/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: The Counsil Wars

Emerald Sea

John Ringo

In the future the world was a paradise — and then, in a moment, it ended. The council that controlled the Net fell out and went to war, while people who had never known a moment of want or pain were left wondering how to survive. Duke Edmund Talbot has been assigned a simple mission: Go to the Southern Isles and make contact with the scattered mer-folk-those who, before the worldwide collapse of technology, had altered their bodies in the shape of mythical sea-dwelling creatures. He must convince them to side with the Freedom Coalition in the battles against the fascist dictators of New Destiny: Just a simple diplomatic mission. That requires the service of a dragon-carrier and Lieutenant Herzer Herrick, the most blooded of the Blood Lords-because New Destiny has plans of its own. The fast-paced sequel to There Will be Dragons is a rollicking adventure above and below the high seas with dragons, orcas, beautiful mermaids — and the irrepressible Bast the Wood Elf, a cross between Legolas and Mae West.

Emerald Sea

by John Ringo

Dedication:

Dedicated to Mark Turuk, without whom this book would never have been written. What doesn’t kill us makes us strongerrrr!

Freakin’ Canucks…

Prologue

The fifteen-thousand-ton asteroid had been named, in the deepness of time when men still did such things, AE-513-49. In the latter twenty-first century, when every chunk of ice and rock that was of any conceivable danger to the earth had been mapped and tracked, it had been concluded that AE-513-49, which looked a bit like an elephant’s foot and was composed of nickel-iron, had a probability of impact with the earth low enough that the heat death of the universe was a more likely problem.

AE-513-49 had been considered for mining until it was determined that, as a Helios asteroid, one close in to the sun, bringing out the materials would be more costly than those on the relative “downslope” towards the outer system. Then asteroid mining, after a very brief heyday, went away as the human race started to dwindle and, with it, the need for metals from beyond the atmosphere.

Thus AE-513-49 had been permitted to continue on its lonely orbit, circling the sun like a very small planet, hanging out at the very edge of the “life belt” between the earth and Mercury.

Until a curious thing happened.

A couple of years before, small gravitic nudges were applied to it. They first sent it inward towards the sun where it would, of course, have impacted without any noticeable trace. But then it encountered the gravity well of the small planet Mercury and “slingshotted” around it, headed back “outward” in the system.

More small nudges, some of them infinitesimally faint, adjusted its trajectory until it was precisely aligned with a point in space through which the earth would pass. Then, for almost a year, nothing.

As it approached the earth, however, more nudges were applied. A few adjusted the course so that it would assuredly hit the earth and, what’s more, on a particular circular zone of the earth. Other nudges sped it up or slowed it down so that it would hit a particular point on that circle. Then, as it approached the atmosphere, the nudges became more distinct. It was now targeted on that one small point.

As it entered the atmosphere, thin and high, it began to fluoresce, coruscating waves of fire leaping off of it as the lighter materials it had picked up on its two-billion-year journey through the solar system burned off leaving the solid nickel-iron core revealed. This, too, began to burn as it hurtled closer and closer to the face of the earth, the metal subliming off in waves of fire.

Thus it was a melted ball of nickel-iron, hurtling downward at far more than orbital velocities, trailing an immense line of fire behind it, that slammed to a stop in midair thirty-five meters from an unassuming home that was sitting, against all reason, in a pool of lava.

In keeping with the laws of physics the nickel-iron, which was half ionized by heat, exploded outward in titanic fury. But this, too, stopped in midair and the enormous detonation, which would have destroyed much of the local area, was captured by some invisible force and quickly dissipated.

The nickel-iron that had once been AE-513-49 spread itself across an invisible hemispherical barrier, practically covering the house and shutting off all light to its interior for a moment, then slid away, bubbling as if from the application of some tremendous energy, to join the rest of the lava.

Inside the hemispherical protection field, the asteroid impact was noted as only a simple thump. At the thump, Sheida Ghorbani opened up a view-screen, as she did at least once a day, and looked at the lake of boiling lava that surrounded her home. The whole valley around her home was a mass of red and black liquid rock, fuming and spitting plumes of yellowish sulfur-laden steam. As always she called to mind the lofty Douglas firs, winding paths and crystalline mountain stream that had once been. Back in the days before the Fall.

The human race had brought itself so far. Rising through the mists of history. Surviving wars and famines. Until they had finally come to a technological point where so much was available, war, and even government, had been all but forgotten. The AI entity called Mother, which had started as a security protocol for the nearly mythical “internet” had morphed over the years until it was She who was the final arbiter of need. Mother, with her Argus eye and processors ranging from extradimensional quantum field systems to the honeycomb of bees, knew all and could see all. Beyond who was naughty and who was nice, it was She who saw the sparrow fall.

But the dangers of such an entity were known long before it was possible to create one. And Mother’s creator, knowing the danger that She represented, She who was the first true AI, had established human controls upon her. Thirteen “Key-holders,” each with a physical pass item, who could “tweak” Her protocols and, in extreme cases, open up her kernel and reprogram Her. The latter, however, required complete unanimity.

The Keys had first been held by major corporate heads and by governments in the early days of Her youth. But over the years some of them had fallen into a shadowy underworld. As Her power grew, more and more capabilities and decisions were loaded upon Her shoulders until in the last millennia She had become the defacto world government. She was controlled, primarily, by the overt “Council” of thirteen Key-holders. They were the human link in the chain and mostly ensured that Her protocols were tweaked and maintained while She did the grunt work of managing distribution of goods and services. The last human-controlled world government had dissolved nearly two hundred years ago from sheer lack of utility.

The reason for the lack of utility was simple; with no want there was limited conflict and crime. Replication, teleportation, nannites and genetic engineering had created a world where any human could live as they desired. A house on a mountaintop was easily created and the mountaintop could be anywhere in the world, since with teleportation going elsewhere was a matter of wishing. Body modification had taken wide forms, with humans Changing themselves into mer, unicorns, dolphins and a host of other shapes. All conflict, and crime, comes down to a breach of written or unwritten contracts. It was Mother that ensured that contracts, by and large, were not breached. In the rare case in which they were, the individual involved was hunted down by an efficient, if small, police force and “adjusted,” in extreme cases by a memory wipe and replacement to create a nice, docile, well-adjusted human.

But there had been problems with unlimited wealth and ease. Over the years both human birthrates and scientific progress had fallen by the wayside. World population had peaked at twelve billion in the latter twenty-first century and then had started a long, slow, decline until the population, pre-Fall, had been a mere billion or so individuals, mostly residing in widely scattered homes and small hamlets. With limitless recreational activities, and birth, thank God, removed from the bodies of women and moved to uterine replicators, raising children was at the very bottom of most people’s wish lists. And strong protocols, enforced by Mother and voted upon in earlier times when massive social mistakes had occurred, prevented any group from willy-nilly producing children. Each human being created in a uterine replicator had to be from the base genetics of two humans and one or both had to take responsibility for rearing the child “properly.” Failure to do so resulted in the loss of birth privileges to both individuals.

In the year before the Fall, less than ten percent of the population had produced children. Using straight-line projections, in an estimated five hundred to a thousand years, the last human would have closed the door on an extinct species.

Scientific progress had gone the same way. While there continued to be individuals who liked to “tinker” with the borders of science, the last major breakthrough, teleportation, had occurred nearly five hundred years ago.

Looking at both of these trends, the most senior council member, Paul Bowman, decided that Something Must Be Done. He had decided that humans needed to learn to work again. That humans needed to learn to be “strong” again. That implementing a work ethic, by limiting power to only those who “produced” for the community, would bring back the science, and art and literature and birthrates, which had languished over the past millennia.

Over the years he had gathered members of the Council who, for their own reasons, looked to him for leadership. And in the end, when the rest of the Council refused his demands, they had struck, attacking the others at a Council meeting with insects that carried a deadly binary neurotoxin.

Sheida was one of the Council who opposed him, arguably the leader of the opposition. And she, a student of history as most of them were not, had feared that his fanaticism would lead to violence. She had consulted with a friend who was even more steeped in the history of violence and had prepared as well as she could. Very little that was dangerous could be brought into the Council chamber. The toxic wasps had only worked because individually they were not poisonous; it was only with the sting from two different types that the neurotoxin activated.

She had been stung, twice, by one type. Others of her faction had died.

But at the same time, they had struck back, killing members of Paul’s faction. The late Javlatanugs Cantor, a werebear, had killed one, falling himself in the battle. Ungphakorn, a Changed quetzacoatl, had killed another, and seized that one’s key.

However, in the end, Sheida and her surviving cohorts had retreated. And the war had begun. And the Fall started.

The Council now waged war amongst itself with the energy that had once powered the society. The lava outside her home was the side effect of the massive energy beam being directed upon the shields of her fastness by Paul’s side, which had taken the name “New Destiny.” Just as other energy beams attacked the power stations under the control of her faction, which had taken the name “The Freedom Coalition.” The Coalition had attacked in turn and now virtually all of the energy that had supported human society had been used in attacks and defense by the Council.

This had left the rest of the world in a truly apocalyptic state. Food had been teleported or replicated for centuries. Homes were often in places impossible to live without ongoing power. Failure of personal energy shields had doomed humans from the bottom of the ocean to the photosphere of the sun. Failure of food delivery, or being left on a mountaintop, or far out at sea, had doomed others more slowly.

Thus had begun the Fall, and the Dying Time that followed it, when more than ten percent of the population of the world, some one hundred million human beings in their various forms, had died. Some, mercifully, before they knew what was happening. Others to falls or drowning or slow deaths from starvation and exposure.

And the lives of those left after the Dying Time were anything but easy. The world had descended to a preindustrial environment with farmers scratching a toe-hold in the land, and armies fighting a thousand small battles with bandit gangs to hold the line and maintain some semblance of civilization.

The most important single group who saved the remnant population of earth was made up of small groups of “reenactors,” people who had wrapped their lives around earlier times. There were small communities where people lived the lives of their forefathers, using hand tools and domestic animals to replicate the lives of the ancients.

Many of these people had been living their hobby for decades, or even centuries, and knew techniques that no single person from any period in history would know. They had used every trick, every technique, to save the lives of the refugees, an old word that had been forgotten prior to the Fall, who arrived at their doorstep.

In the area that had fallen to Sheida’s purview, the areas of the former North American Union, the reenactor societies had gathered the refugees, taught them how to survive, and in extraordinary cases even thrive, and slowly rebuilt society and government. Not so slowly, even. In no more than a year there was a core government, a constitution and a burgeoning ground and naval force.

The latter two were vital because in Ropasa Paul had been doing the same thing. But he was taking a different tack, establishing himself as dictator and using the power in the bodies of people to Change them into a form “more suitable for the current conditions.” His Changed legions, growing in size every time they took another section of Ropasa, had quickly overrun the entire area and established an iron-fisted rule. And then he had begun his plan to invade the Norau heartland of his enemy.

Sheida often wondered if she had been right to oppose Paul. On the face his plan was not nearly as horrible as what had actually occurred. And he was getting most of what he wanted from the war, anyway. Populations were booming since the release of energy and most protocols had caused women to become fertile again. People were certainly learning how to work.

But all she had to do was look at what had happened in Ropasa. Over the centuries the strictures against using Mother as a universal eye, a universal tool of coercion, had grown strong. Mother knowing your innermost secrets was one thing; a person could handle that if they were sure no human was watching. But everyone had secrets they didn’t want the world to know. Everyone had the occasional minor moral slip. Under the protocols pre-Fall, Mother could not be used for criminal surveillance, period. For the small, volunteer and chronically overworked police to track a criminal, to prevent a crime, to read a person’s mind, meant using other methods, other systems, rather than the All-Seeing Mother.

If Paul had taken full control of the system, Mother would change from a distant, uncaring, deity to one that was poking into everyone’s lives constantly. The way that Paul was going, She would be used for the most extremes of coercion. To Change a person, now, required direct, personal, intervention. If Paul had control of Mother, he could turn the whole human race into a series of separate, specialized, insects.

It was a just war, she thought, turning off the view-screen and going back to the myriad duties of the chairwoman for the Freedom Coalition, and the newly crowned “queen” of the United Free States. It has just cause, it has a chance of winning and the group against which it is fighting is clearly and unmitigatedly evil, for all that the evil, on Paul’s part at least, stemmed from “good” intentions.

Now, if they could only win it.

CHAPTER ONE

The horseman reined in at a side road and looked at the fields stretching to the east.

The rider was massively built, but he sat the war-horse lightly despite his armor. He was wearing a gray cloak fastened with a bronze brooch worked in the figure of an eagle, loricated plate — segmented armor that was overlapped like the plates on a centipede’s back — steel greaves and bracers and a kilt made of straps of leather with iron plates riveted on the outside. Tied to the right side of his saddle was a large helmet with a narrow T slit in the front while on the left was a large wooden shield with iron rim and a boss worked in the figure of a stooping eagle. The armor, the bracers, the helmet and the shield were nicked and battered but well polished and maintained.

His right hand rested loosely on his leg while the hook and clamp that substituted for a left hand held his reins. The device was decidedly out of character considering the tech base of the rest of his equipment; it was a complex curved prosthetic clamp with a sharpened inner blade. It looked as if it were made for cutting small limbs and would probably make opening bottles a treat. There was a small scar under his right eye and more scars could be seen scoring the skin of his right arm wherever the bracers didn’t cover.

Also tied to the saddle were a short sword in a scabbard and a large bow case. On the rear of the saddle there was a large pack, a blanket roll, a quiver of arrows and a bag of feed for the horse. Despite the size of the rider and the weight of the equipment, the horse bore the load with no sense of worry. It stamped after a moment, but that seemed more impatience than fatigue. The rider shushed at it and the horse settled down without another shiver.

The rider, his panoply and the horse were all covered in a thick layer of dust.

Despite the battered armor and weather-beaten look, the rider was a young man, good looking in a hard-faced way with short black hair and green eyes. It was hard to tell from his expression but he had just passed his nineteenth year. And a good bit of the fields he was looking at were his.

They were being harvested in a late autumn Indian summer with the skies blue and warm above. On the far side of the large field two men were managing the take from a combination harvester. One drove the harvester while the other drove a wagon that was capturing the grain. The grain was short and as the ox-drawn harvester passed it left behind stubble and straw that was laid out in rows for baling.

The rider paused, indecisively, then turned his horse into the field. The near end of the field hadn’t been harvested yet and the horse whickered at him until he paused to let it strip a mouthful of the grain.

“Go ahead, Diablo,” the young man said, humorously. “Mike shouldn’t begrudge it.”

The harvester looked up at a shout from the man driving the wagon and pulled the oxen to a stop. They nuzzled at the grain but since their mouths were covered by feed bags they couldn’t emulate the horse. He said something to the man on the wagon then climbed down off the harvester and walked across the fields towards the rider. At that the rider pulled the horse’s head up with a word and tapped him into an easy trot. When he approached the other man he reined in and smiled.

“ ‘I will feast my horse on the standing grain,’ ” he said, then dismounted, hooking his reins onto the saddle to tell the horse to stay.

“Herzer,” the harvester said with a smile, holding out his hand. “It’s good to see you, man.”

“Good to see you, Mike,” the young man replied, clasping his friend’s forearm and gesturing with his hook at the fields. “Damn, you’ve been working hard.”

“Yeah, but it’s paying off,” Mike said, looking at his friend and shaking his head. “You look tired.”

“I am,” Herzer admitted. “And I’m glad to be home. But I’m due for a tour at the Academy, so maybe I can chill there for a while.”

“What do you have to learn?” Mike asked.

“What do you have to learn about farming?” Herzer replied.

“Lots.”

“Yeah, same here. But Edmund’s talking about an instructor position. I figure I’ll be doing some research at the same time. Time to brush up on my ancient Greek.”

“Makes sense,” Mike said, wiping at his brow. “What are we doing talking about this out here? Let’s go up to the house.”

“What about the field?” Herzer asked.

“It’ll keep,” Mike said. “The rain’s supposed to hold off for another couple of days and this is the last one I have to cut. I saved mine for last.”

“Yours?” Herzer asked, waving at the horse to follow as they walked back towards the reaper.

“I could scratch up enough capital to float a loan for the reaper,” Mike said. “I’ve been harvesting half the fields in the valley the last month. And, yes, this is actually your field.”

“That wasn’t what I meant and you know it,” Herzer said with a grin. “I wouldn’t know the first damned thing about farming this place.”

“Well, I’m learning,” Mike admitted. “I’m learning every day.”

The helper had been watering and feeding the oxen during the break and he nodded at Mike and Herzer as they walked up.

“Harry, this is Herzer Herrick,” Mike said. “Herzer this is Harry Wilson. He’s got a small farm down the river.”

“I’ve heard of you,” Harry replied, wiping his hand and shaking Herzer’s.

“I’m taking Herzer up to the house. Go ahead and use the basket on the reaper, then cross-fill. I’ll be back in a while.”

“Okay,” Harry said, getting on the reaper and clucking the oxen into motion.

“Slower that way, but it’ll get some of the field done,” Mike said.

“You want a ride up to the house?” Herzer asked, gesturing at the horse.

“I can walk,” Mike replied gruffly.

They strode up the side road towards a distant hill, passing through a screen of trees that was apparently kept as a windbreak. On both sides of the road, before and after the trees, there were fields. Some of them were ready for harvesting, in grain and corn, others had plants that were not quite ready for harvest and a few were apparently fallow. The latter were covered in an odd golden plant that looked like a weed.

“Cover clover,” Mike said at a gesture from Herzer. “Very good for fixing nitrogen and it forms a ‘standing hay’ that horses and cattle can eat in the winter.” He gestured to one of the fields where low bushes were covered in purple-green berries. “Olive bushes. I’m hoping to get a good crop of olives off them.”

“I thought olives grew on trees,” Herzer said, fingering the eagle emblem at his throat. In the left talon it held a bundle of arrows and in the right an olive branch. The eagle’s screaming beak was pointed to the left.

“They do. And the trees take decades, centuries really, to grow to maturity,” Mike said with a shrug. “These grow in a season and you can get more olives per acre than with trees.”

“Seems like cheating,” Herzer grumbled. “You know why the olive is the symbol of peace?”

“No.”

“Because it takes so long for the trees to grow. If you have olive trees it shows that armies haven’t fought over the land in a long time. Take away the long maturity and what does it mean? Nada.”

“Great, but I’m getting fifty chits a barrel for mature olives,” Mike said, with apparent grumpiness. “And I can get two crops a year off the bushes. Even with the cost of field hands and preparation I’m getting ten- or elevenfold profits per season. So you can take your philosophical objections and stuff them.”

Herzer laughed and pointed to a group of trees on the back side of the olive field. They were short and had broad glossy leaves that were a dark, rich green.

“Rubber plants,” Mike replied. “I’m trying them out. They’re supposed to be freeze resistant and fast growing. They grow fast, that’s for sure, but this is the first winter they’ve been out so we’ll see how they do.”

There was more. Growing fruit and nut orchards, stands of hay, partially cleared fields with cattle on them. Herzer pointed to the latter in question.

“I got together with some other farmers and we rounded up more ferals last year,” Mike said as they passed the last field. “That’s where I got the oxen, too. And you’ve never lived until you’ve tried to turn a feral bull into a plow-ox.”

Herzer laughed again as they came in sight of the house. It was a low, log structure, rough in appearance but sturdy and well made. The barn to the side of it was much larger and made of a combination of logs and sawn wood. There were two or three other outbuildings as well.

“Leave it to you to have a better barn than you do a house,” Herzer chuckled.

“That’s what Courtney keeps saying,” Mike replied. “But we’re not made of money.”

The woman in question came out the door as Herzer was loosening Diablo’s saddle. She was a short, buxom woman with fiery red hair and an open, smiling face. Having watched her negotiate, Herzer was well aware that that heart-shaped face masked a mind like a razor, but he was fairly sure the smile in this case was genuine.

“Herzer,” she yelled, pulling her skirts away from the child at her side and running to the hitching post. “Where did you come from?”

“Harzburg,” he said, picking her up and kissing her on the cheek. As he did he noticed a decided roundness to her abdomen. “Got another one in the oven?”

“Yes,” she said with a tone of asperity. “This will make three.”

“Three?” he asked then nodded. “I hadn’t realized I’d been gone that long.”

“Little Daneh is in the crib,” she said, gesturing at the child that was still hiding by the door. “Mikey, come here. This is our friend Herzer.”

The boy shook his head and then, as her face clouded up, darted in through the door.

“I doubt he’s used to strangers in armor at his door,” Herzer said then frowned. “I hope he doesn’t get familiar with strangers in armor at his door.”

“Trouble?” Mike asked.

“Not down here that I’ve heard,” Herzer said. He finished loosening Diablo’s saddle and lifted all the gear off, then led the horse to the trough and tied him off. “That was why I was up in Harzburg. Tarson had been taken over by a band of brigands, for want of a better term. They had been raiding Harzburg and the city fathers requested federal help. They got me.”

“That must have been a pleasure for them,” Mike said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, they’d requested a century of Blood Lords, as if we have a century of trained Blood Lords to send. And they had a militia but they’d never founded a local Blood Lord chapter. Or even sent anyone to the Academy. So I got to go whip them into shape.” Herzer laid his saddle, tack and blanket on a railing, then grabbed the rest with his hook and slung it over his shoulder. “Lead on, Macduff!”

“How’d it go?” Courtney asked as they went in the house. She brought over a flagon and set it on the table, then laid out cold pork, cheese and bread.

“Thank you,” Herzer said, taking a slice of the cheese. It was sharp and tangy and went well with a slice of the cold pork. “I’d thought about eating on the road but I figured I’d stop by and you might be willing to feed me something other than monkey on a stick.”

“Not a problem.” She smiled, nibbling at the cheese herself. “And I repeat, how’d it go?”

“Well, it was a little sticky to start,” Herzer admitted. “They’d expected someone… older.”

Mike chuckled and shook his head. “You’ve got the silver sword and the laurel of valor.”

“Which meant just about nothing to most of them,” Herzer said around a mouthful of cheese and bread. “So I just worked at it until they realized they could do it my way or die. I made it pretty clear I didn’t care which. The Tarsons finally attacked the town, where we wiped out most of their fighters, then more or less walked in and took Tarson over. The leader of them had set up a ‘citadel’ made of a free-standing stockade and a couple of log blockhouses. They burned quite nicely with the application of a little tallow and brush.” He frowned at the memory, then shook his head.

“You make it sound easy,” Mike said.

“Easy. Yeah. Only took me a year and a half.” Herzer shook his head again and took another bite of the pork. “Nice. So what’s been happening around here?”

“It’s been quiet, thank God,” Courtney replied. “We had a petroleum prospecting party through here.”

“I’ve heard about that,” Herzer said. “They sold some processed product to the Academy and we’ve been experimenting with it.”

“Doing what?” Courtney asked.

“Well, it burns a treat,” Herzer said, grimly. “Useful if we can figure out a way to get the burning stuff over there where the bad guys are,” he continued, pointing in a random direction. “There’s a device called a flamethrower that we’re working on. If we perfect it we’re going to have to figure out a new way to fight because it’s going to make tight formations suicidal, especially wearing armor.”

“Ouch!” Courtney said. She shook her head and changed the subject. “The town’s pretty much stopped growing. Hotrum’s Ferry has been drawing off a lot of people. We’re starting to sell a lot of produce down the river.”

“Getting good prices for it, too,” Mike said. “They can ship it up river to the dwarf mines from there more easily than we can truck it from Raven’s Mill.”

“I hope they’ve got decent defenses,” Herzer said. “Paul’s going to make a grab for Norau sooner or later.”

“Well, that’s their beef,” Mike replied. “Were the Tarson brigands working for Paul?”

“We never were sure,” Herzer replied. “If I had to guess I’d say yes. Paul and Chansa have got their fingers in a lot of the pies that are causing us trouble.”

“But it’s settled now?” Courtney asked.

“As far as I can tell.” Herzer shrugged. “The people of Tarson are certainly on the side of light. Harzburg… you can burn the place to the ground for all I give a damn.”

“So are you staying the night?” she pressed.

“No, unfortunately,” the soldier said with a sigh. “My orders were to report ‘without delay.’ So I’m going to have to head into town pretty soon. But I figured I could take enough time to stop by and have some real food at least.” He grinned and carved off another slice of the pork. “You’re both looking good. The farm is looking good. I’m glad.” He chewed on the pork with a thoughtful and sad expression for a moment, then smiled again. “Life could be a hell of a lot worse.”

“Herzer, tell Duke Edmund that he’d better let you get some rest or he’ll be talking to me,” Courtney said dangerously. “And you had better take it, Herzer Herrick.”

“I will,” Herzer replied, looking around at the low room. It was clean and homey in a way that nothing in his life had been in a long time. It was like a slice of some peaceful place that he was afraid he would be shut out of for all eternity.

“I’ve got to get going,” he said after a bit. “Thanks for lunch. Hopefully we’ll be able to get together some while I’m around.”

“We’ll do that,” Courtney said with a smile. “We’ll make an event of it.”

Herzer grabbed his gear and headed back out to the horse. Diablo looked at him balefully when the gear started going on but the horse sat quietly as Herzer saddled up and loaded item after item.

“Is all that necessary?” Courtney asked.

“Not really,” Herzer said. “I suppose there are things that I could pick up along the way. But I like the tools that I have.”

Finally he was saddled up and gave Courtney a hug and shook Mike’s hand.

“See you in town,” Herzer said, mounting the horse with a grunt. Diablo sighed and shook himself, not so much telling Herzer to get off as settling his own gear to his satisfaction.

“We’ll take care of your farm until it’s time to come home,” Courtney said. “You just come back, okay?”

“Home,” Herzer said, shaking his head. “What an interesting abstract notion.” He smiled and waved as he trotted back down the road.

CHAPTER TWO

Herzer turned left and headed south when he reached the road, then quickly moved Diablo to the side as a dispatch rider came trotting from the direction of town. The rider, who was a private in the Federal Army by the look of it, gave him a glance then a salute as he passed. Herzer returned the salute abstractedly, concentrating on a problem.

At the time of the Fall, world population had been just about one billion. The aftermath of the Fall had not seen as much die off as anticipated, mostly because of small towns like Raven’s Mill. But the effectively total loss of technology had created enormous implications that were just beginning to sink in. The one that was near and dear to his heart was military manpower. The military technology available was pregunpowder because of the explosive prohibitions still slavishly followed by Mother. Historical battles in pregunpowder days meant that each side had a near parity of forces. But raising large armies was practically out; there was too great a labor shortage. Conscripting large groups meant that something vital simply wouldn’t occur; farming, manufacturing, something was going to fail.

Thus it was up to relatively small handfuls of soldiers to protect civilization from the barbarians. And to protect the new and faltering United Free States from the various feudal warlords and the technological despotism of New Destiny.

Like a ship captain of old, Herzer lusted for more men, more soldiers. Too many times he had had to fight in battles outnumbered. Mike would make a superlative soldier but he needed to be right where he was, farming.

Some of the pressure was relieved by new/old technology. The harvesting that Mike was engaged in would have been done by a team of six, at least, in preindustrial times. Powered looms, Bessemer forges, meant that there were fewer people producing more per person. But even with the productivity increase there weren’t enough workers for all the potential positions. Which meant fewer soldiers as well.

It was an insoluble problem, but one that Herzer wrestled with constantly. The dispatch rider, for example, was supported by way stations in the controlled areas of Overjay. Each of the way stations had to be manned, and what’s more had to have horses at it. Figuring out a better means of communication would mean freeing up all of those people, and horses, for soldiers. Which might have meant sending more than one barely trained lieutenant to Harzburg and ending the problem in a week instead of a year and a half.

These musings carried him through the fields on the way to town and up to the gates. Most of the fields had been cleared before he left but he saw new orchards on the hillsides as well as new outbuildings. The town, whatever Courtney might think, continued to build.

There was work going on at the top of the hills north of town as well but it was more martial in nature. A wooden gate was under construction and a stockade stretched up the hill to the Academy on the right. On the left the stockade had been torn down and a bed of gravel followed the track of the top of the hill.

“Lieutenant Herrick,” the team leader of the gate guards said, nodding his head.

“The duke’s pushing ahead on the curtain walls?” Herzer asked, nodding at the gravel that was being dropped by ox carts then leveled out by prisoners. More than a few of the prisoners were Changed, taken in the brief foray by Dionys McCanoc against the town. They were, as far as anyone could tell, normal people who had been caught up by McCanoc and converted, against their wills, into soldiers for him.

The actions of the raiders even before their attack on the town had been such that life sentences had been handed down for all of them. There was, however, a good bit of sentiment suggesting that at some point the “normal” humans might be rehabilitated. The Changed, however, short of being Changed “back,” were subject to no such sympathy. Generalized sympathy for what had occurred to them, yes, but not direct sympathy for their plight because they were as vicious as a pack of oversized weasels. They were incredibly strong, short, and brutish in appearance and had the personalities of rabid pit bulls. They had been christened “orcs” on first sight and the name had stuck.

Whenever Herzer, personally, felt sorry for them he just watched a group of them, like this one, working, and got over it. They were unwilling to work except under threat of immediate punishment and even then spent more time fighting among themselves than working. Slowly, over the last couple of years, their numbers had been reduced through one accident or murder or another until it looked like clemency might be unnecessary; in another couple of years they’d have killed each other off.

In a way the use that the prisoners were put to was a shame; they’d make decent sword fodder. For that matter, the Changed were apparently New Destiny’s idea of what made good soldiers. Which just showed that New Destiny had its head firmly up its ass. They were tough and aggressive but they also had a strong tendency to break if they took too many casualties and were impossible to discipline. They were just fine with scream and charge but no damned good at holding a shield line.

Using them as garrison in a town that was being particularly resistant to reason had its attractions. Renan came to mind as did Tarson. But Raven’s Mill, not to mention the Freedom Coalition, couldn’t do something like that; they were the good guys.

Diablo knew the way home and had broken into a trot beyond the construction on the wall so before Herzer knew it he was at the gates of the Academy. He realized it when he heard a familiar voice.

“You appear to be thinking deep thoughts, Lieutenant.”

“Just considering the lack of manpower, Gunny,” Herzer replied with a grin.

Master Centurion Miles A. “Gunny” Rutherford had been a reenactor prior to the Fall. In his latter career he had specialized as a noncommissioned officer in the Norau Marines, a position called “Gunnery Sergeant,” and he had lived his life for years in that role to the point that he lived, ate and breathed the model, in his mind, of such a person.

As it turned out, he had more background for the role than most people had realized. He was born shortly before his parents decided to move to the province of Anarchia, a region that was maintained, prior to the Fall, in a nontechnological environment. Gunny had never been too sure what happened to his folks after they emigrated but it was probably similar to what had happened to Duke Edmund’s brother. It was an area used as a “bleed off” for people who didn’t want to live in paradise and it was anything but. Anarchia, in those days, had been run by groups of feudal warlords, and newcomers had a tendency to die in distressing numbers. Gunny had grown up in that environment, eventually becoming one of the punk soldiers of the “Baron” of Melbun. It was there that he had first run afoul of Duke Edmund, when the man born by the name of Charles came looking for his missing brother and decided that Anarchia needed a good shaking up. The “Baron” had learned, the hard way, that undisciplined gang members didn’t stand a chance against a disciplined army. The survivors of the Baron’s men had been inducted in the burgeoning army of Charles the Great.

That had been years ago, centuries before Herzer was born. Afterwards, when Anarchia was pacified and the sad story of his brother pieced together, “Charles” had returned to the world and become “Edmund Talbot,” just another reenactor. And with him had come his friend, Arthur Rutherford.

After the Fall, Gunny made his way to Raven’s Mill and took up his position again, trainer for the new corps of Blood Lords.

Of which Herzer was, by far and away, the best known member.

“You do what you can with what you’ve got,” the NCO at the gate said with a shrug. “We’re doing well enough,” he added, gesturing around.

The area at the base of Raven’s Hill had been part of the Faire grounds prior to the Fall. As the town began accepting refugees the area had first been used as a processing area, then with the establishment of the Blood Lord Academy the Hill had been turned over to the Academy.

Where a few buildings had once stood there were now headquarters, barracks, stables, and on the top of the hill, one of the highest in the area, was a building fortress.

Herzer considered the answer as he looked around. While it was true, it was also the reason that Gunny was going to always be an NCO. His focus was on the troops, not where they might come from. Training them was his passion, using them in battle was a close second. But Gunny always thought at those, essentially tactical, levels. Herzer was, slowly, learning to think beyond the here and now, a trick he was picking up from Duke Edmund. The New Destiny forces had the same manpower problems as the Freedom Coalition. Their answer had been to support Norau forces that were hampering the Coalition while building, from reports, a large army at home in Ropasa.

Gunny could, and would, focus like a laser on training the raw troops given to him. And the end product was excellent, as Herzer himself had proven. But he distrusted allies and gave most of his thought processes to better use what he was given. It was up to officers to find more bodies and integrate untrained allies.

Because no matter how good the Blood Lords were, and they were very good, there was no way the relative handful of fully trained soldiers could stand up to the army that Paul was building.

“Well, we’ll be getting some new recruits from Harzburg and some of the surrounding towns, soon,” Herzer replied, walking Diablo over to his paddock. “Then we’ll have more to do with.”

He dismounted and started stripping off Diablo’s tack as a pony-sized unicorn, followed by a young colt nearly her own size, came trotting over.

“Hi, Herzer,” the unicorn said in a high-pitched voice. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Hi, Barb. Admit it, though, you’re glad Diablo’s back.” Herzer chuckled, opening up the gate and letting his mount into the paddock.

“H’zer!” the colt shrilled then butted Diablo in the side with his short, stumpy horn. “D’ablo!”

“He doesn’t really know who you are,” Barb replied, ignoring the jibe. “He does that with everybody.”

Prior to the Fall, Barb Branson had been through several Changes and just prior to the Fall she had turned herself into a unicorn. The Fall had caught her in that form and, after several unpleasant experiences in the aftermath, she had been recaptured from Dionys’ forces. Despite the fact that she was now in better hands she found herself unable to adapt to “human” society and lived with the horses, and Diablo particularly. The relationship had been the source of some crude jokes initially but now had become so normal the people of the town barely considered it. The colt was the result of mating with Diablo and seemed to be progressing somewhere between a human baby and a horse. He had been able to walk almost immediately but speech was a relatively recent acquisition.

“He’s growing fast,” Herzer said with a nod. The colt, from reports, had been barely the size of a cat when born and now stood taller than his mother at the withers. He looked as if he was going to try for his sire’s size.

“And getting into everything.” Barb sighed. She went over to the feed supply and slipped her horn into a hole. A lever inside dispensed a measure of grain and she nipped at the colt to keep him away as Diablo walked over to feed. “We had to fix this so his horn wouldn’t reach; he figured out how to use it when he was about three months old.”

“Well, take good care of Diablo,” Herzer said. The horse in question looked up at his name, then took another mouthful of grain and, still chewing, walked to the center of the paddock. When he was in the right spot he lay down and rolled onto his back, writhing from side to side to get the dust good and thick. He rolled until he was well covered in dust, then walked back to the trough to finish his feed. Barb had stood by patiently, keeping the youngster away, until he returned. “Anything you need?”

“Nope, we’re fine,” Barb said. “Thanks for setting this up.”

“Not a problem,” Herzer said. He carried the tack into the barn attached to the paddock and put it away, then picked up his baggage and headed to the barracks.

As a Blood Lord officer he had a room of his own but it was Spartan in the extreme. Every time he returned he promised that he’d do something about decorating but he never did. The room had a rough bed, a desk, a footlocker, an armor stand and a wall-locker. He dumped his gear on the floor and then stripped off his armor, working his shoulders around as the weight came off. Then he carefully put away everything that didn’t need immediate cleaning. He knew there was an orderly around somewhere and he could leave the cleaning of his clothes and armor to the orderly’s attention.

He drew the short sword he’d been carrying and checked its edge but he’d cleaned and honed it since the last time he used it so it didn’t need anything. He polished and oiled it out of habit, then considered his next moves.

He was supposed to report to Duke Edmund but he figured he could at least get the road grime off before he did. The question was whether to walk across town and use the baths or just shower at the barracks. Finally he decided on the latter and stripped off his clothes, wrapping a towel around his waist.

The showers had been added to the barracks just before he left. There wasn’t much to them, just a series of spigots overhead surrounded by concrete floor and walls. Compared to the bathhouse they were positively primitive, but it beat the heck out of walking all the way across town. For some reason he really didn’t want to talk to half the people in town, which was more or less what would happen if he headed to the baths.

The barracks were deserted this time of day — the instructors were out chivvying students or working in their offices, which were across the quad, and the permanent guards were drilling — and he wandered down the corridor alone. The showers were at the center of the wooden building, past officer territory and into the area where the NCOs bunked. He nodded at the charge of quarters as he passed, then turned into the bathroom.

There was an orderly in there cleaning up but, again, he just nodded at him, then walked into the shower room, pulling the towel off and hanging it on a hook before turning on the water.

The water took forever to get hot, but at that it was still better than anything Harzburg had had for a long time. There was a sliver of soap on a ledge and he used it liberally including on his hair. The latter was starting to get long again and it was about time for a cut. But that, at least, would have to wait. By now the duke would have heard he was back. He turned off the shower and grabbed his towel, heading back to his room.

In the main bathroom there was a row of spigots spilling water into a concrete trough with a long metal mirror mounted over it. Herzer paused by it to survey his face. He’d had hair-growth on his face stopped prior to the Fall so he didn’t have to worry about five o’clock shadow. His hair was a tad long, starting to touch his ears at least, but it would pass inspection. Only the Blood Lords conformed to Gunny’s remarkable standards of personal grooming.

He headed back to his room and began donning a fresh uniform. It was a tad loose — he’d lost weight on the Harzburg mission along with everything else — but it still fit well enough. Cosilk underpants and shirt, gray cosilk trousers and the kimonolike overtunic. The latter’s lapel and trim was in light blue, from time immemorial the color of infantry, and there was a blue stripe down the outside of the trousers. Blue for the infantry, yellow for cavalry, green for the archers and red for engineers. He stopped before putting the tunic on and pinned the two pips of a lieutenant to the lapel. He looked at it for a moment, then shrugged.

“Might as well go full blast,” he muttered, opening up the footlocker and extracting a small leather box. From it he pulled a device like a shield, which he pinned on the left upper breast of the kimono. Below it he pinned four medals. The one on the uppermost row was a representation of a gold laurel. The three on the row below were a silver eagle, wings outspread, another shield, formed in bronze and pair of crossed swords.

As soon as the medals were arranged to his satisfaction he slipped into the kimono and belted it with his sword-belt. He picked up his sword, gave it an automatic check, and slipped it onto the belt. Normally the weapon sat high on his right side, attached to his armor but he’d spent so much time in both configurations either one was relatively comfortable.

He stepped out of the room and down the corridor to the main entrance.

“If anyone asks for me I’ve gone to report to Duke Edmund,” Herzer said as he headed for the double doors at the front of the building.

“Yes, sir,” the charge of quarters replied. He was reading something and didn’t look up.

Herzer paused and turned on one heel. “That’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to write down, Private,” he growled.

“Yes, sir,” the private replied in a much more focused voice. He opened his ledger and reached for the quill standing in an ink bottle.

Herzer nodded at him, then turned and walked out the door.

* * *

“Come,” Sheida said at the door chime.

Her aide Harry Chambers came in, followed by a tall, thin, dark-haired man. He could have been anything from thirty to two hundred. He had an expression of slightly distracted amiability on his face as he nodded at the council member.

“Joel Travante,” Sheida breathed. “Welcome. Most welcome, sir. Sit, please. Harry, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all,” Harry said, stepping out and cycling the door shut.

As the door shut the man in the float chair changed subtly. Whereas he had been smiling, the smile dropped from his face to be replaced by a blank, hard mask, and his languid pose, while not shifting a millimeter, dropped away. He went from seeming to be a nice, simple, professional to something that looked more like a drawn sword.

“How are you?” Sheida asked, nodding at him, hard. “Where have you been?”

“In the Asur Islands, ma’am,” the inspector said, sitting forward and nodding back. He had a deep, baritone voice and his eyes were blue and cold.

Prior to the Fall, the world had had little crime. With nearly infinite wealth, personal protection fields and the availability of semilegal means to fulfill even the darkest fantasies, there was very little opportunity or need to cause it.

There were, however, individuals who for various reasons committed offenses of one sort or another.

Given that people could live any sort of life they desired, it required an odd person to commit crime, especially particularly vicious and predatory crimes. And with a life of luxury, it required an even odder person to devote their life to finding criminals.

But just as there were persons who could not resist breaking laws, there were others who had something in them that drove them to search, find and just as often destroy the worst of the criminals. These were the Council Inspectors. There were very few of them, no more than a hundred in the year prior to the Fall, and most of them worked part-time. But among them there was an elite, the Special Inspectors, who had powers nearly equaling those of the Council. And Inspectors only got to be Special Inspectors by both having a long career of tracking down the worst of the criminals and by showing exemplary conduct doing it.

Joel Travante had been a Special Inspector for nearly forty years prior to the Fall.

Direct access to Mother’s DNA database was closely restricted. To obtain a general DNA search required a plurality of council member approval, and a direct location search required a super majority. But prior to the Fall the inspectors had enormous resources to find their subjects. The slightest clue at the site of a crime could be used to track down the perpetrator. A shred of DNA, a fiber of clothing, any distinctive chemical or biological residue, and the inspectors had a lead that they would follow until they died or hell froze over.

Or the whole world came apart.

“What were you doing there at the Fall?” Sheida asked.

“There was a person who had committed a string of offenses,” Joel said, one cheek twitching for just a moment. “Primarily rape and murder, concentrating on very young females. He would… seduce them in order to get them to drop their shields and then… ensure that they were too overwhelmed to raise them… afterward.” His jaw worked for just a moment and he shook his head angrily.

“I had a hard gene coding on the person, he’d been going by the name Rob Morescue, mostly, but he had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. None of the secondary surveillance systems picked him, or his DNA, up, anywhere. I was able to secure the information that the person had turned himself into a kraken. I had reason to suspect that he was residing somewhere in the deep trenches near the Asur Islands. I had been asking around; there was a pretty large delphino population in the area as well as orcas and various fishermen and sailors. At the time of the Fall I had gotten three confirmed sightings of a kraken in the area and was about to perform a search of the depths. Then, with the Fall, I was forced to forego my investigation.”

“And since?” Sheida asked.

“I took a job with one of the local sailors who had converted to commercial fishing,” Travante replied. “In time I was able to secure my own vessel, a small sailing caique. When New Destiny forces took over the island I maintained my cover as a visiting tourist and post-Fall fisherman. When the time was right and the weather looked good I set sail for the mainland.”

“In a fishing caique?” Sheida said, aghast. “How large?”

“Four meters, ma’am,” Joel replied. “I had reason to suspect that some of the orcas that had willingly joined the New Destiny forces had suspicions that I was not all that I had said. Some of my questions, pre-Fall, had apparently been insufficiently circumspect. And, frankly, ma’am, I didn’t think much of New Destiny’s charter or actions. So as soon as I felt it was probable I’d survive, I set sail. It’s not that difficult a sail from the Asur Islands to Norau, provided nothing goes wrong.”

“Charts?” Sheida asked. “Navigation?”

“I was able by that time to secure a compass and had some training from my previous employer at stellar and oceanic current navigation,” Joel said, shrugging as if a three-thousand-kilometer voyage across empty ocean in a small boat was no great feat. “Dorado tended to congregate around the boat so that I had a ready supply of food. I had a large store of water when I left and picked up more from occasional rain showers. I made landfall on the coast of Flora ninety-three days after setting sail, made my way up the coast to the base at Newfell, contacted a person that I had known prior to the Fall and was put in touch with the Freedom Coalition rump of the Council. Upon being summoned by you I traveled by stagecoach and horse to Chian and was ported here.”

“Amazing, Inspector,” Sheida said. “Will it bother you if I say ‘a bit too amazing’?”

“No, ma’am,” the inspector replied. “If you wish to perform truth detection, feel free.” Like most intrusive protocols, truth detection required permission of the subject or agreement by a plurality of the Council.

Sheida frowned and then shrugged, drawing a smidgeon of power and running a lie detector test on the surface of the inspector’s thoughts. There was no indication that he had any reservations about his story. He had some personal problems that were beating at him, though.

“What’s wrong?” Sheida asked. “You’re calm on the surface but you’re not so calm underneath.”

“It is… personal, ma’am,” the inspector said, then sighed. “My wife and daughter are missing. I’m aware that most families were broken by the Fall, ma’am, but it doesn’t make me any happier. Now that I’m back in contact with higher, I am hoping that I can search records to try to find them. The problem is… as far as I knew, my wife was in the Briton Isles at the Fall. What is worse, my daughter was in Ropasa visiting friends.” He paused and then shrugged again. “Frankly, ma’am, I’m afraid that if New Destiny finds out who they are, and that I’m working for you, they will use it as a hold on me. If they do so…” He paused, his face hard. “I will be in a very uncomfortable position.”

“An uncomfortable position indeed,” Sheida frowned. “For reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, don’t discuss that with anyone except myself. If you encounter anyone who knew you before the Fall, tell them that you have definite proof that both of them died during the Fall.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Travante said, his face hard. “They might have.”

“I hope not,” Sheida replied. “We have very few assets in Ropasa or the Briton Isles. I think it unwise, furthermore, to put out any sort of feelers about your wife and daughter. Our intelligence assets have been being… ‘rolled up’ is the term, compromised and just as often interrogated and then Changed, with unfortunate regularity.”

“In that case, ma’am,” the inspector said, “please do not put out any feelers.”

“The unfortunate regularity is what I wish to discuss with you,” Sheida said. “I’m beginning to suspect that while we have not been able to get much intelligence out of New Destiny’s areas, the reverse is not the case.” She summoned a holographic representation of Norau and pointed to a series of red dots.

“While we can prevent Paul’s associates from teleporting into our territory, we cannot prevent communications or avatars,” she said. “But by the same token, since we’ve locked out virtually all programs under pass codes, we can detect when non-Coalition pass codes are being used, and non-Coalition avatars or projections are entering our territory. These are records of all such transmissions over the last six months.”

“That’s… bad,” Travante said, looking at the traces. They dotted the map like pustulant sores and were found wherever there were latter day concentrations of survivors. “This is just the last six months?”

“Yes,” Sheida frowned. “Some of them might be avatars appearing for a look at some occurrence. Paul still has a slight surplus of energy over ours and he is apparently using it for the development of intelligence.”

“Wise of him,” Travante said. “Trying to throw it at your shields, unless it’s extremely high power, would be a waste of assets.”

“But the problem is that we’re losing agents,” Sheida frowned. “And bleeding information to the enemy. You’re not the first inspector to turn up, although you’re the first Special. And I’ve set most of them on this problem. Eventually, I want you to have a close look at… possible problems in our higher command.”

“You mean in the Council?” Travante frowned.

“No, I’m sure of all of our council members,” Sheida replied. “I’d like you to investigate other possibilities. But before you do that… are you up for a long ride again?”

“At your command, ma’am,” the inspector said.

“I want you to go back to Newfell Base,” Sheida replied. “There’s a mission being prepared there. We’re definitely losing data from Newfell. There is probably more than one source. But I want you to insinuate yourself into the mission, probably as a sailor on the ship given your recent experience, and try to determine if there is an agent or agents amongst the crew. When you return from that mission, you’ll probably stay at Newfell, or in the Fleet, pending the outcome of the investigation.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the inspector said.

“Just that?” Sheida smiled. “Back on horses and stagecoaches, all the way across the continent?”

“How do I contact you, ma’am?” was all Travante asked.

“Hold out your left wrist, face up,” Sheida said. When he did she waved her fingers over his wrist and, for a moment, a picture of an eagle was superimposed on it as if by a tattoo, then faded.

“If you need to contact me, touch the eagle and say or think my name,” Sheida replied. “Sheida, Sheida Ghorbani, whatever. Just think of me. Edmund Talbot, who is a long-term friend and as trustworthy as they come, is going to be on the mission. If you need assistance, contact him. He will be informed that there is an agent of mine present. Try not to step on each other’s toes.”

“I won’t, ma’am,” the agent said, rubbing his wrist. There had been no feeling to the invisible tattoo, but there was a psychosomatic tingle left behind.

“As it turns out, you won’t have to take the coaches back,” Sheida said with a smile. “Although you might prefer it. There’s a dragon, a wyvern rather, that is headed that way. He’ll take you to Washan. You’ll need to hop once you get there to make it to Fleet headquarters before the mission leaves.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I will keep an inquiry out in my own awareness for your wife and daughter,” Sheida said. “If I find any information about either of them, I will contact you.”

“Thank you,” Travante said.

“Harry will give you your traveling money and brief you on how to get more,” Sheida said. “He’s not aware of your mission; you’re only going to be sent as far as Washan. Make the rest of the journey on your own.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Travante said, standing up. “By your leave.”

“Good luck, Inspector,” Sheida replied, standing up and touching his shoulder as she led him to the door. “I will pray for, and search for, your family.”

“And I will pray for you and yours,” Travante said, his face changing into a mask of amiable competence as the door opened.

CHAPTER THREE

The walk to Duke Edmund’s was mercifully uninterrupted. Herzer couldn’t figure out, for most of the walk, what was wrong. He knew that he was feeling intensively antisocial but it was more than that. Raven’s Mill was the town where, in many ways, he had grown up. Admittedly he spent less than a year in the town after the Fall, but he should have felt at home upon his return. God knew he’d thought longingly of getting back half the damned time he’d been at Harzburg.

But for some reason “good feeling” just wouldn’t come. For some reason the town felt like his uniform: Just a little too loose. Little changes, like a new sign over Tarmac’s tavern, stood out and left him feeling even more irritable.

Just as he reached the town hall he started to get a handle on the problem. Part of it was uncertainty about his future. The plans that had been sent to him during most of the Harzburg mission had spoken of bringing him back as a trainer. Not one of the sadistic madmen who ran the first phase — Herzer understood the importance of running the trainees into the ground while having no desire to perform the job himself — but as an instructor in the forming Officer Basic course. He was, in his opinion, more suited to taking the course, but the pool of trained officers was so small he could understand the need to throw him into the breach.

However, the peremptory “return at earliest possible moment” did not bode well for a routine training assignment. What he particularly did not want was to run into someone who might ask him why he was back so soon. And be in the position of being able to satisfy neither their curiosity nor his own.

As he approached the entrance to the town hall the two guards at the door braced to attention. Gone were the days of half-awake guardsmen with rusting weapons leaning up against the wall. The guards were permanent members drawn from the militia and trained with the Blood Lords. Just enough to know they didn’t want to be Blood Lords was the joke. Blood Lord training and “winnowing” was merciless and even after a recruit passed the tests to join the fraternity, training continued unabated. Running up and down Raven Hill in full rucksacks was just the start of a daily regimen that was brutal to the point of sadism.

But that, and a belief in teamwork that went all the way to the bone, meant that Blood Lords could outfight and, often more important, outmaneuver enemies that were their numerical superior. “Fight until you die and drop” was just one of their unofficial mottoes. And nobody fought like Blood Lords.

He walked inside and took the left turn to Edmund’s office but was stopped almost at the door by a secretary. That was another new iteration.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked. She was faintly familiar but Herzer couldn’t quite place her. Dark hair, just below median female height… nope, wasn’t coming.

“Herzer Herrick,” Herzer replied. “I’m under orders to see Duke Edmund ‘at the earliest possible moment.’ ”

“He’s very busy,” the woman said with a sniff. Whoever she was, she didn’t appear to recognize him either. “Why don’t you just take a seat?”

Herzer didn’t bother to smile; he just took a parade rest position, hands behind his back, legs spread shoulder width apart, and simply looked at her.

“Why don’t you go tell Duke Edmund that I’m out here,” he said in a totally neutral voice. He let his eyes do the rest. “Now.”

It was a technique he’d picked up from Gunny and as usual it worked. The woman was more than willing to pass the buck to someone who, she clearly hoped, might put him in his place. It wasn’t the most politic way to deal with a petty-power-hungry functionary, but it tended to work.

In this case the woman looked at him poisonously for a moment, then got up and knocked on the door.

“Duke Edmund,” she said, opening the door without a word from the interior, “a Herzer Herrick insists on seeing you immediately.”

“That’s because I told him to, Crystal,” Edmund replied, mildly. “Send him in.”

As Herzer walked through the door he remembered where he had met her before.

“Nice to see you again, Crystal,” he oozed insincerely as he stepped through the door. “How’s Morgen?”

He carefully shut the door behind him and then saluted with right fist to left breast.

“Lieutenant Herrick reporting,” he said neatly.

“Can it, Herzer,” Edmund growled, standing up and stepping to a cupboard. “Care to cut the trail dust?”

“If you please, sir,” Herzer replied. “What’s with the Cerberus at the gates?”

“She’s anything but a dog,” Edmund replied. “But whether she knows it or not, she’s temporary. I had a protégée of June’s holding down the desk but she’s on maternity leave.” He handed the lieutenant a glass dark with liquor. “Salut!”

“Blood and steel,” Herzer replied, taking a sip. “Very mellow.”

“Laid it down nearly thirty years ago,” Edmund replied. “It should be.”

Herzer observed Sir the Honorable General Edmund Talbot, duke of Overjay, carefully but could see little sign of change in the last year. The duke was heavy-set with a full beard and a shaved head. He was wearing gray linen trousers and a blue tunic of a fine woolen material, the edging of which was embroidered in yellow. The clothing was worn smooth from use but had the look of being comfortable clothing rather than old. He could have been anything from a hundred to two hundred years old, judging by the fine lines on his face and the flaccid skin on his forearms, but Herzer knew he was closer to three hundred. He had a solid, calm look that he somehow projected to those around him. Wherever the duke went, even if it was in the middle of a battle, chaos lessened and order followed. It was another trick, like his ability to pitch his voice to be heard above a battle and the knack of always knowing where to be, that Herzer was desperately trying to figure out.

“You’re wondering why I called you in so abruptly but we really should wait until…” the duke said, then paused as the door opened.

“It’s fine, we know him,” Daneh Ghorbani said as she stepped through the door. “I sleep with him every night, he won’t mind me barging in.”

Doctor Ghorbani was middle tall for a female, perhaps a meter and three quarters, with long red hair that was currently braided down her back. She was heavily bosomed and inclining to a plumpness that was decidedly odd in the post-Fall society. Prior to the Fall human genetics had been tinkered with to such an extent that all but minimum fashionable body fat tended not to form. She wasn’t fat; the term “padded” came to mind, and on her it looked good. She, like her paramour Edmund, seemed to project a field of calmness around her, even when putting down annoying underlings. And she looked well, which Herzer found, to his surprise, was of sudden immense importance.

