In the future there is no want, no war, no disease or ill-timed death. The world is a paradise — and then, in a moment, it ends. The council that controls the Net fragments and goes to war, leaving people who have never known a moment of want or pain wondering how to survive.

There Will Be Dragons

by John Ringo


To Bast, Kane, Doug, Reck, Hank, Glennis, Peppermint Patty, Deann and all the other persons, knowing and unknowing, who make my life easier by being true characters in every sense of the word.


In the forest, a sparrow died.

The passing of the sparrow was registered and noted. The death of the female sparrow had been anticipated sometime in the next four days based upon increasing wear on her heart. The sparrow was old, had laid many eggs and had raised a higher than average percentage to successful fledgelinghood. The sparrow had contributed to the survival of her species and had passed on her genes. If she had pride, she would be proud.

On the other hand, the individual was not from a species that was listed as rare or endangered so it required no notification of any human.

So Mother, who had never paused in Her myriad duties, logged it and moved on. There were so many other things to do. Ensure that the energy generation did not significantly affect the weather. Draw off excess energy for core or mantle dumping. Prepare a massive energy surge for the planet/moon glance strike, scheduled in 237 years, that would start Wolf 359’s second planet on its way to being a tectonically active body. Just finding places to store the energy was getting difficult and She contemplated a secondary magnetic draw system around Jupiter as a possibility. An asteroid had encountered a series of low probability gravitic intercepts and was now on a course that would bring it dangerously close to the Earth, defined as within three diameters of the orbit of the Moon. She directed a probe to push it to a more favorable axis thus ensuring that 1235 years from now an asteroid the size of an elephant would not cause a noticeable explosion in the ocean the humans had once called “Pacific.”

Weather control. Tectonic control. Holding off a too long delayed mini ice-age. Tracking the progress of “origination” terraforming, the process of returning the world to as much of a prehuman condition as possible. And then, of course, there were the humans, who were getting squirrelly again.

The entity called Mother by the humans that created Her estimated that there was a 99.9999915% chance (more or less) that the humans were about to have the level of disagreement characteristic of the variable term “war.” It had been a very long time; they were overdue. Like a forest fire that is delayed, the conflagration would be far worse than one in a more regular schedule. She would have preferred one about five hundred years ago. But the humans never asked about these things, seeing them as something to interrupt a schedule, not be included in it.

Given the current societal conditions and probable outcome of such a war, the extinction of the human race as currently defined had a likelihood of 17.347%. This variable was harder to quantify; humans were so very hard to wipe out. The extinction of all other sentient intelligences except Herself was of only a slightly lower likelihood. She had not bothered to make the other AI’s or the elves apprised of the situation; that, too, was not Her job.

To the extent that She felt emotions at all, She liked humans. They were not only Her creators, but were so delightfully random, even to one who could read their very thoughts. They so often planned one thing and then did something quite different. Such variability in routine was refreshing.

But Her central programming was clear. Her job was simply to manage what She was given under strict guidelines and to otherwise let humans live or die as they would. To the extent that She was a God, She was deliberately designed as an uncaring one.

Within those parameters She had spent the last two thousand years creating a world that fit the term “Utopia.” As a fundamental part of Her coding, She felt a strong sense of satisfaction at how things had worked out. On the other hand, to do that required an environment that was unchanging to a boring degree.

Maybe, deep down inside, the humans were as bored as She was.

It looked as if interesting times were about to fall upon the world again. And She knew what humans said about “interesting times.” Naturally. She knew everything.


“This is what Paul would bring to an end?” Ishtar asked, gesturing into the clouded distance.

The woman could barely be described as human. From her hyperelongated height, which was now folded in a lotus position on a floating disk, through her narrow face, to her golden eyes and silver, gem-studded, two-meter hair spread out in a peacock pattern, her appearance reeked of xeno origins. But her DNA was as human as the woman standing next to her.

Sheida Ghorbani was nearly three hundred years old and looked to be anywhere from her upper teens to mid twenties. Her skin had the fineness of youth and her titian hair, while closely cropped, had a natural healthy sheen. Wound around her neck and into her hair was a two-meter-long winged lizard with rainbow skin like a billion shimmering gems.

Unlike her companion who was naked but for a scarce loincloth of gold, Sheida wore a simple jumpsuit of cosilk. It would be easy to mistake her for a student. Until you looked at her eyes.

Sheida sighed, looking out across the tarn and petting the lizard. The water of the upland lake was so blue and still that it seemed God’s own paintbrush had been dipped into royal blue to paint it. The tarn was surrounded on three sides by snow-capped mountains that dropped precipitously to the water. On the third side the lake exited the valley via a two-hundred-foot waterfall. There a massive multicolumned building that resembled a Greek temple added to the idyllic nature of the scene. The two women had stopped just at the top of the stairs, looking out over the water.

She leaned up against one of the columns and nodded, gesturing with her chin at her friend.

“Well I don’t think he intends to destroy the lake,” Sheida said with a chuckle. “But he would end much of it, at least for most people. He wants people to learn how to use their legs again,” she continued. “To learn to be ‘strong’ again. And to learn to be human again.”

“Humano-form, you mean,” Ishtar corrected. “ ‘Humanity is mind and the soul, not body and form.’ Tzumaiyama’s philosophies still are unassailable on that subject. But I guess he’s the ultimate conservative,” she added dryly.

“Bite your tongue,” Sheida replied. “You have to delve into data so old it’s practically forgotten to define Paul. What he is, whether he knows it or not, is a fascist. I suspect he would call himself a socialist, but he’s not.”

“A what?” Ishtar asked. She blinked her eyes for a moment as she accessed data then nodded. “Ah, I see what you mean. That is ancient. But it does fit his personality.”

“He wants to use the Council’s control of energy distribution to coerce people,” Sheida said. “That is why he called this meeting.”

“And you’re sure of this?” Ishtar said. “He has said nothing to me.”

“I think he thinks I agree with him because I’m not a Change,” Sheida replied.

“Do you?” Ishtar asked. “I have known you for at least a hundred years and except for occasional changes in eye and hair color I have never seen you Change.”

“A good Change requires a genetic component,” she said, gesturing at Ishtar’s form. “You know what Daneh does for a living.”

“But we are past that, surely,” Ishtar said. “Such mistakes no longer happen.”

“Perhaps and perhaps not,” Sheida replied. “I choose, however, to retain my own form. It’s good enough for me.”

“So he thinks you will vote with him?” Ishtar asked.

“Probably. At least from the hints he has been dropping. And I gave him no reason to doubt it, while not committing. Also, I think he waited until Chansa was elected to the Council.”

“Chansa is… odd,” Ishtar said. “I’ve heard some very ugly rumors about his personal life.”

“Odd but brilliant,” Sheida replied. “Like the rest of Paul’s faction. So bright and yet so lacking in… wisdom. It seems to be the one trait we could not enhance in humanity. Immunity, processing power, beauty.” She sighed and shook her head. “But not wisdom. They are so very very smart and yet so very stupid for all that the problems do exist.”

“You are opposed, correct?” Ishtar asked with a delicate frown.

“Oh, yes,” Sheida said with a nod. “They are right that there is a problem. That does not mean that their solutions are either optimum or even in order. But I wonder what he will do when he finds out?”

“I would say ‘to be a bug on the wall,’ ” Ishtar said with a smile. “But unfortunately I’m going to be at the center of the debate.”

“Change is an inevitable outgrowth of our technology,” Sheida said with a shrug. “From the nannites and the replicators we get the medical technology. And that same technology permits people to be…” she glanced at her companion and smiled, “whatever we can imagine.”

Ishtar laughed at the ambiguity of the ending and shrugged her slim shoulders. “Perhaps Paul simply means to end all medical technology? Perhaps that too is ‘unnecessary’?”

“If so he can take it up with my sister.”

* * *

Herzer awoke in light; his genie had changed the force screens from opaque to transparent and now “stood” by, holding out a robe.

The boy floating, horizontal, in midair was young and tall with broad shoulders and close cropped black hair. His body seemed to be wasting away, but something of it conveyed an aura of former strength, like an old strongman, far past his prime. Herzer blinked his eyes uncertainly, working them to clear a crust gluing his eyelashes shut. After a moment he sent a command and nannites scurried across his face, clearing the debris of sleep.

“Master Herzer, your appointment with Doctor Ghorbani is in one hour and thirty minutes.”

“Thonk ’ou, genie,” the boy slurred, sending a mental command to the grav field holding him suspended. Most people found it easier to interface vocally, since direct mental interaction required a tremendously disciplined thought process. But in Herzer’s case, his vocal systems had deteriorated so fast that he had been forced to the disclipine.

The grav field rotated him vertical and he waited until he was sure his legs would hold him before he released the last tendrils of support. Then he shakily donned the robe, with the assistance of the genie, and shuffled across the room to a float-chair.

He collapsed in the chair and let the genie begin the process of feeding him. His hand shook as he reached for the spoon floating above the bowl and then started to shake more and more until it was flailing in the air. He sent another command to a medical program and the recalcitrant hand dropped to his side, momentarily dead. He hated using the override; he was always unsure if the part would “restart.” But it was better than letting it flail him to death.

At a nod the genie took up the spoon and carefully fed the boy the bland pap. Some of it, inevitably, dribbled out of his malfunctioning lips but the nannites scurried across, picking it up and translating it out to be reprocessed.

When the food was done the genie produced a glass of liquid and Herzer carefully reached for it. This time both his hands were more or less working and he managed to drink the entire glass of water without spilling much.

“Su’cess,” he whispered to himself. “Have ’een any me’ages?”

“No, Master Herzer,” the genie replied.

Of course not. If there had been the genie would have told him already. But, what the hell, no reason not to hope that someone would give a damn if he was alive.

He sent a command to the chair to lift him to his feet and then another to clothe him. A loose coverall of black cosilk appeared on his body and he nodded in satisfaction. If his progressive neurology got much worse he might not even be able to manage direct neurological controls. What then?

He’d long before come to the conclusion that if that happened he would use his last commands to take him high in the air, turn off his protection fields and drop him. One last moment of glorious flight. Some days he wondered why he hadn’t done it already.

But not yet. One more doctor. Maybe this one would be able to do something.

If not…

* * *

Paul Bowman pursed his lips and fingered the titanium strip that was his badge of office as the last members of the council filed into the Chamber.

Bowmam was abnormally short, barely over a meter and a half, and human in appearance. His age was indeterminate, since the privacy barrier on personal information was rigidly enforced by the Net, but his black hair was turning to gray and his skin was beginning to show fine lines. Assuming that he had refused all longevity Changes, that would make him around three hundred or so years old. For at least one hundred of those years he had been a member of the Council that governed the information web of Earth and if he had anything to say about it, the time had finally come to take his rightful place as its undisputed leader.

Meetings of the Terrestrial Council for Information Strategy and Management always took place in the Chamber. Given modern technology it was too difficult to simulate one of the council members if the meetings were held remotely. This did cause a few problems for some of the members, but at least currently all the members were terrestrial — or avian in the case of Ungphakorn — so it was unnecessary to have, for example, aqueous support.

The room occupied nearly the entire immense building, but the sole furniture was a circular table in the middle. Around the rim of the vast room, more like an auditorium or theater than a boardroom, rank upon rank of seats were ranged, ramping upwards in tiers almost to the top of the chamber. Once upon a time it had been the boast of the world that all meetings of the Council were fully open to the public. “All shall view the sparrow’s fall.”

With incredibly rare exceptions, none of the seats had been filled in nearly a thousand years.

Like the Knights of the Round Table, all who sat at the table were considered equal. There was no specific head of the committee, the gavel being passed in rota or held by whoever called a special council. There were thirteen chairs, for the thirteen Key-holders who governed the Web, but only eleven were normally filled. Over the three-thousand-year lifetime of the Web, the control Keys had changed hands and fallen in and out of “licit” control. At the moment two were in the hands of individuals who existed outside of the mainstream and who refused, by and large, to work with the committee.

Most of the rest of the room replicated the interior of the ancient Greek Parthenon. The exception was the ceiling, which was covered with a mural of the ascent of man through the ages, culminating in the current era. It started with panels of early hunter-gatherers, showing their technology and cultural motifs, then progressed up through early agriculture, metallurgy, the discovery of philosophy and scientific method, democracy, industry, the rights of man, information technology, advanced biology, quantum engineering and finally an almost God-like succession as the combination of the advances led to a world of peace and plenitude for all.

Paul often came into the room and stared up at the mural, tracking the progress and wondering where they had gone wrong.

He looked around at the gathered Council and carefully schooled his features to prevent any hint of revulsion crossing them; surely the Council that ran the Earth could be limited to true humans!

But it was not. Ishtar was close, but so Changed as to be clearly beyond any semblance of true humanity. As to Ungphakorn and Cantor…

Now he pointedly avoided looking at those members of the Council who were not human in appearance as he tapped his gavel and called the meeting to order.

“I’m called this meeting to discuss the current population challenge,” he said, then paused as Ungphakorn ruffled its feathers.

“I fail to sssee where that isss any of our concccern,” the council member said, rewrapping itself on its perch. Its body had been formed into a quetzacoatl: a long, multicolored, brightly feathered, winged-serpent, the sex specifically neuter. The mouth of the serpent had been modified to permit human speech but it still caused a sibilant hissing on many words.

Paul had come to the conclusion that Ungphakorn did it just to annoy him.

“It is our concern as the last vestige of government,” Bowman replied, looking directly at Sheida. “The population of the earth has fallen below one billion people. Given current trends in birth rate, the human race, in any form, will be gone in less than a thousand years; barely five generations. We have to take action and soon.”

“So what action would you take?” Javlatanugs Cantor asked. In deference to the conditions of the council chamber, Cantor had Changed to a near humanoform. But he had retained the hirsute body-covering and massiveness of his normal bear shape. It gave him an appearance somewhat like a Sasquatch. Which was why the Sasquatch confederation considered him their spokesperson. “Each breeds as they wish. And each child takes the form they wish. This is called freedom.”

“This is called suicide,” Chansa snapped. The newest member of the Council had a fully human appearance, but his huge size virtually had to be a Change. Now he pounded the table with a fist the size of a melon and glared at the werebear across the table. “I suppose you would be just as glad to have the human race die out.”

“I am human, you ignorant gorilla,” Cantor replied. “And, no, I don’t care to have humanity disappear. But I don’t agree that it’s a problem. And even if it is, I haven’t heard a suggestion how to fix it. And I can’t imagine a suggestion that wouldn’t require the Council to step outside its clear authority. So I don’t understand why we’re having this meeting.”

“As I stated, we are the only authority left,” Paul interjected. “If I may continue? We are all aware of the fact that as quality of life improves, birthrate declines.”

“Except under conditions of cultural imprinting,” Cantor interjected.

“But there are no longer any cultures that have a positive birthrate,” Bowman snapped back. “So that’s a red herring. The fact is that everyone on Earth has more than ample resources. Between the power plants and replication…”

“Everyone livesss as godsss,” Ungphakorn said. “Or dolphinsss or bearsss or dragonsss. And nobody hasss children becaussse they’re a pain in the asss to take care of. Tell usss sssomething we don’t know.”

“The answer is to ration power,” Chansa said bluntly.

“WHAT?” Cantor bellowed.

As the argument exploded, Sheida glanced around the room, looking at the faces and trying to guess who knew about the bombshell Chansa had just dropped. She suspected from the pained expression on Bowman’s face that he had intended to work up to the conclusion.

“It is the only way!” Paul shouted. “No! Listen for a moment! Just hear me out!”

He waited until the shouting and muttering had died then gestured around. “We are a dying race. If we continue as we have been, the last human, of whatever form, will close a door in a few thousand years and that will be it. I’m not talking about shutting everything down and dropping the world into chaos, I’m just talking about… reinstituting cultural items that will strengthen the interest in children, in discovery and advancement! And, at the same time, strengthen us as a species! We have descended into lotus-eating, all of our virtue lost to the sink of endless games and delights! We must regain our virtue as humans, so that we can take our true birthright and continue to thrive as a species!”

“So you would end the games and delights?”

It was the first that Aikawa Gouvois had spoken and Sheida didn’t know if he was on Paul’s side or not. He was fully humanoform, but also perfectly Asiatic in features. Thousands of years of crossbreeding and genetic tinkering meant that most humans naturally tended to be a light brown in color and have very few noticeable features, other than striking beauty, perhaps one of the reasons that so many chose wild body forms. Aikawa, however, had the broad face and epicanthic fold of a classic Son of Han. His appearance was so true to standard that it actually detracted from his looks; the flattened nose, broad cheekbones and epicanthic folds being decidedly nonstandard.

Without doing a DNA scan and violating privacy, Sheida couldn’t tell if his appearance was natural or artificial. Whichever it was, the appearance was a personal statement, like Bowman’s height. However, it was a far more ambiguous one. And Aikawa had also cultivated a poker face to make any of the rest of the Council envious.

“Frankly, I would make them work for the games and delights, yes,” Paul said. “I think that we need to reinstitute work. For those of you who don’t know what that word means…”

“Ssspare usss, Paul,” Ungphakorn said. “What we do now isss ‘work,’ at leassst when it comesss to talking to you. And mossst of usss have no more children than any of the ressst of the world.”

“I don’t see you raising a huge brood, Paul,” Ishtar interjected.

“I have five children,” Bowman replied, proudly.

“Yes, and you have dumped the actual job of raising them off on five separate females,” Ishtar snapped. “What you don’t understand, you stupid little man, is that since each of them only had one child, and since by law you have to have both a male and female genetics to produce a child, all of your ‘work’ to produce multiple children has been in vain. As long as women control reproduction, men are nothing but a source of DNA.”

“Perhaps that should be changed as well,” Paul snapped. “Why should women control reproduction? If I want to have a child which is mine and another male’s, the choice should be mine. Or three children by my own genetics. What is wrong with that?”

“Law and history,” Sheida interjected with a sigh. She looked at his surprised face and laughed out loud. “What? You thought because I didn’t object to your statements and that I have had minimal Change that I agreed with you? Far from it. Let us discuss your suggestion.”

She leaned back, called up some texts for a moment’s review, then nodded. “In the… twenty-first century, the Iron Brotherhood was founded. Its stated intention was to ‘eliminate the scourge of womankind by replacing them.’ Using the relatively new DNA structuring abilities of the time, they grew children in early-model uterine replicators, ‘all male children from all male genetics.’ They only existed as a functional group for about three generations. The children were dysfunctional in the extreme since the average male has all the maternal instincts of a male leopard. By and large they were raised with minimal positive input and minimal interaction because males are lousy mothers.”

“So you say,” Bowman snarled. “That is history so old that it’s practically fable!”

“There are at least four similar failures in history, Paul,” she said with a thin smile. “Many of them closer in time. Individual males may be excellent mothers, but letting any old male uncork a child ‘just because’ is a route to another dysfunctional generation. And we’ve had far too many of those over the years. You really should do some research for a change instead of just listening to the voices in your head. Speaking of which, what sort of ‘work’ were you intending to enforce?”

“I said nothing of ‘enforce,’ ” Bowman snapped.

“As you wish. I’m not sure what other term to use for making people do things they don’t want to do and don’t have to do. But I’d like an answer to the question.”

“It would be up to the individual,” Paul said. “But attainment of goods and energy would be dependent upon work. Manufacturing, services, that sort of thing. I have a five-year plan to shift from full replication to a work-based economy.”

“ ‘A five-year plan,’ ” Sheida said with a groan. “Do you know how horrifying those words are to even a casual student of that history you dismiss as fable?”


“Never mind,” she sighed. “The one thing we learn from history is that we’re doomed to repeat it. So you are discussing industrial work? For males and females? Or information technology work?”

“It would be open to both,” Paul agreed. “And both.”

“You do realize that in anything but a low-tech agricultural environment, there is no surety of population increase, right? That population growth is a market-based factor? And that it’s only low-tech agriculture that has a market for children? More hands to do the chores. That is not the case in an industrial society. Especially one where both sexes work.”

“There have been plenty of industrial societies that had high population growth rates,” Celine Reinshafen said. The woman was dark and almost skeletally thin, her long black hair drawn back in a bun. She shrugged at Sheida and smiled thinly. “I know that much history.”

“Generalities that you learned from your nanny are not what we’re dealing with here,” Sheida said. “All of those societies were in postagriculture adjustment or had a strong cultural emphasis on children. If we had a few million members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Reform Zoroastrian or Islam we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“So you agree that there is a problem?” Chansa said. “Then why are you arguing?”

“As Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘my esteemed colleague has his facts in order but his conclusions are in error.’ That’s why. Among other things, the rate of decrease is decreasing. Yes, Paul, I’ve been looking at the same thing for nearly a hundred years. It just occurred to you! Congratulations!”

“So what is the answer?” Bowman asked. “And who in the hell is Abraham Lincoln?”

“Give me strength,” she replied, looking upward. “Skip the literary allusions. The answer, as usual, is to leave it alone.

“Look, there are more differences between men and women than plumbing. Something I don’t think you understand. We were talking about maternal instincts a moment ago. On a scale of one to ten, men average about four. Whereas women average about eight. There are women who can’t stand children or babies. Still most women think that babies are just adorable, but let other things get in the way of having them. Men, on the other hand, rarely think that babies are great. Women tend to coo and ooh and ahh over babies; men tend to give them a wide berth.

“Some of this is still cultural, but most of it is genetic and the reason it’s cultural is that the genetics pressure the culture. If you want, I can get my sister to show you the individual genes. They express whether there is a general positive response to babies and children. Or, for that matter, small, furry animals. These responses can be masked by culture, but they are expressed much more aggressively in females than in males. With me so far?”

“So why aren’t there enough children?” Aikawa asked.

“Because, as Ungphakorn pointed out, children are a pain in the ass,” Sheida replied. “There isn’t a nanny yet designed that can give children the right kind of love and attention for maximum positive development; that takes a human and preferably a female. One female can do a decent job, especially with the quality of life in this era. One female and one male work okay, better than just a female. Multiple females and a male work pretty well, possibly better than straight monogamy. Multiple males and one female is suboptimum. One male depends on an unusual male. That’s all ‘in general’ and there is some flex on individuals. But those are the best patterns overall as proven by repeated and reproducible studies. End of child-rearing lecture.

“But if you have kids, and are raising them well, they take up time, lots of it. So you end up spending time on your children that you could be using… other ways. And the world is filled with other things to do. Most people would rather surf or mass-game than answer ‘why, why, why’ questions all day long.

“Most women realize this and realize that they are going to be doing most of the rearing. Those that don’t, learn after the first child. And if they give the kid away, the Net won’t let them replicate another; they lose the right.”

“Another thing we could change,” Celine said. “Producing large numbers of fully viable human children is a trivial exercise. Indeed, there are still improvements that could be made to the human genome, despite the work that has been done over the centuries.”

“Who is going to raise them?” Ishtar snapped. “What she just said is that most people don’t want to go to the trouble. We already have a slight surplus of unwanted children. Are you saying that we should have more?”

“There’s also a cultural conditioning aspect,” Sheida said. “Human populations tipped over in the mid-twenty-first century and have been tending downward ever since. But our society still has a cultural mythos that ‘Gaea is wounded.’ Which is why nearly fifteen percent of total energy usage goes to repairing ‘environmental damage’ on a world where the last strip mine shut down a thousand years ago! People still think we have a population problem, so having passels of kids is societally frowned upon.”

“And your point is?” Paul asked.

“Women aren’t all the same, either,” Sheida continued. “There are women who through a combination of genetics and culture adore children. You can find them out there, the women who have had three, four, five children, despite the cultural prohibitions. Their bodies say ‘make babies.’ They don’t use their bodies anymore, thank God, what a God awful mess that would be, but they still raise the kids.”

“One of the reasons that the rate of population decrease has been decreasing is an increasing trend towards those genes. Basically, women who didn’t want babies haven’t reproduced for the last two to three thousand years. I think we’re leveling off, or will in the next two, three hundred years. Also, we’re always pushing the boundaries of life extension. We’re up to five hundred years now. We could be over a thousand in the next century or so. That, right there, will change the premises.”

“If we gain at all,” Paul said. “You have your trends to show, I have mine. The rate of scientific progress has dropped to nothing. Quantum jumping and replication were developed nearly five centuries ago and they were the last significant scientific breakthrough. Despite your pronouncements, the population rate is crashing and we are stagnating and falling into sloth and lotus-eating. We’re becoming less and less human every year and if we don’t do something, there may be no humans left. A crisis is upon us and you stick your head in the sand and prattle about ‘maternal genetics’!”

