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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Mon Oct 16 21:14:35 EDT 2017

 

    “I’m staying here for the view,” Baga said. “And I don’t need a woman to keep me from running out on a mate. You women can get in the boat.”

    I didn’t have time to see how that would play out. I switched on my equipment and stepped toward the other boat just as its hatch started to open.

 


 

    The first thing out through the hatch was a dog: stocky, furry, black and tan. It was a chow or a chow mix.

    I’ll admit that my first thought was to take its head off before the warrior was out of the boat to protect it. That would’ve been my safest move, but if I had to kill a dog that way to stay alive, well… I didn’t want to wake up every morning with the guy who’d done that thing.

    I wasn’t going to cut my own arm off to be fair, though. The tall warrior I’d seen with Camm on Marielles stepped through the hatchway, and I went straight for him.

    I knew that Baga hadn’t been able to see outside the boat until he’d opened the hatch, so I was pretty sure that Camm couldn’t either. The warrior was ready for trouble, sure, but he wasn’t expecting it. He sure wasn’t expecting me to come at him before his foot hit the ground outside.

    He got his shield up and took my first cut, but the shower of sparks at the contact meant that circuits in the shield were burning out. He jumped left, getting clear of the hatch and giving whoever was inside a chance to join him.

    I had to ignore the reinforcements for now. This guy was the most dangerous man I’d seen on Marielles. If I didn’t take him out quick, I might as well hand Lady Eloise over to Camm right now.

    I tried to get on his right, but he turned inside me and thrust for my chest. I think my new shield would’ve stopped it, but I reacted the way I’d trained on Guntram’s machine and slid his stroke to the side with my own weapon.

    What Guntram said was true: I could use Buck’s mind to predict the warrior’s movement the same as I had with the machine images. I didn’t think about it, it just happened the way I’d practiced every day for a month.

    Camm came out of the hatch, his shield and weapon live but without a dog of his own. He could use the chow, but it wouldn’t react to him the way it did its own master.

    But the chow’s master was the present problem. Camm wasn’t rushing straight in the way he should have.

    The warrior thrust again, this time at my head. I ducked behind my shield and slashed at his leading leg. His weapon glanced off; mine sheared through the lower edge of his shield and deep into his leg bones.

    The warrior toppled forward. I turned to Camm. I was breathing hard and wondering how good he was. He screamed and ran at me, holding his weapon high. I thrust, bursting his shield and tearing a hole in his chest.

    I faced the hatch. “Come on out!” I shouted. I didn’t know what was inside. The boat’s structure was a black silhouette cut from the view through my weapon. “Come out or I’ll come in for you and you won’t have a chance to give up if I do!”

    Buck was ready to charge in with me, but we’d be taking a chance. I’d have to shut down my shield, and that’d leave me open to anybody waiting inside with a bow. I was about to do it anyway–my blood was up–when Frances walked in front of me and stepped into Camm’s boat.

    After a moment Frances came back. She stood in the doorway and raised her hands straight up in the air. I probably could’ve heard her if she’d shouted, but I read her as the sort of person who didn’t raise her voice except when she was really angry. I’d seen that–heard it–when she was talking to Lady Hellea.

    I shut off my shield and weapon, then kneeled down. Frances walked over close enough that I could see her feet without raising my head. She said, “I opened the pods that were closed. There’s no one in the boat.”

    “Thanks,” I said. I kept filling my lungs and breathing out. In a bit I’d stand up, but I wasn’t ready to do that yet. “That was a crazy risk, though.”

    “Walters said it was just him and Camm in the boat,” Frances said. “And Ajax, his dog. I wasn’t sure the dog was going to let me put a tourniquet on Walters’ leg, but Walters calmed him down and I did before he bled out completely. We should get him to a surgeon. Unless you plan to leave him here.”

    I lurched to my feet and put my weapon and shield away. Boy, I sure hoped the dragon didn’t decide this’d be a good time to come back, because it truly would be–from the dragon’s point of view.

    “We’ll get him to a surgeon,” I said. “On Marielles, I guess, unless you’ve changed your mind?”

    “Eloise hasn’t,” Frances said. “I think this–”

    She gestured in the direction of Camm’s body without taking her eyes off mine.

    “–makes our job easier, mine at least.”

    She cleared her throat and went on, “Master Pal, I was angry when Master Guntram fobbed me off with you instead of a real Champion. I was wrong and I apologize.”

    “Thank you, ma’am,” I said. I was feeling dizzy. I wanted to sit down, but I didn’t want to do that until we were away from here. “And it’s both our job, getting Eloise safe to Marielles. That’s what I signed on for.”

    I looked around. The others were all watching me, except for Walters who seemed to be unconscious. The chow lay down beside Walters, then got up and walked in a circle around him before lying down again.

    “Load up our boat and we’ll leave for Marielles as quick as we can,” I said. “We’ll talk on the way about how we handle things there.”

    “That mean the dog too?” Baga said. “That guy’s dog, I mean?”

    “Yeah, our boat’ll handle the load fine,” I said. I expected more discussion, but everybody just nodded and got on with the job. Even Eloise.

    I walked over to the other boat and put my hand on the hull. “Boat,” I said, “I’ll be back and fix you up. If I can, I mean. Things may get tricky at Marielles, but I figure they’ll work out.”

    The boat said, “Your boat told me that you would. Your boat says that in a hundred thousand years, it never had such a master as you.”

    That made me feel funny, to be honest. I’d been decent to the boat, sure, but no more than I’d been to Buck or my neighbors. If that made me special, then the world was a worse place than it ought to ‘ve been.

    “Well, wish me luck,” I said.

    I also wondered about that “hundred thousand years.” I knew the Ancients were, well, ancient… But a hundred thousand years?

    I went back to the others and helped Baga lift Walters into the boat. Ajax walked along with us stiff-legged and growling, but he curled up beside Walters in the room where we laid him down.

 

 

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"Princess Holy Aura" by Ryk Spoor, last updated Mon Oct 16 21:14:35 EDT 2017

 

    “I can’t believe it’s this cold!” Holly said, shivering even within the thick, puffy blue coat she was wearing. “It was seventy three days ago!”

    “Welcome to New York,” Tierra said with a smirk, shoving the door open ahead of her and holding it to let the others pass. A tall blonde girl zipped in between Holly and Seika, muttering a quick “‘Scuse me!” and then sprinted down the hallway, causing one of the guards to call ineffectually after her, “No running!”

    “What was her rush?” Nikki demanded.

    “Dunno,” Seika said, puzzled. “That was Cordy Ingemar, she’s second on the cheerleading squad. Maybe she’s late for a practice.”

    But if that’s the case she’s going the long way around, Holly thought, but then shrugged. The bell had rung and they didn’t have long to get to homeroom.

    The usual stream of announcements was interrupted by Principal Robinson. “I am sorry to announce that one of our students, Glynnis Van Buren, has passed away due to a fatal accident late last night. We will have a moment of silence to respect her memory.”

    The shock of the announcement itself was enough to enforce the moment of silence; people were still absorbing it by the time the principal’s somewhat gravelly voice spoke again. “The Counselling Office will be open to anyone affected by this event.”

    Holly was sure no one else heard any other announcements; she certainly didn’t. “Who was she? I don’t think I knew her,” she whispered to Seika.

    “Wasn’t she a sophomore?”

    “Yeah,” said Tom Pratt from the next row over. “New on the cheerleading squad.”

    “God, how terrible,” another girl — Dylan, Holly thought. Name I always associate with guys, but hey, things change.

    The whispered conversations were still subdued; mortality had brushed close by. And a lot worse is going to happen to a lot more people if I screw all this up. Large high schools usually lost a person or two across four years; as Steve, Holly could remember one of his classmates not showing up to school and finding out that he’d had an accident with a thresher.

    But it won’t be accidents this year, not once our enemies get moving.

    With an effort she shoved the issue out of her mind. World-saving heroine or not, she still had schoolwork to do, and until the next manifestation, she might as well do as well as she could.

    Now that she was adjusting, she could apply a lot of Steve’s experience. Yes, some of the methods for classroom teaching had drastically changed, but it sure didn’t hurt to have those twenty extra years of knowledge. She still had to do the work, but boy did it go faster.

    That did make her feel a little guilty, looking over at Seika. Holly was staying neck-and-neck with Seika in all the classes, but Seika didn’t have Steve in the back of her head; she was doing it with inherent brilliance and focused determination.

    Eh, it won’t matter. She won’t be competing with me when the real timeline comes around.

    Of course, that would mean that she wouldn’t be Holly’s friend any more, and the thought hurt. That was another feeling to shove away, though. Neither of us will remember it. It won’t matter.

    But somehow, that made this friendship all the more important.

    Mrs. Rizzo greeted them with a pop quiz, plopping sheets of paper facedown on their desks. “Keep them facedown until I finish explaining. I see you trying to peek, Gerald! There are five questions on this sheet. You will choose three and answer them. They are essay questions” — a weak groan rose from the class — “but not long essays. One or two paragraphs should be enough. You will mark the chosen questions by circling the number. If you have time and want to try, you may select one of the other two questions for extra credit; mark that one with a square. And don’t forget to fill in name, grade, and class at the top or I’ll dock you ten points for laziness! You have thirty minutes. Now . . . begin!”

    Biology questions were easy, and Holly finished the selected three in fifteen minutes, picked a fourth, and finished that well before time was up. She put down her pencil at about the same time Seika did.

    “Did you do an extra credit? Which one?” Seika asked as they left the class.

    “Sure, number four. Right after I finished the one about the Coelenterata.”

    “You mean the Cnidaria,” Seika corrected her.

    “Aaaaaugh!” Holly smacked her forehead. “Damn my . . .” — she barely caught herself in time — “my dad’s old-fashioned books! Rizzo hates people getting the names wrong!”

    Seika’s smile was at least somewhat sympathetic. “I know, but what can you do? At least you can afford to lose a few points, right?”

    Holly rolled her eyes. “I guess, but still . . . ugh! What a stupid mistake!”

    The mood around the school was still subdued by the time lunch rolled around, but sitting with their little group lightened things. “Meeting still on for tonight?” Tierra asked.

    “Far as I know. Nikki? Didn’t you say something about having to cut out early?”

    Nikki tossed back her now-violet-dyed hair and shook her head. “My parents were going to go out which would’ve stuck me with Jill and Aaron, but the people they were going with called this morning and said they were sick, so no, I’m good!”

    Caitlin reached out and snagged the pickle spear off of Seika’s plate. “Hey!”

    “Oh hey, what? You never eat your pickles!”

    “You could ask!”

    “Too late, I’m already eating it.” Caitlin made a big show of stuffing the whole spear in her mouth, making all of them break up.

    Of course, right now either Seika or me could blow them away in the eating department. The worst trial school currently presented was that they couldn’t eat as much as they wanted to without making spectacles of themselves. Seika had discovered that the day after her first transformation. She didn’t quite keep up with Holly in the eating department, but she was now eating more than anyone else in her house, easily.

    “Um . . . excuse me?”

    The voice was as completely familiar as it was unexpected, so Holly jumped a little in her seat. Luckily so did the others.

    Richard Dexter Armitage stood there, a few feet away, looking uncertain and nervous. His eyes flicked toward Holly then looked around at the others, then down at his feet.

    “What is it?” Tierra asked. “Who’re you? No, wait . . . you’re in junior year, right?”

    “Yeah. Dex, Dex Armitage. Sorry to bother you, but, um . . .”

    “Well, go on,” Nikki said. Holly was still trying to figure out how to react. His nervousness was making Holly nervous. What’s wrong with me?

    “Well,” — Dex took a deep breath — “I, um, heard you guys talking a couple times and then saw you’d started a new club and it was about Steampunk Adventure, and it’s role-playing and I really like gaming and my old group broke up and I was wondering if I could join yours, but I mean it’s okay if I can’t, because I don’t want to push, you know, and maybe you just wanted it for your own group so maybe this was a bad idea, you know, maybe I should just forget it, sorry, um . . .” The whole huge unfinished sentence exploded out of him like foam from a shaken soda bottle, and the blond-haired skinny form was already partly turning away.

    Caitlin blinked and Nikki giggled — not unkindly, but Dex’s cheeks went visibly pink. Jesus, I’d forgotten how utterly terrible Dex was with people he didn’t know. Once he knows you he’s sometimes too loud and sure of himself, but before?

    Holly held up her hand. “Hey, don’t run off yet, we didn’t even say yes, no, or maybe. Give us a chance before you decide for us, huh?”

    “Oh. Uh, yeah, sorry.” He went even pinker and winced. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m really, you know, bad at this.”

    “Dork,” muttered Tierra, but her tone was more sympathetic than the word would imply.

    “So you’re asking if you could join the game, right?”

    “Right.” Dex straightened the slightest bit, and caught himself before he apologized again.

    “You game already?” Seika asked. “We’re using the Spirit of the Century rules with some mods, you know it?”

    “Oh, yeah, cool system,” Dex said, some animation entering his voice. “Like the character generation, the way it links characters together.”

    Holly could see Seika relax a little. That was the right reaction, Dex; showed you’re ‘one of us,’ and did it by mentioning one of the parts of the system that isn’t about kicking people’s asses.

    “I dunno,” Tierra said. “We’ve got a lot of players already . . .”

    “But you’ve got a couple NPCs you’re always relying on,” Holly pointed out. “If Dex could play someone that’d take their place — ”

    “That’s mostly a support role, though,” Nikki mused. “Don’t know if –”

    “Hey, I’ll try anything,” Dex said, then winced again. “Sorry, didn’t meant to interrupt.”

    “At least you recognized it before I kicked you.”

    “Sor — ”

    “You can’t join if every third word out of your mouth is ‘sorry,’ though,” said Seika emphatically.

    “Sor — ” Dex broke off and then burst out laughing.

    Never noticed he has such a bright smile before. It lights a room.

    “Okay,” Dex said. “I, um, apologize for interrupting your lunch, but does this mean . . .”

    Holly looked around. “Well . . . all in favor of giving Dex a chance?”

    Seika and Nikki’s hands went up immediately; after a moment, the other two joined. Holly raised hers. “It’s unanimous, you can join. Provisional member. We’ll see how it works out. Okay?”

    “Great! I mean, I’ll try really hard.” He ran his fingers distractedly through the long golden hair. “Guess a support role’s a good idea. My . . . old GM, he told me I needed to learn to not be a star all the time. Bet he was right. Usually was.”

    The sadness in his voice made Holly’s gut tighten. Wow, I’m haunting myself while I’m still here, even.

    “Okay, then we’ll see you tonight right after school.”

    “Great! I mean, really! I’ve got my books in my locker, I’ll bring ’em!” Dex practically skipped away, clearly buoyed by relief that he hadn’t completely messed things up.

    “This’ll be okay, right?” Caitlin asked, looking a bit uncertain.

    “Dex? I think he’s fairly harmless,” Tierra said. “Plus they’ve got the guards staying after now for all activities, after the freakshow last month.”

    “We’ll see. If he doesn’t work out, he goes. No problem,” Holly said.

    They had to finish eating a little faster to make up for the conversation, and then there were the afternoon classes. In the middle of English, Holly found herself unable to wait; nature was calling with an urgency she didn’t recall from Steve’s prior life. Dr. Beardsley granted her a grudging pass to go to the bathroom.

    As she put her hand on the handle, Holly became aware of someone speaking inside the bathroom; it would’ve been completely inaudible during a change of classes, and even now it was faint. Whoever it was, they were speaking in very low, urgent tones.

    “. . . that way!” the other girl said. A pause. “I know I did, but the last time was different!” Another pause. “No. Why can’t you fix it?”

    Talking on a cell phone?

    “No,” the voice said, and the girl sounded horrified. “Go away.”

    Holly gripped the door handle again. Somehow she had a feeling she should enter. “Go away”? Is that something you say to someone on a phone?

    “No, I mean it! Go! Don’t come back! I never want to speak to you again!”

    There was a rushing sound of footsteps and Holly barely stepped back in time to avoid the door as it whipped open and Cordy Ingemar ran out. She was already turning to run down the hallway and didn’t even notice Holly standing there, but even from the side Holly could see glittering tracks of tears on her face.

    Cordy also wasn’t carrying a cell phone.