She was followed by what could have been her younger sister but was in fact her daughter. Unlike her mother, Rachel Ghorbani was anything but calm.

“Father, you have to get rid of that insufferable woman,” she said hotly as soon as the door was closed.

“So I’ve been told,” Edmund replied with a smile. “Daneh? A glass of wine?”

“Isn’t it a little early?” Dr. Ghorbani asked, glancing at the drinks in their hands.

“I’m sure the sun is over the yardarm somewhere in the world,” Duke Edmund replied, pouring a glass of wine that caught the light through the window like a ruby.

“Yes, thank you, Father, I will have some,” Rachel said, acerbically.

“Of course.” Edmund chuckled, pouring another glass and handing them to the women. “A toast: to a smooth sea and a fair journey.”

“What journey?” Rachel blurted out.

“The one that Herzer and I, at a minimum, are going to be taking.”

* * *

Chansa snarled and shook his head as the modeling projection completed its run. No matter how many times he ran the model, the current projections made invasion of Norau impossible.

The room that he worked in was low and cramped for his huge bulk, a subbasement under the council chambers that had only recently been found and reopened. It wasn’t that he’d been relegated to a subbasement, it was simply that lately it fit his mood. Let Celine scamper about her laboratories and Paul create his insane workrooms to “do the work of the people.” This tiny room controlled more raw power than any other room on earth. But with all that power, he still couldn’t make the impossible possible.

It wasn’t a matter of forces. The implementation of the Change program, while hampered by the various program lock-outs that bitch Sheida had started, was continuing apace. And the Changed males made more than adequate soldiers, while their females were sturdy enough to do most of the drudgery of food supplying. And arms were not an issue, either. Not only did Ropasa have supplies of them for historical reasons, inserting the same sort of training as the combat and farming training of the Changed was not difficult. A special class of Changed had been created that made excellent artisans.

No, the problem was logistics.

Lifting his entire force would leave Ropasa stripped of garrisons. Not only did that mean that Coalition forces could make strikes against them, it also meant being unable to prevent internal revolt, which was a very real problem among the Unchanged. Second of all, supplying that entire force over nearly two thousand kilometers of ocean was chancy at best. Impossible if there was any coherent resistance. And the likelihood of such resistance was high.

So any invasion would have to be attempted with less than his full force. Since projections showed that less than the full force would be inadequate to destroy current Norau forces, something had to be done.

Thus far the attempts to weaken the United Free States had been failures. If anything they had left them stronger. First the disaster with Dionys, which still left him cringing, then other attempts to take over territory had been stymied. There were neutrals in Norau, groups resisting integration to the UFS, but by the same token they also resisted aligning themselves with New Destiny. And projections showed that at the current rate of UFS increases in manpower and military buffering there was no point at which an invasion had better than a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding.

It was maddening.

He looked up as an avatar of the Demon appeared, and tried not to grimace. Just what he needed.

“Yes, Lord Demon?” he asked. The Demon was, like his namesake, a fairly chaotic entity. It always paid to stay on his good side, such as there was.

“I understand you suffered another setback in Norau?” the Demon rumbled. It was impossible to tell what the actual person looked like under the black armor, other than being an outsized humanoid. The armor was full articulated plate from the horns on the helmet, through the tusks, down to the talons on the boots. The rumor was that the being underneath was simply a smaller version. “Would you care to detail it?”

“Not particularly,” Chansa said bitterly, then shrugged. “Harzburg is a town with some strategic importance to one scenario of an invasion of Norau. I attempted to take over the town using proxies. I supplied them with a small amount of power and some arms as well as guidance. They attempted to take over the town. They failed.”

“Edmund Talbot again?” the Demon said, soothingly.

“He sent one, one damned Blood Lord, and a year’s work went down the drain!”

“The man is incorrigible,” the Demon replied. “But he does train good subordinates. I have always found that choice of subordinates is important in any endeavor. The Council, for all its strengths, has been a group that had little in the way, or need, of subordinates, so it is not surprising that you have less… experience with the handling of them. In that regard,” he continued, gesturing in the air as another avatar appeared, “might I commend the services of my protégé, Brother Conner.”

“You do me great honor in the term, lord,” the man said. He was tall but apparently entirely unChanged with a lean, ascetic look and less than his first century in age. Dark hair fell to midshoulder length. He was almost normal until you looked at his eyes, the irises of which were almost perfectly white. His pupils were tiny black dots in the middle of them.

“You are too kind, Lord Demon,” Chansa said after a moment. “But I’m not sure what to do with him.”

“I would suggest that you do what you do best, prepare the armies of New Destiny for the invasion,” the Demon replied acerbically. “And let Conner handle the destabilization. He has… experience in these matters.”

“Ah.” Chansa paused again, then shrugged. Favors from the Demon generally had a hidden cost, but they also weren’t to be turned aside. “Thank you, Lord Demon.”

“I’ll be leaving you two to your work,” the Demon replied, fading out of the air. “Have fun.”

* * *

“Paul is preparing a fleet on the coast of Ropasa,” Edmund said, pulling out a map and setting it on his desk. “Here in Brethan and in Neterlan. And he’s assembling armies of Changed near both areas.”

“Invasion?” Herzer asked.

“That’s the apparent intent,” the duke replied. “And it’s borderline that he could be successful.”

“At an invasion?” Daneh said. “How? He’s got to cross the whole Atlantis ocean and then attack a prepared enemy. I’m not much on the military end, but that doesn’t sound feasible to me.”

“We don’t have much in the way of troops, Daneh,” Edmund replied with a shrug. “There’s unorganized and organized militia, yes, but they’re not going to count for much but positional defense. You can’t even really use them for sallies. And the ‘positions’ that most of the towns have aren’t much. And you’d be surprised how many over the beach invasions have been successful. If the country was castellated, that is if we had lots and lots of castles as Ropasa does, it would be impossible. As it is, it’s just very risky.

“One of the ways to play a war like this is deterrence. That is, make it clearly so impossible for something to happen that nobody in their right minds would try it. And hope that your enemy is in their right mind. In this case, we have to eliminate any chance of such an invasion succeeding. To do that, we have to control the sea-lanes.

“We’re working on that on the coast. The Navy has been working on a new class of warship that should make things very unpleasant for anyone attempting to cross. But a few warships, probably in the wrong place, aren’t going to deter New Destiny. Nor should they.

“What we need are allies that control the sea-lanes.” He looked up significantly at Daneh, who shrugged.

“I think that’s supposed to mean something, but I have no idea what.”

“The mer,” Herzer interjected. “Weren’t they reported as concentrating, post-Fall, down in the Southern Isles?”

“Exactly,” the Duke said. “If we have the mer on our side, between them and the delphinos, who are going to follow their lead, and the dolphins they have attached to them, at the very least we have total reconnaissance of the potential invasion fleet. Fighting it might be another matter, but I’d be surprised if they couldn’t do something along those lines too.”

“So it’s a diplomatic mission?” Herzer asked. “Why you? Why me for that matter?”

“It’s a diplomatic mission with military implications,” Edmund said. “I’m the best known, I almost said ‘notorious,’ person available on the East Coast and I’m probably going to be one of the point generals for any defense.”

“You’re probably going to command the defense,” Daneh corrected.

“Probably. And Herzer for some similar reasons.”

“So what this means is that while the rest of us suffer through the winter,” Rachel said, somewhat bitterly, “you’re going to go gallivanting down to the Southern Isles?”

“Sheida wants me to go handle the negotiations. She told me I could take whatever staff I thought was necessary. What I consider necessary is Herzer.”

“So you are leaving us behind and sailing off to the Isles for the winter,” Daneh said humorously.

“Well, maybe,” Edmund replied, in a much more serious tone. “Herzer is a damn fine junior officer, but there’s nothing absolutely vital he has to do here. Between Kane and Gunny the town should be good against anything but a major attack. And I know what’s out there well enough to know that isn’t going to happen short of invasion. So I can leave the town and be pretty sure it will be here when I get back. The question is, can the town do without both of its doctors?”

“I’m not a doctor,” Rachel replied, but she nodded. “But I see what you mean.”

“Say that you’re the best of the trainees, then,” Edmund admitted. “There are reasons that I want to take one or both of you along. Frankly, I’d prefer Daneh. But I don’t think it wise to take both unless we can make provisions for adequate medical care here.”

“Well, how long is this going to take?” Daneh asked. “I mean the negotiations. Port down, port back and a week or two there.”

“One problem,” Edmund grimaced. “Sheida says that it’s important, but not important enough to port us. She’s working on some sort of device that will reduce porting power drain; she has an experimental one up and running so she can get in and out of her house. But even that will be point to point. In the meantime, we’re still down to the speed of horse and wind.”

“How long?” Daneh repeated.

“A month? Two? Possibly more if the weather turns against us.”

“I know my responsibilities,” Daneh sighed. “And there’s Charles to consider; I’m not sure I want to be away from him for that long. I’ll stay.” Daneh’s son had been born as the result of her rape, shortly after the Fall, by Dionys McCanoc and his men. When the child was born it was clear who had bestowed the male genes. Just as clear as the fact that the father was no longer living. Herzer rather liked the kid who, except for a tendency for mischief, appeared to have gotten nothing but his looks from his father.

“I want you to consider carefully what I said,” Edmund replied. “I would prefer you to go and Rachel to stay. Including taking you away from Charles.”

“Why?” Daneh asked and was rewarded with a blank stare. “Edmund, quit being mysterious.”

“I’m not being mysterious. I have my reasons and I have reasons not to give them.”

“That’s just Edmund’s way of saying ‘I’m being mysterious,’ ” Daneh said with a chuckle.

“I’ll give you one that’s up front,” Talbot replied after a moment. “We want an alliance with them, a military alliance certainly and a trade agreement by preference. We need to know what they need, that we can supply, for that to happen. I won’t say that I want you to go talk with the women while I do the ‘men talk’…”

“Good!” Daneh said with a smile.

“… But I will say that we have different strengths and areas of knowledge. I’d take Myron if I thought agriculture was going to be important, but I think that areas having to do with… lifestyle are going to be far more so.”

“I’m a doctor, not an anthropologist,” Daneh said. “For that matter Rachel has a firmer grasp on preindustrial cultures.”

“You have a point. But I trust your judgment more than Rachel’s.” He turned to his daughter and shrugged. “That wasn’t meant to be offensive, it’s just Daneh is…”

“Older and wiser?” Rachel said, then shook her head. “I’m really not offended, because I understood what you meant.”

“I can turn over control of the local power system to Emily,” Daneh suggested. “She’s up to just about anything that Rachel would be. And I assume that if something major comes up, we can consult. She’s certainly up to deliveries and small repairs. Dr. Beauharnois is up in Hotrum’s Ferry if something serious occurs.”

Talbot thought about it for a moment then shrugged. “I guess you’re in, Rachel.”

“When do we leave?” Herzer asked.

“Not for at least a week or two,” Edmund said. “I didn’t think you’d make it back this fast and it’s going to take at least that long for the rest of our party to get here.”

“And who is that?” Daneh asked.

“You’ll see,” Edmund replied. “It’s a surprise.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Joel was surprised to see Harry practically hovering outside Sheida’s office.

Sheida used what had once been her mountain home as her central headquarters. Since she often hosted parties and other functions it had been large enough to support the minimal staff that she needed.

But since it was now surrounded by bubbling lava, getting anything in and out required porting, which was extremely high in energy use.

The answer, as he had discovered on his way in, was a permanent portal. Step through the arch and you were suddenly “elsewhere.” He wasn’t sure what the energy level to the portal was, but it couldn’t be high; he had been only one of a dozen or so people who had passed through it while he was there.

Instead of heading for the portal, Harry waved him in another direction. Joel noted that he had a slight limp.

“I’ve set up your transportation,” the aide said, leading him to a small office. It had, apparently, once been a bedroom. There were now three desks in the room, along with boxes of paperwork. There were no external windows so it smelled dank and musty.

Harry pulled out a sheaf of papers and a small bag that clinked when he set it down.

“Gold has, again, become the international currency,” Harry said with a sarcastic smile. “Make sure you’re not set upon by ruffians.”

“I’ll try,” Joel replied, smiling amiably. He opened up the pouch and dumped it out. “I take it I sign for this?”

“And we’ll need expense records,” Harry replied. “Did you know Sheida before the Fall?”

“Yes, we were acquaintances,” Joel said, piling up the square chunks of gold. “I’d studied the history of management and business before the Fall. She wants me to look at logistics at Washan and other facilities along the East Coast.”

“Mind you don’t step on Edmund’s toes,” Harry replied. He slapped his thigh and grimaced. “He gave me this.”

“The limp?” Joel asked. He pulled over the receipt and signed it, apparently without reading it. In fact he’d read it upside down while the aide was holding it and while the total was close it wasn’t exactly the same. He’d just signed for a chunk of gold, the equivalent of two months wages for a field hand, that wasn’t there.

“Happened right after the Fall,” Harry said. “Drove a sword through my mail and tore a hole right into my thigh. He always said that the only way to fight was to intend to kill the other person; I never thought he was serious until then.”

“Didn’t he know what would happen?” Joel asked, widening his eyes in horror. “And haven’t you gotten it fixed? I mean, power is short, but…”

“Well… we didn’t know the fields were down,” Harry admitted. “And, yes, Sheida fixed it. But it’s still not quite right.”

Nannites either fixed something or they didn’t, at least when it came to gross tissue damage. They didn’t just stitch things back together but reformed them to the cellular level. Which meant that any remnant injury was psychosomatic.

“I’ll try not to get my legs chopped out from under me,” the inspector said. “How am I getting back?”

“Sheida wants you to fly on a wyvern that’s headed that way,” Harry said, looking at him oddly. “Apparently she’s really worried about this logistics problem.”

“Just a good use of resources.” Joel shrugged. “How do I find this wyvern?”

“Not worried about riding on one?” Harry asked, frowning slightly.

“Looking forward to it, actually,” Joel smiled. “Better than the coaches.”

“Well… take the portal then ask around for Robert Scott, he’s the travel coordinator. He’ll know where you’re supposed to go.” Harry stood up and offered his hand. “Good luck.”

“Same to you,” Joel replied. “I’m sure we’ll be meeting again.”

“Oh?”

“Sure, the logistical issues around here are just amazing.”

* * *

“There are several issues that I’d prefer to set aside,” Chansa said, looking over at his new assistant. “They’re taking up my time and energy; time and energy I need to devote to the invasion plans.”

“Understood,” Conner said. He had a very old-fashioned writing stylus and pad of paper and nodded as he took notes.

“The two aspects that are taking up most of my time at the moment, though, are trying to establish a political climate for our eventual invasion and a mission by Edmund Talbot to gain an alliance with the mer.”

“We have pods of orca that are allied with us,” Conner said. “Surely they can deal with the mer.”

“The mer and the delphinos have a long-term friendship,” Chansa said. “The delphinos, in turn, are well thought of by those few idiots that have turned themselves into true whales. And the latter travel throughout the oceans. Between those groups they will know, to a minute, where our ships are. It’s important that they are neutralized. And I mean totally neutralized; either on our side or unable to affect us. The invasion fleet is going to be on the ragged edge of possibility as it is. The mer have to be taken out of the equation.”

“I see,” the agent said, apparently doodling. “Where are the mer at this time and what assets do we have in place? For that matter, I’ll need access to power for communications and a budget, not to mention updated intelligence.”

“I can give you everything except the power,” Chansa said. “Since that idiot McCanoc got himself killed, that’s been in short supply; even we council members are limited.”

“Well, it will be quite impossible to perform my job without power, my lord,” the agent said, closing the pad. “And there are other things. To get to the mer will require ships. I’ll need soldiers as well as contacts with the orca. And the way that I work, my lord, is that you tell me what needs to be done and I do it. My own way.”

“That’s pretty damned impertinent,” Chansa said, flexing his jaw.

“I’m sorry if you feel that way, my lord,” the agent said. “But that’s the way that I work.”

“Why don’t you get your power from the Demon?” Chansa temporized.

“I don’t work for Milord Demon, sir,” the agent said with a sincere smile. “I work for you. Asking him for power would be impertinence. And he can be so direct about such things.”

Chansa chuckled and nodded.

“I’ll get you a list of what’s available. Find yourself an office; there’s all sorts in this warren. Give me a list, a reasonable list, from that. And besides the orcas, I’ve talked to Celine and we have some special assistants for you. After that you’re on your own. You’d better be worth it.”

“I’m sure that I’ll be worthy of the trust you place in me, my lord,” Conner said.

“I’m not,” Chansa replied. “Now get.”

* * *

The one problem with the portal was that you couldn’t see who was on the far side; it was simply a shimmering wall of opalescent light. As Joel approached it he wondered who all the people going in and out of the house were and, for that matter, how they were cleared for entry. As far as he could see, anyone who reached the town could use the portal to penetrate Sheida’s innermost sanctum. He was sure there was security on the passage, but what and how had not been discussed.

There was a short line waiting to pass through and he joined it, nodding at the woman in front of him.

“You’re new,” the slightly built woman said. She was barely up to Joel’s chest in height.

“Just passing through,” Joel replied. “I had a meeting with Harry about improving the logistics.”

“Not much to be done with just the one entry,” the woman sniffed. “Getting fresh food in and out is real bother.”

“You’re a cook?” he asked, automatically fishing for information.

“For Herself,” the woman replied with a note of pride. “I’m on my way out to have a word with the butcher. The last load of meat was simply dreadful. Not that Herself eats much, she eats like a bird to tell truth, it’s really terrible. I try to get her to eat more but even my best pastries she barely nibbles. It’s a real shame.”

“Do you cook for the rest of the complex?” Joel asked as the line moved forward.

“I’m one of the cooks, but I’m mainly to supply Herself,” the woman said. “Sometimes when she has a big meeting I’ll take charge of that. There’s a head ‘chef’ but he’s such a pain, a real prima donna if you know what I mean.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But when they do have a big party it’s a real pain. First getting everything through on portal and then getting all the guests in and out. You have no idea how much food it takes for a big party, oh, but I guess you do if you handle logistics?”

“Rather large parties, yes,” Joel said with an amiable grin. “But I just do paperwork, you know. I don’t have to do the cooking.”

“Well, you have no idea. I mean, at least we have a decent kitchen but it’s still too small and the stoves could use a good upgrade. Fortunately I’d made a study of real cooking before the Fall. None of this three sprigs of over-spiced carrot and a piece of chicken the size of your thumb, no sirree…”

After they passed through the portal into the receiving room Joel managed to extract himself from the woman and mentally groaned. He wasn’t sure who was in charge of Sheida’s counterintelligence but it left a great deal to be desired. These people simply didn’t think in terms of security. That her senior cook wandered in and out talking to any stranger was bad enough. But if there wasn’t a good filter on the portal anyone could go in and out. Or anything. Slipping a toxin into the food would be no problem. A time-release binary would take down everyone in the complex.

He was half tempted to turn around and go see Sheida about it but after a moment’s thought he decided to continue the mission. He’d be reporting at some point and he could ask her, or one of her avatars, about it later.

He looked up the “transportation coordinator” and found out that his dragon wouldn’t be leaving until late morning the next day. With that information, and where to meet the dragon, he set off into the town.

Like most of the post-Fall towns, new construction was evident. Most of it was packed earth, what was called adobe in other areas. Chian was at the base of the western mountain ranges where they met the plains, drawing from both areas. The town was filled with herdsmen from the plains, most of them wearing rough bison coats against the early fall cold, and people that he designated “townies.” After casting around for a bit he found a money changer. The building was one of the few made of stone and obviously old, not only pre-Fall but probably from the semimythical “settlement” period. There were guards armed with short swords and they frowned at him as he stepped through the open door.

The interior was dim, lit only by small windows set high on the walls. He waited for his eyes to adjust, then walked over to the barred counter at the end.

“I’d like to change some gold for credit chits and some chunk silver,” he said to the woman behind the counter.

“Let’s see it,” the woman replied, pulling out a scale and jeweler’s loupe.

He slid over one of the chunks of gold, wondering if they’d ID him as from Sheida.

“Federal mint,” the woman frowned after a glance at the imprint on the bar. “We haven’t seen many of these.”

“Neither have I,” Joel replied with his patented vapid smile. “I did some contract work for the Federals and that’s what they paid me with.”

“I still need to assay it.” The woman sniffed. She rubbed the metal on an emery block, then dropped a solvent on it. There was a brief hiss and she compared the color to a chart. She gave another sniff and put the gold on a scale, frowning all the while. Finally she looked up with a reduced frown.

“There’s a fixed value on these,” she said, rummaging in a drawer until she pulled out a sheet of paper. She compared the date, then shrugged. “Four hundred twenty-three credits.”

“Close enough for government work,” Joel replied. “I need it in as small a package as possible.”

The woman opened her cash drawer and extracted a handful of bills, stamped bronze coins and some loose silver in irregular chunks. She put the silver on the scale and added a tad more then slid the whole under the bars.

“Three hundred credits in cash,” she said, counting out the bills. “Five twenty-cred pieces and twenty-three in silver.”

“I’ve never seen these,” Joel admitted, picking up one of the bills. It was printed on one side with the eagle of the UFS and on the other with an image of some person he didn’t recognize. It said “Fifty Credits” on it. He rubbed at the printing and the ink stayed in place.

“It’s the new scrip currency they’re distributing,” the woman explained. “It can be exchanged for fifty chit credits anywhere in the UFS. If you go to one of the unincorporated towns, most of them are willing to accept it, too.”

“Seems a bad trade for gold,” Joel temporized.

“Well, if you walk back in with that we give you the exact same amount, less a two percent transaction fee,” the woman replied, clearly used to explaining the facts of life to utter newbies. “Or, if you have an account with us we waive the transaction fee.”

“So you act as a bank as well?”

“Yes, we’re Federally licensed and act under charter of Idoma,” the woman said. “It’s a bit different than before we chartered, but not much. And we’re insured against loss, which is a nice feeling. Too many moneylenders and changers have been robbed since the Fall. Now it’s a Federal offense and the inspectors will chase anyone who robs a Federal bank to the ends of the earth.”

“Or one of Paul’s regions,” Joel noted. “Okay, I’ll take it. Can you direct me to someplace to sleep? I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“The Hotel Brixon is nice,” the lady said, pointing out and to the left. “And they have a good dining room.”

“Thank you for all your help,” Joel replied, picking up the cash and slipping it in his pouch. “I’m sorry I can’t open an account.”

“Well, perhaps if you spend more time here,” the woman replied. “Chian is really growing, almost like a second capital city. There’s always work to be had.”

“I’ll consider it,” he said. “Have a nice day.”

“What is it that you do, again?” the woman asked.

“Contract work,” Joel replied, as he turned away. “I like to think of it as… salvage.”

* * *

The man currently using the name Martin St. John sipped at surprisingly good wine and looked around the crowded tavern. He wasn’t casing his fellow diners. The Brethon merchant who had had the misfortune to meet the seemingly friendly young man on the road from Setran was returning from a good sales trip. It was the merchant’s nuggets of silver, each the size of a knucklebone — the preferred currency in Ropasa over the inflationary paper scrip of New Destiny — that had paid for the bad stew and good wine to follow.

The wine was the reason the inn even existed. The building had been at the crossroads for literally millennia, first as an inn dating back to the time of the Hundred Years’ War, then as a private residence that was maintained across the millennia. The last owner had used his wine cellar, and the broadsword that hung over the fireplace, to reestablish it as an inn in the years after the Fall. Until he ran afoul of New Destiny’s Changed legions and the ownership had passed to cronies of New Destiny.

The food had been better before the coming of the new owners. But they had held onto the wine cellar. In time, they might even learn how to make a decent stew.

But for now, it was good enough. He was out of the rain that was pissing down outside, he had a full belly, and the mature claret was putting him into a nearly expansive mood.

That was until the door opened and a tall, spare figure walked in out of the rain.

The man took off his broad-brimmed hat and shook it, looking around the room with eyes that were almost entirely white. The denizens of the inn looked at the stance and, most especially the eyes, and turned away, the conversation dying for a moment then picking up to an almost unnatural chatter.

Martin hoped that the man was looking for someone, or something, else. But the newcomer caught his eyes and smiled in an entirely friendly way and then made his way across the crowded room.

“Brother Martin,” Conner said. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“Surprise, hell,” Martin replied, bitterly. “What the hell do you want, Brother Conner?”

The Brotherhood of the Rose had existed before the Fall. In the pre-Fall world, there was very little need, or reason, for criminality. It required both incredible cunning and a deep desire to do harm; when literally anything could be had at a whim, crime took on a truly bizarre form.

For the Brotherhood it was a game, a way to while away the time between birth and death in a world surfeited with luxuries. To steal a woman’s virginity and betray her trust, to find the one thing that a person cherished and relieve them of it, to kill, in a world where everyone was protected by energy fields, nannites overcame toxins and healing was virtually instantaneous, took cunning and skill, especially since the few remaining police of the Council had access to investigation technology that was nothing short of magical. And it was a matter of points among the “Brothers” to do such things with style.

In the Brotherhood, Conner had racked up a truly amazing point total.

Since the Fall, the skills that Martin had developed had kept him warm, fed and as comfortable as it was possible to be in the Fallen world. He realized that all of those things might be coming to an end. Or not.

“How have you been?” Conner said, sitting down across from him and crossing his legs at the ankles. He waved to the server, a young man who looked harried by all the customers, and looked back at Martin. “How’s tricks?”

“Oh, you know,” Martin said, leaning back also. “I get along. This and that.”

“Yes,” Conner said, smiling. “I’m sure. I passed a bit of a gaggle on the road. It seemed that some local merchant had been set upon by vagabonds. Such a terrible thing. Paul’s doing all that he can to reduce crime in the areas under his control. I’m sure that the ne’er-do-well will be caught in time.”

Martin tried not to gulp as he took a sip of wine that suddenly tasted of vinegar. Before the Fall, getting caught generally led to close supervision. In extreme cases, and he knew he fell into the latter category, a brain-wipe might have been ordered, with a nice, docile personality imposed upon the criminal.

Since the Fall, crime was generally a local thing. If a thief was caught, the locals tended to be direct and final. Rope was cheap and, after all, could be reused.

With the coming of Paul’s legions, though, things had changed. Paul had much better uses for criminals than making corpses. His legions were always looking for new bodies, bodies that gave up their own energy to be Changed into the brutal, bestial beings that served as the bulk of his army.

It included a brain-wipe, of course, but instead of a nice docile personality and a life of ease, if not interest, the former thief became just one more orc to be sent into the camps.

“I’m sure,” he said. “How are you?”

“Well, I have to admit that I’ve found an employer,” Conner said, taking the cup of wine that the harried serving boy had fetched for him ahead of a dozen other customers. “I hate to think that I’m going legit.”

“Legit, yeah,” Martin snorted. “I can just see you pulling down a pay-chit.”

“Well, I have to admit that regular food, the money to buy clothes…” he said, eyeing Martin’s weather-beaten ensemble, “has a certain pleasure to it. Especially since the jobs so far have been… right up my alley.”

“I hate to think of the body count,” Martin said.

“Well, as it happens, I’ve currently got too many projects to handle on my own. So I’ve convinced my employer that I could find suitable… subordinates. Such as yourself.”

Martin eyed him for a moment, then shook his head.

“No. I don’t know what racket you’ve gotten yourself into, but I know I can’t trust you as far as I can throw this inn. I think I’ll just keep going my own way, thanks.”

“I’ll add,” Conner said, more or less ignoring him, “that the offer would include a pardon for any little offenses that you might have, accidentally I’m sure, committed against the caring government of New Destiny.” Conner smiled in an open and friendly manner. “Such as a certain merchant on the Setran road.”

“Who in the hell are you working for?” Martin asked, his eyes narrowing.

“Why, New Destiny of course,” Conner smiled. “Such a fresh and forward looking name, don’t you think. Do say yes, Martin, it would mean the world to you.”

Martin flexed his jaw and took another sip of wine, then nodded.

“Okay, what’s the job?”

“It seems that those rascals from the United Free States are getting concerned about a certain fleet that is building on the coast,” Conner said.

Martin just nodded; the movement of the Changed legions, and all the provisions to support them as well as the building of a fleet of ships, was impossible to miss anywhere within a hundred klicks of the ocean.

“They seem to think that the mer will do them some good,” Conner continued. “I’ve been tasked, among other things, with ensuring that the mer, one particular group of mer to be clear, don’t ally with the UFS. One way or another.”

“Where are they?”

“Well, that’s the nice part,” Brother Conner said. “It seems they’re located in the Isles off Flora. So you can look forward to a relaxing sea voyage and then a pleasant tropical vacation.”

“I’m not going to be able to do much about this by myself.” Martin frowned, but given the cold autumn rains outside, a tropical vacation sounded just about right.

“Of course not,” Conner snapped. “You’ll be… managing a group of orcas and a new breed of Change called ixchitl. You’ll be the control. I’ve a fleet of six ships that will take you to meet them and then carry you to the Isles. They’re some of the first completed and you’ll have Changed marines as well as their leaders under your command. Stop the alliance with the mer, wipe them out if you have to, and destroy the UFS group, and their ships, at the same time. Our information is that they’re sending a new type of ship, a ‘dragon-carrier.’ The dragons, wyverns actually, aren’t going to be a problem; they don’t have a way to attack the ships. Is all of this clear enough for you or do I have to write it down in words of one syllable?”

“No, that’s clear enough,” Martin said, looking at the shutter-covered windows beaten by rain. “When do I leave?”

CHAPTER FIVE

Jason coasted to a stop parallel and slightly above Bruce the Black who was observing a group of mer, men and women, repairing one of the fishing nets. The material available for the nets was horrible, a type of long seaweed, a green algae in reality, whose “stems” were soft and pliable. Braided it was marginally effective as a net unless someone tried to capture, as in this example, a school of dorado, which were some of the fastest fish in the sea.

But between the nets, and scavenging for crayfish and the sea plums, and the occasional large fish that hunters like Jason speared with bone-tipped harpoons, hunger was kept at bay. That was about all that could be said about the happy life of the mer-folk. Oh, and the Work went on.

“Representatives Freedom come,” Jason pulsed. The mer, unlike dolphins or other marine mammals, used gills and had no air available to create sonar. Instead they had a small bone, equivalent in basic design to those of the inner ear, located in the nasal passages in their forehead. They could send commands to the bone that pulsed their words and turned them into high frequency sonar. It was also adequate, barely, to maneuvering in zero visibility, be that in the dark or in a cave or even in light silt. And they could receive and process, to an extent, the sonar images created by the delphinoids, who had a much more advanced system. But for conversation, the mer relied on verbal shorthand.

“Destiny, too,” Bruce answered. The name “the Black” referred to a joke that had circulated early in his years as a mer. He had said that his real purpose was to find the treasure of an ancient pirate named Blackbeard and spent a fair amount of time in the search. He was anything but black. His skin was a nearly perfect white, his hair was blond and his tail-section was covered in golden scales. But someone had called him “Blackbeard” and it had stuck, even after he became one of the leaders of the Work, the apparently eternal project of putting the coral reefs back into a “prehuman” condition.

The Fall had set back the Work, beyond question. Even Bruce the Black had been forced to recognize that hunting and gathering on the reefs was a necessity, not a barbarous hobby. And sea plum, a human-generated weed for all intents and purposes, which had been ruthlessly pruned, was now tended with nearly the same care as mer-children. But the Work went on.

Bruce the Black had been one of the most notable members of the mer community and he had been an outspoken proponent of continuing the Work to the best of their ability. It had been taken up as an article of faith among the mer, that the Work was more important than any temporary squabble among the Powers-That-Be.

Sometimes Jason wondered if there might not be more to life than the Work. Such as, for example, trying not to get trampled by the oncoming war.

“Fight will,” Jason said.

“Fight/lose,” Bruce replied. “Always fight/lose. Neutral are. Neutral stay.”

“Freedom…” Jason replied.

“Destiny! Freedom! Fight/lose! Neutral stay!” The last was said with a blat of sound borrowed from the dolphins. In tonal shorthand it said “I’m the leader and you’re not and you will obey!”

Jason, however, recognized the undertone, that of a porpoise mother chastising her infant, and was less than happy about it. There was, however, not much that he could say in return.

“Freedom representative Talbot. Going am.”

“Where?” Bruce asked, finally turning to look at the younger mer.

“Hunt will,” he said with a contemptuous gesture at the nets. “Food need. Neutral stay.” With that he turned and gave a powerful flick of his tail, enough motion that the water assuredly washed over the older mer.

If Bruce took it as an insult, that wouldn’t bother Jason one bit. He was half tempted to pee in his wake.

* * *

Herzer turned down an offer to have dinner with Edmund and gravitated to the officers’ mess instead. For one credit chit he was served overcooked and oversalted roast beef, lumpy mashed potatoes with slightly burned gravy and greens cooked to mush. However, he consoled himself that it was better than monkey on a stick. He didn’t recognize any of the people in the mess, except occasionally by sight. He’d checked around and there were none of his class currently present, not that there had been many survivors. After dinner he drifted back to his room, uncertain about where to go or what to do. He could get all spiffied up and go to the O-club bar and get shit-faced, but that had little appeal. There were always some women hanging around and if he flashed his medals he’d probably get laid. But he liked to think that he was beyond that. He lay down on his bed and tucked his hand behind his head, and tapped his prosthetic in thought. He should have gone to dinner at Edmund’s. He’d barely said hello to Rachel and Daneh, who were two of his favorite people on earth. He should go to the bar; at least with a few belts in him he could probably sleep. The bottom line was that he had gotten so used to having something to do, constantly, that he didn’t know how to relax anymore.

Finally he stripped off his tunic and opened up his wall locker. It took him two checks to determine that he had, precisely, zero civilian clothes.

“Herzer, you’re getting way too into this shit,” he muttered. Finally he pulled out an undress tunic and a field cloak and stomped out of the quarters.

He headed downtown in the general direction of Tarmac’s tavern, then took a left and, on an impulse, headed for the public baths. When he got near them he stopped and whistled. What had once been a rather small set of three wooden buildings was now a complex of at least half a dozen. And from the traffic going in and out half the town was there.

He headed up the front entrance and passed through one of several doors. There was a small antechamber, heated against the growing cold of fall, and he stripped off his cloak before passing through the second set.

The far room, which smelled of chlorine and was, frankly, overheated, had tables down either side with at least six people at each of them. He didn’t recognize any of them and he hoped that it was mutual. He stepped to the right where a teenage girl wearing a bathing suit nodded at him.

“Lord, you’re a big one,” she said with a smile. “I haven’t seen you before.”

“I haven’t been here in…” He had to stop and think for a moment. “Oh, at least two years. So I think you’ll have to walk me through the procedures.”

“Well, I have to stay here or I’d be happy to.” She grinned. “But it hasn’t changed much.” She dipped under the desk and came up with a bag marked with a complicated symbol and a wooden marker. “Take the bag, go through the doors. There are disrobing rooms in there and towels. Grab a towel, put all your stuff in the bag and give it to an attendant. They’ll seal it and you keep the marker.”

“What are all the buildings?”

“Well, there’s a shower room, please pee and take a shower before you climb in the baths,” she said with her first frown. “There’s one building for women-only baths, another for men; they’re marked. Then there’s the pool room, which is unisex. You can eat in there as well. And the fitness center.”

“Fitness center?” Herzer asked. “I’m getting a sinking feeling. Do people wear bathing suits in here?”

“Some do, some don’t,” the girl smiled. “And there are some for sale in the gift shop, which is right around the corner,” she added, pointing.

“I think I’ll stop there, first,” Herzer said.

He followed her directions and found a fully appointed gift shop. Not only were there bathing suits, there was a complete line of toiletries, soaps, shampoos, towels with the Raven’s Mill logo and even shirts and coffee mugs. He picked one of the latter up and grimaced. “Raven’s Mill, Home of the Blood Lords” was baked into the ceramic.

“Can I help you?” a cold female voice asked from behind him.

“Morgen!” he said, when he turned around. “I thought you’d run off to another town!”

Morgen Kirby was about a hundred and seventy centimeters of slim redhead. They had had a very brief relationship just after the Fall, before he had joined the Blood Lords. Very brief. Basically a half a day at the end of which they had a flaming argument. He couldn’t, off-hand, recall about what.

“I did,” she said, sighing. “I went to Resan.”

“Oh, shit,” was all Herzer could say. The town of Resan had been one of the first that Dionys McCanoc’s forces had hit and because the town elders had a policy of “strict nonviolence” his forces had gone through it like a hot knife through butter. And that reminded him what the argument had been about. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. How…” He paused, unsure how to go on.

“McCanoc attacked just before dawn. I was working for one of the established people in the town and had gone out to one of the farms for milk; Mistress Tabitha had to have fresh milk for breakfast every morning.”

“So you got out,” Herzer sighed.

“Not… entirely unscathed.” She frowned. “After that I went to Washan but after you and Edmund stopped McCanoc I decided the one place I wanted to be was back in Raven’s Mill. Even if I didn’t have my head screwed on straight, I could at least be somewhere where others did.” She paused and shrugged. “You were right. Shilan and Cruz and all the rest were right; this world can’t afford peaceful innocence. There are too many bad people in it. I always sort of expected you to turn up and gloat. But after a while I figured out you weren’t the gloating type.”

“No, I’m not,” Herzer said. “I’m the worrying type. I actually thought of you earlier today; I saw Crystal. She’s Edmund’s secretary.”

“You were right about that, too,” she snorted. “She was being snippy because I was with you. When I got back here I was a bit loopy and she tried to ‘comfort’ me. Big mistake. She found out how over ‘nonviolence’ I am.”

“Um…” Herzer scratched his chin and frowned. “I… well we get briefings about combat aftermath. You know, you really need to talk to a counselor…”

“I have been,” she smiled. “For damned near a year I’ve been going to the post-rape trauma groups. I’m actually bucking for a junior counseling spot and Mistress Daneh thinks I can make it.” She suddenly frowned again and looked at his prosthetic. “What the hell happened to you? Where’s your hand?”

“McCanoc,” Herzer said with a shrug, raising the prosthetic. “It’s okay, it’s got a little latch for holding my shield, takes all the trouble out of it. Better than a hand in some ways.”

“I didn’t know.” She frowned again, looking at the clamp and hook of glittering metal.

“And you work here?” Herzer said, changing the subject.

“And I work here.” She shrugged, still looking at the prosthetic with a troubled expression. “Three nights a week. And the sawmill during the day. So, were you looking for me, or…?”

“Actually, I was looking for a suit,” he admitted. “I haven’t been to the bathhouse in a year or two and it’s really changed.”

“Not as much as you might think.” She smiled. “Some people use them by the pools, but most don’t. And, frankly, I don’t think we have anything that will fit you.”

“Story of my life,” he grumbled.

“Well, you never were an off-the-rack kind of guy,” she said with a grin.

“I guess I’ll go brave the baths then,” he said. “I’ve been in Harzburg for a year and they’re… pretty uptight about body modesty. I guess some of it rubbed off.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll get back into the evil ways of Raven’s Mill.” She grinned again.

“Well… see you later?”

“Maybe,” she said with a shrug. “I’m… not sure it would be a good thing to just pick up where we left off. I’m… over it but not that far.”

“Believe me, I understand,” Herzer said, frowning. “I’ve never had that particular experience, but I’ve seen the aftermath enough times. Take care of yourself, and… I’m here. Shoulder, bed, sword, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, dimples appearing on her cheeks. “Go have fun.”

“Fun, right,” he said, throwing the bag over his shoulder.

The changing room had altered as well. There were closed stalls for changing; before it had been totally open. And there were two attendants waiting for his clothes and gear. From prior experience he knew he could trust them to not pilfer anything out of the bags so he added his money pouch after a moment’s thought. That done, he tucked a towel around his waist firmly and headed through the door marked “Showers.”

More changes. The showers were individual stalls; before they had simply lined one side of the room. There were males and females in the room and when one of the latter, a tall, lithe blonde, came out of a shower stall stark naked he actually started to feel more at home. He still put the towel back on before leaving his own stall.

Beyond the room was cross corridor with several doors. One was marked “Baths, Male” another “Baths, Female” and a third “Pools.” He pushed open the male bathing room and saw a line of large wooden tubs, much like he remembered. There were a few guys in the far tub but the room was otherwise empty. He didn’t recognize any of them so he headed for the room marked “Pools.”

He wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t what he got. The room was long, apparently one large building, the walls made of paneled wood and lined with oil lamps. More oil lamps were hung throughout the room and in several spots there were round fireplaces with metal covers and chimneys to let the smoke out through the roof. The floor was tiled and the “pools” were just that, nine pools of varying sizes scattered around the room. There were benches and low tables as well and most of the people who had been coming in and out apparently gravitated here. The conversation was loud and echoed across the room.

He stepped through the door and looked around trying to decide what the standard mode of dress was but there didn’t seem to be any. Some of the people had on light bathing suits but the majority were naked and there didn’t seem to be any discrimination. A blonde in a suit so sheer she might as well have been naked was talking to a male who was. Two guys in bikini bathing suits were talking to the woman who had walked out of the shower starkers. He finally recognized one of the instructors at the Academy and had started across the room when he heard his name screamed and the next moment found his arms filled with naked female.

He was having such a hard time trying to figure out where to put his hand, and hook, that it took him a moment to recognize her.

“Shilan!” he yelled. “Damn, it’s good to see a familiar face.” Hsu Shilan had been part of his apprenticeship class, a lovely trim brunette with whom he’d had an “off-again” relationship until he joined the Blood Lords and basically lost track. Last he’d heard she was a textile designer at one of the mills. She’d put on a bit of weight since then, but since she had been skinny to the point of anorexia it looked good on her. Too good. Herzer found himself stroking her back and wished he had more clothes on.

“Well, if you’d stay in town for a while,” she said, sternly. If she noticed the stroking it was only to lean into it a bit.

“My master’s voice,” he replied, carefully removing his hands lest he get a little too enthusiastic. “I go where they tell me. This time it was Harzburg for a year and a half.”

“You haven’t met my husband, David,” she said, dragging him to one of the pools.

“Husband?” he squeaked.

One of the bathers had risen out of a nearby pool and held out his hand.

“So you’re Herzer Herrick,” the man said. Herzer noted as he took the hand that it was soft and that he out-massed Shilan’s husband by at least twice. So if it came to cases, he could probably punch David through the nearest wall. He still intended to be extremely correct and punctilious. Damnit. The mission in Harzburg meant that he was trying to uphold the reputation of the Federal forces. And although an ancient general had said “A soldier who won’t fisk, won’t fight,” the Harzians were such stuck-up pricks that he’d had to play saintly soldier boy the entire year. It had been a looong year.

“Shilan has told me an awful lot about you,” David continued.

“It’s all lies and damned lies,” Herzer said, squatting down as modestly as he could with a towel on. Shilan had slid back into the pool but her breasts, which were noticeably rounder and fuller than the last time Herzer met her, were fully exposed.

“Come on,” Shilan said, waving at the pool. “Jump in. The water’s fine.”

“Um…” One hundred twenty-eight times three is… three times eight, carry the two… By the time he was barely a quarter of the way into the equation he’d gotten to the point he wouldn’t embarrass himself and he pulled off the towel.

“See, told you he was hung like an ox,” Shilan said with a chuckle.

So much for not being embarrassed.

“Yep, the reason we never had a relationship was she saw me in the showers and fainted,” Herzer replied with a growl.

“With excitement, maybe,” David laughed. “I see some of us got ‘enhanced’ before the Fall.”

“Natural genetics,” Herzer replied, tightly. “I had the muscles built on, but that was because I had a degenerative condition. I’d worked for them, they just wouldn’t stay. When I got cured, I had a bod-mod, but it was only for the muscles. Then I maintained them. The rest is genetics. The size overall and… in places.”

“Big hands,” Shilan chuckled. “That’s what you meant.”

“Hand,” Herzer noted, holding up his prosthetic.

“Sorry,” Shilan said, suddenly contrite.

“Not a problem, it’s great for opening beers,” Herzer replied with a shrug.

“You’re Herzer Herrick?” The woman from the showers slid into the pool, looking at him with a quizzical frown. She looked to be in her twenties but her movements were so smooth and precise she had to be nearing her first century. “I was expecting someone… older.”

“At your service, Mistress…?”

“Miss,” the woman said with a smile. “Stephanie Vega.” She held out her hand, reaching across the pool to do so.

She was blond, a natural apparently or at least with either transformed genetics or very ready in her use of dye, long and slender in the hipless, bustless look that was fashionable pre-Fall. A face that was a little too perfect to be natural. Herzer wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers. Well, maybe if she was really messy about it.

“And, yes, I’m Herzer Herrick,” Herzer said, giving her his patented big-dumb-goofy grin. To most women big seemed to equal dumb and if dumb was what they wanted, he was their man.

“The Blood Lord?” she continued, her eyes widening, as if she still didn’t quite believe it. Her pupils were dilated so far it was hard to tell she had green eyes.

“You might say the Blood Lord’s Blood Lord,” Shilan said somewhat cattily. “When they recruit they ask ‘Do you think you can be as good as this?’ ”

“I wasn’t disbelieving you,” Stephanie said, smiling disarmingly as she leaned back against the wall of the pool. “But the stories that you hear…”

“We only eat babies if they’re particularly tender,” Herzer said. The woman was oozing charm, which suddenly set off alarm bells.

“Fight until you die and drop and all that,” Stephanie said. “You’ve been out of town?”

“Harzburg,” Herzer said. “Great place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.”

“What were you doing?” Shilan asked.

“Tarson had declared for New Destiny,” Herzer shrugged. “They were raiding Harzburg. Harzburg screamed for help. They got me.”

“One war, one Blood Lord?” Stephanie asked.

“One minor little campaign,” Herzer said with a frown. “They had some issues with their ‘support.’ They got over it in time.”

“How?” Stephanie asked, leaning forward again and putting her hand on his knee, under the water.

It had been a long year so he recited some more multiplication tables.

“Tarson had been sending parties to raid the outlying farms,” Herzer said. “Look, do you really want to hear this?”

“I want all of it,” Stephanie said, throatily.

“I want to hear it, too,” David replied when Herzer just looked at her, his face blank and hard.

He looked up at the ceiling when he realized other people, including the Blood Lord instructor he had seen across the room, had gathered around. He thought about the blood, the hacked remnants of what had been human beings scattered across a farmer’s field. He realized what his face must look like so he, with difficulty, slid a friendlier mask onto his face.

“Tarson had been sending raiding parties out,” he repeated, turning to look at Shilan. “They’d burned a couple of the farms in the area that wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pay their ‘taxes.’ I took to riding around…” He paused and shrugged.

“Blood Lord training is designed for formation; fighting as an individual is entirely different. But we cross-train.” He looked over at the instructor from the Academy who nodded at him. “I’d… done more cross training than normal, for that matter. Anyway, I was out at one of the farms, just visiting. I’d been riding around to them, helping out sometimes, meeting people. And there was a scream from outside and Diablo was whinnying.” He closed his eyes and tried to smile but it just wouldn’t come.

“The farmers had a daughter, just about eleven. When I got outside some of the Tarson had her on the ground. Others were headed for the house, torches in their hands. I… well, it gets pretty blank in that kind of combat. My shield was on Diablo but I was in armor. They weren’t.” He stopped talking.

“That’s it?” Stephanie said after a long pause. “What’s the rest of the story?”

“The rest of the story is in the after-action report,” the instructor said. “Fifteen raiders, motley weapons. Axes, swords, spears. One Blood Lord. You did us proud that day, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, sir,” Herzer said, modestly, trying very hard not to remember. “I don’t really remember most of it,” he lied.

“What happened to the girl?” Shilan asked.

“She’s never going to look at slaughtering the same for the rest of her life,” the instructor said, grimly.

“She was fine,” Herzer said. “Shaken up, but fine. They hadn’t had time to get their pants down much less get stuck in. I talked to her a few times afterwards; she needed to talk it out and she didn’t feel like she could with anybody else. She’s fine.”

“You’re not much of a storyteller are you?” Stephanie asked.

“It’s hard to talk about some things with people who haven’t been there,” Herzer admitted with a shrug. “The… feel of your sword crunching through a rib cage is difficult to describe. What it feels like to have your sword stuck in a corpse’s spine while someone is hammering on you with an axe. What a field looks like after you’ve chopped a dozen human beings into their constituent parts. Having to decide whether to try to save someone’s life or just give them mercy.”

“I take it back,” Stephanie said, leaning back. “You can feel free to leave out the little details.”

“I didn’t care about the ones headed for the house,” Herzer said, suddenly loquacious. “If I raised enough of a ruckus they would either run to help or run off. I do remember bowling a couple of them over as I went through, and…” He looked up and his right hand made a motion like a butterfly drawn in air. “And a bit more to a couple of others. I made a mistake with the girl, though. I was so angry. The guy who was trying to rape her… his teeth chattered on my sword blade like a toy. Chit-chit-chit-chit-chit. That was when it got stuck, in the back of his brain really.” There were grimaces in the audience but he didn’t notice, being somewhere else.

“I’d kicked one of the guys holding her down on his face but another one was hitting me on the back with an axe. It was just bouncing off my armor so I turned around and punched him and took his axe away. I chopped a space around me and got my sword freed up.” He shook his head and shuddered.

“What?” Shilan asked.

He shrugged and made a stomping motion as his gripped hands moved back and forth as if he was trying to free something. More grimaces, including from Shilan who clearly wished she hadn’t asked the question, and a few of the audience wandered off, hurriedly.

“Diablo had turned up by that time and I made sure he didn’t step on the girl. The ones who had been planning on burning the house were headed back by then and some of them threw spears. I remember one of them bouncing off the armor and another stuck. That just gave me another weapon. I hit them with that for a while, until it broke, then went back to the sword. When there weren’t any more people bothering me, or the girl, or my horse, I went over to the spring and cleaned up.”

“Tired?” the instructor asked, professionally.

“Not really,” Herzer said. “A bit of a case of the shakes, but it hadn’t taken five minutes, all total.” He stopped and shrugged. “It was more like a not particularly intense drill. They weren’t very good.”

“ ‘Nah, fifteen of ’em,’ ” Stephanie mimicked. “ ‘Wasn’t really what you’d call a fight.’ Lord! Brag for God’s sake!”

“Why?” the instructor said, lightly. “I’ll admit that it was a tough fight. There are few among the Blood Lords who would have done as well. I doubt that I would have. But for Herzer, yes, it was child’s play. He is the Blood Lord’s Blood Lord, the icon that we hold up to the students, just as this young lady said. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he added.

“Shilan,” Shilan said. “I hadn’t realized that you heard.”

“I’d moved over. The point is that the Blood Lords train to do one of three, or all of three, things to their opponents. Outmaneuver them, chop them to ribbons and if all else fails outlast them. We do that partially by being able to rotate units, but the individual Blood Lord is trained to fight, literally, for at least an hour without being significantly fatigued. A five-minute fight — he shouldn’t have broken a sweat.”

Stephanie leaned sideways in the pool and supported herself on one elbow, arching her back slightly towards the instructor.

“In pretty good… shape then, eh?” she asked, tossing her head so her hair swung back and forth.

The instructor just looked at her for a moment, then nodded sharply.

“Pretty good, yeah.”

Stephanie languorously slid back to her place and took a deep breath as she smiled up at him.

“I’m so glad to have such big strong men guarding us!”

Herzer gripped the bridge of his nose to keep from laughing, hiding his face behind his hand. He looked sideways and saw that Shilan was just staring at the woman, her mouth open. She closed it after a moment with a clop.

“Whatever were we talking about?” Stephanie asked.

“I dunno,” Herzer said with a laugh. “Economics comes to mind for some reason.”

“Why economics?” Stephanie asked, clearly puzzled.

“Because it’s the most boring subject I can imagine,” Herzer answered, laughing.

“Oh, I dunno,” Stephanie replied, pushing her hair back with both hands behind her ears and then posing with them out to the side as she thrust her chest forward. “Derivatives can be fascinating.”

Herzer laughed again and shook his head at her incredible forwardness.

“So, I kill people and break things,” he said, looking for any subject that wouldn’t get another rise out of her. “What do you do?”

“I work at the bank,” she said, flatly, frowning. “Let’s not talk about work.”

“Bank?” Herzer said. “What bank?”

“Raven Federal,” Stephanie replied.

“Used to be Tom Sloan’s Loan Shark and Credit Destroyer,” Shilan said with a grin. “They’ve come up in the world.”

“Huh,” Herzer said. “Tom handles all my accounts. I’ve got to see him tomorrow.”

“Accounts?” Stephanie said, raising an eyebrow. “Plural.”

“Plural,” Herzer said flatly. “What are you doing Shilan?”

“I’m still a textile designer,” Shilan said. “That’s where I met David. He’s in sales at the plant.”

“Which is a losing cause,” David said unhappily. “We used to be the only mill in the area. But these days Hotrum’s Ferry has three, and transportation costs are making us unprofitable out of the immediate region.”

“Well, this is just fascinating but I’ve got a date with a bottle of wine,” Stephanie said, standing up. “Herzer, pleasure to meet you,” she added, holding out her hand.

“Same here,” he replied, shaking it. She turned immediately and climbed out of the pool.

“Okay, what just happened?” he asked.

“Social butterfly,” the instructor said, sliding into the pool. “She got exactly what she wanted out of the conversation, then went off to find one where she could get more.”

“Whatever,” Herzer replied. “I’m sorry, I cannot for the life of me recall your name.”

“Mike Fraser,” the instructor replied, holding out his hand. “I’m in second phase at the Academy.”

“I was supposed to be coming back for an instructor’s gig at the O course,” Herzer said, shrugging.

“What are you doing instead?” Shilan asked.

“I just got told,” Herzer admitted. “But I’m not sure I should talk about it.”

“Open secret,” Fraser said. “You’re going to the Southern Isles with Duke Edmund.”

“So much for military security,” Herzer grumbled.

“Like I said, open secret,” Fraser shrugged. “You can’t organize something like that without it getting out. And there are no secrets in the baths.”

“None at all,” Shilan said. “Worst gossip spot in the town. Even including the ‘ladies get-togethers’ that resulted from counseling classes. Although those are more catty. I knew that Edmund was going to the Isles, but not that you were going.”

“Daneh and Rachel took it as a surprise,” Herzer said.

“They don’t come in here much,” Shilan shrugged. “Rachel rarely and I’ve never seen Daneh in here.”

“I can imagine why,” Herzer said.