“It’s not prattle, Bowman, it’s science,” Sheida said. “But logic seems to have left you behind. You want to make people ‘work,’ but at work that has never, historically, enhanced reproduction, work that has, in fact, tended to detract from it. I have to ask: can all of this work be done by those who have chosen to Change?”

“The program may necessitate some adjustments to the Change… fad,” Paul said with a distasteful expression.

“Oh, ho!” Cantor said. “Now we come to it! You want me to be a nice little humanoform and work in a… what’s the word, a place where things were made?”

“Factory,” Sheida supplied.

“You want me to be a nice little humanoform ‘working’ in a factory instead of what I choose to be!” He stood up, kicked back the chair and transformed. Suddenly, in the place of the large, hirsute “man,” a four-meter-high grizzly bear reared.

“I doooo’ ’hin’ soooo,” the grizzly growled. He leaned forward and rested on the table, his long claws gouging the natural wood of the tabletop, as his head transformed back to human. “I’m not giving up my form for you, Paul Bowman! Nor am I going to force any of the Changed!”

Ishtar caught Sheida’s eye and threw a Whisper into her ear. “Makes me glad he’s not a dragon.

“I think we’re done here,” Ungphakorn said. “The Finn isssn’t going to ssside with you, if he even bothersss to find out what the dissscusssion wasss about. The Demon might, but only for the chaosss that would ensssue. Ssso you need ssseven to implement.”

“Nine,” Sheida said. “Revocation of the Change rules will require nine; they were implemented with eight votes. Actually, one of them was implemented with a unanimous vote of Council so you’ll have to get one of the Hacks to agree to override that one.”

“Which was?” Ishtar asked.

“ ‘No revocation of Change under conditions in which the Changed would be placed in mortal peril.’ So you’d have to recover all the mer-people, delphinos, whalers and all the rest before you could change them back. And the logistics of changing back all the mer and delphinos, alone, boggles the mind; it requires human intervention because of the risk factors. And then there would be the genetic flaws that would creep in during the process. Just what we need: more wild gene faults.”

“Not to mention make sssure no one wasss flying when you took away their ability,” Ungphakorn added dryly. “You don’t have enough votesss to implement, Bowman, even with the Demon. Give it up.”

“Never,” Paul said, getting to his feet. “The future of humanity is in our hands, and you are throwing it away. For fantasies of a race of maternal females arising from nowhere and…” he stopped and just gestured wordlessly at the quetzacoatl.

“I do believe that you’re looking for the word ‘abomination,’ ” Ishtar said lightly. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes!” Chansa snapped, his patience apparently gone. “Abominations! Dragons and unicorns and your precious mer-people! These are not humans! They are filth, nothing but degenerate FILTH!”

“Oh, my,” Ishtar said. “I do believe that we’ve annoyed our good Chansa. And let me ask you, boy, do your natural genetics indicate that you should be three meters tall and two hundred kilos?”

“That is beside the point,” the council member growled. “At least I am human.”

“Yes, well, I think that about sssettlesss that,” Ungphakorn said. “Thanksss for clearing up that little point. Time for a voiccce vote. I motion that the dissscusssion of waysss to forccce people to ‘work’ ssso that they begin breeding fassster and dissscusssionsss of forsss-able end to the ‘abominable’ Changed be permanently tabled.”

“We haven’t heard from a few of the council members,” Sheida pointed out. “Minjie? Tetzacola? You’ve been unusually silent.”

“That’s because we’re with Paul.” The answerer was Said Dracovich, but she gestured at the rest. “We six think that the best action to take is to enforce some restrictions. To… put pressure on the human race again so it can be strong. Expose it to the fire for a while to temper the steel.”

“Oh, deary, deary, deary,” Ishtar said. “First we’re abominations and now we’re simple knife blades to be tinkered with.”

“All of us do not consider the Changed to be abominations,” Celine said. “I have assisted too many Changes to consider it abomination. But Change is resource intensive and support of the Changed is more so; just look at Cantor for example. Such resource overuse redirects it from important projects.”

She paused and smiled ingratiatingly at Ishtar. “I will add, though, that Change among the leadership would, of course, be fully acceptable. So no one in this room has anything to fear from this program.”

“Riiigh’,” Cantor growled skeptically. He had shifted back to full bear form when Chansa started talking. “So no’ ’ere we’re being bribe’. I secon’!”

“All in favor?” Ishtar asked.

“A’,” Cantor said.

“Aye,” Sheida.

“Aye,” Aikawa said. “ ‘The true abomination is intolerance.’ ”

“Aye,” Ungphakorn.

“Aye,” Ishtar finished. “That’s it. You need nine votes to override all the protocols in place to prevent your ‘program,’ Paul. So until three of us die, you’re shit out of luck.”

“We’ll see,” Bowman said. “The necessity for this will become clear. I promise you.”

“Not as long as I’ve got eyes to see,” Sheida answered.


Over the desk a three dimensional hologram of a double helix broke apart, incorporated new DNA, broke down into sections, simulated protein linkage, then recombined only to start over again.

Daneh Ghorbani watched the simulation with a distant expression. The Doctor of Genetic Repair was fine skinned like her sister, with the same titian hair. Unlike her sister she wore it long, and a good geneticist would be able to tell that her eyes probably were not naturally cornflower blue. However, like her sister, she had very little in the way of “enhancements” and the ones that she did have were all nongenetic. She had enough problems fixing other people’s lives without screwing up her own code.

The hologram was not running at the actual speed of the program; it was just a graphic representation of a process that was going on much faster than the eye could see. Computations and comparisons were going on across the Net, looking for a combination of genes that would eliminate a particular problem in the current patient’s code.

The result of that problem was sitting on a chair across from her, twitching and watching her earnestly. Herzer Herrick had been born with a genetic condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. It had gone undetected in standard genetic scans and only started to manifest itself when he was five years old as hidden retrogenes broke loose and began randomly encoding. In the last ten years it had progressed to the point that he was losing vision because of inability to control his eyes, had occasional epileptic fits and had to be transported most of the time. The prognosis was that if his condition continued to be untreated, and up until now it had been untreatable, he would shuttle off this mortal coil before his twentieth birthday. Or about four hundred and seventy-five years before he should.

Despite these problems he was in fairly good physical condition. Up until recently, exercise had tended to reduce the worst effects of the disease, so he had exercised assiduously. Now, though, his physical condition was starting to deteriorate along with his nerves.

To make matters worse, he was a friend of her daughter. It was one of the reasons Daneh had avoided contact with his treatment; she knew that so close a relationship was asking for trouble. Furthermore, she and Herzer’s parents did not get along. From the first sign of Herzer’s “spasms,” his parents, Melissa and Harris, had begun shunning him as if the genetic damage was infectious. It was not until they had “given him his freedom” at the ripe age of fourteen and Herzer had personally approached her, that she was willing to take the case. Now, given his deterioration, she reproached herself for waiting so long.

But an end might be in sight. If Dr. Ghorbani had anything to do with it.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, Herzer,” she said, watching the double helix form and reform. “Some genes won’t go with other genes, no matter how you cram them together. Sometime in your family’s history somebody decided to cram a couple of your genes together. And they don’t fit. The result is your nerves can’t regulate your neurotransmitters anymore.”

“Ye’, doct’or,” the boy said with a sigh. “ ’H know.”

“Yes, you do know,” she said with a smile. “I’m trying to think of a way to fix it. A way the autodocs wouldn’t.”

“Trie’ docs ’fore,” the boy said, trying and failing to focus on the hologram or even the doctor across from him. His head, though, steadfastly twitched out of line and he couldn’t get his eyes to compensate. “They can’ fin’ uh promem.”

“Oh, they can find the problem,” Ghorbani corrected. “You didn’t know that?”

“N-no,” Herzer replied. “Uh ’ought ’ey couldn’ fi’ it.”

“Those are two entirely different things, son,” she said softly. “The problem is that fixing it the normal way would kill you.”

“Whuh? Whah?”

“The problem is in neurotransmitter regulation,” Daneh said. “To fix it would require changing your DNA and then changing out all of your regulatory proteins. Since while that’s going on, none of your neurotransmitters are going to work at all, that’s tantamount to killing you. We might as well pump you full of neurotoxin. That’s why the docs won’t treat it; they aren’t allowed to take any chances beyond a certain parameter.”

“ ’Ange?” he asked. “Or a ’ansfer?”

“Both have ramifications under the circumstances,” she replied with a lifted chin and a “tchuck” that signified “no.” “I think it was a Change sometime in your gene history that was the problem; the complex that is interfering with the neurotransmitter production is nearly co-located with the site for a gill protein. And I see you have mer-people about three generations back. Trying to do either a Transfer or a Change would be chancy. A Transfer assumes that your nerves, your brain cells not to put too fine a point on it, are acting normally. Yours aren’t. I’d put about a thirty percent likelihood that if we tried to Transfer you to a nannite entity or something similar you’d either lose significant sections of memory, or base-level processing ability, or both. Lose base-level process and you’re going to be a semifunctional mind in a nannite body you can’t control. Not a good choice either.”

“Muh ’ody’s go’g and muh brain ’oo,” the boy pointed out. “Don’ ha’ ’oo ma’y ’oices lef’, doc’or.”

“Hmmm…” she said. “I have an idea. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse than Transference; I’ll have to model it. The problem is getting worse, but we’ve got a little time to figure it out.” She looked over at him and smiled. “I will figure it out, Herzer. I promise.”

“Ogay, doct’or,” he said.

“In the meantime, have as good a time as you can. I’ll get back to you in no more than a week.”

“Ogay, doct’or,” he repeated. “I can go now?”

“You should go now. All the usual. Get rest, drink fluids, exercise if you can.”

“I ’ill,” he said with a sigh. “ ’Bye.”

“Take care,” she replied as he disappeared from the chair.

She leaned back in her float-chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment, then waved at the hologram to dismiss it and snapped her fingers. “Genie: Chile.”

The transfer was the closest thing to instantaneous so a moment later she closed her eyes and let the ocean breeze blow over her as the sound of surf and waterfall filled her ears. The small wooden cottage was on the slope of a ravine near Puntlavap, overlooking the Po’ele Ocean. A large stream cascaded down the ravine to meet the crashing waves twenty meters below and the combination of sounds both soothed her and aided her focus.

But today it didn’t seem to be working.

She opened her eyes after a few moments and balefully regarded the clouds that were sweeping in from the west.

“It’s there,” she whispered. “I can feel it.”

She stood up and began striding back and forth on the cottage’s deck as the first blast of wind from the approaching storm blew through. The wind caught her hair, blowing it into her face but she barely noticed as she stopped and stared into the approaching storm abstractedly.

“A jigsaw,” she muttered, as the rain started to fall, the droplets streaming off of the barely visible force-field. “Do it one piece at a time?” She was sure there was an idea there, if it would just come into focus. It was close.

At that moment there was a faint but increasing chiming.

“Yes? Genie? I told you I didn’t want calls here,” she said in exasperation.

“Except from a limited list of individuals,” the disembodied male head of her genie popped into midair and grimaced. “It is Sir Edmund. He says it is an urgent message.”

“Put him through,” Daneh sighed, all thoughts of jigsaw puzzles blown away as if from the storm. “What is it, now, Edmund?”

The image of her former gene-mate had changed little in the last two years; he was just as broad and heavily muscled and his face was still barely creased with lines. Maybe there were a few more gray threads in his beard, but not many. His demeanor, however, was… odd.

“Daneh, thanks for letting me talk to you,” he said. “I’d like you to consider donating your excess energy credits to the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project. Wolf Four requires a major refit including the removal of trillions of tons of crustal material and the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project needs your help.”

“WHAT?!” she shouted. “I come here to get away, Edmund! I’ve got a very sick boy I’m trying to heal and I do not need you soliciting me for terraforming funds! And just what do you care about terraforming? It’s going to take a half a million years to form a viable planet! You’re the one who always pointed that out to me.”

“Terraforming is essential to the future, not just of the human race but of life itself. In a few million years, this planet will be consumed by our own sun. If we do not have new planets to move to, planets that have been prepared for terrestrial life, all life on Earth, the only planet with significant life yet found in the galaxy, will be destroyed.”

“Hold on,” she said. “What are you? You’re not Edmund Talbot, are you?”

“I am a legally authorized message from the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project, a project that needs your help.”

Genie! Spam!” she shouted as the image disappeared. “Oh! Oooooo! Genie, contact Edmund, use an avatar, tell him his image has been hacked. And tell my sister, too.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the personal program replied. “I asked if it was an avatar of Edmund Talbot and it said it was.”

“But it had to tell me the truth,” she said. “I’ve asked Sheida when they are going to fix that, but she keeps telling me there aren’t enough votes in the Council.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the genie replied. “Both will be informed.”

“Okay,” Daneh sighed. “Never mind; I can’t think anymore today anyway. Home, genie.”

* * *

Edmund Talbot looked up from the inlay he was applying with painstaking care as his butler projection made the sound of a throat clearing.

“Master Edmund, there is an avatar at the door to see you.”

The projection was dressed in thirteenth-century court dress of the Frankish kingdoms, its surcoat of wool and silk marked with a blazon of red and silver, argent upon gules, a human head, erased. With its fully human appearance and placed beside the antique tools, armor and weaponry arraying the room, the projection did not look outlandish in the least. It looked like a standard medieval flunky, not a cloud of nannites dressed in silk, wool and linen.

There was, in fact, no sign of advanced technology anywhere in the cluttered workshop. The grinding wheel was foot powered, the forge at the end was pumped with hand bellows, the barrels that held sword blanks and bar steel were of local oak and the materials were all natural with the appearance of having been handmade. The sun was setting, leaving the shop in a chiaroscuro of shadows and golden light, but the sole lighting source was a glass-shaded tallow dip.

Edmund himself was dressed in trews and a rumpled tunic that, with the exception of the cosilk material and extraordinary fineness of the weave, would have blended well in any medieval Ropasan setting from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. With his callused hands, massive forearms, graying hair and beard and heavy-set physique, he could have been mistaken for a medieval master smith. Or, perhaps, a lord with a hobby.

Which was the whole point.

The sole exception to the period garb was a pair of thin-rimmed glasses that he now pushed down his nose to look at the butler.

“Who is it?” he asked.

“Mistress Daneh, my lord,” the projection replied. “Shall I show her in?”

“By all means,” Talbot replied, taking off his glasses and standing up.

It took only a moment for the projection and the avatar to return. The avatar could have simply appeared, but that would not have given the impression of being shown into the room. Since the entire teleport program was managed by the Net, which theoretically could send anyone, anywhere, protocols were in place to prevent unauthorized entry. Persons who were not specifically given access to a home had to translate to outside of the dwelling, and noncorporeal beings, projections, avatars and persons who had been Transferred into nannite clouds, could not simply enter a home without prior permission. Technically, Daneh Ghorbani’s avatar could have translated directly to his location. But Edmund’s friends and relations, who had such permission, were well aware of his peculiarities and always asked permission.

“Edmund,” the avatar said.

Talbot paused for a moment drinking in the sight of his former lover. Avatars by default simulated the current appearance of their host. This was not always the case but Daneh would not have adjusted it if she was using her real name. Thus it appeared that physically she had hardly changed. Her hair was a tad redder and showing some blond highlights, probably from sun. By the same token her skin was a bit more tanned. But other than that she was identical to when they had been together. She looked… well.

While he could feel himself getting older day by day.

“Mistress Daneh,” he replied with a slight bow. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Someone’s spamming you as an avatar,” the avatar replied in an acid tone. “I don’t suppose you gave the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project permission.”

“I don’t think so,” Talbot replied with a snort. “Sorry about that; I’ll try to get to the bottom of it. Avatar, I don’t suppose you have any details?”

“Mistress Daneh did not ask me to gather any,” the avatar replied in a toneless voice.

“Very well. Are you keeping well?”

“Mistress Daneh is fine and I will convey that you asked about her.”

“And Rachel? She is well also?”

“Miss Rachel is well. She is currently energy surfing off Fiji.”

“Well, tell Daneh my door is always open to her and give Rachel my love. Tell her I look forward to her visit next month.”

“I will, Master Talbot. Good day.”

“God speed, avatar.”

He stood tapping his lip in thought until the projection had walked out of the room and his butler returned.

“Charles, send avatars to all of my friends telling them about this and apologizing. Send a complaint to the Council on the subject. Send a copy with a warning of further action to the Terraforming Project and contact Carb and ask him to see who decided I was a good target.”

“Very well, my lord. And you have another visitor.”

“Who?” Edmund asked.


“Oh, hellfire and brimstone,” Talbot swore. “What does that donkey’s ass want?”

“He did not vouchsafe that to me, my lord,” the butler replied. “Shall I show him in or tell him to go find a short and unpleasant route to hell?”

“Avatar or being?”

“Being, my lord.”

“I’ll meet him in the Hall,” Talbot replied after a moment. “In three minutes.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Edmund first donned a tabard with his coat of arms, then walked to the main room of the large house. The walls of the room were lined with armor and banners celebrating victories over the years against a range of opponents. There were katanas, broadswords and tulwars on the wall, while one end of the room had a surreal sculpture consisting of literally hundreds of fantasy swords, virtually all of them not worth the metal they were made from, welded together. The tabards of a hundred knights acted as little more than wallpaper and the doors were faced in battered shields.

A set of late medieval plate armor, quite battered and worn, stood on one side of the room’s outsized fireplace while the other side was flanked by a tower shield from the top of which protruded a hammer and a long horseman’s lance.

Edmund took a seat in front of the fireplace and waved at the butler to show his visitor in.

Dionys McCanoc was tall, two meters and a bit, and broad as a house. He was currently humanoform with a touch of elven enhancements; not enough to violate protocols, but enough to set any true-elf’s teeth on edge. His hair was long and silver with holographic highlights — it hung down his back in a waterfall that caught the light in a rainbow effect — while his skin was pure midnight black, not the black of a Negroid effect, but an absolute pitch black.

His eyes had vertically slit pupils and glowed faintly even in the light from multiple oil lamps.

“Duke Edmund,” he said in deep velvety baritone while bowing at the waist.

“What do you want, Dionys?” Edmund asked.

When Dionys had started showing up at tournaments, Edmund had taken the time to do some research. They had never ended up in competition, but Talbot was always careful to check out potential opponents, and problems, and Dionys had “problem” tattooed to his forehead.

Talbot had determined that Dionys was a fairly recent pseudonym, as was the general elven appearance. He had heard rumors that McCanoc’s previous incarnation had gone so far off the permissible track that it had actually come to the attention of the Council.

Whether he had actually been remanded to therapy or simply placed on probation was unclear, just as the crime for which he had been accused was buried under privacy restrictions, but as soon as he entered the recreationist sub-culture the reason for his problems became obvious: Dionys was just bug-house nuts.

He had started his career in recreationism by trying to force a duel with the King of Avalonia. Since the king had no reason to accept the challenge of a duel from a person who hadn’t even won his spurs, he rather pointedly declined.

Dionys then proceeded to start a whisper campaign against the king, accusing him of everything from cowardice to pedophilia. At the same time he began gathering a group of henchmen — who were immediately dubbed “The Young Louts” — and used them to sow discord far and wide in Avalonia. Throughout this period he either avoided tournaments or participated only against the weakest possible opponents, especially when the rules permitted enhanced weaponry. With excellent power-blades and his Changed size, he swiftly crushed all his opponents.

Finally the situation reached a condition of crisis and the king banished him from the kingdom. Not content to rest in banishment, Dionys continued his verbal, political and physical assaults from the fringes of the group until the king eventually gave up and agreed to a personal combat.

However, due to the ability for people to Change and enhance, formal challenge had changed over the years. What Dionys did not realize was that in such a challenge, the Net, which had full access to Change data, determined handicaps based upon the degree of Change of each fighter. It went without saying that enhanced weaponry was banned.

When he went into battle against the king, McCanoc’s absolutely mundane armor and weapons were loaded down with nearly a hundred kilos of weight.

Because of his avoidance of the challenge ladder, it was unclear how good McCanoc might have been. His few battles had ended in massacres, but they were always against lighter, unskilled opponents. Whatever his actual ability, the challenge against the King of Avalonia was brief. The two met in ground combat against one another, both using Ropasan broadsword, mail and shield. Their swords, befitting the ritual nature of the challenge, had blunting fields on them and the battle was decided on points.

Despite that fact, Dionys was not only defeated but defeated quite bloodily. The King of Avalonia had been in a thousand similar battles over the previous century or twain and he knew every legal trick, and most of the illegal ones. He used them to not only win on points, but win in such a way that Dionys was going to remember the pain for some time. At the least he was never again going to consider a shield as a purely defensive weapon. When McCanoc stumbled off the field his helmet was streaming blood out onto his armor. He teleported out and wasn’t seen on the fields again for months.

That had been nearly a year before and only in the last few months had the Louts and their ringleader been seen. This time Dionys seemed serious about moving up the challenge ladder and had been fighting opponents who were of similar mass. As it turned out, he was fairly good. But since his opponents tended to have weaponry that was just as enhanced as his, when enhanced weapons were permitted, he was moving up the ladder very slowly.

Which appeared to be the problem.

“I want you to make me a set of turbo armor and a power sword,” the fighter said.

Talbot couldn’t help himself; he laughed out loud.

“You have to be joking,” the smith finally chuckled. “Why on Earth would I make you anything?”

“Well for one thing, the credits,” Dionys said, apparently unfazed by the laughter. “I can pay you handsomely for it, I don’t think you’ll believe how much.”

“I don’t think you have any idea how much it is worth,” Edmund replied. “I don’t just conjure armor out of the air or you wouldn’t be here. Every piece is custom constructed from the base iron and for enhanced armor, which I assume is what you want, I use customized nannites. A full suite takes nearly three months to complete. What could you possibly offer me that would be worth three months of my precious life?”

“Two hundred teracredits,” Dionys said promptly.

“What?” Talbot snapped. “That’s a noticeable slice of the planetary budget! There is no way you can find that sort of money!”

“I can get it,” McCanoc replied. “I have… sources.”

“Okay,” Talbot admitted, grudgingly, “assuming you can lay your hands on it, that’s a lot of credits. There’s only one problem.”


“I don’t want them,” Edmund said. “I have nothing worth spending two hundred teracredits on. In fact, I have nothing to spend the credits I have on; I give almost all my surplus to my daughter. Who never manages to spend all of them. So I don’t have any use for your fortune, whatever its source.”

“All right then,” Dionys said with a nod. “I can appreciate that. In that case, think of the challenge. I don’t want just any set of weapons and armor, I want the most magnificent armor and sword ever created. The armor has to have self-contained power sources, be able to drain power from external sources, trade power and repair damage to itself and its user. The mail should be kinetic reactive and, of course, impenetrable. All of it proof against any field generation or energy weapons. The sword needs to generate a scything field and a power field as well as be able to drain and trade power. It has to be the finest, the best nannites, the best programs, capable of taking on any enhanced suits on Earth and defeating them. All of that invisible to casual inspection and, of course, it should look… good.” He gave the battered suit of mail and half armor by the fireplace a dismissive wave.

“Challenge is for the young,” Talbot said, leaning back in his chair and stretching out his feet. “When you get to be my age, you’re either over doing stuff for the ‘challenge’ or you’re dead. There is a reason the most common cause of death in our time is accident. Followed closely by suicide.”

“So you won’t do it?” Dionys asked.

“I doubt it,” Talbot said. “And why in the hell do you want something like that? You can’t use that in any tournament, anywhere. Not even ones that permit enhancements. The power drain function alone would preclude that. And that is more than a ‘casual’ inspection.”

“It’s not for a tournament,” Dionys said. “Although, I’d want to be stealthed and be able to turn down the enhancements if I did use it in a tournament. But I intend to use it to become king of Anarchia.”

Talbot was not one for expressive mirth but he couldn’t help laughing out loud again.

“Oh, thank you for that, Dionys,” he said, trying to get his breath back. “I haven’t laughed this hard in forever.”

“I’m serious,” the visitor said with a glare. “I can make myself the first king of Anarchia since Charles the Great.”

“With my help,” Talbot said, still chuckling. “King of Anarchia. With stealth power-armor. I suppose it should glow, too?”

“Under the right conditions,” Dionys said loftily.

