iris. Even in the daylight, the iris seemed to spark slightly. It was an eye color that no true coyote ever possessed, nor a coyote man. Ursel had no doubt that at night, the edge of the irises would glow.

    This was called a “dasein ring.”

    It was a sign that Tier and humans had mated across species.

    These were were-coyotes.

    Changelings.

    “All right,” Ursel said to them. “Why don’t you transform? Then we can talk about what you are doing on my land.”

    Wannas had come to stand beside her.

    “What are you talking about?” he asked her.

    Before she could answer, the coyotes started to whine. Several of them fell over and rolled around, yipping. All of them contorted in some way. Then they writhed about.

    Then they contorted again, in ways no animal could.

    They seemed almost to be turning themselves inside out.

    Hair disappeared. Claws retracted. Snouts shortened.

    When it was all done, they were not ten coyotes.

    They were ten humans.

    Small, naked humans.

    Boys and girls.

    Children.

 

 

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"Iron Angels" by Eric Flint and Alistair Kimble, last updated Sat Aug 12 8:46:15 EDT 2017

 

    Lali stared at Rao, who in turn stared at the fluorescent light suspended above them with its robotic hum. The light’s cold flicker accentuated Rao’s hard face and the deep lines there, like one of those crazy contraptions the mad scientists operated in the old horror films Lali’s grandfather used to watch when she was a little girl.

    Rao’s mind worked at something, dreaming? If so, dreaming of what, Lali wondered. The past glories of the cult — there was no other word for the group of madmen he ruled — he hoped to restore to their supposed greatness? Or perhaps the ecstasy of crossing over to the other world he spoke of incessantly? The man had a one-track mind, all right, maybe he thought of other activities a few times daily —

    Ecstasy. Rao visited his version of ecstasy on Lali often enough and with force.

    “Lali.”

    She almost sighed, but caught herself.

    “Yes, Rao.”

    “See the flicker?”

    “I do.”

    “The flicker reminds me of the moment the nâga break through, stretching the plasma barrier.”

    “Tell me more, I seek only enlightenment.” But the man’s ruminations grew tiresome. She desired information to assist in deciding her next move.

    “The nâga’s glorious entry into our world is accompanied by a ravenous hunger for the Sha ‘Lu and the lifeblood contained in the sacrifices we provide.”

    More like cattle lining up in a chute, awaiting their turn for slaughter. Lali refused to picture his description of the sacrifice in Old Testament terms, like when Abraham offered Isaac up for sacrifice to Jehovah upon the mountain.

    Rao broke his reverie and turned his hard gaze upon her. She shivered, but brought it under control, hoping he had not noticed. His eyes lacked natural pigment. She never could figure the color. All black at times, but morphing into a swirling electrical storm at other times, especially when he claimed to touch another world.

    Rao’s eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted, the lips curving into a cruel snarl. “We need stronger khâu. The miserable lot is failing us.” He struck his chest with a fist. “Failing me. One time is once too often, but a second time?” He stood before her, his sinewy arms now hanging, but both hands balled into fists.

    Lali swallowed, unsure if Rao desired a discourse, but she needed to placate him if possible. His wrath took predictable turns aimed at her and the bed with the outlandish headboard. “At least the two at the Euclid did the proper thing and incinerated themselves.” She nodded as if reinforcing the khâus’ failure and how none of this had to do with her. Rao had told her of their fate, but he had raged for hours on their gross negligence.

    Rao closed his eyes, the lids bright red, as if kissed by preternatural fire. “Oh, but this last one, the accident near the Euclid, that failure was spectacular in its carelessness and stupidity. A car accident? In a van at the very intersection where the hotel stands? How can the police not take notice of the coincidences? The Iron Thorn demands meticulous planning and lack of selfish motives amongst the khâu. Rao,” he thumped his chest, “demands this of them.”

    Lali stared at Rao. He cared for his glory, and his alone. A cult. The Iron Thorn was nothing but a cult. Rao’s fanaticism dwarfed Koresh and the Branch Davidians. But there was something real behind his boasts, the man truly touched another world and had the scars and powers to prove those boasts. Demons and monsters, or fallen angels feeding on the sufferings of others? Lali wanted to find out.

    “We’re safe enough for now in this industrial wasteland I’ve conquered.”

    Oh, how he enjoyed speaking of himself and how intelligent and resourceful he was. Conquered? He hid in this abandoned but surprisingly sturdy building he’d purchased through a series of shell companies — at least that was how Lali understood the whole thing. The former petrochemical plant gurgled and dripped at all hours and a constant electric buzz whirred. The khâu slept downstairs in a storage room filled with bunk beds, always present and tending Rao’s needs, as well as the building’s.

    Tepid pools dotted the lower level. A greenish blue film covered the still surface — a petrochemical pond, devoid of life. Like so many places on earth these days.

    Rao sucked in a deep breath. “I breathed their air once, you know. The nâgas’ world is dangerous and jagged, but exhilarating. I swallowed their noxious water, their version of water.”

    “The price I paid for that was miniscule. He studied his arms. The bands of muscle and tendons twitched in his forearms and biceps, highlighting the angry scars sheathing his arms like tattoo sleaves some men and women have etched into their skin. There was no doubt of his dominance over the Iron Thorn, the Câ Tsang and his place as its leader, the Tip of the Horn.

    Khâu cowered before him, understanding the strength coursing through him upon passing back through the aperture into the human world, but also filled them with wonder and hope.

    “Failure teaches, does it not?” Lali asked, keeping her tone timid and somewhat obsequious.

    Rao nodded. “Yes, failure gives us new blood, perhaps a cleansing. More devoted and more important, more intelligent khâu who understand following my orders without question is their lifeblood.” Rao stood, motionless, staring at Lali. “You, woman, have the aptitude and attitude needed for a leadership role within the organization. You will face the trials soon enough and I’ll know whether you’re worthy.”

    Rao spun away from her and leaned on the railing. Lali approached, her footfalls loud enough as to not surprise Rao. She grasped his shoulders from behind and the white-knuckled grip he had on the arms of the railing loosened.

    R#8220;You’re tense.” She whispered into his ear, the warmth of her breath radiating back on to her face.

    He shrugged her off. Rao never admitted weakness. She withdrew, and moved far enough away where he couldn’t spin and strike her if he desired.

    “You’re not like the others, there is no worry there, woman.” He didn’t face her, but remained staring over the railing and down to the main area of the plant. “You don’t blindly follow like the khâu. You will someday break through to the other world once my place over there is secured.”

    She didn’t really believe him. He’d use her to gain more power, but share in the power? She doubted that. If only she could supplant him, but that would require cunning and planning, long term goals to be sure, and all the while she’d have to endure his advances.

    “Failure tenses Rao,” he said. “The police and FBI search for men like those weak khâu. But Rao and you, woman, have nothing to fear.”

    She once again approached him. She breathed on his neck and pressed her lips there. She suppressed a shiver, fearing the touch would burn her. The man radiated unnatural heat.

    “But you can’t do everything yourself.” Her fingertips dragged down his back.

    Rao straightened and faced her, taking in her entire body. He lifted her arm and studied her tattoos, then with his other hands fondled her piercings. His face twisted, the disapproval of the markings and piercings obvious. He couldn’t resist her, but would any woman have had the same effect on Rao?

    “You serve the Câ Tsang.” Desire sparked in his cold eyes, the only spark there. “Luckily for me, giving into my desires for your flesh is not against the tenants of the Câ Tsang.”

    She pre-empted his coming advance and pressed against him. Her right hand glided down his chest and slid inside the loose waistband of his pants, squeezing what she found. “The only Iron Thorn I desire rests beneath here.” Rao wore no underwear, since he despised restrictive garments.

    “Do not presume.” He yanked her hand free of his pants. “Rao will take you when he desires. No sooner.”

    She touched her cheek and grinned. “Do you not desire me?”

    “It is not for you to decide what Rao does and does not do. Who Rao desires. If he desires. You are still khâu. We seek communion with the nâga and their world. Do not forget your place.”

    “Of course.”

    “You tempt me with those wicked, half closed eyes.” He touched her cheek and dragged his fingers over her mouth. “And those lips.”

    Lali understood full well what she was doing with her half asleep appearance and slightly parted lips, showing a hint of teeth and the tip of her tongue.

    “You have tasks to complete before I will take you.” He turned from her, and she understood why. He’d grown excited at the thought of taking her and didn’t want her to notice — the bulge or his weakness.

    “Let me help you,” she said. “Has something happened?”