“It’s not that,” Shilan replied. “I think she’s about as over her rape as it’s possible to be. If not she certainly controls it well. I think she’s just very body-modest. Rachel, too, to a lesser extent. And, of course, they have their own baths at the house. Daneh probably would have picked it up at one of the meetings but she’s been missing those the last couple of weeks. I only heard about it… two nights ago.”

“I don’t care how hard it is to keep a secret in the baths,” Herzer said. “This is still a problem.”

“Yup, sure is,” Fraser nodded. “I’m not sure what can be done about it, though.”

“Education comes to mind,” Herzer replied. “I don’t know what the security classification is on this mission, but I don’t really care. It shouldn’t be talked about in public, period. That’s basic OPSEC, sir.”

“No rank in the baths, either,” Fraser noted. “But I get your meaning. You’re probably right about the education aspect, but we’re all still feeling our way. A couple of years ago, none of us were soldiers.”

“Not my problem,” Herzer shrugged. “It just bugs me.”

“Speaking of feeling our way…” Shilan said, then blushed. “That didn’t come out right.”

“It’s okay,” Herzer chuckled. “It would take a very dirty mind to find anything wrong with that comment. Admittedly, I have a dirty mind…”

“Speaking of trying to figure out stuff about this life,” Shilan said, clearing her throat. “Why is he a captain and you’re a lieutenant?”

“A very good question.” Fraser nodded. “The answer is that I came to the Academy as a lieutenant and have gotten promoted since. I think you were enlisted, Herzer?”

“Yeah,” Herzer said. “I just got my commission before going to Harzburg. That was another one of their gripes. I basically got the commission for the mission and that was pretty obvious.”

“But you got them to see the error of their ways?” Fraser asked.

“It took a while,” Herzer admitted. “The town is run by guilds and they took to their prerogatives, post-Fall, really damned quick. It was more feudal than it sounds. They didn’t want some no-class low-life newly promoted lieutenant telling them how they were supposed to run their militia. For one thing, the militia was only open to those they thought ‘acceptable.’ Which meant those they could trust with a weapon at their back.”

“Under the constitution all voters are supposed to be armed,” David interjected. “I mean required.”

“Yeah, and that has holes you can run an elephant through,” Herzer said. “They were using the ‘bondage labor’ provisions to exclude most of the people in the town, not just the refugees but others they didn’t like and had squeezed out of power. You had to be a full guild member to be a member of the militia.”

“About a fifth their available bodies at a guess,” Fraser mused.

“About that,” Herzer said. “And all too busy to bother actually training. I mean, most of them were honestly busy, you know how it is. They had real jobs, hard ones. And the labor pool guys, who were mostly sitting around hoping for work, were restricted from training. I’d been railing about it, quietly, for quite a while. There was also a real split between the farms, who were the ones getting hit, and the town, where they thought nobody would attack. Well, shortly after my little encounter at the farm Tarson did hit the town. Things were pretty screwed up but we managed to stop them after they’d burned the tanneries.”

“We?” Fraser interjected.

“I’d… been training some of the bond labor on the side,” Herzer admitted. “And that was item one in the meeting after the attack. But it was me and a few of them that drove the attackers off.”

“Blood Lord tactics?” Fraser asked.

“Modified,” Herzer admitted. “More of a phalanx approach. Really, I just had them make long spears and learn to march in formation with them. And, yeah, that was tough to arrange. But we got our tools together and drove the Tarsons off. Then the shit hit the fan. There was a pretty… intense meeting. But they had a few unpalatable choices. They could throw me out and try to get something else from the Federals. Pretty damned unlikely. Or they could actually train their ‘organized’ militia. Equally unlikely. Or they could trust the scum with weapons.”

“The scum?” Shilan said, angrily.

“That’s how they felt about the labor pool guys,” Herzer said. “And some of them were scum; Harzburg had a hell of a crime problem for that matter. They started off the meeting wanting to kill me. ‘Violation of local ordinances’ was the crime I was accused of. I more or less told them ‘You and what army?’ By the end of the meeting they’d given me approval to recruit among the laborers. And I made a tiddly little company out of them if I do say so myself.” He looked up at the rafters again and shrugged. “Maybe I’ll have a command again, someday.”

“Count on it,” Fraser sighed.

“So when the Tarsons attacked again we routed them and drove them back to their town. Took the town, burned the ringleaders in their ‘stronghold’ and I put a few of the better of the laborers in charge in Tarson. The people of the town were mostly glad as hell to be liberated. The guild guys tried to make like it was their town but we told them where to stuff it. I worked out a charter for Tarson, got their application in to the UFS, waited until the election — which was as cold and stacked as I could make it — was over and just afterwards got the word to head home. Mission accomplished.”

“In spades,” Fraser said. “What are you getting for this one?”

“Another mission,” Herzer laughed.

“Excuse me, Mr. Herrick,” a soft voice said from over his shoulder.

He looked around and was faced by a tiny tuft of pubic hair. Looking farther up he was stunned by the vision. If the girl standing over him wasn’t absolutely perfect in every way she could see it on a clear day. Brunette, about a meter and a half, perfectly rounded breasts, high and incredibly firm, flat belly, rounded mons. He realized he was staring.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice ending in a squeak.

The girl slid into the water to his left and smiled at him.

“My name’s Sheena. I don’t think you know me.”

“I don’t think so either,” Herzer replied, all charm out the window. Three hundred fifty-seven times four… down boy!

“Back before the attack on the town, you went out with a cavalry patrol,” she said in a soft little-girl voice that practically drove arithmetic out of his brain.

“Yes?” Carry the two…

“My brother was one of the guys on the patrol,” she said, leaning forward and kissing him on the cheek. “I want to talk to you, but I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” he croaked, then turned back to the group in the bath, all of whom were smiling and trying not to laugh.

“How old do you think she is?” Fraser asked, trying not to be smug.

“Seventeen?” Herzer said.

“Try twelve,” David replied.

“No fisking way!”

“Way,” Shilan replied. “Way, way, way.”

“What the hell is she doing naked in the public baths!” Accosting perfect strangers and ruining their whole day.

“They’re public baths,” Shilan replied with a shrug. “I guess her parents decided she was old enough.”

“They need to have their heads examined!”

Sheena suddenly slid back into the water next to him and laid her hand on his arm.

“I’m really glad to finally meet you,” she said, huskily.

Down, down, down, down, DOWN! Twelve! TWELVE!

“Me, too,” Herzer replied. “So are you going to school now?”

“Oh, yeah.” Sheena frowned. “I didn’t have much before the Fall, you know? So I’m in the little kid classes…”

Okay, I’m clearly not going to get laid tonight, thank God…

CHAPTER SIX

Herzer fell out the next morning at first call in PT gear. It felt good to have nothing in front of him but some simple physical training. He ran the Hill once, then picked up a pack and rucked it four more times, each at increasing speed. He was out of shape and knew it, but he did a credible imitation of Blood Lord speeds on the Hill. After that he moved over to the salle area for the permanent party. None of his class was present but he found someone who was a close match and got in a solid two hours of sword and shield work. He might be light on wind but he hadn’t lost his touch with sword and shield and his opponent damned well knew he had been kissed, even through the padded armor.

“Very nice, Herzer. I never figured you for beating up on the babies.”

He turned around and slapped Bue Pedersen on the arm.

“Bue! Damn, where the hell have you been?”

“We’re forming a legion in Washan,” Bue said. “I’ve been ‘assisting’ in that endeavor.”

“Wish I had been,” Herzer said. “Spar?”

“If you think you’re up to it.” Bue grinned. They had both been in the first Blood Lord class, and at the defense of Raven’s Mill. But their careers had seldom crossed paths since. Bue was a triari sergeant while Herzer had been “promoted” to lieutenant. The Blood Lord had few formed units; they tended to be the cadre for other forces and the first class had found itself scattered up and down the eastern seaboard. Herzer had picked up that some were even as far away as the central plains.

Bue donned padded armor and found a practice sword to his liking. The Blood Lord technique was not precisely suited to one-on-one dueling, but both of them were trained in individual fighting as well.

The rules of the game were that they could not move to either side, but had to act as if they were in a unit, moving forward or backwards only slightly. Herzer centered himself and started the battle with an attempted shield bash which Bue turned to the side deftly and then they began hammering.

With no ability to move around it was just that, the swords licking out to jab and chop relentlessly. The shields stayed in front of the body and could be moved up and down, or, slightly, to either side. And they did move, fast, the two fighters wielding the heavy shields as if they were made of balsa wood instead of oak and iron. Blows slipped past repeatedly, though, slamming into shoulders and arms, but none of them would have been disabling so the fighters drove on, each attempting to either get in a crippling blow or force the other to give up from sheer fatigue.

Herzer noticed that most of the other fighting had died down as the two continued to hammer at each other. He had already had a good solid two hours of mock combat and his wind was not what it had been before the Harzburg mission. Bue, on the other hand, seemed to be made of iron. No matter what he tried he couldn’t get in a crippling blow nor did the NCO seem to be tiring.

“You’re getting soft, Herzer.” Bue grinned.

“All that easy living up in Harzburg,” Herzer admitted, gritting his teeth. He knew one blow that might work, but it was chancy and right on the edge of illegal in competition. When he realized he was about to die or drop he hooked Bue’s shield with his and lifted both of them, an almost impossible maneuver. Then he dropped to one knee and drove his practice sword upward into the NCO’s unprotected stomach, doubling him over retching.

“I’m still… better than… you…” Herzer gasped, bending over and panting.

“Cristo, I’m unmanned,” Bue said, clutching at his stomach.

“And now you see why we keep Class One as far apart as possible,” Gunny said to a background of applause.

Herzer didn’t know how long the NCO had been watching but he managed to struggle to his feet.

“And I thought it was because we were the best of the best,” Herzer said, grinning despite his fatigue.

“You’re pretty good,” Gunny admitted grudgingly. “But you want to try that maneuver on me?”

“Not in a long lifetime,” Herzer admitted. He walked over to the armor rack and hung up his shield, helmet and sword, then stripped out of the sweat-soaked armor. “You okay, Bue?”

“I’ll be okay,” the NCO admitted, walking over to rack his own gear. “Where in hell did you learn that little trick?”

“Tarson,” Herzer said. “Desperation is the best teacher.”

* * *

After showering off, he had breakfast with Bue and Gunny. The mess hall was neutral ground and Blood Lords did not maintain strict separation between enlisted and officers so several other officers were having breakfast with the “troops.” They caught up on what had been happening and talked about the “old times,” just a couple of years before, when the Blood Lords were being formed.

After breakfast Gunny and Bue went off to their duties and Herzer headed downtown. He thought, again, that while Gunny was still sharp as a tack, he seemed to be losing the edge just a hair. He’d picked up that Gunny no longer ran the basic entry test for the Blood Lord trainees; the first ruck run up the Hill. He just couldn’t make the time anymore. It had only been two years, but two years of running class after class had clearly taken it out of the old NCO.

Retiring him was out; he’d either be one of those guys who just hung around all the time or he’d die or commit suicide. All he had known before Fall was living what he had researched as the life of a senior noncommissioned officer. Something was going to have to be done, but offhand Herzer couldn’t think what.

Herzer wondered, not for the first time but the first time clearly, what Gunny had been like when he was a youngster. Or Duke Edmund, for that matter. He had looked at both of them, when he first started out, as the near order of gods. And now there were people who looked at him the same way. Had they been screw-ups? What was the force that drove them to be who they were? You had to have something seriously odd in your background to live the lives that they had lived before the Fall, not to mention what they had done after it.

Who were they really? People looked at him as if he was something special. Even as he walked downtown, people would come up to him and nod and whisper as he passed. Herzer, the victor of the Line. Herzer the Undefeatable. He knew he wasn’t any of those things. But he wore the mask, wore it so well sometimes it felt as if he was becoming their belief. But he knew, inside, that he was the same screwed-up kid who had run away from Daneh’s rape. Who had needed to be hammered on the anvil of the Blood Lords, and of life, to attain any sort of competence. Who still screwed up from time to time.

Who were they, really?

Those thoughts carried him as far as the bank and he wandered in abstractedly, scarcely noticing when he reached the newly installed desks.

“Can I help you?” the woman at the desk asked.

“Stephanie?”

Gone was the flippant social butterfly. The woman had her hair up in a bun and a severe expression of less than friendly competence on her face.

“Lieutenant Herrick, I believe?” Stephanie replied.

“I’m looking for Tom,” Herzer said.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Nooo,” Herzer replied with a slight grin. “But I thought I’d drop by for old time’s sake.”

“Mr. Sloan is quite busy, but I’ll see if he has a moment.” She got up and went through a side door as Herzer took his first real look around.

Tom Sloan had started small. Prior to the Fall there was no such thing as “currency.” There were energy credits but they were traded, to the extent that any trading occurred, through the Net. Everyone had a relative sufficiency. Even Herzer, who as a young man had been “released” by his parents, had enough to not only pay for advanced medical treatment but also to maintain elaborate “enhanced reality” simulations. It took real energy to use up all your energy credits.

After the Fall, currency had at first been based on food. Food was distributed based on “credit chits.” One chit, one meal. Or rough food, slightly more than one meal, if you knew how to cook it. Over time the chits had transformed into the standard currency and as the society got more complex they had become the standard monetary form. You still could buy a meal or food from the government with chit in hand. But most of them were traded through what was becoming more and more of an economy. And even the term “chit” was falling out of the lexicon, replaced by “credit.”

Tom had gotten into the trading of chits early. He had accumulated stores of them, based on loans from the government and deposits by people who had a surplus. And he’d put the money to use, loaning it out in turn at often usurious rates. But he was scrupulously fair and honest, which went a long way to people letting his interest rates slide; too many of his early competitors had played fast and loose with people’s money. He had also handled investments and contracts for people like Herzer, people who had a small surplus and wanted to put it to work.

He’d clearly come up in the world. The small office he used to have had been expanded into a large building. There was a counter with some women behind it and a few offices off of the main lobby which apparently had Stephanie to guard it. There were also two inconspicuous real guards, hulking men nearly Herzer’s size. One of them he recognized from the town militia. He’d tried out for the Blood Lords but hadn’t been able to make the full training. He still looked more than capable of ripping any troublemaker in the bank limb from limb. Herzer nodded at him and the guard nodded back, not warily but fully aware that the Blood Lord would be difficult to rip if push came to shove.

“Herzer!”

Tom Sloan was a tall, good-looking guy anywhere between thirty and a hundred and fifty years in age, wearing a fine linen tunic and a pair of light-blue cosilk pants that just matched his eyes. He had sandy hair, a ready smile and a firm grip. Herzer was sure that he practiced the smile and handshake in the mirror every morning.

“Hey, Tom, got a minute?” Herzer asked.

“Always,” Sloan replied with a toothy smile. “Miss Vega, could you pull the lieutenant’s files and bring them to my office?”

“Certainly, sir,” Stephanie simpered, then scurried away. Herzer had been sure that the woman could never scurry, but she did it well.

“Come on,” Tom said, laying his hand on Herzer’s arm and leading him through the door. There was a corridor with more offices to either side. Most of them had their doors open and in each there were people, mostly women, poring over piles of paper.

“If one more thing changes in this town I’ll scream,” Herzer said.

“You’ve got no idea.” Tom sighed. He opened a door with “Sloan, President” on a brass plaque and led Herzer inside.

The room was comfortably but not flashily appointed. There were a couch and table, a couple of chairs and a medium sized desk. An étagère behind the desk had a few personal effects in it, including a small oil painting of Tom and a woman. Herzer vaguely recognized her but couldn’t place the face.

“You’re married?” he asked, taking one of the chairs. He fit in it poorly, which was normal, but he realized his legs were shoved up higher than usual. Then he realized that if he was “normal” sized he would have been looking up at the bank president.

“Last year,” Tom said. “I had an invitation for you…”

“But I was out of town?” Herzer grinned.

“Somewhat.”

“So what’s with the banker look?” Herzer asked.

“Changes.” Sloan grimaced. “Practically the first thing the new Congress did was pass banking laws and set up an independent federal bank board. I had to get investors, set up a charter, and do all the paperwork. Stuff that I could keep up myself blossomed into a full-time job to manage the reports that the feds require. I had to shift most of the investments that I was managing to another firm. I sent you a letter about that.”

“Got it,” Herzer admitted. “But they’re still filtering the returns through you?”

“Yes, but I can’t advise on any of it or manage it,” Sloan admitted. “But I can bring you up to date on what we’re keeping in-house. Your deposits, fixed securities, things like that.”

“Okay, what is a fixed security?” Herzer said.

“Well,” Tom grinned. “You remember when I used to say: ‘Look, Herzer, leave it with me and I’ll give you five percent a year, guaranteed’?”

“Yeah.”

“Fixed security,” Tom said as the door opened up. “Ah, thank you, Miss Vega.”

“You’re welcome, sir,” Stephanie replied, laying a thick file on his desk and walking out without a backwards glance.

“Put your eyes back in your head, Herzer,” Tom chuckled.

“Actually, I got a pretty good look last night in the baths,” Herzer admitted.

“I’ve been keeping up with your accounts,” Tom said, ignoring the comment. “But they’re managed by Posteal, Ohashi and Deshort…”

“Deshort?” Herzer asked. “Isn’t he the economy guy that Edmund was, is for that matter, always muttering about?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said, frowning. “His background is in preindustrial economic modeling. He’s on the board. But I didn’t know that he and the duke had problems.”

“Not problems, really,” Herzer said with a grin. “More like a mutual disadmiration society.”

“He’s on the board of the bank, as well…”

“In that case, I think I need another bank.” Herzer chuckled. “If Brad Deshort is involved in managing my money, I’d rather play the ponies.”

“Are you seriously disturbed about this?” Tom asked.

“I don’t know; how much have I lost?” Herzer said, still chuckling.

“You haven’t lost anything, Herzer,” Tom replied, seriously. “I’ve been very careful about your investments and so has PO and D.”

“I’m joking, Tom,” the lieutenant said, shaking his head. “Never joke with a banker about money.”

“If it really bothers you…”

“It doesn’t,” Herzer said, definitely. “Let’s look at the books, okay?”

It took nearly an hour to go over all the investments that Herzer had accumulated. He was surprised at that; he had no idea he’d gotten his finger in so many pies. But the eventual total was pleasant.

“Anyway, it’s a well distributed portfolio,” Tom finished. “There have been some losses; the sand-gravel business folded completely in fact. You came out of that with only a few pence on the credit, but everything else is going well. Fortunately most of your investments still fall into tax credited areas. We’ll see what the idiots in the legislature come up with next year.”

“And then there’s Mike Boehlke’s farm,” Herzer added.

“Yes, we don’t manage that, but Mr. Boehlke has made it into quite a business. A solid, if long-term, investment.”

“And another subtle joke,” Herzer pointed out.

“Excuse me?”

“One of the expressions we use in the military for getting killed is ‘buying the farm,’ ” Herzer said, his face distant. “Soldiers talk about finally getting out and buying a farm to settle down on. So when one gets killed, we say he ‘bought the farm.’ ” His face suddenly cleared and he grinned. “Either I’m already dead or I’m never going to get kilt.”

“I see,” Tom said, shaking his head. “So are you ever going to settle down on the farm you already have ‘bought’?”

“I dunno, Tom,” Herzer replied with a shrug. “I guess we’ll both have to live long enough to see.”

* * *

The worst problem for Joel about the dragon ride had been landing at the base at Washan. It was one of the growing army bases along the coast, though, and he quickly faded into the background. He’d ridden wyvern a few times before the Fall and the only new iteration was the length of the trip. Since wyvern could only make a couple of hundred klicks per day it had been a multiday trip across the country. But wyverns were still faster, and marginally more comfortable, than coaches.

When he landed at the base he made himself scarce, then started looking for transportation. The base was not actually at Washan but across the Poma River and there was a small town that had grown up outside the base, mostly to support the needs of the sailors and soldiers that roamed the area.

He walked down a street lined with pawnshops, bars and barbershops, watching the small groups that moved on it. There were a remarkable number of barbershops and they seemed to do a brisk business. As he passed one he noticed that the “barber” was a scantily clad young woman and had to make a rapid reassessment of the situation.

It was the middle of the day, though, and there weren’t many crowds. He considered stopping in one of the bars, or one of the barbershops for that matter, and seeing what he could pick up. But that wasn’t part of his mission so he continued down the road to where a small complex of buildings was set off to the side of the town. There was a corral with about a dozen horses, most of them in decent condition, a small barn and an even smaller building with a porch out front. He walked to the latter and slipped inside.

The interior was dim; there were only two unglazed windows in the front area and the afternoon was overcast. So he was startled to hear a female voice from the rear of the room.

“Help you?” she said.

The woman wasn’t young, wasn’t old, probably somewhere in her first century. She was seated behind a counter looking at him over the top of a piece of paper.

“I need to catch the stage down towards Newfell,” he said, stepping up to the counter.

“Next stage isn’t for three hours,” the woman replied, setting down the paper. “Stage goes all the way to Newfell Base.”

Reaching the base on the stagecoach was not part of his plans. He glanced at the wall, where a map was mounted, and then down. “Well, I’m only going to Tenerie, not Newfell. I’m actually headed for the coast; I just found out I’ve got friends over there who made it through the Fall.”

“Tenerie’s thirty credits,” the woman said, pulling out a ledger book. “Can you afford it?”

“I think so,” Joel said, pulling out the silver he had gotten in Chian and one of the bronze coins. “I’ve got a twenty piece and some silver.”

The woman sighed at the latter but pulled out a scale and measured out the silver to make thirty credits. “You need to get this changed, you know. Hardly anybody out here uses chunk metal anymore and I can’t give you what you’d get at an assayer’s office for it.”

“Okay,” Joel said. “I’m from up the road towards Raven’s Mill. Plenty of people still use it up there.”

“Yeah, well, welcome to the big city,” the woman grinned. “Nobody around Washan, or Newfell for that matter, uses that stuff anymore. You might over on the coast, I don’t know about those hicks.”

She wrote him out a chit for the stage and picked up the paper in apparent dismissal.

“Thanks so much for your help,” Joel said, turning and going back out into the street.

Three hours. Assuming it was on time. That might mean two hours. Or four. Or nine for that matter.

Beyond the corral was an inn, clearly for the use of overnight customers from the stage. Across the street from it was a bar with two barbershops closely adjacent. But on the other side of the barbershops was a building with a large, freshly painted, sign that said “Sundries.”

Joel wasn’t sure what “Sundries” meant in this case; it might be a larger and more complicated version of one of the “barbershops.” But he suspected it might mean such lost luxuries as, oh, a razor, soap, maybe even new clothes.

He walked over to the shop and was pleasantly surprised. It was well stocked with shelves of clothing, toiletry items and even premade shoes.

“Can I help you?” the clerk said, coming from around the counter at the rear.

“I need a new set of clothes,” Joel said, fingering a folded pair of pants made of some heavy material. “And some toiletry items. And a bag to carry it in.”

“Of course,” the clerk replied. “We sell a lot of such things to soldiers and sailors who are being moved other places. That’s a material called ‘denim.’ It’s just starting to come off the lines, quite the new fad. Heavy, double-woven cosilk with double stitching. A pair of those will last you for years and years, just getting more comfortable with each wearing.”

“I need a pair of those, a shirt, some underthings, not made out of that…”

“Of course, sir,” the clerk smiled. “Might as well be leather, like the dwarves.”

“Or hair shirts like the Blood Lords,” Joel said.

They found clothes in his size and Joel picked up a selection of toiletries. He had never had his beard growth permanently stopped before the Fall. It made more sense to intermittently stop it; growing a beard always looked more natural than even the best implant. But that meant he had to either grow one permanently or shave, and of the two he preferred a clean chin.

He bought everything that he needed, including some travel food and a water bottle for the trip, and still had plenty of time before the coach was supposed to arrive. On his trip across the country he had discovered the unreliability of the service. Some people had discussed building railroads. But the explosive protocols prohibited all but low-power steam. And a low-power steam engine could only pull a couple of loaded cars, making the plan economically unviable. Canals were being built but they could only reach certain areas.

He had a plate of not particularly good food and a cup of worse ale and sincerely considered visiting one of the “barbershops.” He had not been celibate since the Fall. Before the Fall he and Dedra had maintained an open relationship and he was sure she would not begrudge him the release under the conditions. But for some reason, despite the fact that most of his relationships post-Fall had been… economic, he chose against it. Finally, he walked back to the stage office and took a seat on the porch, closing his eyes and thinking.

Sheida had as much as said that she suspected a high leak in the Council. His immediate suspicion was her aide, Harry. But just because he was peculating, that didn’t make him a traitor. Still worth checking out. Frankly, if he ever was put in a position where he could effect a change, counterintelligence would be a very high priority. That led him to wonder why so many of the agents in Ropasa had been rolled up. Some of that might have been from leaks, but he suspected that if the counterintelligence people on Sheida’s side were as oblivious to trade-craft as they seemed, the intel people were probably as bad.

Face it, he did not like this minor mission that he had been assigned. If he had his way, just about every ship and unit would have at least one covert agent in it. But that would mean a host of agents. Which meant a training program. Well, you’d need one of those for actual intel gathering, might as well combine the two to an extent.

Working out the details of the proposed plan carried the sun down and it was just before sunset when the stage pulled to a stop. There were only two passengers, both of whom got out to stretch their legs as the horses were changed.

He gave the driver his receipt and put his new bag on the back of the coach, climbing in and settling himself while the other passengers were still outside. He’d taken the front, less comfortable, seat in deference to the two people who had preceded him on the trip. When they got in he nodded his head. One was a young man in a Navy officer’s uniform and the other was older dressed in nondescript civilian clothing.

“Ensign Jonah Weilis,” the officer said, offering his hand.

“Joel Annibale,” Joel said, shaking the officer’s hand. He hoped like hell the ensign wasn’t assigned to Newfell Base and that, if he was, they wouldn’t run into each other.

“Rupert Popadiuk,” the other man said, nodding his head.

“Going to Newfell?” Jonah asked. It was clear that the two continuing passengers had used up any small talk they might have had. “I’m being assigned to headquarters there. I was at the base in Balmoran.”

“I’m on my way to live with some friends on the coast,” Joel shrugged. “Getting off at Tenerie and hiking overland. They’ve got a fishing boat over there; I’ve got some experience at fishing boats.”

“You ought to join the Navy, then,” the officer said, smiling. “It’s a hard life but a good one and very important. If you’re really experienced with small boats, you could probably buck for almost instant petty officer rank. Where were you before?”

“Flora last,” Joel said, lying glibly. “I sailed with a packet up to Washan. I looked at the base here, but… Anyway, I’ve got these friends. It’s not much of a life, but I get by. What do you do in the Navy, Ensign?”

“I’m in counterintelligence,” Jonah said as the coach started into motion.

“That’s interesting,” Joel said. “But what’s it mean?”

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Celine,” Chansa’s avatar said with a nod.

Most of the business of the council members was managed through avatars. The fully sentient projections had been prohibited pre-Fall, since they tended to have some bad side effects. But the council members, with myriad duties and no experience of delegation, used them to keep an eye on the various activities of their regions.

Chansa had gotten a request from Celine to attend a “demonstration” and, with reluctance, he had agreed. He admitted that the New Destiny faction had benefited by her “creations” but he often found them personally uncomfortable. The basic Changed that made up the bulk of his legions were bad enough. He had given what he thought were understandable modifications, but in Celine’s hands what had been delivered were monsters. He had considered simply overriding her; the Changed of the legions were his responsibility after all. But Celine could be particularly nasty when balked. So he tolerated hordes of half-wild beasts. He had to admit that very few groups had been able to stand up to them and, in general, simply the threat of having the hordes sent against them tended to make most resistance falter.

But some of her “specials” were simply ungodly. Abominations that turned his stomach. And while most of them required too much power, or time, to have truly become common, she had been promising a “new breakthrough” soon.

He had therefore met one of her avatars at a refugee camp in the southern Briton isles. The south had been relatively easy to overrun, but the north still held out stubbornly, holding onto small glens and highlands that were monstrously difficult to maneuver in. The ancient fortresses that dotted the landscape, many of which had been rebuilt by reenactors prior to the Fall, were an additional challenge. Then there was the stubborn nature of the defenders. They seemed to positively relish fighting all the forces he had sent against them. If he was to use Celine’s “specials” anywhere, it was to be against the damnable Gael.

The refugee camp was standard, a long curtain palisade with a collection of wooden huts. The refugees were fed and sorted out, most of the men and some of the women ending up going through the Change process. The basic process was designed to produce beings that were more suited to the post-Fall world. They were sturdier and stronger than standard humans with some innate skills. That, at least, had been the basic specifications. He had added, to his continued dismay, a suggestion for “aggression” so they would make better soldiers.

The humans in the line to be Changed had to be bound and guarded by soldiers. As he watched, a woman darted forward and tried to drag a man out of the line, only to be clubbed to the ground by the guards. One of them picked her up by her hair and dragged her down the line to a farther hut, part of the barracks complex for the guards. The man she had tried to grab slumped to his knees but was clubbed and then dragged forward by more guards.

“Chansa,” Celine answered, also watching the byplay. She turned to him, her black eyes bright and smiled. “You look so glum, Chansa. It’s not as if they’re being eaten or something.”

“Where did they take the girl?” Chansa asked, knowing in his heart the answer.

“How should I know?” Celine smiled. “I don’t keep up with every little operational detail.”

“You had something to show me?” Chansa ground out.

“Over this way,” the avatar waved, leading him back behind the Change rooms from which roars of pain could be heard. In most of the huts the humans were being Changed into the forms that were the basic sword-fodder of the legions. But Celine had thoroughly let herself go and there were other huts for “specialties.” Armies needed soldiers. But they also needed construction workers, servants, medical personnel and other specialties. In the secondary huts each of the base humans was transformed to a more “suitable” shape. At the same time their original memories were removed, so that they wouldn’t be depressed by the conditions of this Fallen time, and replaced with simple operational instructions, training on how to live in this new world.

There were paddocks behind the huts where the newly made Changed stumbled into the world. They were thin and scrawny and often had to be kept from killing each other, but he knew that with a diet heavy in protein — and he often wondered where some of that protein came from — they would flesh out into tough, if undisciplined, fighters. Two of the new Changed charged each other as he watched and more mature ones that had been posted as guards closed on them, clubbing them with fists and tearing at them with their talons until the two half-dead fighters were separated.

Back behind the area was a section designated for women and children who had not been subject to the Change. Children were simply too fragile, with insufficient internal reserve of energy, to be Changed and at least some women had to be left to manage them.

He saw more guards wandering in the area, some of them going in and out of the huts and as he passed behind one he heard a whimpering shriek from the interior. The “refugee” camps were managed by Celine and if he had his way he’d change that. But since it was beyond his power to correct, he tried not to think about it. This extended walk was making that hard. He closed his ears to the sound of cries, some of them from children, as Celine led him to a much larger hut.

“As you know, we’ve been unable to find a home for most of the female refugees,” Celine said. “They are of limited utility in this world. And the children are nothing but a resource drain. But I think I’ve finally found a solution.”

Inside the hut there was a ring of guards around a small group of people. One male, a female who might or might not have been his wife, and three children ranging in age from a skinny, feverish-looking toddler to a girl just under puberty. One of Celine’s acolytes was in the room as well and as soon as the two avatars appeared he began to mouth nonsense syllables.

A globe formed around the group and the air around them filled with light, presumably from nannite interaction. Suddenly the air was split by screams of pain which dwindled and changed into pure rage. When the globe cleared, standing in the center was a thing. As large as Chansa and if anything broader. The beast was heavy bellied with a piglike face and long, curved tusks. His arms dangled nearly to its bowed knees and his fingers and toes were tipped by razor sharp talons. He was definitely, even disgustingly, male, with an enormous penis and a large scrotal sack. He looked around the room and lunged at the doorway but was stopped by an energy field. The beast struck at the invisible shield repeatedly with fist and shoulder, bellowing in fury, until the acolyte spoke again and the monster settled into a quiescent state that, nonetheless, radiated rage.

“Where…” Chansa said and then cleared his throat. He didn’t want to ask the question, knowing in his heart the answer, but he found himself unable to stop. “What happened to the people?”

“The male was used as the nucleus for my newest creation,” Celine said with a beatific smile, stepping forward to stroke her hands over the monster; her avatar passed through the field since it had been keyed for flesh and blood alone. “His internal energy was also used. As was that of the other resources. And their material was added to his. Perfect. Flawless,” she said, stroking the creature on its arm. “The penis is fully functional, and he can reproduce with human females, assuming they survive the experience. The offspring… well, my models have several potential outcomes. I’m looking forward to empirical data.”

“Celine, even for you…” Chansa said, then pulled himself up. “This is madness.”

“Paul said that he wanted horror,” Celine replied, turning to look at him as she stroked the creature’s arm. Her eyes were bright and mad. “I can do horror.”

“Yes,” Chansa replied. “That you can.” He tried to consider the situation objectively but could not. And, strangely enough, it was not the image of the family disappearing that kept coming back to him, but the woman being dragged away by her hair.

He wished that he could delude himself, as Paul did, that what they were doing was good, was just, was right. But he could not. He had long ago concluded that it was an evil beyond redemption, a force of ill more powerful than the world had ever known. He knew that he had dug himself into a hellish pit that it might never be possible to dig out of. And he knew what had brought him here: delight in power.

Each taste of it had been like a drug to him so he had clawed his way up until, with Paul’s help, he was a council member. But with each step on the ladder, as an inspector, as a special inspector, as an associate council member, a web of responsibility, checking that power, had woven around him, taking some of the heady drug away. When Paul presented him with the ability to throw off those webs, as if they were truly gossamer, he had taken it, knowing full well with whom he had allied.

And it had led to this.

If they won the war, if Paul managed to survive, if they could… weed certain members of the Council, Celine with her monsters, Reyes with his girls and his whips and his knives and, most especially, the Demon, if they could choose the right people to take the Keys of the Freedom Coalition, maybe they could dig out.

Which meant winning. And that meant using, yes, every weapon at their disposal. Even Celine. Even this… monstrosity.

“It’s magnificent.”

* * *

“They’re magnificent,” Rachel sighed.

Herzer shook his head as the dragons winged in to a landing on Raven’s Hill.

“You’re joking, right?” he asked. “I see what you meant about the surprise.”

There were six of them, four with riders and two riderless. Five of them were wyverns, which, unlike the classic “dragon,” had two powerful hind legs and a vast span of wings to support their flight. Wyverns were nonsentient and trainable, barely. They had something of the intelligence, and personality, of horses. If, of course, horses ate flesh instead of grass and needed to consume close to their own body weight in food every day. Their bodies were also the size of a large horse but their wings, even folded, took up more cubic meters than their bodies. When opened, the batlike wings spread some thirty meters to either side.

The one on the end, though, was a true dragon. Four legs, long neck, massive wings, large enough to overshadow the five wyverns. Dragons had been developed slightly before the elves and were sentient beings, with all the rights, and responsibilities, of humans. But further creation was halted shortly after the AI wars in reaction to the various horrors of that war. Afterwards there had been a brief population increase but over the succeeding two thousand years the race had dwindled away to almost nothing.

And here was one landing in Raven’s Mill. Apparently with the purpose of flying them down to the sea. And then accompanying the expedition to the Isles.

“You have got to be joking,” Daneh repeated for him. She was still puffing from the trip up the hill and now looked at their “rides” with total befuddlement. “Tell me we’re not riding those down to Newfell.”

“Okay, I won’t,” Edmund said, chuckling. “But you might want to start climbing on.”

“Cool,” Rachel said, then looked more closely at the True dragon. “Excuse me, Miss Dragon?”

“The name is Joanna,” the dragon said, lowering her head down to Rachel’s level. Despite a mouth full of very long teeth she had flexible lips and a mobile tongue that permitted quite clear speech. “Joanna Gramlich. Most humans have a hard time telling dragon sexes. How did you know?”

“We saw you at Marguerite’s birthday party,” Herzer interjected. “So you’re now part of the Freedom Coalition? That is wonderful to hear.”

“That is a long story,” the dragon replied acerbically. She had a fairly high-pitched voice that still rumbled. It was a tough trick. “I prefer to use the term ‘independent contractor.’ Duke Edmund prefers the term ‘mercenary.’ ”

“A mercenary dragon?” Rachel gasped. “Why?”

“Do you know how much food it takes to run this damned form?” the dragon said. “I was caught like this by the Fall. I got really tired of trying to catch my own food.”

“Joanna works for room and board and a fairly high salary, which she takes in gold and gems,” Edmund noted dryly.

“And don’t forget combat bonuses,” Joanna said.

“I won’t. But this is a diplomatic mission.”

“Sure. Like it’s going to stay that way with you around. Are we going to sit here jawing all day or are you ready to go? I can take two. I’d prefer the females; they look lighter. One of the wyvern riders can double up with the duke. I hope the big boy can stay on wyvern-back.”

“I don’t know,” Herzer temporized. “How do you control it?”

“Don’t try,” Joanna snapped. “It will follow me; it knows who the pack-momma is. Just strap in and hang on.”

Herzer hefted his bag and walked over to the wyvern, looking up at it askance. The body wasn’t much longer than a horse, but the giant legs bulked it to nearly twice the weight and three times the height. The “saddle” was a pad on the back, held in place by double straps running from the neck back to the legs; the wings attached all the way down the rest of the body. There were four reins that ran up to the beast’s head but Herzer knew darn well that he had no idea what they were for.

The skin of the body was smooth with small, pebbly scales like a lizard, and it was clear that the wyverns derived most of their genes from lizards. The wing skin, on the other hand, was almost scaleless and what could be seen seemed more like a bat’s. There wasn’t much to be seen of it because the way the wings folded and refolded, most of the open skin was folded under the flight bones.

The wyvern turned its short neck to the side and glared at him out of one baleful, and very human-looking, eye. After a moment it made a sound, something like a very large dove, which sounded either questioning or querulous. Or, probably, both. Or so it seemed to Herzer.

“Hi,” someone said, walking up behind him. It was one of the wyvern-riders, and Herzer started when he realized that it was a she. In their leather uniforms and helmet it was hard to distinguish sex at any sort of distance. “I’m Vickie. Let’s get you strapped up.”

“O-kay,” Herzer said. “Where do I put this?” he asked, holding up his bag. He’d packed one spare uniform and some light clothes including a bathing suit someone had dredged up in his size.

“Don’t ask Joanna, or you might not like the answer,” Vickie said with a smile. She took the bag and stepped nimbly up the wyvern’s legs to the top where she attached the bag just behind the saddle. The dragon made another questioning sound and shifted the leg she was standing on at which she slapped it on the side. “Shut up, Chance.”

“The way this works is you lie down on his back. Don’t try to sit up. It looks great in pictures and it works like shit in reality. See the slots on the side?”

“Yup,” Herzer replied. He’d been giving the harness a good look. “How do I handle the reins?”

“Like Joanna said, don’t,” Vickie replied. “I’ll hook them up, though. The top reins are for up, the bottom reins, which hook to your feet, are for down. Pull right with the top reins to go right, left reins to go left. Don’t try to do a stoop, you won’t like it.”

“What’s a stoop?”

“If you don’t know what it is, you don’t want to try it. Just hang on and don’t mess with the reins. Chauncey will follow us just fine as long as you don’t mess with anything.”

She waited as he climbed up the wyvern, then attached straps across his thighs. There were clear grab straps on the front but the only thing actually holding him on were the thigh straps. She finished by hooking the bottom reins onto his boots and pushing the top reins, which were one continuous circuit of leather, under his body.

“The worst part about riding dragon-back is learning to keep your legs still. You go and stretch and this bad boy is going to head for the ground like a falcon. Got it?”

“Got it,” Herzer said settling his body in the seat. He was glad he hadn’t brought his armor; it would have been very uncomfortable. “Is it Chance or Chauncey?” he asked.

“It’s Chauncey,” Vickie admitted. “I call him Chance for short.”

“What’s taking so long, Vickie?” Joanna bellowed and Herzer realized everyone else was already mounted. “You’re supposed to be mounting him up, not arranging a mounting!”

Vickie looked at him with a dyspeptic expression. “Gotta go.”

“See ya.” Herzer grinned, wriggling closer into the seat. “We’ll arrange the other some other time.”

Vickie chuckled and patted him on the butt as she climbed down.

“Thanks, but I don’t go both ways,” she said as she jumped nimbly to the ground.

“Pity,” Herzer muttered as he watched her mount her wyvern. As soon as she was on, Joanna spread her wings and with a massive blast of wind, lifted off the hill and swept down over the river.

Chauncey was apparently well trained because with a bound that caused Herzer’s neck to snap back he leapt forward and upward into the air, following the larger dragon. Immediately the air was filled with wings as the formation of dragons reached for the sky.

For a moment it was all that Herzer could do to control his vomit reaction. The combination of the height and the up and down motion of the wyvern as it got up air speed was sickening. But after that brief spasm he found himself caught up in the spectacular view. The dragons were making a curving climb to the right that carried them first out over the Shenan River, which glittered in the early morning light, then over the town of Raven’s Mill itself. Looking around he realized that they were already higher than Massan Mountain. As he thought that he grabbed the straps because the wyvern suddenly stopped flapping. For a moment he thought something had gone wrong but it was just a glide period as the formation turned towards the mountain across the river.

As they passed back over Raven’s Hill Herzer felt an upward motion that wasn’t from the dragon and realized that they had passed over a thermal. Apparently to take advantage of it the dragons began their slow wing-beats again and they rapidly gained height until they lost the thermal and ceased flapping. They crossed the river at a gentle glide and Herzer had to wonder where they were going. The ocean was to the east but they were going west.

Just as he really started to get worried, it wasn’t impossible that New Destiny might have co-opted this “mercenary” dragon to kidnap Duke Edmund and his family, they passed over Massan Mountain and hit another, much stronger thermal.

This was, apparently, what Joanna had been looking for because she began a climb at the end of the mountain, in the midst of the thermal, and the dragons seemed to rocket into the air under the power of their wings and the much greater energy of the rising air.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Daneh had ceded Rachel the front seat on Joanna’s back and Rachel had initially been quite happy with that. She was looking forward to flying dragon-back. However, shortly after climbing on, as the dragon muttered various imprecations about sharp shoes, she rethought her position. For one thing, while she wouldn’t have preferred to have the view to the front blocked by her mother’s buttocks, it was now hers that were directly in view. What was worse, she badly needed to pass wind. The change in altitude, the frisson of fear on the lift-off, the whole experience was causing her internals to rearrange quite disastrously. And while she and her mother had had some tough times, gassing in her face was not going to be anything but killer embarrassing.

To take her mind off of it, she decided to brave the dragon’s wrath.

“Joanna!” she yelled. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” the dragon rumbled in reply, without turning her head. “But if you think I’m going to look you in the eye you need to stop reading fantasies. Flying is hard enough without having to look backwards!”

“That’s fine,” Rachel shouted back. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“You can ask,” the dragon said.

“Are you always this touchy or is there something in particular that has you pissed off?”

Rachel felt the seat under her shaking and clutched at the grab-straps, but after a moment she realized that it was just the dragon laughing.

“A little of both,” Joanna admitted. “I’ve been called a bitch before, plenty of times. But this mission has me ticked in a major way.”

“Why?” Rachel yelled. “Southern skies, warm seas, tropical sun…”

“Long damned flight,” Joanna admitted. “We don’t get to go on a pleasure cruise. The ship’s supposedly set up to let us land from, but my guess is we’re going to have to fly most of the way. That’s like doing a five, six, ten day marathon. We can do it, but it’s still a pain in the ass.”

“Oh.”

“And that’s not all,” Joanna said, warming to the subject. “What the hell are we going to eat? The ship we’re meeting can’t possibly carry enough fresh meat for us for the whole trip. So that means, what? Salt beef? Fish? Raw fish? I hate sushi!”

“Sorry!”

“Not your fault,” Joanna said. “I hate this Fallen world. I want to be able to Change. Any time I want. I want to eat chocolate.”

Rachel just nodded at that; she felt the same way.

For that matter, if she was in the pre-Fall days, even riding like this, she could have her gas bypassed rather than be impolite. Oh, well, at least geneticists had long ago fixed the smell problem.

“Damn thing,” Joanna muttered.

“What?” Rachel shouted back. Due to the rush of the wind, Rachel had to shout but any statement from the dragon was fairly clear.

“Oh, nothing,” the dragon replied. “Your boyfriend’s mount is riding my slipstream. It’s just an extra weight to pull.”

Rachel looked from side to side and noticed that the other dragons had spread out in a v, with the exception of Herzer.

“He’s not controlling his mount!” she pointed out.

“I know, it’s just Chauncey being lazy. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Why are the other ones in a v?” Rachel yelled. “They look like they’re going to run into each other.”

“Slipstream again,” Joanna answered. “There’s a low-pressure area that passes out to either side. Ever see geese fly over?”

“Plenty of times.”

“Same thing. That doesn’t drag directly on me, though, like Chauncey is. Damn idiot wyvern.”

They continued in a slow spiral upward, riding the thermal and the power of the slowly flapping wings for what seemed half the morning. But by the rise of the sun it couldn’t have been more than a half an hour. Finally, Rachel felt a drop, more a feeling of lightness.

“Top of the thermal,” Joanna said, banking to the east. “I got at least three thousand meters out of it, which is pretty good for a morning in October.”

Rachel had been avidly looking at the view in the distance but at those words she looked down. And then screwed her eyes tight shut and grabbed at the straps.

“Don’t look down,” Joanna chuckled.

“Too late,” Rachel replied.

“Oh, what the hell is that idiot doing?” Joanna growled.

* * *

Herzer had realized during the climb-out that Chauncey was riding the bigger dragon’s slipstream. But he for sure wasn’t going to try to mess with a spiraling climb. However, when the dragons lined out and glided into the sun, he decided that it was worth seeing if he could shift down the line. The worst that was going to happen was that he would release Chauncey and the wyvern would go back to his accustomed place.

There remained one problem. He was directly behind Joanna, no more than twenty meters. Her tail actually whipped back and forth past Chauncey’s nose, close enough to nearly hit it. The tail end of the extended V formation of the wyverns was actually behind his present position. Which meant that he would have to slow down, then catch back up. He knew neither command.

Going on a hunch, he slowly pulled back on the climbing reins until the slack was out, then pulled back on those and the diving reins, very slightly. His clamp held the reins snugly but he was always careful not to flex too hard lest he cut the reins like snapping a twig.

Herzer wasn’t even sure what Chauncey did, but they began to drift backwards from the larger dragon, while staying more or less at the same height. He was actually dropping slightly below her, but staying on an even keel, not in a “dive” or whatever.

Herzer let back out on the reins and then pulled, ever so slightly, on the left rein. Obediently, Chauncey entered a slight bank to the left, but they also began to lose height. Herzer loosened up on the rein, pulled a bit to the right, and shortly found himself just outside the left-most of the riders on more or less the same heading. Unfortunately, he was about sixty meters below the wyvern and nearly a hundred behind.

Oh, well.

The rider just happened to be Vickie and he could hear her shouting at him, but he wasn’t sure what she could do about his experimentation.

The problem was simple. He had to get up to their level and get Chauncey to speed up so that he could enter the proper formation. They were now, steadily, pulling ahead of him and either gaining altitude or he was losing it in comparison. But Chauncey seemed content to obey orders and follow the present course. Despite the fact that it was the wrong one.

He pulled, gently, on both up reins. All that did was cause him to lose more ground, but they did gain some height, briefly. Then Chauncey pulled against the reins and reentered the glide. Herzer suddenly remembered a term “stall speed” and wondered, briefly, just how close he had come to making the dragon “crash.” If such a thing was possible.

He suddenly had a very clear vision of a tree limb in his face. Shortly after the Fall he had been one of the people chosen, because he had some limited riding experience, to “help out” with a round-up of feral animals. While he had been trying to keep a boar from killing a female friend, Diablo had jumped over the spitted boar and Herzer’s forehead had impacted a tree limb at nearly a full gallop.

The recovery had been slow and painful. But if he screwed up this ride, he was looking at a several-thousand-meter fall. That was not even vaguely survivable.

But he really needed to catch up to the formation.

“Up, Chauncey,” he yelled. “Go! Forward! Hut! Hut!” There didn’t seem to be any way to beat at him. He’d never really seen the riders make any motions except small rein movements.

But. His boot was actually over skin, not on the saddle. He doubted that was unintentional.

“Hi, Chauncey,” he yelled, digging his boot into the side of the dragon as hard as he could.

The startled wyvern began flapping its wings, rapidly gaining speed. So rapidly that the formation was coming up much too quickly. And he was still slightly below it.

“Up!” he called, pulling back on the reins. At the last moment he checked his instinctive reaction to yank back and instead applied a gentle pressure, as if he was trying to get Diablo to go to a moderately slower gallop.

The control worked, Chauncey adjusted his angle of flight and went upward, losing some forward speed at the same time, but when they returned to level flight, by simply letting out on the reins, they were above and past the formation. Also slightly farther out to the left and he had no idea how that had happened.

“What the hell are you doing?” Joanna bellowed. “I told you to just go along for the ride!”

“He was in your slipstream!” Herzer yelled back. “I didn’t think you should have to tow him!”

“If it had been a problem I would have told you!” Joanna raged back. “Now what are you going to do, hotshot?”

He had to go backwards, down and to the right. The “slot” he was trying to get to was about ten or twenty meters to his right and about the same back. About sixty meters down. He seemed to be in a slightly less efficient glide than the other dragons, probably because he wasn’t coasting in the same vortexes.

Well, he’d tried the up reins, and the up and down. And turned left and right.

“I guess I’ll try the down reins,” he muttered and pushed back, lightly, on the right down rein.

* * *

Rachel had been watching Herzer’s fumbling entry into flight with some amusement but she gasped in horror as the dragon turned over on its right wing and plummeted towards the ground.

“Oh, my God!” she shouted.

Joanna turned her head slightly to the side and tisked. “That’s what we call a stoop.”

“Is he going to be okay?”

“Well, the reason we call it a stoop is that it’s fisking stoopid.”

* * *

Herzer grabbed at the straps as the dragon seemed to turn, briefly, upside down. He had a very clear view of the underside of Vickie’s dragon as he passed and he realized he was screaming, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to do at the moment.

However, he was only briefly inverted, if he ever actually had been, and he quickly gained control of the beast, taking the climb straps and pulling back on them slightly less gently than he had been.

The dragon pulled out of its dive in a strong swoop upward and to the left, pushing upward with strong strokes of its wings and Herzer let out a bellow of joy at the incredible feeling of having that power at his control.

“Yes!” he shouted, as the dragon pulled up to the level of the formation. More confident now he let it rise to slightly above the formation then angled it into the slot at a downward glide. At the last Chauncey seemed to sense the vortex and entered the slot of his own accord.

“Oh, my God!” Herzer shouted over to Vickie, a smile plastered on his face.

“You’re fisking crazy!” Vickie shouted back. “You could have killed yourself.”

“That’s what’s so great!” Herzer yelled back, still grinning. “Normally it’s human beings trying to kill me. This time it was just physics!”

“Give him a break, Vickie,” the next rider over shouted. “The first time she stooped she pissed herself.”

“Thank you so very much, Jerry!” Vickie shouted back. “You’d better check your straps well for that!”

“It was great!” Herzer yelled. “Let’s do it again!”

“Not a chance,” Jerry yelled. “The reason we’re flying like this is it’s a long flight today. You’ve already pushed him harder than was a good idea. Just let it be. Time for aerobatics on the trip.”

“He’s not a dragon-rider!” Vickie yelled back.

“Dragon. Rider. Dragon-rider!” Jerry pointed then laughed.

“How long are we flying today?” Herzer yelled.

“Long time, four or five hours,” Vickie replied. “That’s pretty close to the limit of a dragon’s endurance.”

“Oh,” Herzer muttered. “I didn’t know,” he added in a yell.

“It should be fine,” Vickie yelled. “It’s not that they wear out, they just need to feed by then. And full dragons don’t fly very well. We usually fly a couple of hours, then feed them, then fly again. This way we’ll fly four or five hours, then they’ll have to gorge. And once they gorge they won’t be any good for hours.”

“What if they don’t get fed?” Herzer yelled.

“You don’t want to be around a hungry dragon,” Jerry replied. “You really don’t.”

* * *

The dragons hissed like giant tea kettles, swinging their heads angrily from side to side. But the chains they were attached to kept them far enough apart that even their tails couldn’t strike at the ones to either side.

On the other hand, to get the large platters to them would require getting close enough to get bitten.

The destination of the group had been Newfell Naval Base, a growing facility near the mouth of the Gem River. It was at the very tip of a massive bay that marked the joining of the Gem and Poma rivers, the latter of which was fed by, among others, the Shenan that ran by Raven’s Mill.

The base had been formed in response to the apparent intended invasion from Ropasa and it was a scene of remarkable industry.

There were twelve large piers, each of which was in use by a veritable fleet of small vessels. Most of the vessels seemed to be barges and lighters that were carrying material from the interior, but a few were larger sailing vessels that had probably reached the base by sailing up or down the coast. Herzer recalled that to the north were the growing cities of Balmoran and Manan, either of which might have sent the ships.

The material being unloaded from the ships made its way to a set of warehouses lining the waterways. From the warehouses some of it spread to support the rest of the base. There were foundries that provided the iron-work for the ships, saw mills that roughed the trees that were rapidly being turned into hulls and masts, rope manufactories that took the rough hemp from the interior and made it into strong manila lines, and sail-factories where heavy cosilk bolts were sewn into the vast sails needed for the growing ships.

But all of it paled to the efforts of the shipyards themselves.

The wyverns had been parked at the edge of the shipyards along the Gem River. On every side ship hulls lying on ways were in the process of being built, surrounded by scaffolding. From every direction came the sound of sawing and hammering, and besides the smell of tidal marshes there was an overpowering smell of curing wood and sawdust.

And all of it was contributing to the unease of the wyverns.

The platters were large, over a meter in diameter, with raised edges and metal handles. The smell from the steaming mess they contained mixed with the stench of the tidal marshes to create an aroma that Herzer found truly nauseating.

But what he really wanted at this moment, rather than a mask to cut the stench, was his armor. Those wyverns had big teeth.

“What’s in this?” he asked, lifting one side of the platter as Jerry took the other. Herzer probably could have lifted one himself but it for most riders it was a two-person job.

“Offal, soybeans, vegetable oil and ketchup,” Jerry said. “Now they know the smell of this stuff and they don’t like it. So they’re going to be inclined to get a bite of fresh meat. We stop just outside of lunge range and slide it to them. On three.”