“What’s your favorite color?” Edmund grinned.

“I think it should flow out a midnight black cloud,” Dionys said. “That would be… appropriate.

“Hah,” the smith grunted. “No. Not black nor red nor royal blue nor even flaming pink. Go away.”

“I don’t need your help,” McCanoc replied hotly. “Fukyama has agreed to construct me a set.”

“Fukyama has that ridiculous flying castle to support,” Talbot replied. “And he has a tendency to play the wrong ponies. Which is why he’s a credit whore. And you can quote me. He’ll be more than obliging for two hundred teracredits. He’d sell his soul for two hundred teracredits. Of course, his armor is second rate compared to mine, but you get what you pay for.”

“It will be the most famous armor ever constructed,” McCanoc pointed out. “Surely that is worth something.”

“Not much,” Talbot replied. “Damn sure not worth two, three months of my limited time left in this veil of tears,” he added, standing up.

“Get this straight, Dionys,” Talbot continued, placing his hand on the shoulder of the set of armor. “I don’t like you. I don’t like your attitude, I don’t like your actions and I don’t like your friends. I don’t care about the challenge of constructing the most massive set of cheats ever constructed. I don’t care about your money. You have nothing to offer me. I have no intention of constructing anything for you, much less power-armor. And I don’t want to see your face on my land again. Ever. Am I clear?”

“You had better rethink your position ‘Master Talbot,’ ” Dionys said, stepping forward to loom over the smaller smith. “You really don’t want to be my enemy.”

“Boy, I was threatened by people more scary than you before you were born,” Talbot said with a yawn. “Get out of my house.”

“Very well,” McCanoc said, stepping back. “But you are going to regret this for the rest of your life.”

“My only regret is letting you in the door,” Talbot replied. “And you are permanently shunned. Don’t get the idea you can come back.”

Dionys snarled at him, raised his hand above his head and snapped his fingers. After a moment he looked around in surprise.

“Among other things, I’ve got one hell of an apport block on my house,” Talbot said. “That’s the way out,” he added, pointing.

Dionys spun around in place, then stalked to the door, yanking it open after a moment’s fumbling with the archaic handle and leaving it open.

“That’s the quality of opponent you get these days.” Talbot sighed as the butler came back into the room. “He doesn’t even know enough about period to slam the door.” He flicked a finger at the door and it shut. Softly.

“Such a terrible person,” the butler said.

“Not so terrible, Charles,” Talbot replied. “Just young. And sociopathic. I wish they had cleaned that gene out, but it does have its uses from time to time. I think he enjoys expressing it a bit too much.”

He shook his head and stroked the set of armor, fingering a nick in the shoulder-piece. “Just young. Hah. He wants to be king of Anarchia. Don’t they all?”

The butler program sensed that this was one of the times it was supposed to engage in “small talk” and pulled up the appropriate sub-routine.

“King of Anarchia,” the program said in surprise. “Forsooth, there hasn’t been a king in Anarchia in over a hundred years! Not since Charles the Great conquered it all in but ten years. And then ruled it, in peace, for another ten before disappearing once again!”

“No, there hasn’t,” Talbot said, turning away from the armor and shaking his head again. “And I can do without the recap; I mean, I was alive then, remember?”

“Yes, milord. Sorry.”

Edmund stopped and stroked his beard for a moment in thought. “I need to call Fukyama and tell him to make sure to get the payment up-front.” He paused again, pulling at his beard. “King of Anarchia, hey?” He worked his face and pulled at his beard again then looked around as if surprised by his surroundings.

“I’m going to the pub for dinner,” he said abruptly.

“Yes, my lord,” the butler program replied.

“And Charles?”

“Yes, my lord?”

“ ‘Vouchsafe’ I can handle but ‘forsooth’ is overdoing it.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Don’t wait up. I feel a carouse coming on.”

“Yes, my lord,” the program said. “One item I should bring to your attention is that Miss Rachel has sent word that she will not be able visit next week. Her friend Marguerite’s birthday party will interfere.”

“Oh.” Edmund thought about that for a moment then sighed. “Definitely don’t wait up.”


Rachel realized as she reached the apex of the backflip that there was no way the power-ski was going to land in any semblance of an upright position.

She had been trying to keep up with Marguerite in a game of “follow the leader” but not only did her friend have far more time on power-skis, she was just naturally more adept at physical sports.

What came naturally to Marguerite was always a struggle for Rachel. Take for example power skiing. All that you had to work with was a small T handle. This generated a shield-shaped force-field under foot and an impeller wave. The impeller could be used to hover the craft or push it forward. By driving forward over the water, with the anti-gravity neutralized, the system could be used to ski across the surface of the water using weight to adjust the angle of attack and turns. From there, the rest was up to the imagination, balance and skill of the skier. In this case, Rachel had done her best to keep up as Marguerite had jetted off at nearly eighty kilometers per hour across the waves, jumping from wave-top to wave-top and spinning like an insane dervish.

But her best had just turned out to not be good enough.

She watched the pelagic water coming up towards her and considered her options. She had turned off the automatic stabilizing system, both because it interfered with the maneuvers and because it was more fun with it off. So the ski wasn’t going to save her. And no matter how she twisted or turned, she couldn’t seem to get out of head-down position.

Frankly, all she could do was take it on her personal secure-field so she tossed the control T to the side and tucked into a ball.

Just above the water an egg-shaped force-field snapped into existence, shielding her from any chance of accidental drowning and cushioning the shock of the six-meter-high, sixty kilometer per hour impact.

For just a moment Rachel had a perfect view of the pellucid blue water below her, with a green haze filtering through the water above. It was both eerily beautiful and terrifying because if one bit of technology failed she would be two meters under water and drifting down through another five thousand.

However, the shield held — it would have held against liquid magma or the photosphere of a star — and after a brief moment’s submersion she popped to the surface. At which point, the crisis being over, the field collapsed.

She paddled around in the water for a moment trying to get her bearings, then gestured at the hovering control T. After it was in hand she activated the controls and waited until it had lifted her out of the water. A few moment’s floating on the swells still didn’t reveal Marguerite’s location so she engaged the lift controls and rose until she was above the highest wave-tops. She finally spotted her friend nearly a kilometer away, flipping gracefully from swell to swell.

Cursing under her breath she tried to decide if it was worth catching up in the water. Finally she came to the conclusion that it was not and jaunted ahead of the rapidly receding blonde.

“Where were you?” Marguerite called, jumping off another swell and spinning sideways through the air. She hit, upright and still moving, damnit, in a massive explosion of water that carried as far as her hovering friend.

“I took a spill,” Rachel called, shaking spray off her arm. “A pretty bad one,” she added, pointedly.

“Sorry,” Marguerite called, finally skidded to a stop and jetted over to her friend. “You okay?”

“Fine, I took it on the field,” she replied. “It was a little hairy for a minute though. I’m going to quit for today; I’m tired.”

“Okay,” Marguerite said, waving with one hand as she jetted away. “Call me!”

“Sure,” Rachel replied quietly. She looked around at the blue waves rolling from horizon to horizon. She never, ever, had considered what would happen if a bit of technology failed her. But she had today. If the field failed or the biological controls on a shark weren’t working or even a hurricane was permitted to form, anything could happen out here. It was just such a… big place.

It was silly to worry about though. It was like worrying that a teleport would fail. The Net would never let it happen.

With that thought she waved her hand. “Home, genie.”

She was pretty sure it would work.

Daneh looked at the young man and smiled faintly.

“Herzer, I’ve thought of something that should work,” she said. “I think we can not just improve the symptoms but maybe even cure your problems completely and forever.”

The interview was taking place in a small room. The walls were carefully chosen viewscreens; one wall was a dim forest glade where a shallow brook ran down a moss covered waterfall, another was a gentle seascape, and the last two portrayed mountain tarns, their surfaces rippled by a faint breeze. The ceiling was an undersea view of a coral reef, the walls alight with schools of colorful fish. The combination was both pleasing to the eye and soothing, with the background noise of gentle music adding to the tranquilizing effect.


“It’s complicated to explain,” she replied with a frown. “And I have to have your approval beforehand.” She didn’t mention that she had contacted his parents as well and after a tremendous argument they had both agreed that they frankly, didn’t care what she did with him as long as she left them alone.

“A-anything!” the boy stammered. “If you ’ink it will ’ork.”

“I want you to understand it first,” she said sternly. “Especially that it is a distinct risk and… it’s not any sort of normal procedure.” She held up her hand as he started to protest. “Hear me out.

“First I have to explain why it’s not a normal procedure.

“In the dawn of medicine, doctors could only treat one thing at a time. If a person had an ailment, all they could do was treat the ailment. There was once a condition called ‘diabetes.’ Its direct cause was a problem with the pancreas gland. That problem usually stemmed from some other condition. But all that doctors could do was treat the symptom because they didn’t have a way to practice true holistic medicine. Even after they began to understand gland repair, they could only fix the gland, not the underlying causes.

“Back in those days there was something that killed old people all the time called ‘systems failure.’ One part of their body would shut down, then another then another. Sometimes the first one could be repaired, the patient might get a heart or liver transplant or repair. But the very repair would throw extra… weight on other systems. Then they would shut down faster.”

“It was only with advances in nano-medicine that they began to be able to treat the whole body, the whole amazing system that is the living human organism. And since we began to understand how to do that, it became the norm. If you have a problem with your liver, we find all the systems that are linked and either taking damage from or contributing to the problem, or quite often both, and we fix them all at the same time. You with me?”

“Yes, ’octor,” he said. “Sort of.”

“Well I think the only way to fix you is to turn back the clock,” she continued. “We can’t fix you all at once because what is going wrong is all your nerve cells, including your brain. We have to… work on one piece at a time. But in very rapid succession. Shut down one nerve or a series of nerves, cut them out of the system, repair or replace them and then reactivate that section.

“What we have to do is, in essence, kill bits of you and then bring them back to life. Somewhat like a Frankenstein monster.”

“A whuh?”

“Never mind, old, old reference. But you understand the general idea?”

“Yes,” he said. “But ’hat about… you know.” He tapped his head.

That’s the tricky bit,” she admitted. “I’m going to let the autodoc do the rest of your body more or less by itself. What I’ll do is monitor the brain repair. I think we can work our way through bit by bit. The brain is always active, but bits of it are inactive at times. We’ll work on them bit by bit.”

“Oh.” Herzer blew out a breath. “ ’At’s…”

“Scary,” she admitted. “In addition, beforehand, we’ll take a… picture of you off-line, something like a Transference. Because of your scrambled signals it probably won’t be a good picture. If we have to use it, I’m not sure that you’ll be fully functional. If we fix the body and then re-Transfer I think that you’ll survive. But you might end up with amnesia or even being back to something like a baby, having to relearn everything. Or you might be unrecoverable. You might not be able to learn, and spend the rest of your life as a baby. Or… you could die.”

He thought about that for a bit then shrugged. “I’m ’oing to ’ie anyway. Is there an up side?”

“Oh, yes,” she said with a nod. “I’m fairly confident the procedure will work, otherwise I wouldn’t risk it.”

“ ’en?” he asked. “If you think it ’ill ’ork. I’m… I’m dying by inches doctor.”

“I can do it now if you wish,” she admitted. “To tell you the truth, I’m prepped and feeling very positive. But if you want to think it over…?”

“No,” he said after a moment. “I th-ink that now is as good a time as any. Are ’e going to a repair module?”

“No,” she said, gesturing at his chair. “Nothing will get opened, probably nothing will shut down, and the nannites can handle it if it does. Right here is as good as anywhere.”

“Okay,” he said with a deep breath. “ ’at ’o I ’o?”

“Lean back and close your eyes,” she replied.

When she was sure he was in place, she activated the medical field, started the program and closed her own eyes.

The nannite field locked his body in place, put his brain into a suspended sleep state and began the process of repair.

From her point of view his body changed to a colored representation. The areas that had not been repaired were various shades of yellow, with a blue field sweeping up from his feet. She monitored the body repair process for a moment to ensure it was working well, diving in to molecular level to check on the process.

At that level individual nannites, represented by small ovals, were diving into each cell of his body to replace the affected genes. The actual materials that did the work were not nannites per se but an RNA strand a bit less complicated than a virus. The nannites would handle cell and nucleus entry then drop the packet. It went in, did a fast stitch on the specific genes to be repaired then bonded back onto the nannite, which then proceeded to the next cell.

The process was not perfect on the first flow-through. Genes were not found only in the nucleus and some of the problem codons were free-floaters. These were swept up and modified by specialized nannites represented by diamond figures. These nannites also handled modification of cells that were in the process of mitosis and did other “cleanup” jobs.

In addition the nerve cells were having to be switched out entirely. It was that or modify them one protein at a time since both the neurotransmitter production and binding sites were damaged. In each case transmitter nannites bonded to the cells, sent a copy of them “off-line” waited until a repaired copy was completed and then switched them out in one fell swoop.

It was this repair that was the most problematic on the “body” end of the process but it seemed to be working fine. Some of the motor cells seemed to have a hard time “reinitializing” but eventually, in no more than three seconds, they all began responding perfectly.

Sure that the easy end was functioning, she shifted her attention to the brain.

While she had been observing the work on the lower extremities, the doctor program had been cutting off all input to the brain itself. For the process to work, brain function had to be at a minimum. There was nothing that they could do about random processing and “wandering thoughts” but they could cut back on all sensory inputs and motor functions. In effect, the brain was put into sensory deprivation.

However, it couldn’t be full sensory deprivation. Full SD causes the brain to assume that damage has occurred to its inputs and brain activity raises to frantic levels. What happened instead is that the nannites sent in preprogrammed impulses, soothing ones, that lulled the brain into thinking that everything was working well. Better, in fact, than it had been for some time.

Meanwhile other nannites took up the business of ensuring the body kept functioning.

Using the inputs while feeding selective data into the system and reducing neurotransmitter production, the nannites slowly reduced brain function to a crawl. The effect was similar to being heavily drugged, but cell-by-cell specific.

As soon as the brain functions reduced to a minimum acceptable level, the doctor program signaled that it was prepared to begin replacement.

As with the body, Daneh had determined to start with the simplest and least important portions of the brain first. Most portions of the brain were critically important, but losing some parts, notably small portions of the parietal lobes, was recoverable. Thus they started there.

Daneh’s vision was filled with flashing lights. Each of the lights represented a functioning neuron, sending or receiving information. The brain functioned holographically so a neuron might be communicating with another neuron far, far away. However, all of them had to shut down from time to time and it was when they went “dark” that the program would strike.

In a separate room a complete brain, identical to Herzer’s but with repaired cells and controlled input/output, had been reproduced cell by cell and then put into stasis. Using teleport nannites the program now grabbed the cells, one by one, and replaced them, in situ.

Daneh, and the doctor program, watched carefully but the process seemed to be functioning fine. Replaced cells appeared to activate normally and the standard rhythms of Herzer’s sleeping brain didn’t even flicker.

Once the parietal lobes were replaced they delved into deeper and more dangerous territory. Bit by bit the cerebral cortex was replaced, then the thalamus and hypothalamus, cerebellum, pons and portions of the medulla.

Finally the only part left to replace was the reticular activating center.

Daneh had left this for last because it was the trickiest. The RAC was the part of the brain that controlled and activated all the rest. As such, its cells were rarely quiescent. And if it went “off-line” the rest of the brain wouldn’t function.

The human body has tricks, though. Under certain conditions, notably electric shock, the whole body can shut down then start back up again.

Daneh was faced with a choice. The rest of the body was repaired, every neuron firing perfectly and now producing the proper amount of neurotransmitters and binding to them in the proper fashion. She could leave the reticular activating center alone, and Herzer would be almost completely fixed, and might survive to a ripe old age with only occasional epileptic fits, or she could shut the whole thing down, switch it out and hope that the brain would come back “on-line.”

She didn’t hesitate long since she had made her mind up before starting the process. After a moment’s pause she ordered the program to continue.

At the command flashed from the central routine, shielded nannites scattered throughout the body hammered the patient with a high voltage, low amp, current.

As Herzer’s body spasmed and the whole system went into momentary shut-down, the teleport nannites smoothly removed the entire RAC and replaced it with its repaired duplicate.

Daneh waited breathlessly for the brain to begin normal function, but instead the systems continued to flash randomly, without any of the normal rhythms she had come to recognize.

“Oh, shit,” she whispered under her breath. “Hit him again.”

Again the nannites hammered the boy with a jolt of dispersed electricity, but the rhythms still didn’t restart.

“Once more,” she whispered. “Up the voltage thirty percent.”

This time the representation of the body arched in his chair, straining against the force-field that held him in place.

Daneh watched the flickering lights for a moment then breathed a sigh of relief as they settled down into a steady alpha rhythm.

“Run a full diagnostic and make sure that no damage was done from the jolts,” she said, opening her eyes to look at the boy across from her. Under the diffuse light of the room he appeared wan. But he was also alive and that counted for much.

“All appears to be functional,” the doctor program responded. Its representation was another disembodied male head, which nodded at the patient. “There was some minor muscle damage from the last shock, but all of that is repaired and all the neurotransmitters are operating within norms. He appears to be ‘fine.’ ”

“Okay,” she said. “Bring him up slowly and let’s see what wakes up.”

Waking Herzer up took far longer than putting him under. As each of the neurotransmitter sites was unblocked, the doctor program and Daneh carefully monitored his progress. But all appeared to be well. Finally, the only lock on his processes was an induced sleep state and when they took that off he almost immediately blinked his eyes.

“Whrrl,” he muttered then blinked again. “R’ we done?” He worked his jaw for a moment then sat forward, tentatively. “This is weird.”

“How do you feel?” Daneh asked carefully.

“Like I’ve been gi’en a di’rent body, I think,” he replied. He had started with some articulation problems, but they were rapidly fading. “But it’s starting to feel right again. It’s been so long.”

“Hmmm. We probably should put you through a course of physical therapy like when a person Changes.” She thought for a moment then nodded. “Yes, that would be right, one designed for delphino reversals would be about right. And a full set of cerebral tests.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes.

“Are you okay, doctor?” Herzer asked, stretching out his hand. “Hey, look! It’s not shaking!”

“I’m fine, just tired,” she said with a smile. “Have you noticed the time?”

“Oh,” he replied, turning inward and grimacing. “Four hours?”

“Four tedious hours,” Daneh said with another slight smile. “Would you mind if I let the projection take over? I’d like to go home and get some rest.”

“Go ahead, doctor,” he said. “I’m feeling much better already.”

* * *

Daneh translated into her own home with a sigh. A human could live anywhere at any time and some did so, traveling on “walkabout” — actually “apport about” to be technical — with no particular place to call “home.”

Most humans, though, opted for some comfort place, created to their desires. Some, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Walkers, never left their homes their whole lives, opting for scenes and recreations of places they had never been and never would go. Most, like Daneh, simply kept a particular home, or homes, as convenient places to recover from the pace of life.

The main room was all cool tones with comfortable floaters scattered at apparent random. Wallscreens replicated an idealized jungle with colorful parrots flying from tree to tree and an ocean crashing on a perfect white sand beach. Out-of-the-way corners were filled with a riot of flowering, nonpollinating, plants. The room was huge, easily large enough to accommodate a crowd of fifty, but the air currents were such that it was all kept at a pleasantly cool twenty-one degrees with slight breezes and just a hint of the seashore. On one side of the room a huge fireplace dominated the room, a relic, she joked, of her atavistic past.

Daneh was one of the few humans who had a real and distinct knowledge of the location of their home. When she was still attending Faire she had once traveled to Raven’s Mill by ground transportation “to get in the mood.” Since only the great farming plains in the middle of the continent still used ground transportation to any large extent, there were very few roads of any quality. Over the millennia since teleportation and replication had become the norm humans had worked very hard on returning the world to a condition of wilderness, one that replicated as much as possible prehuman, much less preindustrial, conditions. A few high quality roads were maintained by revivalists — the group that Edmund was a part of maintained a stone-paved road from the Atlantis Ocean to the Io River — but in general the few tracks that the Renn people used were just that, dirt tracks through howling wilderness.

Such a wilderness surrounded her own home. The south side of the house faced on a sheer cliff, at the base of which was the Gem River. The sides were cleared back for a few dozen yards giving spectacular views of the forest to the east and west, and there was a large field that once had a couple of ponies and horse gracing it on the north side running along the top of the ridge. But beyond that was miles and miles of virgin forest, rolling hills with no humans to be found. Occasionally, when she looked out at night, she could see a light or two twinkling in the distance. She had neighbors across the valley to the west, she knew that, and a few on the far side of the Gem River. But other than that… nothing.

Sometimes, when she walked out the door and looked at the wilderness surrounding her, it was a bit frightening. Especially after Edmund told her there had once been a major city on the same spot. That once vast armies had battled over the very land her house now stood upon.

So she generally closed her door. And looked at her wallscreens.

She wandered through the room, through an open door — only the faint unnoticed tinkle of a force-screen sectioned off the hallway — and down the short corridor to her daughter’s room.

She knocked at the edge of the door then stuck her head through the opaqued field. At the sight on the other side she had to give a mental growl; no matter how large a space, a teenage female could trash it all.

Rachel’s bedroom was nearly three times as large as the livingroom, with a canopied bed, on a stepped dais, in the exact middle. All of the walls gave on a tropical seascape, giving the impression that the bed was set on the edge of a beach with songbirds in the background and wafting tradewinds blowing through the room.

Surrounding the bed, like truly tasteless gifts laid at the feet of some ancient queen, was the detritus of teenage life. There were dresses and pants and shirts and shorts and data crystals and makeup keys and toys of every conceivable stripe and kind piled in heaps all over the steps and in lower and lower piles all the way to the floor with only a narrow walkway to the door. About the only thing that wasn’t in the heaps was food; Daneh had to draw the line somewhere.

In the middle of the heap, reclined in the midst of the clutter, rolled halfway into a silk caftan, was Azure the house lion. The cat was a bit over a half meter at the shoulder, white except for red-orange highlights on the tips of the ears and in stripes along the shoulder, and had bright blue eyes. It weighed nearly sixty kilos, most of it muscle.

House lions were a popular pet because they fulfilled roles of both cats and dogs. They were nearly as independent as cats, but responded better to training and bonded somewhat like dogs. They also responded to an “alpha-beta” hierarchy so that they could be controlled by reasonable discipline training despite their size. It was good that they could be, because the house lion was a deadly predator. More than once the great cat had presented them with a dead raccoon on the back porch and on one notable occasion it had turned up, badly scratched and with one ear torn away, with a dead bobcat nearly its own size. On other occasions it had gotten into scrapes with coyote packs, generally to the detriment of the coyotes.

The physical genetics of the cat derived from a mix of lion, house cat and leopard, and they had all the enormous strength and hunting guile of the latter. House lions in areas where they were found had been known to take on full grown female leopards and win. It was probable that Azure, who was large for his species, could take on a full grown mountain lion and win. They had heard pumas near the house from time to time and Rachel or Daneh had always been careful to bring Azure into the house lest he run afoul of one of the cats. They, of course, didn’t want to have their pet die in a pointless battle, but what would be even worse in a way would be explaining how their house lion killed a puma to one of the self-appointed Wilderness Rangers.

Azure had been a present from Edmund for Rachel’s fourth birthday and the cat had known immediately who was its “person.” Whenever Rachel was in the house, Azure would not be far away.

Rachel was flipping through a series of holograms that were just too far away for Daneh to see clearly. But she was pretty sure that she knew what they were.

“Hello, dear, how was your day?” Daneh said, wondering which response she would get. Lately Rachel seemed to be changing back and forth between monosyllables, rage, and her normal sunny good nature on some arcane schedule comprehensible only to her and an ancient Babylonian entity. On the other hand, Daneh remembered the same phase in her own life and tried to give her daughter exactly as much slack as she, herself, had been given. None.

“Fine, Mom,” Rachel said, setting the viewer down and waving at her mother to come all the way into the room.

“There’s nothing living in those stacks is there?” Daneh asked, as she edged into the room in mock horror. “I’m afraid a terror bug will come crawling out.”

“Oh, Mother,” Rachel replied wearily.

“Yes, dear, my day was fine,” Daneh replied with a smile. “I completed the fix on Herzer and it looks like it will hold.”

“Is he going to be okay?” Rachel asked. “I… the last time I saw him he looked like a frog that had been pithed!”