    Rao’s shoulders heaved, as if he tried to stifle a laugh. She pressed against him from behind, pushing her breasts into his back.

    “Do not touch Rao unless instructed to do so.”

    Rao didn’t quite trust her, but he was close — maybe. She pulled back from him, but only a few inches.

    Rao turned and faced her, taking a deep breath as he did so. “It is time you learned of the ritual. The failures of the other khâu have caused the nâga consternation and forced them to feast outside the parameters.”

    What did he mean? Parameters? She couldn’t hide her confusion from him.

    “You wear the vacant expression of the men, those pitiful khâu. Ah, but when you think for yourself you don’t court disaster, unlike them.” Rao shook his head. “I’ll forgive your confusion, and understand I’ve told you more about the nâga than any of them. The last three khâu failed me. As leader of the Câ Tsang, Rao is infallible. Remember that. But you asked what was wrong, and now I’ve told you. Think you can help Rao?”

    Lali shrugged. “Perhaps.”

    “The Euclid Hotel was the perfect place for the ritual. We risk much by continuing to use the old building.”

    “The police?” Lali asked.

    “Yes, but the khâu, your brothers who immolated themselves took much for granted and allowed the police — the FBI — to find them and our ritual chamber in the basement. And then the mess over near Animal Control. I don’t think the authorities have put it all together yet, but we’re in danger.”

    “Certainly not from the FBI?”

    He shook his head. “Only if they move beyond their by-the-book, boy scout mentality, which isn’t likely given their history. The real danger, now that the police and some of the FBI people have been vocal, is the guild.”

    “Guild?”

    “The guild. Yes. This particular branch of the guild uses Völundr’s Hammer as its moniker. I have some thoughts on where they’ve been hiding.” Rao gestured for her to take a seat.

    He strolled about the metal platform high above the floor of the plant, footfalls silent under his felt soles. Night had come and with the darkness, Rao’s comfort level increased and he became more loose than during the daylight hours.

    Lali remained silent, satisfied to accept his teachings, at least for the moment. Rao had no adepts, only the acolytes, the khâu, but Lali believed she was to be his one adept.

    “Information you provided has assisted me greatly in my current strategy, but I have need of more information from you.” He dropped his chin to his chest and stared at her. “Tell me, were you tasked with finding me? Tasked with learning about the Iron Thorn.”

    “Of course not.” She answered without a hint of hesitation.

    “Then what is the lure? I mean, what drove you to accept my summoning?”

    “You. You’re fascinating.” She cocked her head and tilted it forward slightly, casting what she hoped was a glint of mischief at the powerful man.

    He cocked an eyebrow at her. “What draws you to the Câ Tsang?”

    “To serve and learn of the nâga. Lean of the greater purpose, and seek enlightenment on the other side.” A rote answer, of course, which she sort of meant…

    “Good,” he said. “But we will never achieve such if the bumbling ways of the khâu persists. You will arrange for the next sacrifice.”

    “But — ”

    “But nothing. Obey or be punished.” He raised his hand high above her, as if to backhand her. “Rao needs to do something about the current group of khâu.”

    She winced at the thought of the coming strike, but said, “Sacrificing one or two of the khâu to the naga would set things right through fear, would it not?”

    Rao lowered his hand. Was that a smile on the man’s face, a cruel smile, a sneer perhaps. “That is an idea,” he said, “which I will consider, but I have another task for you.”

    “What will you have me do?” she asked.

    “Continue with your life and your job. Pay attention to the people you meet and what they discuss. When the time is right you will be provided all you need to know of the next sacrifice.”

    “Yes, Rao. I seek to serve you and the Câ Tsang.”

    “Excellent, Eulalia. Now go.”

 

 

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"Chain of Command" by Frank Chadwick, last updated Sat Aug 12 8:46:15 EDT 2017

 

    Sam shook his head. “I gave the order but only after the Captain gave me permission.”

    “And the audio track will confirm that?” she said.

    “No, the Captain nodded to me. He didn’t speak.”

    “And the permanent holo-vid track will confirm that?”

    Sam shrugged. “At one frame a second, who knows if you can tell he nodded. But I’m saying he did. You calling me a liar, Filipenko?”

    She looked away. “This really stinks. I’m trying to do the right thing, the responsible thing, but it feels ugly and small and …and dirty, like I should go take a sponge bath. I have this feeling no matter what I do, I’ll end up dirty.” She turned and looked at Sam. “The kind of dirt I’ll never scrub off. You know what I mean?”

    “I do. You want to not feel dirty? Stop trying to make judgments about things that are above your pay grade. When you leave here, go find Ensign Lee and kick her ass from here to Monday. Tell her what I told you about the captain nodding. Tell her to stop spreading rumors about things she doesn’t know the whole story on, rumors that undermine the authority of the captain and endanger everyone on the boat. Those are breaches of Navy regulations and in wartime constitute a serious offense, punishable by loss of rank, separation from the service, and imprisonment. Explain that you’re telling her that as a favor, because if I have to–as exec–it’ll get ugly.”

    Filipenko again looked away. “There wasn’t supposed to be a war, ever again,” she muttered. “And if there was, it wasn’t supposed to feel this way. I hate it, hate all of it. We didn’t sign on for this.”

    “Amen,” Sam said, but only to make her feel better. He didn’t really believe it.

    In fact all of them had signed on for exactly this. Filipenko had graduated from Annapolis in 2130, with a commission as a regular officer in the United States Navy, with all that entailed. Twelve years earlier, in the fall of R#8217;18, Sam had joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at U-Cal San Diego, and if it was mostly for access to the excellent NROTC gliders and sailboats, what difference did that make now? What difference did it make that when they had all agreed to serve, none of them had imagined that it would come to this? Did their lack of imagination relieve them of their obligation?

    It occurred to Sam that lack of imagination might actually be an asset in the coming weeks.

    His commlink vibrated and he squinted to see the ID of the duty communications petty officer.

    “XO,” Sam answered.

    Sir, this is Signaler First Class Kramer, communications. I have an incoming request for a holo-conference from USS Pensacola, Task Force flagship.

    “They’re about ten hours early. Have you notified the captain?”

    Sir, the request is from a Commander Atwater Jones, Royal Navy, and it’s for a one-on-one conference with you, by name, as soon as you’re available.

    “That’s funny. I don’t recall knowing anyone in the Royal Navy.”

    The second member state of the coalition was the West European Union, but the member states still maintained many of their pre-union national institutions, including their own armed forces. They operated under a unified command, but Sam still wasn’t sure exactly how that all worked. He looked up at Filipenko.

    “Lieutenant, can you excuse me? Royal Navy needs a face-to-face.”

    “What for?” she said.

    Sam shrugged.

    “I’m due on watch anyway,” she said and pushed off toward the doorway. “I’ll talk to Ensign Lee.” She closed the hatch behind her.

    Sam wondered if she’d bought his story about Huhn nodding. He thought she had, and in any case she seemed to understand the necessity to act as if it were true. He hoped Ensign Lee would as well. If it came to an official board of inquiry, he wasn’t prepared to perjure himself, or torpedo Lee’s career, just to cover for Delmar Huhn’s lapse.

    Sam put on his suit helmet, whose optics were necessary for the holo-conference, and triggered his commlink again.

    “Okay, Kramer, let’s see what this Jones guy wants.”

    Sam waited for a few seconds while Kramer patched the tight beam communicator channel through to his commlink and then the ghostly image of a tall, attractive, red-haired woman in her late thirties or early forties appeared, wearing a dark blue Royal Navy officer’s shipsuit and transparent viewer glasses.

    “Um … I’m on the beam for a Commander Jones?” Sam said.

    “Atwater-Jones,” she said. “Right, that’s me. You look surprised.”

    “I was expecting a man,” he said, and her expression immediately darkened. “No, I just …it was the name. Atwater sounds like a guy is all.”

    She squinted at him for a moment and then shook her head. “It’s my family name: Atwater-Jones, hyphenated. My first name is Cassandra.”

    Aware he might have gotten off to a bad start, and also aware she outranked him by two grades, Sam tried to think of a way to make amends. “Cassandra’s, um …a nice name.”

    “Really? I think it’s a perfectly dreadful name for a naval intelligence officer. Fraught with all sorts of unwanted significance. Wouldn’t have chosen it myself.”

    “Well …what can I do for you, Commander?”