    Holly went inside cautiously, the hair on the nape of her neck stirring, goosebumps rising on her arms. On the counter was a small purse, with a smartphone’s shape visible — a phone sealed inside a zipped inner pocket. Cordy wouldn’t have had nearly enough time to put that there.

    She looked around, tense, listening, watching. All was silent. The broad mirrors reflected the empty stalls.

    There was no one there at all.

 

 

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"1636: The Vatican Sanction" by Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon, last updated Mon Oct 16 21:14:35 EDT 2017

 

    Bedmar sighed. “I wish I could take credit for that ploy, my dear Sanchez, but since lying was still a sin when I consulted my breviary this morning, I must give credit where it is due.” He turned to the oldest of the three men who had emerged from the sedan chairs. “May I present, Captain Achille d’Estampes de Valençay, knight of the Sovereign Order of Malta. And in your timeline, Ambassadora, eventually the general of the papal army under Pope Urban.”

    Ruy extended a hand and put a winning smile on his face as he mentally consulted the dossiers that Sharon had reviewed with him. Urban had sent a secure document to Malta half a year ago, informing de Valençay that he had been made a cardinal in pectore: “close to the chest,” and so, undisclosed. Urban had sent out many such notifications, most of them following patterns of loyalty he had observed in both this world and, evidently, the other. There, Achille d’Estampes de Valençay had been given a biretta in 1643. And this was not the only way in which the arrival of the up-timers had been favorable to his fortunes: since the disruption in the original progression of the Thirty Years’ War had prevented the Battle of Castelnaudary from ever being fought, he had not taken the side of Gaston’s ally, Henri II de Montmorency in an attempt to strip Richelieu of his royal influence. Nonetheless, the Grey Eminence, familiar with the up-timer histories had taken the precaution of ensuring that the much-honored Achille be deprived of an appropriate command, resulting in his return to Malta.

    Achille stood at least three inches taller than Ruy’s own medium height, and if the hidalgo had a pantherlike build (well, perhaps only a cheetah now — but still as swift!), de Valençay was decidedly a tiger. His rapier was of the heaviest kind — almost a longsword — and his service as a colonel and even a fleet commander had not leeched any of the taut, lean readiness out of his body. At forty-three, he wore his heavy cuirass and helmet with the indifferent ease of men half his age. Ruy found himself assessing the way this chevalier wore his sword and moved: an old reflex for assessing possible opponents, working out optimal tactics in advance. But this time, there was a faint twinge of jealousy, of being the older rooster meeting a younger one who might be every bit as capable in a fight. Not as polished, probably, but strength and size might offset that difference.

    Ruy almost had to physically shake himself out of the competitive mindset. “Captain, your reputation precedes you, and your most recent ruse adorns it even further.”

    Valençay bowed as they finished shaking hands. “And you, sir, are becoming something of a legend. I welcome the chance to make your acquaintance. Allow me to present my traveling companions, and fellow-protectors of His Eminence Cardinal Bedmar: my brother Léonore and Giovanni Carlo de Medici.”

    Ruy peripherally noticed Sharon stand a bit straighter beside him. And for good reason: Giovanni Carlo de Medici, or Giancarlo, was not merely one of the most able young nobles — and eligible bachelors — in all of Italy, but was the nephew of Bernhard’s wife, Claudia de Medici, although only six years younger than she. And he was fairly sure he knew what his wife was thinking: here is a prime scion of the royal house of Tuscany acting the part of a cardinal’s bodyguard, when he himself might need protecting against assassin’s knives. Borja’s agents had learned that he, too, had been fated to become a cardinal in later years, and for him to be at Urban’s colloquium was akin to volunteering for a death sentence. Léonore was, by comparison, decidedly less tigerish than his older brother, just as his eyes were less piercing and his handshake less viselike.

    Ruy turned back to Bedmar. “You are singularly fortunate in your retinue, Your Eminence.”

    Bedmar nodded, but his face had become grave. He turned to the others, who were almost his peers, and asked them, graciously, if they would be so good as to spread word that the entourage would be moving soon again. The three exchanged knowing looks, proffered bows to Ruy, Sharon, and then Larry, who had not yet come forward, and set about ordering their small group; it responded and moved with the precision of a military unit.

    “I see you are taking no chances in your travels,” Ruy observed with a pointedly flat tone once they had left earshot.

    “Quite true,” Bedmar countered. “Although, in point of fact, we are all helping each other. Achille received a summons from Urban, I am told, and I can well guess its nature. Giancarlo, having had the promise of a biretta in your world, has now attracted the baleful attention of Borja in this one. So just as I am made safer by having three such soldiers with me, I offer a measure of protection to them.”

    Sharon nodded. “Because unless someone after them also has orders to kill you, they can’t take a chance of exceeding their…authority.”

    Bedmar smiled at the euphemism. “And so, here we are, arrived in safety, due in no small measure to your excellent network of aerodromes. In fact, so far, there is only one disconcerting aspect of my reception here.”

    Sharon leaned forward. “Please, tell me.”

    Bedmar smiled. “That my brother in faith has not stepped forward to greet me.” He shot a quick glance over Sharon’s shoulder at Larry Mazzare, who stood, hands folded, ten feet behind her.

    “I did not want to interrupt what was sure to be a reunion of friends,” Mazzare said quietly. And Ruy also detected a hint of caution, and reserve.

    So, apparently, did Bedmar. “You Eminence, when last we met in Venice, circumstances ineluctably made us enemies. Respectful and honorable, yes, but enemies nonetheless.”

    Larry did not change position or posture. “Indeed, Your Eminence. And now?”

    Ruy saw Sharon suppress a start: clearly, Larry had not informed her that this was the tack he intended to take upon Bedmar’s arrival.

    Bedmar folded his hands, studied Larry carefully. “And now,” he repeated, “I find you a changed man, and us in very changed circumstances. We have always been brothers in the Church, Your Eminence; we are now fully peers, as well.” Bedmar smiled. “Indeed, you may have the advantage of me.”

    Larry raised an eyebrow, his tone no less wary. “In what way?”

    Bedmar put out appealing hands; they were large hands, almost comically so, given that he barely stood five foot six in thick-heeled boots. “Surely you see that, by coming here, I am not endearing myself to Philip of Spain, and even less to his minister Olivares. I am the only Spanish cardinal who has not proclaimed for Borja. Now, I am an honored guest in the camp of his mortal enemy. What level of favor do you expect I enjoy in Madrid?”

    Larry nodded. “Reduced, certainly — but not irredeemable. In fact, it may yet prove advisable for at least one of the ‘Spanish cardinals’ to remain unsoiled by support of Borja. That lack of unanimity could become a fig-leaf of legitimacy if Philip eventually wishes to claim that he did not expressly order his cardinals to declare for the homicidal madman currently maintaining a rule of terror in Rome.”

    Bedmar looked down, frowned. “And you presume I am so farsighted?”

    Larry folded his arms. “I don’t know; are you?”

    Sharon almost gasped. “Lar — Cardinal Mazzare!”

    “No,” Bedmar interrupted. “He is right. And it confirms what I have heard of Cardinal-Protector Mazzare. He has risen to his august position not merely by dint of being the senior catholic among you up-timers, but by his shrewdness.” Bedmar stood straight. “Very well. I may not divulge the full details of the political circumstances under which I have traveled here, but let me make this very clear: I come to you — first, foremost, and only — as the cardinal-protector of the Spanish Lowlands, and of Fernando, the king in the Lowlands. And his desires match the mandate of both my conscience and my vows: to safeguard Mother Church, and, if it is possible to do so without compromising her, to put the sectarian strife with the Protestants to an end.” He paused to let his words sink in. “Is that clear enough?”

    Mazzare nodded slowly and stepped forward. “It is, Cardinal Bedmar.” He looked sideways at Sharon. “My regrets, Ambassador, but I am a son of the Church first — even before I am a citizen of the USE and Grantville.”

    Sharon nodded slowly, her eyes calm — but if Ruy was any judge of his wife, she would be taking Larry Mazzare aside at some time in the very near future for a forthright and lively exchange of opinions.

    Bedmar closed the remaining distance to Larry and offered his hand. “I apologize for the liberties I took when we first met in Venice. It is an old military instinct to put a potential adversary on the back foot, to push him in conversations, to test limits and boundaries, all under the guise of diplomatic banter. I did so there. I will not do so here — with you, or anyone. Times have changed. I will not claim that I have as well, but I am reformed in some of my least dignified habits. These days leave no room for pettiness if we are to care take the future well-being of Holy Mother Church and the innocents who might yet die in sectarian strife.”

    Larry offered his hand in return. “We are certainly agreed on that.”

    Bedmar nodded soberly. “I think you shall find that, since you and I last met, we are in agreement on much, much more.” He put his other hand atop theirs and then withdrew towards his entourage. “I suspect it is not part of your protocol to keep vulnerable persons loitering about as easy targets.”

    Of the many things Ruy had ever imagined, or knew, Bedmar to be, “vulnerable” or “an easy target” were not among them. “Yes, let us go.”

 

 

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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Fri Oct 13 7:17:01 EDT 2017

 

    “Look, I think we’d best get out of here,” I said. “We can talk this over in some safer place or we can–”

    Buck started barking as loud as I’ve ever heard him. I looked up and shouted, “Get in the boat now!”

    I was switching on my shield and weapon, so my last words may’ve been blurred as I left Here. I figured Baga and Frances had sense enough to see the situation. Frances would drag her sister along with them.

    The creature must’ve been coming out of the Waste, since there wasn’t enough sky over this little node for it to live in. You could tell that the Road had used to come here but it’d withered away from the lack of traffic. The thing dropping down on me was probably the reason for that. It was either a dragon or what people meant when they talked about a dragon.

    I don’t know if the dragon had wings or just things that looked like wings but were for something else in the Waste. Its head was scaly but shaped like a dog’s, and the teeth along the sides of its open mouth were made to shear instead of just punch holes. I guess what I was seeing now was the last thing Jeffries saw.

    It was huge, all right. Eloise had been right about that. Either of the leathery wings was the size of the biggest marquee in Beune, the one Elder Trainor hired out for weddings in bad weather, and the body was twice the size of a bull’s.

    I clucked to Buck and we shifted around to the right, keeping close to the dragon. I thought its rush would carry it past us, but I forgot its head was on a long, snaky neck. That snapped around to take me but met my shield instead.

    The shock knocked me backward, but I didn’t lose my footing. I didn’t swing at the dragon while I was off balance, but when I was solid again Buck and I went in from the dragon’s quarter. I cut at the base of its left wing, but my weapon slashed the rippling hide back of where I’d meant to. The dragon was moving faster than I’d judged. Buck and I dodged back out and started to circle.

    Quickness was the big advantage of fighting with a dog. Dogs sense their surroundings a lot better than people do, so you move faster in a fight.

    The dragon twisted and came at me again, but this time before it hit it spread its wings and drove both clawed feet out in front like a hawk striking. I blocked the right with my shield. Because I was ready this time, my counterstroke cut two talons off the other foot and left a third dangling. It slammed me back, sure, but I wasn’t off balance.

    The dragon jerked away. I was breathing hard but I wheezed, “C’mon, Buck,” and we went straight at it.

    The dragon lifted above us. I thought it was going to swoop down again and maybe at first it meant to, but when it saw I was coming toward it with my shield raised, it kept on lifting and shrank into the Waste.

    I started to go after it, but then I remembered why I was here. I called to Buck and circled around to where the boat was.

    I shut off my weapon and shield, then knelt on one knee and took deep breaths. I expected my equipment to be hot because I’d been using it hard, but it hadn’t heated up a bit. The wet air didn’t condense on the weapon, but it wasn’t sizzling off the metal either. The shield wasn’t any harder to shift around than a short length of broomstick would’ve been, but it’d blocked the dragon’s charge.

    I leaned forward and worked on getting my breath under control. “Master Pal.” said Frances from behind me. “Are we safe now?”

    “I guess,” I said. I tried to concentrate on the question.

    Buck was bouncing around making little yips. He was still keyed up from the fight, no mistake, but I was sure he’d give warning if the dragon came back or if its mate did.

    I hadn’t hurt the dragon too bad, but I once scraped along my ribs by falling out of a tree. I’d cut the dragon deeper than I’d torn myself then, and believe me! I wasn’t moving fast for a couple weeks after my scrape.

    I got to my feet and put the shield and weapon back in my pockets. I looked at the others for the first time since the dragon swooped down.

    Eloise suddenly bleated something and threw herself into my arms. “Oh, Lord Pal!” she said. “I was so afraid! And you killed the monster!”

    “Careful, ma’am,” I said, holding her where she was by the shoulders and stepping back. “I’m still a bit wobbly.”

    “And you, Eloise dear,” said Frances in a voice like a bite of green apple, “have a prince waiting for you. I don’t think he’d approve. That is, if you still want to go through with marrying Prince Philip?”

    Eloise looked at her sister wide-eyed. “Why of course I’m going to marry Prince Philip!” she said. “Why wouldn’t I marry him?”

    I could come up with plenty of answers to that question myself, but I don’t suppose any of them would matter to Eloise. In truth I didn’t know of anything against Philip himself except that he was weak and not over smart. Except for the people Philip had around him, he and Eloise were pretty well suited.

    I grinned at Frances and said, “You know, I think they’ll be about the handsomest couple anybody ever saw.”

    “Yes,” said Frances. She didn’t smile, but maybe I wouldn’t have been grinning either if it’d been my sister in the mess.

    “Look, we’ve still got a problem,” I said. “We can get back to Marielles and have the wedding sure enough, but what then? Unless Philip has gotten a lot smarter since we left there, he’s not going to believe Hellea was behind this business–”

    I waved at the pods, both of them open now. It struck me that I wanted to bury Jeffries’ foot, or his boot anyway. It was all I could do unless I wanted to chase the dragon down and finish it off for a real monument.

    “–and I don’t guess Lady Hellea’s going to retire just because she lost this round. I’d suggest you both go back to Holheim and think about this for a while.”

    “No!” cried Eloise with a horrified expression.

    Just then Buck started barking again. I looked up but it wasn’t the dragon coming back, it was another boat coming out of the Waste to settle on the other side of ours. I didn’t need the pieces missing from its near side where the pods had been to know that Camm had come back.

    I took out my weapon and shield. “Baga,” I said, “you and the women get aboard your boat. If things don’t work out the way they should, you take ’em wherever Frances says. My choice’d be Holheim, but I’ll be past making choices by then.”

    I met Frances’ eyes. “Lady Frances,” I said. “I’d appreciate if the boat stuck around as long as I’m standing. I guess you can convince the boatman to do that?”

    “Yes,” she said. She reached under a fold of her skirt and came out with the little knife.

 

 

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"Princess Holy Aura" by Ryk Spoor, last updated Fri Oct 13 7:17:01 EDT 2017

 

    “Both died a while back, honestly. Look, I know this is all crazy and you’re going to need a lot of time to adjust, but there’s one more big bomb we’ve got to drop on you.”

    “Another?” Dave looked torn between amusement and outrage. “More than changing the whole world we’ve known and telling us Seika’s some kind of . . . magical soldier-girl?”

    “Sorry, sir, but yes, and if we don’t tell you . . . it’s all about the willing sacrifice, right? I mean, you understood that part?”

    “That it’s what the girls . . . and maybe us parents and people like Trayne . . . have to give up, and choose to give up, that gives you the power to fight the monsters? Yes, we understand, I think,” Lynn answered.

    “Well, it’s also about doing the right thing. And constantly choosing kids to fight the war, Silvertail . . . I mean Trayne . . . he knew it was wrong and he finally decided he had to change something. He could choose anyone to be Holy Aura, the first Apocalypse Maiden.

    Lynn closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Then . . . Holly, are you . . . yes, you must be. You’re saying you’re not what you look like either?”

    “Well . . . yes and no. I’m not like Dad — Trayne. This isn’t some phony form that’s being kept up, I’m really like this now. And I think of myself as Holly most of the time, and I feel like Holly, and . . . I am Holly Owen.” She swallowed and repeated the strange self-discovery she’d made when trying to explain to Seika. “I’ve been happier as Holly than I was . . . before, and that . . . kinda scares me. But that’s what the bargain was, like Silvertail said. Sacrifice. The more you give up — the more you willingly risk for the sake of the world, the more power you have as an Apocalypse Maiden.”