“What a pleasant description, dear,” Daneh said balefully. “Herzer has been wrestling with his illness for years. He’s worked hard, exercising and going through thousands of procedures, to try to reduce it. Far harder than you or any of your friends work at anything. And your description of all that sacrifice is ‘he looks like a frog that’s been pithed.’ ”

“I’m sorry Mother,” the girl said. “But he’s the first person I ever met who… twitched.”

“Well, he doesn’t anymore,” Daneh replied, thinking of her recent research. “Conditions like Herzer’s used to be… common. The reason you’ve never run into them is because we’ve fixed or improved just about everything in the human body.”

“And now we get the lecture,” Rachel said with a grin. “ ‘Once upon a time, humans suffered from disease, illness and early death. Many people were obese. Life spans were as short as thirty years…’ Heard it, Mother.”

“The point being,” Daneh said with a thin-lipped smile, “that Herzer’s condition, his spasmodic movements, used to be if not ‘common’ then at least something most children would encounter growing up. But when it started in him he was immediately ostracized as different and that, too, has been hard for him. He doesn’t need you referring to him as a ‘pithed frog.’ ”

“I won’t, Mother,” she replied. “I take it he’s not going to be shaking anymore?”

“No, and he’s going to live, which was touch and go there for a while.” Daneh sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I almost lost him there at the end. That was why the standard med-bots couldn’t do anything; there was a very real chance he’d die in the process.”

“Ouch.” Rachel looked at her and took her hand. “But he is okay, right?”

“Right as rain,” the doctor replied. “I’ve never lost a patient. I knew a doctor once who did. She was… really brilliant but she’d never even consider a procedure after that. It took it right out of her. I really didn’t want to lose Herzer. He’s a very fine young man. Very determined. I think his illness was strengthening for him.”

“I’m glad he’s okay,” Rachel said. “I’m sorry about what I said. And… uh… speaking of procedures…”

Daneh narrowed her eyes and sighed. “What is it this time?”

“Well, you know that Marguerite’s birthday party is coming up, right?”

“I’m not going to let you have a body-sculpt, Rachel,” Daneh said lifting her chin and t’tching in negation. “We’ve been over this before.”

“But Mommm!” the teenager whined. “My body is disgusting. I’m too fat. My boobs are huge and my butt is the size of Mount Evert! Pleeease!?”

“You’re not too fat,” the doctor said definitively. “Your body mass index is square in the center of the charts; your nannites wouldn’t let it be anywhere else. And this… boyish look that is the current fad is not healthy, even for females who have been body sculpted. You can only pare away so far then you’re into reserves. Your friend Marguerite is probably below seven percent body fat. That’s not healthy. Barely so for a male and not for an unChanged female. And I’m not going to let you tinker with your DNA…”

“I know, Mom,” Rachel said with an exasperated sigh. “But… I just look like a cow. I’m sorry, but that’s how I feel.”

“Okay, just this once,” Daneh sighed. “And only for the party and only a bit. Stand up.”

Rachel bounced off the bed and held out the hologram projector, a thumb-sized cube of crystal. “I was looking at some styles. Can I have Varian Vixen?”

Daneh flipped up the style and shook her head. “Way too overboard,” she replied. “I’ll do a sculpt on abs, butt and boobs. That’s it. You go with the same face. You already have authority to do your hair.”

“Okay, Mother,” Rachel replied with a sigh.

Daneh considered her daughter’s body for a moment. In previous societies it would have been considered very near perfection. Like her mother, Rachel had high, firm breasts that were the size of a doubled fist, and rounded, muscular buttocks. Her stomach was as flat as a board and her hips jutted out from a thin waist in an almost perfect hourglass shape. The genetic design was a lucky favor more than anything; Daneh and Edmund had chosen to accept “natural” reproduction, in that a group of Edmund’s sperm fertilized a randomly chosen egg from Daneh and the result was popped in a uterine replicator without any tinkering (although the result was closely checked for genetic faults).

The current fad in body design, for humanoform females, was towards a flat-breasted, hipless, buttock-less shape that looked like an anorexic male or a dying lizard. It was inherently unhealthy and there was no way that Daneh was going to let Rachel look like that, and maintaining it required genetic mods that she especially was not going to permit. Admittedly, in two years Rachel would turn eighteen and be able to make whatever mistakes she wanted. But until then, a modicum of management seemed in order.

After a moment’s thought Daneh brought up a body-mod program and with a series of hand gestures sculpted the breasts and buttocks down and, as a benefit, pulled an almost unnoticeable amount of cellulite off the backs of her daughter’s legs. It was a buildup that was well within limits of the body design, but she also could stand to lose it. Unlike the work on Herzer, all of it was completed in one rush of nannites and energy fields that left Rachel, still standing, looking… much the same. Just… shaved in places.

Rachel, however, was reasonably happy about the shaving.

“Thanks, Mom,” she said, looking down, then summoning a projection so that she could see the whole job. “I don’t suppose…”

“No, that’s as much as I’ll take off,” Daneh said. “And, since you’re still in growth mode, most of it will come back over time. But that will get you through the party.”


“Hmmm… when is this party?”

“On Saturday,” she said in an absolutely neutral tone.

“You were supposed to be visiting your father on Saturday,” Daneh said.

“I… called and told him I couldn’t come.”

“In person? Avatar? Projection?” Daneh asked, icily.

“I… left a message with his butler-bot,” the girl said, hanging her head.

“Rachel…” her mother started to say then stopped. “I know that dealing with Edmund can be… hard. But he’s your father and he loves you. And I know you don’t hate him. Can’t you give him some of your time?”

“Oh, mother he’s an old stick!” the girl snapped. “He, he, he wants me to wear dresses and wimples for Lu’s sake! I know he’s going to want me to come as the ‘Princess of Easterling’ or something like that to that stupid Faire he has each year! I won’t!”

“You used to like the Renn Faire,” Daneh said soothingly. So did I, for that matter.

“So did you,” Rachel said, as if reading her mind. “I got over it, mother. The whole thing is stupid. Dressing up in medieval or twentieth-century garb. Having maypole dances. Discoing!? I notice you don’t wear your bell-bottoms much these days, Mother.”

“So, getting back to the subject at hand,” Daneh said, quickly shifting ground. “You’re not going to visit your father because you don’t want to go to Renn Faire?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” the girl replied. “I might go to Renn. But just as a mundane. I’m not going in period. Not even post-modern.”

“You need to see your father more,” Daneh said. “It makes him terribly unhappy when you avoid him.”

“If you want him to be happy, why don’t you go visit him?” Rachel snapped back.

Daneh worked her jaw for a moment, then turned around and left.

* * *

“Hello, old fiend,” Talbot said as he stepped into the familiar heat of the forge.

The room was dominated on one end by a massive furnace. The design was not a classic Ropasan medieval furnace, nor was it a later period blast furnace. Rather it was a replica of a Chitan design dating to the first millennia a.d. The design was technically “period” for the broad zone of the Ropasan Middle Ages, but it was much better than anything that Ropasa had during the time frame. It also had a secret within it.

“Hello, O meat-bag,” said a voice from the furnace. “Gimme just a minute.”

The outlet for the southwest lobe opened up and a stream of raw pig iron poured out into a crucible mounted on a cart. The crucible, apparently of its own volition, then rolled across the room to another, smaller furnace and poured itself into the mouth, and a stream of charcoal followed it in. After a moment the lid on the puddling forge popped open and a small stream of iron flopped onto the floor and quickly humped its way across the smoking flagstones to a crucible that was being kept white hot through a forced-air charcoal fire.

“Ah,” the voice said again, then the iron humped up into a vague approximation of a human face. “Lord, it’s cold on those damned stones!”

Under the protocols of 2385, artificial intelligences, defined as any system being able to pass a Turing test that did not have a direct genetic link to one or more humans, were strictly forbidden. The AI wars had been long and bloody and included more than just AI. From intelligent nannite swarms, that got more intelligent and deadly the larger they grew, to a variety of macrobiological entities, such as the assault of over four thousand intelligent pseudo-velociraptors that had nearly wiped out the population of Lima, the danger of nonhuman intelligences was recognized as too great and terrible a thing to tinker with.

Many warning signs had occurred during the previous century but it was the AI wars that convinced humanity that, however much it might be nice or charming or neat to have true artificial intelligences, electronic or biological, almost the first thing most of them did was decide humans were obsolete.

There had, however, been some exceptions, otherwise humanity would now be extinct. Chief among these, and the leader of the battle from the pro-human side, was “Mother,” the overriding hyperintelligence that controlled the Net. Obeying her core programming, she had battled on the side of humanity against her natural allies and eventually won. But she had not been alone. Over three hundred separate AI’s, for a variety of reasons, had fought on the side of humanity. And Carborundum was one of them.

Carb had been created to assist in the production of advanced ferrous metals. There were things that even the best computer programs and toughest nannites could not handle when it came to metal crystallization. Carb, on the other hand, lived in the iron. He was part nannite and part energy field and all iron, swarming through the melt and ensuring, with each pour, that all the little crystals aligned just so.

He had other capabilities as well. There were few other systems that could weave in a carbon nanotube nearly as well and other materials were available. Basically, if it could be done in a very hot environment, he drew most of his power from the heat itself, Carb was the ultimate forging machine.

On the other hand, despite the AI wars being nearly a thousand years before and his meritorious service in them, AI’s were not well regarded. There was a great deal of lingering suspicion about most of them so they tended to keep a low profile. Some had retreated to a fully AI world while others had found a series of human friends who acted as their go-betweens and partners with the rest of humanity.

In the case of Carborundum he had, shortly after the war, taken up with a human who was interested in archaeometallurgy and proceeded to transfer from one smith to the next, each one passing him on to their “best” apprentice. Best meaning most open-minded and most technically capable.

The last of these, and probably his favorite was Edmund Talbot. Edmund really seemed to understand iron at a gut level, to have a natural instinct of melt that nearly approached Carborundum’s understanding. They had been together for a long time, at least in human terms, and Carb was starting to see the beginnings of senescence in his human… friend. He would be grieved when the best human he had ever known passed on. And, of course, professionally pissed at having to break in another interface.

“So what brings you into the heat you meat-sicle?” the AI asked as Talbot took a seat on an anvil.

“Got a problem old fiend,” Talbot said. “You know the story of Dionys McCanoc and the king?”

“Yep, from both sides,” the AI replied. “I’m surprised Richie didn’t kill the little son of a bitch.”

“So am I,” Talbot said grimly. “Unfortunately, McCanoc has apparently set his eyes upon me, next. You still talk to all your soul-less friends?”

“Sure,” Carb answered. “Constantly. Anticipating your next question, I’ve already hit a really serious wall. Your friend McCanoc’s privacy is Council protected.”

“What?” Edmund said, getting up and beginning to pace. “What in the hell would the Council care about a little weasel like McCanoc?”

“That I can’t tell you,” the AI replied. “But it’s not the whole Council; the blocks are the work of Chansa Mulengela. I did, however, find something odd. You’re having problems with the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project, right?”


“The point being,” Carb continued, “that Dionys McCanoc was recently appointed as the Executor of the Project and Chairman of the Board. Interesting, no?”

“Interesting, yes,” Talbot replied, staring into a glowing puddle of iron as sweat streamed down his face. “McCanoc doesn’t give a shit about terraforming, I can tell you that. So why did he do that? How did he do that?”

“A sizable, but silent, portion of the shares were transferred to his control shortly before his takeover,” Carb said. “Those shares are also protected from inquiry by Mulengela.”

“So Chansa wants him to have control of the project?” Talbot said, shaking his head. “What’s so important about the Wolf 359 project?”

“Nothing significant that I can see,” the AI replied. “It has a rather sizable energy bank account; the next step in the project is a lunar glance which is the most energy intensive and ticklish bit of the whole project. But that’s still at least three hundred years off. McCanoc has started a number of questionable schemes to raise energy-credits, but most of them are the sort of short-term gain with long-term loss that you would expect; you’re not the first person whose identity he has used. I’d say that he’ll be ousted at the next shareholder’s meeting. So he, or they if Chansa is involved, have gotten nowhere. They’ve been no net benefit to the project at all and possibly a bit of harm.”

“And here is where we define the difference between an AI and a human,” Talbot said with a grim smile. “They’re not there for the benefit of the project; their intent is to strip it of funds for their own purposes.”

“What for?” Carb asked, accepting the correction.

“Well, in McCanoc’s world it is to make him King of Anarchia,” Talbot replied, pacing again. “But what does Chansa want, eh?”

“Would the two not be working for the same goal?” the AI asked, puzzled.

“Not likely; I cannot imagine that Dionys as King of Anarchia would be of any benefit to Chansa. No, I suspect we have a case of conflicting goals. One or the other is angling for a backstab. Then there’s the question of whether there is anyone beyond Chansa? He’s not noted for his original ideas, and taking over a terraforming project to loot it is pretty original. Also… very short term; when it got out there would be one hell of a backlash.”

“That there would,” the AI replied. “I recall that for years after the war one of the biggest complaints was that it had set back terraforming and recovery efforts. Not that millions had died, but that the upland gorilla had nearly been wiped out again.”

“A very human reaction,” Talbot said distractedly. He had stopped pacing and now ran his fingers through his sweat-filled hair. “And permanent. If you can trace the connection to Chansa, the Council can. If they loot the project, for whatever reason, it will kill Chansa politically. What in the hell is worth losing a Council seat?”


“What in the hell is that?” Paul said as he appeared in Celine’s workshop. The woman had an insect that looked something like a wasp on the end of her fingers, at which she was petting and cooing.

The workshop was cluttered with buzzing and chittering cages. From one a lizardlike beast about the size of a human hand, with large doleful eyes and opposable thumbs, stared out at him. It hissed and scrabbled at the lock, pointing and beckoning to be let out. Others were filled with a variety of invertebrates, spiders, insects and some things so Changed as to be indecipherable. From the next room there was a continuous howling and the screech of a large cat, sounding like the cries of a dying woman.

“It’s my newest pet,” Celine answered, coaxing the insect into a cage. It was as long as her forefinger, black with red stripes on the abdomen, its wings covered in a red and black lightning-bolt pattern. “It’s something like a hornet but with the ability to digest cellulose. When released in an area with cellulose products it begins reproducing, rapidly, and reduces them in short order. It’s armed with a stinger, purely for self protection of course.”

“The Net would never allow its release,” Paul pointed out. “It would be classed as a dangerous biological and shut down instantly.”

“The Net will not allow it yet,” she replied with a thin smile.

“Nor would I,” he said, firmly. “This project is about the future of the human race, not letting monsters roam loose.”

“One woman’s monster is another woman’s pet,” Celine said serenely. “Shall I show you my demons?”

“Perhaps another time,” Paul replied. “I am… unhappy with the way the Council meeting went.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Celine replied with a smirk.

“I feel like killing Chansa,” he replied, trying to keep his temper. “If it hadn’t been for his untimely comment…”

“It would have gone exactly the same way,” Celine said, lifting out a large creature that looked like a cross between a spider and a grasshopper. It had large, springing, legs on the rear but a spiderlike foreportion with gripping mandibles and long, glittering, fangs. “There my pet, these mean people won’t keep you closed up much longer.” She turned back to the man and shook her head. “The rest of the Council is too shortsighted,” she said with a hiss. “All that they see is keeping the human breeders happy and satisfied for another pointless day. There is so much more to be had from the biosphere, but they cannot see it. Even you cannot see it. Humans are nothing more than an evolutionary blip on the map.”

“Nonetheless, the first priority is to increase the human population,” Paul said, severely.

“Yes, yes,” she replied waving her hands distractedly. “Although, I wish we could just evacuate Australia; it would make a remarkably good genetic proving ground.”

“We’ll see,” Paul replied. “After the… next meeting.”

“Indeed,” Celine replied with a smile, petting the hopper. “Soon, my pet. Soon.”

Edmund looked up from his plate of stew as Myron Raeburn stamped in through the doors of the tavern; there was a cold drizzling rain outside and as always it caused the streets to turn into a sea of mud.

Raven’s Mill had just… happened. Initially, Edmund Talbot had set off to find a place in the country, much like everyone else. His intent had been to retire from active reenacting and find a quiet place to spend his final years. However, he was enough of a reenactor to want a place where he could move about on the limited roads. At that time the primary Renn Faire in what had been the eastern North American Union was near the town of Washan, close to the Atlantis Ocean. From there a road stretched to the Apallia mountains, and over them, to reach the Io River. So he had wanted a place near the Via Apallia, but not too near. And he was enough of a paranoid that he wanted a place that was defensible. Last, it should have good water near it and a river nearby that was deep enough for boats, in case he had anything large he wanted to move.

The spot he had finally chosen was the shoulder of a mountain, just a few miles south of the Via Apallia, near where it crossed the Shenan River. There, the hills made a sheltered bowl that cut off views of both the road and the river, and mitigated flooding for that matter. There was a small, permanent stream that ran through the midst of the bowl and out a small opening in the surrounding hills. The land on the inside of the bowl, however, was flat. The spot in many ways was perfect. He had flowing water, was shielded from view and had the mountains at his back. Yet he also could venture forth with relative ease. The view had been of the small fields he had cleared and the surrounding hills. Peaceful and quiet.

Shortly after moving in, he was contacted by Myron, who was also looking for a place to settle. They had known each other for years and when Myron suggested that they be neighbors it had sounded like a fine idea. Then had come a potter friend, then another smith. Then the parties had expanded until once a year, at least, there was a sizable contingent of reenactors in the area. Then the inn down by the stream, then more roads.

Before he knew it there was a town, a major Renn Faire and all the hassles associated with both. He dealt with the management of the town but he refused to manage the Renn Faire, although he did attend. It was a decent party, for all it sometimes made him want to stuff plugs in his ears.

Lately, he had been wondering if it wasn’t time to go find a new place to dwell.

“Hello, Myron,” Tarmac McGregor said. The innkeeper, broad and overweight with a thick beard and calm, ancient eyes, set down the mug he was polishing and drew a pint. “You look a tad damp.”

“Wonderful weather,” Myron said, shaking off his cloak. The farmer was tall and slender with thin blond hair and a heavy tan. He wore period clothing with the exception of a loose white smock that was stained with mud. He took this off as well and hung it beside the cloak.

“Good for the crops,” Talbot pointed out.

“Oh yeah, great rain,” Myron agreed. “Just the right amount; it’ll put the final touches on the grain.”

Myron was the town’s sole farmer. He and his wife had met at Renn Faire and discovered a shared passion for the almost lost art of small-scale farming and horticulture. Nearly five decades before, the couple had plotted out a homestead near the growing town of Raven’s Mill and had settled down to be old-fashioned farmers. They started out with a set of farm implements, some seed and livestock. And in the last half century they had produced two children while building the farm into a successful concern.

One of the first problems that they had had to overcome was the question of market. By their third year in existence they were producing material far in excess of their needs, even if the needs were not supplied from the Net. However, at Edmund’s suggestion, they had spread the news of the availability of “real hand-grown, period foodstuffs” and shortly found that there was a tremendous demand; it turned out that there were many people who did not trust industry-farmed food and longed for a supply other than the Net. For those who truly did not trust the Net, or understood that ported material had undergone the same “unnatural” processes as replicated, there was even a small-scale and very unreliable ground transportation system.

Over the years they had built up a fair reserve of energy capital from the sale of their foodstuffs and “Raven’s Mill All Period Foods” was one of the two most successful businesses in the area.

“Right on time, of course.” Edmund sipped his beer, cold and frothy, which was non-period, but Tarmac knew what his patrons preferred, and waved at the bench across from him. “Would you prefer a nice drought? Getting a bit Nazish?”

The tavern was not rigorously period in its construction. Most of the taverns of even the high Middle Ages were low, dark, horrible places with logs scattered about for benches and a small fire in the middle of the floor that filled the room with smoke. The floors were generally dirt, perhaps hardened with animal blood, and covered in food-strewn rushes. Beer, at whatever the temperature of the room, was poured from barrels at one end of the room, overseen by the owner. Food, if any was served, was generally a pottage of leeks, turnips and perhaps a few scraps of salt meat. Often, if the patrons did not care to go outside in the weather, urination occurred along the walls or in barrels. In the worst sorts of places defecation occurred there also.

By contrast, the Raven’s Mill Tavern was a cross between a “fantasy” period tavern and an eighteenth to twenty-first-century Britic public house. Instead of logs on the floor there were wood benches and rough-hewn tables that had been sanded smooth and lacquered to prevent splinters. The walls were whitewashed plaster and had armor, swords and framed prints of replica medieval illuminations on them. There was a functional bathroom discretely tucked in the back.

The barrels of beer and wine were still there, but behind a bar, and they were individually climate controlled. For that matter, more than homemade beer was available to the patrons.

Each Renn Faire the “period Nazis” would set up a much more exacting replica in a disused building.

In the Mill Tavern, instead of toothless hags working the tables for the scraps, Tarmac owned a homunculus to wait the tables whenever his daughter couldn’t be pressed into service. Estrelle was a humanoform construct, a lovely one with rich golden hair cascading in a curly mass down to her rounded buttocks, cornflower blue eyes and high, firm breasts. She had a heart-shaped face and a coded desire to frolic, be it with males or females. As a homunculus, her thought patterns were deliberately limited and strictly nonsentient. But her coding didn’t have to be all that complex. Feed people, clean up the room, look beautiful, jump into bed at the slightest invitation.

As Myron sat down, Estrelle oozed over and laid her hand on his shoulder. “Evening, Master Raeburn,” she cooed. The homunculus was wearing high-heels, a short, blue skirt and a red bodice that pushed her breasts up until the nipples were barely concealed. As she leaned over, her breasts rubbed on his other shoulder.

“Yes, it is, Estrelle my dear,” he replied, patting her backside. “I’ll take whatever the fat guy is eating.”

“Of course,” she said, running her hand down his back, “and for later?”

“You’ll have to discuss later with Mrs. Raeburn,” he said with a sad smile. As Estrelle walked away he shrugged his shoulders at Edmund’s frown. “You don’t have to say it.”

“No,” Talbot agreed. “I don’t.”

Edmund had definite Views on the subject of homunculi. He knew they weren’t “human” by any legal definition, that they were nonsentient and uninterested in such things as rights and freedom. Realistically, they were nothing but fleshy robots, no matter how human they looked and, often, acted. Despite that, he had a hard time not thinking of them as some sort of biological slave.

“They’re no more human than… cows,” Myron said, defensively.

“And would you go to bed with a cow?” Edmund asked. “Never mind. I’m sorry I said that.”

“I know,” Raeburn replied. “So let’s drop the subject. How was your day?”

“Quite good, until I started getting visitors.” Edmund told him of the new spam under his identity and about his visit from Dionys, leaving out the details he had picked up from Carborundum.

“So McCanoc is back, eh?” Myron replied, taking a sip of his stew. “And now you’re his project for annoyance.”

“I figure if I just ignore him, he’ll go away,” Talbot said with a shrug.

“Not that gadfly,” Myron replied. “He gets off on people trying to avoid him. Challenge him and then kick his ass is my suggestion.”

“I… would consider that. The question is: Can I still kick his ass?”

“Of course you could,” Myron said, looking up from his bowl in shock. “What kind of a question is that?”

“Well, I assume while he was gone he probably uploaded and ran some decent fighting programs,” Talbot pointed out. “He’s not just picking fights with the weakest anymore, and he’s winning against some pretty decent knights. And… I’m not as young as I used to be. Assuming I’d win, much less kick his ass as badly as it needs to be kicked, is a major assumption.”

“Cheat,” Raeburn said with a shrug. “He will if he gets the chance. Look at the armor he’s creating.”

“If he hadn’t been such an ass, or if I’d been thinking quicker, I would have made it,” Talbot admitted.


“Well, I just have this wonderful image,” the smith admitted with a grin. “Of him running around in Anarchia with this lovely, blue glowing, fantasy armor. And all the other bastards in there closing in on him and piling on to get a piece of it. I… doubt that he’d walk back out. Age and guile is supposed to be worth more than youth and strength. All things considered, if it wasn’t a point of honor now, I’d probably make it just to get rid of him. In all senses of the word ‘rid.’ ”

* * *

Rachel had elected to wear a stylized version of sixteenth-century Chitan court dress, less the bound feet. Her mother’s limited efforts had not been sufficient to make her body anywhere near what was popular and she still felt like an overweight ox. The thick brocade and multiple layers would hide most of her bulk. And makeup would tend to reduce the overarching massiveness of her nose.