    “Let me start by presenting my bona fides. I am N2, intelligence chief, to your Admiral Kayumati, part of the allied staff, Combined Task Force One. I believe both our services call the position Smart Boss. The commander of your destroyer division, Captain Bonaventure, forwarded your threat assessment but without any explanation as to how you came to your conclusions. I spoke with him and he had simply passed on the message sent by your captain. Huhn? Isn’t that his name?”

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Right. As Captain Bonaventure didn’t know any more than I did, he recommended I ring you up. The only information in the burst transmission was as follows: ‘Advise, Stinger Squadron attacked by pellet clouds on high velocity exact reciprocal course. Tac Boss Red Stinger Two believes identical profile attack likely main force. (Signed) Red Stinger Six Actual.’

    “You are the TAC Boss?”

    “Was. I’m XO now.”

    “Congratulations on your promotion. Well-deserved, I’m sure. Now, I’m afraid I’m all in bits over this second attack against the main task force. The only way I can see these attacks launched is as a result of an intelligence leak–two leaks, actually, as the departure times and flight profiles of both forces would have to have been independently discovered and communicated. My question is this: how would the tactical officer on a destroyer, deployed in advance of us, know about those two leaks?”

 

 

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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Tue Aug 8 20:24:21 EDT 2017

 

The Spark

By David Drake

DEDICATION

    to Lynn Bessette

    A fellow Arthurian Enthusiast

    But he by wild and way, for half the night,

    And over hard and soft, striking the sod

    From out the soft, the spark from off the hard,

    Rode….

    Pelleas and Ettarre

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    A MAP OF THE TERRITORY

    This one is different.

 


 

    In the late ’80s, on a whim, I turned themes from Norse mythology into Adventure Science Fiction. The result was Northworld. Normally I use Adventure SF as a synonym for Space Opera, but Northworld was something else again; like nothing else that I’d written or, to the best of my knowledge, that anybody else had written.

    The Spark is another whim, but a very different one.

 


 

    A Twelfth-century French writer, Jean Bodel, referred to the three literary tropes,

    ‘Matters,’ that everyone (here meaning every writer, I believe) should know: the Matter of Rome, the Matter of France, and the Matter of Britain. These Matters are basically structures in which one can tell stories.

    The stories which fall into the Matter of Rome include various forms of the Alexander Romance, which is full of remarkable literary inventions (I definitely hope to do something with it, though probably as embellishment to other stories rather than using the plot directly), and the whole cycle of stories about Virgil the Magician, a character based on the poet Vergil but as surely a fantasy construct as Paul Bunyan. Avram Davidson did a series of stories about this Virgil, and I used some of the mythos in Monsters of the Earth.

    There are many other medieval tales in the Matter of Rome: those above are just two of my favorites. That’s the beauty of the Matters: they give a writer (now or a thousand years ago) any number of very different hooks on which to hang stories.

    The Matter of France covers Charlemagne and his Paladins. Again, this is a treasure-trove for a writer. One of the earliest Chansons de Geste, The Song of Roland, belongs to this Matter, as do the huge, discursive Orlando Inamorato and Orlando Furioso of the Italians Boiardo and Ariosto. Poul Anderson in Three Hearts and Three Lions, and Quinn Yarbro in Ariosto, have done extremely different modern takes on the Matter; and one of these days I’m going to try something in that area also.

    The Matter of Britain involves King Arthur. From the 11th century it has never ceased to be a major source and subject for writers. The Spark is one more example of that.

 


 

    The background of my plot comes from the Prose Lancelot, a large work by (probably) three French authors which appeared in the early 13th century. The tenor of The Spark, and some of the specific business, come instead from the slightly earlier Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes.

    The Lancelot is realistic in the sense of being non-fanciful. It may not make any historical sense, but there are no marvels to be found in it. Chretien is full of marvels and wonders, and that is the feel which I’m striving for.

    The tone of The Spark is partly that of Chretien (who was, after all, writing romances), but I also drew from The Idylls of the King. There are various kinds of ‘realism’. The human sadness of, say, Merlin and Vivien, is every bit as true as the stark violence of The Dragon Lord, my first novel (which is also Arthurian).

    Finally, I adapted some of the business from English folktales. I think Chretien would have approved. (The writers of Lancelot would not have.)

 


 

    I said that The Spark used the same basic technique as Northworld, but to a different end. Northworld came from very harsh material, and when I wrote it I was just starting to climb up from the place I’d been since Viet Nam.

    I’m a much more cheerful person now than I was in 1988, and the Matter of Britain, even at its darkest, is much less bleak than the sleet, snow, and slaughter of Norse myths. The Spark isn’t set in an ideal world, but it’s a world striving to be ideal. That’s a world of difference.

 


 

    What really matters isn’t where a story comes from or what category it falls into but rather whether or not it’s a good story. I hope that you find The Spark to be a good story.

Dave Drake

david-drake.com

 

 

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"The Amber Arrow" by Tony Daniels, last updated Mon Aug 7 21:25:29 EDT 2017

 

The Star-stone

    “Don’t tell me what to do,” Ravenelle Archambeault said.

    “All right, sister,” Saeunn whispered. “Don’t be mad at me.”

    She struggled to sit up, but couldn’t. A wisp of blonde hair fell across her eyes. Ravenelle reached down and brushed it away.

    “I’m not,” Ravenelle said. “I’m mad because I can’t help you.”

    “You’re a great help,” Saeunn replied with sigh. “Will you read some more of your romance to me?”

    “We finished it,” Ravenelle said.

    “Oh.” Saeunn blinked. “I guess I drifted off.”

    “The prince finally tells Julia Silves he loves her and hands her a rose. But she pricks her finger on a thorn on the stem and–well, you know she has that noble bleeding sickness where it won’t stop?”

    “Yes. I think so.”

    “She’s sure she’s going to bleed to death, and it’s going to be long and drawn out and painful, so she asks the prince to plunge his dagger into her heart. He won’t do it, so she does it for him. She dies in his arms. But at least they get to kiss.”

    “Gruesome,” Saeunn said. “But pretty.” She smiled wanly up at Ravenelle. “It makes you shudder.”

    “That’s kind of the point,” Ravenelle replied.

    Saeunn nodded. She tried to shift and sit up, but the strength went out of her and her head fell back on the pillow. Suddenly her eyes grew bright and hard, like little blue flints. Her smile turned to an expression of sadness. “The elfling loses more of her soul-roots,” she said–to no one in particular.

    “Brennan?” There were allegedly two beings within Saeunn. One was Saeunn. The other was the elf whose star fell from the sky. It was Brennan Temeldar whose star-stone meteorite Saeunn wore on a chain around her neck.

    “Yes, dark girl.”

    Ravenelle hoped Brennan was only talking about the color of her hair and skin, which came from her Afrique and Aegyptian ancestors. But sometimes she was afraid that Brennan was seeing some other kind of darkness inside her.

    Brennan Temeldar was an elf woman who allegedly shared Saeunn’s body now. She was supposed to be beyond ancient. Ravenelle didn’t know the sagas like Wulf–learning Kalte sagas had absolutely not been the part of her education she paid much attention to–but she did know that Brennan was in the oldest sagas. The sagas said she had done something terrible to herself–what that was, the saga was a bit vague on–and given up her soul. That was when her star had fallen from the sky. But a small part of her lived on in some way in the star-stone necklace. At least that was what everybody around Saeunn believed.

    Ravenelle figured it was all some barbarian myth. But it was clear that Saeunn believed that part of her was Brennan Temeldar, and that had somehow helped her recover from what she’d done against the draugar. She had made him vulnerable to weapons. If it was good for Saeunn to believe in Brennan Temeldar, then Ravenelle would play along.

    “What are soul-roots?” she asked.

    “The places where the mind and body are together so closely you can hardly tell them apart,” Saeunn/Brennan answered. “She and I, we are . . . separating.”

    “What can we do?”

    “I do not know. So little remains of me. Just this ash, this cinder.” She fingered the star-stone at her breast. She let it go and sighed. “I’ve forgotten so much.”

    “What I can see is that Saeunn has a fever and chills, and gets as weak as a baby. Then she recovers for a while. Today she seemed almost back to her old self.”

    “No,” Brennan said. “She will never be back to her old self. The star that she was is gone. Fallen.”

    “I don’t believe that. She can still laugh and cry like always. She still makes little Anya giggle when she plays with her.” Anya was Wulf’s youngest sister. She adored Saeunn and Saeunn returned the adoration. “She’s even kissed Wulf. A lot.”

    “She burns brightly before night falls.”

    “You are really depressing me, Brennan Temeldar,” Ravenelle replied. “Saeunn would never do that.”