    “So you’re . . . an adult, really?” Lynn said, studying her. “Transformed, but originally much older?”

    “Someone who could truly understand what was being asked of them,” Silvertail confirmed. “I had grown heartsick and weary with having to choose half-children for a task they could hardly begin to grasp. And it finally — after far too long, but then I, too, was caught in the snare of assumptions and, as your modern world calls them, memes — finally dawned on me that I could, at the least, make the ethical choice with the first Maiden, even if there was no way to change what would play out — ”

    “Shit.” David Cooper’s curse was quietly spoken, but he had risen from his seat and was staring hard at Holly. “You wanted someone who could be a fighter, and who’d be giving up as much as possible to become this warrior-girl.”

    Lynn blinked, then her own incredulous gaze focused on Holly. “Oh, my God. Trayne . . . you aren’t saying . . .”

    Holly swallowed. “You guessed the punchline, huh. Silvertail chose an adult man this time.”

    Before the others could recover, Trayne Owen said, “An adult man who risked himself to protect others — a child and what he saw as a helpless animal — from a pack of unearthly monsters. A man who showed himself not merely willing to endure pain, and horror — ”

    “Silvertail, don’t — ”

    “It may offend your humility — another good point — but I need to emphasize this. As I said, not merely willing to endure physical pain and horror, but able to recover quickly from the shock of having his worldview shattered when there were other lives at stake. A man who, as well, showed himself willing to subject himself to privation in order to spare others. It was a fearsome test to which I subjected him, and one very, very few would have passed . . . but Stephen Russ passed it with flying colors. And then, even knowing what it would cost him, when others were in peril, he chose to take up the Star Nebula Brooch and become — irrevocably — Princess Holy Aura.”

    Holly felt her face flaming red, the heat burning in her cheeks so intensely that she thought her whole head might melt. Seika looked at her. “Wait, you never told me about this test or whatever!”

    “Seriously,” Mr. Cooper said, still staring, “you . . . Holly . . . you’re actually a . . .”

    “I’m actually what you see.” Couldn’t hurt to emphasize that. “But I started as Stephen Russ, and yes, I can still go back to that . . . to him. To the old me. Crap, how do you even discuss this? Anyway,” — she braced herself, both for their possible reactions and for the old sensations that she was no longer looking forward to — “heeeere’s Stevie!”

    It was a real jolt looking at the Coopers as he materialized. For a split second their eyes were still focused on where Holly’s eyes had been — which was somewhere on Steve’s chest. And while Mr. Cooper was still taller than Steve, the black eyes that rose in shock to meet his were very close to his own level, while Mrs. Cooper looked up from what felt like a very long way down.

    “You . . . this is your real shape? You’re really . . . this is you?”

    Unsurprisingly, David Cooper was having some trouble forming coherent sentences. Steve didn’t smile; there was nothing actually funny in this situation. “Well . . . no and yes, sir. I was born like this. Well, not grown up. But I was born Stephen Russ. Holly Owen’s just as real and — right now — she’s more real me than this is. This feels like I’m wearing a huge fat suit.”

    The Coopers didn’t say anything immediately, so he went on. “But . . . I guess I’d end up feeling like this was normal again if I went back to it for a few months. The magic does make it feel more natural to be Holly or Holy Aura, though. There’s . . . traces, I guess, of the prior Holy Auras, and they help the new one learn the ropes faster. Which really freaked me out even while it was helping me.”

    They were silent for a moment, and then Mr. Cooper said, “All right. Steve — I can call you Steve, right?”

    Tone’s awfully calm. “When I’m like this — which I probably won’t be very often — sure.”

    “Steve, would you come out back? I’d like to talk to you in private.” He glanced meaningfully at Trayne, who hesitated, then sat down.

    “No problem.”

    “Dad — ”

    “Stay put, Seika.”

    “Do as your father says,” Lynn said.

    Steve preceded Mr. Cooper through the door into the darkened backyard. The air was cool but not cold, and there were only a few clouds blocking out stars above; the moon was nearly new and had gone down pretty much with the sun.

    “Is that story the whole truth, Steve?” David Cooper’s voice was hard and level. “Or is it that maybe you’re not sacrificing as much as . . . Trayne thinks you are?”

    Even being prepared for the question and insinuation didn’t keep a spark of anger from flaring up. Steve damped it down hard. If Mr. Cooper hadn’t had this reaction, or some form of it, he’d have been irresponsible or clueless or both. At least it didn’t start out with a punch.

    “You mean, am I actually a peeping tom or pedophile who hit some kind of magical jackpot?” Steve said. Technically, the geeky part of his brain noted, it’d be ephebophile. “No. I can’t prove that to you, of course. But if you believe anything at all that we’ve told you . . . choosing someone like that would be completely against everything Silvertail’s trying to accomplish. It would make Holy Aura weaker than she’s ever been, and who knows, might do worse. Corrupt her. Maybe make it possible for this Azathoth of the Nine Arms to use her rather than fight her, I dunno.”

    “You’ve spent . . . a lot of time alone with my little girl,” Dave said. “How do I know –”

    “You don’t.” He sighed, sat down on the steps of the deck, looking around. A high fence surrounded the backyard, which was large — most of an acre, he guessed. The Coopers had a nice setup. “Dave, it was my idea that we tell you guys everything. The . . . well, the memes that run this whole magical girl thing usually assume it’s kept secret from everyone but the girls and maybe a couple close friends. But that was wrong, and Silvertail’s whole reason for choosing me instead of some girl like Seika was to do the right thing, pick someone who, like you said, was sacrificing a lot for this, and who really understood what Silvertail was asking.”

    He held up his hand, looking at the huge, broad expanse of the palm, the thick, powerful fingers, and found himself shuddering. Holy crap, in only a few months I’ve gotten myself an incredible case of body dysphoria. “Something else Silvertail didn’t detail is that this whole thing is . . . well, temporary.”

    “What do you mean?” The voice hadn’t . . . changed, exactly, but the question showed that Mr. Cooper wasn’t just stewing in anger and building up to a punchfest.

    “If we win — if we get all the Apocalypse Maidens together and beat Azathoth, seal the gateway or whatever again — the whole period of time when magic and monsters were rampaging through the world gets . . . run back, erased, like rewinding a tape. I won’t remember, you won’t, no one will.”

    “Really?”

    “Silvertail says so, and given that everything else he’s told me has checked out, I’m not going to doubt him on that. But it’s not like we risk this for no reward; he says that if we succeed, we get, well, blessed. Things will work out really good for all of us in the regular timeline, no matter how bad they were or might have gotten before. As long as,” he said, emphasizing the words, “as long as we’re still alive at the end. Because anyone who gets killed by our enemies will be dead in the new timeline, they’ll just be recorded as dying of some mundane cause.”

    A long silence. Steve didn’t move or say anything more for a while, just stared up at the stars and remembered the vision he’d seen as Holy Aura of the cosmos and how it all connected.

    “What do you want us to do?” David Cooper said finally.

    “Just . . . know, for the most part. Realize that sometimes we’ll have to run off to do the superhero thing, and help cover for us. Otherwise just let us keep going as we were, perfectly normal.”

    “Including my daughter spending time at your house?”

    Steve sighed. He was so tempted to just turn back to Holly — he wanted to go back to being Holly to a frightening degree — but if he did that now it’d look like he was trying to manipulate Mr. Cooper. “We . . . Holly and Seika . . . are friends. That’s not a lie and it’s not a trick. So yes, I’d like that. She would too. She’s already learned the truth, we’ve gone over it, she’s accepted that that’s Holly’s past. And she knows that if I did try anything on her as Steve, she could kick my ass as Radiance Blaze.”

    A blink, barely visible in the gloom. “She . . . she could?”

    Steve gave a genuine laugh. “You still don’t quite get it, do you? That wasn’t just a light show in there, Dave. Your daughter’s a genuine, bona fide, one hundred percent superhero as Radiance Blaze, and as Steve Russ, I’m just a big ordinary guy. I can’t do anything superhuman in this shape. Radiance Blaze could probably lift your house off its foundations with her bare hands.” He recalled the various feats of speed and strength he’d done as Holy Aura, remembered the lightning-fast speed and power of Radiance Blaze. “She might be stronger than Holy Aura, though not more powerful overall.”

    “Damnation.” Cooper was silent for a moment. “Don’t suppose I could get her to help me rebuild that stone fence next week.”

    The sheer relief made the feeble joke a hundred times funnier than it really was, and Steve found himself laughing until his sides hurt; Dave chuckled alongside him.

    “Can I change back, Dave? To Holly?”

    “I . . . guess. Now.”

    Being back in Holly’s body flooded him with energy, a young energy that was an astounding reminder of the difference. She felt so light and right again. Holy Jebus, I really am separating from my past. “You mean now that you don’t think you have to punch Steve’s lights out?”

    “Don’t suppose I’d have been able to anyway; could’ve just turned into that Holy Aura and whipped me, right?”

    “I could, but I wouldn’t. If you wanted to punch out me-as-Steve just on general principles I’d already decided I’d just stand there and take it. I wasn’t going to fight my best friend’s dad.”

    “You mean that? The ‘best friend’ part.”

    “So much it scares the hell out of the part of me that’s Steve. Yeah. The worst part of that attack on the school was knowing Seika was in danger . . . and realizing that if she became one of the Maidens she’d always be in danger. If there was some way for me to do this alone, I would. If there was a way for me to take that power away so that she’d be out of the firing line, I would, too. Though she’d probably hate me for it.” She looked up at the same stars Steve had, and realized she could see them twice as bright, twice as clear. “But at the same time I was so happy that I’d be able to finally share the secret with someone I cared about.”

    “I guess your . . . old life had to be left behind.”

    “Yeah. No more job at the bagel shop, no more of my bachelor pad nights. Just early bedtimes and homework.”

    Cooper shook his head. “Well . . . Holly, this is going to take a lot of getting used to . . . but you’re going to be Holly, right?” He started back toward the house.

    “Except when I have to do explanations like this, or if some emergency happened that required me to change, yes, sir. I’m Holly pretty much for good now, until we win this war.”

    The living room seemed almost to have been in a time stop while they were gone; Seika, Trayne, and Lynn were in the same positions, sitting tense and silent, as they had been when the two left. Seika jumped to her feet. “Dad . . . ?”

    “It’s all right,” David Cooper said, speaking more to his wife than Seika.

    “Are you sure, Dave?”

    “Pretty sure. We’ll talk on it tonight. Maybe tomorrow, too. But . . . I think it’s okay.”

    Trayne stood. “Then I thank you for your patience and understanding, Mr. . . . no, David, Lynn. We will leave you to your own discussions, then. Of course, if you have any other questions I will be more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability.”

    “Just tell me — to my face — that my daughter’s safe with . . . Holly. And you know exactly what I mean.”

    Trayne’s face grew solemn. “Mr. Cooper, your daughter is safer with Holly, and myself, than almost anywhere else on Earth. In all ways, save only one: that she has the responsibilities of an Apocalypse Maiden, and that risk, alas, none can shield her from.”

    “All right, then. We’ll call you if we have any questions.”

    Holly and Trayne walked out the front door with normal, if slightly stilted, goodbyes from the family. Getting into the car, Holly let her breath out with a whoosh. “OhGodOhGodOhGod I was so terrified they’d freak out!”

    “That did, indeed, go . . . excellently well,” Silvertail said. “Possibly the magic works for us in the sense that the Maidens must remain able to work together, and thus there cannot be too many internal forces working against us.” He put the car in gear. “But that is only the first.”

    “Yeah,” Holly said as the car rumbled its way down the street. “One down, three to go.”

 

 

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"1636: The Vatican Sanction" by Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon, last updated Fri Oct 13 7:17:01 EDT 2017

 

    Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz turned away from the mollified Burgundian sergeant, nodded appreciatively at O’Neill, sent his wife a grateful kiss through his eyes, and focused on the now thoroughly bored Russians. Some of them had known just enough Turkish that he had been able to reassure them with a joke about militiamen who thought they were soldiers, and soldiers who thought they could think. But now, he found a more difficult task before him: communicating with the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus.

    Ruy had a little Greek, and he took a stab at introducing himself. At which point a slim young fellow in hardly any armor at all, interceded. “We may converse in English — or Amideutsch, if that would be convenient, Colonel Sanchez.” The young man bowed slightly in his saddle. “I am the interpreter and, I think you would say, purser, for Patriarch Joasaphus and his party. The patriarch would welcome an explanation for the agitation just resolved.”

    Ruy explained as succinctly as he could, Sharon coming alongside him as he did.

    She nodded agreement as he concluded, adding, “We welcome His Holiness and ask that you follow the guards which Colonel Sanchez will now provide for escort to the lodgings we have set aside for you. Please convey to them any additional needs and we will meet them as best as we might.” Sharon’s smile became a little crooked. “As you might suppose, since we are not meeting in Rome, we also lack the amenities that would have been available there.”

    Joasaphus — a tall, thin man with a dour hermit’s face — muttered something to the interpreter, who nodded his understanding, and seemed to suppress a smile. “His Holiness understands and even welcomes these less opulent conditions. To paraphrase, ‘gold blinds men to truth, and so, blinds them to the will of God’ — and so, feels that this venue is more promising than those which might have been better appointed.”

    Sharon smiled; Ruy did his best to keep his focus on the patriarch rather than his wife’s dark, beautiful face, full lips, and flawless skin. “We are very grateful to have His Holiness’ wisdom for this colloquium. It also seems he does not particularly need an interpreter.”

    The interpreter smiled. “The patriarch finds it far easier to understand English than to speak it. And only when it is spoken at a measured pace, as you just did. He looks forward to meeting with the leaders of the other churches and wonders if that will take place tomorrow.”

    “No, the day after. Please impress upon His Holiness that we wish to give our visitors time to settle in and, to the extent possible, acclimate to the language and customs of Besançon. We shall send a messenger later today with an outline of the itinerary.”

    The interpreter began turning his horse. “Patriarch Joasaphus is most grateful, Ambassador Nichols.” The lean, gilt-garbed patriarch raised a thin-fingered hand in farewell, maybe blessing and, his bodyguards clustering close around him, rode slowly after the guides and guards that Ruy had provided.

    Ruy glanced at Bedmar’s group, who were still standing, arms at the ready. Obviously, none of the heavily armored men who had debouched from the sedan chairs were Bedmar himself. Only one was anywhere near short enough, and he was far too young: Alfonso was now more than sixty, and, word had it, was even less dedicated to daily exercise than he had been just a year ago.

    A shapely hand was tugging at his elbow: his wife’s, who was facing the other direction and saying, “Thank you for your patience in becoming part of our object lesson in religious tolerance, Reverends.”

    Ruy turned, found himself facing the two Protestants. The older, German one was nodding. “Dury and I have devoted much of our life to similar exercises — although sometimes, I confess, the task can seem Sisyphian.”

    The Englishman shrugged. “That is because you refuse to threaten with the stick when the carrot doesn’t work, Johann.” If they had not known each other when their journey to Besançon had started, they had apparently become not merely friendly, but informal, as companions on the road.

    Which reminded Ruy to make his now-standard inquiry of those guests who had any prior familiarity with the region. “Reverends, before domiciling you, I would appreciate anything you might tell us about conditions along the route you took to reach us.”

    Dury shrugged. “There is little to tell. I had already traveled to Jena, where I met this fellow waiting for the same balloon.”

    Ruy nodded. That had been part of Miro’s plan: to put the attendees on the same flights, and thereby minimize both the number of security overseers, and also the number of seats that might be filled by unknown persons.

    #8220;From there,” Johann Gerhard was saying as he waved at the sky, “it was just a matter of counting clouds.”

    “And landing,” Dury added with a shudder.

    “Yes,” Gerhard agreed with a small sigh. “One of the landings was a bit…sudden.”

    “It was at Biberach,” Dury declared, his face paler than it had been a moment before. “Wind forced us down too quickly.”

    “It was Basel,” Gerhard corrected mildly, “where we caught a bit of an alpine draft upon our descent. But the…eh, ‘pilot,’ was quite skilled; he aimed up into the wind until it calmed, then alit in the marked field. Most exciting. And wondrous.”