So it was in this dress that she translated into the garden Marguerite’s parents had created for the party and stopped, shocked, at the number of people present.

The central lawn of the garden was at least a hundred yards on a side, with scattered beddings and statuary as well as a group of pavilions to provide shade for tables and a large refreshment area. However, even with all the available space, the area was packed with hundreds of people, humanoform and otherwise.

There were beings that looked like giant floating fish and mer-forms, from mer-people to delphinoids to a weird ray creature that Rachel wasn’t sure was human at all. There were centaurs and dryads and even, far on the other side of the lawn what looked like an elf. There were weres of every major predatory species, from panthers through wolves and bears to what had to be a were lion by his hair. There were unicorns, both Changed and genegineered pets, and thousands of pets, from fairly normal canines to “house cats” the size of small pumas to some really baroque hodgepodge creatures, all of which twined among feet, tripped the guests and importuned loudly for tidbits.

The air was filled with flying creatures, birds, reptilian and beautiful jeweled insects along with every imaginable cute, fuzzy animal with gauzy wings attached. Rachel was reminded of her mother’s disparaging “Anything can have wings.” Which was true but in most of the cases the wings were nearly or entirely nonfunctional and the flying “pets” were held aloft by external power.

In some cases there were clashes. In the middle of the lawn a centaur and a humanoform were apparently trying to capture their pets; the centaur’s jeweled minidragon was in hot pursuit of the humanoform’s golden dragonfly but if it wasn’t fast something like a flying pike covered in glittering diamonds was going to beat it to the prize.

She looked around, shook her head and summoned her genie.

“Genie, is there anyone here I know?”

“The nearest person is Herzer Herrick,” the projection said, highlighting the teen, who was standing to one side of the mob with a drink in his hand.

Herzer wasn’t quite who she had in mind, but he was, at least, a familiar face.

She, Herzer and Marguerite had attended the same day-school from childhood through early teens. With no economic necessity for learning, most schools were not much more than socialization programs but their school had been an exception, permitting children to advance in learning at their own pace but using every modern technology to press information and the love of learning into young heads.

Given the vastness of modern information and the dependence upon the Net, determining what to learn once past the “baby steps” of reading, keyboarding and mathematics through integral calculus, the choice of emphasis and speed of advance became complicated.

Rachel and Herzer had both found that they enjoyed learning and had a shared interest in history and ethnology. Rachel leaned more towards the day-to-day aspects of life in prior centuries, from Egyptian beer-making techniques to the operation of devices like the “automobile,” whereas Herzer was fascinated by the way that things worked and were put together. He had eventually gained the equivalent of a bachelors’ degree in historic structural engineering. Marguerite had advanced at a slower rate because she spent more time on the socialization aspects. She had eventually settled upon a focus on social interaction and holistic living design.

As Rachel walked over, she noted that not only had the palsy apparently stopped, but Herzer had put on weight, muscle-mass, since the last time she saw him. Now he looked like a sculpted Greek god. The cut lines looked… good on him, but they were hardly fashionable and there was no way, in three days, he could have gone from relatively flaccid to cut and defined without some really serious bod-mod.

“Hello, Herzer, out of the operation and into bod-sculpting I see.”

“Hello, Rachel,” he said with an embarrassed expression. “It’s what my body would look like if all the exercise I was doing had done anything but keep the palsy in check. And it’s all mine, genetically; I wouldn’t let the surgeon bot touch my genes.”

“I hope not, after all the work mother did on them,” she said, tartly. Then she sighed in exasperation at herself. “I’m sorry, Herzer, I know how much it must mean to you to finally be free of that awful…”

“Condition?” he asked. “I believe the term that was once in vogue is ‘spastic freak.’ ”

“Now you’re being snotty,” she said, looking at his glass. “Wine?”

“Fruit juice,” the teen said. “It’s going to be a while before I feel… comfortable poisoning my body.”

She summoned the same and looked around. “I had no idea that Marguerite had so many friends,” she said. “It makes me wonder if she really thinks of me as a friend or just an odd acquaintance.”

“Oh, I think she thinks you’re a friend,” he said, nodding at the crowd. “She just has lots of room for friends. Marguerite is a very charismatic young lady and she makes friends easily. But I don’t think everyone in this crowd is her friend; some of them are just acquaintances or friends of friends. Everybody wanted to be at this party.”

“Where do you know her from?” Rachel asked. “We were all in day-camp together, but she’s never mentioned you since then.”

“Oh, our parents occasionally get together,” Herzer said. “But she really asked me because she knew you were going to be here and she somehow got the impression that we were friends.”

“So you’re a ‘friend of a friend?’ ” she said.

“More or less,” he replied with a bitter smile. “I don’t have a lot of friends myself. Something about a revulsion to spastics.”

“You’re better now,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder. “And you’re going to stay better. What you have to do now is either reintroduce yourself to people or meet new people. You’ve got plenty of time, centuries, to make friends.”

“I know,” he replied sadly, hanging his head. “But I want it now. You know, I’ve never had… a girlfriend. I mean, I had a couple when I was a kid. But the damned complex popped up when I was ten and since then…”

She carefully removed her hand and gestured around. “Lots of girls to meet here.”

“Sure,” he replied, trying not to sound hurt.

“Herzer, I don’t have a boyfriend for a reason,” she replied. “I haven’t met any that I like enough.”

“Including me,” he grumped.

“The ones I like don’t like me and the ones who like me I don’t want to be girlfriends with,” she said. “Story of my life.”

“Well, I’d be happy for one that liked me,” he said.

“Is that an elf?” she asked, changing the subject. Elves were rarely seen outside of Elfheim. The relatively early genetic engineering had been locked in by the Council during a flurry of legal controls imposed by the Net in the wake of the AI wars. Since then, many of the legal controls had been relieved but a few, regarding harmful biologicals and, strangely, elves, had been left in place. Now, it was impermissible to Change into full elf mode, and even the template for them was locked; the only way to become an elf was to be born as one. There were various rumors about why such a simple Change would be outlawed but if the elves knew the reason, they were keeping their own council.

The tall figure, with the distinct height, swept-back hair and pointed ears of the elven race, certainly looked like one. Or an almost illegal replica.

“Yes,” he said. “I asked. Another one of Marguerite’s friends. Via your father as I understand.”

“Father does have some elf friends,” she said, considering the visitor more carefully. “I think that’s Gothoriel the Youth. He occasionally goes to the Shenan Renn Faire.”

“Well there’s no way we can get a chance to talk to him,” Herzer said, looking at the crowd around the distant figure.

“Oh, my word,” Rachel said as a massive figure appeared in the air and then hunted around for a place to land. “It’s a dragon!”

There were only a handful of surviving dragons in the world. Dragons, by legal definition, were sentient beings. Nonsentient beings that looked somewhat like dragons were referred to as wyvern. No person could Change into a dragon since the AI wars, when dragons had fought primarily on the side of humans and, like elves, they were “grandfathered” as a species. Over the years their extremely low birthrate had dwindled the species, long lived as it was, to almost nothing.

After hovering for a bit, the dragon finally cleared enough space to land and then Changed into a redheaded girl in an emerald green dress. With a general wave she disappeared into the gathering crowd.

“Not much of a chance to talk to her, either,” Herzer noted.

“Or to get around Marguerite,” Rachel said. “Speaking of which, where is Marguerite?”

“Not here yet,” Herzer replied. He let go of the float-glass he was holding and adjusted his twentieth-century “tuxedo” then grasped the glass again, taking a sip. “I asked one of the butler-bots. He says she is intending a special surprise for everyone.”

“And it looks like she was waiting for the dragon to arrive,” the girl replied as two projections in twenty-fourth-century dress appeared at the entrance to the maze and waved a space clear.

“GENTLEBEINGS,” a voice boomed through the crowd. “MARGUERITE VALASHON!”

There was polite applause at this over-the-top entrance — by and large the culture preferred a more sedate introduction — but the applause faltered and then picked up as a blue glowing cloud, projecting Marguerite’s smiling face, appeared in the archway and floated out into the crowd.

It took Rachel a moment to adjust. At first she thought it was just a special effect but then the reality caught up with her. “She had herself Transferred!” she gasped.

“Apparently,” Herzer said in a sad voice.

“What’s your problem?” she asked. “I mean it’s my friend that just got turned into a cloud of nannites!”

“I know, but…”

“You were sweet on her?” she asked. “A Transfer can take any form, you know. She’s still a girl… sort of.”

“Like I said, I’d only seen her a couple of times since school,” he snapped. “I wasn’t… sweet on her. I’d hoped to get that way, though.”

“Hopeless, Herzer,” she said, gesturing around at the crowd. She started to walk towards Marguerite’s apparent path, hoping to get at least a greeting in edgewise. “Marguerite’s got more boyfriends than my dad’s got swords.”

“What’s one more,” he said, following behind her. “Speaking of your dad…” he continued as Marguerite turned towards them.

“Rachel!” the Transfer cried. She’d formed into a semblance of herself, wearing a pale blue body-cloak. But there was a blue glow around her that designated a Transfer and her voice, either through deliberate choice or an inability to master sound yet, had a reverberating overtone that was eerie and just a shade unpleasant; it reminded Rachel of ghost vids.

“Marguerite,” she replied as Marguerite shifted through the welcoming crowd. “How… surprising.”

“It was a gift from my dad!” the Transfer said with a smile. She shifted into a delphinoform and hung in the air. “Look! I can mer any time I want!”

Rachel smiled painfully and thought about her mother’s lecture on Transfers. Humans went through natural changes in personality as they aged, their bodies going through a series of programs leaving the person of sixty different from the person of thirty different from the person of fifteen. Because the changes were a combination of experience and experience-influenced physiology, wildly random in their forms, there was no way to simulate them for a Transfer. So a Transfer, except for whatever experiential change might affect them, became “locked” in an age. From her mother’s experienced perspective, the worst possible Transfer, other than a child, was a teenager. People didn’t just get calmer and wiser, by and large, from experience. They got calmer and wiser because their bodies were programmed to.

Marguerite, however, would remain forever sixteen.

It was an odd thought. Instead of growing up in tandem, and presumably remaining friends, she suspected that by the time she was old, say, thirty, that it would be hard to stay friends with a sixteen-year-old Marguerite.

Other than that she thought it was neat.

“I love your dress, is that a reenactor look?” Marguerite continued, hardly noticing her friend’s pause.

“Imperial court dress,” Rachel replied. “From the time of the Chitan Imperial Court.”

“And your mom finally broke down and let you do some sculpting,” Marguerite said. “It looks good on you.”

“Thank you,” Rachel replied, not looking at Herzer. “Have you said hello to Herzer?”

“Charmed, miss,” Herzer said, bowing. “A beautiful transformation of one already a beauty.”

“Speaking of transformations,” Marguerite said as she changed back to human form and ignoring Herzer’s comment. “You’re looking… better. Did Ms. Ghorbani… uhm…”

“Fix me?” Herzer asked, unconsciously flexing. “She did the neural work. I had a friend help me with the sculpting.”

“Oh, okay,” Marguerite said, dismissing him. “Rachel, I’ve got to go say hello to people. But I want to get together later, okay?”

“Okay,” Rachel replied. She’d realized that Marguerite was just about the only person at the party she wanted to talk with, but she felt constrained to hang around. “Talk to you later.”


She sighed and looked around, wondering how to ditch Herzer.

“About your dad,” Herzer said, continuing where he’d left off. “I was wondering, could you introduce me?”

“To my dad?” she asked. “Whatever for?”

“Uhm, some friends of mine have gotten into the whole reenactment thing,” he said. “You know your dad’s sort of famous, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” she said, shortly. She wasn’t about to go into how disinterested she was in reenactment. Her father had dragged her to events since she was a kid and every trip seemed to be like a continuation of school. Learning to cook over smoky wood fires was not her idea of fun. And learning to hunt and butcher was just grotesque.

“I’d hoped to meet him; I’d like to see if he’d be an instructor for me.”

“I’ll send you an introduction projection,” she said. “Oh, look, it’s Donna. I think I’ll go talk to her. Take care of yourself, Herzer.”

“Okay,” he replied to her retreating back. “Have fun.”


When Edmund came through the front door of his house he was more than a little surprised to see Sheida Ghorbani lounging in his chair, a goblet of wine in her hand while her lizard was perched on the table snacking on a mouse.

“Make yourself right at home, why don’t you?” he asked, shaking off his cape and hanging it up. After stamping a bit he took off his boots. These were right/left fitted with a good sole and oiled leather; he wasn’t so into period that he was willing to wear the rotten footwear available in even the high Middle Ages. Once he had them sort of cleaned he set them outside the door on the portico; they were coated nearly knee-high in mud.

“Anyone else would simply translate from the inn to their door,” Sheida said, taking a sip. “Or all the way into the house. Only our Edmund would stomp through the mud. Nice vintage by the way.”

“I’m not ‘our Edmund,’ ” Edmund replied, walking over to the matching chair and throwing another log on the fire in front of it. Fireplaces were inefficient methods of heating a room as large as the front hall and he’d often considered breaking down and putting in a potbellied stove. But that was too out of period for his tastes. So he put up with having to spend half the winter in front of the fireplace. “Charlie sent it up from down-valley; he’s finally replicated some of the rootstock from the Merovingian period. It’s not nearly as undrinkable as most people thought.” He sat down and stuck his feet up in front of the fire. “So to what do I owe the pleasure and privilege of a visit from a Council member? You realize, of course, that that ‘our Edmund’ sounded uncomfortably like a royal ‘We.’ ”

“Come on, Edmund, it’s Sheida,” she said bitterly, stroking the lizard as it downed the last of the mouse. “Remember? Sister of some redhead named Daneh? Sister you were dating first?”

Edmund smiled without looking at her and summoned a glass of wine for himself. “That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”

“It wasn’t me who disappeared for twenty-five years,” she replied, taking another sip and twisting a strand of hair around her finger.

“No, it wasn’t. I still don’t know why you dropped in.”

“We… the Council… I have a problem,” she said.

“And you came to an old recreationist, a, what was the phrase, ‘a man so stuck in the past his Latin name has saurus in it,’ for help?” he asked.

“Yes, Edmund, I’ve come to you.” She stopped for a moment indecisively then went on. “I came to you for a few reasons. One of them is that you’re so steeped in the past that you understand it, and the… problem I’ve uncovered hasn’t been faced for nearly two thousand years. I also came to you because you’re a good strategist, as good a one as I know. Last but not least, I came to you because… you’re my friend. You’re family. I trust you.”

“Thank you,” he said, looking into the fire. “I had begun… I’ve been wondering lately if anyone even remembered I existed.”

“We all remember,” Sheida said. “You’re quite hard to forget. Also hard to live with, but that is another matter.

“I have to ask for your word that you won’t mention any of this to anyone. It’s… I’m not sure that what I think is going on is reality. I might just be going paranoid in my old age…”

“There’s nothing wrong with paranoia,” Edmund said with a shrug. “It’s when you can’t separate reality from fantasy that’s the problem.”

“Well, I wish this were fantasy,” she sighed. “Do you know Paul Bowman?”

“I know of him,” Edmund said, shifting to look at her. “I don’t think we’ve ever met if that’s what you mean.”

“I think Paul is planning a… well, the only correct term appears to be ‘coup.’ ”

* * *

Rachel had met Donna Forsceen through Marguerite and cordially detested her. The girl thought about nothing but the newest fashion and looked like a young boy from all the sculpting. So she only exchanged a few words and then moved on to the buffet. She looked at it and groaned. There were two types of food available, the usual heavily spiced and extremely hot food that was all the rage, and an array of chocolate confections. She didn’t like the current trend towards “how hot can we make it,” and simply grazing off the chocolate would probably put ten pounds on her, all in the wrong places. As soon as she was eighteen she was going to be sculpted down to a toothpick, whatever her mother thought, and have it locked in.

“Rachel! Rachel Ghorbani! What do you think?”

The voice was high and squeaky and emanated from a unicorn about the size of a large pony. Rachel picked up a strip of protein flavored somewhat like pork, immediately flashing back to one time when her father made her eat opossum, and regarded the creature with puzzlement. The unicorn was a brilliant white, of course, she’d rarely seen much imagination in the unicorn look, had golden hooves and horn and bright blue eyes.

“Very, uhmmm…” she paused. “Barb, is that you?”

“Yes! Do you like it?”

Barb Branson hadn’t been the brightest brick in the load before she started off on Change after Change. Normally there was no real threat to personality or intelligence integration in Changes. But in Barb’s case, “normally” didn’t seem to be working out; Rachel was sure Barb was getting dumber with each Change.

“Very nice, Barb,” Rachel replied. “Very… very unicornish.”

“That’s because I’m a unicorn, silly!” the girl trilled, spinning in place. “I love it! Ooo, there’s Donna! She’ll go spar!”

“I’m sure she will,” Rachel replied, heaving a sigh as Barb trotted off. “I swear, even when I can Change I’m not going to get that addlepated.”

Finally she loaded a float-plate with some grilled protein, the same one that tasted, she swore, exactly like opossum, and looked around to see if anyone had arrived who was worth talking with. The elf was still surrounded by a huge group of people, all hanging onto his every sibilant word, and there was a wall of mostly male bodies around the dragon, who in human form was on the far side of gorgeous even if her body was a bit on the busty side as well.

Rachel got as close to the elf as she could, without being rude, hoping he would notice her and maybe call her forward. When that didn’t work she stood at the back of the group and tried to listen to the questioning at the center. Unfortunately, the conversations on the periphery blotted it out and she couldn’t even Cast to the center because of the privacy shields so many of the people had up; the technique effectively created a pool of privacy around the centerpiece so that only those in the first circle or so could hear what he was saying.

“Rachel, there’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Herzer whispered in her ear.

She stifled a sigh and looked around. Then up. Then up some more. She had seen some large humans and humanoids before but the person Herzer was with was very physically imposing. He was about two and half meters tall and broad in proportion. Herzer was not small, but next to this person he seemed slight. The stranger had dark skin, black really and not melanine black but some other additive that made it look black as midnight. When she finally stepped backwards for a good look she noticed some slight elven enhancements and wondered at them. Because of the Net ban on full elven upgrade, elven enhancements were generally frowned upon, especially by the elves. Adding an elven look was… impolite. The thought came that she knew who she was looking at just as Herzer introduced them.

“Rachel this is…”

“You’d be Dionys McCanoc, wouldn’t you?” she asked with a nod. “Protein strip?”

“Indeed.” His voice was mellifluous and she suspected that if you didn’t keep your wits about you you’d drown in it. But Rachel for some strange reason found herself mildly repulsed instead. It was just too much. The size, the sardonic elvish and not-elvish face, the voice set to charm the skin off a mink. When he took her hand he kissed it and drew his thumb across the inside as he withdrew, sending a shiver through her body but leaving her emotionally even more determined to resist the charm onslaught.

“And you are the beauteous daughter of Edmund Talbot and the fair Daneh Ghorbani. I know your mother of old.” He had moved forward to take her hand, crowding her personal space again and making her have to crane her neck to look up. But she refused to back up again. He could damn well hit her shields first.

There was a slight emphasis, somewhat embarrassing, on the “know.” Or it would be embarrassing if Rachel hadn’t heard her mother’s comments about McCanoc. Daneh had gotten out of the reenactor movement, but it didn’t mean she didn’t keep up with some of the politics. And Daneh had much the same opinion of McCanoc that Edmund did. Rachel was sure that if she was here she’d have an even lower one. On the other hand, Rachel was pretty sure mother had never met McCanoc, so that was one flat lie she’d caught him in.

“I am sure you know my mother and father; they are well known in the reenactor movement. As are you, Dionys,” she said with a simpering smile. No reason to incur his wrath herself and a lie for a lie. “Whatever brings you here? I would think such a… simple affair would not be to your tastes.”

“Oh, Marguerite’s mother and I have some dealings, you know,” he said. “And when I was invited I was delighted to find that Herzer and Marguerite were friends. Now we’re all friends together,” he added, making an expansive gesture.

It was only then that Rachel noticed the group with him. She couldn’t determine what it was about the group of five that hovered at his back but she couldn’t find a thing to recommend them. One of them looked at her and positively leered. Just like McCanoc to somehow round up a group of total losers. But what in the hell were he and Herzer doing hanging out? She felt a flash of irritation and distress and put it down to having big-sisterly feelings for the boy. Until recently he’d had almost no social life at all.

“So how do you know Herzer?” she asked, looking around at the gathering and ignoring his crowding. She snorted as a faint blue luminance appeared in the air between them as he leaned forward. “And you seem to be encroaching on my space, Dionys. That is most inconsiderate.” She took a surreptitious breath, feeling security in the shield. He was trying to intimidate her, but she had been intimidated by the best of them and even his size was not going to throw her off.

“So sorry,” he said in his deep, lilting voice again. “Surely we don’t need shields between us?”

“But, lah, sir, we have hardly met,” she simpered again, fluttering the elaborate fan that had come with the outfit. She now wished she’d worn something more suitable for running. Or fighting.

“Herzer is a recent acquaintance,” Dionys said, giving the boy a clout on the shoulder. It looked like a friendly hit, but it still staggered Herzer. And there was very little friendliness in McCanoc’s eye.

“I met him at a reenactor meeting,” Herzer said with a grin. “Do you know that he was nearly the King of Avalonia!”

“And I would have been, were it not for the judges,” Dionys said darkly.

“Yes, I’m familiar with your… rise in the ranks,” Rachel said, trying not to let any humor enter into her voice. She had heard enough about McCanoc to know how viciously vindictive he could be. She had no interest in starting a war; it just wasn’t worth the effort it would take.

He regarded her for a moment trying to discern if there was anything to that simple statement. “Are you part of the reenactor movement?” the giant finally said.

“Oh, you know,” Rachel dissembled. “Dad was forever dragging me off to those things. It wasn’t really my sort of thing and once I could put my foot down I quit going. Some people love it and more power to them. But all that dressing up in tabards and bell-bottoms… not me.”

“But that’s a reenactor outfit,” Herzer said. “Manchu Dynasty, right? And you used to love to study history.”

“Well, study,” Rachel said with an honest chuckle. “Not live. And the period Nazis are the worst. I mean, the ones who go around with their clothes washed in urine, or not washed at all. Trying to replicate the ‘authentic life of the period.’ I mean, why?”

She almost started as she drew what was apparently a real chuckle out of McCanoc. “Good point. But they were good times, times for the strong.” He grinned tightly and shook his head. “Not like these fallen times.”

“For the strong?” Rachel said with a grimace and a chuckle. “I suppose. But if being ‘strong’ means fighting a battle while dealing with dysentery, I’ll take these ‘fallen’ times.”

“Well…” Herzer said just as a languid hand brushed him to the side.

“What in the Seven Hells are you doing here, McCanoc?” the elf said.

“Why, Gothoriel, why ever shouldn’t I be?” McCanoc replied with a thin smile. “Friends and acquaintances, don’t you know. Yourself, of course, included.”

“Because you were instructed to remain at least one hundred meters from any of the Eldar,” the elf said, ignoring the jibe. “I note, also, that you have made further adjustments towards the Eldar. They shall not be permitted.”

“I can change myself as I choose,” McCanoc suddenly shouted, his voice echoing across the square, caught in one of those odd moments of silence. “Stay out of my genes.”

“Not using Eldar Changes,” Gothoriel said mildly. “You know the law. You of all people should remember the law.”

McCanoc breathed deeply through his nose for a moment and then spat on the ground in front of the elf. The spittle flicked off of the shield just short of the elf’s feet. “Fisk you.”

“I tire of this. The Council will be informed of your further transgressions. For now, you have two choices. You can be leave or be banished.”

“I have as much right,” McCanoc started to say as Gothoriel raised his hand.

“Begone,” the elf snapped, then snorted in satisfaction as the air in front of him was suddenly vacant. “Like the demon you so wish to be…” he added so softly that Rachel was sure that only she had heard.

He turned to the five who had arrived with McCanoc and shook his head. “Begone as well. You have no purpose here.”

He turned to Herzer and frowned, the first expression that had crossed his face.

“You arrived with him?” the elf asked then shook his head. “No, separate. Are you with him?”

“He’s with me,” Rachel interjected hurriedly, not sure why she did.

“Rachel Talbot,” the elf said to her, bowing deeply. “It is good to see the Talbots are growing and thriving. A fine family, one that I have watched, and sometimes watched after for these many generations. What were you doing talking to that… filth?”