    “And are you angry, Ravenelle Archambeault?”

    “I’m worried,” she answered truthfully. “There’s still no message from my mother. Nothing for over a year.”

    “Then you must go and find out what has happened. You are of age now. Childhood is fast fading, and it is time to become a woman.”

    Ravenelle looked down at her breasts. When she was twelve they had started growing. And growing. Even though she’d willed them over and over again to stop. She envied Saeunn her small, perfect breasts.

    “I think I’ve been becoming a woman for a while,” she said dryly. “Listen, Brennan, please, please do something to help my sister.”

    Saeunn/Brennan looked at her and shook her head in wonder. “You are so young,” she said. “You think you can stomp your feet and make the world obey.”

    “I’ve gotten over thinking that.”

    “You will always be young to me,” Brennan said. Her voice seemed to be fading. Saeunn/Brennan closed her eyes. “I will do what I can for now.”

    Saeunn was sixty-three and a half years old–which meant she was an elf teenager. She would live on and on. Elves did not die of old age. Humans did. Even Roman nobles.

    But elves could die of other causes, Ravenelle thought. It’ll be so wrong if Saeunn dies before me.

    It wasn’t fair. Saeunn should always stay her wonderful older sister. Kind, quirky, laughing with you and not at you like so many others did. She also tended to fall into rhapsodies when standing in moonlight–then let you make fun of her about them when she came out of her trance. Ravenelle had teased her a lot about that when they were young. Looking back, she realized her younger self must’ve been quite a trial sometimes, even for Saeunn, who hardly ever got ruffled.

    She loved her sister. She would do anything for her. Even stay in the Kaltelands for as long as she was needed, even though she had spent years thinking about finally being set free to go home.

    “Your hair is a mess,” said Saeunn. “You’d better let Jakka fix it.”

    “You’re back,” Ravenelle said.

    “Was I gone?” Saeunn asked.

    “Brennan Temeldar was here,” said Ravenelle.

    “Oh.”

    Ravenelle reached up and put a hand to her crazy, curly hair. No matter how she pinned it, it seemed to spring free. It was never long before it was as tangled as a bramble bush again.

    “I feel much better, actually,” Saeunn finally said.

    “I think Brennan did something to help.”

    Saeunn reached for the star-stone and wrapped her fingers around it. “It’s cold,” she said.

    Ravenelle bent over and touched the stone. It wasn’t just cold. It was freezing. A thin white layer of ice was on its surface.

    Saeunn tucked the stone back under her nightdress. She sat up.

    “I think I’ll get dressed,” she said. “I’m hungry.”

    Ravenelle nodded. “If you’re feeling that well, I’m going to get some sleep. I#8217;ll send Jakka to look after you for a while.” Saeunn had never wanted a lady’s maid during her years in Raukenrose castle, but now she nodded.

    “That would probably be a good idea,” she said. “We don’t know how long this will last. Where are Wulf and Rainer?”

    As if in answer, there was a soft knock on the door.

    Ravenelle glanced outside through the eyes of Alvis.

    It was Wulf, of course.

    “Come,” said Ravenelle. She stood.

    The door opened and Wulf stepped in. When he saw Saeunn sitting, his eyes lit up. “You’re better!” he said.

    “For now,” Saeunn replied.

    He went to her side and, before he could settle in, Saeunn pulled him down. She kissed him passionately for a long moment.

    When she let him go, Wulf looked stunned. And very happy.

    “Oh Wulf, it’s good to have now,” Saeunn said.

    Wulf sat down in Ravenelle’s chair. He took Saeunn’s hand and kissed it. Tears were in his eyes.

    And that cursed von Dunstig determination.

    He’ll never give up, Ravenelle thought. And if he loses her, he’ll love her till the end of his days.

    It would be nice to be loved so completely, she thought.

    And then she realized that she probably was.

    Don’t go there, Ravenelle thought. You are not a barbarian. Act like a Roman. Think like a Roman.

    Ravenelle quietly left the room. In the hallway, she put a hand to her hair. Saeunn had been right. It was a continuing explosion of a briar patch. She would finally take the half-watch the task required, and have Jakka brush it out, wash it, and pin it back up properly.

    Then she would check back in on Saeunn.

    If she’s still strong, Ravenelle thought. If I think she’s better . . .

    Then Rainer and I will head for Montserrat.

 

 

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"Iron Angels" by Eric Flint and Alistair Kimble, last updated Mon Aug 7 21:25:29 EDT 2017

 

    “That depends,” she replied.

    “On?”

    “You saw my face when you turned around, right?”

    “I did,” Jasper said. “We need to clear the shed. What if the animal went in there — ”

    “Animal, huh? More supernatural — ”

    “Let’s discuss the particulars after we peek into the shed. That okay with you?”

    “Lead the way,” Temple said. “Oh, and your back is covered in a wet substance, by the way. I don’t think it’s water.”

    “Blood?” Jasper cracked the wooden shed’s door, shining the flashlight in. He saw nothing, but two blind corners remained uncleared. He’d poke his head in and out.

    “No,” Temple said. “I wouldn’t describe the substance that way. Not red, but it resembles ectoplasmic whatever — you know, Ghostbusters, but with a pinkish hue.”

    “What are you getting at?” Jasper paused before stealing a peek into the blind corners. His face crinkled as he imagined his backside covered in wet and sticky goo. The situation reminded him of the yearly blood borne pathogen training and admonishment the nurse at the field office used to give: If it’s wet or sticky and not yours, don’t touch it. He shivered. Hopefully the stuff didn’t seep through his clothes and touch his skin.

    “My reaction by the way, was horror at what you slipped and slid around in almost as much as the creature we’re both trying real hard to not discuss.”

    “Oh.” Jasper’s face warmed, but he wasn’t sure why. Should he be embarrassed if Temple admitted she too witnessed something out of the ordinary? “Tell me, what did the beast we encountered look like to you?”

    Jasper heard no scurrying or rustling from within the shed, so an animal was likely out, but a person remained a possibility. He knelt, pulled the door open and poked both head and flashlight inside the shed for a second. He breathed in the scent of damp wood, like fallen trees in the woods after a rainstorm. Old saw dust, kicked this way and that, covered the floor. A wooden workbench covered with tools in varying states of disrepair ran from one blind corner to the other. A rusty old gas can and a spout were on the floor before the bench.

    “Nothing inside except a bunch of junk and gardening tools.” He glanced at Temple, and stood. “So, describe the thing we’re not talking about? You never answered.”

    Temple licked her lips. “A winged beast, something out of the Bible. A — a demon or devil of some kind, since you’re asking.”

    “A what? I have no idea what you’re even talking about. Wait, don’t tell me, the beast sported a cloven hoof or two — ”

    “Really?” Her head spun toward him and her dark eyes regained the fierceness he’d come to know and expect in the short time they’d known one another. “Mocking my opinion of what I witnessed? This is how you’re going to approach the incident? You asked me what I saw and I told you.”

    “All right, I’m sorry, I’m tired.” He held up his hands. “That shit wasn’t real — I mean, how can a crimson haze attack anything?”

    “Explain the substance all over your back. The goo is like something coating the floor of a butcher shop. And what if the goo is a harmful or toxic substance? I think we need to check behind the shed.” Temple pushed past Jasper, flicked on her flashlight and faced the back of the shed.

    Temple’s chest heaved and the rate of her breathing increased, accompanied by a slight gasping sound. Her eyes widened with the same fear Jasper had seen seconds earlier.

    “What?”

    “It’s — a person, though I’m not sure of anything beyond that,” she said.

    Jasper swallowed involuntarily, and a moment of intense doubt and unease passed through him. “Like what we found near the animal control facility?”

    “Sort of. You better take a look for yourself.”

    Jasper took careful steps toward Temple, and upon reaching her spun and flicked up his flashlight.

    A pile of pink and white with traces of red littered the small path behind the shed, some of the matter pressed against a weathered fence about five and half feet high. Only black existed behind the shed, and the yard on the other side of the fence was dark. No one could have observed the ruckus going on, but the wailing from a few minutes ago had drawn a crowd out front of the old man’s house.

    “You think the body back here made the wailing sound?”

    “I think so,” Temple said. “I’m going to get Vance over here for some samples.”

    “But the wailing noise happened only minutes ago, how could anything — and I mean anything — do such a thorough job of turning a human into a pile of meat? It isn’t like we’re chasing some sort of living sausage grinder, for Christ’s sake.”