“Ketchup?” Herzer asked.

“They like ketchup. One, two…”

From behind them there was a roar and Joanna landed to the side in a blast of wind.

“Cut it out!” she bellowed, leaning over to peck the nearest wyvern on the back. The wyvern ducked its head to the ground and got as close as it could to scraping its belly, letting out a faint mewing sound.

Now feed ’em,” Joanna bellowed, pecking at another of the wyverns that had leaned towards the platters. “I need you guys alive.”

Jerry and Herzer crabbed forward and dropped the platter under the wyvern’s nose and then picked up another and dropped it in front of Chauncey. By that time the other three had been fed as well.

Like it or not the wyverns immediately buried their nose in the mess, sucking at it since it had little in the way of texture.

“Well, that’s done,” Jerry sighed. “Now we check them over.”

The dragon’s pebbly skin was fairly strong but it could be badly gouged by a misplaced strap. Jerry, with Vickie occasionally giving acerbic advice, showed Herzer how to check for gouges or scrapes. They then spent some time working on Chauncey, trimming his toenails. Jerry had a large set of bolt cutters for the job but Herzer gently lifted one of the talons and inserted the tip into his clamp.

“They’re strong,” Jerry said.

“Not a problem,” Herzer said. “Probably.” Herzer flexed his forearm and the tip of the nail flew off with a “snick” sound.

“Cool,” Jerry said. “Very useful.”

“Also opens bottles and makes julienne fries,” Herzer said with a grimace. “I’d rather have a hand.”

“How’s it work?”

“If I grasp like I’m grabbing with forefinger and thumb it clamps,” Herzer said. “If I grasp with middle and ring finger it engages the cutters. If I pull with the pinkie it engages a gear on the cutters and the clamps. Gives me about six times the grip or cutting strength.”

“Did you use the clamp?”

“Nope, didn’t need it,” Herzer said, running his hand up Chauncey’s leg as he cut the other nails. “That’s done this one.”

“Chauncey’s one of our newer wyverns,” Jerry explained as Herzer worked on the other talons. “He’s just out of the rookery but since he’s biddable and didn’t have a designated rider and we were told we needed one spare we brought him along despite the fact that he’s not full grown.”

“Big enough,” Herzer said. “How fast do they grow?”

“Ten years to get this big,” Jerry said. “He’ll add another sixty, maybe eighty kilos before he stops in another ten.”

“Ten years?” Herzer said. “Then… he was born before the Fall?”

“Yeah,” Jerry said with a smile. “Nobody’s been able to do time travel yet. There was a wyvern racing league; we came from that.”

“I’d thought that Sheida had had them bred,” Herzer said then paused. “Why did you join up?”

“Well, we had to keep them fed somehow,” Jerry replied with a shrug, giving Chauncey a last wipe with a rag. “And between Sheida and New Destiny there wasn’t much choice, was there?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Herzer answered honestly. “I… I was involved with some folks that were allied with New Destiny at first. I didn’t know they were until after I’d left. They weren’t very good people even before that, though.”

“Well, I joined up with Sheida almost immediately,” Jerry said. “I had a rookery near her home in the Teron mountains. After the Fall I flew over and she saw the benefit immediately. So I and a couple of others flew around to the rookeries and recruited.”

“Where did Joanna come from?” Herzer asked.

“I don’t know. Sheida found her someplace.”

“Do you mind her… sort of being in charge?”

“Not at all,” Jerry replied with a shrug. “She’s like a god to the wyverns, which helps as you might have noticed. And when she gets into a battle the other side doesn’t have much of a chance. The wyverns really aren’t very good at fighting; all they can do is bite or claw down, and when they do they lose airspeed. Joanna goes through the enemy like a mechanical reaper. She can really use that tail for some serious damage. I’m glad she’s on our side.”

Herzer and Jerry were gathering up the rags and cutters when Herzer spotted Rachel picking her way through the wyverns. The dragons had settled down after their feed but a few of them hissed at her as she passed.

Rachel ignored them, making a beeline for Herzer. When she got close she stood with her hands on her hips and shook her head.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding?” she asked. “I thought you were happy in the infantry?”

“I am,” Herzer admitted. “But we’re going to be working with the dragons a lot. I figured it was a good idea to get to know them as well as possible.”

“Well, Father thinks it’s a good idea if you two attend the mission briefing, whatever that means,” Rachel said. “Which is why I’m here.”

“Are we done?” Herzer asked.

“Done enough,” Jerry answered. “Let’s go.”

CHAPTER NINE

Joel had permitted the enthusiastic ensign to recruit him; it seemed like the simplest way to manage the insertion given the complications. Ensign Weilis had even picked up the ticket from Tenerie to Newfell. So after arriving at Newfell Base, the ensign led him to the recruiting station and then took off to report for duty.

Joel shook his head at that, wondering at many levels about the ensign’s naiveté. They had stopped overnight south of Washan, staying at one of the coaching inns; the price of the cramped room was included in the fare. So it had been midmorning by the time they arrived. Technically, the ensign did not have to report until just before midnight the day of his arrival. If he reported now, he’d either sit around in an office all day or be assigned busywork until somebody figured out what to do with him tomorrow.

The other level of concern about Weilis’ naiveté was Joel’s conviction that whoever was running counterintel couldn’t find their ass with both hands. The ensign had gladly told him all of his duties in Balmoran and some of what he thought he would be doing in Newfell. In fact, the kid was such a chatterbox, Joel now knew half the story of his life. He either had his cover down pat, or he was an idiot. No, the kid wasn’t an idiot, he’d been trained by idiots. And that was worse.

Joel shook his head again and opened up the door to the recruiting office. There was a desk in the room with two comfortable chairs placed in front of it. Behind the desk was a stern-faced older guy in a uniform just about covered in medals. His face broke into a friendly grin when Joel came through the door.

“Hello there, son,” the NCO boomed, coming to his feet and walking around the desk. “Glad to see you, I’m Chief Rishell, but you can call me Chief.”

“Hi, Chief,” Joel said. When the chief limpingly cleared the desk it became apparent why he was behind it; his right leg was gone from the knee down. “Got bad news for you, I think this must be the recruiting office, right?”

“That’s right, son,” the chief said, pumping his hand. “It’s a man’s life in the Navy, but we only take the best. Good strong hands there — you working as a plow-hand before?”

“No, Chief,” Joel said. “The point is, that nice young lieutenant directed me here. I’m looking for receiving.”

“You already got recruited?” the chief replied, dropping Joel’s hand.

“Yeah, I used to work fishing boats, before and after the Fall,” Joel replied with a grin. “They said something about making me a petty officer.”

The chief looked at him with a blank expression for a moment, then pointed to his left.

“Receiving’s three buildings down.”

“Gotcha, Chief,” Joel said, trying not to grin.

“You on orders?” the chief asked, looking at his shabby traveling clothes.

“Verbal is what they told me,” Joel replied with a shrug. “Basically they swore me in and put me on a stage coach for Newfell.”

“Hmmm…” The chief peered at him for a second and then went back behind his desk. “Siddown, son.”

Joel did so, cocking his head to the side.

“The thing is, you’re not required to report until just before midnight,” the chief said with a slight frown. “If you go over there this time of day, they won’t have any way to use you. They might tell you to take off and take care of personal business. But they’ll probably put you on some temporary detail nobody wants to do, like raking grass or shoveling shit. Now, everybody has to do those sometimes, anyway. But there’s no damned reason to put yourself in the way of them, if you know what I mean.”

“I appreciate that,” Joel said. “But I don’t know what there is to do.”

“If you’ve got any cash, I’d suggest going over to the Post Exchange. They’ve got a snack bar and there’s even books you can buy now in the PX. Maybe take a walk around the base, but if you’re out of uniform people are going to ask you questions and if you run into some officious young prick he’s gonna tell you to report in right away. Go get a book and some lunch and find an out-of-the way spot to hide. I’m only letting you in on this, you realize, ’cause you’re a fellow sailor.”

“Thanks, Chief,” Joel said, rising. “Can I ask you what happened to the leg?”

The chief looked at him intensely for a moment, then shrugged.

“Got a line caught around it in a gale off Cape Far,” the chief said. “Just remember, the sea, she’s a mother.”

“Been there, done that, Chief,” the spy replied. “Take care.”

“Sure,” the chief replied as he walked out the door. “You too.”

Joel found the PX and, sure enough, there were some books. He had no idea of authors or titles so he simply picked the one with the most lurid cover. It was as bad as he’d expected. It was the “true” story of Raven’s Mill’s defense against one of New Destiny’s proxies in the first year after the Fall. It centered, to an almost mind-numbing degree, on the training of the Blood Lords. On the other hand, if there was any accuracy, he needed to talk to their trainers. They already had a functional nucleus of professional training going and if the spy school he had in mind ever got off the ground, some training along the same lines would be useful.

The book, however, was another story. No way was he letting the writer anywhere near anything that he did. The guy introduced characters for no particular reason and then killed them off, just when he was getting to like them. Sure, it was a real story and the people really died, but give it a rest. He also had clunky prose and a really strange sense of humor. This guy was never going to win any awards.

On the other hand, it was a page turner and the snack bar guy had to throw him out when they closed. He tucked the book away, unsure whether to burn it or finish it later, and headed over to receiving, still chuckling. He hoped that this idiot never got ahold of his life story. He’d probably kill him off, just when everybody was getting to like him.

* * *

Herzer and Jerry followed Rachel back towards the headquarters and Herzer took the opportunity to have a closer look at the shipbuilding. There were more than a dozen ships under construction, ranging from a small boat that probably was meant to be used in the bay all the way up to a massive vessel, fully sixty meters long. The latter only had its frames up, but it was clearly designed to be fast and powerful. He had no clue what it was going to look like when completed but it had the look of a warship.

Behind the warehouses there was another row of buildings on slightly higher ground. Most of the structures were extremely rough, obviously made in the first rush of building after the Fall. Some of them were already being torn down for materials; the large tree sections that had been used to construct the early cabins could be sawn into wood to make three buildings out of one. One of them, however, was having additional construction added on and it was to that one that Rachel led them.

“This is the base headquarters,” Rachel told them as they approached through streams of workmen and sailors in blue trousers and off-white shirts. “It’s also Fleet headquarters for the time being. They’re a bit bunched up.”

“I can imagine,” Herzer said, chuckling. They were having much the same problem in Raven’s Mill with the Academy and the Overjay local defense headquarters occupying the same suite of buildings. “What gets me is how many people there are here; it must be two or three times the number in Raven’s Mill. And that’s more than there were in Harzburg. Most of them are prime soldier material and we’re dying for soldiers!”

“From what I picked up in the headquarters they’ve been filtering in from the north and south ever since the Fall,” Rachel said as they approached the entrance. The two guards in blue uniforms saluted Herzer as they passed and he gave them a wave in return. “There’s a lot of emphasis being put on getting a fleet built.”

“Well, I’d rather fight Paul’s forces at sea than on land,” Herzer admitted. “So I won’t begrudge it.”

She led them through the building to an office in the rear that was part of a recent addition; the air was still thick with the smell of sawdust and the stud-covered walls were weeping sap.

The party from Raven’s Mill was grouped around a desk, behind which sat a short-coupled man with a heavy tan and a shock of iron gray hair that had been cut short on top and to stubble on the sides. He had cold blue eyes that searched the newcomers unhappily.

“Lieutenant Herzer Herrick, Jerry Riadou, this is Skipper Shar Chang. His rank is colonel in the Free States forces. He’s the skipper of the Bonhomme Richard, which is going to be conveying us to the islands. Skipper, Jerry is the senior dragon-rider and Herzer is one of my officers who is acting as my aide in this mission.”

“Sir,” Herzer said, snapping to attention and rendering a salute.

“General Talbot outranks me, Lieutenant,” the colonel said, dryly. “One of the many wonderful aspects of this mission.”

“You’re in charge of the ship, Skipper,” Talbot said, calmly. “We’re just along for the ride.”

“The dragons aren’t,” Chang replied. “Let me explain to you all the problems we’ve got to deal with. The Richard is a brand-new ship, a dragon-carrier and the first one to be launched. It’s specifically designed to support dragons. The first problem is that we’ve had to design it in theory, since these are the first wyvern we’ve had on the base. She’s designed to carry thirty-six wyvern and their riders or four great dragons and a support team at sea for one hundred days. The five wyverns and one great dragon are going to rattle around in her like peas in a pod but that’s the good news. We’ve just completed builder’s trials. There are problems left to fix. She hasn’t had a shakedown cruise. Her rigging needs adjustment. Dragon support is going to need adjustment. And in the midst of all of this we’re tasked with this high-priority mission. You begin to see why I’m so enthusiastic.”

“I can understand that, sir,” Jerry interjected. “We were informed that the mission had both aspects in mind, working out doctrine and supporting the diplomatic mission. We’ll do it, sir. We have to.”

“Agreed. What’s your rank, son?” the skipper asked.

“Well…” Jerry temporized. “We don’t actually have ranks as such. I’m just the most senior guy. In most cases, I defer to Joanna when she’s around.”

“Grand,” Chang sighed. “So you’re not officially members of the UFS forces?”

“We are, sir,” Jerry replied, cautiously. “At least, that’s how we get paid. But the subject of ranks has never been raised. We just go where Sheida tells us and do what we can. We’ve done combat missions, sir. It’s not been a problem.”

“And what happens if one of your riders decides they don’t like the mission?” Chang asked.

“It’s… never come up, sir,” Jerry admitted.

“I’m going to send a long memo to Atlantis Command,” Chang said. “That’s for sure. Until further notice, Mr. Riadou, your new rank is warrant officer first class. I don’t know what you’ve been being paid but that’s also your pay-grade, starting now. If it’s more than you’ve been being paid, you just got a raise. If it’s less, we’ll figure something out. Flight pay, maybe. Choose one of your riders as your senior noncommissioned officer. The rest will be given the rank of sergeant. Do you have any questions?”

“No, sir,” Jerry replied.

“You should. You’re now under military law and discipline. That’s a far cry from being a civilian. I can have your riders flogged or hanged for failure to obey an order. So can General Talbot. For that matter, you’ll have to obey orders from Lieutenant Herrick, here, since he’s a commissioned officer and outranks you. I’ll have a copy of the regulations sent to your barracks.”

“What about Joanna?” Talbot asked.

“She’ll get a rank of commander,” Chang said after a moment. “She’ll be equal in rank to my XO but outrank everyone else on the ship except you or me. In general, she’ll have full control of the dragons and their riders. She’ll also be responsible for their actions. Will that be a problem?”

“Unlikely,” Edmund replied. “But she’s got a very specific pay structure. It’s in my orders.”

“Understood,” Chang said. “Now, to the mission. As Mr. Riadou noted, we’ve got a dual priority, getting the dragons trained in and handling the diplomatic mission. Comments?”

“Getting to the islands is the highest priority,” Edmund replied. “Dragon training cannot interfere with that to any great extent.”

Chang sighed and shook his head. “More or less the point that I’d come to. Well, we’ll just have to handle it.” There was a knock at the door and it opened almost immediately to reveal a brown-haired young man with a distant expression. He stopped, startled, at the group in the crowded room and looked at the commander behind the desk.

“Sorry, I’ll come back,” he muttered, starting to leave the room.

“You were supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago,” Chang sighed. “Come in, Evan. Evan is…” He paused and looked Duke Talbot with a puzzled expression. “We’re not sure exactly what to call Evan. Generally we just refer to him as a ship’s designer, but he’s more like an efficiency expert.”

“I like to think of myself as a systems designer,” Evan said with a smile that relieved his puzzled countenance. “About that, there’s a change I want to make to the feeding system on the Richard…”

“Evan, we have to have the things in place long enough to write doctrine, you know,” Chang replied. He had an amused expression on his face as if this were a long-running complaint.

“I know, Shar, but I think I can cut one crewmember…”

“Tell it to me later, Evan, there’s something more important at the moment.” Chang turned to Jerry with a gesture. “This is Warrant Officer Riadou. He’s the senior dragon-rider of the first dragon-flight we’ve received. You should get him dialed in on the facilities on the Richard as soon as possible. Jerry Riadou, Evan Mayerle.”

“Okay,” Evan said, holding out his hand. “Does that mean we actually have wyverns to work with?”

“And a greater dragon,” Chang said with a nod. “You hadn’t heard?”

“Uh, no,” Evan replied. “We’ll have to break down the stalls on the hangar deck and—”

“Take it up with the XO,” Chang said, cutting him off. “We’re sailing on the morning tide. I’ll be out in no more than an hour. Pass that on to the XO, will you Mr. Riadou?”

“Will do, sir,” Jerry said. “Should I move my people out to the ship?”

“There’s no way I can think of to get the dragons to the ship without them flying out, so the first thing we’re going to have to do in the morning is fly them on. What do you think?”

“I’ll go out to the ship, make sure that everything is arranged and that I’m familiar with the system and then come back on shore?”

“That’s right,” the skipper replied with a chuckle. “I want to see you this evening so stay on the ship until I arrive.”

“Yes, sir,” Jerry said.

“This is the Navy, Warrant Officer,” the skipper replied with a smile. “When you get an order you say ‘aye, aye, sir.’ ”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Jerry replied. “Should I go now?”

“And the term is ‘by your leave’ or ‘by your permission.’ ” Chang sighed. “Yes, go. You too, Evan. I’ll see you both on board.”

When the two had left Chang shook his head and looked at Duke Talbot.

“Is it just me, or is everyone having to make this up as they go along?”

“Everyone is.” Talbot chuckled with the rest. “Daneh is having to half-train doctors, Herzer constantly has to make soldiers out of straw and mud. Everyone is.”

“Do you have any idea how complex a large ship is?” Chang asked. “Just gathering the necessary materials for it to go to sea is mind-boggling. Enough food and water for a hundred days, for thirty-six dragons? Not to mention the two hundred and twenty-five crew members, twenty officers and warrant officers, dragon-riders, passengers. On that subject, water is at a premium on-board. There is a ration of one gallon a day per person and it is not adjustable. There are saltwater showers and you can have thirty seconds of secondary water for washing the salt off. Don’t drink it; it’s not potable. We have a low-power steam engine for powered support and it produces the shower water, but there’s only so much. The cabins are small and tight; there’s no room for much gear. And the food ranges in quality from poor to very bad.”

“So much for a pleasure cruise to the islands,” Rachel said with a laugh. “It’s better than things were right after the Fall, Skipper.”

“That it is,” Chang said with a nod. “Speaking of gear, this was ported over. Or formed here, I’m not sure which.”

He reached behind his desk and pulled out a gray plastic box, setting it on his desk. It was apparently seamless.

“I can’t open it,” he added in a less than amused tone. “I have no idea what it contains.”

Talbot placed his hand on the top of the box and it opened down an invisible seam on the top. Inside were four transparent bags, some mixed items on the bottom and a sealed envelope. Talbot pulled out the envelope and broke the seal, then shrugged at the contents.

“More instructions from Sheida,” he said, folding it and putting it back in the envelope. Chang was visibly annoyed that he was not made privy to the communication but Talbot ignored him. “Breath-masks for working underwater and suggested trade materials,” he added, closing the box. “Could you have this sent out to the ship, Skipper?”

“Of course, General,” the officer replied. “Will there be anything else?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Talbot said. “It would probably make sense for us to go out to the ship as soon as possible.”

“I’ll make arrangements,” Chang replied, gesturing at the box. “That way your luggage can come with you.”

“Thank you,” Edmund said with a broad grin. “Now?”

“Horace!”

CHAPTER TEN

Herzer shook his head at the sight of the massive ship.

“They’ve only got a couple of hundred people to man it?” he asked.

The ship was nearly eighty meters long with three masts, the rearmost and highest of which stretched forty meters in the air. Sails were furled in every direction and Herzer had a hard time sorting them out. There were some that looked like they dropped down from crosspieces on the masts, but others were twisted around sloping ropes or something on the front.

The ship also looked awfully odd because where more masts should have been at the rear, there was a large platform. In fact, the wheel and deck that he’d expect to be at the rear was entirely missing. It might be under the platform, but if so it was well hidden. And a large, cantilevered platform angled out forward on the near side of the ship. And the whole ship was painted a dull gray, which Herzer found strange.

The group was being rowed out to the ship in one of the many small boats in the harbor. This one was rowed by two people, a man and a brawny female who seemed to be in charge. The boat was one of many headed to or from the ship and as they approached they could see a group of seamen lifting pallets onto the ship from one of the lighters alongside. Next to it was another lighter that had snaked four hoses over the side. It had a small steam engine going and was apparently pumping something aboard ship.

As they approached the ship a set of stairs with a floating platform was lowered over the side and the two oarsmen pulled the boat up to it.

Herzer had been surprised when Duke Edmund had had them board in reverse order of seniority but he understood now as the duke was the first to hop from the craft onto the platform and rapidly ascend the stairs. Herzer followed Daneh out of the boat and up the stairs. He was trailed, in order, by Vickie, Rachel and one of the other dragon-riders, the latter of which was carrying the featureless gray box. From the top of the stairs came an odd sound, like very high-pitched whistling. He got to the top of the stairs just in time to see the duke drop his salute and hear a leather-lunged petty officer bellow: “Overjay Command, Arriving!”

At the top of the stairs there was a double line of sailors and the blue-uniformed soldiers that he had seen at the Navy base. The sailors were in their day uniforms but the soldiers were turned out in armor, which was well polished, and boarding pikes, which were held vertically at attention.

Edmund had briefed them on the way out so Herzer first saluted the rear of the ship, where the UFS Navy flag, a diamondback rattler on an orange field, was flying, then the officer greeting them.

“Permission to come aboard, sir?”

“Permission granted,” the Navy commander replied, returning the salute. He was wearing the same undress uniform as the sailors, blue trousers and off-white shirt, but wore a broad brimmed hat, turned up at one side, on which were fixed the two vertical silver bars of a commander. He was nearly as tall as Herzer but much thinner and he held out his hand with a friendly grin. “You’re going to have as much trouble moving around this ship as I do.”

He turned to the duke and waved towards the rear of the ship as the petty officer in charge of the greeting party ordered it to stand down and fall out.

“I’m Commander Owen Mbeki, executive officer,” the commander said.

“I’m Edmund Talbot, obviously,” the duke said with a smile. “My wife Doctor Daneh Ghorbani who is acting as my cultural attaché, Lieutenant Herzer Herrick my military attaché and aide, my daughter Rachel Ghorbani, Daneh’s aide, Staff Sergeant Vickie Toweeoo, senior NCO of the dragon contingent.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” the commander replied, shaking their hands. “I’ll show you to your staterooms, General. Sergeant Toweeoo and the other dragon-riders are quartered by their beasts.” He waved to the leather-lunged petty officer and gestured at the two riders. “Have someone relieve this poor man of the baggage, Chief Brooks, and show them the dragon facilities. Then round up Evan and that dragon warrant.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” the CPO said.

Once on the deck it was clear that the overhang, what was apparently a dragon landing platform, covered a good third of the ship. The commander led them towards a gangway that was actually under the shade of the platform and gestured above.

“That thing’s going to be a bloody nuisance, General,” the commander noted. “Not only does it mean losing a mast, perhaps two, with the concomitant loss of speed, but it’s got a huge sail area. Maneuvering this tub is a stone bitch.”

“What do you think about it?” Talbot asked. “Are the dragons worth it?”

“We’ll have to see, won’t we, sir?” the commander said with a tone of amusement. “From what I understand they don’t have much of a means of attacking anything below them. At the moment I’d have to say no. On the other hand, preparing for them has given us this lovely huge ship to play with and if they don’t work out we can simply add a couple of masts and have a real fighting ship at our fingers.”

He led them down the short flight of stairs to the next deck. The top of the opening to the passageway was covered in padding and painted bright yellow and black.

“Watch your head,” he said, ducking in example. “Especially you, Lieutenant. Turn to face the ladder, please; it’s safer that way.”

The corridor beyond was low and narrow. There were two crewmen, a male and a female, coming from the opposite direction and both of them flattened themselves against the wall as the party passed.

“Sorry about this,” Daneh muttered.

“Not a problem, ma’am,” the female crewman murmured while the male gave Rachel a raised eyebrow.

“Moving protocols,” the commander said as he pushed aside a curtain and entered a room to the right of the corridor. “When you’re moving in a corridor, the junior gives way to the senior. Since that means I only have to stand aside for the captain I think it’s a lovely deal.” He pointed to two bunks along the side of the tiny cabin. “I’m not sure about arrangements. We’re a mixed crew but we have separate bunking for males and females. There’s this cabin and the master cabin, which is designated for the use of Duke Talbot since it’s large enough for meetings. Either the two ladies can bunk in here, or the lieutenant and Mistress Daneh’s aide share, or, I suppose, the duke could give up his cabin to the ladies and bunk in here. There’s also a large cabin in the dragon-rider’s area but I’d prefer to set that aside for the riders if you don’t mind. Or one of them could bunk with the riders.”

Edmund looked at Rachel and raised an eyebrow to which the girl shrugged.

“I’ve been living, one way or another, with Herzer most of my life; I don’t have an issue with rooming with him.”

“I could bunk with the riders,” Herzer said at almost the same time.

“No, I want you to work with them but I’ll want you handy as well,” Edmund said, rubbing his beard. “Bunk here. If there are issues, deal with them.”

Herzer shrugged and went into the room, tossing his gear on the top bunk. It had a low wooden railing on the outside and the cushion was made of some relatively soft padding; he wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t straw or feathers, of that he was sure. There was just enough room for him to turn around, with his head bent, in the small cabin. Climbing into the bunk was going to be an interesting operation. His gear, not much of it, just one bag, went at the foot of the bunk, which gave him about a hundred ninety centimeters to work with. Given that he was two hundred ten centimeters in height, it was going to be cramped. He’d just have to prop his feet on the bag.

“And just down the corridor,” Mbeki said, this time opening a door into a room, “we have Duke Edmund’s cabin.”

The room, while low, was relatively spacious. Besides a large bed it had a table large enough to handle six people, eight if they crowded. There was also a fairly large window made of thick glass, and a few meters of open floor space.

“You’re on the port side of the ship here, just forward of the captain’s cabin,” the commander said. “My cabin is right across the corridor. Wardroom is just down from the aide’s cabin on the port side. The rest of the officers’ quarters are forward of the companionway.”

“This will do well,” Duke Edmund said. “Put that over there,” he continued, gesturing to the seaman who had been following them.

“Duke Edmund,” Herzer said. “I’d like to look up Jerry and get a look at the dragon quarters.”

“Warrant Officer Riadou is supposed to be meeting with the captain soon…” Mbeki said.

“I’d like Herzer to attend that,” Talbot interrupted. “Herzer’s going to be my liaison with the dragon-riders. I’d like him in on discussions of their use.”

“Very well,” the commander said, nonplussed. “Seaman, show Lieutenant Herzer to the captain’s dayroom.”

Herzer followed the seaman though a bewildering series of corridors to a door guarded by a sentry.

“Lieutenant Herzer to see the captain, orders of the duke,” the seaman said, stepping aside.

The guard looked the lieutenant over and raised an eyebrow. “Blood Lord?”

Herzer leaned forward until his nose was an inch from the sentry and nodded.

“Blood Lord. There is one captain. There are two lieutenants. I’m the other one. And if you give me a look like that again I’ll wipe the floor with you. I don’t take lip from privates. Especially ones with newly issued armor and who haven’t seen shit to make them salty. Do I make my point?”

The sentry flexed a jaw muscle and nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said, then knocked on the door.

“What?” Chang called from the interior.

“A Blood Lord lieutenant to see you, sir,” the guard said.

“Let him in.”

Herzer marched in and saluted the captain, who was bent over a table, head nearly touching Evan’s, both of them poring over a schematic, presumably of the ship.

“Message from Duke Edmund?” the skipper asked.

“Actually, sir, he sent me to… look in on the meeting, sir. I’ll just stay out of the way.”

The skipper stared at him flatly for a moment, then shrugged. “No, if you have anything to contribute, feel free. We’ve only been working on this project for a year. I’m sure you have all sorts of useful suggestions.”

“I’m much more likely to ask questions, sir,” the lieutenant said. “But I intend to avoid even that.”

“Questions are good,” Evan said. “Doing something like this is all about questions. Like, what’s going to happen to the handling of the ship when thirty-six wyverns are coming and going all the time?”

“Something we’ll have to find out,” the skipper said. “Right now, I’m wondering if we can even get them on and off.”

“We can do the landing, sir,” Jerry said doggedly. “The wyverns can land on a dime.”

“This will be a moving dime, Warrant,” the skipper growled. “Up and down, side to side, forward and back. I’ll limit the movement to the extent that I can, but I can’t stop it.”

“We’ll figure it out, sir,” Jerry replied.

“Know anything about logistics, Lieutenant?” the skipper asked. “You’ve fed those wyverns. How much feed per day?”

“Depends upon the type, sir,” Herzer answered. “From what I was told, two hundred kilos per day of the mess, less if it’s good quality protein and fats.”

“Access to the latter will be restricted at sea,” the captain said. “You’ve helped feed them?”

“Sir,” Herzer said, nodding his head.

“Think about doing that on a rolling ship in the middle of a gale,” the captain said with a smile.

“Sir, have food bowls set into the stalls, sir,” Herzer replied. “Have slots to feed the mess through the slots. Better yet, have some sort of a moving trolley that automatically feeds them; that prevents humans accidentally sliding into the stalls. Have the edge of the food bowls sufficiently high that the mess is unlikely to slop over. Feed in increments rather than lots at one time. More time intensive but if there’s an automated feeder that’s not a problem. Sir.”

The captain raised one eyebrow. “Is that an official recommendation, Lieutenant?”

“But…” Evan said then shut up as the captain raised a hand.

“Sir, no, sir, it’s just an idea,” Herzer barked, standing at the position of parade rest. “I was specifically asked, sir.”

The skipper leaned back in a chair and actually appeared to look at Herzer for the first time.

“Who trained you, Lieutenant Herrick?” the captain asked.

“Gunnery Sergeant Miles A. Rutherford was my advanced combat trainer, sir,” Herzer replied. “He developed the Blood Lord training system. Along with Duke Edmund.”

Gunnery sergeant?” the skipper asked. “That’s a Marine rank.”

“If you have an issue with the use of that rank, sir, I respectfully suggest that you take it up with the Gunny, sir,” Herzer said sardonically.

“Think you’re salty, Lieutenant?” the skipper asked, tilting his head to the side.

“No, sir, never been to sea, sir,” Herzer replied. “But…”

“Yes?” Chang said, with a raised eyebrow.

“I’ve been wounded with arrows, axe, spear and sword, had my hand cut off by a powered blade, fought my way through a cloud of nannites to try to dig my dagger into a man protected by a force field. I’ve been smashed off my horse, trampled and seen my best friends die on every side of me. I’ve flown dragons, fought cavalry battles and clashed shield to shield with ten times my number of Changed, all slavering for my blood. For two damned years I’ve been fighting this war on the front lines, sir. If you’re trying to intimidate me, Colonel, you’re going to find it a hard row to hoe.”

The skipper stared at him for just a moment, then nodded his head.

“We’re trying to figure out how to land and recover dragons on this ship and how to keep them alive, healthy in extreme conditions. We’re also trying to figure out how to make them more of an offensive weapon. Warrant Officer Riadou has apparently fought with them before, but if the enemy isn’t disheartened by their appearance there’s not much that they can do except flap their wings and hiss. They’re not even very good at using those impressive talons of theirs. Air to air, dragon y dragon, they might just be formidable. But we need to figure out how to make them a formidable force against ground and sea enemies. Now, they make decent scouts but I don’t want a ship that’s relegated to a scouting mission. I want an offensive weapon. Understand?”

“Sir,” Herzer said with a nod of his head.

“Is there some way that you can help with that?”

“Not at this time, sir,” Herzer admitted. “I wasn’t planning on contributing, as noted. I’m here to be Duke Edmund’s eyes and ears. But… sir?”

“Yes?”

“There’s nobody that I know of who is better at wringing an offensive edge from a weapon than Duke Edmund.”

“Perhaps he’ll have some ideas, then.” The skipper shrugged. “By the way, you came up with the same plan that Evan has for feeding the wyverns. Mr. Riadou has some issues with it.”

“Wyverns are pack animals, sir,” the rider said. “I’m afraid that if they spend much time battened down and completely separated they’re going to be pretty unhappy. Depressed. A depressed dragon is a noneating dragon.”

“We’ll cross that problem when we come to it,” Chang said. “And that’s your problem unless there’s something specific that I have to approve.”

“Yes, sir,” the rider said.

“I want you to be thinking along offensive lines,” the skipper continued. “I want you to figure out ways that your dragons can sink ships. Capture them for that matter.”

“Well, we can drop rocks,” Jerry said. “But we have to toss them over the side and hope we both miss the wyvern’s wing and hit the enemy. It’s not very efficient.”

“You and Evan talk it over,” the skipper said. “I’ve spent enough time on this problem. Take Herzer with you. Figure something out.”

“Will do, sir,” the warrant officer replied. He straightened up and saluted, fist to chest. “By your leave, sir.”

“In the Navy we salute to the brim of the cap,” Chang said, tossing him a salute in return. “And not indoors. Gads, classes on basic military courtesy for riders. Add that to the list.”

“Is he in the Army or the Navy?” Herzer asked. “Sir.”

“He’s damned well under my command on this ship, Lieutenant,” the skipper replied tightly. “He can damned well follow Navy protocols.”

Herzer nodded in reply and pushed open the door.

* * *

Joel had been assigned a bunk in the transient quarters and the next day hurriedly assigned uniforms and filled out a myriad of forms. The only one that gave him any trouble was the last will and testament. He had no one, at least no one he was in contact with, to leave his belongings to. On the other hand, “Joel Annibale” didn’t exist, anyway. Finally, he left the form blank and when he turned it in the clerk in charge pointed to the empty line.

“You gotta leave it to someone or something,” the clerk said.

“I don’t have anyone,” Joel said, his face hard.

“Most of us don’t,” the clerk replied. She was a young woman and she shook her head, sighing. “You can leave it to the Navy fund. This is my family, now. I guess it’s yours, too.”

Joel filled in the line and signed the form with a strange feeling. He knew he probably wasn’t going to be with the Navy long, but for the time he had a home.

He was sent down to the docks with his ill-fitting uniforms, bulging seabag and new boots that slipped on his feet. He was assigned to a boat and got the first look at his new ship.

The damned thing was huge, a clipper ship if he recalled the design right. But the masts were all screwed up because of the big platform on the back.

There was a working party loading on the starboard side and before the new hands were even assigned quarters they were put to work hauling up the supplies. There were hogsheads of salt beef and pork, steel barrels of ration biscuit, bag after bag marked “Soya” and innumerable other items. Winches had been secured to the crosstrees and the material came over in large cargo nets. Then it had to be hand carried below and stuffed away in the holds. On his first trip down he was surprised to see that the material was only supplementary to what was already on-board; the ship was stuffed tighter than a tick.

As soon as the lighters had pulled away from the ship he was accosted by a female petty officer.

“I’m PO Su Singhisen,” the petty officer said. “You’re Seaman Annibale, right?”

“Right,” Joel said. “Joel Annibale.” The PO was a medium-height blonde with her hair pulled back in a tight bun.

“You looked like you knew what you were doing, there,” she said, waving at him to follow her below.

“I’ve worked ships before,” Joel said. “None this big, but it’s pretty much the same.”

“And they made you a steward?” Singhisen laughed.

“They did?” Joel replied. “Nobody told me what my duty station was going to be.”

“Grand,” the PO chuckled. “The navy finally finds somebody with experience on ships and they make them an officers’ steward.”

“Sounds like any bureaucracy to me,” Joel chuckled.

“What did you do before the Fall?” Singhisen asked as she led him below. The companionway was short and while the PO didn’t have to stoop, Joel did.

“I mostly sailed in the Asur Islands,” Joel replied. “After the Fall I took up fishing for a living.”

“How’d you get here?” she asked. She opened a door on an incredibly cramped room with four tiers of bunks spread across it in six rows. “Home sweet home.”

“Grand,” Joel replied as she led him down the narrow aisle between the bunks.

“You’re the newbie,” she said, pointing to the top bunk. “So you get the worst spot.”

Joel had already seen that the seabags were set at the base of the bunks. He climbed up and lashed his in place.

“What next?”

“Galley and then I get somebody to show you the route to officers’ country. Then we put you to work.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Herzer followed the two far back into the bowels of the ship. The corridors were impossible to figure out, or so it seemed; most of the time he didn’t know if he was facing the rear of the ship or the front. But finally they entered a high, wide corridor that was unmistakable.

“This is where the dragons walk?” he asked.

“We call it Broadway,” Evan replied with a nod. “There’s a ramp for them to walk down. The hatch is a major structural weakness, but we think we’ve shored around it sufficiently.”

“Jerry, how much weight can one of the wyverns carry, over the weight of the rider?” Herzer asked.

“About two hundred kilos depending on the weight of the rider,” Jerry replied.

“So why was I told to fly one alone?” Herzer mused. “I could have doubled up with, oh, Vickie. Or you, for that matter.”

“We’d brought a spare,” Jerry replied with a shrug. “Why overload them?”

“Hmmm…” Herzer followed them down to the stalls and checked out the arrangements. Sure enough, there was a method to slip food through to the permanently installed food troughs as well as spigots for water at each of the pens, feeding into a separate watering trough. The stalls had points to hook up chains in case the wyverns got out of hand as well as ways to close the stall down and press the wyvern up against the back if one got completely out of control.

“I think this will work,” Jerry said, reluctantly. “Actually, it’s better set up than our rookeries. I’ll take some of these ideas back. Where’s the mixing area for the mess?”

“Down the corridor,” Evan said. “You’ll love it. The material is brought up on lifts in premeasured quantities and then you just pour it in the mixer. That’s powered as well, if we have take-off time. If not there’s a four-man capstan for mixing and running the feeding chutes.”

“I hope you remembered the ketchup,” Herzer said jokingly. The mechanical feeding contrivance looked like a recipe for feeding body parts to the wyvern to him, but as an officer he hoped he’d be spared the job of using it.

“We’ve got two tons of ketchup powder,” Evan said earnestly. “That should cover a hundred days even at the standard use of one kilo of ketchup per day per wyvern, which was what we were given as the measure. How do they like fish?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” Jerry said. “We’re from inland. Why?”

“I was wondering if it becomes necessary if they would be willing to substitute dried fish or fish sauce for meat or ketchup?”

“We’ll find out,” Jerry said with a laugh. “I’m sure we will find out.”

“Evan, we met a ‘Chief Brooks’ earlier,” Herzer said, rubbing his chin. “Who is he?”

“Brooks is the command master chief, the senior chief on board,” Evan said. “Why?”

“Know where I’d find him?” Herzer asked.

“Just go up on deck and ask, somebody will know where he is.”

“Jerry, I’ve got the funny feeling that I’m going to be ordered to get a, pardon the pun, crash course in dragon flying,” Herzer said. “But I assume one of you will be bringing in Chauncey?”

“Absolutely,” Jerry said with a frown. “I’m not even sure about…”

“Trust me on this,” Herzer said. “I’ve learned to read part of the way into that opaque mind of my boss. We’ll have to figure out how to get me trained on a ship.”

“We’ll try,” Jerry sighed.

“Okay, I’m going to go find Chief Brooks,” Herzer said. “Later.”

“Later,” Jerry replied as he walked away.

“I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes,” Evan said. “Chief Brooks doesn’t like his time wasted. If he’s not happy with a lieutenant it doesn’t keep him from, with great respect, of course, eating the lieutenant a new asshole.”

“I’m not sure I’d want to be the chief that tried to eat Herzer a new asshole,” Jerry said musingly. “Now, human being quarters?”

* * *

“I think I can live here for a while,” Daneh said, looking around the cabin after the others had left.

“It’s more comfortable than I expected,” Edmund admitted. “I was figuring we’d be in bunks.”

“You’re a duke now.” Daneh smiled. “And a general. People want to pamper you.”

“Like I need pampering,” Talbot said. He reached down and opened up the box again, then dug into the bottom, pulling out a small gemlike device.

“A datacube?” Daneh said. “I can’t believe she’s expending so much power on this! I’ve had people die because I didn’t have power.”

“Daneh, if we get this wrong far more people are going to die than will ever go under your knife in a very bad lifetime,” Edmund said. “And it’s not just a datacube.”

“What’s it for, then?” she asked.

“Communications among other things,” Edmund temporized. “And… in the event of a direct energy strike by Paul or any of his faction, they’ll draw power from Sheida’s protections. That’s how important this is to her. But we’re not to use it unless we really have to.”

“This is more than just an invasion,” Daneh said. “I mean, about more.”

“There are so many balls being juggled I’m not even sure which are in the air,” Edmund admitted. “But just concentrate on your mission and we’ll be fine.”

“I hate it when you get all inscrutable,” Daneh said, sighing. “Speaking of which, I have an interest in Herzer’s well-being. Why did you really bring him along?”

“When Jerry and his friends were racing wyvern, Herzer was fighting orcs in enhanced reality,” Edmund said, frowning. “With the pain protocols turned up. He’s a hard, cold, thinking bastard of a fighter. Harry tried to get those flyboys to pay attention to the mission, which is to force the enemy to admit defeat. He didn’t manage it. I’m hoping that Herzer has better luck.”

“And?”

“And…” Edmund smiled. “After the job he did in Harzburg he needed a nice vacation to the Southern Isles. A pleasant cruise, a beautiful roommate, who knows what might happen?”

“Edmund, are you matchmaking?” Daneh said, aghast.

“For Herzer? Always.”

“Your own daughter?!”

“Why not? They’re young, they’re compatible…”

“And Rachel treats him like a brother,” Daneh said, throwing up her hands. “Herzer is a stallion stud, Rachel, as far as I know, is still a virgin. And apparently uninterested in changing that fact. It’s not going to work.”

“It’s worth a shot.” Talbot shrugged. “Frankly, Rachel needs him more than vice versa. She just doesn’t realize it.”

“She’s making a fine life for herself,” Daneh answered. But even she knew it sounded defensive.

“Certainly,” Edmund replied with a nod. “If she wants to live it alone.”

“That’s up to her,” Daneh said. “I tried it.”

“How was it?” Edmund asked. “It was hell from my end.”

“Not that good,” she admitted with a smile. “Speaking of which, how long until we need to make an appearance?”

“Long enough.”

* * *

Joel’s duties were simple enough, if rather time consuming. He had the middle watch, from midnight until eight in the morning. He was to support the cooks that fed the watch and run coffee to the deck officers or any officers who were in the wardroom. He was only the steward for the XO on down; the captain had a separate steward who stayed on his schedule. It meant though, in effect, that he had the run of the officers’ quarters and wardroom and if there was a leak among the officers, he had a good chance of picking it up. In addition he had battle stations with the sickbay as a stretcher-bearer, was part of the capstan crew for raising anchor and had a position lowering the whaleboats in air-operations. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be getting much rest.

After getting him familiarized in his duties PO Singhisen released him to go try to get some sleep; he had to be back on duty at midnight.

In the cramped quarters he tried to drown out the noise of a card game at the end of the compartment, not to mention the quiet conversations of other off-duty seamen around him. Finally, he rummaged in his seabag and pulled out the penny dreadful he’d picked up, opening it to the dog-eared page and finding a grammatical error in the first sentence. Jeeze, this guy was bad. But at least it passed the time.

* * *

“I think we’ve waited long enough,” Shedol said.

“No, we haven’t,” Shanol answered, flicking him with his tail.

Shanol Etool had spent plenty of time wondering if he’d made a huge mistake taking a Change to orca form. Admittedly, after the Fall it was easier to survive as a Changed orca; knowing how to climb out of the water carefully and get back in just as carefully had yielded more than he could eat of seals.

On the other hand, an almost continuous diet of raw fish and marine mammals palled quickly. He might have starved in the Dying Time if he hadn’t changed, but while hunting dolphins for sport was one thing, eating them raw was another. And they could be brutal if you got separated from the pod.

The alliance with New Destiny had meant no more hunting, having servants on land to prepare food and take care of the occasional parasite, a comfortable and guarded harbor to rest in. But he knew, even at the time, that the markers were going to be called in eventually.

The pod of Changed orcas were tired and hungry. They had gotten a bluntly worded order to move from their usual grounds near the Asur Islands and make their way to the deep water near Bamude. The problem was that the open ocean between the two areas was nearly devoid of life. They had happened upon one pod of natural dolphins but the damned beasts were hard to catch. Other than that they hadn’t eaten since leaving their home waters. And the swim had been brutal.

But the ships they were meeting were supposed to be bringing supplies, as well as orders. Not to mention the fact that the tersely worded orders had still contained enough to make clear they were not a request. So they would wait.

“Do you hear that?” Sikursuit pulsed. “Sounds like a boat.”

“Yeah,” Shedol said. The second in command was nearly as large as Shanol, and both were outsized for normal orcas. They had both Changed at the same time as various forms of underwater hunting had gotten boring and they decided to try it “au naturale.” It had been their combined energies that had gathered the pod together. They had separated out the female orcas and the females now languished in pens in the harbor, reserved for mating to Shedol or Shanol unless one of the other males in the pod was especially graced. “Waves slapping on the hull.”

Sikursuit lifted himself up to the surface and looked in the direction of the sound but when he came down he shook his head from side to side.

“Still below the horizon,” he said with raised pectoral fins. Like all the Changed he had stubby fingers on the end that were barely capable of holding implements.

“I’m tired of waiting,” Shanol announced. “We’ll go to them.”

* * *

“You’re late,” Shanol squealed from his blowhole, rolling an eye up at the figure leaning over the side of the ship.

“The winds were terrible and this tub isn’t exactly graceful,” Martin replied. He slipped a membrane over his head and dove in the water.

“There, that’s better,” Martin replied. The membrane separated out oxygen from the water column around his head and transferred it as he breathed in a manner that made it seem like breathing air. And as he spoke the membranes converted his words into sonar pulses that were comprehensible to the orcas. “Unless I’m much mistaken, you’re away from the rendezvous.”

“We heard you coming and we were hungry,” Shanol replied as the pod circled the unChanged human.

If Martin noticed the emphasis on “hungry” or the circling orcas he gave no sign.

“The point is that it was a general rendezvous,” Martin pointed out. “Old friends and new as they say. I’m Martin St. John. You’re Shanol Etool.”

“I know who I am,” Shanol pulsed, tightly. “Where’s the food?”

“In time, in time,” Martin replied. “Let’s get things straight, I’m your control from here on out. We’ve got a complicated little problem to work out and you’re going to do it my way.”

“Or?” Shedol asked, clashing his teeth. “You’re in the water with us little landsman; as far as we’re concerned, you’re just slower lunch.”

“I understand your position,” Martin said. “There are many in the sea that take it.” He waved his arms, and up out of the depths rose a kraken, a human who had taken the extreme change into a giant squidlike creature. The kraken whipped out one thirty-meter tentacle and wrapped it around Sikursuit drawing him down into the depths as he squealed in pain and fear.

“I think we should be clear,” Martin continued as the shrieks from the orca rose to a crescendo. “I’m in charge. Now, there are all sorts of theories about leadership and management. But, really, they all boil down to ‘I tell you what to do and you do it.’ You’re not honorable, so I can’t appeal to your honor. You’re not patriotic, so I can’t appeal to your patriotism. You’re not moral, so I can’t appeal to your morality. But fear and intimidation are universally acceptable methods of leadership. As you, Shanol, and you, Shedol, have proven,” he added as the shrieks were cut off in abrupt finality.

He looked around at the orcas who were pulsing into the deeps. The kraken had faded from eyesight but it was apparently still in range of sonar.

“Oh, that’s just Brother Rob,” Martin said. “He was… a compatriot in some… businesses with me before the Fall. He made a couple of minor little errors in, shall we say ‘sexual gamesmanship,’ and decided that taking a very long vacation somewhere extremely unlikely was called for. And while Mother could find him in a deep-sea trench, the busybodies from the Council weren’t able to. But he, too, has decided to aid us in our endeavors. Of his own free will, of course.”

“Of course,” Shanol pulsed. “But I’m now short an orca.”

“Well, we can’t have you short on personnel,” Martin said, waving his hand again. From out of the gloom of the depths rose a school of what appeared at first to be manta rays. But as they approached, the vertically slit teeth made it clear what they were.

“What hell are those things?” Shedol said. “Jesus.”

“No, far from it,” Martin chuckled. “They are ixchitl, a recent little development of the Lady Celine. They will be supporting your endeavors. They, of course, don’t have sonar or vocal apparatuses. But they do hear you quite clearly. You might not want to say anything that would get them angry.”

“Not me,” Shedol replied.

“What’s the job?” Shanol ground out.

“The mer and the UFS are meeting. The UFS wants an alliance. The main group of mer is located in the Isles. We’re going to make sure that the alliance doesn’t come about. You’re going to be our… ambassadors in this endeavor.”

“And the ixchitl?” Shanol asked.

“They’re for if diplomacy doesn’t work.”

* * *

“Chief,” Herzer said.

After getting lost twice he had found the chief supervising some sailors working with a huge mound of rope in a forward compartment. They were coiling it, carefully, and Herzer could appreciate why. The rope was at least two decimeters in diameter and the Bull God only knew how long; it was taking ten of them just to move it and another five to get it coiled properly.

“Lieutenant Herrick,” Chief Brooks replied. He was medium in every way. Medium height, brown hair, brown eyes and the medium-brown skin that was normal after millennia of genetic crossing. If he’d ever had a body mod of any form it was to make him more medium. But he still had a commanding presence that was unmistakable.

“Was wondering if you had a minute?” Herzer asked.

“Sure, Lieutenant, this is under control,” the chief answered, walking away from the working party. “What’s up?”

“Well, when I was but a young lad, my Gunny told me that if I had something I couldn’t handle I should talk to the Gunny,” Herzer said with a grin.

“There’s not a gunny on board,” Brooks replied.

“Yep, but you’re the equivalent. I need some materials and some of them are going to be rare and some of them are going to be hazardous. And I’d bet you’d know where and how to get them before we weigh anchor.”

“And they’re not coming on this ship without the CO’s permission,” the chief answered. “Not if they’re hazardous.”

“I’ll get the permission, if you can get the materials,” Herzer said, handing the chief a list.

The chief glanced at it and swore. “What the hell do you need this for, sir?”

“A little experiment,” Herzer answered. “But if you can get your hands on a lot, it might be a good idea. If the experiment works out, we’re going to need it in quantity.”

“I’ll see what I can do, sir,” the chief said. “But it’s got to be cleared.”

“Will do, Chief.”

* * *

A sentry had been posted on the duke’s door when Herzer got back but he ignored him as he started to knock on the door.

“Sir,” the sentry said. “You might want to rethink that.”

“Why?” Herzer asked, then he heard what could only be termed a moan through the thick oak doorway. “Oh.” He paused for a moment, then shook his head. “Unfortunately, we don’t have time.” He knocked and waited.

There was muffled swearing from inside the cabin and then Duke Edmund said: “What?”

“Herzer, sir. Just say ‘approved.’ ” There was what might have been a stifled giggle.

“What am I approving, Herzer?”

“Do you want the long version or do you just want to say ‘approved’ and have me go away?”

“Approved, Herzer.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’ll see you at dinner. Not before.”

“Yes, sir,” Herzer said and nodded at the sentry. “Now, how do I find the skipper again?”

“Generally, he’ll be in his day cabin, sir,” the sentry said, nodding back up the companionway.

This time Herzer only got turned around once. He knocked on the door and entered at the command: “Come!”

“Sir, with the approval of Duke Edmund I’m planning on conducting some experiments,” Herzer said without preamble. “I need your approval to bring onboard some hazardous materials. Chief Brooks will be seeing to their stowage.”

“What materials?” the skipper asked.

Herzer told him.

“What in hell do you want those for, son?” Chang asked.

“You did say you wanted this ship to be an offensive weapon, sir.”

The skipper regarded him for a long moment, then nodded. “Approved.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Martin.”

Martin had been taking a nap in his cabin when Conner’s projection appeared. He had suffered from seasickness at the beginning of the voyage, not to mention getting bounced around in the unhandy vessel. But in time he’d gotten his sea legs and now was enjoying the rocking of the waves, wishing that he’d had the sense to bring a woman along to pass the time.

He opened his eyes and rolled up to sit on the edge of the cot, but didn’t get up since he had an unfortunate tendency, still, to hit his head on the rafters of the low room.

Conner’s projection, normal sized, was “standing” with his head just under the rafters and his feet stuck through the floor up to his thighs.

“I made contact with the orcas and ixchitl,” Martin said. “Thanks for rounding up Rob. He was useful in establishing my credentials.”

“So I heard,” Conner said with a dry smile. “Shanol is not going to be happy.”

“Shanol thinks he’s the biggest fish in the sea,” Martin replied with a shrug. “Disabusing him of that notion was useful. What’s up?”

“We have a new source in the UFS ship,” Conner said. “Obviously I won’t say who; need-to-know and all that. But I can now tell you of their position and plans in something like real-time.”

“Very useful.”

“Indeed. They still don’t have anything like offensive capability; they’re not sure the dragons can get on and off the ship for that matter. There are only a couple of dozen marines on the ship and the crew is hardly trained in combat. You should be able to take the ship, or at least sink it, with only one of your own vessels, much less all six.”

“Good to know,” Martin mused. “That way I can spread them around. I’ve been talking to the captain and even with their position and plans known, finding one ship at sea is, apparently, not an easy task.”

“I’m sure you’ll be up to the task,” Conner replied. “This is using energy I sorely need for the other tasks I’ve been set. If you need me, use the data crystal to contact me. Keep it with you, that way I’ll know where to find you.”

* * *

Herzer was up before dawn to the twitter of bosun pipes and the cry of “All hands weigh anchor.”

He picked an out-of-the-way position, he thought, to watch the crew set sail. Most of it was a mystery, but he was fascinated by the way that the sails were raised.

Much of the crew was up in the rigging letting the sails out, which looked like lunacy from the deck, and another group was engaged in raising the anchor. Since the sails had to be tightened up, this left a relatively small group to do that. And he could tell that the sails were going to be pulling hard, really hard. No matter how many blocks and tackles were involved, and he quit counting at fifty, there was no way that the ten or so men could pull the sails tight.

But most of the ropes attached to the sails ran back to a position by the last mast. And there was the answer; a small, low-power steam engine. At the end of the engine was a metal pulley that was creating a constant turn. Each of the lines was taken, in turn, around the pulley and used for tensioning, sometimes two at once. In a relatively short time, and with very few hands, the sails were set, the anchor was up and the Bonhomme Richard was sailing out of the harbor. As the ship got under way he could see the first of the wyverns lifting off from the beach, accompanied by Joanna.