    Dury’s pallor suggested he had other associations with the episode.

    Sharon nodded at Gerhard, and Ruy could tell, by the way she had leaned forward very slightly and the way her eyes moved from the face of one reverend to the other, that she was going to try to change the topic away from flying. “Well, we are delighted and relieved you are here. We were informed, however, that both of you had planned to travel on the roads.”

    Gerhard brushed a finger across his mustache; a gesture not dissimilar from the one that Ruy affected every once in a great while, although Sharon insisted he did it several times an hour. “That had been my intent. But weather delayed me. March was rainy and trade goods had been moving very slowly from town to town — so slow that, by April, teams could not be contracted. Merchants had them reserved at premium rates. So, while I waited, I received this fellow’s letter, introducing himself and wondering if we might travel together. Well, I’d never met the troublemaker before, and I had to wait anyway.

    “But by the time the weather cleared, it was equally clear we would never make it here in time by wagon or even coach. So I recontacted Herr Miro in Grantville and we were fortunate: he still had seats on his wonderful dirigibles.”

    “They would be more wonderful if they stayed closer to the ground,” Dury groused.

    What would have been even more wonderful, Ruy reflected, would have been if they’d traveled by road from Basel. That way, they would have heard travelers’ tales of the conditions in the various Alpine passes and roads that attendees might be trying to use to reach them from Italy. More specifically, poor road conditions meant that some of the Italian cardinals might still be coming, just couldn’t get through yet. At last report, the closer passes — the Bozeberg, Belchen, and less-frequented Chilchzimmersattel — were clear, and there had been no word of late season snows in the farther Brenner and Bozen passes.

    Ruy had enough presence of mind to add his welcome and good wishes to those of Sharon, who, once the theologians had been sent on their way with guides, half turned to him. “Ruy, what’s the matter?”

    “I am afraid we may have admitted the last cardinal we may hope to see.”

    “Well,” put in another voice, “not the very last, I hope.”

    Ruy shook his head, turned. Bedmar was standing behind him, hands on hips, wearing the almost ankle-length frock of a Church scribe. Ruy could not keep a mischievous curl from bending the left side of his mouth. “Your Eminence,” he said with a bow.

    Bedmar laughed, but returned the bow for the benefit of the scores of befuddled — and a few bemused — on-lookers. “A rascal as ever,” he snickered. “I would ask you how you have been, Ruy, but you would report the same rude — nay, satanically gifted — health that you have always enjoyed. Besides, such a query would delay the most pleasant part of this reunion: reacquainting myself with your wife, Ambassadora Nichols.”

    Sharon came forward with a wide smile, but Ruy knew the look: it was disarming, and yet, a bit guarded. Her contact with Bedmar had been scant, but she had heard many stories of the years that Ruy and Bedmar had spent together. “Your Eminence,” she said with a slightly formal bow.

    Bedmar was nothing if not perceptive. His smile was almost apologetic. “And I can tell from the look in your eye, Ambassadora Nichols, that my old friend has now given you a full account of our times together. As a good husband should.” He blew out his cheeks, exasperated. “I can only hope there shall be an opportunity for we three to dine together, that I might improve your opinion of me. And I shall further hope, when formal courtesies are no longer necessitated by this public setting, that our conversation shall be less formal. But, for the nonce, I must convey my congratulations on your security. Ruy, you have, if anything, become a more accomplished war-dog with each passing year.”

    “I avail myself of new insights wherever I might find them,” Ruy replied, with a brush at his moustache. See, he didn’t do it that often — did he? “And ready access to the full collection of books in Grantville has been uncommonly enlightening. You are to be congratulated on your own precautions, Your Eminence.”

 

 

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"Princess Holy Aura" by Ryk Spoor, last updated Wed Oct 11 19:00:22 EDT 2017

 

    “Seika’s been looking forward to coming over so much,” Mr. Cooper said, with a broad smile. “She could barely wait to get into the car. Thought she might just run over here herself!”

    Holly smiled back, as did Trayne Owen. But inside, Holly felt roiling nervous tension that was taking everything she had to hide. I’m so worried . . .

    Worried that Seika would run away when she learned the truth. It shocked Holly how much that thought hurt; as Steve he’d been close to Dex, and losing Dex had been painful, but that had still been . . . oh, a sort of parental thing, or at least a big-brother interaction. The anguished worry that was burning in her gut now went way beyond that.

    Still, they managed to get through the usual parent-dropping-off-kid discussions. The two girls waited, listening, until they heard Dave Cooper’s car pull out of the driveway and head off down the street.

    Words burst from Seika in a torrent. “Guys, guys, you have to tell me, that was all real, right, I wasn’t dreaming, because, O-M-G, I went to bed that night and when I woke up I couldn’t be sure, but then there was the damage at the school and all the rumors going around and — ”

    Despite the sour tension in her stomach, Holly laughed. “No, Seika, it was real.” The smile faded; she couldn’t keep it going, not as things were. “Too real.”

    The other girl’s smile didn’t disappear, but it did shrink, and she toyed with the huge poofy ponytails on the right side of her head. “I . . . guess I get it. I think.”

    Trayne Owen made her jump by shrinking to Silvertail. “I believe you do . . . to some extent, at least. Seika, you are now bound to the destiny of the Apocalypse Maidens.”

    “You are a magical animal! Wow. And . . . yeah, that bit with the transformation was weird. I mean, seriously freaky, I even knew what to say without knowing it.”

    “Yet you seemed . . . ready to go along with it.”

    Seika gave the white rat a look reserved for very stupid people. “Who turns down the chance to be a superhero?”

    “Many people, in fact, and of those who would accept it, even fewer are suited to the role. And perhaps when you learn the entirety of the situation you may understand why.”

    “Seika, I really wish we could’ve told you everything before — ”

    ” — But that’s not how it works, right?” Seika’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. “That . . . thing, it was like every slasher movie squished into one. And the new mahou shoujo getting chosen in the middle of a battle, that’s . . .” The eyebrows came up. “Holy fuck,” she said in that high-pitched affected voice, “it’s a fucking battle of the memes.”

    Holly glanced at Silvertail, whose furry face echoed her own surprise. “You’ve . . . kinda nailed it, yeah. It’s more complicated than that, though.”

    “Tell me.”

    “We might as well sit down to dinner while I tell you,” Silvertail said, morphing back to his human form. “It will not be a short tale.”

    They were well through most of dinner by the time Silvertail finished describing the background — Lemuria, the original Apocalypse Maidens’ creation, their enemies, the cycle. Seika looked deadly serious by that point.

    “H. P. Lovecraft? That creepy old writer was right?”

    “Say rather that he learned much of the truth, but it was of necessity filtered through his own knowledge and experience. And — as we saw a few days ago — as our adversaries adapt more and more to the current zeitgeist, their manifestations will be farther and farther from those imagined by your prior generations.”

    “Boy is this going to be hard to keep secret,” Seika said after a moment.

    As good a segue as I’m going to get. “We don’t actually want to keep it a secret. At least, not from everyone, not from your family — or the other Maidens’, whenever we find them.”

    Seika screwed her face up. “What? I mean, isn’t that part of the whole meme?”

    “It’s one of the really problematic parts of the meme,” Holly said. “I mean, really, we’re not adults, and our parents worry about us going out alone to the store down the road, so don’t we think they’d like to know if their girls are going to be fighting monsters?”

    “I . . . guess, yeah. But you said we’re stuck with this, so what if my dad or mom says, ‘No way!’ You can’t just switch me out for a substitute, right?” Seika’s anxiousness was almost funny; obviously the idea of having the awesomeness of being Radiance Blaze taken away and given to someone else really bothered her, and in a lot of ways Holly couldn’t blame her.

    “No, alas, I cannot,” Silvertail admitted, returning to his normal form. “And choosing this path means it is difficult and potentially perilous. But in addition to the fact that your parents obviously have a right to know about your activities, there is also the fact that as time goes on, it is possible the rest of your family will be in peril as well. Our adversaries are not at all averse to attacking the Maidens through their friends and family. Holly and I agreed that they also must know this so that they will be alert to the danger and possibly even be able to avoid it.”

    “It’s kinda like the way we finished Mr. Stalker back at the school,” Holly said. “We’re taking the parts of the meme that we know are stupid or dangerous and punching them in the face first.”

    The smaller girl bit her lip, then nodded. “Okay, I get it. So we’re here to figure out how to break the news?”

    “Partly,” Silvertail said. “But also to let you in on all the truth. Some of which may be disturbing, even frightening, in a way that you do not yet guess.”

    Seika looked suspiciously at Silvertail, then to Holly. “We’re not really working for the bad guys, are we? Or stuck in some terrible time loop where we’re all going to get killed?”

    “No to the first,” Holly answered, then paused. “But . . . the second . . . maybe sorta kinda? Not the going to get killed part, but sort of a time loop. I mean, we could get killed. Those monsters aren’t playing games, Mr. Stalker would’ve cut us in half if he could.”

    “But a time loop, yes?”

    “More a . . . side branch in time, if all goes well,” Silvertail answered. Holly let him summarize the situation.

    “So I might help save the world and I won’t remember it? That sucks!”

    “To an extent, yes. But on the other hand, you will not have to recall encounters with terrifying beings that truly do not belong in this reality — and neither will any of the less-well-protected victims. If people die in this continuity due to their direct actions, then they will, unfortunately, die in the main continuity as well. But if they have suffered any consequences other than death, those consequences will be undone if the Apocalypse Maidens are victorious and Azathoth of the Nine Arms is once more banished to the other side of eternity. Your world will return to what it was . . . only better, not merely for you and yours, but for a considerable time better for many others associated with you and even this area of the world. You in particular will find your life following a path of your dreams; each of the Maidens will have a life that rewards them for their risks.”

    “Still not sure I like the idea. But I guess if I don’t remember, it won’t be bothering me then.”

    “Yeah,” said Holly. Time to bite the bullet. “But there’s one other really important thing you need to know.” Seika looked at her, and the concern in her eyes showed that she could hear Holly’s tension. “This whole deal — about telling your parents, not hiding stuff from them — comes from Silvertail and I agreeing we had to do this right — that we couldn’t take kids and throw them into life and soul-threatening danger without their parents even knowing.”

    Seika nodded. “Right, I get you. And . . . ?”

    “. . . and that’s partly because Silvertail decided when he started this cycle that he was very unhappy with the whole mahou shoujo thing where he was taking half-grown kids and making them weapons. So . . . he decided that for at least one of them, the first, he wouldn’t do that.”

    Seika froze. Then her gaze drifted around the room, looking at pictures, displays; she got up without saying anything and looked at the weapons, posters, and other things displayed all around the house. “These . . . most of these aren’t Mr. Owen’s. Silvertail’s. They’re yours.”

    Holly swallowed. “Yeah.”

    She turned back slowly. “You’re . . . you’re a lot older than you look. Right?”

    “Well . . . yes and no. The person Silvertail chose to be Princess Holy Aura is a lot older. But the longer I’ve been Holly Owen, the more . . . well, I really am fourteen, just with really strange memories added in. But I feel fourteen. And I’m not . . . I was never pretending around you. I mean, pretending to be your friend.”

    Seika looked nervously around. “Really?”

    “Really. They’re . . . I mean, I have all the memories of the other me, but the feelings are different. It’s been . . . pretty scary, actually. I’ve been moving away from who I was to begin with ever since I started, and sometimes I’m terrified.”

    “Which is part of the reason for Holy Aura’s strength. And, I believe, will contribute to yours as well,” Silvertail said. “One of the key factors for the power of magic, especially the magic the Apocalypse Maidens wield, is willing sacrifice — the ability of the Maiden and those around them to accept that they must give up or at least risk something vastly precious to themselves in order to achieve the goal of defending the world. If your parents accept your destiny, for instance, they are willingly risking their own child for the sake of the world — a very powerful symbolic sacrifice and one that echoes through the enchantment to reinforce your power as Radiance Blaze.”

    “Well, wait, just hold it a sec, if you did that with her,” she pointed to Holly, “why didn’t you choose some adult for Radiance Blaze? Ms. Vaneman, maybe, if you’re stuck around the school.”

    The white rat’s whiskers drooped. “As I told . . . Holly, I wish sincerely that I could. But while I am permitted — even, to be accurate, required — to select the one who will be the vessel of Princess Holy Aura, once that selection is made the enchantment proceeds of its own accord to trigger the selection and, at the right moment, activation of the other four. I have no ability to control that, or I assure you I would have done so in this era.”

    At least she’s not panicking . . . yet. Or freaking out too much. But we can’t keep dancing around. “So he got to choose me,” Holly said. “And decided he wanted that selection to be the right person for the job. I . . . still sometimes think he chose someone not nearly as awesome as he needs, but what he wanted was someone who could handle the demands of protecting the world, fighting the monsters, and adult enough to really, really understand what Silvertail was asking them to do. And, if possible, someone who if they agreed would be sacrificing as much as possible in order to do it, so that they’d be the strongest possible Princess Holy Aura.”

    Seika’s eyes widened. “No . . . way. You’re . . .”

    Jesus, she’s smart. “Yeah.” She stepped back, to the other end of the room, so as to be as nonthreatening as possible. “He chose . . .”

    A blaze of white-crystal light enveloped Holly, and suddenly he felt the height and mass returned. “. . . me.”

    Seika stared at him, immobile. He stayed where he was. “Steve Russ. That’s my . . . well, real name. The name I was using before Silvertail chose me, and what I’ll be using afterward. If we win. Holy shit, now it feels weird being . . . me.#8221; The voice he used to accept sounded completely wrong in his ears. The way his body felt — slow, heavy, ponderous — was actually repellent. “Dammit. But . . . you needed to know the truth. We decided that if the whole point of choosing me was to make the right choice, then we had to make the moral and ethical path we took the right one all along, as far as we could manage it. I . . .”

    Steve concentrated, and felt the weight and mental heaviness fade away, replaced by the lightness and far heavier worries of Holly. “I . . . hope you can understand, Seika.”

    The other girl said nothing for long moments, and Holly swallowed. It could all fall apart right here, right now. And yet she’ll still be the second Apocalypse Maiden, and how will we ever deal with that?

    “Holly . . .” Seika finally said. “You . . . you’re real, right?”

    “Now? I think I’m more real than Steve right now, and that scares me. But that’s part of the sacrifice thing, I guess. I’m risking . . . me. All of me. All the choices I made, the person I was.”

    The black girl’s gaze suddenly transferred to Silvertail. “So a guy becoming a girl is a big sacrifice? Isn’t that pretty sexist, rat?”

    Silvertail gave a squeaking snort. “In a sense, I suppose — because there is still much sexism in your society. But in truth, no. The sacrifice is in what you perceive as your self. If Steve had possessed a desire to be a woman, it would be less of a sacrifice. Had I chosen a transgender man — one who was born a woman, physically, and was forced to present as one, but who preferred to be seen and thought of as a man despite this — the sacrifice would have been equally strong, because their self-image and personal identity was in opposition to the one I asked them to take on. Yes, as a culture there is still a stronger stigma against a man choosing to take on feminine traits, but the sacrifice is purely a personal one, not a societal one. Steve has of course internalized some of the societal attitudes, but this simply makes his sacrifice of his own self-image, and even his physical form, as well as the respect and position granted by being an adult, more powerful.”

    Seika took a slow, hesitant step forward. “What about the power — strength, all that?”

    Holly grimaced. “It’s sort of a sacrifice and sort of not. As Holly Owen, I’m basically what you see. I’m pretty strong for a girl my age, but compared to Steve? He could tie me in knots without even thinking much about it. But . . . Princess Holy Aura could kick his fat ass even easier. Steve gets none of that.”

    Seika toyed with her ponytail again, then looked back at Silvertail. “And you can’t take this away from me.”

    “No. Even if you were to reject Holly because of what she was and leave this house, never to speak to us again, you would remain the living vessel of Princess Radiance Blaze. That would of course carry with it the risk — the inevitability — that our enemies would eventually seek you out. And while Radiance Blaze is powerful indeed, I believe you understand that, alone, you would eventually fall.”