    “What if we are?” Temple pulled on his shoulder. “Jasper, if this really is something out of the Old Testament… or Revelations…”

    Jasper shrugged off her hand. “I’m taking a closer look. Call Vance if you like, but there’s got to be a natural explanation for this.”

    He heard a click behind him and two seconds later Temple was speaking with Vance and pacing the backyard.

    “What’s going on back there?” the old man yelled from the back door.

    “Get back inside,” Jasper yelled.

    “It’s my property, isn’t it?”

    “Yeah, but there’s been a death of some sort and we’re going to need to seal off the yard. In fact, we may need to search the residence.”

    “I’ll call the police. That’ll fix you feds. Damn G-men,” the old man said, his verbal remonstrations replete with a figurative shaking of a fist. The back door rattled as the old man attempted a slam.

    Jasper frowned at the space behind the shed. It was quite small, perhaps a few feet across. How did such a large beast fit in such a tight space? The creature he’d laid eyes on was at least the size of a horse, but the form resembled that of a sinewy dragon — and Asian-style dragon, like what had materialized before him and his cop buddy, Pete, outside the Euclid Hotel. He didn’t believe in dragons, though. Even Komodo dragons were exotic to him, and this hadn’t been one of those. This dragon flew off or vanished or had been a simple trick of the light. He wished Pete were here now — why not call him, anyway? Just because Jasper was assigned to assist Temple didn’t mean he shouldn’t utilize all the available resources at his disposal.

    He stepped back from the space and hit up Pete on his cell. The conversation was mercifully short. Pete refused, wanting nothing to do with the strange deaths and certainly didn’t want to come within a few blocks of the Euclid. He’d begged off responding to the accident scene, even though he’d been close by, and he’d take a lot of heat for that in the morning.

    Jasper hung up, pressed the phone to his forehead and closed his eyes. He was stalling. Admitting he faced bizarre circumstances beyond his ken was difficult.

    Jasper took a deep breath, and either he’d gotten used to the scent of rotten meat, or it’d dissipated. He approached the back of the shed and directed the flashlight’s beam over the pile of meat and bones and skin. Under the scrutiny of the flashlight, the pile cast a greasy sheen punctuated by a bone jutting from the meat here and there. Jasper’s cheeks involuntarily puffed and he swallowed down creeping bile.

 

 

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"Chain of Command" by Frank Chadwick, last updated Mon Aug 7 21:25:29 EDT 2017

 

    “Tell you what, Lieutenant Goldjune, why don’t you go back out into the passageway, count to ten, knock, and we’ll try starting this conversation over.”

    “Why don’t you go to hell? Now answer the goddamn question.”

    Sam leaned back in his zero gee restraint and looked Goldjune over. His fleshy face was flushed and he panted slightly, either with emotion or exertion.

    “You’re really pissed, aren’t you? Well, if it makes any difference, I wanted you to take over TAC, but the captain overruled me. Filipenko was the only alternative. With Washington and Waring dead and me at Exec, there are only four line officers–two lieutenants and two ensigns–left to staff the two line departments–Operations and Tactical. Hard to figure out an arrangement that doesn’t end up with one lieutenant and one ensign in each department. So which would you prefer: to run Ops with Barb Lee as your ensign, or run Tac with Jerry Robinette?”

    The answer was obvious for several reasons: Goldjune was a die-hard Ops man, Jerry Robinette was the most inept ensign on the boat, and it was an open secret that Larry Goldjune and Barb Lee had been having an affair for over a month.

    Goldjune hooked his feet through a padded handhold on the wall and folded his arms across his chest, but Sam could see his anger slipping away, and Larry struggling to maintain it.

    “So you wanted to stick me in TAC, huh? That figures.”

    “Yeah, it does, because you’re better qualified than Filipenko. When the shooting starts, the Captain better have the best brain he can get sitting beside him in the Tac One chair. At least that’s how I see it. But he decided you’d be happier in Ops, and what the Captain says goes.”

    Larry looked at him, thought that over, and for a moment Sam thought they might get past this wall of animus that separated them. But Goldjune’s eyes narrowed again, and hardened.

    “What do you know about what he’ll need in combat? When did you become an expert on it? You think just because you guessed right once on an attack profile you’re some kind of military genius?”

    Sam could have told him that neither of them had ever heard a shot fired in anger, that all any of them had to go on was their training, but he was suddenly tired of arguing. No matter what he said, nothing would change.

    “Filipenko is taking Tac and that’s it. And while you’re here, your affair with Ensign Lee is over, effective right now–or at least on hiatus until end of our deployment. It’s none of my business after that. But she’s your direct subordinate, for Christ’s sake. Now get out of here so I can do some work.”

 


 

    An hour after Goldjune left, Sam’s commlink vibrated and he heard the ID tone of the captain.

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Bitka, come to my cabin at once,” Huhn said, clearly agitated, and then he cut the connection.

    “Aye, aye, sir,” Sam said to the empty office around him. Now what?

    As Sam unbuckled his restraint lanyard from the workstation he saw a flickering something out of the corner of his eye, just for a moment, and turned quickly, but nothing–or rather on one–was there. The image had been unclear but somehow familiar, familiar enough to make his scalp tingle, make his vision lose clarity and turn the colors pale, make his hands tremble. It had been Jules, hadn’t it? The thought filled him with a familiar warmth and dread realization in equal measures.

    Oh, that’s great. First an interstellar war, and now I’m going nuts.

    He looked around the office one more time, took a long breath to steady himself, and left.

    Sam’s office was forward, off the bridge, and Huhn’s cabin was aft, in officer’s country, but it still took him less than five minutes to reach the door. He touched the knocker and camera-mike, which would turn the inside surface of the door into a window and show his presence to Huhn.

    “Sir, it’s Lieutenant Bitka, reporting as ordered.”

    Huhn immediately opened the door. He hadn’t shaved in at least a day, as near as Sam could tell, and pale stubble covered his cheeks, chin, and the sides and back of his head.

    “Come in, Sam. Come in.” Huhn stuck his head out into the corridor and looked both ways before closing the door and locking it. “Care for some coffee? Or can I offer you something stronger–got some pretty good bourbon over here.” He kicked off from the door, gliding over to a cabinet behind his desk. Sam looked around and the cabin walls were still unadorned gray. A dirty sock was stuck to an exhaust ventilator.

    “Thank you, sir, coffee sounds good. I still have some work to finish up later this afternoon. Better keep a clear head.”

    “Of course, of course,” Huhn said. He punched in the order on his desk dispenser and in seconds handed a warm drinking bulb of coffee to Sam. He gestured to the padded restraints and handholds along the gray cabin walls. “Make yourself comfortable, please. No need to stand on ceremony.”

    Sam pushed off the deck toward a wall stanchion and clipped his restraint lanyard to it. So far this was not the conversation he had anticipated.

    Huhn floated silently behind his desk for a few seconds, as if gathering his thoughts. “Sam, I want to talk to you about Lieutenant Goldjune.”

    Okay, here it comes, Sam thought and took a swallow of coffee. Maybe the bourbon would have been a smarter move.

    “Yes, sir?”

    “You and I have disagreed about him, especially in our assessment of him as an officer.”

    “I think Goldjune is a talented and capable officer, sir,” Sam said, just to get it on the record.

    “Of course he is,” Huhn said, nodding, “as far as that goes. But you know, sometimes character’s more important. Maybe that’s especially true in wartime. The war’s made me take another look at some things. I’ll tell you something, Sam: I don’t trust him. He’s been acting funny for the last day or so, talking to people in the wardroom and then they stop and just look at me when I come in. What’s that all about?”

    Sam thought it might be about Del Huhn’s guilty conscience, but he didn’t say that.

    “I don’t know, sir, but I’ll try to find out.”

    “You haven’t heard anything? Any …disloyal mutterings?” Huhn searched Sam’s face but avoided his eyes.

    “No, sir, and if I had, they’d have stopped right there. I give you my word on that.”

    Huhn looked at him for a moment and then looked away and nodded.

    “I believe you, Sam. I think you’re a man of character, an honest man–too honest maybe. I suppose that’s why we had our little disagreement. Seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Well, water under the bridge. Peace and war, different times, different lifetimes. Maybe it’s only possible to be too honest in peacetime, you know, like I was saying, war and character …something about them going together, I …I don’t know. But I trust you, Sam.”

    Huhn looked at Sam with eyes that shown with moist affection and entreaty, a combination Sam found pathetic, repellant, and vaguely alarming.

    “Thank you, sir,” he managed and looked away, his eyes fastening again on Huhn’s family pictures, slowly cycling on the one small live area on the smart wall.