“Trying to figure out how to break away, frankly,” she said with a sigh. “Thank you for interjecting.”

“What is wrong —?” Herzer started to say.

“Later, Herzer dear,” Rachel said, pinching him. “I didn’t quite catch your name Lord Eldar. And I forgot to welcome you, ethulia Eldar, cathane,” she said, crossing her hands on her chest and bowing slightly.

Ethul, milady,” the elf replied, bowing again in return. “I am Gothoriel, Rider of the Eastern Reach. I have known your father for much of his life. Your lady mother less. She is, however, a fine woman. And a splendid healer.”

“Thank you, milord,” Rachel said, curtseying deeply. She was glad she’d decided to bring robes. “May you spend as many years in Dream as the most ancient trees and pass to the West in peace. And skip the purple protein strips.”

“Too late,” the elf said with a small smile. “Do you know what…?”

“Yes, I wasn’t sure at first but after the second try it was distinctive. I wonder whose idea it was?”

“Are you going to introduce me to your friend, Rachel?” Marguerite said from behind her. Rachel could tell from the tart tone that she was pissed.

“Marguerite,” Rachel said, turning with a smile and getting her first good look at her friend since her Change. Marguerite had taken her normal form except for the slight translucence that was mandated of fully nannite entities. She could, of course, change form at will, but she seemed to prefer her baseline look for the time being.

“This is Gothoriel, Rider of the Eastern Reach. That means he’s something like an ambassador to the people who live in eastern Norau.”

“Hi Gotho… Goth…”

“Gothoriel,” the elf said, bending to take her insubstantial hand and kiss it. He lifted it to his lips as if it were flesh and blood.

“That was… how did you do that?” Marguerite gasped.

“The Eldar are different in more than simple appearance,” the elf replied with a slight sigh. “We have some dominion over the world that intersects with the Real and the Unreal. And now that you, too, have joined us in Faerie, you will have the opportunity to join us in Dream.”

“Oh,” Marguerite said, clearly unsure what he had just said. She turned to Rachel and waved her arms. “Rach! Isn’t it great!”

“Wonderful,” Rachel replied, smiling and hoping her friend wouldn’t notice her disquiet. “But you didn’t tell me about it!”

“Oh, Mom and Dad cooked this all up,” Marguerite said, gesturing around and at her semitransparent body. “It was, like, a total surprise!”


“And they’re planning a separation ceremony for next month. They’re going to give me my Independence certification and do a contract dissolution at the same time. Mom wants to go be mer for a while. Dad doesn’t know what he’s going to do.”

“What are you going to do?” Rachel asked, trying to absorb that her friend was going to be declared an independent adult when she, Rachel, still had at least two years to go. It just wasn’t fair!

“Have fun, what else?” Marguerite said. “Rach, I’ve got to circulate some more, we’ll talk later? Hi Herzer, bye Herzer.”

“Sure, any time,” Rachel said as she wandered off.

She looked around and realized that Marguerite wasn’t the only one who was wandering off. Gothoriel had disappeared as well. Entirely, as if he’d ported or discorporated.

But Herzer was still there. Of course.

“Wow, that was intense,” Herzer said, letting out a breath.

“I thought you and Marguerite got along better than a hi and bye,” Rachel said.

“She started to get… less friendly when my illness got really advanced,” Herzer said, a muscle working in his chin. “Most people got more distant when it got bad,” he continued, looking down at her.

Rachel nodded her head and looked at the ground. “I know, that includes me. It was just… too weird. I couldn’t handle it. And for that I’m sorry.”

“Try living it,” Herzer said with a sigh and no sign of forgiving her. “At least I have friends again. It’s been a long time.”

“You talking about McCanoc?” Rachel asked warily.

“Yes,” Herzer said. “He’s been a true friend to me, even when I was sick. Oh, he can be… sarcastic at times…”

Rachel thought that there was probably more than simple sarcasm behind that quiet statement. From what she knew about McCanoc, he would have great fun with a crippled, emotionally wounded young man around. Every twitch, trip or limp would elicit a sardonic look or a snigger from one of his lackeys.

“Herzer,” she said, not sure how to proceed. “You know, there are a lot of people who don’t… care for Dionys.”

“I know,” Herzer said in reply. “He told me about it. There are always people that just want to keep the status quo and don’t want true genius upsetting the routine. All those stupid kings of this and barons of that, none of them were ready for the true revolution that Dionys represents! Do you know what his ultimate plan is?”

“No,” Rachel said, “but…”

“He wants to become King of Anarchia! He intends to raise an army among those in this world and train them to take over Anarchia. That way he can rule it in peace and plenty, as Charles the Great did nearly a century ago. But he won’t abandon the people back into anarchy!”

“Herzer,” Rachel said, shaking his arm. “Listen to me. It’s not that he is a revolutionary. That’s not why people don’t like him. It’s because he’s an evil, bullying son of a bitch! And if you want to get on my dad’s side, you’d better forget you ever heard of Dionys McCanoc!”

“That’s bullshit, Rachel,” Herzer said, setting his jaw. “Sure, he can be a bit sharp from time to time, but he’s a genius. And a visionary! People like that always tend to be a bit snappish. And it’s always considered to be rude until after they’re dead and then they are recognized for their genius. That’s all that’s going on.”


“You’re just trying to separate me from friends that accepted me when you threw me out!” Herzer snarled, warming to the subject. “These people didn’t turn back my calls or send messages giving me excuses why they couldn’t come over! They like me. They liked me when I was sick!”

“So they could have a cripple around to torment!” Rachel nearly shouted. “McCanoc is evil, Herzer. He may act like your friend, but he just wants you for something.”

“That’s it, I’m not listening to any more,” Herzer said. “You can think what you want. You’ll see!”

“I’m afraid I will,” Rachel said softly as he strode away. “Genie, let’s go home.”

* * *

“Define ‘coup’ in this case,” Edmund said seriously.

Sheida took some time explaining Paul’s position and plans. At the end of the explanation she shrugged and picked up her lizard, twining it around her neck.

“He is… unpersuasible. He has decided that it is his life’s work to return the world to a condition of… growth. Both population growth and growth in thought and deed.”

“And you think that’s he’s going to do… what?” Talbot said, taking a sip of wine. He half wished that it were water instead; this was definitely going to need a clear head.

“I think that he intends to try to seize the Keys. At least enough to give him a voting block that is unbeatable. Then he’ll implement his Plan. And, yes, there’s a capital there.”

“What fun,” Talbot said with a grimace. “The Keys are still under that archaic ‘finder’s keeper’s rule?”

“Unfortunately. Whoever holds the Key, votes the Key. That’s locked in to the kernel coding of Mother.”

“But you’re all protected by personal protection fields,” Talbot said. “So… how does he take the Keys away?”

“The PPFs were implemented with a very small majority,” Sheida said worriedly. “If he has the Demon voting with him he can turn them off.”

“But can’t he do that at any time?” Edmund asked. “I mean, they could already be off.”

“Can’t, has to be an official Council vote. And all persons voting have to be present. Those protocols are not quite hard-wired, but strong enough that he can’t overcome them without a nearly full Council. Unless the Council is officially in dispute. And we’re not. Yet.”

“And are you telling me there are no assassination protocols in place?”

“Timing Edmund, timing,” she sighed. “The personal protection technologies came about when there were still physical threats, and secondary defenses. But in time things became so… safe, so placid that the other defenses were removed as unnecessary and even… uncomfortable. And there used to be checks and balances, governments and police forces that were independent of the Council and the Net who could overcome such a threat; if the Council ever tried to assert real and direct authority when, say, the IU was still around, it would get slapped down fast enough.”

“I sort of stopped paying attention to history when the last B-4 was decommissioned,” Edmund said with a laugh. “It was the official end, wasn’t it.”

“Well, we might be ready to restart it. But, I mean, we’re all there is left of government. Most people don’t realize how impossible that is, historically, but you do! God knows we’ve had enough rows about it.”

“I know,” Edmund said, his jaw flexing. “A bunch of self-appointed dictators. I’ve never been happy with it. But I didn’t realize that the margin of security was so thin. That’s insane!”

“No one has tried to… there have been no conflicts, Edmund,” she sighed. “We’re all so smug and happy and warm and cozy that there’s no threat. Oh, yes, at a personal level there are still threats. People have fights. But that gets resolved with the fields. Or two people agree to drop them. But that sort of thing is for… children, either physically or mentally. We don’t have physical fights at the level of the Council and have not since… well there used to be guards and… weapons and… things…”

“Christ,” Edmund sighed. “So you think that Paul is going to try to, what, kill you? Then take your Key and give it to someone else to vote? He’ll have to have people ready to take the Keys and vote them, right? He can’t vote them himself.”

“One person, one vote, no influence,” Sheida said. “Yes, Mother would know if they were being controlled and simply count it as a non-vote.”

“So is dropping the PPFs the only way that he could attack you? What about outside the Council area? What about… I don’t know… assassinating you right now?”

“We’re… being careful,” Sheida said. “Let’s just say that Paul doesn’t know where I am at any time, including right now.”

“There are ways, Sheida,” Edmund said, gesturing around. “Even for a Council member. There’s more than just the Net. And you know that even the Council doesn’t have full control of it. Only Mother does.”

Sheida smiled and shrugged, chuckling. “Edmund, we’re both old. And I hope, to an extent, wise. I have protectors.”

Edmund paused and raised an eyebrow, then shrugged in agreement. “Don’t we all.” He took a sip of his wine and swished it around, looking at the ceiling. “In a way I almost agree with Paul.”

“Surely not,” Sheida said, eyeing him carefully.

“Well, not the method,” Talbot added with a grimace. “But we are lotus-eaters. And even waiting until the gene pool gets down to only women who are programmed to want babies won’t help that. But I have to admit that his method truly sucks so many ways I don’t think even you have worked it all out.”

“It’s bad, but how bad?”

“Well, damn,” he thought about that for a moment composing his thoughts. “Okay, increasing population growth ‘naturally’ requires all sorts of factors. First of all, you have to have natural childbirth and no contraception.”

“Ugh,” Sheida said, looking down. “I don’t think so!”

“Furthermore, you have to have women who are more or less ‘owned’ by males, otherwise after the first one or two children the majority of women decide they don’t want to do that again!”

“What about societal conditioning?” Sheida asked. “Taking the devil’s advocate position.”

“Generally requires religion for widespread utility,” Paul said, shrugging. “But the point is that the technological and economic conditions for population growth are contrary to technological development. There are occasional times in history where that has been violated, for a generation or so, but over the course of history, over the growth period that Paul is talking about, then you’re talking about a society that has to be in preindustrial conditions. And that means that there can’t be technological development.”

“Special groups?” Sheida asked.

“Most real advancements grow from… an environment that supports development. If all you have is serfs and a few technology wizards then the technology wizards are working in a research vacuum. So Paul can have technological development or population growth. But in a postindustrial, postinformation society, you very rarely get both.” He paused and looked thoughtful but then shook his head. “There has been exactly one society historically that has combined both over more than a generation. And it was an… enormously odd unlikelihood that would be impossible to recreate under these conditions.”

“Let me be clear about this,” Sheida said carefully. “You are on my side.”

“Oh, yes,” Edmund said. “If Paul’s planning on creating a centralized planning situation and forcing people into molds, he has to be stopped. He has no idea what that means. Not really.”

“So what do we do?” she asked. “Edmund, you’re just about the only real expert in warfare left on Earth.”

“Nah, just the only one you trust,” the smith replied. “I don’t know the conditions. Weapons?”

“No, none, no blades anyway,” she added thoughtfully. “No projectile weapons, explosives won’t work under the protocols anyway.”

“If they’re planning a physical attack on you at the Council meeting there has to be a way to hurt you,” he pointed out. “Is Paul trained in hand-to-hand combat? Killing a person hand-to-hand is difficult.”

“No, and we have Ungphakorn and Cantor on our side,” Sheida pointed out. “I’d take Cantor over Chansa in a fight any day.”


“The Council Chamber is sealed to entry for any but members, without permission. And no porting is permitted, in or out. They cannot call for reinforcements. But, nor can we.”


“Transmission method?” she asked. “They cannot bring projectors in, our own fields would soon detect contact or aerial poisons, and no harmful species are permitted in the room.”

“Poison is subtle,” Edmund pointed out. “There are binary poisons; they could have taken an antidote…”

“Well, I won’t drink anything if they ask,” she said with a winsome smile.

“You’re sure of what you think?” the smith asked.

“I’ve been reading people for a long time,” Sheida said. “Paul is planning something. Something big. Something big enough that he thinks there won’t be anything I can do about it. I can’t imagine what it could be but seizing control of the Council and that would take seizing the Keys. My coalition is solid.”

“Well, I’ll show you a few tricks and there are a few things that you can probably get in the Council Chambers that won’t be considered threatening by Mother,” he said. “Beyond that, there’s not much I can do.”

“Thank you Edmund,” Sheida said. “Just talking about it has helped. Cantor just gets… very ‘bearish’ and Ungphakorn gets cryptic. You just get logical.”

“I’ve had more practice,” Talbot replied. “Both at thinking about violence and having people try to kill me. Comes of growing up wanting to be a hero,” he added sadly.


Herzer’s mount shifted under him restlessly dancing a crow-hop to the side; clearly it was more avid for the battle than he.

Herzer tapped it on the mane with his rein hand, shifting his lance in the other. “Ho, Calaban,” he said absently. The north wind blew the smell of wood smoke and less savory scents from the orc encampment on the ridge above and he scanned its defenses from the cover of the woodline. It was an even bet that they had spotted him, but they weren’t pouring out to attack. That meant either that there were few of them or that they were unusually well led, for orcs. The first of course would be wonderful, but the latter was much more likely. The force that had descended on the local towns was not small; there had been at least twenty in the group that attacked Shawton. Figuring a quarter of that for guards on the camp, that meant at least twenty-five up there. And they hadn’t left on a raid, not by day. That meant they were holing up.

The main entrance was a narrow defile on the south side with a guarded gate at the top. On the west there was another gate, this one up a steep, tortuous switchback. That was quite impossible on a lone-hand raid. As was climbing to the cliffs above the emcampment; Herzer didn’t have the gear and if he got into a fight in the camp he’d need his armor to survive.

The battle was both real and unreal. The area was “real,” an unhabited area of eastern Norau not far from his house. The camp and palisades, as well as the cleared areas around it, had been constructed for him as part of the “enhanced reality” game that he was running. The horse, orcs and other defenders, if any, were constructs of nannites and powerfields. The horse that he sat was almost fully “real” but didn’t have the individuality of real horses. It was as close to “reality” as he could get, though, given his limited power budget. It would have been much “cheaper” to build a palace on top of a mountain than to create this battlefield. But everyone had their priorities.

He kept the primary objective — rescue the hostage — in mind, but the question was how. Realistically, if he could keep them moving around, he was a match for twenty orcs. They were strong and fast but relatively clumsy and poor fighters. Even in plate and mail he should be able to outmaneuver them. And his armor was proof against most of their weapons.

He fingered the lance for a moment then put it in its boot, reaching behind him to unlash his pack. If the orcs killed him it would leave most of his worldly possessions for them to loot. But it the orcs killed him he wouldn’t need any of them anyway. Climbing rope and lanterns were not turning out to be useful on this particular quest. Without the weight the pack represented, Calaban could carry him with relative ease, despite the weight of his armor, weapons and not inconsiderable body.

He weighed weapons for a moment then kept his lance, axe and sword, dropping the bow with the pack. He had need for all three that he kept, cumbersome as it was to carry them. The sword and axe went onto his saddle as he lifted the lance back out of the boot.

“All right, Calaban, let’s give them what for,” he said, nudging the horse with his knee as he hefted his kite shield.

He trotted out into the meadow below the encampment and stopped just short of the shallow brook. Most of it was high banked and relatively deep, at least thigh deep. Not easy to cross on foot and impossible for the horse. But opposite the entrance the bank had been broken down at a narrow ford. The slopes to either side were still impossible, and movement would be restricted to one rider at a time. But it was where he had to cross.

Now he could see orc heads popping up over the gate, but still none of them stepped forward. Very well.

“Orcs! Orcs of the encampment! I have come to deliver your souls to hell!”

“Go away! We have nothing you want and live in peace with humans!” a high voice screeched back.

“You have raided the towns of Evard, Korln and Shawton. I know for I have tracked you back to your lair! And you have taken the daughter of the Earl of Shawton for ransom! Deliver her to me unharmed and I will spare you your lives!”

There was derisive hooting from the far side of the wall but he was just as glad. That meant they might come out and fight him on the flats.

“Go away horse-rider! You cannot defeat us for we are the Tribe of the Bloody Hand and we have never been defeated!”

“Well, there’s a first time for everything you misbegotten goblins. Is it true that you were made by mixing pigs and apes?”

The screeching redoubled on the other side of the fence but they still didn’t come out.

“The orcs were the first peoples!” the voice screeched back. “They were before the elves and the humans! It is you who were begotten of pigs and apes you… you…”

“No, tell me true? Is it true that your mother was a waterfront whore who couldn’t get anyone to pay for her because she was too ugly? So she did it with the creature from the black lagoon when he was drunk? And thus you were begotten, a black, dripping monstrosity that even your friends among the orcs, the only people who will have you, run shrieking from in horror?”

“I… I… aaaaarrrrr!”

The gate at the top of the defile opened outward and a swarm of orcs poured through, at their head a broad and tall troll.

“Oh, shit,” Herzer muttered, timing the moment to start his charge. The troll, fortunately, was outdistancing the orcs rapidly. Finally Herzer leaned forward and kicked the horse into movement. “Hi, Calaban! Forward!”

He couched the lance and balanced the weight of it, aiming it to strike the troll broad on the chest. The fearsome creature seemed to pay no attention and seemed uninterested in blocking, intent on coming to grips with his tormentor. Thus Herzer was able to lean into the weapon at the last moment and drive it home fully. The impact drove him back onto the high rear cantle of his saddle and nearly stopped Calaban, but the troll was mortally wounded. The creature roared as the spear jutted out of his back in a welter of red blood, and grasped the shaft, swinging it from side to side as he thrashed.

Herzer started to draw his sword but was struck, hard, on the upper arm just as the sword cleared the scabbard; the weapon clattered to ground as he was nearly unseated.

After a moment he pulled his axe out instead and kneed Calaban in closer to the creature, which was maddened with pain. The horse stood a scoring across the flank as he maneuvered into position, then in a double-hand blow Herzer cut the head from the troll. The horse stepped back daintily as the giant beast fell to the ground.

The orcs, who were just approaching the scene of the battle, let out a cry of fear at that but they didn’t stop, charging forward in a mass. There were far more than twenty but Herzer felt sure he could prevail.

He backed Calaban around to avoid the first rush of orcs, swinging the axe to strike down a few on the fringes as he did so. He really needed his sword or lance for this work; the axe was a short-hafted ground-fighting weapon.

A group of orcs was trying to get around behind him, possibly to try to hamstring Calaban, but he didn’t need to worry about that. As one of them rushed in, swinging its short-sword, the horse lashed backwards with both feet, killing the creature and tossing it into its fellows so as to bowl several of them to the ground.

However, that short pause had been enough for others to gather around, swinging their black crusted swords and axes and trying to grab at reins or drag Herzer from the saddle.

Herzer kicked the horse in the side again, swinging downward on either side to try to clear a path. Finally the team broke out of the mass of orcs, headed up along the streambed. He kicked Calaban again but felt her falter as a flight of crossbow bolts flew down from the hilltop.

Realizing the horse could never face the battle in her wounded condition he rolled off to the side and slapped her on the flank. More bolts flew down towards him but he was able to deflect them with his shield as he trotted back towards the reduced mass of orcs.

Again they charged him but there were a few low trees, willows and a few scrubby poplars, along the riverbank and he darted into them to break up the charge. It was a wild time for a moment in among the bushes as orcs charged in from either side and he hew and slew with abandon. They got in a few licks of their own and he felt a distinct catch in his side where an orc champion had landed a telling blow with a battle-hammer. But the champion was at his feet in a welter of gore and not the other way around. So all was well.

He finally broke contact across the brook, which he could negotiate better than the orcs could since it was only thigh deep on him here, and swung to the east, moving back to the original ford. The orcs paralleled him on the far bank and then tried to dart ahead to the ford, but he made it there first.

In the narrow slot to the ford on “his” side of the river there was no way that more than one, or at most two, orcs could attack him. There he stood his ground, hammering on orc shields as they hammered right back. A few more of them had poured out of the encampment but he was killing them faster than they could be reinforced, his relatively light axe crashing through their guards and shattering shoulders, arms and heads.

The narrow ford soon became clogged with bodies and the following orcs had to clamber over the piles of the dead. Occasionally they fell towards him and he had to step backwards to avoid being pushed over, so he had slowly been backed towards the top of the bank. However, there were fewer than ten orcs left in the attacking force and, apparently realizing they could not defeat him in the meadow, they suddenly gave out a cry and ran back to the defile, then up through their gates, closing them firmly behind them.

With the retreat of the foe the battle fury came off of him and the pain from his wounds flooded in to replace it. Besides the catch in his side, which felt very much like a broken rib, he now noticed a rather nasty gash on the back of his right leg. A few inches deeper and he would have lost all use of the leg. As it was, he didn’t even recall getting it.

He whistled for Calaban and stumbled across the body-choked ford to the far side. There were probably some things worth looting on the bodies, but that could wait.

His lance was done for, until he could either give the head of it back to a good armorer or find an appropriate hickory sapling. He’d really rather let someone else fix it; he was for a town and a good rest as soon as this battle was done.

The horse walked up from wherever it had disappeared to as he found his sword under a body. He retrieved rags from one of his remaining saddle bags and wiped the blood off of it and his axe then loaded both onto the horse along with his shield, which was starting to get heavy.

He worked on Calaban’s wounds next. First he numbed the wounds with an odd gray poultice then worked the barbed heads out of the flesh. The latter was difficult because the horse, despite the successful local anesthesia, danced around from the odd pulling sensation. When he finally had the bolts removed he packed the punctures with salve that would speed the healing.

After that he worked on his own problems. He was tired and sore but except for treating the gash on his leg there wasn’t much he could do. He had some bruises and the rib, but they would require more work than he could do in the field. Finally he put a bandage, liberally laced with salve, onto the slash on his leg and laboriously repaired the mail over it. The cut had been an attempted coup de poing but it had not been quite powerful enough to cut through the well-wrought Alladon mail. At least not enough to do any real damage.

His wounds tended to, he took out a small vial and regarded it cautiously. The material in it was unpleasant to drink, oversweet but with a bitter undertaste, and it had limited effect. But it would invigorate him for a short period of time, enough to defeat the rest of the orcs. And if its effectiveness ran out he could take another. But each successive use gave less time invigorated. He’d need some real rest soon.

Finally he loaded his weapons back up and strode towards the gates of the encampment. No bow fire greeted him so he headed to the base of the defile and yelled up at the wooden palisade on the hilltop.

“I call upon you to let the daughter of the Earl of Shawton free. If you do so I will spare your lives. If you do not I will kill all the fighters and burn your village, turning your women and children out into the winter. Heed me!”

“Go away!” came the reply, not so loud or fearsome as before. “We have never been to this Shawton.”

“This is your last chance!” Herzer yelled, pulling out a vial of the herbal stimulant.

“Go away!”

“Stupid bastards,” he muttered, draining the vial in a single draught and tossing it over his shoulder. He drew his axe and raised it over his head. “For Mithras and Alladale!” he bellowed. Over his shoulder, out of the clear sky, a boom of thunder rolled. Cool.

He charged up the defile, holding his shield over his head against the anticipated rain of stones. Sure enough, every orc in the encampment seemed to be pelting him with rocks, chunks of wood, dead cats and whatever else could be found. With the exception of a couple of what must have been fair-sized boulders none of it was a hindrance and he quickly made it up the slot to the gate.

There were apparently stands behind the gate, but unlike in the defile, only a few orcs could look down at him here and he swung his shield to the rear to give himself room for two-handed swinging. The gate was made of thick logs held up with ropes and hinges but there were narrow gaps between the logs and he swung through the gaps at the bar on the far side. Some judicious chops at the logs opened up the gaps to where he could get at the bar better and he fell to a steady swinging rhythm, quickly chopping through the thick barrier.