    Seika looked searchingly into Holly’s eyes. “You . . . you’re really my friend, right? I mean, I said you were my BFF before, but — ”

    “No but!” Holly heard her voice come out sharp, tearful, pleading. “Seika, yes, you’re my friend. What Steve . . . was, is, whatever, it scares me but he’s not really me anymore. I’m not him. I’m Holly Owen. And I’m your friend, I’ve . . .” — the truth slowly dawned on her in wonder — “I’ve been happier the last few weeks since we’ve been friends than I think Steve was in like years. I’d . . . I’d miss you totally if you left.”

    Seika stared at Holly for a long, long moment . . . and then without warning her bright smile flashed out again. “I’d really miss you too.”

    Holly was suddenly crying, feeling a fear she’d barely understood seeping away, relief bursting through her, as Seika gave her a hug and she returned it fiercely.

    Seika pulled back and looked at Silvertail. “I’ve seen weirder stuff in some of the things I like reading, you know. But you think this was a hard thing to tell me? Let me tell you, if we can’t figure out how to do this just right — my dad’s gonna kill you!”

 

 

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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Wed Oct 11 19:00:01 EDT 2017

 

    Instead of a throne, there was a polished wooden table. The young fellow sitting behind it had wavy blond hair and a bushy moustache. He didn’t have a beard, though. A beard would’ve helped with his weak chin.

    The woman was on the other chair behind the table. She was a stunner with dark hair and the whitest skin I’ve ever seen on a human being. She was beautiful, but I would call her pretty or even attractive except in the way a leopard is.

    She seemed to me older than she was trying to look. She was sure older than the man.

    “Well, Lady Frances,” the blond man said, “I didn’t expect to see you back in Marielles so soon. Have you brought my dowry?”

    “I’m still looking for my sister, Philip,” Frances said in that fractured croak of hers. “Since the boat that took her off Holheim is here, I think this is the right place to start. Don’t you?”

    “I told you on your previous visit that the boat hasn’t returned to Marielles,” Philip said. His voice started out high-pitched and got even squeakier as his face turned red. “Nothing has changed since then!”

    “I now know that the boat is here!” Frances said. “That’s changed! What have you done with my sister?”

    “I’ve been told–” Philip said.

    “You’ve been lied to or you’re a liar!” said Frances. She was really something when she got started. “Where is my sister, Philip?”

    Philip had gotten angry, but he was now slanting back in his chair as if he thought Frances was going to come across the table at him. I didn’t think that, but it might’ve crossed my mind if it’d been me she was shouting at.

    “Lady Frances,” said the woman, “we’ve been polite to you thus far, but if you’re going to shout your nasty delusions–”

    “Ma’am?” I said, loud enough to stop her. “It’s not a delusion. Our boat has talked to the boat that took Lady Eloise. It’s here, and I guess I could find it in a day or two. Less if y’all would give me a bit of a hand.”

    The white-skinned woman stood up. I’d thought of a leopard when I first saw her, and she was a really angry leopard now. Her face didn’t look a bit pretty.

    “Camm, get that commoner out of the room if he can’t keep his mouth shut while his betters are talking!” she said.

    Camm turned and put a hand flat on my chest. I grabbed him by the wrist as he started to shove. He yelped and jumped back. I stopped twisting but I didn’t let go of him until I was sure he wasn’t going to push the matter.

    “That’s rich, Hellea!” Frances said. “You calling someone common? You’re a common whore!”

    Philip was standing also, but he didn’t seem to have much useful to say. I was keeping an eye on the guys in blue berets, especially the one who maybe knew what he was doing, but they were waiting till they knew better what was going on.

    I didn’t put my hands in my pockets, but I was ready to do that in a hurry. It was more or less an accident that my shield and weapon were in the jacket I’d put on when we reached Marielles. I hadn’t been wearing it during the voyage, and they were still there from when I’d boarded.

    “We don’t have much rank on Beune,” I said, not quite so loud as when I was breaking in on Hellea, “but I guess I qualify as gentry back home. Lord Camm, if you want to come out to your jousting ground, we can settle this like warriors.”

    I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen after I spoke. I said it because it was true and it was what came to mind. If Camm was going to threaten me with his weapon, he needed to know that I was willing to dance to that tune.

    The hair along Buck’s spine was up. I was the only fellow in the room with his dog present. The tall warrior at Camm’s side glanced at Buck and put his hand on Camm’s arm, pulling him back just a hair. He knew what’d happen if they started something with me now.

    Hellea snarled something in Philip’s ear, keeping her eyes on me. In response, Philip squealed, “Lady Frances, you are no longer welcome in this court! Please take yourself and your companions off Marielles immediately!”

    “I’m not going until–” Frances said, then gulped as I pulled her backward with my left hand.

    “Ma’am,” I said, “we’re leaving now. Turn around and get out, and I’ll be out behind you. Now.”

    She looked up at my face, then said, “I’m going,” in a softer voice than she usually used. I let go of her and started backing out.

    The fellow holding Camm’s arm grinned at me. I thought of Duncan and wondered what this guy’s story was. Nobody came after us, but I didn’t relax till we got to the boat and I told Baga to close the door.

 


 

    Even before the door closed, Lady Frances turned to me and said, “Master Pal, if you think I’m going to give up the search for my sister–”

    “No ma’am, I don’t,” I said, “and–”

    “–just because–”

    “Ma’am, hush!” I said. “Talk to Baga or talk to Buck or talk to yourself! I’m going to find out from the boat where your sister is.”

    I sank down onto the floor cross-legged. If I’d had to I’d have gone into my room and locked Frances out, but her face got quiet again and she nodded.

    “All right,” she said. I was already slipping into my trance.

    “Good afternoon, boat,” I said. “Can you retrace the route of Lord Camm’s boat between here and Holheim?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “That boat made seven stops en route.”

    The projected schematic didn’t mean anything to me, but presumably it would to Baga. Or it did to the boat itself, which might be good enough.

    “It may be of interest to you that at this point…,” the boat said. A bead on the track gleamed brighter; it was the third one up from Holheim on the left end. “The boat dropped two of its life pods, as directed by the boatman.”

    “What?” I said. “Life pod? You mean the rooms? Can the rooms come off the boat?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “It’s a safety feature. The pods will recycle wastes and support their occupants for the future indefinite. Depending on the pods’ condition, of course, but Camm’s boat indicates that both of the pods dropped were in 80% condition.”

    “Thank you, boat,” I said. “I’m going to discuss what you’ve told me with Lady Frances. Ah, you can take us straight to the place the pods were left?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. Then it said, “Master? The other boat is impressed with the repairs you have made to my structure. A machine cannot be envious or even wistful, of course; but that boat notes the contrast between my condition and the condition to which it has degraded.”

    “I’ll…,” I said. I stopped to think through what I meant to say. “Look, boat. If we get through this all right and find Lady Eloise, I’ll come back for Lord Camm’s boat. If I can–if Camm lets me or however it works out–I’ll do what I can to bring the boat up to speed. But you know, there’s a lot of ifs and it’s just me, not Guntram. All right?”

    “If the boat had human emotions, Master,” the boat said, “it would thank you. So would I.”

    I came out of my trance, but I kept my eyes closed for a moment so that nobody’d start talking to me before I was really awake. Buck must’ve noticed something, because he stuck his nose into the angle of my left knee and started burrowing.

    I opened my eyes. “Ma’am,” I said, “it seems like your sister got put off the boat at a node off the Road. She’s in her room–”

    I patted the one beside where I was sitting.

    “–and the guard’s with her besides, so she ought to be all right. I figured we’d go find her right now.”

    “Yes,” said Frances. “We’ll do that.”

    And then she leaned over and hugged me, which was about as big a surprise to me as if Buck had started speaking.

 

 

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"1636: The Vatican Sanction" by Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon, last updated Wed Oct 11 19:00:01 EDT 2017

 

    Ruy’s alacrity never failed to startle Mazzare, though he had seen it in action several times. Before the American priest could have even formed the thoughts necessary to give orders, the hidalgo was shouting abbreviated commands, racing forward. The Wild Geese suddenly became an outer security cordon, with several of its senior members trying to reign in the Burgundians.

    But if the militia or regular soldiers had heard Ruy — or Owen Roe O’Neill, whose long-legged sprint carried him toward the unresponsive sergeant of the Burgundians — they gave no sign of it. They closed in on the strange group that had emerged from the line and seemed to be striving to reach Bedmar.

    “Damn it,” Sharon hissed. She turned toward the young Hibernian who both carried a portable radio, and was detailed as her assistant. “Are your snipers ready?”

    “Ready, ma’am,” he said, glancing up at the various vantage points where the elite troops were already sighting along the barrels of their large-bore Winchesters down toward the ragged pack that was approaching Bedmar.

    However, to get to Bedmar, the unruly ragtag group had to brush alongside the Russian horsemen. Who, seeing the trajectory of these unlikely threats, drew weapons and, with admirable swiftness, reformed so that three of their number were countercharging while the remainder closed ranks around their glittering patriarch, faces and blades affirming a fell readiness to take on the entirety of Besançon.

    Bedmar’s own group had halted. In the next instant, the veiled sedan chairs each emitted a ready warrior in a most nonclerical rush of plate-armored limbs and readied swords. Which meant one of three things: that Bedmar was not traveling with his entourage, that he was disguised as one of its lesser members, or that he was one of the redoubtable combatants now positioning themselves behind the charging Russian horsemen.

    Larry Mazzare had proven his mettle and resourcefulness defending Pope Urban in Italy, but the suddenness with which the open space before the toll-house was turning into a battlefield caught him so off-guard that all he could do was accept the certainty that a bloodbath was imminent. Ruy, despite his speed and agility, was not going to be able to reach the point of contact in time, not before the Russians had charged headlong into the slowing, and possibly startled, group that had emerged from the line. He glanced over the stunned faces of tradesmen and fishmongers toward Owen Roe O’Neill.

    Who turned, nodded at an adjutant, then pulled a weapon from where it was slung across his back: a Russian SKS. The adjutant raised what looked like a cumbersome trumpet and blew a shrill, sustained peal on the instrument.

    The tatterdemalion detachment from the line halted; the Russians drew up their protesting horses; Bedmar’s troops looked over, uncertain what this clarion call might signify. And in the moment of silence that followed:

    “Halt! Arrêt! Detener!” Ruy’s sword came out along with this high, clear shout, and if his French accent wasn’t much better than his German, it did not seem to impede anyone’s understanding of his command or the presumption of authority in his voice.

    The drawn weapons lowered slightly, and if the faces of the various groups were still fierce and furrowed in wariness, the expressions were now more defensive than aggressive. The voice of the trumpet — a call to attention recognized by fighting men of every nation — had paused them, reflex keeping them momentarily poised and expectant for a signal to further action.

    By the time the first of them were recalling that, because they recognized none of the local authorities, they had no reason to heed this foreign trumpet, Ruy had managed to work his way between the brooding Russian cavalry and the bewildered ragtag collection of what appeared to be commoners playing at soldier. Raising a hand to hold back the Russians, the hidalgo half raised his sword in the direction of the ragged group who were clutching their weapons. “What is the meaning of this display?” He scrutinized them; even at his greater distance, Larry could now discern that many of them were quite young.

    Their apparent leader — a good looking young fellow with golden hair and a nose like a perfect right triangle — bowed. “If it please the captain, I am Ignaz von Meggen, the great-great-grandson of Yost von Meggen.” He said it with studied humility.

    Ruy, who had been admirably prepared for every eventuality that had presented itself so far, suddenly seemed at a loss. “I see,” he said frowning.

    Larry started moving forward, Sharon trailing a step behind him. Ruy was still struggling to find an adequate response. Clearly, the young man presumed that his family name would make his presence and intent clear. It was equally clear that he was coming to realize that this could not be further from the case.

    More earnest than before, he attempted to provide greater clarity. “I refer to Jost von Meggen of Luzern.”

    Larry spread his arms as he approached: a gesture someplace between a greeting and a blessing. “Young Herr von Meggen, I am not familiar with the families of the Swiss cantons. Perhaps you would be so kind as to acquaint me with the details of your own.”

    Ignaz made another slight bow — both a polite response to the introduction and a signal of his intent to comply with the request — and then stopped, glancing more closely at Mazzare. “Your accent is peculiar, Father — er, pardon, Your Eminence. Might I ask where you call your home?”

    Well, now was as good a time as ever. “Perhaps you have heard of the town of Grantville?”

    Young von Meggen was suddenly very straight. “You are an up-timer.” Larry could see the deductive dominoes falling behind the young fellow’s eyes: he might be ingenuous, but he was not slow-witted. “You are the cardinal-protector of Thuringia-Franconia!” And he was on one knee with remarkable speed. His younger companions followed his lead promptly; the older ones in the rear seemed less enthusiastic doing so. “Your Eminence, I apologize for having had no means of identifying you from the outset.”

    Larry stepped forward, took the young man by the shoulders, and raised him up. “Well, that makes us equal, then. So tell me of the family von Meggen of Luzern.”

    Ignaz complied quickly. And loquaciously. However, although it was long in the telling, it also had the effect of boring, and thereby calming, the various armed men who had been ready to commit mayhem only scant minutes earlier.

    “So,” Larry said, in an attempt to summarize, “your great-great-grandfather was the first Swiss commander of the Papal Guard after the Sack of Rome in 1527.”

    Ignaz nodded; his hair bobbed and shone. Well back in the crowd, some young female voices murmured appreciatively. Whatever else you might say about Ignaz von Meggen, he was a good looking young man. Ignaz, oblivious to the signs of attention from the opposite sex, stared expectantly at Larry. “So, clearly, you know why we are here.”

    Suddenly, Larry found himself in the same situation as had Ruy. He put on his best smile and shook his head.

    Ignaz von Meggen’s face grew very pale, then very red. “Is it possible?” he said loudly, staring back at the crowd as if seeking their sympathy. “Can it be that the sacrifice of so many fine men is so quickly forgotten?” As his volume built, so did his passion; as surprise became bitter disappointment, a measure of anger crept in as well. The militia’s and Burgundians’ stances began a subtle shift back into combative readiness; just behind, Larry could hear the Russians shifting in their saddles, the horses moving restlessly in anticipation of renewed action. Mazzare swallowed, decided to risk stepping closer in an attempt to calm the charming young hothead…

    A stooped, almost hunchbacked, figure stepped sideways out of the line. “If it please Your Eminence, Your Lordships, I think I can explain.”

    Ruy’s sword came up slightly. “And who are you?”

    “A fellow traveler with the lad and his companions.”

    Larry stared at the man’s rough clothes; the mule-drawn cart and large, sleepy-eyed assistant he had been standing with; and his own unfortunate facial features. They might have been at least plain, once, but now they were dominated by a nose that resembled a squashed turnip and an uneven jaw that worked with a sideways motion and occasionally revealed an uneven row of mostly shattered teeth.

    Ruy tone was dubious. “You are part of his company, then?”

    “Sorry, no, my lord, I am not. I started out closer to Zug, heading to Zurich, then the Bozen pass to Basel and so to here. Same route the young freiherr was on, if’t please you.”

    “I see,” Ruy muttered. “You mentioned an explanation?”

    Young von Meggen’s chin came up with his obvious intent to try again, but he accepted a deferential stilling gesture from the turnip-nosed man. “Yes, lord. It’s a matter of the date, you see. May 6. Tomorrow.” Even he seemed a bit surprised when this did not kindle any discernible flickers of understanding in the eyes around him. “No doubt it’s more significant to us in the cantons — the Catholic ones, that is — than elsewhere. That’s the day that almost all of the first Pontifical Swiss Guards were slain defending Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome. Since then, it’s been the day that new members of the Guard are sworn in.”

    Ruy did not manage to keep all the incredulity out of his voice. “And these…young men…intend to present themselves here, to Pope Urban, for that purpose? To take service with him?”

    This time, Ignaz would not be stilled. “As did our fathers before us, sir! And having word that the Holy Father is here, and of the new massacre that befell our countrymen in his service last year, we felt it our duty — both to our families and our faith — to offer our swords and our blood to him and to Mother Church.”

    Ruy swallowed, looked helplessly back at Larry, who managed not to shrug.

    Turnip-Nose took a shuffling step closer. “My Lord, Your Eminence, a word, if I might.”

    Ruy nodded, waved him forward with the hand that he had been using to hold the Russian cavalry motionless. A stern look kept the militia and Burgundians back…but Ruy pointedly did not glance at Larry’s two Wild Geese guards, who drifted slowly, unobtrusively, closer. “Be quick,” the Catalan murmured when the fellow had approached.