    “That’s Joey, my boy,” Huhn said, and glided over to the video window. He stopped the display and enlarged it to show the family in yet another posed grouping. Did they ever vacation? Did they ever do anything together but pose for pictures? The son was in his late teens in this picture, beginning to look heavy in the face and upper body, and for a change staring directly at the camera in an apparent act of defiance with a hint of contempt.

    “He’s a few years older now. He tried the Navy–probably wanted to please the old man, follow in my footsteps, you know how sons are. It didn’t work out, Navy wasn’t for him. Joey’s had trouble finding his niche, but he’s a good boy. He’s …well, he’s a good boy.”

    Sam looked at the picture and nodded. The woman with her tentative smile, fleeing in quiet panic toward the safety of dowdy middle age, looking as if she needed permission to do anything, who might have been pretty when she was young if she’d let herself, if she’d just given herself permission. Married to a husband who tried to cheat on her when on deployment–probably thought it was what mariners always did, were supposed to do, made them somehow more manly and desirable. And Huhn couldn’t even manage to do that right, could he? Jules had turned him down, and how many others before her?

    When Huhn had graduated from Annapolis and, with a thousand other white-clad men and women, thrown his hat as high into the air as he could, he must have envisioned a life about to unfold before him. He had seen those plans realized, but distorted and grotesque, as if reflected by a funhouse mirror. Did he sometimes wonder where he went wrong? Did he ever stop wondering?

    “We’ll get through this, sir,” Sam said. “We’ll get through it, and we’ll get back to our families.”

    Huhn put his hand on Sam’s shoulder.

    “I know I can count on you, Sam. Now, Goldjune?” Huhn looked aside, eyes focused farther away than the barren gray wall he faced. “After all I’ve done for him? Stood up for him? Covered up his mistakes and indiscretions? He’s just a disloyal little shit. Sometimes I wish he was dead.”

 


 

    In the corridor outside Huhn’s room Sam stopped and closed his eyes, but the flickering shadow he knew to be Jules persisted, dancing at the periphery of his right field of vision, always just out of reach. Her being there, watching, waiting for something, made his nervous, almost sick to his stomach. Who was crazier? he wondered. Huhn or him?

    He squinted up the medtech’s comm address.

    Medtech Tamblinson. What can I do for you, Mister Bitka?

    “Tamblinson, I’ve …I’ve got a headache,” he lied. “Yeah, a real skull-buster, and I need to get some shuteye. Can you give me something that will knock me out for a couple of hours but not leave me punchy when I wake up?”

    They don’t call me Doc Feelgood for nothing, sir.

 

 

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"The Amber Arrow" by Tony Daniels, last updated Sat Aug 5 8:18:48 EDT 2017

 

The Postscript

    Ursel paused a moment to force herself completely back to the present.

    The scroll. The postscript from Ulla.

    Wannas Kittamaquand standing against the sun, giving her shade to read in. Unaware of the reason she was tearing up.

    Ursel sniffed, wipe away another tear, and made herself look back down at the unopened scroll.

    She could do something about that, at least.

    She took her knife from its sheath on her belt, and cut the seal. She rolled this scroll out on top of the first. Ursel recognized Ulla’s personal, flowing script. She’d written this bit herself. She began to read.

Dearest Ursel,

I don’t know if I can forgive Wulf for his selfishness. All right, I know I will, but really he’s gone too far. I understand how he feels. I love Saeunn, too. The thought that she might be fading before our eyes twists my stomach into knots.

But we all have our duty. And the mark seems to be in its greatest peril in a generation. He’s needed here. He needs to talk to the dragon under our feet. He needs to make a decision on war.

My heart warns me that a terrible trial may await my brother before he is done traveling this road he has chosen. Of course I may be giving in to my own fears. But if my worries prove to be true, I want to have done something. I want to have set some plan in motion that has a chance of keeping the disaster into which I suspect my brother is headed from leading to his death and the end of our freedom.

My, I sound melodramatic, even to myself. I’m sure that my fears are mostly phantasms because I’m worried about Wulf.

Nevertheless, what I would like most is to have you there to look out for him. I say this, first of all, because I know how you feel about Wulf.

Second of all, speaking as your regent, I have a job for you. Think of it as an unpaid government appointment.

Ursel, I know you are extremely competent in ways both physical and mental. It’s a rare combination, and frankly, you’re the only person I know in the mark who has a chance at succeeding at this assignment.

What assignment?

Find Wulf.

Stop him from doing something idiotic.

Well, more idiotic.

If you can’t stop him, then I want you to help him out of whatever bog he throws himself into.

I think you understand duty better than most. I also know that you are someone I can depend on. You saved my brother’s life once–and did it in style, with an arrow shot worthy of mention in a saga, from what I’ve heard.

From what I’ve been told, you are not merely your father’s recording secretary, you are at this point running both the household and the county.

Your brothers are fine folk–I went to university with Hans and Frederic, you know–but it’s also clear they trust you with the big decisions. Your father talks openly about having settled an incredible dowry upon you. He made this very clear to Wulf.

Some may doubt he’ll follow through when it comes down to it. Bear folk with bear folk, some people say. Humans with humans.

I know he will.

And since I understand how you feel about my brother, I have had a few trusted advisers do some poking around in the Shwartzwald concerning just who you are.

Most interesting.

The story goes that you were found in the woods by the earl while he was out hunting one day. It is a very striking tale.

Deep in the forest, there is a thick grove of beech saplings that has been carefully cultivated by the woodsmen of the western valley. Iron nails are driven into the trunks of each beech sapling. The tree is then left to grow around the metal. When it’s done properly, the nail heads are fixed in place. You have the makings of a war club as deadly as any mace or morning star.

When the beeches are big enough, dangerous enough with their embedded nails, they are harvested. Cut to lengths. And made into deadly striking weapons for peasants who can’t afford swords.

So picture that. A grove of war-club beeches, nails driven into every tree, impassable even for most forest animals, especially the dangerous ones. And in the middle of this impregnable thicket? A little baby girl.

The story goes that a poor family who could not afford another mouth to feed put you there, a babe in the woods. But they couldn’t leave you to be eaten by wolves, bears, or any other terrible creature. So they put you in the safest place for a baby in the forest.

The middle of this specially cultivated war-club beech grove.

For all practical purpose, nothing can get into a beech war-club grove. It is like a little nest of nails. There you were safe from the bear and the wolf.

But, of course, left to starve to death.

So the story goes the bear man earl heard your hungry cries from the middle of this little grove. And, not caring a bit about himself, waded into that thicket. He was willing to cut and tear his own hide on the war-club beech trees to get you out.

And still Earl Keiler couldn’t reach you. The nails were too sharp, the thicket too dense.

I can see it now.

Still you cry.

The soft heart of the earl melts.

He orders axes brought up by his servants. He directs them to chop down those beeches so he can rescue the baby from within.

The war clubs must be sacrificed!

The question never answered in all the reports I have heard: how did you get in there in the first place?

If no one could get to you, how did your poor parents put you there?

Well, let us set that question aside for the moment.

Back to Earl Keiler.

So the earl has the beeches chopped down. He steps over the stumps to find the little babe. He plucks you up, babe, blanket, and basket–yes, I hear that you were found in a basket of woven oak strips, according to this legend, wrapped in a woolen red riding cape.

The great bear man is entranced with your sweetness. He loves your little cries, which sound very much like a cub’s cries for its mother. So he takes you back to Bear Hall. Lady Hilda, his wife, doesn’t like you at first. After all, you are a mewling human girl.

But you smile at her, and soon she warms to you. She raises you as the daughter she never had.

You grow up the enchanted foundling, the good luck charm of House Keiler.

It’s a wonderful story your family tells.

But that isn’t how it went at all, is it?

What I am saying to you is that, even knowing what I know about who you really are, what you really are, if there was ever a chance you might join my family, I, for one, would welcome you with open arms.

Wulf cannot marry Saeunn. Someday, after he realizes this in his heart of hearts, he may learn to love another.

I would not mind in the slightest if that other were you, Ursel Keiler. Daughter to bears.

Your sincere friend,

Ulla Smead

    Ursel found herself blushing. She was thankful that Wannas had finally ceased staring at her. He had gone to confer with his men and was not watching her.

    So.

    Ulla was asking her, Ursel, to guide Wannas Kittamaquand to find Wulf.

    Ursel didn’t for a moment think she would be able to win Wulf from Saeunn.