He walked back to the stern of the ship and climbed a ladder to a position at the rear. The skipper was up there bellowing orders at the crew to get the ship “into the wind” whatever that meant, and Herzer gave him, and the ship’s wheel, a wide berth. But at the very rear of the deck there was another position with a pintle-mounted chair and board table. The XO, Commander Mbeki, was there, occupying the chair and sipping on a cup of sassafras tea, along with Duke Edmund and Evan Mayerle, all of them watching the approaching dragon.

“Welcome to primary flight operations, Lieutenant,” the XO said as he walked up. “We’re going to try to recover them in the bay; if they can’t get onboard in this mill-pond there’s no way they can land at sea.”

Joanna had lined up to try first and the line of dragons half-hovering in the light wind was a sight to behold; he could only imagine what it would be like when the ship got a full wing. Herzer watched her come gliding in but he knew, instinctively, that she was too fast and too low. As she got to within a hundred meters of the craft she realized it as well and tried to correct but she was still too low and almost crashed into the water before flapping upward and spiraling off to their right.

Jerry tried it next and he was too high. He tried to correct at the last minute as well but fell out of the proper glide path and also nearly landed in the drink. Herzer thought he might be riding Chauncey, but the wyverns still looked the same to him.

“This isn’t working,” Mbeki growled.

“I don’t think they can figure out what’s right from where they are,” Edmund muttered.

“No, sir,” Herzer said. “Sir, it occurs to me that it’s got to be something like catching a running prey and I don’t think wyverns do that. We might be going too fast for the first time. If we could slow the ship down, maybe turn it towards the wind…”

“Skipper,” the commander called. “Request you come into the wind, make minimum sail for steerage only.”

“All hands! All hands!”

The sailors, once again, climbed the rope ladders and this time pulled in all the sails but one of the triangular ones on the front. The boat slowed noticeably and the wind now seemed to be coming from directly in front of the ship.

“We can’t point directly to the wind, can we?” Edmund asked.

“No, but we’re still making about four klicks,” the commander noted. “There’s not much wind today so it feels like it’s from right in front of us. But the wyverns will be pushed to one side as they come in.”

Herzer watched Jerry start to line up again and quietly backed away from the group. There was a ladder up to the platform at the rear of the deck and he rapidly ascended it. The ladder was on the outside of the platform and the deck so he found himself precariously dangling over the water three stories below.

When he reached the top of the platform he found it open with no recesses or obstructions of any sort. He moved to the rear of the platform and waved his hands over his head, looking up at the approaching wyvern. After a moment he saw Jerry’s head come up and was sure that he was looking at him. When he was he lowered his arms until they were outstretched and then waved them upward; the wyvern was well below the “right” glide angle to make a landing. There was a moment’s pause then Jerry coaxed the beast upward. The movement got him out of line and Herzer directed him left, then held his arms out straight. As the wyvern neared he, again, dropped low so Herzer ordered him upward. Jerry followed the command and as he swept in in a flurry of wings Herzer dropped to the platform and shielded his head. He was rewarded with a massive “thump” and the platform shook under his body.

Herzer rolled over and looked up at the wyvern, which was eyeing him like dinner.

“There is no way to tell the right way to land from up there,” Jerry yelled. “None!”

“We figured that out,” Herzer replied as the rest of the party from below made their way up the ladder.

“Great landing, Mr. Riadou,” the commander said, smiling. “I thought we weren’t going to be able to get you in.”

“I wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for Herzer,” Jerry said. Handlers had come forward and were attaching traces to the wyvern. The center-rear of the platform suddenly slanted downward and the handlers walked the wyvern down the slope and into the broad hatch to take it below.

“What did Herzer do?” the commander asked, looking at the lieutenant.

“He waved me down,” Jerry replied, artlessly then looked at the group who were all eyeing Herzer. “It worked, sir.”

“Yes it did,” the commander admitted. “Do you think you can do it again?”

“If the riders follow the commands, sir,” Herzer temporized. “It might be better if Mr. Riadou did the ordering; they’re more likely to follow him.”

“But he hasn’t seen it from the ship side,” Commander Chang said. “Has he?”

“The next one up is Vickie,” Jerry said. “Sergeant Toweeoo that is. I think that she’ll follow Herzer’s directions and I can follow through. One thing, though.”

“Yes?”

“It was hard to see his arms; I was catching more glints from his hook than seeing his hands. Could we get some hand flags or something?”

“I’ll have them brought up,” the XO said after a moment’s thought. He looked up at the circling wyverns and shook his head. “We need to set up a signaling system. Why didn’t we think of any of this in advance?”

“We thought it would be easy,” Evan said, his eyes glazing as he got caught in thought. “We’re working on a flag signaling system for the fleet; the dragon signals can be worked into that.”

“Work on that later,” Chang said. “I’ll get some hand flags up here and then you get those other dragons down.”

The others descended while Herzer and Jerry waited on the top-deck. Herzer noticed that despite the fact that it was October and there was a faint breeze it was damned warm up here; controlling the landings in the summer would be unpleasant.

Finally they heard the ladder squeaking and Chief Brooks’ head appeared at deck level; he had two flags grasped in his right hand.

“Here you go, sirs,” the chief said, holding the flags out. “Have fun.”

“Will do, Chief,” Herzer said with a chuckle, taking the flags from the chief who, clearly, wasn’t coming any closer to the landing deck than that. He took one flag in his right hand easily enough but found that the rounded handle of the flag was one of those surfaces his clamp had trouble with. Finally he slid it into the interior of the clamp and applied slight pressure of the cutting surfaces against it. It was awkward but it would work.

Finally he had it juggled in place and looked up at the group of circling dragons until he spotted the one that he thought was Vickie.

“Is that Vickie just turning out?” he asked Jerry.

“Yeah, I think so,” the rider muttered. “Another thing to add to the list: binoculars.”

Herzer took the flags and pointed them outward at Vickie, tracking her around the sky until he saw her wave, then pointed them down at the deck and spread them outward.

He saw immediately that she was lined up badly so he waved her off to the right. Then she was too far over that way so he waved her back to the left.

He continued to coax her down but she was all over the sky. Too low, too high. As she came in on final it was clear that she was far too low and he waved her off wildly but she still came in until the wyvern with a gobbled cry backwinged right at the stern of the ship, nearly hitting the pri-fly deck. It backwinged hard but didn’t have enough airspeed to recover so, with a tremendous splash, it landed in the bay.

Jerry and Herzer ran to the rear, fearing the worst, but from the curses emanating from below Vickie was fine. The wyvern, when they got there to look down, actually seemed to be having a good time paddling around in the water.

“What do I do now?” Vickie yelled. “This water is bloody cold! By the way, thanks for the steer, Herzer!”

“His steers were fine,” Jerry replied, angrily. “You were all over the sky!”

“Whatever!” Vickie snarled back. “What now?”

“Away the longboat!” Colonel Chang yelled, then leaned over the transom to look at the rapidly receding dragon. “I was informed those beasts could swim!”

“They can,” Jerry said. “Vickie, swim Yazov back to the ship!”

The ship was turned even closer to the wind so that it was practically standing still, but Herzer noticed that it was drifting off to one side. The wyvern was swimming powerfully, though, occasionally ducking completely under water and swimming that way so his wings could give him a fair semblance of flying. He made such good time underwater that the last burst was entirely submerged and when the dragon finally emerged next to the ship it gave a pleased burble as if it was having fun.

“Oh, yeah, sez you,” Vickie choked; she had had to hold her breath for the entire swim. “Get me out of here! This water is freezing!”

Sculling his wings on the surface the dragon could easily keep up with the slowly drifting ship, and the longboat, which had launched immediately on the crash, was able to recover the rider easily. The dragon was another matter.

“Recovery team, over the side!”

With the longboat standing by, four seamen, three males and a female, wearing close-fitting full-coverage clothing, went over the side. They were followed by a large cargo net which, with difficulty, was slipped under the wyvern. Through it all Yazov was fairly placid, poking at the divers as if they were some sort of interesting sea life provided for his amusement. But when the sling pulled up on him he was anything but amused. The net, though, closed his wings into his body so all he could do was protest as he was raised up via a derrick and swung across and then down into the hold. Only an idiot would allow an angry wyvern loose on the surface of the ship.

“We definitely need to work on this plan,” Jerry mused.

“Do you want to call the next one down?” Herzer asked, aghast at the effort necessary to recover a downed dragon.

“Nope, you’re doing fine,” Jerry said. “That was entirely on Vickie’s hook.”

“Says you,” Vickie snarled as she reached the landing platform. “You were pointing me all over the sky!”

“That’s because you were overcorrecting,” Jerry snapped. “And when he waved you off you tried to land anyway. I was there, Vickie, don’t try to snow me.”

“Just because you got put in charge it’s going to your head!” the female rider snarled. “I don’t have to put up with this shit!”

“You can leave if you want,” Jerry said, coldly. “I’ll get you a boat back to shore. But Yazov stays and you’re not going to be flying a wyvern ever again in your life.”

“You can’t do that,” Vickie said, softly. “You know what that means to us!”

“And that, Vickie, is the point,” Jerry replied, much more calmly. “We need you. I don’t want you grounded. But you have to learn that there are things that you’re going to have to do to retain what is now a privilege, namely dragon riding. And if you’re going to be flying off of carriers, you’re going to have to learn to take steers. Or I’ll have you trucked back to Dragon Home and you can fly off of nice steady aeries that don’t move around.”

“Are we done?” Herzer asked. “Because we’ve only got so many hours of daylight left and I really don’t want to be waving torches around.”

“We’re done,” Jerry said. “Vickie stay up here and watch.”

“Which one do you want?” Herzer asked.

“Take Koo, the one just turning this way,” Jerry answered.

Herzer again pointed at the appropriate rider until he waved back then motioned him down. This rider, though, took the steers well. The ship had barely gotten back underway so the slower speed might have helped but the most important thing seemed to be that he reacted immediately to each of Herzer’s waved commands. He came in on final and Herzer waved him down, then the three of them hit the deck.

“That was a blast!” Koo yelled happily.

“I see what you mean,” Vickie said unhappily. “You can’t trust your instincts, or your beast’s, up there.”

“No, you can’t,” Jerry said. “And that means you have to turn over control to the guy with the flags.”

“That sucks,” Vickie said. “I don’t trust anybody that much.”

“You’ll have to,” Herzer said.

“And I bet there’s one that has even more trouble,” Vickie suddenly said with a malicious note.

“I think we’ll land Joanna last,” Jerry said, dryly.

The last wyvern, Donal, ridden by Vida Treviano, had pretty much the same problems as Vickie but Vida took the wave-off better, probably because he’d seen what would happen if he didn’t. He tried twice more but each time came in off-path and had to be waved off.

“Donal’s getting tired,” Vickie said. “I don’t think they can do it. I don’t know if I can do it.”

“Herzer, try to tell him to head for the beach,” Jerry said. “I have to get back there somehow and pick up Shep. I don’t know if Donal will be up for another try at landing by then or not. Hell, we’re going to have to ferry in and out, those of us that can manage landings, bringing out the verns.”

Herzer pointed his flags at Donal and then waved in the direction of land. He had to do it twice before Treviano either understood or was willing to agree. Finally, Donal turned to the south and headed for the beach.

“What happens if we’re out of sight of land?” Vickie mused.

“Water landing,” Jerry said. “And, yeah, if the water had been colder that would have been a problem. We need a better method of recovery for the dragons. Herzer, time for Joanna.”

“Okay,” Herzer said, “but the two of you get below. If she actually manages to hit this thing I’m not sure there’s going to be room for me much less you two.”

Herzer pointed the flags at Joanna until she waved a talon at him and lined up for a landing. She had good correction for the drift of the ship but she had a hard time maintaining height; she kept sliding under the glide path. Herzer realized when she was halfway down that the ship was just going too slow for her to easily land. She either had to start by pointing forward of the ship and hit the landing point as it passed through her glide or the ship had to be going faster so she could increase the glide angle without going into a stall. There wasn’t anything to do about it, now, but it bugged him that she had to keep flapping her wings to stay on the landing slope.

She had a good angle, though, on the final run. Herzer, looking up at the immense, and rapidly approaching, dragon realized that there was a very good chance that he was going to get squished like a bug. The platform wasn’t much larger than the body of the dragon and if she deviated in the slightest at the last she would land right on him. He put the thought out of his mind, though, and gave her final corrections. As she started to flare out on final he waved her down and dove to the ground.

The air was filled with blasts of wind but they went on far longer than they should. He jumped to his feet just in time to see Joanna, flailing wildly off to the left, dip her wingtip into the water and pinwheel into the bay.

“Joanna!”

Herzer wasn’t the only one bellowing but the dragon’s head quickly popped up above the light chop and shook from side to side.

“Sorry about that, Herzer!” the dragon bellowed. “Frankly, I lost my nerve at the last second. I was going faster than the ship and I didn’t think I’d be able to stop on that little platform. Oooh, this water’s cold.”

The dragon’s body submerged but her head stayed above the surface as she swam to the boat. Instead of using her wings, as the wyverns had done, she sculled her body back and forth like a snake. When she reached the side of the boat she disdained the recovery team, instead extending one claw-tipped wing and grasping the side of the ship. Using this leverage she got her forward talons dug into the wood of the bulwark and hoisted herself upwards.

Herzer was nearly pitched off the landing deck as the ship heeled hard over to one side. The dragon quickly writhed over the side, leaving a trail of splintered wood behind her.

“Sorry about that, Skipper,” Joanna said, sticking her head into the quarterdeck. “I think we need to work on the design of that area if we’re going to be recovering me very often.”

“I hope we won’t have to, Commander,” the skipper said, furiously. “That’s several thousand credits of damage!”

“Make the rail removable,” Joanna said, reasonably. “Reinforce the wood. Maybe give me some handholds. For that matter, maybe a lowerable ramp. If it’s good enough we might be able to use it for crashed wyverns.”

“We’ll see,” the skipper said.

“It’s not my fault if your ship’s a little fragile,” the dragon said, then shook herself hugely, spreading out her wings so that a fine mist settled over half the ship. “Ah, that’s better.”

Herzer had climbed down from the landing deck and looked around at the group at pri-fly and on the quarterdeck.

“What now, sirs?” Herzer asked.

“I have to get back to the shore,” Jerry said. “I need to see if Vida can land Donal. If not, we either go for a water landing or I’ll leave him on the beach and bring Donal out myself. If I bring Donal out someone else will need to bring out Shep.”

“I’ll go in with you,” Vickie said. “I need to figure out how to do this right.”

“No,” Jerry said after a moment. “You’re more familiar with Yazov and you’re not comfortable with landing yet. I’ll take Koo. His landing was better than mine.”

“But…” Vickie said, coloring up.

“Sergeant Toweeoo?” Edmund said.

“Yes, Duke Edmund?” Vickie replied, icily.

“You’re beginning to grasp what it means to be under military discipline, and why it’s sometimes necessary. We do not have all day to discuss this. Warrant Officer Riadou, accompanied by Sergeant Franken will go to the shore and fly out the two wyverns. You, in the meantime, will observe their landings and try to ascertain how to improve your performance. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Vickie said.

“Koo, you can fly Shep,” Jerry continued. “I’ll bring out Donal. If I have to I’ll put him in the drink. They don’t seem to suffer for it, except the lifting out part.”

“How are you getting back?” Edmund asked. “We need to get moving.”

“They can take the longboat,” the skipper said. “Or the cat. Both have sails. If we don’t make full sail they can catch up. But it will be late today.”

“No, I’ll take them,” Joanna said. “I want to find out if I can take off from that ramp you have set up. They don’t add much weight.”

That stopped everyone as the image of the dragon running out the lever stuck on the side of the ship struck them. Herzer dredged up the term “turning turtle” to what it might do to the ship.

“I’m… not sure that’s a good idea,” Commander Mbeki said.

“It… will be,” the skipper said. “We’ll turn so the wind is from the port quarter. That will give her more wind to work with and it will heel the ship to starboard. It’ll be interesting, but we’ll survive it.”

“And then there’s the catapult,” Evan said happily.

“What catapult?” Joanna growled.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

There was a wooden block on the top of the landing platform and a slot running down the middle.

“The steam generator can be used to pressurize air,” Evan said. “There’s a piston underneath. We’ll rig a sliding platform, since you’re so large. It will accelerate you off the platform and give you immediate airspeed.”

“I can run off the platform and get that,” Joanna temporized. “How much airspeed?”

“An estimated forty klicks,” Evan burbled. “More than enough for you to start flying immediately. No need for a run-up or dropping off a cliff!”

“Accelerate to forty clicks in, what? Twenty meters?” Joanna snarled. “Blow that!”

“Really, you just hold on, lean forward and spring up about halfway through.”

“Easy enough for you to say,” Jerry interjected. “I’m not sure how to explain it to the wyverns.”

“We were thinking maybe an automatic release harness or something,” Evan replied. “But the wyverns should be able to take off, with one rider, without it. Greater dragons will have problems.”

“Bloody right,” Joanna said. “One of them being to get them to use this thing.”

“I think it looks like fun,” Herzer said. “But I’m not the one using it.”

“Fun? I just crashed in the drink once, Herzer!”

“Think about it,” Herzer said. “You lean forward and spring off almost immediately. And you’re already going thirty, forty klicks. Sounds like fun to me. I’ll be surprised if people don’t start using it for kicks by the time the voyage is done.”

“I suppose you want me to go ‘yee-haw’ or something,” Joanna grumped.

“Well, only if you want to,” Herzer replied. “Daylight is wasting.”

“I need something to eat before I try this,” Joanna said. “I can tell most of my grumpiness is low blood sugar.”

“It’s time for lunch anyway,” Jerry replied.

Herzer was surprised to find that he was right; it was past noon. The day had passed in a blur since dawn.

Lunch was… interesting. So that Joanna wouldn’t feel left out, the skipper had a table set up on the flight deck and Edmund’s party joined her for lunch. There was still fresh meat and vegetables available but to give them an inkling of what the voyage would be like the skipper ordered “ship’s food” to be served alongside.

The ship food wasn’t nearly as bad as Herzer had expected. He’d read about early sailing vessels and the poor quality of the food, but the “ship biscuit” that were served, for example, were rather light and slightly sweet.

“This isn’t hardtack,” Herzer commented, nibbling one of the biscuits. “I’ve had hardtack.”

“No,” Skipper Chang said. “We know a bit more about food storage than the early ships. Those are what used to be called ‘captain’s biscuits.’ They’d go bad in a month or so if you stored them in bags, but they’re stored in vacuum-packed steel barrels. The dwarves are able to make them in quantity.”

“We need access to some of this tech,” Edmund said. “For field rations. Current field rations aren’t very good.”

“We’re working up some food service regulations,” Mbeki commented. “I’ll make sure you get copies.”

“Ships used to be hard pressed for water,” Herzer commented.

“Again, the dwarves came through for us,” the skipper replied with a smile. “The ship is supplied with two rather large water tanks, located in the bilges. Potable water is pumped in and out. They have to be cleaned from time to time, which is a chore and a half, but they carry more than enough water for the voyage and are easily refilled. We also chlorinate the water so that it doesn’t go bad. We pack dried corn, beans, wheat and rice in steel barrels as well, all of them vacuum packed. Then there’s canned beets, turnip greens, tomatoes, what have you. Dried fruit, also vacuum packed. Storing it all is, of course, difficult. But the worst part is meats. We’re working on oversized canning processes for those, but for the time being we’re stuck with salting.”

Herzer had tried the salt beef and wasn’t impressed.

“Better than monkey on a stick,” he said.

“And that is?” Commander Mbeki inquired.

“Field rations,” Edmund interjected. “A form of jerked and dried meat mixed with fruit. Together with parched corn it’s the standard field rations on the march.”

“You haven’t lived, Colonel, until you’ve lived for a month on fried monkey on a stick.” Herzer grinned.

“I’ll take your word for it,” the skipper replied. “Well, this has been a pleasant interlude, but I think we should get back to work. Commander Gramlich, have you concluded whether you’re willing to risk the catapult? This is not something where I’m prepared to give you an order.”

“I’ll do it,” Joanna said. She’d finished off half a cow’s carcass while the others had been having their more limited meal and now looked in a far better mood. “Like Herzer said, it might be a blast.”

“Very well,” the skipper said. “Chief Brooks!”

“Sir,” the NCO said, climbing up onto the landing platform.

“Have this knocked down and prepare the launching and recovery teams. Commander Gramlich is going to be giving the first demonstration of the launching catapult.”

The table was knocked down, the riding harnesses were attached to the dragon, the longboat with the recovery team onboard was launched and the catapult was prepared. This mostly consisted of ensuring there was pressure, drawing back the launching platform and cocking it.

“All hands, make sail,” Chang ordered, to be repeated by bellows all down the ship. “Helm, come to heading zero-one-three.”

“Zero-one-three, aye.”

“Prepare for launching.”

The ship came around until the wind was blowing directly onto the launching platform with the ship sailing towards it to maximize the effect. As the sails were unfurled and tightened the lively ship picked up speed until she seemed to be flying over the light waves, even given the gentleness of the breeze.

“She’s a tidy ship,” Chang said, smiling for the first time in a long time. “Commander Mbeki, launch when ready!”

* * *

The catapult had been modified for the dragon. Now there were two separated perches for her feet. She gingerly got on them and gripped tightly.

“Commander,” Chief Brooks said. “When the lead perch reaches the edge it’s going to detach and fly away. We’d like you to have let go before then, but if you haven’t, let go of both of them right after or you’re going to be trying to lift them as well as the riders.”

“Got it, Chief,” the dragon replied. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

“Lieutenant Herrick?” the chief said, pointing to a large lever to one side of the platform. “If you’ll do the honors.”

“Everyone ready?” Herzer asked, putting his hand on the lever.

Jerry and Koo gave him a thumbs up and Joanna just growled.

“Okay, on three…”

“Wait!” Jerry said. “Does that mean…?”

“That means when I say three I’m going to fire you,” Herzer replied. “Now get ready. One, two, THREE.”

Herzer pushed forward, hard, on the lever and was rewarded by a high-pitched whistling noise. Then the catapult engaged and the dragon flew forward with a bellowed “Oh, shiiit!”

The catapult accelerated fast, but not excessively so, and Herzer could clearly see that Joanna had let go before the end of the launch. She pushed forward with her own strength as her wings flipped open and she soared upward, instantly in full flight.

“That was COOL!” she bellowed. “Let’s do that AGAIN!”

“First get the men on shore,” Mbeki yelled. “Then you have to land. Then you get to try out the catapult again.”

Joanna waved an assent, then headed for the rapidly receding shore.

“Prepare to come about,” the skipper said. “Might as well be in closer when we try to recover them.”

* * *

In no more than thirty minutes, two wyverns and a dragon could be seen approaching. As they got closer it was clear that there were only two riders.

“Lieutenant Herzer,” Commander Mbeki said. “Get aloft and prepare to land the dragons. Skipper, recommend we come into the wind and reduce speed.”

“Sir,” Herzer interjected. “The last time Joanna seemed to have more problems with us being really slow than not. Recommend… well I’m not sure what I recommend, but Joanna needed a higher speed.”

“What about the wyverns?” the skipper asked, testily.

“Either we increase speed for Joanna, sir, or we see if they can land at a higher speed.”

“Prepare to come about!”

The ship tacked back into the wind and left all its jib sails flying.

“Speed twelve klicks, sir,” the officer of the deck said. The speed of the ship was measured by a small propeller at the rear that carried the information to a readout via a complicated set of cables and gears.

“We’ll see how they do at this clip,” Mbeki said. “We were barely doing six before. Up you go, Herzer.”

Herzer climbed up on the landing platform, picked up his flags and pointed at Jerry. This time he maintained a good entry and there was barely a thump when the wyvern landed.

He climbed down and walked over to Herzer, shaking his head.

“When I saw how fast it was going I thought you were nuts,” Riadou said. “But I think it’s easier. More speed means we have more control on the way in.”

“Makes sense,” Herzer said, pointing at Koo. Koo’s landing, too, was much easier. Finally there was only Joanna to land.

Joanna also had an easier time on the glide path but she had more of a tendency to drift to the side. The ship could not point directly into the wind and the wind across her was pushing the larger dragon sideways. As she got on final approach the disturbance in the air from the ship’s sails threw her off path and it was clear she wasn’t going to hit the platform so Herzer waved her off. She had enough airspeed to recover and flapped back up to altitude. On the second try she figured out how to correct for drift and came in straight as an arrow. At the last moment she backwinged and then dropped, heavily, onto the platform as the two humans hit the deck. The entire ship shuddered at the impact of the multiton dragon but the platform held.

“That was… interesting,” Joanna said. “But I did it!” she added with a grin.

“Meeting in the wardroom,” Duke Edmund said, from the stairs. “There’s a skylight so Joanna can stick her nose into things.”

* * *

Everyone had some point that they felt could be improved on the dragon landing and launching system. And they hadn’t even tested the launching on the wyverns or seen if they were willing to land a second time.

“Tomorrow for that,” Skipper Chang said. “General Talbot, with your permission I’d like to spend one more day in the bay doing work-ups. I know that puts you behind schedule but…”

“Better a functioning dragon-carrier when we get to the Isles.” Edmund sighed. “Agreed. But just one more day.”

“Most of the changes aren’t crucial,” Evan said, looking up from his notes. “The biggest one is some place for the flag guy to hide.”

“We’re going to need a better term than ‘flag guy’ as well,” Commander Mbeki said.

“How about landing orders officer?” Jerry said.

“ ‘Keep your eye on the loo!’ ” Joanna chuckled. “ ‘Follow the loo!’ No, just doesn’t have that ring to it.”

“Okay, landing signal officer then,” Jerry said. “We’ve also got the problem of five dragons and three riders.”

“Do you think you can work Herzer up on-board?” the duke asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” the warrant officer replied, seriously. “Training usually takes several hundred hours, not just a few hours in the air. And then there’s landing. I’d rather he learned that on land, if possible.”

“And keep in mind that once we get to sea it just gets harder,” the XO pointed out. “This is a mill-pond. Out in the Atlantis it’s solid rollers, even if we’re not having a storm.”

“We won’t launch in foul weather,” the skipper said. “But storms do come up suddenly. It’s something to keep in mind. Think about a good foul weather recovery system.”

“Other than going for a swim?” Herzer asked.

“In the North Atlantis, which is where we’ll be engaging the invasion fleet, that’s not going to be possible,” the XO pointed out. “The water will kill a person before we can get them out. It will be on the deck or nothing.”

“I think that’s about it,” the skipper said, rapping his knuckles on the table. “Unless you have something to add, General?”

“No, nothing,” Edmund replied. “I think today went quite well.”

“Better than I anticipated, frankly,” Chang replied. “General, I’ll see your party at dinner?”

“Of course, Skipper.”

“Very well, people, good work today. Flight operations commence at dawn tomorrow.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“And what were you two doing today?” Edmund asked when he entered his cabin, Herzer trailing behind. Rachel and Daneh were sitting at the table, looking at papers spread over the surface.

“Mostly checking out the ship’s medical facilities and general health issues,” Daneh answered. “They’ve got an excellent infirmary and the two medics were smart but they’re not very well trained. We also checked out the meal preparation area. The cooks are well versed in sanitation, which I was delighted to discover. All in all it’s a well-designed ship and a well-trained crew.”

“That’s good to know,” Edmund replied, tiredly. “Frankly, it’s more important to the mission than that the dragons work. They might be helpful in the Isles. Then again, they might not be. I still don’t see where they’re an offensive weapon.”

“I’ve got some ideas in that area, sir,” Herzer said, diffidently. “But I want them to get more comfortable in carrier operations before I bring anything else up. It’s going to mean the wyverns carrying a fair amount of weight if it works, which means they’ll have to use the catapult.”

“We watched one of the landings,” Rachel said. “It was very cool.”

“It was very hairy from where I was standing,” Herzer said. He felt as drained as if he’d run the Hill a dozen times. “I think there’s going to be a fair number of the riders that won’t hack it. You have to be very confident in your flying and confident that the LSO is giving you good steers. When you land normally, the wyvern does most of the work. You just point in a general area and they land. This way… the rider has to really steer the beast to a landing. It’s not easy.”

“None of it’s easy,” Edmund replied. “The system that’s been set up for moving them around, feeding them, launching them. The system that Evan has for moving them in and out of the weyr bays, all of it is even more complicated than I think you realize. Which is good.”

“Good?” Daneh said. “Why?”

“So far, New Destiny has been very good at collecting, and even feeding, large masses of troops,” Edmund said. “I’m surprised that they are, because they’re not very good at using them. Paul’s group tends to be very controlling; they don’t think an idea is a good one unless one of them has it. They wouldn’t have let someone like Evan have his head and just figure things out. They would have stopped Herzer when he went up and tried to control the wyverns on the way in. I think they would have even stopped him after it was clear it worked. Again, if they don’t have the idea it is, by definition, bad.”

“Your point?” Daneh asked.

“It’s pretty clear; I don’t think they are ever going to be able to match this sort of ability. They may have, probably do have, wyverns and even dragons. But I don’t think they’ll be able to come up with all the things necessary to use dragon-carriers. And even after we use them against them, if we do, they won’t be able to match our quality. It’s like the Blood Lords in a way. Having a capability that your enemy cannot match in war is a wonderful asset.”

If they can’t match it, sir,” Herzer said. “I don’t really see that they won’t be able to.”

“Oh, they may figure out how to land them and take off,” Edmund admitted. “But I don’t think they’ll be as good at it as we’ll be. And we’ll keep improving. Because we let people like you, and Jerry and Evan and even Commander Mbeki just figure out what to do. Rather than telling them what to do.”

“You’re talking about initiative,” Rachel interjected.

“Absolutely. It’s something that we support, stress even. It’s something that New Destiny suppresses. In time, I hope to prove to them how wrong they are.”

* * *

Herzer waved Koo down and ducked into his station as Nebka’s wings brushed just past his head.

“That’s a center shot for Koo,” he called down to pri-fly from his station at the front of the platform. The cuplike station had been hung off the end of the landing platform by a team under Chief Brooks and it lifted his head and shoulders just over the platform itself.

“General,” the skipper said. “I think these flyers have got the technique down. We’ve launched wyverns, landed wyverns and launched and landed Commander Gramlich. I say we head to sea.”

“Concur,” Duke Edmund said.

“Commander Mbeki, cease flight operations. Helm, come to heading zero-seven-five. Set full sail.”

“Zero-seven-five, aye.”

“Now you’ll see what sailing is all about, General.”

“Looking forward to it, Colonel.”

* * *

Herzer was at pri-fly when the ship passed out of the bay and into the open ocean. As soon as it was beyond the protecting arms of the bay, they hit the full swells of the Atlantis and the ship, under full sail, started to corkscrew through the waves.

“Oh, my God,” Jerry gasped, grabbing the handrail at the rear of pri-fly. “We’re supposed to land in this?” From below the squawks and bellows of the wyverns filled the air.

“This isn’t bad,” Commander Mbeki protested. “The seas are only two and a half, maybe three meters.”

As he said that one of the seas first lifted then dropped the stern of the ship and Herzer staggered across and slammed into Duke Edmund.

“Steady, Herzer,” the duke said in a strange voice. Herzer glanced at him and for the first time in his memory saw Edmund Talbot looking strained.

“I’m going to head below,” Talbot said. “I’ll just… I’m going to head below.”

“Very well, General,” the commander replied. “Take care.”

With a nod Edmund headed for the companionway.

“I’m going to check on the wyverns,” Jerry said, staggering across the deck. He slid sideways as a rogue wave pitched the ship to the side and was caught by one of the relief quartermasters who was standing by to take over the wheel. He shook his head and plotted a course for the companionway and after a few false starts made it and started to head below.

By this time, Herzer was feeling the first hint of queasiness and looked appealingly at the commander.

“Gets everyone at first,” Commander Mbeki said, in a kindly voice. “The center of the ship’s where the motion’s the least. And if you have to go, try to do it over the lee side. That’s the side the wind’s not blowing from. And keep it off the decks.”

What had been a light breeze felt like a gale as Herzer staggered across the deck and headed down to the maindeck. He managed to make it halfway up the ship by holding onto the railing on what he’d come to learn was the “starboard” side — in landsmen’s terms the right if you were looking forward in the ship. The wind that had been pleasantly warm seemed to have dropped twenty degrees and he was feeling decidedly chilly. But the motion was less here. His stomach was feeling better. On the other hand, he was starting to shiver and the wind seemed to be cutting to the bone. There was only one choice. He’d run below, get his coat, and head back up here. Maybe he’d just sleep here; he didn’t seem to be in anyone’s way.

Decision made, he crab-walked across the deck, occasionally scuttling from side to side, and made it to the stairs down. He’d taken to going forwards down the stairs but this time he carefully turned around and lowered himself with hands on both railings. Despite that, he slammed into the wall as the ship hit a rogue wave. He staggered down the corridor to his room, grabbed his jacket — noticing in passing that Rachel was in the bottom bunk moaning, with a bucket by the side of the bunk — and was just opposite the officer’s head when he realized he had no more than three seconds before he was going to throw up.

He made it into the head, hung his head over the toilet and began to spew.

It was one of the most miserable times of his life. He seemed to be throwing up far more than he’d eaten. The captain’s chef had cooked a very nice chicken, heavily spiced with thyme, for lunch and he’d eaten more than his share. And it was all coming back to him.

The toilet was operated by pressing down on a foot pedal and then pumping a lever. The lever opened a seal at the bottom of the bowl and the pedal let it pump up salt water to wash the bowl clean. As Herzer slumped down to his knees he made the remarkable discovery that the foot pedal could, in these circumstances, become a knee pedal and the lever was operable from that position.

Over the next few hours he made several other discoveries.

The door of the head was difficult to operate while slithering around on the floor.

The foot/knee pedal could also be operated by hand if you couldn’t even get up the energy to get to your knees.

The underside of the sink was remarkably free of graffiti. He felt he ought to add a manual for future adventurers. Little truisms to hold dear in those special and private moments when you’re looking at the underside of a sink.

Seasickness was one of the most unpleasant experiences in the world.

The man who invented the flush toilet was one of the most important persons ever to live on the face of the earth.

Knee and elbow pads: They’re not just for sword work outs anymore.

No matter how many times you pull the lever, sevens are not going to come up.

After a while, it all tastes like fish anyway.

When all the food was gone, the thyme just kept coming and coming and coming.

It started with what he came to call “the three-second rule.” You had the sudden, intense, knowledge that in three seconds you were going to be seeing the contents of your stomach. You had those three seconds to make a will, pray to the gods that if they got you out of this you were going to lead a straight life from now on, swim for shore or make it to the toilet.

When the three seconds were up the vomiting started. That would go on for what seemed like an eternity, whether you had anything in your stomach to vomit up or not.

When the vomiting was done there was a moment of blessed euphoria. You weren’t vomiting anymore. In fact, you felt almost human. You could wipe your face, wipe up any spills, try to get the door open, and do all the usual things that humans do, like think about whether you were going to die or the ship was going to sink.

Then came the lethargy. Suddenly, it was as if none of your muscles would function. All that you could do was sit on the floor and wait for it to pass. It would, in time; sometimes it seemed like days, but it passed. A few times it was so strong he felt himself stop breathing and had to will each breath with all his remaining might. Then, there was a brief moment when you thought it might be over, a few seconds perhaps ten when you felt really human. And then… the three-second rule came into play.

Herzer wasn’t sure how long this went on but it was hours at least. Finally, as he passed out of a lethargic stage, his stomach, while protesting, seemed to be under control and the “good” period extended beyond all normal ken. He dragged himself to his feet, using the basin and his good friend the toilet, figured out how to operate the insanely complex lock on the door and staggered down the corridor to his room.

The bucket had spilled at some point but Rachel had cleaned up most of the detritus. The room still smelled foul. After careful consideration he grabbed the coat the kindly Navy had issued him, which was made of heavy wool, and staggered back down the corridor, out onto the deck and down to the mainmast. When he got there he wrapped himself around it and fell dead asleep.

* * *

Joel had never been so glad to go on duty in his life. It was apparent that most of the crew was relatively inexperienced with life at sea and a good many of them had succumbed to seasickness as soon as the ship exited the bay. He’d been sleeping and hadn’t really paid much attention to the change in motion until someone slammed into his tier of bunks. His eyes flew open and he started to roll off the bunk, expecting an attack, when he heard the retching.

“Get it out of the compartment for God’s sake,” he muttered, lying back down. But the smell was intense in the crowded compartment and others had begun to react from a combination of seasickness and sympathetic nausea. He could even feel himself starting to get queasy. Finally he rolled out of the bunk, grabbed his peacoat and headed up on deck.

The wind was fresh and clean, which was a pleasant change from below, but there were plenty of puking sailors up on the maindeck as well. He headed forward to the bowsprit and stood looking down at the ship’s “foot,” the wave that the ship pushed up in front of it. Sometimes dolphins would come up and ride in the foot but at the moment all there was was foamy white water, just visible in the gathering darkness. He had another few hours before he had to go on duty and what he’d like to be doing was sleeping. But given the conditions in the compartment, he’d have a better chance up here. So he curled up against the lines at the base of the bowsprit, pulled up the collar of his coat and nodded into a restless sleep.

The dinging of eight bells and the movement of the watch woke him up and he hurried to the small galley at the rear of the ship. It was mainly to keep hot cider going for the crew and officers on the quarterdeck. As he moved across the maindeck towards his duty station the companionway from the officer’s quarters opened up and a large figure stumbled onto the deck. He was one of General Edmund’s party, an aide or something, and obviously not enjoying the voyage.

Come to think of it, Edmund figured largely in that horrible “true-life tale” he’d been reading. If there was any truth to the book at all, this guy probably knew some of the people involved, maybe even the lousy writer. He’d have to pump him for information sometime. But not when he was so seasick he didn’t even notice the steward in the darkness. The guy stumbled across the deck and more or less collapsed at the base of the mainmast. If that was a Blood Lord, the book had to be pure fiction.

* * *

Sometime during the night Herzer had made his way back to his cabin and when he awoke Rachel was already gone. She had cleaned up from the night before and the air held only a hint of foulness. He rolled out of the bunk, put on his last clean uniform and staggered down the corridor to the wardroom.

Besides Rachel, Duke Edmund and Commander Mbeki were seated at the table looking at cups of tea. Just… looking.

“Morning,” Herzer muttered, slamming into the hard seat as a wave caught him.

“Morning, Lieutenant,” the commander said. “Enjoying yourself?”

“It was great right up until we cleared the bay,” Herzer said. “After that a combination of that bastard Newton and some stomach bug has made it less pleasant.”

A steward stuck his head in the room and looked around.

“Food?” he asked.

“I’ll take a rasher of bacon,” the commander said. “And three eggs. Up. More tea and some for Herzer.”

“I think I could handle a bowl of mush,” Herzer muttered. “If you’ve got it.”

“Coming right up. Duke? Miss?”

“Nothing for me,” Rachel said.

“I’ll take some mush, too,” the duke replied. “I think I can keep it down. And if I can’t it’s at least soft coming up.”

“Is your throat as sore as mine, sir?” Herzer asked, his voice hoarse.

“I suspect so,” Edmund said. “I just realized that in my long and varied career, I had spent it all on land. I had no idea I was susceptible to seasickness.”

“Just about everyone is,” the commander interjected. “Most get over it after a couple of days at most. There are some, however, who never do. There are also those who say that keeping your stomach full helps. I think they’re cracked, frankly. Oh, and if you had shipped out before the Fall, you’d never have known; your nannites would have easily corrected it before the first symptoms.”

“I wish they would now,” Rachel moaned. “I don’t think I want to even be in the same room with food.”

“Head to the center of the boat,” Herzer said.

“Ship, Lieutenant,” the commander corrected. “The Richard is a ship, not a boat.”

“Sorry, head to the center of the ship,” Herzer said. “The ride’s smoother there.”

“For now,” Mbeki said. “And it will still be smoother than your cabin. But… have you looked outside?”

“No,” Herzer said. “Why?”

“Bit of a blow coming I think. There’s a hoary old adage that an Indian summer will be followed by the worst blow of the season. Didn’t really hold true with Mother controlling the weather, but I think the conditions might have reestablished themselves. The sky is quite black to the west.”

“Oh,” Edmund said. “Great.”

“Actually, it might be,” the commander said. “We won’t be working the wyverns, not that they’re up to it from what I’ve been told. But it will give us a fair turn of speed south. Assuming we can keep this tub upright; the way the sails are rigged will make fighting our way through a storm… interesting.”

“Is there any good news?” Herzer asked.

“Well, I hear that the ship’s betting pool has it three to one that you won’t dump your dragon the first time you try to land,” the commander said with a grin.

“Joy.”

* * *

The storm hit just after noon.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Herzer had heard the call of “All Hands! Shorten sail” and had made his way up to the deck to observe. The sailors were already aloft doing their high-wire act by the time he got on deck and he watched it again, in awe. To work with the sails required them to first climb to nearly the top of the mast and then work their way out on thin foot-ropes. All of this while he was having a hard time standing upright. He did notice, this time, that they were all wearing some sort of harness attached to a safety rope. If one of them slipped the harness would, presumably, keep them from falling to their deaths.

He’d noticed a lot of little touches like that on the ship. Danger areas marked off with yellow and black paint. Notices pasted up where hazardous materials were stored. Warnings about lifting heavy weights. The ship matched some of his expectations and violated others. He had read stories from the old sailing days and back then injuries and death were considered just the common lot of the sailor, like bad food, hammocks and no decent bathroom.

This ship had showers, even for the crew, functional toilets and sinks. The crew berthed in cots, albeit ones that were stacked four high. The food was well prepared and as varied as any that he had seen in the post-Fall period. They lived, come to think of it, better than Courtney and Mike. Better than Blood Lords on campaign.

But when he watched them shimmying on those ropes he had to admit that they deserved their improved conditions.

The first real blast of wind hit as the last of the crew were descending from the rigging, and despite the fact that most of the sails were “furled” the wind pushed the ship over on its side to the point that a wave washed up onto the deck. The ship, though, responded to it sluggishly. The wind was howling in the rigging but the ship was digging into the swells rather than running over them, water creaming over the bow on a regular basis. She was riding them out, but it didn’t look good to Herzer.

When the rain hit he decided that he’d like a bit more cover and headed up to the quarterdeck. There were now two men on the wheel and it was clear that they were needed; it seemed to be kicking like a live thing in their hands.

“Following sea,” the skipper yelled to him when he noticed the look. “The waves push into the rudder and try to push it aside.”

“Won’t happen with my hands on the wheel, sir,” one of the sailors called. “She gripes, though, she surely does.”

“The pressure of the wind is pushing her nose down,” the skipper translated. “We’ll have to move some stores aft to give her more weight back there.” He turned and called below for a party and gave some rapid instructions including calling for Mbeki.

“It’ll take a while, though,” he added. “I’d appreciate it if you moved below, Lieutenant. This may look easy, but it’s not.”

“Yes, sir,” Herzer said, heading for the companionway. It didn’t look easy for that matter.

Instead of heading for his cabin, though, Herzer headed for the hatch to the wyvern area. The main hatch had been closed and “dogged down,” meaning that catches had been firmly sealed from the inside. There was a personnel hatch, though, and he opened that and went below, carefully setting the dual-side catches in place before he climbed down the ladder.

The scene below was a veritable Inferno. The wyverns were not happy at the change of motion in the ship and they were making their disquiet abundantly clear. They also had decided that since they weren’t going to be let out to go potty, it was time to do it indoors. Between the screeches and the smell he nearly climbed back out, but he stuck with what he considered his duty.

He saw Jerry slithering across the slimy floor and, grabbing a convenient rail, headed in his direction.

“Anything I can do?” he yelled over the squalling dragons.

“I dunno,” Jerry yelled back. “Can you either get the ship to quit pitching or find me a wyvern sedative?”

“No,” Herzer answered with a laugh. “Have they been fed?”

“Of course they’ve been fed,” Jerry answered. “Then they puked it back up. And I couldn’t believe it but it really did look worse coming back up. I’m starting to worry, they’re not getting enough water.”

“This gale isn’t going to quit any time soon,” Herzer said. He’d gotten close enough that they could carry on a conversation at normal tones. “What are we going to do?”

“Not sure,” Jerry admitted. “Whatever we can. Hopefully they’ll get their sea legs after a couple of days. I’m getting better; how ’bout you?”

“Yeah,” Herzer admitted. “At least before I came down here. Is there some way to clean this out?”

“I haven’t had time to find out,” Jerry admitted.

“I will.”

Herzer made his way back up the ladder and then paused when he reached the deck. The ship was still pitching and tossing and the wind was shrieking around him like a banshee. But from his experience of storms on land, the first part was usually worst. Once it passed over, if it passed over he temporized, it should get better.

He grabbed a passing seaman and was directed forward to where Chief Brooks was directing a party that was attending to the lashings on the longboat.

“Chief, you need to tell me who to bother when you don’t want to be,” Herzer yelled over the storm. The ship chose that moment to bury her nose in a wave and a flood of green poured over the side. Herzer instinctively shot a hand out and grabbed a rope, holding onto a young sailor that was passing by with his clamp. As soon as the flood had passed he pulled the sailor upright, noticing in passing that “it” was female, and tossed her back towards the longboat. “Back to work, seaman.”

“Well, you’re here,” the chief yelled back, grinning at the interplay. “Not bad for a bloody landlubber. What’cha need, Lieutenant?”

“The wyvern area is fisking horrible.”

“So I heard. But I don’t have a party to help you.”

“That’s not the problem. We just need some idea what to do with all the… stuff.”

“There’s a washing system down there. Didn’t anyone show the riders?”

“Apparently not.”

“Fisk!” the chief snarled. “Bosun! You’re in charge.”

“Got it, Chief,” a muscular woman yelled to him over the wind and rain.

“Let’s go, sir,” the chief said, working his way aft.

When they got through the hatch the chief said “Faugh” at the smell, then looked around for the riders.

“Warrant, weren’t you briefed on the cleaning apparatus?” he yelled over the screeching wyverns.

“No, Chief, we weren’t,” Jerry called back. “What cleaning apparatus?”

As it turned out there was a saltwater pump and a draining system that the chief identified. Then he gave a short class on its use. The pump could be operated by two people, but four was better. The water drained to one of four points in the compartment where it was collected in a pipe that led to the exterior of the ship.

“There’s a one-way valve at the end,” the chief explained. “But in this sea you’re going to have to pump it out as well.” He showed them that pump. “With only the two enlisted riders there’s no way you can clean all this up,” he finally admitted.

“I can help,” Herzer interjected.

“No, I’ll get a working party,” the chief said. “Could I speak to you two young gentlemen?”

He led them over to a corner of the compartment and put his hands on his hips.

“I appreciate as much as anyone when officers are willing to get their hands dirty,” he said, looking them both in the eye. “We’ve had some young gentlemen come on this ship and think they’re too good to do anything but walk around with their noses in the air. But you’re officers, sirs, and your job really is to supervise. That’s not another word for sitting on your ass, sirs; it means just what it means. And, frankly, this isn’t even a job for officers to supervise, it’s for a petty, one of your sergeants, to handle. Your job’s to figure out what’s going to happen next, sirs, while my job, your sergeant’s job, is to handle what’s happening now.”

“Understood, Chief,” Herzer said, grinning to finally feel back in the military. “Thanks for the kick in the ass.”

“I understand too, Chief,” Jerry said with a sigh. “I’m too used to being the doer.”

“Well, you’re a warrant, sir,” the chief said with a frown. “Warrants, really, are doers, too. But not cleaning up shit and piss and puke. That’s what enlisted men are for,” he added with a chuckle. “Have these boys been fed?”

“They puked it all up,” Jerry said. “And, yeah, that’s got me worried.”

“And they get angry when they’re hungry,” the chief said.

“They’re too sick and nervous to be angry now,” Jerry said.

“But when they’re over being sick and nervous?” the chief prompted.

“I wouldn’t put an arm though the bars,” Jerry admitted.

“With all due respect, sir, I’d suggest feeding them. Even though they puke it up. As you can see, now, we can clean that up easy enough.”

“Agreed, Chief,” the warrant said, then grinned. “Ever thought of being a rider, Chief?”

“Not on your life, sir,” the NCO replied. “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t even like climbing the rat-lines. I’m so afraid of heights it’s not funny. I’d rather eat dirt for the rest of my life. How’s the commander?”

“You mean Joanna?” Jerry asked. “She’s not sick, except at the smell. She’ll be glad to get the area cleaned out.”

The chief looked at the deck overhead for a moment then smiled.

“I wonder if she minds rain?”

They moved forward to where the dragon was curled up, looking at the bedlam with a beady eye.

“Commander Gramlich, we’re going to get this area cleaned out,” the chief said. “But it will be a bit and it will get messy. I was wondering if you might be okay with moving to the landing platform.”

Joanna looked at him for a moment then rustled her wings.

“I weigh nearly two tons, Chief,” she answered after a moment’s thought. “I notice that the ship tends to… move when I do. That’s why I’m placed damned near the center of the ship. Won’t the skipper have something to say about that?”

“Well, ma’am, as it happens, we’re in the process of moving some weight aft…”

“And I’m a nice mobile weight?” she asked with a chuckling hiss.

“I’d not put it like that, ma’am,” the chief said with a smile. “But we can lower the ramp easy enough, even in this sea. The toughest part will be opening and closing the hatch. But if you were to nip through quick-like…”

“Be sure to tell the skipper and then, yes, I’m game,” Joanna said. “Anything to get out of this damned hold.”

* * *

“Annibale, Bodman,” PO Singhisen said. “Fall out for a working party.”

It felt like Joel had just gotten his eyes closed. With the storm he’d been in the galley getting the fires put out and making sure everything was lashed down. So had Bodman, for that matter, who was one of the mid-watch cooks.

“I just put my head down, PO!” Bodman protested, trying to roll over and go back to sleep.

“Fall out,” the PO said, sharply. “Now.”

Joel rolled off his bunk and pulled on his clothes. The wind was still strong but the ship seemed to be riding better.

“What are we doing?” he asked.

“The damned dragons had as much trouble last night as the rest of the crew,” Singhisen said, shaking her head. “We’re going to go get their compartment cleaned out.”

“Oh, fisking joy,” Bodman whined. “Why can’t the riders do it?”

“Because there’s only two that ain’t officers,” the petty officer explained as if talking to a small child. “And officers don’t clean up shit and piss. It ain’t their job.”

“Join the Navy,” Bodman complained as they made their way forward. “Join the adventure.”

Fortunately they didn’t have to make their way on deck and the dragon deck was almost uncomfortably warm.

Singhisen had gotten more than just the two of them and there was a group of deck-apes waiting in the wyvern deck when they arrived.

“Okay, McKerlie. Take your team and man the hose pumps. Mbonu, your people are on the outfall pump; you know how to operate it?”

“Yes, PO,” the lead seaman said, waving her group over to the pump that was at the forward end of the compartment.

“Annibale, Bodman, you handle the hoses,” she continued, waving around the room. “We need to get these decks rinsed down. Then we’ll swab everywhere but in the occupied cages. Then we rinse ’em down again.”

“Thanks PO,” one of the riders said, coming to the aft of the compartment. “I’m getting my riders up here; we’ll try to keep the wyverns from taking anybody’s arm off.”

“Is that a real problem?” Singhisen asked.

“I dunno,” the rider said, shaking his head. “They’re not in the best of moods.”

Joel unreeled the hose and set to work as the deck-apes pumped. The… material on the floor was unpleasantly solid and splashed when the salt water hit it, throwing chunks of material around the compartment. He had to get down to a low angle to get it moved and that tended to splash more onto him. He’d wondered why the two stewards were doing the, relatively, lighter job of using the hose but he decided quickly that it was the worse of the two evils. Score one for the deck-apes.

The material did move, though, sloshing back and forth and forming an ugly puddle at the forward end of the compartment as the team there pumped it out. The riders were sliding around in it, moving from cage to cage and trying to calm the hissing wyverns. One of the latter got a muzzle through and took a swipe at him as he was spraying under the edge of the cage, trying to get a lodged chunk of… something sort of greenish yellow, worked free. The female rider, who had sergeant stripes instead of a PO’s chevrons, whapped it on the nose and it pulled back into its cage. He gave the sergeant a nod, washed the chunk of… whatever loose and kept spraying.

Finally, when he and Bodman had the compartment more or less clear the PO got the deck apes on the outflow pump working with mops. It didn’t get long to get everything but the cages clean and by spraying under them they even got most of the crap out of those.

It was a nasty, disgusting, job and not one he wanted to repeat any time soon. In his professional opinion, dragons belonged on the land and not in a damned ship.

He was really gonna have to have a long talk with Sheida when this mission was over.

* * *

In no more than twenty minutes Joanna was ensconced on the landing platform. The chief had even rigged heavy ropes so that she could hold on; since the rear of the ship was still bucking up and down it was necessary. After a bit she thrust a couple of talons under the ropes, curled in a ball, closed her eyes and appeared to go to sleep.

“Dragons, wyverns for that matter, tend to sleep a lot,” Jerry yelled as they headed back down to the quarterdeck. “They use high energy when they have to and try to sleep most of the rest of the time.”

True to Herzer’s mental prediction the wind seemed to be moderating and with it the seas. And with Joanna’s weight to the rear of the ship, along with whatever stores had been moved, the bows were now sweeping over the waves instead of digging into them.

They headed down into the hold again where a team of sailors, with Vickie and a female PO directing, were cleaning out the wyvern stalls. With the materials available the sketchy cleaning didn’t take long and Jerry directed the feeding afterwards as the hands, most of whom were probably from an off-duty watch, walked out of the compartment grumbling. Some of the wyverns barely poked at their food but most of them ate as if they were starving. Some of their distress must have been hunger because by the time they were done most of them had settled down. And, just as Jerry predicted, those that had fed almost immediately tucked their heads under their wings and, swaying with the ship, went to sleep.

“Good,” Jerry said. “That’s the first decent rest they’ve gotten in two days.” He frowned at Chauncey and Yazov, both of whom had ignored their food. They were still mewling piteously although they’d quit the metal-bending shrieks.

“If we found something tastier for them they might eat,” Herzer suggested.

“Yeah, and then the next time they didn’t like their food they’d wait until we gave them something better,” Jerry said. “No, they’re just going to have to eat it or not.”

Chauncey looked through the bars of his stall and mewed piteously at Herzer.