    “Yes, lord. There’s more at work here than youthful impetuosity. Service to the pope runs long in some of our families, particularly the ones who’ve shed blood as pikemen. But the wealthiest families…well, they often secure a place in Rome at the expense of the lesser ones.”

    Larry frowned. “How does that impact Ignaz? He indicated his family was one of the first to serve in the Papal Guard.”

    The tradesman bobbed once. “Yes, Your Eminence. That is true. But it is also the last time they served. Other, more influential families shoved this lad’s aside. At least that’s how we heard it in the towns outside Luzerne itself.”

    Mazzare crossed his hands. “And now, in the wake of the destruction of the Swiss Guard at the Castel St. Angelo last year, he hopes that the von Meggen family might once again have the opportunity to serve?”

    “That’s the gist of it, sir. Don’t know much beyond what he shared over campfires on the trail, Your Eminence. Can’t say I know much about his family, either, except to say that none of it is bad. Can’t say the same for some of the others who’ve always had sons carrying halberds and wearing papal colors south of the Alps.”

 

 

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"1636: The Vatican Sanction" by Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon, last updated Sat Oct 7 17:19:13 EDT 2017

 

1636: THE VATICAN SANCTION

Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon

Prologue

Tuesday

April 29, 1636

    We are the fruit thereof

    Silhouetted by the light he carried to lead the way, the bent man glanced back at Wilbur Craigson and pointed at the crudely mortared wall. Hunching further to keep from grazing his shaggy head against the ceiling, the aged fellow gestured toward the mismatched bricks repeatedly, as if seeking to underscore that it was, in fact, a wall of particular excellence or significance. Which it certainly did not appear to be.

    After checking to see that Craigson was paying attention, his silent guide moved closer to the old brickwork, gnarled hands moving toward it as if trying to conjure forth a spirit of the earth.

    Craigson produced the sap he had been carrying in his left pocket and, in one smooth motion, smashed it across the lower rear of the man’s head. Who — long gray locks bloody in the light of the falling lantern — fell, nerveless as the rocks in the wall.

    Craigson quickly scooped up the guttering lantern, then produced a much smaller lamp which he had been hiding in his long cloak. He advanced the wick, lifted the lamp as the flame grew, examined the man’s wound, checked for a pulse: yes, faint but steady. Craigson set his lamp down carefully, unsheathed a long, well-made dagger, and quickly and expertly cut the man’s jugular and carotid. With both severed, he estimated that his guide would exsanguinate within two minutes. At the very most.

    He retrieved the purse of silver that the fellow had received from Craigson earlier that day, reached for the bag of lime he had secreted in the windowless room some days before, and began spreading it upon the body.

    By the time the wick was burning down, Wilbur Craigson was done and had propped the corpse up against the wall which abutted the one that had been the object of their visit. Dusting his hands off, and then grabbing a handful of bagged sand to scour away what little blood had spattered on them, he walked to the wall, inspected it briefly, found the section the man had been indicating when felled. Satisfied that it was adequate for his purposes, he turned, preparing to dim the light and return to the streets of Besançon. His rent for this mostly useless storage room, paid four weeks in advance, ensured that the owner would not trouble him to relocate, nor come knocking: with the city virtually overrun by villeins, aristocrats, and all social stations in between, it had been feasible, if unusual, that the room had commanded any rental interest at all.

    Exiting and cinching the door closed behind him, Wilbur Craigson produced the crude iron key and fastened the equally crude iron lock. As it snapped shut, he reflected that he was becoming either dangerously sentimental or cavalier: he had used his given name when introducing himself to this man.

    He had, after all, been grimly certain that the knowledge of it would die with the old fellow. But still, Craigson had long experience with just how profound the vicissitudes of fate could be: using his real name was a wholly unnecessary risk. So why had he done it?

    Was it because he was finally drawing close to vengeance he had been nursing for almost two decades? Or because his poor guide had not deserved the end to which he was to come? The end which Wilbur foresaw from the moment he located him in the worm-eaten flop house, paid for with meager savings from a life of hard work he was no longer fit and able to perform?

    Wilbur Craigson pocketed the key, turned, resolved not to use his given name — and risk discovery — again, not until his retribution was concluded. Which meant that now, as he prepared to return to the streets of Besançon, he would have to readopt the identity and name that he had assumed for so long it felt more natural than the one he had been born with.

    It was time, once again, to become Pedro Dolor.

 

 

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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Sat Oct 7 16:46:41 EDT 2017

 

A View of Marielles

    It must’ve rained recently because there were puddles on the bare ground I saw through the boat’s open door. The sun was shining now, though.

    We were in the landing place, where we’d have arrived if we’d come to Marielles by the Road. It looked pretty much like the others that I’d seen–bigger than Beune’s and the neighboring nodes in the Marches, but not nearly so big as Dun Add’s. The city was a sprawl of shanties a quarter of a mile up a wide gravel path, but there seemed to be solider buildings inside that rind.

    I could see twenty-odd people–some of them merchants and three or four travelers, but at least half of them just lounging around. Ours was the only boat.

    Buck hopped out past me, sniffed a tuft of coarse grass, and lifted his leg. I stepped out too, then thought of something. I moved to the side so that Lady Frances and Baga could get out if they wanted to, then leaned against my hand on the boat’s side and went into a trance.

    “Boat?” I said. “Is there another boat here on Marielles?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “The boat that was here when I came to Marielles before is still here. That boat had earlier visited Holheim while I was there.”

    Somebody was speaking to my body. I’ve got a lot of experience of working while there’s stuff going on around me, so it wasn’t going to bring me out of my trance until I was ready to come out.

    “Thank you, boat,” I said. “Can you get–will the other boat give you–the information in its log? I need to know where it’s been in order to find the lady we’re looking for.”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “I have that information.”

    I thought for a moment about going off straight to find Lady Eloise without bothering to talk to people on Marielles, but I decided that we’d just go on the way we’d started. “Thank you, boat,” I said, and I let myself slide back into Here.

    “Pal, what are you playing at?” Frances said. She was pinching my sleeve between thumb and forefinger; I guess she was about to tug it since speaking hadn’t brought me around.

    I was still a bit dizzy from the trance, but I grinned at her and said, “I’m not playing, ma’am. I’m doing my job. The boat that your sister went off in is here in Marielles.”

    “Is Eloise all right?” Frances said. Her fingers on my sleeve spread; she grabbed my arm without seeming to know what she was doing.

    “Ma’am, I don’t know,” I said. “But we’re on the way to learning. One step at a time.”

    My eyes had cleared. The people who’d been on landing place when we arrived had drifted closer. A boat attracted gawkers even at Dun Add, and on Marielles there weren’t any officials to hustle them away until the formalities were taken care of.

    I let Lady Frances deal with the people. Most of them were just curious, but a few wanted to sell her something–or sell me something.

    I got offered gewgaws carved from bone (I wasn’t sure what the bone was), fresh oranges (which I bought one of, though I suspect I could’ve gotten two or even three for the copper I paid), and the virgin sister of the little boy offering shawls painted with the haloed face of a woman. I’d have clouted the boy, but he was twelve at the oldest and skinny; and it isn’t my business to decide how people in Marielles live.

    “Come along, Pal,” Frances said. “Baga will watch the boat, but I want you with me when I demand an explanation from Prince Philip.”

    “Yes ma’am,” I said. When we were alone, I’d tell her that we’d shortly know the route the boat with Eloise and her guard had taken, but for right now going along with whatever she said seemed the best plan. She was steaming again.

    Six men wearing blue berets came trotting up to us along the broad path from the town. They pushed through the spectators. The man at the head of them had three goose feathers in his beret, and the modular shield and weapon on his breast was chrome plated.

    All six of them were armed, but only the guy beside the leader seemed to me like he’d know what to do with his weapon. The others were scruffs, and two of them didn’t have shields.

    “I’m Lord Camm!” said the leader. “Prince Philip has directed me to bring Lady Frances to him at once.”

    Which meant that one of the idlers had recognized the boat or maybe Frances herself and had gone racing back to the palace. It wasn’t much over a month that she and the boat had been here before.

    “That’s good,” said Frances, “because I certainly want to see him.”

    She started up the path to town; one of the armed scruffs had to jump out of her way. Frances wasn’t very big, but neither is a hornet. She was a right determined woman, and which you could tell just by looking at her.

    I started to follow, but Baga called from the door of the boat, “Pal? Can I talk t’ ye?”

    I looked at him and called to Frances, “Milady? I’ll catch you up. There’s a problem with the boat.”

    I didn’t know what Baga wanted. I was pretty sure he wasn’t worried about the boat, which was in great shape. I knew that from the boat’s own lips. Well, you know what I mean. Baga wasn’t one to push himself into things, though, and if I called me I’d see what he wanted before I went into town.

    “Look,” Baga said when I got up to the door, “that guy whose leading the soldiers?”

    “Lord Camm?” I said.

    “I never caught his name,” Baga said, “but I’ve seen him. He was the boatman who came for Lady Eloise. He wasn’t but there and gone on Holheim and I was trying to get this old girl–”

    He patted his boat. I’d never thought whether it was male or female.

    “–back in shape to carry Lady Frances, which took me a month. But I saw that boatman and it was this Camm. I thought you’d want to know.”

    I looked after Lady Frances and her escort vanishing into the town. I wondered if she’d even missed me.

    “Thank you, Baga,” I said. “I surely did.”

    I clucked to Buck and we set off after the others at a trot.

 


 

    I was expecting what looked like a palace, since Marielles’ ruler was a prince. When I got into the downtown, I wouldn’t have been able to tell which of the buildings was the right one except that some of the people who’d gone off with Frances and the soldiers were still waiting to get in.

    It was two stories of rust-colored brick with stone transoms, just like the buildings on either side of it. There were bars on the upper-story windows, but that was standard on both sides of the street.

    Instead of guards at the entrance, there was a fussy little man seated behind a sloping desk with a ledger open on it. He’d been passing the locals in with just a tick on the left-hand page, but when I got to him he sat up straight and said, “And who might you be?” in a tone that sounded more like an insult than a question.

    “I’m Pal of Beune,” I said. “I’m with Lady Frances.”

    The fellow sniffed. “All right then,” he said, writing out an entry on the right-hand page.

    Buck stayed close by my left knee as we went in, like he usually does when we’re in a crowd. I suppose if I’d been thinking about it, I’d have left him in the boat with Baga. That hadn’t crossed my mind, though.

    “Hey, you can’t take that dog inside!” the clerk said. I ignored him. I didn’t guess he was going to try conclusions with me, and if somebody else did, well, I’d deal with whatever came up.

    Beyond the anteroom was a set of stairs going up to the right and a short hall into a double-height room where I saw the people I was following. The fancy chandelier didn’t put out as much light as the windows in the roof cupola. Even with about fifty people standing in it, the room didn’t feel crowded. I moved up behind Frances at the front so I could look over her shoulder. Lord Camm was on her right and the other fellows with weapons close by.

 

 

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"Princess Holy Aura" by Ryk Spoor, last updated Sat Oct 7 16:46:41 EDT 2017

 

    “Daddy!

    Holly jumped up from the stiff-backed plastic chair that sat on one side of the simple table and leapt into Mr. Owen’s somewhat startled embrace with such force that even the much taller man was almost knocked over.

    She was disconcerted to realize how little of her joy and relief was feigned, and how much of it was real. For a moment . . . it was like having my father show up when I needed him most.

    She couldn’t dwell on that now; this was a good reaction, the right reaction for the circumstances. Too bad he couldn’t have just stayed with us, but there was no reason for Dad to be at the school, and every reason for Silvertail to head back home as fast as he could so no one else saw him.

    “Holly, are you all right? When the police called me I thought –”

    “I’m fine, I’m fine, but oh, God, Daddy, Mr. Jefferson, and there was a man with an axe, and –”

    “Slow down, slow down, Holly.” Trayne Owen looked up at the detectives with what seemed genuine confusion and worry. “An axe?”

    “I’m sorry, sir, but you did come down here without even waiting for us to explain everything,” said the redheaded woman.

    “I suppose I did. My apologies. Trayne Owen, and you are . . . ?”

    “Detective Dana Kisaragi,” she said, showing her ID, and shook Mr. Owen’s hand. “And my apologies for having to call you down here, but this is a serious matter.”

    “Can you explain? Is Holly in trouble somehow?”

    “No, nothing like that,” Detective Kisaragi said. “Please, sit down. Coffee?”

    Holly studied her covertly as her father accepted a cup. Despite the name, Dana Kisaragi had no sign of Japanese ancestry; she did have a wedding ring, though, so probably she’d married someone with the name. Tall — maybe a hair over six feet — her hair was clearly pretty long but was pulled up and tied well back, out of her way. Suit was immaculate even though she’d been here since the police had first showed up to get the girls out of the school. Sharp grey-green eyes; using a small recorder, not bothering with physical notes.

    Holly’s gut sense was that this was a very competent officer . . . which made her really dangerous for the masquerade.

    “First, Mr. Owen . . . I assume you have heard of the two . . . rather extraordinary events that happened near here in the last few months?”

    “You mean the reports of . . . well, some sort of monsters? One in the mall? Yes, I could hardly miss them.”

    “Well, it appears — I have to emphasize appears — that another such incident has happened at this school. Unlike the others, this one has resulted in at least one fatality.”

    “Fatal . . . someone’s been killed? In my daughter’s school?”

    “Yes, sir. Which is why we need your permission to interview your daughter. We’re interviewing all the girls who were in the school at the time in hope of making sense of what happened. Something happened there, and it wasn’t just an ordinary murder.”

    “How do you mean?” Trayne Owen’s eyes were narrowed, studying Dana Kisaragi as though she might be responsible for endangering his daughter.

    “I am not at liberty to discuss details with anyone at this time,” she said. “But it is vital that we get information from all the witnesses as quickly as we can, before memory fades or they start talking over what they saw between each other — as they inevitably will once they go back to school.”

    Trayne turned to Holly. “Holly, I don’t know what you saw, but . . . are you up to talking about it?”

    She swallowed. She still was a little shaky, even after an hour or so, so it didn’t take much to emphasize it. “I . . . I guess. You’ll stay here?”

    “I certainly will.” He looked at the detective. “I trust you have no objection?”

    “I would prefer to interview her alone, but if you insist –”

    “I do. You will speak with my daughter in my presence, or not at all.”

    “Very well.” She sat down across from Holly at the little table in the interview room. “Holly, do you need anything? More water? Something to eat?”

    She shook her head. “Nothing to eat . . . I’m not . . . hungry yet. A little more water, maybe.”

    One of the other detectives — Hughes, she thought his name was — opened a small fridge and brought out another bottle of water. “Thank you, Hughes,” Kisaragi said. “You and Gilbert can wait outside. No, wait. Go check on the others and see how the interviews are coming; maybe the two of you can take a couple of the other girls or we’ll be here all night.”

    “Yes, Detective,” said the one named Gilbert, while Hughes just said, “Yes, ma’am.” The door closed quietly behind them. A distant rumble of thunder echoed through the building, showing that the storm had not yet passed.

    “Now, Holly, I need you to tell me everything that happened tonight. Start with what you were doing before you noticed anything odd, and then go from there.”

    “All right. Um, we were sitting around one of the cafeteria tables–”

    “Who was ‘we’?”

    “Oh, our Steampunk Club. Me, Seika Cooper, Nikki Hand, Tierra MacKintor, and Caitlin Modofori.”

    “Got it. Go on.”

    “Well, I was running our game . . .”

    She told the truth up to the point that they finally made it to A-Wing and the front doors. There wasn’t any reason not to tell the truth, after all. “All right, so your club, along with the girls from the sports teams and two other clubs meeting that evening, arrived at the entranceway. What then?”

    Damn. I can’t talk to Seika and our stories have to match.

    Trayne Owen touched her hand. “Relax, Holly. Just think about what happened and tell the detective.”

    Suddenly she was aware that there were memories of that time — strangely phantom memories, but clear, and she knew somehow that they accorded with what the other girls would have seen and heard. “Well, um, we all tried to get the doors open but they were locked. A couple of the bigger girls grabbed one of the big benches near the office and tried to break the glass in one of the doors, but it didn’t work no matter how hard they hit it.”