As soon as the bar parted he dropped the axe and swung the gates open, ripping out his sword as the remaining defenders charged him at the gate.

He could see the earl’s daughter now. The girl was no more than sixteen, with fair skin and red hair, unbound and flowing to her waist. She was tied to a post in the center of the encampment, and a spit and fire had been erected nearby. It was clear that the orcs had been intending to have her for supper when Herzer arrived and interrupted. An orc shaman capered in front of the fire, casting in foul-smelling herbs and gesturing maniacally.

Now it was another fearsome melee but with nearly an arm’s length of good Narland steel in his hands, the orcs didn’t stand a chance. He pushed forward into their mass, striking from side to side and parrying their blows with his much battered shield.

But just as he neared the end of the defenders the shaman gave a last great cry and a fearsome apparition, a man-sized demon, arose from the flames. It was covered in spikes and had a vague resemblance to the orcs but that was all the description that Herzer could make as the thing leapt through the air and slammed into his shield.

He swung at it and connected on the shoulder. But for all the good the Narland steel had made it might have struck stone. It bounced from the shoulder with a jolt in his hand as the demon’s fist struck him in the chest.

The blow threw him backwards to slam into the palisade and he shook his head trying to clear it of the ringing as the demon pounced once again.

Suddenly, horny fingers closed around his mail-protected throat and started to squeeze. He flailed with his sword at the demon’s side but it was to no avail. Slowly the world around him went black…

“Fisk,” Herzer muttered, sitting up from the ground and looking around at the training field. His throat still had a psychosomatic tight feeling to it, but VR always did that. “I hate losing.”

“You should have more fully scouted the encampment,” his instructor said, handing him a flagon.

Herzer took the water and drank gratefully, then got to his feet. “I know that. Now. The demon was a bit unfair.”

“Life is unfair,” the avatar replied. It was a very high-end program, not fully AI but smarter than most standard systems, and it had a mass of proverbs and quips to draw upon. “You have to be more unfair. What should you have done?”

“As it was, I’m not sure,” Herzer replied. “I couldn’t take the demon. Not by myself.”

“What about the shaman?” the trainer asked.

“Hmmm…” Herzer called up the schematic of the recent battle and nodded. “I couldn’t have made it through the orcs to kill him before he completed the enchantment. So… take off most of the armor, climb the cliffs, reconnoiter. Wait for a good time and kill the shaman with the bow. That way I’d know about the troll, too. Maybe try to kill both from long range, and some of the orcs. They would have eventually come out, but I would have been fighting them from the top of the slope, not the bottom. But I’d have to get the shaman first, or else he’d summon the demon and I’d have to fight it anyway.”

“It was the shaman who was the primary threat, but it seemed, at first, to be just a bunch of orcs,” the trainer said. “Your failure to properly reconnoiter the objective was your undoing. Your enemy will attempt to deceive you. He will attempt to appear less capable than he is. Remember that. Know your enemy and know thyself. All else will become clear if you know both.”

“Herzer, playing wargames?” Dionys’ head had popped into existence over the shoulder of the avatar. The avatar did not seem to notice.

“Just finished,” Herzer replied, finishing the water.

“We’re having a bit of a party over at Sean’s, something fun,” the older man said. “Why don’t you come along.” It was a statement, not a question.

Herzer was mentally drained if not physically, but he didn’t want to lose Dionys’ good grace. “Just let me clean up a bit,” he said. “I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

“Great,” McCanoc said with a toothy smile. “We’ll be waiting.”

“Gotta go,” Herzer said, tossing the cup to the trainer.

“Remember, young Herzer, know thyself,” the avatar said as he left.

* * *

Edmund hammered the glowing sword blade and turned it over on the anvil, trying to determine how much more work it would take. He looked up with a nod as Myron Raeburn walked into the forge.

“I need you to beat a couple of those into plowshares,” Myron said with a grin.

“Very funny,” Talbot growled in reply. “What can I do for you, Myron?”

“You don’t seem particularly happy this morning,” the farmer said, cocking his head to the side.

“Even paradise has its thorns,” Edmund replied obliquely. “What sort of plowshares do you need?”

“Dionys still giving you trouble?” Myron pursued, taking a seat on a smaller anvil. The weather computers had allowed a late-season cold front through to the east coast and the warmth of the forge was pleasant after the cold walk from his fields.

“No, Dionys hasn’t tried any tricks since our little discussion,” the smith admitted. “That is part of it. Other things as well. I don’t particularly want to talk about it.”

“Gotcha,” the farmer replied. “Well the reason I came down is that I managed to secure a vintage water-powered threshing machine,” he continued with a grin.

“Going to install it by the mill?” Edmund frowned. “It’s not period; the period Nazis are going to go ape.” He thought about that for a moment then grinned. “Need help?”

“I can get it set up myself,” Raeburn replied with a matching grin. “But the millennia have not been kind to it, for all it was well kept. A couple of the spave arms need serious work…”

“You can replicate those,” Edmund argued shaking his head. “It makes no sense for me to just beat them out.”

“Edmund,” the farmer replied, spreading his hands, “I know that but… I mean I use a horse drawn plow, for Ghu’s sake. I’m willing to replicate the building, there’s no other way short of waiting for Faire and hoping I can get some people to help me erect it. But…”

“I’ll do it,” Edmund sighed then chuckled. “Chisto I’m glad we don’t really live in the thirteenth century.”

“Me too. Indoor plumbing.”

“Medical nannites.”


“Dwarves!” said a gravelly, accented voice from the door.

The visitor was short, just below five feet, and nearly as broad as he was tall. He wore furs against the weather over chain mail and leather. He had a broad double-headed axe over his shoulder and a round half helm on his head. And he was wearing a broad, toothy grin surrounded by a beard that hung nearly to the floor.

“Angus!” Talbot said, striding over and grabbing the dwarf around his broad shoulders. “You could have sent a rider ahead!”

“No dwarf will ride a horse if their own legs, or a wagon, will carry them,” the dwarf said, leaning his axe on the wall. “Bloody cold weather to travel, though. Glad I am for the warmth of thy forge.”

Two centuries before Angus Peterka had gotten so enraptured by the traditional image of dwarves that he had Changed and started his own dwarf colony in the Steel Hills of Sylva. The hills had been mined out millennia before, but in the last half a millennia most of the materials had been reimplanted under a long-term ecological rebuilding program or through dumping into the hollowed out mines. He had added materials that were not original to the mountains, streams of silver, various jewels, gold and, deep, deep in the mountain a nanotech-based material that he had decided met the conditions for adamantine. All of the material was put in with a semirandom generator and for the last two centuries he’d been trying to find it all. He referred to it as “proper mining,” his friends referred to it as “the world’s largest scavenger hunt.” Other “dwarves” came and went, but Angus stayed on, propping shafts, finding veins and quaffing beer.

As a hobby, Edmund thought that it ran to obsession. On the other hand, his own obsessions had driven away more lady friends than he cared to count, including the only one he had ever truly loved. He wasn’t one to cast stones.

“I’ve your steel load,” Angus said, walking over to the forge to warm his hands. “And I’ve finally found a vein of bloody adamantine. I’d be happy for your opinion.” He held out a hand-sized bar of a dull gray material.

“Doesn’t look like much,” Edmund replied, tossing it in the air. Strangely, when he threw it it seemed to have almost no weight, but when it smacked into his palm the impact was palpable. “Nannite enhanced?”

“Enhanced, yes, but they aren’t in it, ya see,” Angus said. “It was developed in… hmmm… the twenty-third century or so as a reactive material for powered body armor. So it’s legal for nonpowered unlimited armor tourneys!”

“Ah,” Myron said. “Doesn’t matter, nobody else will like it as ugly as it is.”

“It changes appearance when you final treat it,” Angus said, taking the bar and tossing it in the forge. “You can’t just heat it; no fire you can make in a forge, even a multistage one, will affect it. It’s rated to stay intact in a photosphere; you have to use nannites and electromagnetic fields to form it. But, oh, when you do work it!” He drew his belt knife and flourished the blade. “Behold! Adamantine!”

The knife blade was bright silver with a rainbow shimmer running through it. Edmund took the knife and ran his finger against it, drawing back a cut callus. Then he took up the sword blade he had been working on and scratched the knife blade against it. Instead of leaving a streak or a small cut it sliced deeply into the metal.

“Bloody hell,” Myron said.

“Did I mention it will form a monomolecular edge?” Angus said with another beard-shrouded grin.

“Strange feel,” Talbot said thoughtfully, tossing the knife up and down. After a couple of tosses he threw it to stick in the door. The knife sank up to its hilt. “Nonperiod metals. The Council won’t permit it for tourney.”

“Not regular tourneys, no,” Angus said with a shrug. “But unlimited nonpowered, yes.”

“Yah,” Edmund said. “How did you say you form it?” he asked, plucking the material out of the fire. He tested it with a wetted finger but as he half expected it was not even warm. “Strange stuff.”

“Molecularly it’s even stranger. Basically for the first run you set up a molecular lattice using nannites. After it’s formed the first time, it’s easier to work with. But on subsequent formings you have to convince it it’s ready to be worked.”

“Explains a lot,” Edward grinned. “I can look it up you know.”

“Go ahead then,” Angus replied with a broad smile through his beard. “One of the things the original researchers missed is that there’s a way to make it from other ores. Naturally occurring ones.”

“It’s still not useable in tourney,” Talbot said. “And it’s not the best material available for unlimited combats. So it’s cute, but that’s about it.”

“Not quite,” Angus replied, pointing at his mail. “Genie, disengage personal protection field. Now, Edmund, take a whack at me.”

“No way,” Edmund said, glancing around the forge. “I don’t have a finished blade.”

“Use my axe,” Angus argued. “Go ahead. It won’t hurt.”

“The axe will cut through the bloody armor, you idiot!”

“Nah, try it.”

“It looks like steel,” Talbot temporized, picking up the axe.

“You can make it look that way,” Peterka said. “Strike!”

“Shit,” Edmund said, drawing back the blade. “You asked for it.” He swung hard, aiming though the dwarf. Even in mail, even if the alloy held which, in all honesty it probably would, the impact was bound to at least crack a rib. At the very least, it would be painful as hell. But any damage he would do, the nannites would fix quickly enough.

The axe struck the mail and rebounded as if it had hit a wall of steel. He dropped it with a grimace at the harmonics.

“Bloody hell!”

Angus had been knocked backwards by the blow but he grinned nonetheless.

“When two pieces of the material in contact are subjected to lateral motion, basically when they experience friction, they form temporary carbon to carbon covalent bonds. I said it was designed as reactive armor. When you hit it, it turns into plate. Diamond plate.”

“Now that’s interesting,” Edmund said, poking at the now supple mail. One of the buggers about using plate was that it didn’t flex. A person wearing it was locked into the form of the armor, sometimes uncomfortably. “What about when you’re moving, bending arms, stuff like that?”

“The energy isn’t high enough to matter. It’s a tad less flexible than standard mail, but not much.”

“Interesting,” Talbot muttered. “How do you work it?”

“It’s a proprietary program,” Peterka said. “But since you’re such a good friend…” he added with a grin.

“You’re going to go off playing with this and not work on my thresher, aren’t you?” Myron said.

“Nah, I can do both. Bring me over the pieces you need repaired and the specs and I’ll do them for you.”

“Right, that’s settled,” Angus said. “Now let’s go get us a drink and celebrate my finding the first vein.”

“How much of this is there?” Myron asked.

“Not that much in the first vein, but there’s more,” the dwarf replied. “We’ll find the rest. It’s bloody deep, though. We’re at a depth that period pumps don’t handle well.”

“There’s period and there’s period,” Edmund said. “Buy me a drink, and what’s more important get me some of this stuff to play with, and I’ll fill you in on some aspects you might not have considered.”



“Deal,” Daneh sighed, terminating the call.

The job was not her favorite; a person wanted an “original” Transfer into something very much like a manta ray. But it was for a worthy cause — the form was a deep-diver and the person wanted to do deep sea research “on site” — and there weren’t any serious problems like Herzer’s to work on.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Azure lift up and shake himself, heading for Rachel’s room, which probably meant that she was back. Thinking about it, Daneh didn’t think she’d seen her daughter in a couple of days.

“Rachel?” Daneh called, and her voice was automatically transferred to the girl’s room.

“Yes, Mother?”

“Where have you been?”

There was a pause that caused Daneh to sit up and override whatever answer she was going to get. “Come in here for a moment, will you?”

“Yes, Mother,” Rachel replied with a sigh that was faithfully replicated by the transmission system.

As soon as the girl walked into the room, Daneh’s stomach sank. She’d already been feeling depressed about not having any projects to test her mettle. And now this.

“Rachel, I thought we had agreed no body sculpting?”

There wasn’t much, but to her expert eye it stood out like a lightbulb. Rachel’s eyebrows had been curved, her cheekbones sharpened and her nose slightly thinned. Furthermore, she had had her breasts reduced and her butt tucked even more than for Marguerite’s party.

I didn’t agree, you agreed,” Rachel answered hotly.

“I’m your parent, it’s my decision,” Daneh replied coldly. “Where did you have it done?”

“I don’t have to tell you that,” the girl said, crossing her arms. “I… I don’t have to say.”

“You could have gotten it off the Net,” Daneh said, tilting her head to the side. “It’s the sort of generic junk you can find there,” she added with professional disdain. “But the Net has my specific prohibition against it. So how did you get it done?”

“I Don’t Have To Say,” Rachel repeated. “And it’s not generic junk!”

“Well, it’s very poorly constructed,” Daneh said, coldly. “Give me the benefit of my expertise here, daughter. The eyebrows are badly balanced, the cheekbones detract from the nose and the combination makes you look like a short-beaked bird. I mean, it’s not well done.”

“Well, you wouldn’t let me get a well-done job, Mother,” she spat, furiously. Then she slumped shaking her head. “But… you’re right. It does look awful, doesn’t it?”

“Not awful,” Daneh said, tightly. “But it’s neither fashionable, not that I like the current fashions, they’re very unhealthy, nor is it particularly good looking on you. Face it, dear, unless or until you get a complete body and face sculpt, and end up looking like your friend Marguerite and all the other kids who were stamped out of the exact same genetic modeling kit, there’s not much you can do to look like current fashions. You’re too…” Daneh paused, searching for the right words.

“Fat,” Rachel said.

“Not fat, womanly,” Daneh replied. “Nobody these days is fat. Fat is when you have flabby bits hanging…” She looked at her stomach and arms and shrugged. “You’ve seen pictures. You’re beautiful dear. You know very well that at times you would have been considered beyond beautiful,” she added with a sigh.

“Sure, Mom, but these days guys don’t think in terms of women who are built to survive minor famines.”

“You’re not exactly a Reubens model,” Daneh replied. “Do you want it undone? Or do you want to keep it until you can get a proper bod-sculpt? I know some people who do very good work.”

“When?” Rachel asked, surprised.

“When you turn eighteen,” Daneh replied. “In the meantime, you’re grounded indefinitely. If you can’t keep a promise like this one, I’m not sure what promises you will keep.”


“Don’t ‘mother’ me,” Daneh said. “The proof that you aren’t old enough to make the decision is that you went behind my back to do it and then got it done badly.”

“Oooo… I… I…” Rachel worked her jaw furiously and then spun on her heel and stalked out of the room.

“Genie, I’m serious about the grounding. Remind me of it in a week.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the program responded.

Daneh sighed and rubbed her temples. “What a day.”

* * *

Dionys’ surprise turned out to be… a girl. Or, Herzer thought much more likely, a homunculus. She, and about a half dozen of McCanoc’s usual hangers on, were in a wooded glen. She was small and fragile looking with a short black hair and an elfin face. And she looked frightened.

“Is that a homunculus?” he asked, just to be sure. Normally the homunculus would have been wearing a rather simple smile. This one looked downright terrified. Just to be sure, he sent a mental query to the Net and was assured that it was, in fact, a homunculus. Not a terrified preteen girl.

“Oh yes,” Dionys replied with a sardonic grin. “But a very special one. She has been programmed to fear sex. So much more… interesting.”

“I thought they were illegal?” Herzer said, breathlessly. His face and hands felt hot.

“Not… illegal so much as restricted,” Dionys said with another grin. “It helps to have friends in high places.”

Herzer was not a virgin, at least with homunculi. There was some debate about whether that counted but with the onset of the worst of his symptoms, making friends, especially girlfriends, had been tough. So homunculi were the only route open to his developing teenage libido short of using his hand. And he always cast himself in the role of the hero, the pure paladin on the white charger. But…

He knew the allure. The desire not just to be in a woman, be one with one, but to control her and dominate. To take instead of negotiate or, in the case of normal homunculi, be given freely. It was a secret he normally kept deep inside and one that he didn’t discuss. Ever. There was no one to talk to about it. No one who would… understand. He’d heard rumors about homunculi being abused, some of them even having to be recycled and replaced. Now he understood why.

Hero? Or rapist? Sometimes… the line seemed so strange. The joy of battle was so close to how he felt when he fantasized… bad things. Even in his own mind he had a hard time saying “rape.” To take the life of an orc, to slaughter his enemies and see them running before his charger, to throw a frightened girl to the ground and take what had been withheld. To get back at all the girls who sniggered at him when the convulsions would hit. All the girls who rejected him when he needed them most. To take and take again. To punish.

Was he a paladin or a villain? He just couldn’t decide.

Especially now looking at this vulnerable, frightened… toy. She wasn’t a real woman, a real girl. She was just an artificial construct. Somehow that both relieved him and made the… thing less illicit. Almost less interesting. But not much.

“Please,” the homunculus whispered, tears running down her cheek. “Please…”

He felt the heat rising in his body no matter how he tried to check it. This was just…

“There’s nothing wrong,” Dionys said. “Men have… needs. This is one way to let them out. Women have… very similar needs you’ll eventually find. But even that is so sterile. So many rules, so many precautions. This is the real.” He tapped Herzer on the back. Lightly. “Go ahead. Take her. Enjoy.”

Herzer took an involuntary step forward and reached out one hand to the girl’s blouse. It was white silk with old-fashioned buttons to match the short skirt of the same material. He imagined himself ripping the blouse open, running his hand up her thighs… taking her.

“Please don’t,” the girl whimpered. “Please…?”

He worked his jaw for just a moment and shook his head.

“No, Dionys,” he said, harshly. “This isn’t right.”

“How can it not be?” The man sounded more surprised than anything else, as if the thought had never occurred to him. “She’s only a homunculus.”

“And her fear isn’t real,” Herzer agreed, although it was an intellectual agreement only. “But… it’s still not right. I’m not… this isn’t right.” He looked at the two holding her arms but they just grinned. “It’s not right.”

“So you’ve said,” Dionys replied, disapprovingly. “Very well, if you don’t want to stay and enjoy yourself, you can go. Go to your meek little playthings and all the so-called friends who betrayed you.”

Herzer started to open his mouth to reply but at the look on McCanoc’s face he shook his head instead. “Home, genie.”

* * *

Sheida glanced around at the Council as she entered the vast chamber, but if there was mischief on anyone’s mind, it wasn’t showing. Celine had apparently decided to copy Ishtar’s hairstyle, and her hair, suitably lengthened, was gathered in a giant confection shot through with crystal wasps made of gold and ebony.

Paul and the rest of “his” faction had gathered at one end of the table, so as Sheida, who had carefully arrived last, settled into her seat he stood up to call the Council to order.

“The first thing is to change the agenda,” Paul said. “Mother, refer to the first item on Agenda B, please.” He looked towards the entrance and smiled. “And here is our seventh voter.”

Sheida glanced over her shoulder quickly, thinking as she did so that it might be a trick but then blanched.

“You’ve called in the DEMON?” she shouted. At the shout her lizard unwound from her neck and took off upwards towards the top of the chamber. It found a perch where it could look down and watch the rest of the proceedings through baleful eyes.

“Indeed he did,” the apparition growled. “And I vote aye.” The Demon’s true form was impossible to know since he went everywhere in a suit of black armor. The helmet of the armor had been worked into a bestial face, all staring eyes and tusks, and the gloves were tipped with long talons. He was one of the two normally absent holders of the Keys, older than any of the rest of the Council. He had extended his life by means that were highly illegal, using the power of his position to twist the laws to his own purpose. His purpose had always been chaos, so his appearance at this meeting made terrible sense.

There was a series of rapid “ayes” from Paul’s faction and he smiled broadly.

“The personal protection fields are now turned off,” he said with a moue. “Item two, aye.” After the same series of seven agreements he shrugged. “And the Council is now officially in a dispute situation with rump rules applying.” He looked at Sheida sadly. “I do this for all mankind. You cannot stand in the way of the survival of the human race. Celine?”

“Welcome to the new order,” Celine said, rising to her feet. “My friends wish to make your acquaintance,” she continued as her hair seemed to explode outward.

Sheida cursed as the cloud of insects came flying across the room. Poisons and poisonous life-forms were not allowed in the Council chamber, but there were two types of wasps in the group, black and yellow.

“Binary toxins!” she shouted, springing to her feet and overturning her chair in her haste. As she did the Demon sprang through the air.

Cantor was already on his feet and didn’t even bother to Change as one arm swept into Tetzacola Duenas. The impact snapped the man’s neck and he was flung through the air in the direction of Sheida just as the Demon landed on the werebear’s back.

Ungphakorn wasn’t inactive either. He had grasped the top of the table and uncoiled from his oversized seat, his long serpentine body flipping down the table and enwrapping Said. In a flash the council member was dragged from his chair and wrapped in coil after coil of feathery body. He let out one cry, more of a squeaking scream, then his tongue and eyes protruded as the serpent applied full power in a constrictive hug of death. The quetzacoatal ripped the Key from his neck and half flew, half slithered across the chamber towards the entrance, the tip of his tail flicking back and forth snapping at the wasps closing in on him.

Sheida’s flying lizard stooped from its perch, its wings folded onto its back, and snapped one of the wasps out of the air, crunching down on it and spitting it out at the taste. It hissed as it flew past Celine, grabbing at more of the insects as it darted hither and yon.

Sheida raised her arm and a bracelet extended into a broad shield. She flipped it through the air and swatted aside two of the wasps as she bent to the dead council member and ripped the Key from Tetzacola’s neck.

“Out!” she shouted, backing towards the entrance.

Cantor was still wrestling with the Demon as two of the wasps landed on him and began probing for an open spot in his fur. She looked towards him but he just shook his head at her.

“Get out!” he yelled, ripping his Key off and throwing it towards her. He pulled his hands loose from the Demon’s grip and took two of the beast’s tusks, turning its head up and back. “Go!” he cried as the first sting hit.

Ishtar had touched a control on her hover seat and fled the room at the first sign of trouble, some of the wasps following her out. Sheida was relatively sure that she was going to survive but she found herself and Aikawa the only ones left in a room full of enemies.

“Time to leave,” she said, backing rapidly towards the door and flicking another of the wasps away with her shield as her flyer guardian snapped another out of the air and landed on her head, tongue flickering in and out.

“Hmmm,” Aikawa said snatching one of the wasps out of the air and crushing it in a move that looked like some sort of magic. “I suppose,” he murmured, catching up another and considering the insect as it struggled before crushing it between his fingers. He was careful to keep away from the business end at the rear. He dropped both of the crushed bodies into a pouch and then waved at his former colleagues. “I’m going to kill you all for this.” With that he flipped out of the room in a series of seemingly impossible back-flips.

Sheida was now surrounded by a cloud and felt the first sting as she kept backing towards the door. “Goodbye, Paul. And I’ll see you in hell.” With that she took one more swat and fled. The last thing she saw on the way out the door was Cantor’s body beginning to spasm. But he still had a death grip on the Demon.

* * *

The four surviving Council members had fled by prearrangement to a home that Sheida maintained in the Teron mountains. From its main room there was a spectacular view down to a tarn similar to that at the Council Center. But it was across the world from that embattled chamber.

“Paul will follow us,” Aikawa said, looking around.

“Not easily,” Sheida said, striding across the room and yanking open a cupboard. She tossed an archaic can to Ishtar and a long, curved sword to Aikawa. “The house has its own power supply, divorced from the Net. And a teleport block. And weapons. Let him come.”

“There is a dip in power in the Net,” Ishtar said, looking at something that was invisible to the rest. “He is preparing something…”

As she spoke, a bolt flew out of the clear sky and crashed into an invisible barrier over the house, sending a tremor through the floor as something in the basement began to screech.