“I’m sure the cook has some scraps left over,” Herzer said. “What if we just gave them a few? That might make them hungry enough they’d eat their slop.”

“I dunno,” Jerry said. “It goes against the grain.”

“If I’d been puking,” Herzer said, mentally adding which I have, his throat was still raw with it, “I wouldn’t want something that looked like puke.”

“You have a point.”

Herzer, getting lost only one time, made his way to the main kitchen, which the sailors insisted be called a “galley,” of the ship and caught the eye of one of the NCOs.

“A couple of the dragons are badly off their feed,” he said. “We’re hoping some scraps will get them eating again.”

“All the edible garbage goes in those pails,” the petty officer said, pointing to a line of buckets lashed to the wall. “Take whatever you want; we just pitch it over the side.”

Herzer went over and checked them over. Most of the garbage consisted of ship’s bread and vegetables, but one bucket had a fair amount of stew from the evening meal in it. He untied that one and started to carry it back to the dragons.

“Hang on, sir,” the petty officer said. “Johnson, carry that for the lieutenant, then head back here when you’re done. Bring the bucket.”

Herzer wasn’t sure if the petty officer just wanted his bucket back or if he was getting another class in “enlisted men do, officers supervise” but he followed the sailor, who didn’t get lost, back to the dragon deck.

The scraps, when added to their slop, were a big hit with the two dragons. They got enough meat that they started sucking on their slop right afterwards.

“Sir, if you don’t mind,” Johnson said. “We can try to segregate the meat that gets thrown away. And there’s bones and things that don’t get used, too.”

“As long as the PO says it’s okay, that would be great,” Herzer said. “Johnson, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thanks for your help,” Jerry said. “If you ever want a ride, assuming we can get them back in the air…”

“That would be great, sir.” The sailor grinned. “I’d better get back.”

“Thanks again,” Herzer said. When the sailor had left, Herzer grinned at the rider. “I think you’ve got a convert.”

“Oh, we’ve had plenty of people ask us about rides,” Jerry said. “Or even becoming riders. Especially since we’re down two.”

“One of them being me,” Herzer said. “Sorry.”

“Not a problem,” Jerry replied. “Duke Edmund has been fairly clear on that. As soon as the weather calms down, and assuming as I said that we can take off and land in this mess, we’ll see about getting you trained. But I warn you, landing on this thing is not easy.”

“You need at least one more rider than you have dragons,” Herzer said. “Or, at least, dragons in the air.”

“Why?”

“For the LSO. I don’t know that I’d have been able to do it if I hadn’t had that one experience with riding. It gave me a grasp of what I was doing.”

“Point,” Jerry said. “Well, since we’ve got the wyverns settled and there’s not much going on, I might as well start with giving you the ground school portion.”

“Ground school?” Herzer said.

“You have no idea.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

For the next two days, as the weather continued foul, Jerry and Vickie between them tried to cram all the theoretical aspects of dragon riding into Herzer’s aching head. At night he went to bed with terms like “yaw” running through his head and every morning it started all over again.

He discovered what had been happening in his brief flight when he’d been trying to move the dragon around in the air. He learned about optimum glide paths, methods of spotting thermals, and the anatomy of the wyverns. The wings were not, as he’d thought, just flesh, blood, skin and bone, but were a complex web of far more advanced materials including biologically excreted carbon nanotubes.

“It’s the only way the wing bones could support their weight and powered flight,” Vickie explained. “There’s no way that bone and skin alone could do it. The largest previous flyer was a fraction of their size. And there’s some indication that overall air pressure was higher in the Jurassic.”

“So Joanna’s got this in her, too?” Herzer asked, looking at the sketch. “They’ve got to be some of the strongest ‘natural’ material on earth.”

“They are,” Vickie said, frowning. “We try not to make too much of a point of it.”

“I can imagine why,” Herzer said, frowning in his own turn. “There’s a lot I can imagine to do with wyvern wings.” The bones would make excellent weapons and the primary skins would make tremendous armor. Assuming you could figure out a way to cut it.”

“As to Joanna, yes,” Vickie said. “But more so. How do you think she keeps her head up in flight?”

“Bloody hell,” Herzer said. “That’s… a lot of nanotubes.”

“It’s one of the reasons they grow so slowly,” Vickie said. “And they’re continuous filament monomolecules. One of the strongest substances ever made.”

“Cutting them would be a stone bitch,” Herzer said. “Which means their wings aren’t going to be subject to puncture in combat.”

“Trust you to think of that.” Vickie chuckled. “But they can be dislocated. It’s one of their big weaknesses. But, no, they don’t break wing bones or tear wings.”

“If they were fighting on the ground the thing to do would be to wrap their wings around them,” Herzer thought. “Nothing would get through it.”

“They can be superficially scratched,” Vickie said. “And that takes a long time to heal. But their wings are, for all practical purposes, invulnerable. On the other hand, they take a lot of care and feeding.”

Which they did. On active days they required several feedings per day, totally nearly their own body weight. On inactive days they required far less, but every day it was excreted.

“Fortunately, they tend to let go in air,” Jerry said, as he was covering that aspect. “But with them cooped up as they are…”

“It gets messy.” Herzer grinned.

“That apparently was passed on, and Evan the Ever Efficient planned for it,” Jerry said. “The ship really does have enough stores to support them for a hundred days, but that’s at the cost of crew. This is a really skeleton crew for a ship this size.”

“I’d noticed,” Herzer said.

And the skeleton crew was kept busy. While Herzer was cramming his head with information about dragons the crew was busy fighting the storm. Again and again the sails had to be trimmed as the wind backed around, died down and then blew back up.

It was rough and nasty and apparently the life of the Navy. Herzer decided that they could keep it.

* * *

Working the night shift was not helping with Joel’s mission. He’d picked up a rumor that the head cook was peculating, probably with the help of some of the victuallers that supplied the ship. But that didn’t make him a spy, although Joel would include it in his report.

The problem with working the mid-watch was that he had minimal interaction with the officers. If there was a New Destiny agent on-board, the most damaging position would be among the officers. And although they rotated shifts so he’d been around each of them, if any of them were communicating with New Destiny, it wasn’t clear.

As he came on watch he picked up another jug of herbal tea and some mugs and stuck his head in the wardroom on his way to the quarterdeck. Commander Mbeki was standing at the rear of the wardroom table, just turning away from, apparently, contemplating the forward bulkhead.

“Get you anything, sir?” Joel asked, holding up the jug and mugs. “Nice shot of herbal tea for a cold night?”

“Thank you, Joel, I’d like that,” Mbeki said, his face wooden.

“You okay, sir?” the steward replied, frowning. “You look pretty down.”

“I’m fine, seaman,” the commander replied, taking the mug that was poured for him. “Just wish this storm would abate.”

“Well, if wishes were fishes, sir,” Joel replied with a patented young and stupid grin. “Storms don’t listen to wishes is my experience. You just ride with ’em or turn into ’em and ride ’em out.”

“You’ve sailed before?” the commander asked, surprised.

“Sailed small fishing boats in Flora, sir,” Joel said, taking a mug of tea for himself. “Then took a packet up the coast and joined the Navy. Seemed like the right thing to do.”

“What did you do before?” the commander asked. He didn’t have to say “before the Fall.” “Before” was always the same, before the world came apart.

“Mostly sailed,” Joel said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Family?” the commander asked, sitting down.

Joel paused and then nodded. “Wife and daughter, sir. Miriam, I’d guess she was home in Briton. We had a place on the coast. My daughter… she was visiting friends in Ropasa. Near the Lore.” He shrugged. “I try not to think about it. No more than, oh, a hundred times a day.”

Mbeki nodded sadly. “Don’t tell anyone that, if you take my advice.”

“That I think about it?” Joel asked.

“Where they were,” Mbeki said, his face hard. “You really don’t want New Destiny finding out. Trust me on that.”

“I will, sir,” the steward said, mentally filing the datum. And the face. And the body posture. And the radiating anger. “I surely will.”

* * *

Finally, on the fourth day after they had left the bay, Herzer emerged in the morning to a strong, cold north wind and beautiful clear skies. The seas were rough but he’d acquired some of the knack for moving on the pitching deck and he made his way down to the dragon deck gathering no more than two new bruises on the way.

“It’s a good day to fly,” Vickie said as he came down the ladder. She and Koo were engaged in feeding the wyverns and they, too, seemed to think it was a good day to fly since they kept looking up from their feed and cawing at the overhead.

“If you can get off the ship,” Herzer said. “And back on. If you thought the water was cold before…”

“What’s it like?” Jerry asked. “I still haven’t been topside.”

“Cold,” Herzer said, opening his coat in the warmth of the stables. “Windy. Really windy.”

“I’m willing to give it a try,” Joanna rumbled, from forward. She had moved down after the first night when all the stores possible had been moved aft and the dragon deck cleaned up. Now she stretched to the limit possible and rustled her wings irritably. “And if I’ve got to hit the water, I can handle the cold.”

“I’ll go see Commander Mbeki,” Jerry said, shrugging into a fur-lined jacket.

“See if you can at least get the hatch open,” Joanna said. “I’m tired of being cooped up down here.”

Herzer and Jerry made their way aft to the quarterdeck where Commander Mbeki was striding up and down, reveling in the breeze.

“Good morning, sir,” Jerry said.

“Morning, Mr. Riadou,” the commander replied. “I suppose you want to see about getting off the ship?”

“Commander Gramlich does, sir,” the warrant officer replied. “She feels that even if she can’t land, she can make a water landing and hoist herself aboard.”

“And a joyful moment that will be,” the XO said with a grin. “The skipper is taking a much needed nap; he was up through most of the storm. I have the con, but generally evolutions like air operations would mean his presence.”

“I understand, sir,” Jerry replied. “The commander requested that at least the main hatch be opened so she can get on deck and stretch her wings.”

“That I can comply with,” the commander said after a moment. “And I would suspect that by this afternoon the wind will have moderated somewhat and the skipper will be awake. We might be able to commence air operations then.”

“Thank you, sir,” the warrant officer replied. “I’ll go see about getting the hatch removed.”

* * *

The commander was as good as his word. By the time Herzer was finishing his lunch he heard the command “All hands, prepare to come about!” followed shortly by “Prepare for air operations!”

By the time he got on deck, Joanna was on the catapult. The ship had been turned with the wind off what he now knew to be her port bow. Jerry was on the launch lever and Evan was fussing with the new launching mechanism. The detachable balk of timber had been removed and a fixed device had replaced it. Joanna had shown that she could release in time and they were trying the less wasteful system for the first time.

“Are you ready, yet, Mr. Mayerle?” Commander Mbeki called impatiently. The primary flight operations had been moved to a new station on the rear-mast, high enough that it could see to the rear of the ship but low enough that it wasn’t in the way of the sails. From that perch the commander could see both incoming dragons and the launching catapult.

“Ready, sir,” Evan replied with a wave.

“Commence launching operation,” the commander called.

Jerry looked at Joanna, then leaned into the lever. The combination of the cold air, which Herzer had learned was also denser, the strong wind and the rapid rate of movement of the ship caused the dragon to practically leap into the air.

Joanna ascended rapidly and Herzer hurried to his landing station. But when he got there, Vickie was already in the station.

“You’re late,” she said with a grin. She held up the flags and pointed them at the dragon as Joanna came around into the landing pattern.

It was clear that Joanna was having a hard time with the crosswind. She nearly made it on the first try but was blown off course by the effect of the sails at the last moment and banked off as Vickie gave her a wave off. Herzer could tell that it troubled the rider as well and he patted Vickie on the shoulder.

“You’re doing fine,” he said, realizing with a start that he had far more experience at this than she.

“Do you want to take over?” she asked, uncertainly. “This is pretty rough conditions.” That landing the greater dragon was far harder than the wyverns she didn’t have to add.

“No, you’re doing fine,” Herzer said. “She can either land or she can’t. If she can’t, she goes for a swim.”

The second time the dragon almost made it but was too low on her approach. The wave off was late and frantic and the dragon almost caught a wingtip again but managed to recover and stagger into the sky.

“That time you were late,” Herzer said, neutrally. “And it was clear that she wasn’t going to be regaining the altitude she needed. Don’t be afraid to wave off, even Joanna. Better a wave off than a crash into the ship. Remember, you’re her eyes in this.”

“I’ll remember,” Vickie said miserably and pointed at the dragon again.

The third time the dragon was high, but Vickie got her on glide path at the end. However, on final a wave lifted the rear of the ship and Joanna had to beat her wings frantically to clear the rear of the ship. She did, however, make it onto the platform, well forward, nearly pitching off the end.

“Well, that was pretty awful,” she growled.

Jerry had reached the station by then and touched Vickie on the arm.

“Vick, let Herzer do landing control,” Jerry said. “We all need to learn, but I don’t think right now is the best time.”

“Agreed,” Vickie replied, massaging her shoulder. “Those flags really get to you after a while. How do you do it, Herzer?”

Herzer frowned at her, puzzled for a moment, then laughed.

“Vickie, once you’ve trained to hold a shield and sword up for four hours, straight, this is nothing,” he said, flexing his shoulders slightly. It was apparent that they were corded with muscle.

“Time to start working out.” Jerry chuckled. “Okay, I’m going to take Shep up. You stay here and watch the landing. When Koo takes off, go get Yazov and you follow Koo. As each of us lands we watch the next person’s landing.”

* * *

By evening the riders were covered in sweat and the dragons had started to lose their interest in the game. When Koo had to be waved off twice and Nebka nearly dumped on the second wave off Jerry called the training.

“Skipper,” Jerry said climbing the ladder down to the quarterdeck, “we’re going to pack it in for the day. I think we’ve gotten all the training the dragons are up for today.”

“Agreed Warrant,” Colonel Chang said. “Good job.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jerry replied with a tired grin. He had stripped off his helmet and his hair was dripping with sweat despite the cool wind from the north. “With your permission we’ll launch a dragon for top cover tomorrow around dawn and start working out scouting mission methods. We also need to start working out a signaling system.”

“There are various things to figure out,” the skipper replied with a thoughtful frown. “I’d like to come up with a way to recover them at night, and we still need to work out a way for them to effectively attack ships, that sort of thing. I think we’ll have a dinner meeting this evening. Before then, get yourself cleaned up and get some rest.”

“Yes, sir,” the warrant officer said, saluting. “Permission to leave the bridge?”

“Granted,” the skipper replied.

* * *

“Dragon returning off the port beam,” the lookout called.

“He’s signaling,” the communications midshipman added, looking through his binoculars. “Two figure eights on the dip.” He consulted a table and nodded to himself. “That’s ‘group of delphinos.’ ”

“Bearing looks to be about one-seven-zero,” Commander Mbeki amplified as the dragon flapped nearer. “Eight of them.”

“Probably just dolphins,” the skipper said. “But at least the signaling system works.”

“Herzer’s preparing to launch with Warrant Officer Riadou,” Mbeki said. “I’m heading up to pri-fly.”

“This should be interesting,” the skipper said and smiled at the chuckles it elicited.

* * *

Herzer hadn’t been on a dragon since the first flight but he found his position on Shep easily enough. The extended rein system was confusing at first but he soon found his holds. The reins had been extended so that Jerry had his own set behind Herzer and could take over if needed.

“Just let me handle the takeoff,” Riadou said. “I tested this out with Vickie and we shouldn’t have trouble. But stay away from motions until we’re airborne and I tell you you can take over.”

“Okay,” Herzer said.

The wyvern hopped to the launch platform and grabbed the launching baulk automatically. The wyverns had come to enjoy the takeoffs, at least the first few of the day. It was a good game until it became tiring.

Herzer gripped the straps and looked at the launching officer. The position had been taken over by one of the ship’s petty officers since there were insufficient riders to man it. The PO caught both their eyes and their thumbs up, then hit the release.

Herzer had pointed his face forward and gasped as the wyvern was hurtled forward and suddenly they were in the air.

“What a rush!” he yelled with a laugh.

“That it is,” Jerry said. “Almost makes up for the landings.”

Jerry got the wyvern up to about seven hundred meters and then turned the controls over to Herzer.

“Now just follow my commands,” Jerry said. “I know you can sort of control the dragon, but the next time you’re up by yourself you’ve got to get it back on the ship. And that takes a bit more control than your first time.”

“Will do.”

They worked through various flight contours. Level flight, slow spirals up, slow spirals down. Finally Jerry signaled for landing and waited until the ship turned into the wind.

“Try to line it up on the ship,” Jerry said, signaling to the LSO and getting a wave in return.

“Got it,” Herzer said, signaling in turn. He watched the motions of the LSO and grimaced. “I feel like I’m going to overshoot.”

“Watch the LSO,” Jerry said. “Don’t think. Let the LSO do the thinking for you.”

Herzer tried to control the dragon but he realized he was all over the sky. “I’m not up to this. Yet.”

“True,” Jerry replied. “My dragon.”

Herzer let go of the reins and watched the landing. Jerry’s handling of Shep was much smoother and in no time they thumped to the deck.

“I’m going to need a lot more time in the air,” Herzer said as they dismounted and the grooms took Shep below. He realized he was sweating even though he had done practically nothing. The landing had been physically debilitating.

“Yep, you are,” Jerry said. “And that’s going to be hard to arrange what with everything going on. I hope by the time we get to the Isles you’ll be qualified.”

* * *

As they sailed south it had become warmer and today it was, arguably, hot. Herzer thought about that as he mounted Chauncey and looked over the side. The water was a deep, cerulean blue, like liquid oxygen. The good news was that if he had to dump, the water was at least going to be warm.

But he put that out of his mind as he gave a thumbs up to the launching officer and looked forward.

He had gotten used to launchings at this point and paid much more attention to the dragon than the launching. Chauncey took the air easily, though, and he directed him into a spiral up and to the right.

“Just get up and into landing position,” Jerry had told him, so he spiraled the dragon upward until he had good altitude and directed it to the pattern.

Vickie was being recovered from a recon mission so he waited for her to land, Chauncey gliding at near stall speed on the light winds. He realized that the dragons were becoming more trained to the landings and was considering that aspect when he realized it was his turn to land. He turned on final and waved to the LSO, getting a wave in return. He checked the telltale on the masthead and prepared to correct for the wind being slightly off the starboard side. Joanna had gone for a swim and she was sculling along on her back, watching his approach. On the other hand, it looked like everyone in the ship had fallen out to watch the landing. The crew had gotten used to dragon-flights, but Herzer figured that the first time for a newbie was an event.

He put that out of his mind, too, and watched the directions from the LSO. Again, Chauncey seemed to anticipate some of his commands, as if he had gotten used to the orders as well. But, while this helped, it was still a bastard to make the landing.

He saw that cargo nets had been rigged to the rear and sides of the platform and that the recovery team was standing by. Although that was standard procedure as well, it made him chuckle faintly. If he overshot or dumped it, it was going to be heartily embarrassing.

He automatically corrected as he entered the dead air behind the sails and then he was on final. At what seemed well past the last moment, the LSO waved at the deck and Herzer pulled back simultaneously on all four reins, dropping Chauncey onto the deck like a rock.

He sat there, panting, and ignored the cheers, just quivering in reaction.

“Four line,” Jerry said, patting him on the leg. “But not bad. Hop her over to the catapult.”

“You mean I have to do that again?” Herzer gasped as the cargo nets were lifted up and out of the way.

“Welcome to maritime aviation,” Jerry replied with a chuckle.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Herzer did three more landings then switched from Chauncey to Donal. He stripped off the leather helmet the sailmaker had constructed as the wyvern was brought up from below and watched Koo coming in for a landing.

“Herzer,” Jerry called as the wyvern was hopping down the ramp. “Vickie’s on sweep. I want you to go up with her. You need to get some experience with unpowered flight.”

Herzer forbore to mention that he’d already had some on the way because he knew what the warrant was talking about. Figuring out how to stress the dragons as little as possible was as important in its own way as learning to land on the ship.

Herzer approached his new mount cautiously and let it get to know him. Like horses the dragons tended to get used to one rider, but since Treviano had decided he wasn’t up to landing on the carrier, Donal had been switched around extensively and it took the new rider phlegmatically.

Herzer mounted, hopped the wyvern onto the launch platform and again had the tremendous rush of the launching. He then pointed the dragon into a slow, upward spiral towards the distant dot of Yazov high above and forward.

It took nearly thirty minutes for him to reach her altitude and when he got there he discovered that Vickie had found a thermal and was coasting in a circle. Donal managed to insert himself into her vortex and followed the pattern of the other wyvern more or less automatically.

The dragon-riders had a complex set of hand signals that amounted to one-handed sign language and, rather than shout across the distance, Vickie made a querying sign.

Herzer thought long and hard and managed to dredge up the sign for “training” to which Vickie motioned an assent. She pointed down and to the east of the ship and off in the distance he could see a group of whales moving southward. Looking around he saw that the sea was patched with life. There was a large school of baitfish to the southwest that was being harried by birds and what looked to be much larger fish. He pointed to that and motioned at the wyvern with the sign for food but Vickie just shrugged. The ship had onboard facilities for catching fish, a large seine net that could be laid out by the ship’s boats as well as harpoons for larger game, but she clearly thought it a waste of time.

Very far off to the left there was a smudge of land that was probably the coast. It occurred to Herzer, for the first time, that despite the fact that they were paralleling the coast, they weren’t staying close in-shore and he didn’t know why. He was sure Commander Mbeki could tell him when he landed, assuming he remembered to ask. In the same direction there was a band of water that was a subtly different color than that which the ship was in.

Finally he just paid attention to the flying. Donal was gliding well, maintaining altitude with only occasional flaps of his wings and breathing easily. Herzer had already noticed that when the dragons tired they tended to heat up and breathe much more heavily. Donal was still cool to the touch and exhibiting no signs of trouble.

The ship had passed under their constant circle and Vickie made a gesture to the south so they dropped out of the thermal and glided in the wake of the ship. She was looking from side to side and finally found what she was looking for in a group of vultures that were coasting upward. The thermal was off the path of the ship, southeast of its present position, but not far from where it would pass. They banked gently in the direction of the vultures and before they had lost more than five hundred meters they entered the new thermal and spiraled upward on easy flaps of the dragon’s wings.

This pattern continued for, by Herzer’s estimate, another three hours until a flag at the mainmast of the ship commanded both of them to return. The ship turned towards the wind, which was from the northwest, and they made an easy landing, Herzer going first.

“Well, that was interesting,” Herzer said as he climbed off Donal and let him be led below. The sun was starting to set in the west and the deck of the ship was already shadowed, which was why they had called in the sweep riders.

“Anything to see?” Commander Mbeki asked.

“Not unless you count fish and whales,” Vickie answered.

“Big school of fish in towards land,” Herzer amplified. “Can I ask a question?”

“Go ahead,” the commander replied.

“Why are we so far out?”

“There’s a big current, called the Stream, that hooks around Flora and heads up the coast. It’s like a river in the ocean. If we stayed in it, we’d take twice as long to go south; it was worth sailing out to the east to avoid it. When we reach the Isles we’ll have to sail back into it since the mer’s last reported position was on the western edge of the Isles where the Stream passes between Flora and the Isles.”

“I think I saw it,” Herzer said. “The water was different looking.”

“Probably where the school was,” the commander offered. “The migrating fish on the coast tend to follow the edge of the Stream. Plankton get caught in the eddies, there’s more growth potential in the interface of different temperature waters, and lines of seaweed build up there and provide shelter.”

“How much longer to get to the Isles, sir?” Jerry asked.

“Well, if we don’t have to get off course to launch dragons all the time, about another two days,” the commander said with a grin. He looked up at the sky where high clouds had started to cross the sun and frowned. “That’s assuming the weather holds and we don’t have to heave to.”

* * *

Herzer slumped into the chair in the wardroom and dragged his helmet off, rubbing at his sweaty head. He’d thought about getting a shower but he was just too bone weary at the moment.

The door opened up and a steward stuck his head through. It was a new one, a tall, lanky fellow who looked both young and old. Herzer was sure he wouldn’t be able to place his age in the right century.

“Get you anything, sir?” the steward asked.

“God, would you?” Herzer grinned. “I thought sword work was hard but riding those damned things is harder than it looks. Water? Maybe some tea?”

“Coming right up,” the steward said. “Maybe a bite to eat? There’s some cold pork and some ship’s crackers I can get my hands on.”

“That’d be great,” Herzer said, leaning back as the steward left.

The man was back in no time and true to his word he brought both water and herbal tea as well as a platter with meat and crackers.

“Thanks,” Herzer said, taking a long pull of the slightly metallic-tasting water and then a bite of cracker. “Join me?”

“Not done, sir,” the steward said, but then picked up one of the crackers and took a bite. “Mostly.”

Herzer chuckled and took another swig of water.

“You’re new.”

“The other guy busted his ankle on a ladder, sir.” The steward frowned. “I’m Seaman Annibale.”

“Got a first name, Seaman Annibale?” Herzer asked.

“Joel, sir.”

“Ever flown on a dragon?”

“No, sir,” Joel answered. “I used to be a sailor before the Fall. And after, but as a fisherman then.”

“So what the hell are you doing as a steward?” Herzer frowned.

“You know, sir, everyone asks me that,” Joel grinned. “I suppose I ought to go find the idiot that did it and thank him one dark night.” He paused for a moment and then shrugged. “You’re with the general’s party, right, sir?”

“Yeah,” Herzer replied and then stuck out his hand. “Herzer Herrick.”

“Really?” Joel said, smiling. “The Herzer Herrick?”

“Oh, gods,” Herzer groaned.

“I mean, I’ve been reading this book…”

“Oh, gods…” Herzer groaned again. “Not you, too?”

“I mean, the guy’s not a particularly good writer…”

“So I’ve heard,” Herzer replied. “And if I ever track him down…”

“Did you really kill fifteen guys?” Joel asked, sitting down.

“Not there,” Herzer said then grimaced. “Look, the book was way overblown, okay? I just did my job.”

“But that’s where you got the hook, right?” Joel asked.

“Yes, that’s where I got the hook. But it was six riders, okay? Not fifteen. And Bast got most of them. And, yeah, we were outnumbered, but the Changed didn’t cover the valley ‘like a rippling wave.’ There were… a few hundred. Look, you ever been in a fight, I mean, where people are trying to kill you?”

“Yeah,” Joel answered, soberly. “And I’ve seen a few dead bodies in my time.”

“Ever had a friend killed before your eyes?” Herzer asked, not waiting for a reply. “Look, it’s just butchery, okay? It happens to be butchery I’m good at. I don’t know what that says about me except… I’m good at staying alive. A lot of people that day, and other days, that were just as good as me bought the farm. Sometimes it just seems like luck. But if you’ve been there, you know that.”

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Joel said, picking up the mug. “I’ve got to circulate, sir. But thanks for talking to me. You cleared up a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” Herzer said, then grinned. “And if you ever find the bastard that wrote that book…”

“I’ll be sure to send you his address.” Joel grinned.

* * *

There was no chance of dragons launching the next day, as the ship was tossed by the winds in the morning. A bank of clouds was to the north and the crew scrambled aloft to reef the sails. For the next two days the ship was tossed by howling winds and blinding rain as the second front in as many weeks hammered them unmercifully. This one was, if anything, colder and stronger. And while the winds were fair to send them to their destination, on the second day the captain had the ship heave to, sailing into the teeth of the gale. Their destination had been the death of countless mariners over the ages and he was not about to go sailing down on it, unable to get a fix on their position and at the front of a gale.

By the third day the winds had started to abate and the rain had stopped. The captain had the ship put on the starboard tack and sailed to the west, groping forward for a glimpse of Flora or anything else to get a fix on their position. Joanna volunteered to go aloft and try to spot land. She wasn’t able to land in the tossing waves but the recovery area had been reinforced and redesigned so that she was able to pull herself out with minimal effort.

“Flora’s over to the west,” she said, after she had shaken off. “There’s an inlet, but there’s inlets all up and down the coast. That doesn’t tell us anything. There are some islands to the southeast; we’re about sixty klicks from them. Nothing due east at all as far as I can see. Oh, and there’s clear sky well down below the horizon northwest. I think we’ll be clear of the clouds, or at least the cover will be broken, by evening.”

The skipper and Commander Mbeki consulted their charts and came to the conclusion that they were too close to the Isles for comfort without better conditions or a clear sky to get a navigation fix. They altered course towards Flora, which of the two was the lesser danger, and headed into the Stream.

By evening, as Joanna had predicted, the skies were clearing and the wind and waves had abated. The latter were choppier, but far smaller and the ship rode over them with a graceful dip and yaw that was easy enough to compensate for.

The next morning dawned clear but the winds were increasing and the area around the ship was dotted with whitecaps. The skipper had managed to get a star reading the night before so the ship was now under reefed sails, scudding southward over the tossing sea. When Herzer came on deck after breakfast he groaned, sure that the skipper would want dragons up in this mess.

“We can launch, sir,” Jerry was saying as Herzer reached the quarterdeck. The wind, hard and cold from the north, blew his words away so that he practically had to shout. “But I’m not sure about recovery. And I’m not sure we can read the water the way you would like. We can see shoals, and we can signal them, but we can’t really gauge the depth.”

“Just steer us clear of them,” the skipper said. “As for recovery… the water’s warm,” he added with a grin.

“The air sure isn’t,” Jerry growled, but he was smiling. “We’ll do it, sir. But we will probably have to do water landings; I’m not comfortable with the way the ship is moving.”

“Do what you can, Jerry,” the skipper said, not unkindly. “I know you’re worried about the dragons, and their riders, but if we run up on an uncharted coral head, they’re all going to drown.”

“Gotcha, sir,” the warrant replied. “Well, I’ll take the first flight.

He was quickly in the air and before he had even reached cruising altitude the dragon was making the dips and swirls indicating shallow water. He angled to the east until he reached a point that looked to be about fifteen klicks off the port bow, circled, then headed south.

“We’re well out in the Stream, then,” Commander Mbeki said. “This is solid deep water on both sides and ahead of us for klicks, sir. If we had sonar we’d be looking at two hundred, maybe five hundred, meters of depth.”

“Yes,” the skipper said, “and it shoals out fast. Signal him to stay ahead of us looking for shoal water until he’s relieved. Signal him to look for mer, as well and to signal if he sees any sign of intelligent life.”

“Will do, sir.”

“Put a wyvern on standby for launch. If he sees anything I want to recover him as soon as he’s had a good look.”

It was no more than an hour later when Jerry went into a hover against the north wind. At an acknowledgement from the ship he signaled that there was a settlement below him. Then he signaled that there were several small boats.

“Recall him and launch the standby wyvern,” the skipper said. “Tell the rider to ignore the settlement and head southward. The mer are supposed to be somewhere around here. Oh, and send a messenger to General Talbot and tell him that we’re approaching the last reported position of the mer.”

* * *

The man who scrambled up the side of the ship was burned black by the sun with hands callused and gnarled from fishing nets. But he looked around him with lively interest as a midshipman led him to the quarterdeck.

“Colonel Shar Chang,” the skipper said, sticking out his hand. “United Free States Navy.”

“Bill Mapel,” the fisherman said. “This is one hell of a ship you’ve got here, Skipper.”

“Yes, it is,” the skipper replied with a grin. “We don’t have much information from down here. How is it?”

“Well, it’s not as good as it used to be.” The fisherman frowned. “I used to run a fishing charter on Bimi island before the Fall and it caught me here. We haven’t been starving, but the weather’s been a nightmare and finding your way around without autodirectors isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I’d never learned star navigation, none of us had, so if we lose sight of shore it’s a matter of making our way in and finding a spot we recognize. Storms, reefs, a torn sail, things we never even thought of before the Fall are all disasters. And they’re all taking their toll. We’ve had some problems with vitamin deficiencies, too, but since we started getting some fruit from Flora that’s less of a problem.”

“What are you trading?” Talbot interjected. “Sorry, I’m General Talbot, UFS ground force.”

“The general is also the duke of Overjay,” the skipper interjected.

“Duke?” the islander said with a grimace.

“Over my bitter objections,” Talbot said, “they’ve reinstituted a hereditary aristocracy. I at least got them to include methods of turnover.”

“How’s the war going?” Mapel asked. “There’s not much news.”

“It’s bad in Ropasa,” Commander Mbeki said. “New Destiny is Changing many of the people there against their will. But… it does give them some advantages.”

“In the short term,” Talbot snarled. “We’ve had to fight them and even captured some. They’re brutal, aggressive, strong and dumb. Personally, I’ll pass, thank you.”

“But surely they can be Changed back,” Mapel protested. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to Change but here we didn’t really need to. I can imagine in Ropasa that having enough farmers…”

“Their Change is under the seal of a council member,” Talbot said. “It will take her, or a quorum of Key-holders, to release the Change. Even they cannot release it.”

“Now that’s evil,” the islander snapped. “You’re sure of that?”

“My wife is a doctor, a fully trained one,” Talbot replied. “She was given enough power to investigate the Change. Most of them are bound to Celine’s security protocols. Bound by her name in a very old way of putting it. There is no way to release them, short of winning this war. So, since many of them are people who resisted them in the fight in Ropasa, if you fall into the hands of New Destiny… well, you know your ‘new destiny.’ ”

“Shit.”

“But on the subject of why we’re actually here,” Talbot continued. “Have you seen sign of the mer?”

“They’re not here, now,” Mapel replied after a moment’s thought. “They’ve moved to the Ber Islands because of the weather; they’re seminomadic. They told us they were leaving and we were sorry to see them go; they and the delphinos that cluster with them were helpful in finding fish.”

“How are you fixed for nets?” Commander Mbeki interjected.

“Not well,” the islander admitted. “Most of the ones that we have are cast-nets from pre-Fall. We don’t have good materials for making our own.”

“General?” the skipper asked.

Talbot grimaced but then shrugged. “We have some we brought with us, but they’re for trading with the mer. I can release a couple of the gill-nets to you. That should help. But I’d appreciate it if you could show the skipper the location that you think the mer have traveled to.”

“Easily,” Mapel replied. “And I really appreciate it.”

“I think that you’ll see some traders coming this way soon,” Commander Mbeki said. “You might want to think about what you can come up with in the way of trade goods. We’ll tell them that you need nets and suchlike.”

“Thank you, again,” Mapel said. “Now, if you’ve got a chart of the area I’ll point out where the mer went.”

* * *

After the islander had left they looked at the maps and the skipper snarled, angrily.

“That’s the other side of the Banks,” he said, pointing to the soundings marked on the chart. “There’s shoal water everywhere unless we go all the way around the Isles. The area they are in is on the edge of a deep, but everything to the north, west and south of them is shallow. They’re in a sort of crescent. It will take two or three more days, if we have fair weather, for us to beat around to where they are. There’s a passage through the shoals, but it’s just too damned shallow, and narrow, to dare trying it in the ship.”

“I’d suppose that makes sense if they’re trying to get out of the weather,” Talbot said with another grimace. “Jerry, do you think the wyverns can forage off of fish?”

“What are you thinking?”

“It’s silly for me to be impatient after this long,” Talbot admitted. “But I don’t want to spend another two or three days, if the wind holds, beating around the islands. On the dragons we can make it there in an afternoon.”

“We can,” Jerry admitted. “But they’ll be ravenous by the time we get there.”

“Can we carry weight over and above us?” Herzer interjected. “We can have some of the salt beef and pork cooked before we leave. Load it in bags and we can carry our own food. It won’t be enough for more than getting there, but it will tide them over. Surely we can find something when we get there.”

“What about water?” Jerry temporized.

“There’s a spring marked on the main island that’s by where we’re going,” Edmund replied.

“These islands are nearly deserted,” Jerry said. “When it comes to wyverns getting fed, you don’t want to go with if.”

“Get Joanna up here,” Talbot said. “I want her input.”

The dragon, when the problem was presented to her, was unsure and unhappy.

“I’m not sure we can catch enough fish to matter,” she admitted. “You’re talking about a lot of fish.” She looked over the side and then turned to the rail. Tapping it open she slid over into the water.

“All sails aback,” the skipper yelled. “Bring her into the wind.”

Herzer ran to the ladder to pri-fly and when that wasn’t high enough scrambled up the shrouds to the crow’s nest on the mainmast. He could see the dragon’s form in the clear water. She had submerged and was coursing along the reefs that were visible deep below the ship. Suddenly she lunged to the side and snapped at something, swimming rapidly with her sinuous, snakelike sculling. She appeared to catch whatever she was hunting and moved on. He realized that she was holding her breath for a long time and wondered if that was a normal function of dragons. Finally, she surfaced and sculled over to the side of the ship.

“If these Ber Islands are anything like here, no problem,” she said happily, working her tongue at a morsel stuck in her teeth. “With your permission, Skipper, I’m going to do a bit more foraging. Sushi’s not so bad with enough salt water and salt beef as an alternative.”

Talbot looked at the sky and nodded. “Jerry, get the wyverns up. See if they can do the same. If they can find enough food here for their midmorning snack, we’ll load as heavily as we can with rations, a few of the nets and other things we brought and then head over to the Ber Islands.”

“Will do, sir,” the warrant said. “I’m not sure about getting them in the water, though.”

In the event it turned out to be not too hard. Once the riders dove over the side, fighting the strong current, the dragons followed. They also quickly learned the technique of fishing from watching Joanna and before long they were darting throughout the reefs, picking off the large fish that dotted it.

“We’re in the islanders’ fishing area,” Herzer pointed out, looking over the side longingly at the water. “I’m not sure they’ll appreciate us eating out all the big fish.”

“They’ll eat better with the nets,” Talbot said with a shrug. “I’m sure they won’t begrudge us a few grouper.”

“Is that what they are?”

“Probably, from what I can see. Grouper and big hogfish. Hogfish is good eating; I wish we could get them to bring a few back alive.”

“Permission to go over the side, sir?” Herzer asked. “I’m sorry, but the water looks awfully inviting.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

After jockeying his ship back and forth the skipper had dropped the anchor and the Richard now floated in the current. Most of the riders were back on board. The few who were not were holding onto a rope let out over the stern.

“Come below,” Talbot said after a moment’s thought. “Do you think you can hold onto one of the dragons in the water?”

“I’m not sure,” Herzer admitted. “And I know I can’t hold my breath for as long as they do.”

“Well, I’ll show you something for that.”

Talbot led him to his cabin and opened the box from Sheida. He took from it a rolled up plastic bag and shook it out.

“This is a swimming mask,” he said, putting it over his face. The plastic immediately shrunk so that he should have been strangling, but he continued to talk and breathe, albeit with a muffled tone. “It brings oxygen from the water to you, filters out carbon dioxide and exits it when you breathe. When you’re underwater it converts your words to mer code speech and will translate it for you as well as the delphino language. The important thing to know is don’t hold your breath,” he continued, stripping the bag off.

“When you’re coming up your lungs will expand from the pressure drop and if you hold your breath you’ll blow out your lungs. Just breathe naturally.”

Herzer took the bag somewhat reluctantly and slipped it over his head. It was an unnatural feeling as it smoothed down but he noticed right away that he could breathe normally.

“How long will it last?” he asked, pulling it back off.

“It’s charged for sixteen hours,” Edmund replied, pointing at an almost unnoticeable dot of dark plastic on the edge. “But it can recharge from the Net, slowly. And if you’re underwater when it runs out of charge it has a high priority for power. You won’t run out. And if you do, you just swim up to the surface and head for land; the mer tend to spend their time near the shore. The other reason that’s important is that what you’re breathing is nearly pure oxygen. If you go too deep, oxygen becomes toxic. Don’t go extremely deep.”

“Okay,” Herzer said. “Let’s try it.”

“One last thing,” Edmund added, pulling a small block of plastic from the bottom of the box. He thumbed it and it sprang into the shape of a pair of fins. “Some purists still used these before the Fall; they’re swimming fins. Kick your legs in a scissor motion. They’ll help with the current.”

Herzer went to his cabin and changed, aware that he’d hardly seen Rachel over the last few days, then headed up to the deck, holding the mask and fins. He put both on and dove over the side.

As advertised he had no more trouble breathing in the surprisingly warm water than in the air. He took some rapid breaths and found that the mask hardly interfered at all. Given that oxygen in the water was far too disperse for him simply to be sucking it in, he wasn’t sure what the mask was doing, but it worked. He had drifted backwards in the current and he quickly kicked his way over to the rope. He could see the dragons hunting below him quite clearly and picked out the shape of Chauncey.

He surfaced and grinned at Vickie who was eyeing him askance.

“Blood Lords are always prepared,” he said.

“Yeah, I can see that,” she grumbled.

“I’m going to down and try to catch Chauncey, any suggestions?”

“Yeah, don’t try to ride a dragon bareback,” Koo replied. “But if you do, you can probably hang on to his neck. It’s the best bet.”

Herzer looked down again and watched the dragons for a moment before heading out. The wyverns had their wings half folded into a v and they were moving quite fast through the water with short, powerful strokes. They were fast enough that it was clear the reef fish stood little chance unless they made it into shelter. The dragons would hunt for a couple of minutes then ascend to the surface, blowing hard.

He waited until Chauncey surfaced to the rear of the ship and kicked towards him rapidly.

“Ho, Chaunce,” he said as he approached the floating dragon. He wanted the wyvern well aware that it was a rider approaching and not lunch. They both were being carried in the current and it was relatively easy to approach from the front. He grabbed at the wing-root so he wouldn’t be carried past, then slithered onto the back of the beast.

Chauncey didn’t seem to mind but Herzer quickly found that dragon skin was slippery when wet. He had just managed to get his arms around the wyvern’s massive neck when it submerged.

The dragon went almost straight down through the pellucid water, headed for a shadow that was lounging under a ledge.

Herzer suddenly felt a sharp pain in his ears and shook his head, yawning, as they “popped” painfully. He grabbed his nose, half instinctively, and blew against the obstruction, relieving the pressure and popping them again. He blew one more time to be sure, then looked around at the sea-bottom, which was coming up fast.

The bottom was sand with broken coral heads, and the big fish, maybe one of those grouper that Duke Edmund had mentioned, was using the coral for cover. As the shadow of the wyvern swept over it, however, it took off, a brown and gray streak, headed across the sand for another ledge.

Chauncey turned to follow and Herzer was nearly ripped from his perch as the dragon pumped its wings through the dense water. Clearly the reef fish was the faster but Donal suddenly stooped down upon it and it turned desperately to the side. Chauncey made another radical turn to the right and the fish reversed again, but not in time as the wyvern’s head darted down and snapped onto the body of the man-sized fish.

The water was clear and the sun high above was shining down so that the sand positively glittered, but Herzer was amazed to see that the blood that flowed from the fish, was bright, emerald green, like new leaves or growing grass after a spring rain. There was a lot of it, as well. It always amazed him the quantity of blood that a being could hold.

The fish had been swimming into the Stream and for just a moment the sea around him turned to the same bright, emerald hue. He was so surprised that he nearly lost his grip again. But the wyvern hungrily finished off the fish, brilliantly colored scavenger fish darting out from the reef to get the dropped morsels, and headed off on another hunt.

Herzer had never been into underwater sports so he was amazed by the sights around him. The shadow of the ship overhead was blue as was the deeper water to the west. The dragons passing in every direction were unreal and amazing, their wings tucked in and “flying” against the current as they hunted over the reef. The water was so clear it seemed that he could see for miles but he realized that the visibility was no more than seventy meters or so, as Shep kept drifting in and out of sight in the distance.

Sharks had started to gather to the feeding frenzy of the dragons and he was a bit worried by that. The wyverns might be able to survive an attack by the much smaller sharks, but if they thought they were prey it would be an ugly encounter. The sharks avoided the dragons, though, perhaps recognizing through some instinct or survival coding ancient beyond belief that the dinosaurlike flying creatures were deadly fellow predators. And the dragons ignored the sharks, in turn.

The exception was Joanna. Chauncey was beating madly after one of the reef fish again, this one no larger than Herzer’s thigh, when he saw the great dragon emerge from the gloom to the east and close on one of the medium-sized sharks. A dart of her head on its long neck and the shark was neatly bitten in two, the tail and head continuing to quiver as they drifted for the bottom. Other sharks closed around the remnants and her head darted in again to take one of the smaller ones whole. One of the sharks turned to bite at her but its teeth bounced off her folded wings as her neck turned all the way around and did to the shark what it had been unable to do to her. Apparently satisfied, she sculled back towards the ship, giving a special flip of her tail in the direction of what had once been the most dangerous predator in the sea.

Herzer had released Chauncey to watch the by-play and he suddenly realized that he was not one of the most dangerous predators in the sea as a group of sharks moved towards him. He wasn’t sure what kind they were, except that they were big and brown and the most “traditional” sharp shape he had ever seen. And they apparently considered him a potential meal. With the exception of his belt-knife, he was entirely unarmed and not sure whether to head for the surface or the bottom. The sharks were between him and the ship, so heading for that was out.

He turned to the side and dove for the bottom just as one of the bigger sharks darted forward. He managed to deflect it with a well timed blow on its snout, to which the shark reacted by turning and swimming rapidly away, then to the side to circle. The punch had not been without damage to Herzer, however, as the skin on his knuckles had all been ripped off by the sandpapery skin. He kicked towards another, which took that as an opportunity to grab his fin.

The fin was of almost indestructible plastic but the same could not be said of Herzer. The shark reacted to the bite by trying to rip off a bit of flesh, shaking its head rapidly and powerfully back and forth. Herzer found himself being tossed like a rat held by a terrier and distinctly felt something in his ankle pop. After it was clear that nothing was going to come off the shark released him but by this time the first one had circled around and was coming in for another run at more vulnerable parts.

Just as it was about to reach him there was a blue shadow over it and Chauncey bit it just behind the head. She wasn’t as large as Joanna but her jaws could spread almost like a snake’s and the powerful jaw muscles cut through tough skin, bony cartilage and flesh, leaving the head attached to the tail only by a narrow strip of skin.

The water around Herzer was suddenly filled with wings and green blood as the wyverns reacted to the threat, and meal, of the gathered shark frenzy, snapping in every direction. The sharks tended to head for extremities, biting at the wyvern’s wings. But, to their dismay, they were just as impossible to pierce as Joanna’s and the wyverns reacted by dragging the wings over to their mouths and having little clingy shark snacks.

Herzer decided that the best thing to do was head for the bottom, like any good reef fish, and watch the battle royale from the safety of a ledge. There were seven sharks that considered the dragons fair game, but the five wyverns had killed four of them before Joanna made her reappearance. She, in turn, killed two more and the last was finished off by Donal, who nearly swallowed the relatively small shark whole.

As soon as the last of the sharks were nothing but bits drifting to the floor, Herzer pushed off from his ledge and headed up to the group, favoring his leg and doing most of the work with his right hand. The dragons, however, headed for the surface even faster and there was no way to keep up with them. As he was ascending he considered what Edmund had said and breathed normally. He did notice that he tended to seem to breathe out more air than he took in on the way up and wondered what he should do about it. He also noticed that there weren’t even bubbles, which surprised him, but he guessed that the exhaled gasses were distributed by whatever mechanism gathered them in for breathing.

His ears started hurting again when he was close to the surface and he paused to let them clear, working his jaw back and forth. As he headed up he noticed that he always seemed to be at the surface, but it was always farther away than he anticipated. It was something of a surprise when first his outstretched left arm and then his head breasted the surface.

He surfaced downstream from the dragons, well away from the ship, but Joanna was already serpentining towards him.

“You were almost part of the food-chain there, Lieutenant,” the dragon said, grinning with her mobile lips. There was a bit of white flesh stuck in her teeth with a piece of shark skin still attached.

“Just think of me as bait,” Herzer replied with a smile.

“You’re taking it pretty well,” Joanna said, coasting up beside him. “Climb on.”

“I’m used to people, and things, trying to kill me,” Herzer admitted. “It’s a hell of a thing to say, but getting attacked by sharks is the first normal thing that’s happened to me on this trip.”

“You must lead a hell of a life.”

“You have no idea.”

* * *

“You’ve got a sprained ankle,” Daneh said, as she finished her wrappings. “Not bad, but you’re going to need to stay off of it as much as possible for the next day or so.”

The dragons had been recovered, as well as the riders, and they were preparing to take off to go try to find the mer. As soon as Herzer’s ankle got taped up.

“Not much chance of that,” Edmund said, coming up behind her and holding out something to Herzer. “Souvenir.”

Herzer turned the shark tooth over and over in his hand and shook his head.

“Where’d you get this?” he asked.

“Off the bottom of your fin,” the duke said. “It was jammed in a crevice. There were score marks on the fins, though. Pretty good considering that it was memory graphite.”

“You were nearly killed, you know,” Daneh said.

“I know, ma’am,” Herzer said with a faint smile. “I was there.”

“Are you capable of flying?” Edmund asked.

“If I can get a boot over this,” Herzer replied, gesturing at his foot.

“We’ll figure something out,” Talbot replied, nodding. “I want to get going as soon as—”

“Boat broad on the starboard bow!” the mast-head lookout called.

“Boat?” Edmund said quizzically, looking off to the west. Somewhere over there was distant Flora but it was on the other side of the Stream. And the lookout had distinctly said “boat” not “ship” which they had all learned, quite pointedly, meant a little boat. Nobody in their right minds crossed the Stream in a small boat.

“What do you make of it?” the skipper called up. He had binoculars to his eyes but for the time being the boat was below the horizon.

“Looks like a small canoe of some sort, sir, maybe a kayak,” the lookout called down. “One person in it. Coming up from the southwest.”

Half the crew crowded the side of the ship, trying to get a look at the suicidal person who appeared to have crossed the Stream in what the lookout noted was, indeed, a canoe, not a sea-kayak. As it approached his descriptions got clearer.

“The crew’s a female,” he called down. “Dark hair… wearing… a bathing suit?

Herzer suddenly groaned and sat down on a coiled pile of rope, holding his head.

“That’s no bathing suit,” he muttered. “Five gets you ten it’s a leather bikini. Which means it’s no human.”

“No.” Edmund sighed, turning away from the rail. “It’s an elf.”

Bast?” Daneh gasped. “How did she? I mean…”

“Bast?” Rachel asked, having just appeared from below. She shaded her eyes and looked to port where the canoe was now faintly visible. “Are you sure?”

“Who else would cross the Stream in a dugout canoe?” Herzer asked.

“And there’s a rabbit in the bow!” the lookout yelled down.

“Well, that’s one of life’s little rhetorical questions answered,” Duke Edmund said with a chuckle. “The answer being ‘that damned bunny.’ ”

* * *

“Bast,” Herzer said, giving her a hug as she swarmed up the side. She kept right on swarming until she had her legs wrapped around his waist and her lips planted on his.

The female he was referring to was no more than a meter and a quarter tall; she barely came to his waist. Her eyes were green with vertically split pupils and her ears were delicately pointed. She had high, small breasts and was wearing a green bikini of soft, washed leather. She carried a bow and quiver over her back and a light saber with a jewel-encrusted hilt belted to her side by a jeweled and tooled leather belt. On her left shoulder was a pauldron, a curved piece of armor to protect the shoulder, on her right shin was a greave, another piece of armor, on her left leg was a fur leg warmer and on both arms she wore leather bracers. Other than that she was naked. It was the most impractical getup imaginable, but that was pure Bast.

“Hiya, lover,” she said when she’d finally drawn back. She leaned over and winked at Rachel. “I’m not stealing him, yet, am I?”

“No,” Rachel replied with a grin. “As a matter of fact, you can feel free to use my bunk. He snores.”

“Especially when he’s all worn out,” Bast admitted, dropping to the deck as the rabbit scrabbled up the side. It shouldn’t have been able to but its claws bit the wood like talons.

“Bast…” Edmund said, pausing. “Not that I’m not glad to see you, but…”

“But you’re on this important secret diplomatic mission,” Bast said, as Herzer delicately prized her off and set her on the deck, “and you don’t want two spirits of chaos ruining it.”

“That’s probably how I’d put it,” Edmund admitted with a chuckle. “At least mentally. Why are you here?”

“Well, you took lover-boy with you,” she said, grabbing Herzer’s arm and wrapping herself around it. This apparently was too unfamiliar so she swarmed back up him, this time on his left side, and wrapped her legs around his waist, leaning out for all the world like a koala on her favorite tree. “I couldn’t leave him to be all alone in the dangerous Southern Isles!”

“Okay, so what’s with the bunny?” Edmund said, sighing.

The rabbit in question was a brown-and-white, flop-eared mini-lop who looked for all the world like the world’s cutest, albeit dumbest, pet. That is if you ignored the black leather harness loaded with knives and a pistol crossbow. And the mad, red eyes.

“Hey! Island vacation!” the rabbit snapped. “Big-titted blondes, warm beaches, sun, surf, sand and, most importantly, alfalfa margaritas!”

“There’s no tequila on board,” Edmund sighed. “And certainly no alfalfa.”

“What?!” the rabbit gasped in a high, tenor voice. “No tequila? In the islands?”

“Tequila comes from Chiara,” Edmund explained. “The guava plant grows there. Rum comes from the islands.”

“Well, that’s a point. Navy ships always have a tot of rum once a day. I’ll take rum. Rum is good.”

“Unfortunately, UFS ships are dry,” Daneh said, dryly. “As in, not wet. As in, no alcohol.”

“DRY?!” the rabbit shrieked. He whipped out a switchblade and hopped up on Herzer’s shoulder, waving the knife at Bast. “You said there’d be booze! A pleasure cruise to the islands you said! All the booze I could drink! Maybe even telemarketers! I’m going to turn you into elf cutlets!”

“You can try, black-heart,” Bast snapped, launching off of Herzer in what was a quite improbable back flip and landing on the deck with her saber drawn. “Any time, you flop-eared monstrosity!”

“Bast, why did you inveigle this… this…” Edmund waved his hand at the rabbit. “This insanely programmed AI onto this ship?”

“Well, I couldn’t leave him in Raven’s Mill with both of us gone, could I?” Bast shrugged, putting away her saber. “And I’m sure we can find enough rum somewhere in these islands to keep him happy.”

“Bast…” Edmund said, then paused as she raised a finger at him.

“Ah, ah,” she said, cocking her head to the side.

“Bast…” he said, a wheedling note in his voice this time.

“Ah!”

“Oh, damn,” Edmund sighed. “We’re just getting ready to leave and we need all the weight we can spare for the dragons, spare food for them and our gear.”

“I’m light,” Bast said. “I’ll ride Joanna.”

“I give up,” Edmund said. “What about the bunny?”

“You’re going to visit the mer, right?” the rabbit asked. “That means swimming, right? I don’t swim.”

“Rabbit, you make problems on this ship and they’ll make you walk the plank,” Edmund growled. “In concrete shoes.”

“Them and what army?” the rabbit challenged, hopping off of Herzer’s shoulder and landing on the deck with a solid thump. The switchblade waved back and forth menacingly.