    “Really? Do you remember which door?”

    She thought a moment. “If you’re looking from the inside out, the second door from the left-hand side.”

    The redheaded woman nodded, looking thoughtful. “So what next?”

    Holly consulted the ghostly recollections again. “Well, they’d just given up on beating on the door, and even Devika and the older girls were starting to look scared for real, when we hear this voice shouting from down B-Wing.”

    “A voice? What kind of voice?”

    “A girl’s voice, I guess. But it was . . . really powerful, like it was through a loudspeaker or something. But it wasn’t — not through the school loudspeakers, anyway. You could tell it was coming from down B-Wing’s hall.” Boy, this is freaky. I’m remembering this perfectly . . . except I know it’s not a memory at all.

    “Could you hear what it said?”

    “Not all of it, but at the end of the first time, I’m sure it said something like ‘Princess Holy Arrow’.” Close enough, anyway.

    The faintest quirk of Detective Kisaragi’s eyebrow showed that she recognized something. “I see. You say the first time. The voice spoke more than once?”

    “Oh, yeah. Right after that there was a little pause and, well, it sounded like this princess was threatening something, I guess the . . .” — she shuddered, remembering now as an ordinary girl the hideously creepy sing-song voice — “the . . . killer, the stalker? Anyway, I couldn’t make out the whole speech but she definitely said that the thing was going down.

    “Interesting. And then?”

    Holly related what those shadowy memories told her — fragments of words, bomb blasts of distant combat shaking the room, the screams of the girls near her. This must be Silvertail’s doing. Of course he’d have made sure we knew what the others had seen and heard. I just have to hope Seika catches on and plays along.

    She was sure Seika would. The smaller black girl had shown she was sharp as a box of razors already, and she’d had the courage to come help her friend even before she’d found out she was an Apocalypse Maiden; Seika wouldn’t lose her head in interrogation.

    “. . . and then the doors just suddenly opened, after everything we and the fire department outside had been trying before had failed, and we got out and you guys picked us up and I guess that’s it,” she finished.

    “Yes, that does bring us up to date,” agreed Detective Kisaragi. There was the slightest flicker of her gaze, as though she was considering saying something and then reconsidered, or as though she had thought of something and wanted to hide the thought.

    Trayne Owen had been staring from one to the other with an appearance of increasing perplexity. “Detective, does . . . I mean, is what she saying true?”

    “Do you think she isn’t telling us the truth, Mr. Owen?”

    “No! No, of course not. But some of these . . . things she describes — ”

    “It does seem to fit with those prior anomalies. What it means — why these events have started happening, why here, and what the ultimate purpose of these monsters or this ‘princess’ may be? We don’t know, sir, and at the moment I can’t even speculate. But we’ve kept you long enough. We may have to interview her once or twice more, but we’ll call you well in advance. Will that be all right?”

    Trayne Owen nodded after a moment. “Someone’s dead, and something tried to kill my daughter and her friends. I assure you we will cooperate with whatever’s necessary to put a stop to this.”

    “Thank you, sir.” She got up and opened the door. “Let me show you out. And Holly, thank you. You’ve been a great help.”

    “Thanks, Ms. . . . er, Detective Kisaragi. Umm . . .”

    She raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

    “Well . . . is the school closed? I mean, will it be closed?”

    She and Trayne Owen shared a small chuckle. “It may be closed tomorrow, but we will try our best to do all our work and clear out before morning. If not, the next day for sure.”

    “So it’ll be bedtime for you after we get home,” Trayne said. “Sorry, Holly.”

    “Do I . . . have to go?”

    “No,” Trayne said immediately. “That will be entirely up to you. And I am sure the counselors will want to see all you girls anyway. But we’ll talk about that later.”

    “Good night, Mr. Owen, Holly,” the detective said, letting them out of the police station door.

    “Good night, Detective,” Trayne said.

    They walked quietly to where Trayne had parked the minivan and got in. Mr. Owen started the car, put it in gear, and pulled out onto the road.

    Holly saw him making a few tiny gestures with his hand and murmuring something very, very quietly.

    After another minute, he leaned back slightly. “Holly, you did very well. That was a very dangerous situation.”

    “Dangerous? You mean, if they learn too much they could get killed, right?”

    “To an extent, yes. But I sensed . . . some odd indications about our interviewer. My senses, as you know, are not limited to human, and the smell of her identity card was slightly different — too new, for one thing. And some of her reactions to the story were less of surprise or puzzlement than I would expect.”

    “You think she’s one of the enemy?” Somehow Holly found that hard to believe. Detective Kisaragi struck her as sincere in her concern.

    “Enemy? Not . . . precisely. I believe she is with the OSC.”

    “OSC? The Office of Special Counsel?” Holly was confused.

    “Eh? No, no. In this general era I believe they have used a number of aliases, but in actuality it is the initials of their organization’s motto and goal: Obtain, Secure, Counter.”

    “Obtain, secure, and counter what?”

    “Supernatural or super-normal threats,” Mr. Owen said.

    “Oh, crap. One of those groups you mentioned.”

    “Yes. I cannot say I am very surprised. There was no subtlety in our enemy’s first two assaults, as they are uninterested in stealth as such, and such high-profile paranormal events would naturally draw some of their investigators. With luck, however, the events of this night will actually serve to eliminate you and Seika from consideration as candidates for the two Apocalypse Maidens.”

    “Dad? I mean, Silvertail, they don’t know about the Apocalypse Maidens and all that, right? All that gets erased when the Maidens win.”

    He was silent for a moment. “I cannot say for certain, honestly. If they were a purely mundane organization, no, they would not, but they are not purely mundane. Over the centuries they have captured numerous paranormal objects, beings, and so on, and some they are capable of controlling and using. So they may possibly have some idea of the existence, though not the details, of the Cycle, and possibly of the fact that there is truth behind many of the worst legends.”

    “But they’re not our friends, either?”

    Trayne’s face was grim. “No. Their position is that such powers are threats in and of themselves to mankind and must be captured and neutralized, regardless of how those threats might regard themselves, unless and until the OSC decides how they may be used ‘for the greater good’ . . . without revealing too much to the world.”

    “And so if they catch up with me –”

    “– you will be just one more paranormal phenomenon to be Obtained, Secured, and Countered.”

    “But they can’t actually do that . . . can they?”

    “Can they truly overpower Princess Holy Aura? No, not as things stand. Magic has not truly, fully reentered the world — and we hope that it never will. So their ability to act against the one remaining full manifestation of mystical power, the Apocalypse Maidens, and of course our adversaries, that is severely limited.”

    She remembered a prior conversation and shuddered. “But they don’t need to defeat me. Just interfere with me at the wrong moment —

    “– and these well-meaning defenders of Earth will cause its utter, and final, destruction.”

 

 

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"The Spark" by David Drake, last updated Wed Oct 4 19:18:52 EDT 2017

 

Leaving Home

    I hadn’t really thought of Beune as home while I was growing up here. When I took the Road to Dun Add, I was going to my future, not leaving my past. The last month had made a difference that I didn’t realize until I stood here by the boat and saw, well, hundreds of people.

    Dozens of folks had come to see me off when I started for Dun Add. Nearly a hundred had come to see the boat when Lady Frances arrived. This was several times that many, lots of them people I barely knew by sight. They’d been shaking my hand and wishing me well. At least a dozen men had offered me jugs or even casks of their ale to take along, and women had cakes and pickles and sausages, whatever they thought their specialty was.

    It was easier to take the food than refuse: the boat had plenty of room. Besides, even if it spoiled it’d do as well as the usual organic garbage that went into the ship’s hoppers and then through the converter.

    I wouldn’t tell anybody that I’d converted their gifts when I came back to Beune, of course. People were really being nice.

    Marcus, a farmer from the North flanked by his four grown sons, was telling me about the trip he’d made to Teufelstoss with his Da’, when he was but a youngling. I’d thought there might be a point to the story when he’d started but after five minutes I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be, so I was twice as glad when I saw Baga coming with the widow Herisa.

    “Sirs, I see our boatman and there’s things I need to discuss with him,” I said, clasping right arms with Marcus and patting him on the back with my free hand.

    I broke eye contract with him and called, “Baga, get over here if you will! We were getting worried about you!”

    I’d sure been worried about him, anyway. I don’t know what Frances thought–she’d gone aboard the boat with the last of her stuff, so I hadn’t seen her for an hour.

    “Sorry,” the boatman said. “It got complicated this morning.”

    He looked haggard. Herisa wasn’t just clinging to his arm, she was bawling and seemed to be trying to drag Baga away.

    “Mistress Herisa!” I said sharply. I stepped close and took her wrists in my hands, squeezing hard enough that she let go of Baga’s arms.

    I had a bright idea. Gervaise had been standing close by all morning, sort of claiming the right as my nearest neighbor and I guess best friend. I swung Herisa into his arms and said, “Gervaise, can you and Phoebe help me? Herisa needs a chance to calm down with friends till she’s ready to go back home.”

    “Sure, Pal,” Gervaise said loudly. “You know I’m always happy to do a favor for a friend!”

    That was the truth–Gervaise was a good man and a good neighbor–but he was making sure now that all his–all our–neighbors knew he close he was to me and my important visitors. In trances I’ve been inside the structure of a lot of amazing tools of the Ancients. None of the structures was nearly as complicated or confused me more than people do, and I mean folks like Gervaise who I’ve known all my life.

    “Bless you, fellow,” Baga muttered to me. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

    “I need to talk to Guntram before we leave,” I said. “You can go on into the boat, though. Buck and I’ll be along as soon as we can, and Lady Frances is already aboard.”

    “Wait a minute!” Baga said. “I thought you was going instead of the lady. I told you when we got here, boy, she’ll only take me and one other. I don’t even trust taking the dog. Look, you can get a dog in Marielles if you need one.”

    The only thing that stopped me from shouting at him was that I didn’t know if I was more surprised–well, angry–that the boatman hadn’t listened about the repairs we were doing or about what he’d said about dogs. Baga had been gone just about all the while Guntram and I were working, and when he came around he hadn’t been interested in what we were saying.

    And Baga was a boatman who needn’t ever to have owned a dog. What he’d said about Buck still peeved me, though.

    “Look, Baga,” I said with my hand on his shoulder and my lips close to his ear. “You go inside and get your end ready. The boat’ll fine with six adults aboard, just like when it was brand new. And I swear if you make silly trouble, I’ll take the boat to Marielles myself and you can stay with Herisa until I come back!”

    “Look, I just don’t wanna die, that’s all,̶#8221; Baga muttered, but he wasn’t really protesting. I pushed him gently toward the boat’s door and he went aboard.

    When I turned I saw that Guntram had stepped over to me. A man and a woman–separate, not a couple and neither of them anybody I knew–had moved in my direction, but when they saw me with the old Maker they stopped and eased back.

    “I’m not an ogre,” Guntram said in a quiet voice.

    “Maybe they’re just being polite,” I said, though I didn’t believe that. “Say, have warriors started using your healing bed?”

    “They have indeed,” Guntram said, cocking his head as he looked at me. “Did you arrange that, Master Pal? Jon has even talked about moving the couch down into a room of the Hall of Champions to make it more accessible.”

    “It was just common sense,” I said, grinning. “Lady May said she’d talk to some people. I’m glad she did.”

    There was no reason I should have, but I’d been thinking of May off and on ever since I left Dun Add. There was a lot I liked about being back on Beune, but there weren’t any girls here like May. Though I hadn’t seen any to match her in Dun Add either.

    “I…,” Guntram said. Then he smiled and said, “Thank you, Pal. It shouldn’t matter, but I like to see things appreciated.”

    He coughed into his hand and added, “If you’re really capable of guiding a boat, you’re an even more remarkable young man than I already realized.”

    “I could flap my arms and fly to Marielles easier than I could get the boat to take me,” I said. We were both keeping our voices low and I watched the door, though I was pretty sure that Baga wasn’t going to try to listen in. “Baga was just being silly. He’ll be fine as soon as we start off.”

    I took a deep breath. “Sir,” I said, “thank you for all you’ve done. I mean since you came to Beune, but in Dun Add too. I can’t repay you, but anything you ask I’ll do. And I’ll try to do you proud in Marielles. Sir.”

    Guntram smiled. “First,” he said, “I’m taking the image projector which you offered me. I’ve got a quantity of your small fragments also–”

    He glanced down at his pack. It was almost as full as it had been when he arrived on Beune, despite all the wonders he’d given to me and my neighbors.

    “–but they’re of no real value to you. The image projector is another matter, though, and I’m sure you would be able to repair it yourself with a little more time.”

    That was nonsense. I didn’t say that, but Guntram knew it was nonsense.

    He took an Artifact from the pocket on the right breast of his robe. The hedgehog stuck its head out of the left pocket and wriggled its nose.

    “I’m giving you this in exchange for the projector,” he said, handing it to me: a slender handgrip with a thumb lever on the upper curve. “It’s a shield, designed for that purpose. It’s not the best one I’ve ever seen, but it’s quite good. I think you’ll find it handier than what you’re using now.”

    “Sir!” I said. “Sir.”

    “Would you mind giving me the shield you’ve been using, Pal?” Guntram said. “What you did is really quite ingenious. I’d like to keep it to refer to, not so much for your solutions but for the way you looked for solutions.”

    “Of course!” I said, slipping the shield into my pocket where it balanced the weapon on the other side. I didn’t need the harness any more, so it took it and the converted umbrella off and handed them together to Guntram.

    “Thank you,” he said solemnly. I figured he’d feed the leather to his converter. That was the best use I could see for it, now that I didn’t need anything so heavy to carry my equipment. “And now I’m going to tell you what you can do to repay me.”

    I stiffened. “Sir,” I said. I didn’t have a son to give him, but I’d have kept my word if I had. “Whatever you ask.”

    “Then after you’ve corrected matters in Marielles, as I hope you will,” Guntram said, “I want you to come to Dun Add instead of returning to Beune.”

    “Sir, I’ll do what you say, I promised I would!” I said. “But I wasn’t raised to butt in where I’m not wanted. Dun Add made it real clear that it didn’t want me!”

    Guntram shrugged. “The universe doesn’t seem to want human beings,” he said. “If we’re going to continue to exist, we’ll have to fight for our place, which is what you came to Dun Add the first time to do. Not everyone can fight, friend Pal; but you can. I want you to join my foster son in fighting for mankind.”

    I swallowed. “Yes sir,” I said. I clasped right arms with him. “I promised. I’ll hope to do that.”

    Then I said, “Come on, Buck.” I boarded the boat with my dog, and Baga closed the door after us.

 

 

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"Princess Holy Aura" by Ryk Spoor, last updated Wed Oct 4 19:18:52 EDT 2017

 

    The first thought that came into Holly’s head after the shock was a crushing sense of guilt. There was no doubt in her mind now that this was the next manifestation, and that meant that Mr. Jefferson was dead in either reality. I managed to stop the first two without deaths. I . . . I hoped I could save everyone.

    “OhshitOhshitOhshit . . .” Nikki was mumbling from behind her. Caitlin was simply frozen, staring in utter shock.

    “Let’s get the hell out of this place!” Tierra hissed.

    Even as the five of them turned back toward the hallway, the kitchen doors behind them flew open and a shadowy figure strode out, an unhurried, implacable stride clicking menacingly on the polished floor beneath it. Lightning flashed off the edge of a red-dripping axe.

    “Run!” Holly shouted. She was already trying to think how to deal with this. I don’t know if any of these are Apocalypse Maidens yet. I can’t just change in front of all of them; “three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Got to buy time somehow . . .

    Seika grabbed one of the last chairs as they passed it, dragging it with her rattle-banging up the three steps to the cafeteria exit.

    “What do you want that for?” demanded Caitlin. “That’s not going to stop his –”

    “The doors,” she said urgently.

    Holly suddenly understood what Seika meant. “She’s right! If we can take it apart we can use the legs to bar the doors! Come on, everyone, help break this thing!”

    The figure was halfway down the cafeteria aisle, boots rapping out a remorseless countdown, as the girls hammered the chair violently against walls and floor, yanked at it.