    Ulla was dreaming when it came to that.

    But there was no reason to avoid him.

    It wasn’t like being away got her heart to grow less fond of him.

    After all, whether Wulf wanted to or not, he was going to be duke of the mark one day, probably soon. His father, Duke Otto, with his mental wasting disease, was fading. Everyone knew it. And whether Ursel wanted it or not, she was a true child of House Keiler, the most powerful Tier family in the land.

    She and Wulf would be seeing a lot of each other over the coming years.

    That is if the Romans and Sandhaveners don’t overrun us all first, Ursel thought. And in that case, I’ll be dead.

    She knew she would defend her family and her land until her last breath–and go down fighting.

    But right now she needed to do all she could to make sure it didn’t come to that.

    She carefully rolled up the correspondence from Ulla and tucked both under her bedroll. This was in a satchel she always carried on hunts.

    Inside the satchel also was her small looking glass.

    On a whim, she took it out. For a moment, she gave in and allowed herself to gaze into it.

    What is wrong with him?

    I’m not so bad. Not so bad at all.

    Cold hell.

    What is wrong with me?

    For a moment, a red-brown glow came into her eyes.

    A “dasein ring,” some called this. It was a telltale marker for her kind.

    My kind, Ursel thought. What I am.

    She raised a finger and touched a sharp tooth.

    So Ulla knew.

    One day her deepest secret may be out to all, Ursel thought. She was now old enough to deal with the bigotry this would arouse. It was prejudice the Keiler family had been shielding her from for years.

    For now, though, she would keep it to herself.

    She would remain just Ursel. Commoner. Foundling.

    Instead of what she really was.

    Sister to bears.

 

 

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"Iron Angels" by Eric Flint and Alistair Kimble, last updated Sat Aug 5 8:18:48 EDT 2017

 

    The wail subsided, but the goose bumps on his arms remained.

    The group of people, perhaps a half dozen, stood on the cracked sidewalk in front of the house on Ivy Street, a drab aluminum-sided number with a screen door hanging askew and a crumbling brick walkway — pretty standard for this section of town.

    “Any of you the owner?”

    They all shook their heads. “What’s going on?” a reedy Hispanic man asked.

    “We don’t know yet,” Temple said. “Anyone know the owner?”

    “He’s some crusty old white guy,” the Hispanic man said. “Yabutski or something.”

    “A get-off-my-lawn sort of fella?” Jasper asked.

    The Hispanic man smiled, revealing a bit of gold in his grill. “Yeah.”

    “Do me a favor, you all stay back a bit while we check this out.”

    “You cops or something?”

    “Or something.”

    Jasper nearly yanked the screen door clean off and rapped on the door.

    The door whisked open and he was met by a whiskery old man, peering at him with one eye squinted almost shut and wild white hair resembling a bird’s nest. “And what do you want?”

    “Uh, are you Mr. Yabutski? Didn’t you phone in a complaint earlier?”

    “Yeah,” the old man said, “to the no-good cops around here. Who in the hell are you two? The mod squad or something? And it’s Yablonski, goddamnit.”

    Jasper rolled his eyes. “You want us to check out the disturbance or what?”

    “Don’t you have some identification?”

    Temple flipped open her credential case and thrust it in the man’s face.

    The old man pulled back. “Hey, what is this? I asked for the cops, not the goddamned G-men, err, G-women. Oh, never mind.”

    “We’re FBI, and interested in a few other goings on around this area. Mind if we check out the animal attack?”

    “Pfft, ain’t no animal attack if you ask me.”

    “Then why did you phone in a complaint?”

    “Because no one would have taken me seriously if I told them my real thoughts, and don’t think I’m not aware you all maintain a crazy file.”

    Jasper grinned — the old man wasn’t wrong. “Okay, so what do you believe? Take us back.”

    “Come inside. Come inside. Can’t have all those people,” he nodded toward the crowd on the sidewalk, “nosing about my business. As it is, they think I’m off my rocker. But I’m not that far gone, not yet.”

    The interior was about as Jasper expected — an old man’s idea of freedom. Dirty dishes on a TV tray next to a recliner, and another stack on an ottoman not used as a footrest for quite some time. Thick dust covered much of the available surfaces save for the recliner. Pictures on the wall were off kilter and faded from sunlight, and cobwebs laced the room nearly as much as the drapes covered all the windows. Mustiness mingled with rotten food and body odor created a miasma making Jasper want to head for the backyard and confront the danger rather than breathe in and taste the nastiness inside.

    “It’s little green men,” the old man blurted out. “Or a chupacabra, all those Mexicans around here, you never know.”

    “For crying out loud,” Jasper said.

    Temple sighed.

    “I’m not crazy,” the old man said. “You go.”

    “We will, but first put on your tin foil hat, that’ll help protect you from the rays of Uranus.”

    “I’m not crazy. There’s aliens, I tell you.”

    “Yeah, or a chupacabra, I heard you.” Jasper took a deep breath and regretted the exasperation as he’d allowed all the foulness of the air to penetrate his lungs.

    “The wailing ceased as you two walked up, now you gonna check it out or what?”

    Jasper motioned for Temple to follow him. He flicked the back light on, a bright spotlight that could burn the hairs off the healthiest head of hair and peered through the back door’s grime-caked window. “I got nothing. Gonna open the door.”

    He cracked the door and listened.

    “Still nothing.” He crouched, lifted his left pant leg, and removed his baby Glock from the ankle holster. “You packing?”

    “Already have mine out, you ready?”

    Jasper stood and opened the door. He performed two quick peeks, but saw nothing along the walls on either side of the door.

    “What else is out back?”

    “A shed and a few lines for hanging laundry.”

    Temple snorted. “This guy probably only gets around to doing laundry once every couple of months.

    A slurping noise got Jasper’s full attention.

    “Hold on, I hear something.” He held a finger to his lips, but kept his focus on the back yard. He reached over and flicked off the interior lights — no point in giving whomever or whatever roamed back there a glimpse of them before necessary.

    Jasper hesitated. Temple’s hand found his shoulder, as if at once providing both comfort and a nudge to exit the house.

    He eased open the door and took a hesitant step out, scanning the areas of danger for any movement, but saw nothing. The wood step beneath him creaked under his full weight. He winced.

    The slurping ceased.

    “Must be behind the shed,” he whispered.

    Temple squeezed his shoulder.

    Crimson haze enveloped the ramshackle shed. That was perhaps a trick of the light, but the haze was nowhere else. A strange odor — not exactly putrid, but definitely not pleasant — smacked him in the face. He imagined a dead deer on the side of the road for a few days along with a sickly sweet twist, as if someone had dumped a bottle of cheap perfume on the poor animal.

    “There’s something behind the shed.”

    The slurping erupted into a sloshing, squishy noise.

    Jasper ran for the shed, flashlight and Glock at the ready to expose and deal with whatever horror lurked.

    “Wait!” Temple cried after him.

    He slipped on the wet grass and slid into the front of the shed. The old man must have run his sprinklers recently, even though there hadn’t been any shortage of rain over the past couple of weeks. The grass was pretty slick.

    The haze congealed alongside the shed, but then disappeared behind.

    Jasper scrambled to his feet.

    Temple cried out something inarticulate, halfway between a warning shout and a scream.

    He glanced back at her and his body chilled. Her eyes and mouth were wide and her hands shook, causing her Glock to wave about wildly. Jasper spun back for another look at the shed and was met by what appeared to be a rather large beast — but strangely ephemeral as if occupying two worlds at once, not fully in one or the other. He shook his head, and stepped back, raising both Glock and flashlight.

    The shape before him was similar to the dragon shape outside the Euclid Hotel. The dragon’s crimson tendrils extended from the broad snout and reached for him, groping the air, but yanked back when Jasper thrust his Glock forward. The dragon’s shape morphed, now resembling a giant sea creature, something prehistoric. Then, abruptly, it vanished.

    “Holy shit.” He hadn’t smoked in years, but the habit suddenly appealed to him again. A stiff drink sounded better, though — too bad he didn’t carry a flask.

    “I told you,” a voice said from behind him, and coughed. “See?”

    “Sir, you need to get back in your house.” Temple’s voice trembled, all her fierceness vanished.

    The door rattled.

    “The old man’s back inside,” Temple said.

    “Let’s check this out.” He took a step, but hesitated. Stopping now was out of the question — he was charged with protecting others — but he felt so inadequate at the moment, as if the beast stole his courage upon vanishing. He turned toward Temple. “Did you see the strange shape?”