“There’s a hundred and twenty-five crew and a dozen marines,” Edmund said. “If worse comes to worst, they’ll roll you up in a spare sail and toss you over the side weighted with ballast. How long can you hold your breath?”

“A long time,” the rabbit said, staring him in the eye. After a moment he quit to nibble at his shoulder as if he could care less for the threats. “I’ll behave. But you’d better find me some booze. I get all ticky when I don’t have booze.”

“There’re settlements around,” Edmund said. “We’ll see what we can do.”

“General,” Commander Mbeki said. “I hate to break up this spectacle but the wyverns are saddled and ready to go. We’ve got the spare stores and between the wind and the current we should be able to loft all of it, if you leave soon.”

“We’re ready,” Edmund replied. “Someone had better tell Joanna that she has a spare passenger and while you’re loading I need to go talk to the skipper.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

“What… is that thing?” Chang asked.

“I’d say a spirit of elemental chaos,” Edmund replied with a frown. “But that would be superstitious. It, he, is an AI cyborg, not any sort of real rabbit at all. He was created a long time ago. And I’m being forced to leave him on your ship.”

“Thank you so very much, General,” the skipper said with a bemused expression. “What happens if he goes berserk?”

“Well…” Edmund said with a frown. “His programming is almost unbelievably chaotic. But one tendency is to never harm his own side in a truly irrevocable way. He plays tricks, sometimes quite painful ones. And generally is a bully until he gets his way. He’ll also betray you, for cash, goods or services, on half a chance. But never in a way that will cause true, irrevocable, harm.”

“That’s…”

“Weird,” Edmund sighed. “I do believe that the twenty-second century was the most… complex and baroque century in human history. That’s one of the results.”

“Why would anyone create something like that?” the captain said. “It would almost immediately betray its creators, wouldn’t it?”

“Oh, yes,” Edmund said. “And he was reported to have done so. Something about a large bomb. He was apparently based upon a comic from the twenty-first century.”

“A comic?”

“You’ll see. He’s pretty funny if you’re into black comedy. Anyway, he had three or four primary programming requirements. In sort of reverse order they’re: Have a fun and comfortable life, beat up a designated ‘nerd-boy,’ track down the cast of a show called Baywatch and be affectionate with the women…”

“Affectionate?”

“His term,” Edmund grinned. “Spend lots of time around large-breasted blondes and kill telemarketers. The last one is his primary programming.”

“What’s a telemarketer?” the captain asked.

“A form of human gadfly.” Edmund sighed, thinking how much of human history had been lost to disinterest. “Like a spammer but they used telephones which were…”

“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” Shar said, suddenly. “Weren’t they all wiped out in the… oh.”

“Right,” Edmund replied. “And you’re looking at their doom.”

“And you’re leaving him on my ship?”

“Have fun. Keeping him drunk sometimes works.”

* * *

The dragons were heavily laden but between the wind and the catapult they were able to get into the air and the party started out to the east, following the course that Edmund and Joanna between them set.

The seascape that they flew over was a patchwork of reefs, wide, white flats and small uninhabited islands. There were occasional patches of green in the water, which Herzer was informed were patches of sea grass. From time to time they saw a fishing boat but that was the only sign of humanity. There were fish aplenty in the waters, small schools turning in the sun and flashing up at them. When they had started off it had been nearly high tide and as they flew more and more of the flats became exposed.

The sunlight on the white flats was nearly blinding and after a while Herzer quit trying to look at them, looking out in the distance instead. Within an hour or so he could see the waters ahead were turning the green of the shallows with blue beyond and he knew they were passing over the flats and approaching the deeps beyond.

When they reached the edge of the flats, Joanna turned north tracing the edge of the land that was one small island after another. More flats were to their north, beyond the thin necklace of islands, but to the south the water quickly shaded from green to the dark blue of pelagic seas. Herzer had looked at the charts and the water over there was over a thousand feet deep. Admittedly, it was as easy to drown in five meters of water as a thousand, but there was a special feeling to seeing that immense body of horrendously deep water.

Finally they saw, at the tip of one of the islands, a two story concrete building that was their landmark. It appeared to be an ancient, but until the Fall well maintained, lighthouse. There were no signs of current habitation around it; the bushes were well grown up and the walkways near it were covered in weeds.

“Mer!” Koo called, pointing down and to the right. Sure enough, in the midst of a pod of dolphins the distinct silhouettes of mer-folk were visible. As the shadows of the dragons passed over the pod the mer came to the surface for a look, then dove into the water headed southeast.

“Do we land and swim out?” Joanna yelled.

“Land,” Edmund replied. “Then we’ll see about getting the dragons fed.”

They swept in for a landing by the old lighthouse and as they dismounted saw a line of heads popping up out of the water.

“Herzer,” was all Edmund said, starting to strip off his riding gear.

The wind was still from the north, blowing up a fine grit of sand and quite cold. Herzer was shivering by the time he’d stripped down himself and he pulled the mask on, looking forward to what he assumed would be warm water.

It wasn’t. The water was bitterly cold when he entered it, striding up to his waist, then putting on his fins. Edmund was already in, heading out to the mer-folk, flapping and splashing like a walrus.

Herzer quickly ducked under and started out himself, staying below the light chop. The bottom was mostly sand at the shore but bits of broken reef started to appear by the time they were halfway to the line of mer.

The mer-men started towards them as they swam, hesitantly at first and then more quickly, a line armed with bone-tipped spears at the front while the rest, who were burdened with mostly empty mesh bags, followed behind. When they got to within a dozen yards or so, Edmund stopped and hung in the water, feet down, and raised a hand.

“We’re here from the United Free States; we’re looking for Bruce Blackbeard.”

Herzer stared at the line of mer that approached. He had seen them before the Fall but never in a group and never in their natural environment. They were, he decided, no less graceful than dolphins, darting in patterns around each other. But they were far more colorful, their tail ends flashing blue, green, red and every other color of the rainbow. Their hair was all the colors of the rainbow as well and each of them had hair that more or less matched their tails. Besides all the other differences from humans, they had huge ribcages which, as he watched, opened and closed. Clearly they were gills. Their bodies were also far bulkier than those of most humans, but very smooth-skinned and not rippled with muscle. They appeared, as much as anything, fat.

The line of spear bearers had stopped as well and now looked at them in surprise.

“Bruce is at the town,” one of them said. “I think he’s expecting you.”

“I’m Edmund Talbot,” Edmund said. “How far is it?”

“Not far, just out on the edge of the deep,” the mer replied. “I’m Jason Ranger.”

Herzer wondered what it was about his voice that was strange and then realized that it wasn’t a voice at all, but the computer in the mask converting it. It had no particular timbre. The mouth of the mer-man didn’t move, except for slight changes that might have been subvocalizations.

“This is Lieutenant Herrick, my aide,” Edmund replied. “We’d like to visit your town. My wife and daughter are with us as well.”

“And wyverns,” Jason said.

“Yes, there’s a ship beating around to here. We expected to find you over by Bimi island. The wyverns are going to need to fish for food. Is there somewhere they can do that?”

The mer paused at that and shook his head.

“Wyverns fish?”

“They’re learning,” Herzer replied. “They catch reef fish well enough. And sharks,” he added.

“These fishing grounds around here are ours,” Jason said. “I’d prefer they not get fished out. And don’t let Bruce find them hitting the reefs or you’ll lose any goodwill you might have. But if they want to move up or down the coast a few klicks, that should be fine.”

“I can show them,” one of the spear-bearing mer-men interjected. He had blond, nearly white, hair and a light tan tail.

“This is Pete. When he’s not out hunting, he’s one of the best chefs in the mer-folk.”

“When I’ve got spices, I’m the best chef in the mer-folk,” the cook said. “But if we can get me up on one of those wyvern, I can show you where they can fish. There’s a drop-off to the east. Lots of grouper and big hogs, but too far to make it worth our while to fish there.”

“Herzer?” Edmund asked.

“We’ll have to more or less strap you on,” Herzer pointed out. “You don’t have legs to go in the mount.”

“Understood,” Pete replied.

“Will you need me in the town?” Herzer asked.

“No, but go get Daneh and Rachel. Tell Warrant Officer Riadou that I’d like him back here no later than sundown and that if he can get the wyverns to catch some fish, and not just eat them, that would be an interesting, and useful, experiment.”

“Will do, sir. One question, what about Bast?”

“What about her?” Edmund replied after a brief pause. “I don’t have a mask for her, or a set of fins. Have Rachel bring out the net,” Edmund added as Herzer, following Pete, started to swim back in.

“You have nets?” Jason asked.

“We just have one with us,” Edmund replied. “All the room we had. But there’s more on the ship.”

* * *

Evan looked up as a rabbit landed on his workbench with a thump.

“What’cha doin’?” the rabbit asked, raising one paw to vigorously scratch at his ear.

Evan looked at the apparition blankly for a moment, then said, distinctly: “Working on a device.”

The rabbit hopped over and looked at the device, then shrugged.

“So you’re making a flamethrower. Big deal.”

“You know what it is?” Evan said, surprised.

“Of course I know what it is,” the rabbit snapped. “I’ve had them turned at me enough times. Used them a time or two for that matter.”

Evan noted at that moment that instead of normal rabbit feet, the rabbit had handlike forepaws with opposable thumbs.

“Well, maybe you can tell me what’s wrong,” Evan said. “I can’t get it to maintain a stream, no matter what I do. I’ve been working with water, obviously, but it sprays outward when I fire it. I don’t want a wall of flame.”

The rabbit hopped from one end of the scattered parts to another, then shook his head.

“You do good work.”

“Thank you.”

“And I know what your problem is,” the rabbit added. “But to tell you, I have to extract a price.”

“Why?” the engineer said with a puzzled expression.

“Bloody programming, that’s why,” the rabbit sighed. “I can’t just tell people things that they need to know, even when I want to. And I’d like to have you make a flamethrower. I like flamethrowers.”

“Okay, as long as it’s not going to get the ship in trouble,” Evan replied.

“Actually, I want two things, come to think of it,” the rabbit said, scratching at his ear again.

“Well, you’re only telling me one,” Evan pointed out.

“Okay, you’ve got a point,” the rabbit admitted. “What do you want for the two things?”

“Well, what do you want for the information on how to build a flamethrower?”

“A smaller one,” the rabbit replied. “Small enough for me to use. And you’ll be surprised how much weight I can carry.”

Evan thought about that for a moment, then frowned. “It’s not to be used against this ship, or any other ship of the free states. Nor any member of the free states. Nor any ally.”

“Jeeze, you drive a hard bargain,” the bunny said with a sigh. “I guess that means I can’t use it on that damned elf.”

“Correct.”

“Okay, you’ll make it, though?”

“Yes.”

“In that case,” the rabbit said, holding up a length of pipe. “You need three venturi holes, here, here and here,” he said, pointing. “About two millimeters across.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. But you still owe me the downsized flamethrower.”

“Not a problem.”

“What about the other thing I want?”

Evan contemplated him for a moment then shrugged. “What is it?”

“A still.”

“A still?”

“Do you know that I have not been able to find one drop of booze on this tub,” the rabbit said, angrily, his beady red eyes positively glowing. “I get all ticky when I don’t have booze.”

“Stills give off a quite distinctive smell,” Evan said. “But it’s possible. For your use, not to sell to the crew, right?”

“Man, you are forever putting conditions on things,” the rabbit snarled. “Okay!”

“What do I get?” Evan asked.

“What? I let you live while giving me conditions, didn’t I?” the rabbit asked. “I could just beat you up a little. That’s one of my programs; beating up nerd-boys!”

“In which case you wouldn’t get your still,” Evan said. “And I’m not a nerd-boy, I’m an engineer.”

“There’s a difference?” the rabbit asked. “Okay, okay, I’ll give you one favor, to be called in. If it’s completely out of line, I can tell you to jump in the ocean. But I’m not allowed to go back on favors unless it’s out of line.”

“Okay,” Evan replied after thinking about it for a moment.

“And no ‘I wish for three wishes’ or asking for my pass codes or anything like that. Tit for tat.”

“Fine,” Evan replied. “I’ll make the still. I know just where to put it.”

“Okay, I’m gonna blow this joint,” the rabbit said, bitterly. “Some island cruise.”

* * *

The wyverns had been upset about taking off again without being fed — they could smell the salt beef in the bags — and even more upset about backtracking. But after a while they settled down to a steady cooing and twittering which Herzer knew was their form of muttering.

Pete was riding with him on Chauncey. On reaching land the mer-man had given what looked like a closed-mouth cough and water had poured through the slits in his ribs. After that he was an air breather just like the unChanged humans. As they flew Herzer pointed out the view from aloft including one of the vast schools of baitfish.

“Bait ball,” Pete replied, shielding his eyes against the westering sun. “Can we fly over it?”

Herzer banked towards the ball and got a bellowed comment from Joanna which he ignored. The school of fish was about fifty meters on a side, a silver ripple at the surface with the water churned to white around it from attacking fish.

“That’s menhaden I think,” Pete yelled. “But look at those damned tuna! That’s damned good eating there, especially with a little wasabi.”

Herzer could see the larger fish smashing into the bait fish like cannonballs. As he watched one of the larger predators came clear out of the water in its pursuit. It was hard to judge size without a reference, but the fish had to be close to two meters in length.

“We can’t really track the pelagics like that,” Pete said with annoyance in his voice. “They just move too fast. The delphinos can keep up, but whenever we try to get to them they’ve moved before we get there and chasing them’s a losing proposition.”

“Herzer!” Joanna bellowed, sweeping down on him. “We need to get these dragons fed, soon.”

“Coming, Commander,” the lieutenant replied, banking his dragon back towards the coast. But his mind kept moving on the problem. There had been enough food for a hundred dragons in that school of tuna alone. The reef-fish were all well and good, but getting into one of those big schools was going to be the way to keep them fed.

In deference to the mer-man, he made a water landing when they reached the fishing spot. It would mean loose straps on the ride back and much oiling to get them back in condition, but it had been undignified enough carrying Pete to the dragon; the least he could do was let him get off in relative comfort.

He loosed the straps holding the mer-man on and then donned his own gear and dove under the water. It had been a cold ride in nothing but his bathing suit and the water was not much better. He got the straps loose with one hand that was fumbling with cold and a hook, grabbed them and headed for shore, dragging the leather along with Pete’s help.

Once on shore he laid the straps out on the plentiful rocks and looked at the dragons disporting in the waves.

“They look like they’re having fun,” Pete said. He had dragged himself up partially on the shore and now leaned on one arm, looking out to sea and flapping his tail idly in the waves, like a person tapping their toes.

“They are,” Herzer said. “If I wasn’t so damned cold I’d be in there with them. I don’t know which is worse, the water or this damned cold wind.”

“We’re getting a fire started,” Jerry said, opening up the closures on his jacket. “You should have worn your gear.”

“I was planning on a water landing,” Herzer replied, wiping water out of his hair with his hands. “Better to be cold than wet gear. I could do with a hot bath, though.”

“No help there,” Pete said. “All these islands are limestone built up from coral; the nearest volcanic activity is nearly a thousand klicks from here.”

“Just as well,” Herzer said. “I’d rather be cold than have a tsunami.”

“I can think of a way to warm you up,” Bast said.

“I’m sure you can,” Herzer replied with a grin.

“But I’m going to go play with the dragons,” Bast said, reaching into the pouch at her hip and pulling out a breath mask and a set of fins.

“Where did those come from?” Herzer asked. He knew that Edmund only had four sets and they were all being used; he had his set rolled up and tucked into a pocket of his bathing shorts.

“My pouch?” Bast replied. “I was coming to the islands. I can’t breathe water. Of course I brought gear.” With that she dropped her gear, took her clothes off, put the mask on, picked up the fins and waded into the water.

“Can someone please explain who she is to me?” Jerry asked.

“She’s… Bast,” Herzer replied.

“That’s not much of an answer,” Vickie said acerbically. “She’s an elf? I thought they were, you know, tall and lean and handsome. Not small and pretty and dressed like a character in an anime cartoon.”

“She’s a wood elf,” Herzer replied. “They were created around the time of the AI wars. She was created around the time of the AI wars.”

“Crap,” Jerry said. “How old is she?”

“Physically? About two thousand years old,” Herzer replied. “Mentally? Somewhere between twelve and two thousand. She told me one time that elves are too happy to spend much time grieving. Given that she’s seen thousands of human friends die over the years, I guess that’s not a bad way to handle it. As to caring about societal conventions, like not stripping in front of a bunch of people, she’s going to outlive them all and their conventions. She just… well, you’ve seen. Hell, just wait; that’s nothing.”

“I can’t wait until she meets Bruce,” Pete chuckled.

“Why?”

“Bruce is… not a bad guy,” Pete said. “He’s held us together and nobody’s starved; not even the young and the old. Really, he’s done pretty well, given everything that’s going on. But… he can be a little… stuffy.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

Edmund, trailed by Daneh and Rachel, followed the mer-folk deeper into the ocean and to the east. They stayed about seven meters below the surface while the bottom sloped steeply downward.

Half way to the “village” Jason let out a grunt and headed downward. He poked in a crevice with his spear, then twisted it and pulled out a lobster nearly the size of his thigh. He wrung the head off and dropped it to the bottom, swimming back up to the group and turning his catch over to one of the bearers.

“It’s been a bad day of fishing,” he lamented. “We’d been in this area not long ago and most of the easy fish are already hunted out. We’re having to go further and further afield to find anything edible.”

“Why don’t you just move someplace else?” Edmund asked.

“We’re not entirely without possessions,” Jason said. “So just picking up and moving is not an easy proposition; we only do it if it’s necessary. And this area has some features that we find necessary for our survival these days.”

“What?” Talbot asked. But he received no reply.

“I’ve got a net with me,” Edmund pointed out after he was sure the mer wasn’t going to answer.

“Wait to show it to Bruce,” Jason said. He turned to the landsman and pitched his voice lower. “You’re liable to find a cold reception; Bruce doesn’t care about anything but the Work.” The capital was clear.

“Repairing the reefs?” Edmund asked, looking around. They looked in fine shape to him. Billions of fish were swimming across them and sea-fans waved in every direction. “I’d think keeping his people fed would be his first job.”

“Mostly he agrees,” Jason admitted. “But he doesn’t want to have outsiders involved with us. He thinks that if we just lay low, the war will pass over us and we can just continue with the Work.”

“And what do you think?” Edmund asked.

There was a long pause before Jason shrugged.

“He’s the chosen leader of our people and it’s not my job to speak against him, certainly not to outsiders.”

“What about to New Destiny?” Edmund asked.

“New Destiny considers the mer to be abominations,” Jason said, bitterly. “Let’s just say that I disagree.”

“So do I,” Talbot said with a nod. “And, speaking from past experience, New Destiny tends to spread its feelings far and wide.”

“Well, from all reports New Destiny is winning,” Jason said.

“Reports are often wrong,” the duke replied. “They’ve never won anywhere that I’ve had a hand.”

“You’re only one man.”

“True, but I said ‘had a hand.’ Herzer is, often, my hand.”

Jason bleated something that the computer changed to a tuneless chuckle.

“I suspect that being your hand is probably where he lost his. Well, Edmund Talbot, who never fails, welcome to Whale Point Drop mer-town.”

The town spread out before them was larger than Edmund had expected. The area of reef had deep crevices gouged through it, generally trending from the shore to the deeps. In the center the crevices came together into an open sandy area with a prominent coral head in the middle. And the area swarmed with mer.

There were mer-men and mer-maids as well as children, although none of the latter were less than a year or two old. Edmund noticed that the mer-maids were just as naked in the upper regions as the mer-men and tried to keep his eyes away from the display of, in the main, perfect breasts.

In the open area, he could only think of it as the village square, the mer were especially thick. Some of them had food for trade, others had handmade goods. But the pickings were slim; there was far more communicating going on than trading. At the sight of the hunting party, many of the people swarmed upwards, but there was obvious distress at the shortage of food they were bringing back. There was also a great deal of surprise at the visitors. The computer picked out the words “Freedom Coalition” but the rest was apparently a jumble.

Jason tugged Edmund through the crowd and down to near the bottom where a group was floating, arguing about something. The argument stopped as they neared and the group saw that Jason had a visitor.

“General Edmund Talbot,” Jason said, gesturing at one of the mer, “Bruce the Black.”

Edmund nodded at the mer and smiled.

“I’ve come a long way to see you,” Edmund said.

“And for no good reason,” Bruce returned, brusquely. “We’re entering no agreements with anyone; we’ve enough troubles of our own without bringing others down on us.”

“Well, there are some troubles we can help with,” Edmund said, opening up the heavy package and letting fall the edge of the net. “This is a woven monomolecular net. There’s nothing on earth that can break it and it will last far longer than you’ll live. I’ve others coming on a ship, not woven mono, but made of good, sturdy cosilk. Those will last for nearly a generation and are, admittedly, easier to fix.”

“Gill net,” Bruce said. The AI gave it as toneless but it was clearly a spit of sound. “Great for randomly picking up innocent, and many of them inedible, fish. Very much what we need.”

“Bruce,” Jason interjected. “We weren’t able to get more than a couple of hogs and a few damned crayfish. We’re starving. A gill net is what we need!”

“Why? To strip the damned reefs again?” the leader replied hotly. “Woven monomolecule! What happens when it gets caught? You won’t be able to cut it, you’ll have to tear the reef itself! And what happens when a dolphin gets caught in it? It’ll drown while you’re off gallivanting!”

“Gallivanting is it?” Jason replied. “I don’t see you bringing in any fish!”

“There’s sea plum,” the mer-leader replied.

“There’s always bloody sea plum,” one of the group behind him said.

“You’ve come on a fool’s errand,” the leader repeated. “You might as well go back. We’ve nothing for you, and you’ve got nothing for us.”

“Well, I’ll leave you the net,” Edmund said. “And we have to stay in the area for a few days; our transportation is having to sail around the banks.”

“How did you get here, then?” one of the group asked.

“On dragon-back,” Jason replied to a series of clicks. “Pete went with them down the coast to fish.”

“The dragons were fishing?” Bruce asked.

“They can swim,” Edmund said.

“Mister Black,” Daneh interjected. “I’m Daneh Ghorbani and this is my daughter Rachel. I’d like to at least see how you are surviving and how you are doing it. We’ve had hard times as well and I’d like to see if you have anything that you’re doing that we can pick up. We might have a few new ideas to share as well.”

Bruce considered that for a moment, then shrugged.

“I can’t exactly kick you out,” he said, finally. “But I’m not going to join any alliances. Not with you, not with New Destiny.”

“Especially with New Destiny,” someone behind Edmund said.

“New Destiny isn’t so bad,” a black-haired mer-man said, pushing to the front of the crowd. He was one of the largest of the mer and even compared to the crowd around him heavy-set.

“New Destiny considers all Changed to be abominations,” Edmund replied. “How can they not be bad for the mer?”

“If they consider all Change to be abominations,” the mer-man asked, “how come they’re Changing their own people?”

“Edmund Talbot,” Bruce said with a sigh. “This is Mosur.”

“Well, Mosur,” Edmund replied, just as reasonably. “There’s a broad difference, that most people grasp, between being voluntarily Changed into whatever you choose, versus being turned, against your will, into an orc. They’ve Changed most of the population of Ropasa against their will. I’ve seen the results and, trust me, you don’t want that happening to you.”

“How do you know it’s against their will?” the mer replied, angrily. “Have you known someone who was Changed the way that you describe? And let me give a more accurate description, one less filled with malice. They are Changed so that they are tougher and more able to withstand the strain of the post-Fall world. Stronger, tougher and knowing how to survive. I think that counts for something. Most of the population of Ropasa has survived. They’re not living on the ragged edge of starvation.”

“You don’t look starving to me,” Edmund said to a general laugh.

“One’s the same as the other,” Bruce said, loudly. “They’ll fight each other and they’ll both lose.”

“You’d best hope so,” Edmund replied, sadly. “That we both lose. Because while we won’t have any issue with you sitting things out, New Destiny will. And if we lose they’ll come looking for you.”

There was a mutter of agreement and Edmund noticed for the first time that there were delphinos at the edge of the crowd. They weren’t entering the discussion, just observing and trading apparently carefully aimed sonar bursts with each other.

“So we have your permission to look around?” Edmund asked.

“It’s a free ocean,” Bruce said. “It’s a free town. That’s the point. Look around all you want. But you won’t find me changing my mind.”

“I understand,” Edmund said, sadly.

“Where are you staying?” Bruce asked, suddenly. “Not down here, it’s too cold for you.”

“You’d be surprised what I can do,” Edmund replied. “But we’ll be staying up on the land. We landed near the lighthouse; the others will be meeting us there.”

“The lighthouse?” Bruce challenged. “Why by the lighthouse?”

“Because it’s a landmark,” Edmund said, shaking his head. “Look, can I talk to you a moment?” He looked around. “Alone?”

Bruce nodded his assent and they swam across the square to an out-of-the-way alcove while the rest of the mer swarmed around Daneh and Rachel, and Jason spread out the net on the bottom.

“What is up by the lighthouse?” Edmund asked.

“Nothing,” Bruce answered hotly. “Why are you asking?”

“Because while you’ve been sweetness and light about everything else, that really cut to the bone and I’m wondering why.” He held up his hand to forestall a reply and shook his head. “Look, you probably are the kind of person who hates diplomats and diplomacy. If you even remember what they are…”

“I do,” Bruce said, tightly. “I’ve studied history. That’s why I’m trying to keep us out of this war.”

“Fine,” Edmund replied. “But the point is, the reason that they wore poker faces all the time was that they had things they didn’t want to give away. Now, you’ve got something, something important, up near the lighthouse. I’m not going to investigate what that is. I’m hoping I don’t even stumble across it. But the New Destiny folks, if they find out, will pry until they know what it is. And if they can, they’ll use it against you.”

“But you wouldn’t?” Bruce asked. “The Freedom Coalition hasn’t done anything to be ashamed of in this war?”

“No, we probably have,” Edmund admitted. “But there’s a world of difference between what we’re doing and what New Destiny is doing. There’s a huge difference between accidental deaths in combat, or a few soldiers out of hand and dealt with swiftly and surely, versus intentional atrocities and Changed orcs that are nothing but ‘out of hand.’ There’s a difference between accident and intent. And the point I’m trying to make is don’t make the same mistake you just made with me around them. Or whatever it is you’re trying to hide, they’ll hang around your neck like a dead albatross.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Bruce said. “But you keep this in mind. We’re not taking the mer off to war. We have important work to do here. And we’re going to continue it.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Edmund said. “I have that. Chapter and verse.”

* * *

Edmund had gotten into a discussion with one of the tool makers while Daneh had been dragged off to see one of the mer’s casualties. This left Rachel to be dragged off by Jason.

They went down one of the narrow crevices to where it turned into a tunnel. About a dozen feet in there was a brief break in the overhead and in the sunlight was a young mer-maid plaiting a twisted cord.

“Antja, this is Rachel Ghorbani,” Jason said.

The mer-maid dropped the material and drifted towards the entrance, smiling.

“Welcome,” she said. “There’s not much to offer, but if you’d care for some sea plum?”

“I don’t know,” Rachel said. “I’ve never had sea plum before.” Her stomach rumbled and she realized that it had been quite a few hours since she had eaten.

Antja went to one of the crevices along the wall and pulled down some plum-sized fruits with a suspiciously familiar appearance. Rachel took one and then paused as she realized she was wearing a full-head covering. She frowned, then pulled the mask out allowing the water to strike her face for the first time. She took a bite of the fruit and recognized the taste. She carefully put the mask back on, sealing it down, and took a breath, relieved that it hadn’t taken any hurt from its submersion.

“I’d never heard it called sea plum,” Rachel said. “But I recognize it; it’s kudzi.”

“What’s kudzi?” Antja asked.

“There was once a noxious vine called kudzu that covered all sorts of areas in Norau,” Rachel said. “A long, long time ago, someone released a retrovirus on it and forced it to produce fruits. The fruit is a cross between kiwi fruit and strawberry with a plum skin. Tasty, but it gets tiring. Where do you find it?”

“Anywhere that there’s a fresh-water outlet,” Jason answered. “Like the spring on the island. In the brackish area around it, there’s lots of sea plum. It’s got some good points, fish like to nest in it and it doesn’t really push anything out of the niche. And it produces sea plum. But, yes, it does get tiresome.”

“Unfortunately that’s about all that we have right now,” Antja said. “Unless…?”

“We didn’t get much,” Jason admitted, sadly.

“Well, maybe Herzer and his group will bring something back?” Rachel asked.

“Who’s Herzer?” Antja said.

* * *

After about an hour of fishing the dragons came up out of the water, the wyverns shivering with cold but burbling happily to each other. Two of them were carrying large fish in their mouths and they carried them to shore and dropped them, still flopping, at the feet of the riders. After that they all gathered around the fire, their wings spread, and soaked up the heat happily as their riders dabbed at under-spots.

Pete, once given a decent knife to work with, turned out to be one damned fine filleter and in minutes the fish were trussed up and sizzling over the fire.

“What I couldn’t do with a little orange sauce,” Pete complained as the fish were served on broad leaves. He had dragged himself up on the shore to direct the cooking and shook his head at the fumble-fingered grilling of the riders. When the fish was done he took a bite of one and then shrugged. “I guess it’s better than what we’ve been eating; sea plum and sushi without wasabi.”

“What’s sea plum?” Herzer asked around a mouthful of steaming hogfish.

“You’ll find out,” Pete said darkly. “It’s fine at first, but after a while it really starts to pall.”

The grilled fish, two grouper and a hogfish, were excellent, despite the chef’s complaints. The smoky fire added just a hint of seasoning to succulent flesh that was perfectly formed and solid, so solid that it had held up to being grilled with nothing but some sticks shoved through it.

“This is good,” Joanna said. “I mean, it’s sort of a snack to me, but it’s a hell of a lot better than raw, let me tell you. And nice to not be crunching bones.”

“I see you decided to start without me,” Bast called from the darkness. She strode into the firelight, still stark naked, bearing two huge tuna and with a string of at least two dozen lobster tails around her neck.

“How in the hell…?” Pete asked.

“I heard something about the town not having enough to eat,” Bast said simply. “We can carry these back.”

“Not why,” Pete said. “How?”

“Oh, that,” Bast said with a shrug. In the firelight, with her hair flat against her head and none of her panoply she looked like nothing so much as a young, very young, teenage girl. The tuna that she held, effortlessly, must have weighed nearly as much as she did. “Do you know how to catch a unique rabbit?”

“No?” Pete said.

“You nique up on him,” Bast said. “That fish smells good,” she added, dropping the tuna and lobster to the ground.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

By the time they were done, with the last scraps given to the wyverns, the sun was just about down and Herzer was not looking forward to the ride back.

“I thought a Blood Lord was always prepared,” Vickie said, maliciously.

“Pain is weakness leaving the body,” Herzer said. “I can take a little cold.”

“You’d damned well better not get hypothermic,” Pete said. “There’s a reason that we stay down where the water is relatively warm. And we still need a lot of fats.” He frowned at that and shrugged. “Those tuna would have been good.” The now gutted fish, and the lobster, had been loaded on Joanna for transportation to the mer-town.

“I’ve got an idea about that,” Herzer admitted as he loaded the mer-man back on his mount. True to his prediction the leather had stretched and was loose on the dragon.

“You mean other than siccing your girlfriend on them?” Pete asked.

The wyverns were warm, fed and balkish about flying. Furthermore there were no bluffs around and the omnipresent wind had died down to no more than a zephyr. So the dragons had to take off the hard way.

They turned into the wind and started hopping forward on their big hind legs, wings blasting downward with each hop. At each hop they got a little more speed and a little more height to flap with until they were finally, barely, airborne.

It was the first time Herzer had taken off that way and he didn’t like it any more than Pete, who complained vociferously. Herzer had to bury his face into the dragon so that his head wouldn’t be slamming into its back with each landing and he now understood, plainly, why dragon-riders hated to take off anywhere that there wasn’t a bluff, a good wind or, preferably, both.

“So, you guys want us to fight for you or what?” Pete asked, as they flew back to the rendezvous.

“Yes, and or what,” Herzer answered, honestly. “New Destiny is building a fleet to invade the UFS. We’re going to fight it but there’s a lot of the buggers. We’re looking for the help of the mer for scouting and, probably, to attack the fleet.”

“There’s not much we can do to ships,” Pete said.

“There’s a guy on the ship that’s on its way that could probably come up with some ideas,” Herzer said. “But New Destiny has some seafolk on their side. Specifically the orcas.”

“I’ll have to admit I haven’t met a single decent person who has turned themselves into an orca,” Pete muttered.

“And we’re willing to do more than just ask,” Herzer continued. “The ship has some materials on it, things we thought you might need. Beryllium bronze knives and spearheads. Beryllium bronze is more resistant to corrosion than the usual type. There’s even some things made of stainless steel that the dwarves dug up and we ground down. And wasn’t that a job.”

“Those would help,” Pete admitted. “But couldn’t we get the same things from New Destiny? Or by trading, for that matter?”

“It’s a long way from the dwarves,” Herzer pointed out. “What can’t they get from others that are closer? And Raven’s Mill has the best textile and rope manufacturing on the East Coast; we’re where the cord for your nets is being made. We can sell that closer, too. I wouldn’t say you need us more than we need you. But it’s close to equality.”

Pete didn’t answer that, just gestured at the ground, which was already dark although the dragons were still flying in the last shreds of sunlight.

“Can the dragons land in this?” he asked.

“As long as it’s not on a carrier,” Herzer said with a laugh.

“A carrier?”

“How do you think we got here?” Herzer said. “You’ll see. In a few days after it beats its way around to us.”

They landed by the lighthouse, without incident, stripped the harness off the dragons and unloaded Bast’s catch. The wyverns immediately hopped over to the shelter of the bluff to be out of the wind and tucked their heads under their wings, nodding off into sleep.

“I’ll go find Edmund,” Joanna said, walking into the water.

“I’m for town,” Pete said, gesturing at the fish and the lobster. “Can I take those?”

“And what do you think I caught them for, young mer-man?” Bast laughed. She picked up one of the fish and strode towards the water leaving her gear, and her clothes, in a trail behind her.

Pete picked up the string of lobster and looked at the other tuna.

“Herzer?”

“Got it,” he said, hefting the fish with difficulty. He had long ago realized that Bast was stronger than he was but it was a bit shaming to have to struggle with the single fish when she had carried two of them easily.

Pete crawled to the water on his hands and submerged without a ripple and Herzer quickly followed him, fumbling with the combination of fish, mask and flippers.

The water trailed green phosphorescence around him as he strode into the water and he submerged quickly, following the faint luminous trail that Pete and Bast left. Bast was in the lead and seemed to know exactly where she was going.

“Bast?” Herzer called. “Two things. One, slow down. Two, how do you know where you are?”

“I was here years ago, Herzer,” Bast said, slowing down to let him catch up. “I’m not sure how long ago, but I recognize it. And there’s only one place for a mer colony around here.”

“I’ve never heard of you,” Pete said. It was clear that he thought he would have.

“The great grandfathers of the mer today were not yet born when I was here, young mer,” Bast laughed.

“That was… a long time ago,” Pete said.

“There was a mer colony in the Isles before the AI wars, mer-man,” Bast said, softly. “Even then they were repairing the damage. I recall when the Port Crater was made. And why,” she added in nearly a whisper.

The response from Pete was an untranslatable whistle.

The town when they reached it was lit in a fairy tale glitter. Luminescent fish swam around the square while the entrance of each canyon was lit by glowing globes.

“The fish are attracted here by feeding,” Pete said. “Careful feeding. The lit globes are a type of sessile sponge; I think it was genegineered.”

“It was,” Bast said. “By the Bettel corporation as a type of underwater toy. Just as the wyvern were created by the Disney Brothers corporation.”

“You were there?” Herzer asked.

“No, but in days when I was created genesis was still well known,” Bast said. “These latter days… humans have forgotten most of their history. Fire lizards, wyverns, even great dragons, were all created by Disney genegineers. They’ve been tinkered with over years, but that is original genesis. Disney even did first work on mer, young mer-man. So owe your genesis to creators of dragons.”

The arrival of the fish, and the lobster, was greeted with acclaim, and Jason pushed himself to the front of the mob that crowded around Pete.

“Good job, Pete,” Jason said.

“Not me,” Pete answered, waving at the naked elf next to him. “Thank Bast here.”

“Bast,” Daneh said, swimming up through the crowd. “I think we need to find you a bathing suit.”

“Why?” Bast said. “I’m no more naked than the mer. Those slits on their fronts have a purpose, Daneh Ghorbani.”

Daneh just chuckled and shook her head. “Whatever.”

“This gift… it is a gift, right? This gift is much appreciated, Miss…?” Bruce said.

“Bast,” Bast replied, sticking out her hand. “Pleased to meetcha.” She somehow retained her position in the water even while shaking hands with the mer-leader.

“How did you…?” Bruce said, gesturing at the giant tuna she was holding by one gill-plate.

“Oh, no,” Pete said, waiting for the dread pun.

“What’s wrong?” Bast said with a grin. “Fish are curious. I just let their curiosity be their undoing. It’s an old trick.”

“Well, however you did it, we appreciate it,” Bruce said. “Pete, can you divide it?”

“Here,” Edmund said, swimming over most of the crowd. “Use this,” he said, holding out a knife.

“Heavy,” was all that Pete said as he used it to slide through the skin of the fish. “And sharp.”

“Beryllium bronze,” Edmund said as Bast passed out the lobster. Jason ensured that they were passed out to family groups but most of them simply opened up the shells and tore out the meat ravenously.

“Do you want some?” Bruce asked as Pete started handing out the thick steaks of tuna.

“We ate,” Herzer said. “Grouper and hogfish that the dragons caught.”

Pete had set aside a large fillet from the first fish and was starting on the second.

“Could you section that up, Herzer?” Pete asked. “It’s for the delphinos.”

“Sure,” Herzer replied. His knife was of stainless steel, issued for the mission, and much smaller than the one Pete was using. But it sufficed to chunk up the tuna, if somewhat messily. When he had the meat cut up he looked at the chunks and realized that he had no way to move them.

“Here, let me help you,” a mer-maid said. She had long, dark hair that was black in the pale phosphorescence and was slimmer than normal in what was generally a hefty group, with high, firm breasts, a nice smile and a tail that was apparently bright blue. What was strangest was that she had a moray eel twined around her neck like a collar. She held out a mesh bag so that he could load the chunks of meat into it. “I’m Elayna.”

“Herzer Herrick,” Herzer said, acutely conscious as her breast innocently brushed his arm, of the comment Bast had made about nakedness. Not to mention the fact that Bast, who was one of the most dangerous individuals he had ever met, was no more than an arm’s length from him. But he had been celibate for an awfully long time.

“Come on,” the girl said, picking up the basket. “The delphinos are usually down at the tip of the reef.”

He followed her into the darkness and as they neared what he felt was deeper water he saw a group of shadows up near the surface.

“That’s them,” Elayna said. “The delphinos are really strange; as close to aliens as we’ll ever find. We work together, but they keep a separate society from us.”

“How do you ‘work together’?” Herzer asked as they neared the group.

“They herd fish to us and we try to catch it in nets,” the mer-girl said. “Try, I say, because our nets are really lousy.”

“Fish smell,” one of the delphinos blatted. He had been floating at the surface but now dove, followed by the rest of the pod.

Herzer felt more than heard a wave of sound cross him and he knew he was being sized up by the delphino. While he’d seen the occasional mer, this was the first delphino he’d seen in the flesh and was surprised by the size of the being.

“Herzer, this is Herman the pod leader,” Elayna said. “Herman, Herzer Herrick. He and some friends brought tuna.”

“Good is,” Herman said. “Much is. Good hunting us, some take. Most take back, need not.”

“Thank you, Herman,” Elayna replied. “Jason didn’t get much today so we need it.”

“Know,” Herman said. As she opened the bag he pulled pieces out and flipped them dexterously to pod members in some pattern unclear to Herzer. He stopped when only half the bag was gone and flipped his nose at Elayna. “Back take. Hunt tomorrow.”

“Herman,” Herzer said, diffidently. “I think that there might be a way to capture the big pelagics if you, the mer and the dragons worked together. It might not work at first, but I think we can figure it out.”

Herman paused and Herzer felt another of those ripples of sonar run across him. He wondered what it would look like, what he would look like, to a delphino.

“Good is,” Herman said. “Try will. Morrow?”

“I’ll see,” Herzer temporized. “Hopefully.”

“Jason see,” Herman said. “Breathe must. Morrow.”

“Morrow,” Herzer said as the delphino floated back to the surface to breathe.

“What’s this idea you have?” Elayna asked as they headed back to town.

“I’m not sure of the particulars,” Herzer said. “I need to talk to Pete and Jason.” He paused as a shudder passed through his body.

“Cold?” Elayna asked.

“Very,” Herzer admitted. “But I’ll be okay.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Elayna said in a concerned voice. “Hypothermia is no joke, and there’s nowhere to warm up. I get that way sometimes, too. But we have a better heat regulation system than landies.” She reached into the bag and extracted a chunk of tuna, biting into it as she swam. “Of course, it also requires more energy, so we have to eat stuff more than landies. And tuna’s the best; lots of fat.”

“I noticed that you’re… heavier than most landsmen,” Herzer said.

“You can say fat,” Elayna said with a laugh as she fed some small pieces to the moray. “But the fat’s really just a reservoir for us. And we’ve been losing a lot of weight lately; I know I have. With the way that we push water through our gills, fat doesn’t help with the cold. Eating fat does, though,” she added, taking another bite. “Want some?”

“No, I ate up on the surface,” he said. He didn’t add that cold, seawater-flavored tuna was not his idea of an appetizing meal.

They’d reached the town square and she spread the tuna around to the still hungry group, taking a few pieces for herself.

“Having fun?” Bast said, swimming up behind them.

“Uh,” Herzer replied, brilliantly.

“Yes, we are,” Elayna said. “And I haven’t thanked you for the tuna.”

“You’re welcome,” Bast said, smiling at her. “I wonder, were you going to ask Herzer if he’d seen the feeding stations?”

“Uh,” Herzer said again.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Elayna said with a toothy smile. “Is that a problem?”

“No,” Bast said, matter-of-factly. “Long celibate he has been; go take the edge off. He’s good for more than once a night.” She smiled at the girl and flipped off into the darkness.

“Uhm…” Herzer said.

Elayna just looked at him and batted her eyes. “Care to go look at the feeding stations, Lieutenant Herrick?” she asked.

Without a word he took her hand and followed her across the night-dark reef.

* * *

“Well, look what the sea tossed up,” Rachel said as Herzer strode down the bluff from the lighthouse. She was squatting by the remains of the campfire adding driftwood to the coals. “Have a nice night?”

The wind had died overnight and backed around easterly. The sky was clear and the dawn sun was just starting to lift the remnants of early morning fog. The wyverns were awake and starting to mewl with hunger.

“Great, thanks,” Herzer said, setting down a bucket of water from the spring across the island. “Is there any breakfast? I’m starved.”

“Well, you have your choice of fish and sea plum or sea plum and fish,” Rachel said. “And I’m not surprised you’re hungry. I’m surprised you can stand.”

“Herzer has the constitution of a bull,” Bast said, following him down the bluff. “And other things like a bull, come to think of it.”

“Oh, God,” Herzer muttered. “It’s going to be one of those mornings, isn’t it?”

“You have only yourself to blame,” Rachel replied with a sniff.

“Not if you’d make me an honest man,” he retorted, then shrugged. “So I’m having fun. It’s not interfering with the mission.”

“Fooling around with Bruce’s granddaughter isn’t interfering with the mission?” Rachel asked.

“His granddaughter?” Herzer groaned. “Oh, hell.”

“Yes, his granddaughter,” Edmund said, coming up and squatting by the coals. “It’s going to be a hot one today,” he added, looking at the sky. “But don’t worry about it, Herzer, we’ve got much worse problems. Bruce had word that New Destiny is sending a diplomatic mission as well.”

“Crap,” Herzer said, looking around at the sea as if to see a black sail on the horizon.

“We’ll deal with it,” Edmund said. “We’ll deal with it… diplomatically.”

“Who are they sending?” Rachel asked. “Do you know?”

“No. I only know what I picked up in town.”

“Most of the people do not like New Destiny,” Herzer said. “I know that for sure. But I’m not so sure they want to join with us, either.”

“Well, we’ll have to find a way to get them to see the error of their ways,” Edmund replied. “Somehow. I wish the damned ship would get here, but with the winds the way they are it might be a week.”

“What happens if they meet up with the New Destiny ‘diplomatic mission’?” Herzer asked.

“Hopefully they’ll deal with it… diplomatically,” Edmund replied.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

“Great day to be sailing,” Commander Mbeki said as he reached the quarterdeck.

“Sure, if we were sailing the right way,” the skipper said sourly. The ship was currently on the northerly tack, as it had been for a good half the morning. To sail to the east required turning first one way and then the other, tacking, so that the winds could be caught by the sails. They had been taking long tacks, far out to sea, to ensure that they avoided the shoals along the north side of the isles and the voyage was, unfortunately, taking longer than anticipated. “At this rate it’ll be a week before we get to Whale Point. And what happens if they’ve hared off somewhere else by then?”

“We’ll deal with it,” Mbeki said.

“Sail off the starboard bow!”

They were well off from the islands so it was unlikely to be some stray fishing vessel. Chang and Mbeki both shrugged almost simultaneously.

“We’ll stay on this tack,” the skipper said. “We’ll come up on it.”

“If it’s hostile, it will have the weather gauge,” Mbeki pointed out.

“We’ll figure that out soon enough. Get Donahue up on the mast with a pair of binoculars; I want to know what we’re dealing with as soon as possible.”

In no more than thirty minutes the midshipman called down.

“Square-rigged ship,” he yelled. “Looks something like a caravel. No flags that I can see. Looks like some dolphins swimming around it.”

“If it’s a caravel we can sail rings around it,” Mbeki said.

“Sure, but we don’t have so much as bowmen on board,” the skipper replied. “Get me Evan.”

When the engineer was shown onto the bridge he nodded at the news and frowned.

“I’ve been working on something, but I don’t know that you’d want to use it on the ship,” he admitted.

“What is it then?” Mbeki said impatiently.

“It was an idea that Lieutenant Herzer had,” the engineer temporized.

“The materials he asked to bring on board?” the skipper asked.

“Yes, sir,” the engineer said. “He wanted a way to make the dragons an offensive weapon. He was working on that but I thought I’d make something else.”

“What is it, man?” Mbeki snapped.

“A flamethrower,” the engineer said nervously.

“Shit,” the skipper said, looking around at the tinder-dry wood of the ship. “You’re right, I don’t want that used on my ship.”

“Sir!” the midshipman called down. “Sir! There’s a flag hoisted now, I can’t make it out exactly but it’s red and blue! And they’ve changed course towards us!” The New Destiny flag was blue field with red ND on it.

“That caps it,” the skipper said. “Clear for action, all hands stand by to repel boarders.”

“I have an idea, sir,” the engineer said after a moment. “But we’ll have to have them to port.”

“We’ll figure that out later,” the captain replied. “Get moving on it. And don’t you dare fire that damned thing on my ship.”

“Yes, sir. I mean, no sir!” the engineer said, hurrying to the companionway.

The two ships continued on nearly reciprocal courses, the caravel bearing down on the clipper. Normally it would be no contest; the clipper was far and away the faster ship. But the skipper kept her on her course, headed towards the other ship. After a few minutes he climbed up to the rigging for his own look and returned shaking his head.

“They’ve got a ballista,” he said. “And those are orcas around their ship.”

“Changed?” Mbeki asked.

“Probably.” He stood there with his hands clasped behind his back, feet spread to counter the roll of the ship. “We should show them our heels. We could outrun even the orca over time.”

“With all due respect, sir,” the commander said. “That would look like hell on our report.”

“It would look worse if we lost the carrier,” the skipper said. “We should have brought armed sloops with us, I said it at the time.”

“Yes, sir,” the commander replied.

“But you’re absolutely correct that it would look like hell,” the skipper frowned. “I wonder if our wonder-boy has come up with anything.”

* * *

“You want me to what?” the rabbit said. “No way in hell.”

“You said one favor,” Evan replied. “This is it.”

“And I also said ‘nothing unreasonable,’ ” the rabbit replied. “This is clearly unreasonable.”

“No it’s not,” Evan said, doggedly. “It’s more than likely that you’ll survive. Especially if you have the flamethrower.”

“I can do a lot of impossible things,” the bunny said. “But I cannot swim with the flamethrower on my back! Well.”

“You’re not going to swim.”

* * *

“This is your plan?” the skipper said, looking at the rabbit at Evan’s feet.

“Yes, sir,” the engineer replied, nervously. “This is all I could come up with on the spur of the moment.”

The rabbit was wearing a black suit with a smoked-visor helmet. Attached to his harness, in place of the pistol crossbow, was a small circular tank with a, yes, rabbit-sized nozzle attached. But the harness still held all his knives.

“This is insane,” Commander Mbeki commented.

“You’re right,” the rabbit said, hopping towards the companionway. “It’s crazy. I shouldn’t do it.”

“Come back here,” Evan said. “I don’t know what happens to you if you go back on your promises, but I’m willing to find out.”

“Damn,” the rabbit said. “Does anyone think that this constitutes unreasonable as well as insane?” he asked hopefully.

“Nooo,” the skipper said, thoughtfully. “Insane, yes. Unreasonable, no.”

“But insanity is defined as unreason,” the rabbit said.

“Not really,” Commander Mbeki said. “Psychotics are, by definition, insane. But they can be quite reasonable people.”

“You’re really going to make me do this?” the rabbit asked. “That’s unreasonable.”

“But it doesn’t matter, if the task is not. If it’s stupid, but it works, it’s not stupid,” Evan replied with the logic of an engineer.

“We really don’t have time to debate this,” the skipper said. “Either you’re going or you’re not. On the other hand, you’re an AI. I don’t feel that I can, with conscience, force you to do something that is clearly insane.”

“Damn,” the rabbit said, trying to scratch through the suit. “I can’t even get to my damned ear. Okay, put me on the catapult.”

Evan had even rigged a small launching seat.

“How long have you been contemplating this?” the rabbit asked.

“When did you board the ship?” Evan said as the clipper fell off to starboard. A ballista bolt from the oncoming ship whistled through the air with an evil hiss and poked a hole in the mainsail.

“You made this suit, this helmet and this seat in that time?” the rabbit asked. “I’m impressed.”

“No, I made the seat then,” Evan said, stepping into the launching pit. “I made the suit and the helmet when I made the flamethrower. Have fun.”

“If I end up in the drink I’m coming for you, Evan Mayerle,” the rabbit hissed as Evan timed the roll and hit the launcher.

The black blob was fired into the air and as it flew across the gap two knives appeared in its hands. It hit the mainsail of the oncoming caravel face first but the knives went through the canvas like butter and it slid downward leaving two gaping wounds in the black sail. The last that could be seen of it was as it flipped off the base of the sail and into the crowd below it. As it landed, there was an inhuman scream.

“Poor bunny,” Commander Mbeki said. “He didn’t last long.”

“I think that was whoever he landed on,” Evan said, as a spurt of flame licked upward and caught the sail. It was quickly involved and turned to ash before their eyes. “You might want to have the captain sail out of range for the time being.”

The wind was fair from the caravel and it carried the occasional sounds of screaming, pleas for help and from time to time someone leapt over the side, apparently preferring the briny deeps to whatever was going on on board. The ship had almost immediately lost way and now rocked from side to side in the waves, its helm clearly not manned.

The captain joined them and shook his head when blood started running from the scuppers.

“I’m glad he’s on our side,” the skipper commented.

“I don’t think he is,” Evan replied. “But he owed me a favor.”

“Shall we send over a prize crew?” Commander Mbeki asked. The last, badly aimed, ballista bolt had sailed off into the distance some time before.

“No…” the commander said after a moment’s thought. “I’m not sure that any sane human should see what is on board that ship.” He eyed the orcas and an occasional raylike thing that were coming up and glancing at the ship they were supposed to be following. “But I’m not sure that he should have to swim back.” There were flames licking from the aft of the craft by then and he shook his head again. “Let’s lay her alongside, near the bow, and recover our… friend.”

They jockeyed the ship over, carefully, and threw grapnels onto its bow to pull it alongside. Fire parties stood by because the aft had become fully involved, but shifted as they were that was downwind and for the time being the fire was held there.

As they pulled alongside the rabbit jumped from one ship to the other, a gap of more than three meters, which should have been impossible.

“Well,” he said brightly, taking off his helmet, “that was fun. Let’s go find me some more orcs to play with!”

“It was crewed by orcs?” Commander Mbeki asked as a division under Chief Brooks boomed the caravel away and the clipper got back under way. Some of the crew from the burning ship had climbed aboard and were lined up against the starboard rail under guard.

“No, they were their marines,” the rabbit replied, pulling off the fire-scorched black suit. “I just kept telling myself it was a cruise of telemarketers and there just didn’t seem to be enough of them. I haven’t had that much fun since the last real telemarketer died of old age. I didn’t track the bastard down until he’d keeled over from the heart attack. They said he’d seen a rabbit and that was it for him. The bastard.”

Not a sound was heard from the ship as they sailed away, leaving behind a crowd of confused orcas.

* * *

Joel had watched the entire “battle,” more of a massacre, from his battle station on the quarterdeck. He found it interesting, and instructive, that the enemy ship was there. Finding one ship at sea was not easy; as sailors said: “Lord, the sea is so large and my boat is so small.”

It was an unlikely coincidence to find one of the New Destiny fleet placed right across their path. About as likely as rounding out a busted flush on a one card draw.

Which meant that it probably wasn’t coincidence. Which meant that the vague possibility that there was an agent on board had gone from “vague possibility” to “high probability.”

Furthermore, they had known more or less the ship’s exact location and plans. That meant that the probable agent was among the officers, probably one of the primary navigational officers, either the captain, Commander Mbeki, Major Freund the navigator or one of the three lieutenants.

The rabbit was an outside possibility, as well. As an AI it could have an internal navigational system and even communications. He wished that he knew more about it, but everyone with prior experience had left with the dragons.

His hunch was still Commander Mbeki. But it was only a hunch and while he was willing to pay attention to his hunches, he wasn’t willing to concentrate on them.

He needed more information.

* * *

“Orcas approaching to port,” the masthead lookout called.