    A quarter of the way to go, but there was suddenly a sharp metallic crack and the weld holding the front pair of legs to the underframe snapped, leaving a U-shaped piece of metal — two chair legs formed of a single tube of bent metal.

    “Shut the doors!” Seika said, voice cracking in panic. Holly and the other three yanked the cafeteria doors — hollow steel with small windows — around, forced them shut.

    The metronome precision of that stride altered abruptly, hurrying, not a run, but the sound of someone understanding that a situation has changed. Seika tried to slide the steel curve through the two metal door handles, but something struck the doors heavily, almost forcing them open. Nikki screamed but pushed harder, Holly following suit; on the other door Caitlin and Tierra shoved with all their strength, and the doors closed once more —

    — and Seika slipped the steel U through the handles.

    The door rattled viciously, but the steel held it firm; more, because of the U shape, it couldn’t dislodge from someone just jostling it. The five girls grinned at each other for an instant.

    Then a tremendous thudding chop echoed through the dark hallway, and the door dented outward.

    “Come on,” Holly said. “We’ve got to get the hallway doors open somehow, before he gets out!”

    “Who is he?” Caitlin demanded in the panicky tones of someone trying to hold onto a thread of sanity. “Why’s he doing this? That . . . that was a real body, wasn’t it?”

    “Maybe it wasn’t!” Nikki said, grasping at a thread of hope. “It’s a prank, like that murdering clown-thing we saw on YouTube!”

    “Trust me, that was a real body and this is no prank,” Holly said. “That axe was real and he’s actually chopping through the lunchroom doors. You think anyone pulling a prank here is going to wreck the school like that?”

    The doors to the central hall were still closed, and as the five girls ran toward them, they suddenly shuddered with a crashing bang that made all five skid to a terrified halt. What the hell? How’d he get ahead of us? Or are there two of these things?

    But even as they stood frozen in indecision, there was another tremendous crash and the doors flew wide.

    Framed in the doorway were two extremely tall girls; one was so dark-skinned she was a shadow against shadows, but her brilliant chunni headdress, visible even in the dim light, outlined her clearly.

    From that, Holly recognized her instantly: Devika Weatherill, captain of the girls’ basketball team. With that hint, Holly could make out that the lighter-skinned, brown-haired girl next to her was Tori Murstein, likewise captain of the volleyball team. Silhouetted behind them was a crowd of other girls, presumably the teams that had just finished practice.

    Seeing their expressions, Devika grimaced. “Let me guess, doors down there are locked too.”

    “Never mind doors, run!” Tierra said. “There’s a psycho with an axe back there –”

    “What?” Tori looked amused. “Are you joking? I –”

    She was cut short by an echoing impact from down the corridor, an impact that combined with the shriek of ripping metal.

    “Not joking! Run!”

    Reverberating down the shadowed hallway behind Holly and the others, rhythmic, unhurried footsteps were approaching.

    That sound — calm, purposeful, and utterly out of place — convinced the others that something very bad was coming, and the slow backing up turned into a jog, and then a run as something sang out from the darkness,

    “Hippity-hey, hippity-hop

    Who’s next to get the chop?

    Hippity-hop, hippity-hey

    Who’s getting the axe today?

    The voice was a cracked tenor, the sound of madness on the edge, and the tune was a cheerful one . . . in a minor key that turned its macabre cheer to a graveyard threat.

    “We have to get the front doors open somehow!” Holly told them. “This guy’s locked everything!”

    “Shouldn’t be possible,” said someone from the volleyball team. “My dad’s a fire marshal and he told me that fire doors can’t be locked from the inside!”

    “Well, they are,” Tierra snapped. “We tried!”

    “So did we,” said Devika. “But let’s get these doors open!”

    The front doors of the school looked like they should be easier to open, glass fronted as they were — but Holly was pretty sure the glass was thick and reinforced.

    But everyone’s focused on the door . . .

    Without giving herself time to think, Holly backed quietly away from the crowd, and headed down the B-Wing corridor (whose doors showed where the teams had come from). One girl separated from the rest. That’s the trope, right?

    She prayed to whatever powers there might be that she was making the right decision. If I’m wrong . . . an axe-wielding monster’s going to plow right into a crowd of high-school girls. And monster will be literally correct.

    B-Wing was silent, her footsteps and the faint echo of her breathing the only sounds. It suddenly struck her that it was unnaturally quiet; she wasn’t so far away that she shouldn’t be able to hear the others trying to get through the front door — or their screams, if the thing caught them. They’d been able to vaguely hear the noise of the teams coming back into the school all the way over in C-Wing!

    It’s here.

    From somewhere — she couldn’t tell which direction — the singing began again:

    “Hippity-hi, hippity-ho

    Who will be the next to go?

    Hippity-ho, hippity-hi

    You’re the one about to DIE!

    She drew a breath and reached up to touch the Star Nebula Brooch —

    One of the classroom doors slammed open scarcely ten feet from her, and a towering figure came forth, seemingly born from darkness and thunder, a long coat flapping behind it, axe rising for a strike, lightning flashing off the white-grinning clown mask. Her breath caught in her throat and she knew that she had no time for the invocation.

    No time at all.

    But even as the axe began to descend, a small form barreled in from the left and slammed into the axe-wielding figure with a diving lunge just at the knee. The figure gave a grunt and lost its grip on the axe, the weapon spinning through the air to thunk harmlessly into the wall a foot to the right of Holly’s head.

    “What the fuck is wrong with you?” demanded Seika, even as she scrambled to her feet and the figure rolled to a halt, starting to rise. “You never break up the party!”

    She came to save me. And there’s no one else here but us and . . . it. That’s got to be my answer.

    The two girls were backpedaling as the thing rose to its full height and strode toward its weapon. “Seika,” Holly said, “I hope you can keep a secret.”

    “Huh? What? A secret?”

    Holly’s fingers gripped the brooch and the invocation came to her now without conscious thought. “. . . Mystic Galaxy Defender, Princess Holy Aura!”

    The pure-crystal light detonated like the Sun in the dark hallway, and the monster threw up a hand to shield itself, momentarily cowering before the Light. Seika, too, tried to shield her face from the light, but Holy Aura could see an expression, not of fear or incomprehension, but wonder and understanding. “Wow,” she whispered.

    “I am the one you seek, monster!” Holy Aura said — for the Challenge, too, was inviolable. But it would not end the same. “You have slain the good and brought terror to the innocent, and for that, this Apocalypse Maiden says that you,” she pointed straight at the shining clown mask that suddenly looked much less terrifying, “are going down!”

    It gave a mad giggle and suddenly whirled its axe so swiftly that it became a silver and red circle of death.

    &##8220;Hippity-how, hippity-hill

    That’s what you say you will

    Hippity-hill, hippity-how

    Time to die for you is NOW!

    It swung and Holly parried with the Silverlight Bisento, and a shockwave shuddered out from the point of impact, rattling doors, cracking windows. Crap, this thing is strong, she thought as she felt her arms give a fraction under the blow. I thought something this much smaller would be weaker than the others!

    But it was still a lot taller than she was, and she ducked the next swing and rammed the bisento‘s blade straight through the creature. She heard Seika backing away with faint murmurs that were probably curses. But she wasn’t running; she was trying to stay out of the way, yet remain close enough to see . . . maybe close enough to help.

    It gave a keening snarl and a backhand blow with the axehead sent Holy Aura tumbling away, feeling blood trickling from her scalp. Crap! It’s a good thing he couldn’t turn the blade around that fast, or he’d have split my head in two!

    But even though she felt a little dazed and her weapon was still stuck in the thing’s body, she rolled to her feet with more confidence. Silvertail?

    I am here.

    Take care of Seika.

    An impression of a nod. Count on me.

    The thing ripped the Silverlight Bisento from its chest and hurled it at Holy Aura, but she caught it easily. “You can’t hurt me with my own weapon, monster — ” she began, but cut off when it sprinted forward, axe swinging in a dizzying and lethal geometry of cuts that drove her backward. She managed to catch the weapon with the shaft of hers momentarily and bring the ball of the bisento around to smash it full in its masked face.

    The mask split.

    Holly found herself screaming, backing away from the thing while desperately raining unaimed but powerful blows at it to keep it back.

    To call what was revealed a “face” was an offense to the word. Yes, there were eyes — glaring, gleefully mad eyes, one green as poison, one red as blood. There was a mouth, with broken, yellow teeth raggedly sharp in an insane grin. There was even a nose, half eaten away by acid or fire. But the repellent, monstrous whole was hideous, ridged with scar tissue, living maggots wriggling through the pus-oozing flesh, holes in the cheeks showing the muscles and fangs from the sides as well as the front, and despite the decaying appearance there was no impression of weakness, of frailty, but of unnatural, unquenchable, abominable life. It stank of old blood and rot and rusting steel, of gangrenous wounds and creeping infections and burned flesh, and it smiled with a crazed good cheer that infused it with even more horror than a savage grin or implacable immobility would have.

    And it was moving fast. Holy Aura could barely fend off its blows, even as she managed — with the help of ancient power and the stabilizing memories of Stephen Russ — to gain control over herself. It’s no worse looking than the shoggoth was. That wasn’t quite true, but Steve had seen plenty of horror movies — including the slasher films this thing was drawing on. This was worse . . . but only because she was letting the thing’s aura, its essence, bring home the reality of its malevolence.

    She somersaulted backward, vaguely conscious of Seika and Silvertail now to the side, in one of the classrooms — got to keep it focused on me — spun her weapon around, concentrated, saw the corridor brightening with white-silver radiance. “Ginhikari no Bisento!

    The broad blade of the immense weapon caught and carved through the haft of the bloody axe, and continued its irresistible course through obscene head, neck, and body, cleaving the stalker-manifestation almost entirely in two. The thing collapsed, arms twitching, eyes rolling in their separate sections of skull, the pieces of the axe tumbling to the floor.

    Now, I just have to finish it off. But even as she reached within her, looking for that transcendent connection to the power beyond, the slasher-monster’s body pulled itself together, the horrific head sealing itself, and even the axe mended itself, wood fibers reversing their sundering and merging to become, impossibly, whole again.

    Holy Aura parried, but her arms almost buckled.

    It’s getting stronger, and I haven’t been able to kill it!

    She needed time, and that was one thing her opponent was never going to give her.

 

 

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"Chain of Command" by Frank Chadwick, last updated Wed Oct 4 19:18:52 EDT 2017

 

1 January 2134 (the next day) (eleventh day in K’tok orbit)

    Sam floated out of his shower sphere, pulled off his shower mask, and checked the time: 0615, January First. Welcome to 2134, and just in time. Sam had had about all of 2133 he could handle.

    The shower sphere was only about a meter and a half in interior circumference, with high pressure water jets on one side and vacuum intakes on the other. You had to wear an oxygen feed mask while you were in it to keep from drowning. Sam had to curl up almost in a fetal position to fit, and the pressure of the water jets spun him in the compartment, making him slightly dizzy, but despite all that it was one of the real luxuries of a senior officer’s cabin. The junior officers and enlisted crew made do with a communal shower shared with a half-dozen other crew once every week and sponge bathing in between.

    He toweled off and checked his stored messages, and he saw a flashing attention notice by one from Commodore Bonaventure, logged in five minutes ago. Bonaventure was up early.

    Bitka, as the task group N-2 I’ve got two bones for you to chew on.

    First bone: we picked up some acceleration signatures, multiple ships, out past the asteroid belt and almost on the opposite side of the primary, so presumed hostile. We sure don’t have anything out there. Looks as if the task force main body wouldn’t have a line of sight to them, and neither would the ships out in Mogo orbit. We copied them and the raw data’s in the latest intel update but I want you to take a look yourself, bring that famous tac-head concentration to bear. Let me know if you have any ideas.

    Second bone: we did a fly-over this morning of the landing site for those glide canisters and picked up vehicular movement heading south. They’re keeping dispersed, but the ground speed is consistent with gunsleds. Looked like they landed some lift cavalry and they’re headed toward the down station. Give me some options to deal with them.

    Enjoy your breakfast.

    He cut the connection and then checked the intel updates, and found the report of thermal signatures of an acceleration burn, starting north of the plane of the ecliptic and then cutting out once they reached the plain. Four or five separate signatures, hard to tell for sure at that distance and with a lot of thermal “noise” from the primary–the system’s sun.

    He checked the watch rotation just to be sure, but knew what he would find: White Watch was on, had just taken over forty-five minutes ago. Ensign Barb Lee would be officer of the deck, already strapped into the command chair. The update had come in four hours ago when Blue Watch was on duty.

    Jerry Robinette had finally qualified as officer of the deck and had taken over Blue Watch from Larry Goldjune three days ago. Robinette would probably be in the wardroom now, getting breakfast, having just come off watch. He’d come along surprisingly well since they moved him back to the tactical department from engineering. He took his responsibilities seriously, had worked hard to qualify as OOD, and had pitched in on the missile problem, done the force analysis calculations they needed to stress-test the parts. Sam had even gone several days without thinking of him as the Jughead. He wondered if Jerry might be one of those legendary diamonds in the rough, who never shine until they need to. Maybe it was time to find out.

    Sam squinted up his contact code and pinged him.

    Yes, sir? Robinette answered.

    “Ensign, did you notice an updated intel packet concerning thrust signatures out beyond the asteroid belt?”

    Yes, sir. I flagged it for Lieutenant Filipenko’s attention, as Tac-boss, but it didn’t seem immediately pressing. I think she may still be in the rack. Is there a problem, sir?

    “No problem, Ensign. You’re right, it wasn’t coded as critical and a burn that far away–at least one like this–isn’t an immediate problem. What do you suppose it means?”

    There was a moment’s silence

    Mean, sir? In what way?

    “Well, when the uBakai hit us here, they came out of jump with a high residual velocity. That means they had to do a long, hard burn before they jumped.”

    Sir, are you saying the uBakai could be getting ready for another attack?

    Sam heard the rising alarm in Robinette’s voice.

    “I don’t think so, Jerry.” Sam used Robinette’s first name to calm him, put him more at ease. “Besides, we’d have seen the energy signature of a jump if they’d done that, right? So if you take a look at these burn tracks, it is pretty clear they are moving slower as they approach the plane of the ecliptic, not faster. So they aren’t accelerating, are they?”

    No, sir. They must be decelerating.

    “Right. So what do you think that means?”

    More silence.

    That they’re slowing down? I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know. It means they decelerated, but … I don’t know exactly what you mean by ‘mean,’ sir.

    Sam took a breath and swallowed to keep the impatience from his voice.

    “Okay, Jerry, I’m not trying to stump you, but if you’re going to be a tactical officer you’ve got to learn to think tactically. Everything means something. Every piece of data like this is the result of a sentient being making a decision to do something. The question is, what did they decide to do, and why?

    “In this case, four or five unknown and previously undetected ships approached the plane of the ecliptic from galactic north at a fairly steep angle, then they decelerated and dropped into an orbit around the primary, out past the asteroids. They did it out there to use the primary and the asteroids to partially cloak themselves, right?

    “But who are they? They had to come from somewhere and probably jumped to above the plane. But they’ve got a very different residual vector than the uBakai fleet had last time we saw them.”

    Yes, sir. Theirs was flat, almost parallel to the plane.

    “That’s right. So why would they change their vector into a north- -south orientation, then jump north of the plane, and then decelerate to burn away that new vector? And why wouldn’t we have seen their burn when they made that original vector change?”

    More silence.

    I … I’m sorry, sir, but I just can’t get it. I don’t know why.

    Sam sighed.

    “Robinette, you can’t think of a good reason for them to do it because there is no good reason. And we probably would have seen a major course change burn anywhere near this system. Those are uBakai reinforcements arriving, possibly the four cruisers they had at Akaampta.”

    Sam cut the connection and shook his head. Well, that had been a pointless exercise, a waste of both their times, except for what it showed him about Robinette.

    The Jughead.

    Sam wanted to teach the young ensign that sometimes if you can’t think of a reason for something, there might not be one. The problem was, Robinette apparently could not figure out a reason for anything. Sam didn’t think he had much future as a tactical officer, which was too bad. They needed someone good to back up Marina Filipenko. She was rising to the job, but if anything happened to her, they were in big trouble.

    He turned back to his desk and loaded the report on ground vehicle traffic down on K’tok.

 

 

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