 

 

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"Chain of Command" by Frank Chadwick, last updated Sat Aug 5 8:18:48 EDT 2017

 

5 December 2133 (six hours later the same day) (sixteen days from K’tok orbit)

    Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker for the Enemy, ducked his head to avoid a low-mounted circuitry trunk line as he entered the admiral’s tactical center in the rotating habitat wheel of the cruiser KBk Five One Seven. He already had one small patch of spray bandage on his forehead from an earlier collision with an equipment housing. In happier times Nuvaash had served as a liaison officer on two different Human warships and found them much more comfortable than Varoki ships. That was pointed to by some officers as further proof of the frivolous approach Humans took to war. But their ships had not struck Nuvaash as luxurious; their designers had simply paid more attention to their interior layout and to making them easier to use.

    Nuvaash paused at the door to the admiral’s office and heard music from inside. The office was soundproof but Nuvaash noticed the slight trace of light along one edge. The door had been left ajar and the bright beauty of the music from within stopped him in his tracks.

    Instruments unaccompanied by lyrics painted a rich picture of sunlight and hope and love, and he rested his head on the doorframe, eyes closed, and let it wash through him. It was as if every note surprised him as he heard it, but then reminded him it was the only note which could possibly have followed the ones before, and that of course he should had known that all his life.

    The music ended. Nuvaash breathed deeply for a few moments to regain his composure, then rang for entry. The admiral’s voice sounded more gruff than usual and as Nuvaash entered he saw e-Lapeela rubbing his face with both hands, as if to scrub away whatever expression had been there a moment earlier.

    “Admiral …I could not help but hear that music. I wonder …can you tell me the composer?”

    “Some Human, of course,” the admiral answered. He nearly snarled the words but then he frowned in thought and shook his head. “His name is–was–Jobim. He has been dead for over a century. Have you studied music, Nuvaash?”

    “No, admiral, although I have listened to a great deal of theirs, trying to better understand them. I often find it …quite moving.”

    e-Lapeela ran his fingers along the surface of his desk, tracing the outline of the visual icon of the music file, his eyes far away.

    “As a youngster I studied music,” he said. “I wanted to compose music like that, but I never could. I could understand it, duplicate it, but never create it. You are familiar with the concept of the Sequence of Creation?”

    “I have heard of it, Admiral, but I am not familiar with its meaning.”

    “It is a simple mathematical progression, beginning with the numbers zero and one, which bracket the moment of creation, the instant when something emerged from nothing. Every number following those two consists of the sum of the two which came before, so: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and on forever.

    “It is not simply some mathematical curiosity; it is a sequence which repeats throughout the natural world. It describes the rate of creation of seeds in a plant, the multiplication of cells within an organism, the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes. Its ascending ratio perfectly defines every naturally occurring organic spiral, such as the carapace of many aquatic animals.

    “All of the six races have studied it. How could they fail to notice something so omnipresent in nature? We call it the Sequence of Creation. The Katami call it The Pulse of God. Humans call it the Fibonacci Sequence. Trust them to name it after one of their own.”

    “I see, Admiral,” Nuvaash said, although he did not see what this had to do with either music or their war.

    e-Lapeela looked at him and his expression hardened. He tapped the icon on his desktop.

    “Music follows a sequence of recurring and non-recurring harmonics, sounds at different frequencies. Given the natural relation between frequencies and their progressions, it is possible to chart the likelihood that a particular note will come next in a composition, and whether it will be of a certain length. I see that means nothing to you, but trust me as a former scholar of music, it is so.”

    E-Lapeela’s eyes had grown wide, his ears lay flat back against his skull, and his voice became more intense as he spoke. Nuvaash felt a flash of danger, as people often do when they suspect they are in the presence of either madness or genius.

    “Most music is communally generated, and is designed to be participatory” e-Lapeela went on. “As a result, it must rely on predictable and repetitive patterns of rhythm and harmonics. But Human music includes a class of compositions designed to be communicated from the musician to the audience. The different races have wide varieties of music, but for some reason only this Human presentational music consistently reaches across the racial and cultural barriers, and appeals to the souls of all the intelligent species of the Cottohazz. How can that be? How is that even possible? I will tell you.

    “Mathematically generated music is produced simply by varying how closely the creation of the next note adheres to expectation, based on what has come before. If the probability is set very high, the music is rhythmic but repetitive, predicable, even dull. If it is set very low, the sound is nothing more than random noise. You understand that these are two extremes on a continuum?”

    “I believe I understand that, Admiral.”

    “If you study Human presentational music Nuvaash, if you study it as I have, you will find the pattern of progression of harmonic frequencies and rhythms is, nearly–but not quite–predictable. It sometimes delays the satisfaction of expectation, sometimes anticipates it, but over and over and over again, its likelihood of matching expectation is described by the Sequence of Creation. The Sequence of Creation, Nuvaash. And when we hear it, without knowing exactly why, we sense that it is …right.

    “How can they so instinctively know that? It is as if Creation itself whispers in the Human soul, and speaks to us through their music.”

    Nuvaash felt momentarily dizzy thinking about what that might mean. The admiral had not asked him to do so but he sat down in the chair facing the desk. For some time they sat together in silence.

    “Do not let this information seduce you, Nuvaash,” the admiral finally said. “The Humans do not speak for Creation. Are you religious?”

    Nuvaash blushed. Religion was the most private of matters, seldom if ever discussed in public.

    “It does not matter,” e-Lapeela said. “My point is that I am not a mystic myself. I do not know that I believe in Creation. But I believe in blasphemy. How can the one exist without the other? I do not know how they can, only that there is something …abominable about Humans. If there is Creation, why would it speak through these crude, violent, evil beings? Why not speak through us?

    “They are like demons, Nuvaash, and they will consume us. They are a plague. We must be the physicians who heal the Cottohazz, and the healing must begin here. Do you see?”

    “Yes, Admiral, I see,” Nuvaash said, but what he saw most clearly was an obsession in the admiral bordering on madness.

    E-Lapeela’s ears fanned out from his skull and his skin took on a slight orange anger tint.

    “Our people are at a crossroads. Our governments are corrupt, the civilians softened by decades of luxury and now embittered when times grow only slightly harder. The coup in our own nation a year ago might have begun setting things right but we relied upon the ground forces to control the cities. Only one task did we entrusted them with, and they were not even capable of carrying that out!

    “Now our navy is humiliated, many of our most visionary admirals and politician are in detention or dead, their voices stilled. Weak fools run the government.”

    That the government was weak and corrupt was not news to Nuvaash, nor was the fact that ever since the disastrous failed coup the uBakai Star Navy’s loyalty had been an open question. But Nuvaash wondered why, given all of that, the government had authorized this reckless war.

    The Admiral stood up and continued speaking, now more animated, more angry.

    “The Cottohazz, which we Varoki created, which was once a bulwark of our primacy, is now only concerned with the rules and regulations of its massive bureaucracy–and satisfying the whining grievances of the lesser races.

    “Only victory in this war can restore the Star Navy to its position of respect,” e-Lapeela continued, his ears relaxing back again, his skin clearing, “and give our people a vision of destiny worth fighting for. Do you see it, Nuvaash? Only victory matters.”

    “Of course, sir,” Nuvaash answered soothingly, “only victory. But in that regard I have …questions. What is our real objective? How are we to achieve it with such limited forces? And as you say, the Navy is demoralized, the government uninterested in anything other than shoring up its political security.”

    “Our objective is to destroy the Human will to resist, to question, and to expand. K’tok is only the pretext, the inciting event.

    “Our resources are greater than you imagine, Nuvaash, because they are not limited to those solely of Bakaa. Others stand behind us, in the shadows, but they will emerge when the time is right.

    “And the Humans will never understand what is happening to them until it is too late.”

 


 

    “Where the hell do you get off poaching my officers?” Lieutenant Larry Goldjune, the Ops Boss, demanded as he floated through the door to the XO’s office.

    Sam looked up from the script he was drafting for the hologram message he’d record and send to the parents of Machinist Mate Second Class Pulaski, Vincent J., of Joliet, Illinois. Pulaski had died when the first uBakai pellet hit Puebla and evacuated the forward machinery spaces where he was conducting routine maintenance on the thermal shroud retractor. Pulaski had not died immediately, nor easily, and Sam had been trying to find a way around sharing that information when Goldjune’s outburst interrupted him.

    “Where do you get off storming into my office without knocking and waiting for permission?”

    “Don’t pull that XO crap on me, Bitka. It’s not going to fly.”

 

 

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