Martin had been pacing up and down the quarterdeck, waiting for word on the attack upon the UFS ship. He had spread the ships on a long line across the anticipated course of the dragon carrier and the caravels had only had occasional visual contact for the past three days. The lookout had reported possibly seeing some smoke early in the morning, but from what was impossible to determine.

Each of the ships, though, had a small pod of orcas attached. The orca sonar could transmit across significant distances and he was using that to keep in communication with the dispersed fleet. Why some were returning to his ship, however, remained to be seen.

He walked to the front of the ship and looked down at the pod that was riding in the bow wave. Suddenly he saw Shanol veer off and head in the direction of the oncoming orcas.

He waited impatiently for the leader whale to return and then walked back to the maindeck as Shanol and a smaller orca coasted to the side of the slow-moving vessel.

“What’s up, Shanol?” he asked, leaning over the side of the gently heeling caravel.

“Your ‘unarmed carrier’ just took out the ship that was in its way like it wasn’t even there,” Shanol replied.

“What could have happened?” Martin asked. “They didn’t even have the dragons with them!”

“Well, it’s pretty hard to tell from down here,” the orca leader said, sarcastically. “I had Maniillat report back in person.”

“They didn’t board or anything,” Maniillat squealed. “The carrier never got near them until the ship was already st-stopped. Some of the sailors jumped over the side but they were just screaming about a fire-breathing imp.”

“They couldn’t have summoned anything,” Martin snapped. “They don’t have the power available. The only one that might have is Talbot, and he’s already at the mer-town.”

“Well, whatever it is took your ship out and the carrier is already past your line,” Shanol replied. “What now, fearless leader?”

“Head to the mer-town,” Martin said after a moment. “Time to start phase two.”

“Yeah, well I hope phase two works out better than phase one,” Shanol replied.

“Yeah,” Maniillat squealed. “And no fire-breathing imps.”

* * *

The skipper was walking down a lower deck corridor when he saw sailors bracing themselves against the bulkhead ahead of him. He wasn’t close enough to have caused the reaction and he didn’t understand the beads of sweat on their faces until he saw the rabbit coming around a corner.

“Mr. Rabbit,” Chang said. “Just the bunny I was looking for.”

“What do you want, Spiffy?” the rabbit asked.

“I wanted to show you something,” the skipper replied, waving at him. He led the rabbit down the corridor to a locked storeroom and opened it from a ring of keys.

“The ships of the UFS Navy are dry…”

“Not something you have to tell me,” the rabbit said, bitterly. “And no alfalfa either. And your women are mostly dogs.”

“Well, I can’t help you there,” the skipper said, opening the door. Inside there was a large barrel, already tapped. He took down a half-liter pewter mug and held it under the tap until it was full. “But there are times, as the Navy recognizes, when it’s medicinal to administer a small belt. For just such occasions it maintains the means.”

He bent down and handed the mug to the rabbit, who peered into its depths suspiciously then took a sip.

“Rum, by God!” the rabbit said happily, drinking half the mug in one draught.

“High-proof rum,” the skipper noted. “Royal Navy grog to be exact. I can’t leave the room open, but if you’ll step inside I’ll come back in a couple of hours and have you carried to your bunk. You’ll forgive me if I don’t want you wandering the ship under the influence of alcohol, what with one thing and another.”

“Nah, believe it or not I’m a happy drunk,” the rabbit said. “Just let me fill up one more of these mugs and I’ll let you lock back up.” He beamed up at the skipper as he took another swig. “You know, for a stuffy son of a bitch you ain’t all bad.”

“I was thinking something similar, myself,” the skipper said.

“Don’t kid yourself,” the rabbit said, taking another swig. “I’m all bad.”

* * *

“Mistress Sheida,” Joel said to the avatar. He had chosen the cable tier for the meeting on the assumption that there were multiple exits and hardly anyone ever came down there.

“How is your mission going, Mister Travante?” Sheida asked. Her avatar looked tired, which meant it was projecting “her” current state.

“Not fun, but that’s not important,” Joel said. “We were attacked today. The ship apparently knew our estimated course, location and speed.”

“I see,” Sheida sighed. “I guess sending you out wasn’t just insurance, was it?”

“No, ma’am,” the inspector replied. “I have a suspicion who the agent is, and even a feel for motivation. Could you give me some information on Commander Owen Mbeki’s family?”

Sheida’s avatar looked distant for a moment, then shrugged.

“The usual story. A wife, Sharon, daughter Sara. No last known location but his primary residence was in Ropasa. You think New Destiny has them?”

“Given one single comment, ma’am,” Joel said, nodding. “I’d say that they have one or both and are using them as hostages.”

“What do you intend to do?”

“I need to have more proof, even for myself, than one unguarded comment, ma’am,” Joel admitted. “And I also need to know more about an AI rabbit that accompanied an elf to the ship. The attack took place after the rabbit’s arrival. And while he was instrumental in destroying the New Destiny craft, I don’t discount him being the agent.”

“That rabbit, he is a scamp, isn’t he?” Sheida said with a faint grin. “I’d love to hear more of the story at another time. He’s another distinct possibility,” she added with a frown. “I’ll give you two items,” she continued, holding out her hand and floating a pair of disks across the compartment to him. “I can ken those with very little power usage. Place them in strategic locations. If an avatar appears near them but not in the same room they’ll indicate direction when you touch them. If an avatar has appeared in the room, they will record the conversation. Will that do?”

“Perfectly,” Joel said, pocketing the disks.

“What do you intend to do?” Sheida asked. “Take the information to Duke Edmund?”

“The duke is currently at the mer-town,” Joel told her. “We’re sailing there at the moment. But, no, I don’t intend to do that. With your concurrence, as soon as I’m sure who the leak is I’ll take action. If it’s the rabbit we will have to act quickly and decisively; he is a dangerous AI. If it is the commander I intend to turn him.”

“What do you mean by that?” Sheida asked warily.

“It is often useful to let an enemy think they have perfect intelligence,” Joel replied. “I would suggest that the commander be moved to a very important shore post where he can pick up various useful items of information. Most of them relatively low level, as, frankly, the movement of this ship is. But from time to time he’ll forward important bits of information that are higher level. Some of them will be real information that we don’t mind the other side having. I’m sure there are things that you wished you knew that New Destiny knew.”

“Indeed,” Sheida said, her eyes narrowing.

“Other things will be carefully crafted falsehoods. Carefully crafted because you don’t want to burn an agent that good.”

Sheida frowned. “And I certainly don’t want to ‘burn’ his wife and daughter.”

Joel paused and shrugged after a moment. “The time may come when that choice has to be made. The preference is to ensure the safety of the agent and their close kin. For example, if we catch someone that they don’t want to lose, and if the commander has lost his utility, we could attempt to trade ‘their’ person for ours. But, sometimes, you have to cut your losses. If it meant harm to Commander Mbeki’s family to prevent, oh, Paul winning the war, would you do it?”

Sheida frowned and shook her head. “I hate questions like that.”

“You need to think about them, ma’am.” Joel shrugged, his face hard. “I certainly do. Several times a day.”

“Still no word on your wife and daughter,” Sheida said, sadly. “I take it you haven’t ‘heard’ anything.”

“No, ma’am,” Joel replied. “But if I do, you’ll be the second person to know.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

“Duke Edmund,” Bruce said, coasting into the swim-through that had been set aside for the duke’s party. “Would you mind joining me for a short swim?”

“Not at all, sir,” Talbot replied, setting down the section of whale bone he had been carving.

He didn’t ask, and Bruce didn’t offer, where they were going. He just followed the mer-leader as he popped up above the reef and headed downward towards the open ocean.

The reef ended at about twenty meters or so and gave way to sand bottom. The light had trailed off, but it was still quite bright in the brilliantly clear waters. They turned to the right and swam along the edge of the reef and Edmund looked around himself with interest. He realized that while he had been enjoying the overall beauty of the reefs, he hadn’t had the time, or, face it, the inclination to really examine them.

The reefs were covered with fish; schools of ones the size of his hand and nearly round of body with blue vertical stripes were everywhere. There were other schools of more “fishlike” appearance, fairly long to their height, with bright yellow tails. In among the crevices were more small fish, all of them in a rainbow of colors. It was only with great trouble that he managed to realize that there were drab fish there as well. And finally he picked out ones that were camouflaged so perfectly they were almost impossible to see. One that looked exactly like a section of reef popped up as they passed and swallowed a smaller fish whole. Edmund never would have noticed it if it hadn’t moved and when it stopped to swallow its prey it nearly disappeared again.

Now that he was really looking around he realized there were many things about the reef that were puzzling. Some of it looked exactly like stone. He knew that it was limestone that had been built up by the coral polyps. But other portions seemed to be covered in fur. These portions were infrequent, but interesting. The covering didn’t seem to be a slime or a mold; he wasn’t sure what it was. And then, why were the swim-throughs there? They looked like gouged canyons, but there was nothing that he could see to gouge them. Did trickles of fresh water open them up? Or water or sand pouring down from the shallows to the deeps?

Furthermore, the reefs were not constant. The area with the swim-throughs, where the town was, was built up to several meters over the sandy bottom. But within a few hundred yards down the coast it had given way to scattered small rocks stuck up barely over the ground.

But even these were alive. There were delicate sea fans dangling from them, waving back and forth in the light currents. A turtle the size of a pony was lying with its belly on the sand, eating a sponge attached to the side of one of the outcroppings. There were brightly colored reef fish. There were even some larger fish that looked more of the open ocean type to him. But they had gathered around the rocks, one or at most two by each one. He thought, at first, that they were hunting something. But they were simply stopped, as much as possible, hanging motionless. When they drifted away from the rocks they would turn and come back into the current until they were over the rocks again and stop, as if they were using them as some sort of location beacon.

Intrigued he deviated from Bruce’s wake and coasted over for a closer look.

The larger fish were shaped something like tuna, but had a more rounded head, a bluish sheen and a horizontal stripe along their midline. What was happening became clear as he got close enough to see details. Smaller fish, one colored bright blue, were darting out from the rock and swimming over the body of the larger fish. He waited patiently for the larger fish to eat one of them but it never did. Instead the small fish swam all over its body, picking at it from time to time as if eating the larger fish’s skin. They even swam into its slowly opening and closing gills and as he watched in amazement one swam right into the larger fish’s mouth, poked around and came back out.

“Cleaning station,” Bruce said and Edmund realized that he had stopped instead of following his host.

“Sorry, I was just watching this,” he said.

“Good,” Bruce replied, clearly willing to dally. “I’d hoped you might actually look around you for once.”

“Was it that obvious?” Edmund chuckled.

“You’re a very focused person, Edmund Talbot,” Bruce replied. “And there are many things to focus on on the reefs. What’s happening there is that the small fish, that one’s a blue wrasse,” he said, pointing at the bright blue one, “are picking parasites off the larger fish. Which is an amberjack by the way.”

“Why doesn’t it eat them?” Edmund asked. “It seems like an easy meal.”

“Sometimes they do,” Bruce said. “But, by and large, they don’t. The small fish get the easy meal. The larger fish get their parasites picked off. If they didn’t have the small fish around, if they ate them all, they’d end up covered in parasites. Both of them get what they need; it’s what’s called a commensal relationship.”

“I saw a turtle back there eating what looked like a sponge,” Edmund said. “What does the sponge get?”

“Eaten,” Bruce replied with a shrug. “Predation is predation. But… that type of sponge grows over live coral as well as dead. If it was left unchecked it would spread over the whole reef, killing it. Tide and currents along with storms would eventually wipe the remnant coral out. So the whole ecosystem would die. If you killed all the turtles, it might not come to pass, there are other things that eat sponges and they would increase as their food source increased, but you begin to understand a small bit of the complexity of the web of life that is a coral reef. Take away the damsel fish and algae grow unchecked. Parrot fish eat the live coral, but their fecal matter is almost pure sand because of the rock they have to ingest to get to the polyps; their shit is what you see as crystal white sand. But there’s something in particular I’d like to show you; it’s not far.”

“Let’s go,” Edmund said, turning away from the cleaning station.

Down the section of patch reef a large coral head rose up in the middle of an expanse of low rocks. It was about three meters high and two across, tapering a bit like a teardrop. It was colored a faint green, as if it had some algae all over it. Sections of it were covered with the mosslike growths he’d seen elsewhere.

“This is Big Greenie,” Bruce said, coasting to a stop and letting the current carry him past the coral head. “It’s a species called green coral and it is the oldest living organism on earth.”

“I thought that was some tree in western Norau?” Edmund said, peering at the rock. “And is it alive?”

“Oh, yes,” Bruce said. “See the fuzzy patches?”

“I’d noticed them before,” Edmund admitted. “They look like it’s covered in moss.”

“Those are the live polyps,” Bruce corrected. “They’re actually related to jellyfish. Think of them as upside down jellyfish surrounded by a rock shell. They’re filter feeders; they extend tendrils that catch plankton as it passes by. Once a year they reproduce, releasing clouds of sperm and eggs to drift on the wind. But Big Greenie, here, has been doing that for seven million years.”

“Damn,” Edmund said, impressed.

“It very nearly died,” Bruce continued. “Water conditions in the mid-twenty-first century were terrible. There was, as it later turned out, a normal climactic shift to higher temperatures, then the cycle reversed and there was a sharp temperature decline, a mini-ice age. All of those created temperature stresses. Toxins released by industry into the water, divers touching the reef, industrial fishing that removed vital species, all of it nearly killed something that had lived for millions of years. There were sections of this reef where less than ten percent included live polyps; that was a recipe for disaster.”

“Your point?” Edmund said, dryly.

“You are, as I mentioned, very focused, Edmund Talbot. But while it’s important to focus on the trees, sometimes you have to let the forest speak for itself. I’m showing you the oldest tree in the forest because I thought it was something that you could focus upon. This is what the Work is all about; ensuring that the reef, Big Greenie included, is never brought to those conditions again.”

Edmund thought about that for a moment, kicking against the current to carry him back to the coral head. He dropped down to the bottom and looked at it closely, then backed up when he saw the head of a very large moray stuck back in a crevice near the coral’s base.

Finally he swam back to where Bruce was waiting patiently.

“I understand what you mean,” Talbot said.

“There’s a ‘but’ there,” Bruce replied.

“There’s a huge ‘but’ there,” Edmund admitted. “The first ‘but’ is that the conditions that you’re talking about don’t apply. Won’t apply. To get to the conditions you describe will require industry, major industry. Which cannot exist given the explosive protocols.”

“Toxins can be created without internal combustion,” Bruce said with a frown.

“Not on large scale, without internal combustion or electrical energy. The first is prevented by Mother under the explosive protocols. And any power production gets sucked up by the damned Net. So you cannot have large-scale industry. You have no idea what I’d give right now for a couple of tons of sulfuric acid, for example, but producing it in a low-tech environment is a stone bitch.”

Bruce opened his mouth but Edmund raised a hand.

“Give me a second here.” Edmund grinned. “You had your say. If we win this war, the entire system comes back online and all the conditions before the Fall hold. You’ll be able to replicate all your needs again. There won’t be any industry, any more than there was for a thousand years before the Fall. Nor will there be any more visitors, because there aren’t that many people and even with the natural population increase that is going on, there won’t be more than a billion and a half, two billion max, in the next hundred years. There’s also a maximum even past that point; you can only support so many humans on preindustrial agriculture. You forgot nutrient run-off in your litany, by the way.”

“It’s in there,” Bruce said, grimly. “Flora bay was nearly killed by it. And the bay is the nursery for half the ecosystem in this region.”

“But that won’t happen because you cannot transport the fertilizers from where they are to where they are needed,” Edmund snapped. “God knows we’re running into that already in Raven’s Mill. My point is that while the war is going on, the reefs are still out of danger. But you are not.”

“So you’ve said,” Bruce shrugged. “But New Destiny doesn’t have a reason to attack us.”

“I’m not talking about New Destiny,” Edmund replied. They had drifted away from the coral head on the current and were headed in the general direction of town. “Your people are excessively vulnerable. And they are valuable to more than just us and New Destiny. We passed a settlement on the way here in Bimi island. With your underwater abilities, you’re a priceless asset to a group like that. How long until they come to the conclusion that since you’re unwilling to assist them, they should force you to?”

“How are they going to do that?” Bruce said, angrily.

“I don’t know,” Edmund replied with a shrug. “But some of them, maybe not now, but soon, will figure out a way. “Why should they dive for lobster when you can do that for them?”

“We could ally ourselves with them, just as well,” Bruce replied.

“They can’t protect you from New Destiny,” Edmund retorted. “And they have far less to lose than we do. You’d be the cleaner fish to their big fish. Sure, it’s a commensal relationship, but if I had my druthers, I’d be the big fish. The cleaners can’t snap me up.”

“And you wouldn’t be the big fish?”

“We need willing allies,” Edmund said, reasonably. “We need you to scout for us, to fight for us if we can figure out a way. To communicate with the delphinos and the other cetoids. To find the New Destiny ships so that we can destroy them before they destroy us. Before they come to my land and I have to fight them at my damned walls. That’s not big fish to little fish. We can’t force you to do those things. How do we know that you intentionally missed some fleet? It’s a big damned ocean, as I’m coming to understand. But I can damned well tell you that the fishermen will get out their whips if you don’t come back with enough lobster.”

“You create problems that don’t exist,” Bruce said, still angry.

“Maybe, but here’s one that already exists: you’re starving to death.”

“We’re getting by,” Bruce said, defensively.

“Barely, as primitive hunter gatherers, dependent on what you can bring in each day,” Edmund said, warming to his own anger. “Damnit, Bruce, you’re responsible to your people, not just to this reef! I’ve got people under my protection that were members of the Wolf terraforming project. Are they working on it now? No, they’re working on rebuilding civilization; not scavenging for food in the forests. And you’re not even good hunter gatherers. You’re losing body weight; Daneh can prove that. You’ve had people die from nutrient deficiencies. We can help. So you don’t want gill nets, fine, they take too many of the fish you don’t want and damage the reef. Fine. We can provide seine nets instead. You can target your prey that way. There are other things your people have asked for. Lobster pots, long lines—”

“No long lines,” Bruce snapped. “They’re nearly as bad as drift nets!”

“Whatever,” Edmund replied. “Tell me what you want and we’ll provide it. Within reason. You’re not the only group we have to support with arms and materials.”

“What’s within reason?” Bruce replied.

Ah, hah. “That’s to be worked out. We can provide the fighters with some weapons. The bronze is better for your purposes; it can be resharpened easily, unlike the stainless. But it’s hard to make and there are no sources of made material whereas we can get blanks, have blanks, of the stainless in quantity. But that’s hard to work as hell, it takes time which means money. We’ll set up a credit system for support and ensure solid, and honest, trade, under UFS trading laws. We’re not going to strip you of people and with our support there are products that you can trade for luxuries and that way you won’t be entirely dependent upon us. As I said, the details have to be worked out, but they are details. As willing allies in a mutual protection pact we’re not going to let you starve at the very minimum. Your mer-men and -women won’t have to scrabble for every little reef-fish they can catch. And maybe even not have to eat sushi for the rest of their lives.”

Bruce considered this for a pace and then shrugged.

“I come out here to convince you, and you half convince me,” Bruce said.

“The reef will survive, with or without you,” Edmund said. “But, here and now, the crisis is the war against New Destiny. Win the war and the reef will be waiting for you. As you yourself said, Big Greenie survived the worst that man could throw at her. She’s survived natural and unnatural disasters for seven million years. She’ll survive this. Assuming that New Destiny doesn’t throw huge power bolts into her. Another thing that we can prevent.”

Bruce shrugged again and then headed back towards the town. Edmund figured it was as good as he was going to get. For now.

* * *

Rachel pawed among the leaves and vines, her fins kicking at, and above, the water’s surface to keep her in place. She was mostly finding hard, unripe fruits among sea plum growth.

“Sea plum’s one of those ‘good-bad’ things,” Elayna said, foraging in slightly deeper water. “It’s more of a pest in the waters around Flora, but it has some really specific growing requirements.”

The bed of vines was anchored near the spring on Whale Point Drop but the vines stretched for meters in every direction.

“It interferes with the sea grasses some,” Antja said, sitting up so her head was out of the shallow water and looking around, then bobbing back down to continue to forage. “The roots have to have fresh water, but the fruits will only mature in salt. So it’s only found where there’s a strong fresh-water flow that meets salt water. That means right around spring runoffs like this one for the most part. And it only grows so far. So it’s not a terrible pest. And it supports most of the species that sea grass does, for that matter.”

“There are all sorts of little fish and… stuff in here,” Rachel said. “But not much in the way of mature plums. Elayna, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” the girl said, her bright blue tail waving out of the water as she rummaged in the vines.

“Where’s the eel?”

“Oh, I only bring Akasha out for special occasions,” Elayna said, “And generally only at night. During the day she hides in her cave. I think this bed has mostly been picked over,” she added with a sigh. “We need to go find something else. Conch? Lobster?”

“Conch is generally found around sea grass,” Antja said, looking at Rachel. “But the nearest bed is klicks away. I think we need to go bugging.”

“Bugging?” Rachel asked.

“Looking for crayfish,” Elayna said, then added: “Lobster.”

“Oh.”

“Mostly the way that we do that is to swim upstream so we can coast back,” Antja said, swimming towards the inlet’s mouth. “But we’ve been here long enough that most of the upstream stuff has been picked over like the sea plum. The lobster move around; they come in to refill the niches they hide in, but that takes a little time. So, I’d suggest heading east, if you’re up for a hard swim back?

“I think so,” Rachel replied, picking up the string-mesh bag that had a few fruit in it. “What is this made of?” she asked as she followed the two mer-girls out to sea. They were swimming slowly since she was a virtual cripple in the water but it was still a little fast for her and she was glad when they caught the current and it pushed them to the east.

“Mostly seaweed stems,” Antja said. “We make some from the sea plum, too, but if you cut the vine, you don’t get the fruit. Hard choice.”

“And both of them rot quickly,” Elayna complained. “And aren’t very strong to start with. They’re not very good.”

“This is something we can help with,” Rachel said. “I don’t know if cosilk or hemp would be best, but we have both. Not a lot, yet, but more every year as we break more ground.”

“What I’d really like is a bathing suit top,” Antja said, looking at Rachel’s two-piece. “I’m really tired of having my breasts on display all the time. There are times that I don’t like being looked at that way, if you know what I mean. I won’t even comment on the occasional touch.”

“Speak for yourself,” Elayna said happily. “I like the looks. I don’t even mind the touch, if it’s the right hands.”

“That’s because you’re a slut, Elayna,” Antja said, without rancor.

“She’s not a slut,” Rachel challenged. “She’s just… comfortable with showing off her body. But I know what you mean, Antja. Even this thing is too skimpy for me. I never really showed off, much, before the Fall. Except, you know, when I was younger…”

“Putting on as little as your mom would let you get away with and going out in public to flaunt?” Antja said with a grin.

“Oh, I’d shake it,” Rachel laughed. “But then… some of the looks I’d get. They just made me shiver, you know? And I started putting my clothes back on. Since the Fall… with… some of the things that have happened, you never catch me anymore except in long skirts or slacks and a high-buttoned shirt. I don’t want the looks. At all.”

“Well, I don’t mind them, thanks,” Elayna said. “And I’m not a slut. A slut is some girl that sleeps with any guy that crooks a finger. I’m much pickier. Now, Bast, Bast is a slut.”

“Not by your definition,” Rachel said with a laugh. “By your definition, she’s perfect. But she wouldn’t mind being called a slut; she’d probably take it as a compliment. But Bast is very choosy and as far as I can see… sort of serially monogamous. I didn’t realize it at first, but she really is. She’s never even looked at another guy since she started dating Herzer, at least not around Raven’s Mill. And, God knows, Herzer doesn’t worry about hopping from bed to bed. If you’d like a slut, Herzer’s the male definition. But Bast isn’t. Hell, she chose my father when he was not much older than Herzer and they apparently were quite an item for damned near a decade.”

“Really?” Elayna gasped. “Your dad?”

Oh, yeah,” Rachel said with a wicked grin. “Apparently back then, Dad must have really been something. Heck, he was living with Aunt Sheida before he met my mom and that was either post Bast or concurrent; I’ve never been sure and I’m not about to ask. And then he tossed them both over for Mom. Now that must have been a spectacular breakup.”

“Aunt Sheida?” Antja said, picking up on the name. “Not the council member?”

“Yep, now Queen Sheida of the United Free States. Even back then she was number two or three on the list for a Key, and they don’t hand those out at raffles. But here Dad is bouncing from Bast to Sheida and then finally settling on Mom of all women.”

“So he’s never slept with Bast again?” Elayna said. “That’s hard to believe. She’s so…”

“Sensual,” Rachel finished the sentence. “After Mom left him, taking me along, he apparently had some time with Bast. But… I’m not sure what was going on there. I’d say he needed the company; he was really busted up when Mom left.”

“When was this?” Antja asked.

“When I was about four,” Rachel said, sadly, remembering the arguments vaguely as not happy times. “My dad was a really serious reenactor before the Fall. He lived in a stone house, cooked his own food, or had a nanny servant do it anyway, the whole thing. Like some feudal lord. I mean, it wasn’t crazy living; he had hot and cold running water. But it was from a cistern on the hill and that was filled from a spring. When I say cold I mean cold. Anyway, the way I pieced it together, Mom wasn’t willing to raise me like that and he wasn’t willing to leave. So he clung to his life like a limpet and… Mom made a new one. He came and lived with us for a while but he just couldn’t hack it. Technology really seems to drive him crazy if he’s living with it every day. So by the time I was six or so, he was gone for good. I’d still visit him from time to time, especially for Faire. It was great when I was a kid. Dad was the local ‘Lord’ and I’d get all dressed up and people would fuss over me. But then as I got older, it just got so… old. So I stopped going to visit him.”

“What happened?” Elayna said. “Why’d you go back?”

“Duh, the Fall, dummy,” Antja chuckled, grimly.

“Duh, indeed,” Rachel said with a frown. “Mom and I lived… hell, not that far from Raven’s Mill. No more than a hundred klicks. Do you know how hard it is to walk a hundred klicks, carrying food, in the middle of the storms they had after the Fall?”

“Yuck,” Elayna muttered.

“Yeah. But what more perfect place to go? Before the Fall it was ‘This water is like ice and why do I have to use this old-fashioned flush commode? Why don’t you just transport like any normal person, Daaadddy!’ When I got there and saw a flush commode, and a hot bath being drawn, I cried like a baby. No more squatting in bushes! No more rough flannel and cold river water! Mom…” She stopped and breathed for a moment. “Mom got first crack at the tub. But, anyway, that’s how Mom and Dad got back together. And… after a while they got back to being… friends. For a while there, it was really sickening, like two giggly teenagers. Now they’re just… well, they’re just about the most perfect couple I’ve ever seen. They discuss problems, rarely lose their temper with each other and compliment one another for what they do. And Bast, returning to the subject of the discussion, has been smart enough not to interfere. Why should she? She’s got Herzer!”

“So what about you and Herzer?” Elayna asked. “I heard you were sharing a room on the ship? Care to pass on any tips?”

“He snores,” Rachel said, sweetly. “As for the rest, Herzer’s like my brother. I… we’ve never. We’re not going to be doing that.”

“Why?” Antja asked, reasonably. “I mean, I’ve got Jason and Herzer’s got no tail to speak of, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the attraction. Hell, you’ve only got to take one look at his bathing suit to see one attraction.”

“I did!” Elayna snickered.

“Well…” Rachel said, coloring slightly. “If… if there’s such a thing as an ‘antislut’ that’s me. That doesn’t mean I’m down on girls who enjoy bed hopping; Marguerite was one of my best friends before the Fall and she lost her virginity about the time she started blooming tits. And never looked back. But me… I’ve just never been interested.”

“You mean in guys?” Elayna asked.

“I mean in sex,” Rachel responded. “Guys or girls. I just don’t care. I like guys, and girls, as friends. But I’m not interested in… all the squishy awfulness. It sort of makes me queasy to tell you the truth.”

“That’s weird,” Elayna said. “I can’t really imagine that.”

“That’s because you’ve got a sex drive,” Rachel said with a sad frown. “I don’t. It’s like being tone-deaf. You can listen to the music, but all it is is noise. Unpleasant noise at that. The thought of… Herzer’s dick in me is… ooooh!” she ended with a shudder of disgust.

“Okay,” Antja said. “I have to agree, that’s weird.”

“Well if a normal sex drive is like a five,” Rachel said with a shrug. “And Elayna here is, say, an eight, I’m like a negative one.”

“And what’s Bast?” Elayna said.

“Three thousand one hundred and fifteen,” Rachel laughed. “More or less.”

They had drifted to an area of scattered patch reef, most of them a meter or so high, and Antja suddenly darted downward, reaching into a crevice.

“Gotcha,” she said, pulling the lobster out of its hole. It waved its antennae at her furiously and kicked with its tail but most of the motion stopped when she wrung the body off of the tail and dropped the latter into her bag.

“They generally hang out under ledges and in cracks,” Antja said, dropping down to the sand bottom to swim along the side of the section of reef. She was peering into the ledges under the rock and then darted her hand in again. This time she drew it out with an expression of disgust.

“What we need is spears for this,” she said. “It’s not particularly sporting but we’re not here for sport.”

Rachel coasted a little farther down and picked out her own patch of rock. She got down on the sand and looked under the reef but it was nearly black to her eyes. The sun was high and shining down through the water as if the ten meters or so over her head wasn’t even there. And the shadows under the rock were nearly impenetrable. But she could see stuff on the sides, little fish darting in and out. Then she saw a shadow move under the rock and backed up in a hurry as a small shark came sculling out lazily. At least, she thought it was a shark. It looked a little like one except that the mouth was pursed as if it had been eating a lemon.

“Nurse shark,” Elayna said as she swam by. “They’re harmless if you don’t bother them. On the other hand, they’ll tear you a new one if you do. A guy before the Fall, a mer and he should have known better, tried to ride one. Fortunately the nannites fixed him right up. But he Changed back to normal human and never got in the water again.”

“How do you see under here?” Rachel said. She had changed patches and was now looking under the new rock, warily.

“You get used to it,” Antja said, drifting past. She now had three lobster tails in her bag, one of which was huge. “Watch them, though, they’ve got spines. You have to grip them firmly but not hard. Firmly enough that they can’t get away; they’ll rip you up struggling out of your hand. But don’t grab them so hard that you poke yourself.”

“Great,” Rachel said, catching a glimpse of some antennae waving just down the reef. She pushed herself off the bottom with her fingers and snuck up on the crayfish. It was apparently unworried about her approach, except for waving its antennae more aggressively. She moved her hand in closer and then lunged. She wasn’t quite fast enough, but she got ahold of the antennae at the base, surprised by the struggle the lobster was putting up. She managed to get her other hand around it and then wrung the tail off quickly.

“Got one,” she said, happily. Then noticed the small cuts in the fingers that had snagged the antennae. The salt water stung them but there wasn’t much she could do about that.

“Gloves,” Elayna said, popping up from a section of reef about ten meters away. “That’s what we really need: Gloves.”

“Not if you use a spear,” Antja said. She was out of sight, only her golden-red tail sticking up out of the reef. The colors only really came out when they were close to the surface.

“Why do you guys all have colorful tails when the water makes them all look brown or green at depth?” Rachel asked, going back to her hunting.

“Our eyes process out the blue light,” Antja replied, then paused as she apparently lunged for another lobster. “Until we get deep and that’s all there is. But when we’re at, say, twenty meters, we see things just as clearly, color-wise, as you do up here. But by the time you get down to say, thirty or forty meters, it kicks back over to ‘normal’ vision because just about everything but blue has gone away.”

“Is it harder for you to see?” Rachel asked. “I mean, down by the town and stuff. Everything down there is blue.”

“No,” Elayna replied. “We’ve got superior night vision, too. Kind of like a cat. We can probably see better than you can. That might be why we can see under the rocks better, too.”

“I see this one,” Rachel said, darting in and getting ahold of the body this time. She’d figured out her grip and didn’t get cut for her troubles, but her hand scraped on the rock as she drew the struggling crustacean out. She also realized that she was tired. And there was a long swim back against the current. “This isn’t easy.”

“No, it’s not,” Antja said. “I’m not sure we’re getting more calories than we’re going to burn off, especially with having to swim back against the current carrying the tails.”

Rachel thought about that and then laughed.

“I’ll carry them back,” she said, spotting another lobster. “I can walk up on the shore. That way you guys don’t have to wait for me to catch up.”

“Works,” Elayna said. “But we can keep in the shallows, that way you’ll have company. That way you can tell me all of Herzer’s terrible secrets.”

“I think those are Herzer’s to tell,” Rachel said, pausing in her hunt.

“Oh, that’s no fun,” Elayna replied.

“Well, most of Herzer’s life before the Fall doesn’t contain many terrible secrets,” Rachel replied as her hand darted in and just missed the more wary crayfish. It had been a large one, too. “He had a genetic condition that my mom cured, just before the Fall, fortunately. It got worse as he got older and especially worse around puberty. He… didn’t have many friends and no girlfriends to speak of.”

“That’s pretty unbelievable,” Antja said. Her bag was nearly full and she rested on the top of the reef for a moment. Rachel suddenly realized that the scales on their tails had more than decorative purposes; if she had tried that, with the mild swell that was pushing over the rocks, she would have come away with a scraped-raw butt.

“He… twitched,” Rachel said, finding it hard to explain. “He worked out but he couldn’t keep any muscle mass; he was like a shaking twig all the time. And he had a speech impediment. Sometimes he’d drool or one of his limbs would just start spasming. It was… awful to watch. He’d been a fun kid, played sports, and then this… disease just wasted him away. I admit I started avoiding him. I’m pretty ashamed by that but it was just too weird. Anyway, Mom figured out a cure just before the Fall. Basically she killed and brought him back to life.” Rachel swallowed at another thought she didn’t want to voice. “Which… makes them bound in a weird way. Anyway, that’s why he didn’t have girlfriends. Now after the Fall,” she continued with an evil glint in her voice, “that’s another story.”

“So I’m just the latest?” Elayna asked. “I’d sort of figured; he was… pretty good. Actually, darned good.”

“A lot of that is because of Bast,” Rachel replied. She popped up over the reef to see Antja taking a bite out of one of the lobster tails. “Aren’t we supposed to be sharing with the town?”

“I’ve got too much to carry back,” Antja said, reasonably. “If I eat some, I carry it in my stomach.”

“We can switch out bags,” Rachel replied. “I’m never going to fill this one at this rate.”

“Works,” Antja said, finishing off the lobster tail and wiping her hands on her scales. “These things are a lot better cooked, though.”

“So, why’s it Bast?” Elayna said. Her tail was flipping back and forth savagely as she shoved an arm deep into a crevice. “Hah, gotcha ya bastard.”

“Bast considers it a solemn duty to train her current boy-toy,” Rachel replied, dryly. “And she’s been doing a lot of training with Herzer.”

“It shows,” Elayna laughed. “Although it took him a few minutes to figure out the differences in anatomy. After that it was great.”

“Herzer has two great skills in life,” Rachel said. “Fighting and… the other. I wish I could appreciate either one.”

She snagged another lobster and carried it over to Antja, who was dragging what had been Rachel’s bag behind her. It was more than half full.

“How do you do that so quickly?” Rachel asked.

“I’ve been doing it since I was a kid,” Antja replied. “My parents were mer and they had me as a mer; I’ve been bugging my whole life that I can remember. For that matter, I’ve hunted this reef before; I know where they tend to hang out. Try over there,” she said, pointing to a patch of reef that looked identical to the empty one that Rachel had just been working.

When Rachel approached the reef she could understand half of Antja’s success; the ledge under the rock was packed with bugs from side to side, their antennae waving at her angrily. She reached into the mass and snatched one out while the others skittered from side to side, trapped by her body and the shallow ledge. As fast as she could reach she pulled lobsters out and wrung their tails. Some skittered by her, turning to use their powerful tails to skim over dangerous open ground, but she heard Elayna whoop behind her and dive on them.

In moments she had over a dozen tails lying on the ground among the scattered bodies of the lobster.

“So it’s a trick,” she said, smiling, as she gathered up the tails.

“Sure, isn’t everything?” Antja replied. “I think that about does it. Three bags full as they say.”

“So, you were born as a mer,” Rachel said. “Did they, what? Did they crack the can under water? Some sort of underwater uterine replicator? What?”

“No,” Antja said, in a tone that showed she didn’t want to discuss it.

“Sorry,” Rachel replied, hurt. Given everything that they had been talking about it seemed a harmless enough subject.

“I’m sorry, too,” Antja said. “I just don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“Okay,” Rachel said. Then she paused and her brow furrowed. “Antja, after the Fall, all the controls on the landsmen, well, let me make this plain, the landswomen, reproductive system turned off. We had an awful time with the first… menstruation. Did yours?” she asked, delicately.

“Yes,” Antja said, tightly. “On the other hand, they designed mer better than ‘normal’ humans; we, thank God, don’t menstruate.”

“But, you are fertile?” Rachel asked, realizing that she’d just tiptoed into a minefield as Elayna came over a rock with a set expression on her face. “You and Jason could have a baby? Elayna, for that matter, might be carrying Herzer’s?” She looked over at Elayna who had a stricken expression on her face as if that thought had just occurred to her.

“Yes, we are,” Antja said. “I wish you would stop pursuing this line of questioning.”

“Sorry,” Rachel said, “call me incurably curious. Just one more: Antja, what happened to the babies?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Daneh had spent most of the day working with the mer healers. They had no trained doctors but a few of the mer had been familiar with basic first aid and had been pressed into service. Unfortunately, in the saltwater environment there was not much that could be done. The flip side was that many of the standard infections were unable to gain a hold.

Mostly what they had to deal with were poisons from the various denizens of the deep, rashes from running up against the wrong coral and the occasional shark bite. She was shown one such, a nasty gash on the mer-man’s tail that had been clumsily stitched up. She gave a brief class on proper suturing, something that she had learned only after the Fall, and suggested some poultices for the rashes. They had about done the rounds when Germaine, one of the healers, drew her aside.

“Mistress Daneh,” the mer-woman said, nervously. “There’s something I need to show you, one case we’d like some help on. But Bruce said we weren’t to tell you about it. You can’t let on that I did this.”

“I won’t,” she said. “Where is it?”

“It’s a bit of a swim,” the mer admitted. “I’ll see if I can find a delphino that will give you a ride.”

She came back some time later with one of the delphinos.

“This is Buttaro,” Germaine said.

“Daneh, lady,” the delphino spit. “Help baby?”

“Yes, I will,” Daneh said. “If I can.”

“Hold fin,” the delphino said, rolling so that she could grasp the dorsal. “Go.”

The delphino stayed low to the reef as they headed for the inlet overlooked by the lighthouse then turned towards where the spring was. On the far side of the spring it took a breath though its blowhole and then dove towards the bottom where there was a crack in the rocks.

The way led through a twisted series of tunnels and then Daneh saw blue light ahead. They surfaced in a cave.

She had noticed that some of the mer were pregnant, but had not seen any babies. As she entered the cave her ears were assaulted by the sound of at least a dozen, mostly crying. There were more than babies in the vaulted, but crowded, cave. Mer-women swam around the rocky shelves, leading some of the older infants in water games.

Germaine surfaced by her and looked at her pleadingly.

“Mer can’t breathe water at first,” she said, coughing out a lungful of water. “They don’t have the mass to fight the cold and their lungs aren’t strong enough. They have to be born on land. They have to stay on land for a year, generally, until they can live in the water.”

“This is one hell of an Achilles’ heel,” Daneh said, quietly. “I can see why you didn’t want us to know about it. You’d better hope like hell New Destiny doesn’t.”

She led the way to one of the ledges but was confronted by an angry mer-woman.

“Germaine, I can’t believe you brought a landie here!” the woman snapped.

“Daneh is a doctor, Rema,” Germaine replied, just as hotly. “Would you rather that Maturi die?”

“No, but…”

“I don’t know if I can do anything,” Daneh said, soothingly. “But I will try. And I promise that I will do nothing to endanger your babies.”

The woman looked at her questioningly, then shrugged.

“Do what you can,” she said. “For all it’s worth.”

Germaine led her to the ledge and then climbed out awkwardly, crawling to the rear where a very young mer-maid cradled a child in her arms.

Daneh took one look at the baby and made a reasonable diagnosis, but she wanted to be sure. She looked at the mer-maid and held out her arms for the baby.

“Daneh is a doctor,” Germaine said. “A real doctor. She might be able to help.”

The girl looked up at her pleadingly, then handed the baby over.

Daneh walked carefully through the crowd of mer-folk, packed nearly hip to hip on the small ledge, to where the light was better and examined the baby closely. It, she wasn’t sure if it was a he or a she because of the recessed genitals, was clearly a newborn, but the baby was far under what should to be normal weight and had a yellowish tint to the skin. It was sleeping but when she rolled back one eyelid it woke up and gave a pitiful mew of displeasure. The whites of its eyes were yellow as well.

“It’s not serious,” she said, returning to where the girl lay. “I think. If we can get it out of this cave. Is this a he or a she? I can’t tell.”

“He,” Germaine said. “What is it?”

“Childhood jaundice,” Daneh replied. “I’m relatively sure. It’s definitely jaundice. In adults that comes from damage to the liver but in children it can manifest from birth.”

“He’s never been strong,” the girl said, her mouth working. “And he’s been that color.”

“He needs sunlight,” Daneh said, looking around the gloomy cavern. There were only a few slits that let in light. “Which clearly is in short supply. It helps if he can be given oil from fish livers, if I recall correctly. But sunlight alone might cure him.”

“Just sunlight?” Germaine said, aghast. “Are you sure?”

“No,” Daneh snapped. “I don’t have medical nannites to make a diagnosis, nor do I have any to effect a cure. But I’ve seen it before and we had items at Raven’s Mill that permitted me to research a similar case. And sunlight alone worked for her.”

“He can hold his breath well,” the girl said. “But if he swallows water he won’t be able to cough it back out as weak as he is.”

“Mer children, we have learned,” Germaine said, “have a much stronger breath hold reaction than normal human children. But it’s a long swim.”

“Where would you take him on the surface?” Daneh asked.

“There’s a sheltered cove that we use to wean the children to the outside,” Germaine replied.

“Not far, I take it?”

“No.”

Daneh stripped off her mask and placed it on the child’s head where it conformed as well as to an adult. The mer-baby didn’t like the sensation and gave off a tooth grating yowl of fear, thrashing his head from side to side.

“It’s okay,” Daneh said, putting out her hand. “He can use it to breathe on the way out. But, please, bring it back to me,” she said, gesturing at the blue-lit water. “There’s no way that I can make that swim on my own.”

“Thank you,” the girl said, crawling over and touching her on the leg. “Thank you.”

“Thank me when he gets well,” Daneh said, squatting down to hand the child to Germaine who was already back in the water. “It will probably be a week or so. And he may have sustained some permanent liver damage. And there’s a possibility with infantile jaundice of brain damage. But if we caught it in time, he should be fine.”

“Thank you,” the girl said again, slithering over the edge of the rock into the water and heading for the entrance.

“You might not be so bad after all,” Rema said from the water’s edge.

Daneh walked over and dangled her feet in the water, looking around the sound-drenched cavern.

“Like I said when I surfaced,” she sighed. “This is one hell of an Achilles’ heel.”

“Let me tell you a story from the bad old days,” Rema said, hoisting herself out and sitting with her tail flapping in the water. “Fur seals give birth once a year. They congregate in colonies up in the Arctic. When the pups are born their fur is milk white, ice white to blend into the ice they are born upon. It’s also very soft.”

“I’m not going to like this story, am I?” Daneh asked.

“No, you’re not,” the mer-woman replied. “Well, at some point this was discovered by man. And men would go up into those seal rookeries and use clubs to bash in the heads of the seal pups. Up on land, there wasn’t much that the mothers could do.”

“I was right, I didn’t like the story,” Daneh said, looking around the cavern. The mer-babies were apparently born with almost gray tails, but over time they took on the whatever shade they were meant to have as adults. She could envision the genetic coding still. She shook her head and sighed again. “You need guards. Guards with legs.”

“And give our hearts into the hands of the guards, you mean?” Rema asked. “You see our problem. Who watches the watchmen?”

“There’s one group that, at least in this generation, I would trust with this treasure,” Daneh said. “But only one group. And only in this generation.”

“And what do we pay them with?” Rema asked. “Sex with mer-maids?”

Daneh laughed and waved her hand at the expression of fury on the mer-woman’s face.

“No, it’s not that,” she said, still chuckling. “It’s just that the only representative of that group has, unless I’m much mistaken, already been paid in that coin.”

* * *

Elayna had invited herself along so it was a fairly large group: the three riders, Herzer and Bast, Elayna, Jason and Pete who took off, strapped to various dragons.

“Delphinos were signaling that there was a group of tuna feeding somewhere to the southwest,” Jason called as the wyverns reached cruising altitude. They had fed skimpily and were hungry for more.

The group headed out in the indicated direction and soon saw the feeding school, spotting it first by a large flock of birds overhead.

“There’s more than tuna down there,” Herzer called as they swept low over the assembly. The school of fish — it was hard to call them bait fish since most of them were fair-sized eating for a human — was absolutely huge, stretching for nearly a klick in one direction and a half a klick in the other. The fish were mouthing at the surface creating a pattern of circular ripples while at the edges the larger predators churned the surface into froth.

“Mackerel,” Pete called. “And there’s everything on them. Sailfish, marlin, tuna. Hell there’s probably wahoo and barracuda in the mix!”

“We can just fill this net with mackerel,” Jason said. “Mackerel’s good eating. Getting them back is going to be the problem.”

“Dolphins,” Koo called. “Or maybe delphino, bearing in from the northeast.”

“How do you want to do this, Jason?” Joanna called.

“This was Herzer’s idea,” Jason pointed out. “The riders are going to have to stay up at the surface. And God only knows what’s down there. Can they swim that long? How do we get back? Is something going to eat them?”

“Joanna, can you hold out on breakfast for a while?” Herzer yelled.

“Not happily,” she replied. “But if you want me to play shark guard, I will.”

“And you’re positively buoyant,” he said. “The riders can hold onto you if they get tired.”

“I’m only buoyant up to a point,” she replied. “But I see the logic. The wyverns can feed first.”

“Then we get one or more of them back so the riders can hold onto them,” Herzer said. “If the delphinos will let us, we’ll ride back with them, the dragons following. Maybe the dragons can pull the net, maybe the delphinos. We’ll scoop some of the mackerel for them, making their hunting easier.”

“That’s how we usually handle it,” Jason said. “But with lots less fish.”

“Well, let’s get down, get the mer unstrapped, talk to the delphinos and get the net deployed.”

* * *

The scene underwater in the bait school was a maelstrom. The sounds of the cavitation of literally millions of fish filled the water with a sound like thunder. Scales from dead and damaged fish rained down in a continuous silver-glittering cloud. And in every direction fish of various sizes were swimming chaotically. Besides the sound and the movement, the colors of the fish were confusing. A group of sailfish, swimming past faster than a dragon, were changing hue along their sides, rippling with blue and yellow stripes as they passed. Narrow, torpedolike fish that Pete identified as wahoo were marked the same way. The mackerels themselves changed hue constantly, presumably to make it harder for their predators to fix on any one fish. The chaotic patterns, the sound, the enormous sense of movement were oddly terrifying.

Herzer finally tore his eyes away from the spectacle and grabbed onto Joanna’s spread wings. The delphinos had clustered in her shadow and he saw more forms clustering in the depths. As he watched a mackerel, squirted out of the school by the press of the predators, dart across towards the shadow and presumed safety. One of the forms rose in a way that at first seemed slow and lazy, then suddenly sped up, slashing in for a strike on the bewildered bait fish. The form turned out to be a massive marlin that quickly darted back into the deeps, the tail of the mackerel sticking out one side of its beak.

“I don’t know where to start,” Jason admitted.

“Don’t really look at it,” Herzer said. “Unfocus. Just let it all be a blur.”

The dragons were clearly having some of the same problems but it hadn’t slowed them much. They darted into the swarm, just a few more large predators to feast on the plenty, and started picking off fish at the edge, mostly the predators that had come for the mackerel.

Herzer had come for tuna, primarily, but they were running so fast it was hard to keep an eye on them. They would go by so fast that even by panning his head it was hard to see them as anything other than a blur. Their tails were a blur; they seemed to move faster than a hummingbird’s wing.

He found himself getting overwhelmed again and took his own advice, grabbing a corner of the net as Jason spread it out.

“Right,” Jason said, finally. “We’ll just head into the school. When I give the word, Herzer and Elayna just try to hold steady and Pete and I will swing it around.” He looked at the wall of fish of every conceivable size and gulped some water. “Follow me.”

Pete and Jason headed straight into the baitball, through the wall of predators. Herzer saw one yellowfin tuna that was bigger than Bast slam into Pete as he neared the mackerel but Pete was merely buffeted for a moment and kept on heading in. Jason was at the top of the net and Herzer could see clearly when he entered the baitball because he simply disappeared.

The net in their way immediately affected the mackerel and a large slice of them, ten meters or so long and a few meters deep, turned aside and formed their own ball as predators slashed into them. Herzer tried to pull the net to a halt at the edge of the main ball but it was wriggling madly in his hands. A tuna slammed dead into his side and both of them rebounded from the impact, shaken. He stuck a hand out and jammed it into the momentarily drifting tuna’s gills and was rewarded by a panicked frenzy for his troubles. The tuna, which was not much smaller than he and probably weighed more, thrashed against his side, dragging him off in an upward spiral. He got his hand free and grabbed the net with flesh and metal hands, striving with all his might to kick his way out into the open water. By this time he had been dragged fully into the mackerel and their flashing bodies were all he could see. They swarmed all around him, butting into his side, face, legs, like a thousand maddened cats. Suddenly his head crested the water and try as he might he could not get the net to budge; the weight of the fish in it, their frenzied fighting, Pete and Jason pulling on it, all combined to simply tow him through the water.

Suddenly a talon shot out of the water and grasped the net by his hand. He let go as Joanna took over, dragging the net, and a mass of fish, out of the main school. He gratefully swam out of the frenzy and into the comparative peace alongside.

The net was a gill net, long and relatively short, not the purse seine that would have been ideal for the purposes. But by tying it on the bottom and ends and letting it float to the surface they had gathered a huge quantity of mackerel, and several relatively small and confused tuna.

“You know,” Joanna said. “Just when we need that damned ship.”

Jason was pulling mackerel out with his hands, mostly those stuck in the net, and handing them to the delphinos. He pulled one out for himself and expertly stripped it of its skin, then tore into the flesh. Joanna dipped her muzzle into the net and caught a couple more along with one of the small tuna.

“Tuna,” she said after she swallowed. “Tastes just like chicken.”

“The question is,” Herzer asked, floating at the surface, “did this work better than, say, diving in and grabbing them by hand or mouth?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jason replied. He dipped under the water and blatted at the delphinos.

“Better,” Herman said. “Less energy. Better.”

“But we have to get the net back to town,” Herzer replied.

“Eat fish, fill net, go town,” Herman replied. “Fish fresh.”

“Yeah,” Jason mused. “They’ll live in the net, so they’ll be fresh when we get back. And they can stay in the net for a day or so, except for getting caught in the weave.”

Herzer was watching Chauncey try to catch the big tunas. He had tried to snatch them on the run, but they were just too fast. Finally, he struck out with his half-folded wing and managed to temporarily stun one, which he quickly picked off. Others followed his example and the wyverns were quickly replete with fish.

“They learn,” Herzer muttered.

“Oh, yeah,” Jerry said. He and the others had swum over to the floating net, from which the delphinos were now stripping the gill-caught fish. “They’d never learn anything if it wasn’t by example. When one sees something that works, it copies it. That’s half of the way that they’re trained.”

“That’s unusual in the natural world,” Herzer pointed out.

“They’re not natural,” Jerry replied with a shrug. “All this swimming is fun, but this water is damned deep and we’re way out here. How long are we going to stay?”

Herzer hadn’t really noticed the depth, concentrating on the problem, but he realized they were out over the deeps for sure. The water was a deep, rich blue and the light from the sun formed a cone fading into the depths, his shadow in its midst.

“Dragons are fed, delphinos are fed, mer-dudes and dudettes are fed,” Herzer said, tearing his eyes away from the attraction of simply going down and down. “I’d say we fill the net and head for home.”

“Works for me,” Jerry replied. “I’m getting tired of paddling.”

“Try to get the dragons over to you,” Herzer said. “They float. In the meantime, we have to try to fill this thing again.”

The second time they left the bottom tied and swam the net, with both ends open, into the school. It quickly filled with mackerel, and in this case several very irate, very large, yellowfin tuna. They tied the top and end for good measure, then started dragging it back towards town.

The dragons were content to scull along on the surface and their riders, including Bast and Herzer, took that method of transportation. The mer switched off with the delphinos, who had stubby fingers on the ends of their pectoral fins, dragging the squirming net back to town. So it was a group of very tired, but triumphant, hunters that returned just as the sun was setting with enough protein, on the fin moreover, to last the town for a few days.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Jason, Pete, Antja, Elayna and the weapons maker, Jackson, had dragged themselves up on land to join the landsmen for a good old fish fry. The fillets of mackerel had been wrapped in seaweed and left to cook on the coals while they feasted on lobster tails, sliced into cutlets and spitted over the fire. This was the group’s share, and maybe a bit more, from the bags the girls had returned with.

“The question is,” Jason said, around a mouthful of hot lobster, “can we do this without the dragons?”

“If the baitball is nearer the town,” Herzer replied, juggling one of the cutlets from hand to hand to cool it. “If you can’t swim out fast enough yourself, you can ride on the backs of the delphinos.”

“The problem was always getting enough back to town,” Jackson said. He was a short, burly mer-man with black hair and tail and the only one that Herzer had seen with a beard. “With nets that’s fixed.”

“Nets fix a lot of things,” Pete said. “Nets, lobster pots, grouper traps, long lines. We can use them all.”

“Only if we can get Bruce to go along,” Jason pointed out. “He’s death on commercial harvesting.”

“He’s going to find slow going fighting that battle,” Antja said, popping a cutlet into her mouth. “This is the first time we’ve been well fed since the Fall. And while picking lobsters out one by one is fun when it’s a game, I’d much rather go pick up filled traps. These tails took most of the day to round up.”

“You can trade for all of those things,” Edmund pointed out. “You might even be able to find a source for stainless steel. I doubt you’ll find one for the bronze. But it’s going to be slow going without some sort of support.”

“We hear you,” Jason said. “We’ve got the picture. The problem is that if we ally with you, we’re New Destiny’s enemies. And we have to consider that, carefully.”