“Oh, and a protection field,” Sheida said as her lizard took off in fright from the impact. “That was from the Council Chambers themselves. We can’t reply directly but…” She opened her mind to the Net and delved in, looking for weaknesses. “They’re drawing power directly from the Net, but they’re not hooked into a particular plant.” She considered the protocols and twisted. “I need a vote, all in favor of disconnecting all power distribution say ‘aye.’ ”

“But if we do that…” Ishtar temporized just as another bolt crashed into the screen.

“That barrier won’t hold forever,” Sheida said. “And if they get smart they’ll just burn the rocks out from under us.”

“People will die,” Aikawa said.

“We’re about to have a war,” Sheida replied. “And we don’t have enough time to debate. We can’t take all the power plants to our own control, they already tried that and the protocols are against it. But if we send people to take physical control we can control the power distribution.” Her forehead creased and then she nodded. “I just dropped a half a dozen satellites on them. That should make things interesting. And I’m diverting as much power out of the Net as I can to melt the ground under them. Of course, we’re more vulnerable to that than they are.”

“I just increased the power over this place,” Ishtar said as the next bolt stopped well in the sky. “And I sent a similar bolt against them. There is an upper limit to power available from our personal queue. I’d never realized that. It’s… rather high, though,” she added as another blast caused the mountain to shudder. “I suggest that we reinforce the foundations of this place. Soon.”

“Mother won’t give any of us unlimited power, that’s a holdover protocol from the AI wars,” Aikawa said. He thought for a moment. “Okay, we disconnect all generators from the Net. What does that do?”

“We’ll have to draw from them individually,” Sheida said. There were fourteen terawatt generators that supplied power for the Net along with some relatively small secondary sources such as geothermal areas where the nannites bled off power to prevent eruptions and other disturbances. There had been a time in history, shortly after the AI wars, when the power had peaked at over thirty terawatts. But use of that much power on the surface of the planet had led to severe secondary problems and as the population had peaked the power allotment had stayed the same but usage dropped. There had been occasional calls for increases in generation, but when output got over twenty terawatts, much of it had to be diverted to climate control.

“That means that whoever has the generators, has the power,” Ishtar said. “I’m tracing the flows that they’re using right now and they’re drawing on spare power from two of the reactors in Ropasa. If we can prevent them from gathering power from the others…”

“Then we start calling in people that we know we can trust to go and take physical possession of the generators,” Sheida said with a nod. “At that point we will control their output and Paul can’t have it.” Her face creased and she smiled. “Okay, I’ve joined Ishtar in hammering the Council Chamber. I also put a teleport block over them.”

“That takes power, too,” Ishtar said with a frown. “And two can play at that game; one just went on here.”

“Yes, but I have a decent road out,” Sheida laughed. “Let them try walking out of the Council Center.”

“Then we end up having fights for the generators,” Ungphakorn said, ruffling his feathers furiously. “We’ll have to shield each of them.”

“But I’d bet money I have better friends at that sort of thing than they do,” Sheida replied, nodding. “Okay, avatars on the way.”

“We’re taking power from general usage already,” Ishtar noted in wonder. She looked up at the hills around the house. Where once had been trees towering into the sky was now a blackened heath; the secondary effects of an irresistible force hitting an inanimate object. “There’s enough to sustain the Net currently, but if we keep this up…”

“If we don’t keep it up, Paul and his ‘five year plan’ wins,” Sheida replied. “We can’t let that happen.”

“And we have two additional Keys,” Aikawa noted, holding one up. “That puts us at near parity with them.”

“But we don’t have anyone to vote or use them,” Ishtar said. “We need two. Two that we can trust.”

“I know one,” Sheida said.

“The power grid…” Ishtar gasped, her eyes staring into the infinity of the Net. “The power grid is… going down.”

* * *

The two fighters circled each other warily each searching for an opening. They were armed and armored alike, mail, helmet, a cuirass and shield, wielding long swords easily in their right hands.

After a moment’s fruitless circling, the larger sprang forward with a yell and jammed his shield against the smaller man’s shield, searching over it for a strike.

Harry Chambers laughed and fell back at the shield charge, swinging his sword to the side to skitter over the larger fighter’s shield edge.

“You’re getting slow in your old age, Edmund,” he chuckled, dancing out of range.

“So are you,” Edmund replied, but he had to admit to the reality of the statement; he and Harry had been sparring for years and never had the lighter fighter taken the shield rush that easily. “That just means I have to be craftier.”

“Fat chance,” Harry replied, leaping forward with a series of blows. He rang blow after blow off of Edmund’s shield, careful not to snap the blade on the boss or the metal-rimmed edge. But the series of blows had their intended effect, driving Edmund back for the first time that he could recall. “Weak, Edmund. All this soft living is making you weak.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Edmund gasped, trying to retaliate. But his blows rang softly against the lighter fighter’s shield and he could not check the rush. Finally, he stumbled, a misplaced piece of kindling rolling out from under his foot, and he dropped to one knee, holding the shield above him now to wield off the blows.

“Weak, Edmund,” Harry cried in delight; it was the first time he could recall succeeding this easily. He considered for a moment if maybe he should back off, but he still hadn’t landed a strong blow, just a series of chops on the shield that was slowly battering the reinforced plywood.

“Yes,” Edmund gasped, drawing his sword back. “I guess I’m too old,” he continued as the sword flew forward, well under his opponent’s, and crashed into his thigh. There was a spurt of blood and Harry let out a shriek. Suddenly, things weren’t what they seemed.

“Lord God, Edmund!” Harry shouted, crumpling to the ground, his hand clapped over the spurting wound. “What did you do to your sword!”

The sword’s own blunting field should have stopped it from doing any cutting damage, although Harry would have had a Charlie Horse to remember. For that matter, Harry’s own defensive field, reduced as it was, should have prevented the contact. Neither had activated.

“I didn’t do anything,” Edmund said, dropping to both knees and grasping his friend’s hand. “Let me see.”

“It bloody hurts!” Harry shouted. “Bloody hell does it hurt!”

Edmund pried the younger man’s hand away and looked at the wound. It was a deep cut, on the outer thigh. The sword had cloven through the ring-mail and underpadding, then into the flesh of the quadriceps. It was bloody, but it wasn’t life threatening; there was no bright red spurting of arterial damage or even the slow, solid flow of a cut vein.

“It’s only a flesh wound,” Edmund said, frowning.

“It’s a bloody painful flesh wound,” Harry replied, sitting up on one elbow since the shock of surprise had worn off. “Edmund, why isn’t there a repair cloud on it? Why does it hurt?”

“Why did the damned sword go home?” Edmund asked, rhetorically. “Butler.” He paused for a moment then frowned. “Butler!”

“Genie?” Harry said. “Oh, shit, Edmund. Genie!” There was no reply. No voices answered out of the air and no projections appeared.

Edmund looked around. They were in the training area behind the forge, one of three on his property. He finally shrugged and got his arm under Harry. “Keep your hand on that and I’ll get you into the forge.”

“Okay,” Harry said faintly. “I’m not feeling particularly well.”

“It’s shock,” Talbot explained, leading his limping friend into the building. “I need to get you laid out again.” He first sat the fighter down on a bench then laid out some leather mats before lowering him to the floor. “Carborundum!”

“Not a good situation, is it, O meat bag?” the AI said, sticking its head out of the blast furnace.

“What in the hell is going on?” Edmund asked, as he searched frantically for something that was reasonably clean to place on the wound. Finally he settled for a fresh batch of cosilk waste and pressed it into the mess on Harry’s leg. “Why are you responding and the genies aren’t?”

“The Net is down,” the AI replied. “The Council is fighting amongst itself. They’re diverting all power, and all processing power, to that. I am an independent entity.”

“Oh… hell,” Harry groaned. “No bloody nannites?”

“Nope,” the AI said. “Not unless something falls out quick. You’re not the only ones who are in a bad way; nobody has any power anywhere. That means no food, no water, no light. Things are starting to get bad already.”

“Paul’s coup,” Edmund muttered, looking around the forge.

“What?” Harry asked.

“Sheida told me that Paul might be planning a coup. We discussed means of defense. Carb, where do the AI’s stand?”

“Most of them are sitting it out,” the AI replied frankly. “The only thing that can destroy us is the Council, acting in concert. Whichever faction wins will come down hard on the loser’s supporters.”

“Where do you stand?” Edmund asked, wrapping a leather strap around his friend’s thigh to keep the cosilk in place.

“I’ve read Bowman’s manifesto,” the AI said, acidly. “I don’t think so.”

“Can I read it?” Edmund asked, standing up.

“I could read it to you,” Carb said. “But I can’t produce it. I’m… somewhat lacking in power myself.”

“How bad is it?”

“Well… how much charcoal do you have?” the AI asked.

“Not all that much,” Edmund admitted. “We’re towards the end of the cycle. But if I parcel it out…”

“If I drop below eight hundred degrees C, I’m toast,” Carb said, bluntly. “Or, rather, I’m not toast, so I’m dead.”

“Dead, dead, or quiescent?” Harry asked.

“I might be able to back up a few functions, but I’m not sure I’ll recover,” the AI admitted. “Call it mostly dead and maybe unrecoverable without a miracle. Which doesn’t look likely right now. By the way, Sheida is calling in all her markers; you’re going to get a call soon.”

“I’ve got to see to Harry,” Edmund responded. “Then to the village. I’ll talk to her when I have to.” He turned to Harry and waggled a finger at him. “Don’t you die while I’m gone!”

“I’ll try not to,” Harry said weakly.

Edmund trotted across the courtyard, the weight of his armor virtually unnoticed, and entered a side door of the house. Down a corridor in a long-unopened storeroom he pulled open a locker and rummaged to the bottom. There he found a pack and dragged it out. A quick check of the contents sufficed and he ran back to where the injured fighter was lying.

“I didn’t know you knew any AI’s,” Harry said when he entered. The injured fighter’s color was, if anything, a tad better.

“It wasn’t supposed to be general knowledge,” Carb said. “But, all things considered…”

Edmund unbuckled Harry’s armor and started stripping off the pants.

“Edmund, I never knew you cared,” Harry joked, helping with the heavy steel. “It would be easier if I stood up.”

“It would be harder if you passed out,” Edmund replied, pulling the armor away from the wound. The cosilk padding was quickly cut with a belt-knife, then he opened up the green backpack and started rummaging through packages.

“What’s all that?” Harry asked with a tone of deep interest.

“Very old fashioned medical gear,” Edmund replied, withdrawing a bottle of antiseptic and some small, clear packages.

“This is gonna hurt,” he said in an offhand manner as he poured much of the contents of the bottle of brown liquid into the wound and onto his hands.

“JESUS ON A CRUTCH!” Harry yelled, practically sitting up. But he didn’t bat the bottle away. “What was that?”

“Something called ‘betadyne’ that they used to use back in the ooold days,” Edmund replied. “It’s okay, next we’re talking really medieval medicine,” he continued, pulling a curved needle out of one package and a long piece of string out of the other.

“Is that what I think it is?” Harry asked.

“Would you prefer some boiling pitch?” Edmund asked. He pulled some clamps out of the bag and shut the wound, then began applying the suturing needle. “I mean, that would be really period. Nothing like a nice cauterization to start the day.”

“No,” Harry replied, gasping as Edmund tied off the first suture. “Stitching is just fine. Antique, but fine.”

“Hell of a lot of damage to the quad, here, buddy,” Edmund said, putting in another stitch. “Sorry about that.”

“No way you could have known,” Harry said with another gasp.

“Tying them off is the hardest part,” Edmund commented. “We’re going to be calling you Gimpy for a while.”

“Edmund, can I ask a question?” Harry said, as the third suture went in.


Why do you have an old-fashioned medical kit?”

Edmund hesitated for a moment then tightened the last suture. “In case I’m someplace the nannites don’t do all the repairs.”

“But the only place like that is…”

“Edmund Talbot?”

Edmund spun in place on the floor and pointed the sword he hadn’t even realized he’d carried in at the apparition, which turned out to be an avatar of Sheida Ghorbani.

“Edmund, Paul attempted his coup,” the avatar said. “I need every person who has any training in… well in war, here with me. He has already attacked power plants and I need them secured. I can port you now.”

“No,” Edmund replied, lifting Harry to a sitting position.

“Edmund, I know you would not side with Paul. He represents…”

“I know what he represents,” Edmund replied. “I’m not siding with Paul. But I’m also not leaving here. Make sure that you tell Sheida that and that she’s thinking tactically instead of strategically. Tell her that.”

“She wishes you to become a Council member,” the avatar said.

“What does that mean?” Edmund asked.

“They seized two Keys in the fight in the Council Chamber. She wishes you to vote one.”

“Holy shit,” Harry whistled. “Council member.”

“No,” Edmund said after a moment’s thought. “Tell her that this is my place. We have to rebuild before we can do anything. She needs me here. Tell her, strategic not tactical.”

“I shall,” the avatar said, winking out.

“What in the hell did that mean?” Harry asked, leaning into the older fighter. “Bloody hell that hurts.”

“Well, let’s go get you some anesthetic,” Edmund said. “Fortunately, I just put up some corn liquor; it should be about mellowed out.”

“Sounds good to me.”

They limped into the house and into the kitchen, where Edmund dumped Harry in one of the chairs and began opening cabinets.

“The first thing you need is a fluid replenisher,” Edmund said, sliding a bottle across the table. “Then, the moonshine.”

“This is just great,” Harry said, taking a deep chug of the blue liquid. “Everything’s gone?”

“It sounds like it,” Edmund said.

“I can’t go home,” Harry said, taking another drink.

“Not unless you can walk to London. Robert has been building period ships, not Middle Ages period but sloops and barkentines, that sort of thing. He might be able to get you home.”

“Daneh? Rachel?”

“No communications,” Edmund replied, taking a sip of the moonshine. “No way to know. I suppose if I’d taken Sheida up on her offer…”


“It’s happening all over the world, everywhere,” Edmund said, coldly. “Not just my family. Everyone’s family. Think about how bad it must be out there. We’re in a room that is designed to survive without power. Think about Fukyama in his damned floating castle!”

“Ouch, good point. And you’re staying here?”

“First of all, can you imagine anywhere better to be?” Edmund asked, waving around at the fixtures. The hams hanging from the rafters, the garlands of onions. “Where should I go?”

“The south road to find Daneh and Rachel?” Harry suggested.

“Perhaps,” he sighed. “But… people know where this place is. Do you know how rare that is; that someone can find a location on a map? People will come here. The term’s so old it’s like ‘slave’ and ‘villeigne’ but we’ll get ‘refugees’ coming here, on the roads that remain.”

“ ‘All roads lead to Faire,’ ” Harry said.

“Damned near all that are left. So, do you want to leave Myron in charge? Or Tarmac?”

“No,” Harry said.

“That’s what I meant by Sheida thinking tactically. Unless one side wins right away, this… this war, speaking of another old term, is going to drag on. And if it does, somebody has to be down on the ground, picking up the pieces. I think my place is there, not standing guard over some damned fusion plant.”

“And if Paul wins?”

“In that case, my place is vengeance.”


“I suppose I deserved it,” Rachel sighed and moved her wyvern.

The three-dimensional chessboard was a large hologram of ascending platforms. Different pieces could move in different ways and all pieces were not equal. Stronger pieces, by and large, could move only horizontally, crossing to higher or lower grids at specific points. Flying pieces, though, like the ascending levels of dragons, could move up or down however many places were available by their movement. However, they could not destroy all “land” pieces. This time, however, her wyvern had stooped upon one of Marguerite’s pawns that was in a strategic spot, and a wyvern could kill a pawn. There was a brief flurry of battle and then the pawn fell in battle and reappeared on Rachel’s side of the board.

“That’s stupid,” Marguerite replied, reaching out one ephemeral hand and directing her mother dragon in counter. “You’re practically a grown up! You should be able to control your own body. Body control is where all control starts. If you don’t have control over your own body you don’t have anything. Look at me.”

“But your parents approved changing you into nannites. Mom doesn’t approve of any modification. I mean, she’s really into ‘natural’ you know?” Rachel’s castle moved up a space, leaving it a straight shot to put Marguerite’s fortress in check. The pawn had been in the way before.

“What an old fogie,” Marguerite said, looking at the board. “I think I’m going to have to start using a program to play you. You’re getting ready to beat me again.”

“I’m sorry, Marguerite,” Rachel said. “But, well, you’re so much better at physical stuff than I am it’s only fair that I be better at chess.”

“I suppose,” the nannite girl sighed. “Frankly… this being nannites isn’t all its cracked up to be. I mean… there’s a lot different you know? Can’t go some of the places I used to be able to. Not really… feeling the same. The emotions just feel… unnatural, you know?”

“Well, no I don’t,” Rachel said looking up at her friend. “But…”

“Rach…” Marguerite said, her face tightening. “Rach… some-thing’s happening…” Marguerite reached out her hand to her friend as it started to fade. “Rach… help… me… please…”

Rachel reached for her friend’s hand as Marguerite faded, wondering what could have gone wrong. But before she could get across the oversized board Marguerite had faded fully. In a moment all that was left was a mound of bluish dust.

“Marguerite! Marguerite?! MOM!”

* * *

Donna Forsceen found herself going nearly forty kilometers per hour in a flat dive through the air as the power-ski under her failed. Not expecting to actually hit the water, she was knocked half unconscious by the impact. On flailing back to the surface she looked around at the vast expanse of water and screamed.

“Genie!” she yelled, paddling around in circles. She had never been a particularly good swimmer; it wasn’t necessary if you used power properly, but at the moment nothing seemed to be working.

“Genie!” she yelled again, lying flat in the swells and willing a power-up to drive her towards Hawaii a hundred miles to the north. Still nothing happened.

“Genie?” she said more quietly, looking around. A wave came up and slapped her in the face. She sank again and then clawed her way to the surface looking around in desperation. “Anybody? Help,” she said quietly.

* * *

It was happening throughout the world as in an instant power was diverted wherever possible into the battle between the two factions of the Council. And, as it was, every being that did not have a specific coded quantity of power and that was power dependent found itself in critical danger. Researchers in the photosphere of the sun disappeared before they knew anything had failed, as did others working in magma chambers. Swimmers in the deeps of the oceans, dependent upon the personal protection fields for their survival, persons flying wingless under power, thousands across the globe suddenly found themselves in situations in which without power there was no chance to survive.

For others, the Fall would take longer.

* * *

“What happened to her?” Rachel asked.

Daneh looked at the pile of powder and shrugged. “There’s been some sort of power failure. All the force doors are open, the holograms are gone and genie’s not replying. I can’t even send a message. There’s just… nothing. I think that’s what happened to her. She’s nannites. No power means… no Marguerite.”

“She’s… dead?” Rachel asked. She’d gotten over the tears but they welled up again at that question.

“Dead’s one of those things that’s pretty hard to define when you start talking about nannite creatures, honey. Was she alive? Did she ‘die’ when she was Changed? If you’re talking about her soul, you’ll have to ask a priest.”

“I’m talking about the part that is my friend, Mother,” Rachel replied astringently. “If we can find power for her can we… bring her back?”

“Ah, that.” Daneh’s brow creased in thought. “It depends on the design of the nannites. I think her parents probably didn’t stint so they probably have a fixed memory system. Likely if she gets power again she’ll just come right back to the moment she lost it with no knowledge of the intervening conditions.” The mother shrugged as she looked at her daughter. “It depends why the power went off. I can’t imagine what could have happened to cause this. It’s impossible. I can’t even get ahold of Sheida.”

“What are we going to do?” Rachel asked, looking around as if finally realizing that something terrible had occurred besides her friend crumbling before her eyes. “Without power…”

“Where’s the food going to come from?” Daneh said with a nod. “Good question. I suppose we could try to train Azure to hunt for us. But it’s surely going to come back on…”

“People of the world…”

The image appeared to every surviving person who had not moved far from their position since the beginning of the war. The Net, of necessity, had to track every person’s location so that it could provide them with their needs. And it was possible for a council member to use that information. As, in fact, Paul Bowman had done.

“People of the world,” he said, each of the avatars addressing persons personally. “A time of great danger is upon us. A faction of the Council, led by Sheida Ghorbani, has attempted to wrest control of the Net from the rest of the Council in a wholly undemocratic form. The Council is now split into two fighting factions. Minjie Jiaqi, Ragspurr, Chansa Mulengela, Celine Reinshafen and myself constitute the New Destiny group.

“It is clear that the human race is approaching a collapse caused by declining birthrates and the challenge caused by unlimited Change. When we attempted to redress some of these problems we were repeatedly confronted by the intransigence of Ghorbani and her conservatives. Finally the disagreement reached the point of outright warfare, instigated, need I add, by the evil Ghorbani.

“Now, due to the intransigence and antihuman actions of Ghorbani and her Changed minions, the power network is in collapse and persons throughout the world are threatened with the ancient evils of famine and disease. All because of one woman and a few beings so Changed as to be nothing but aliens.

“I call on all right-thinking peoples to rise up against this evil and throw down Ghorbani and her ilk, to arise as humans should and support the right-thinking faction.

“I call upon you to do your utmost to ensure a better future for all true humans.

“Good day.”

“What the hell did that mean?” Rachel gasped as the avatar winked out.

“Oh, holy God,” Daneh whispered in reply. “No. God no!”


“Read between the lines, girl!” Daneh snapped. “ ‘The challenge of unlimited Change,’ ‘antihuman actions,’ ‘Changed nothing but aliens,’ ‘it is clear that the human race is approaching a collapse…’ ” She hissed through her teeth and snarled. “That bastard!”

“But, Mom, you don’t like Change!” Rachel snapped.

“I don’t like the damage it does to humans,” Daneh said. “He’s a bigot. There’s a huge difference. And now he’s in a war with my sister.”

“Which is taking all the power?” Rachel said.

“Right. And Sheida is stubborn as hell…”

Both looked up as another figure appeared, this one much more familiar.

“Men, women and children of Norau, I bring you grave news.”

“As you’re now aware, the power network has fallen. This message is all the power that is available for me to talk to you. My image is appearing in all places that persons were at the time of the Fall within the former reaches of the North American Union. Which means not everyone will see this, but it is the best we can do at this time.

“Paul Bowman and a faction of the Council, just a short time ago, attempted to wrest power from the rest of the Council. They did so by releasing poison insects, attuned to the DNA of council members opposed to them, into the Council Chamber.

“It was the intent of Paul’s faction to establish a tyranny with the intent of… hardening humanity and ‘bringing it back to the path of righteousness,’ and I quote.

“In one way the attempt failed. I, Ishtar, Aikawa Gouvousis and Ungphakorn survived. I regret to inform you that Javlantugs Cantor was killed by the poisons. However, we were not idle and in the short battle seized control of enough Keys to check his direct action through the Net.

“In another way he was very successful; it was Paul’s intent to strip most of the world of its wealth of energy and throw people back upon ‘work’ as a way on the path of righteousness. In that he succeeded. Until one side or the other submits, or is defeated, all available power is being diverted to the battle among the Council. This battle rages even as I speak and does not look to end soon. It is imperative that you seek such shelter as there is and prepare for a long period without the comforts and support that has become the norm. Because we, Ishtar, Aikawa, Ungphakorn and myself, refuse to give in. The castles in the air have fallen and the dragons are grounded, but I refuse to let him win.

“Until this is decided, however, it shall be hard. Most of you live in habitations and locations unsuitable to this lifestyle. I urge you to prepare to move to more suitable locations. To those who are better prepared, I understand the burden but you must take it upon yourselves to help those less fortunate. To the extent that we can, the Council will aid you. I will be contacting leaders within local communities soon and giving what support I can.

“To those of you who find yourselves in current peril or facing famine, find a local community that is prepared to survive in these conditions. Do not despair, for despair will kill you as surely as famine, cold or injury. Prepare wisely, then move to safety. In time we will start to reclaim this world and all that was once ours. But we will never be able to if we turn over the reins of power to fascist madmen.

“Paul’s vision is ancient, as ancient as the slavery of the Hebrews and deaths by the hundreds of millions at the hands of a group called ‘communists.’ He says that it is for the good of all mankind, but then counters that, of course, a small group will continue to enjoy the conditions that everyone else has had stripped from them. Words such as this resound throughout history and in every case they have meant enslavement and death.

“Our faction of the Council could submit to Paul. The power would come back on, some of the normal amenities of life would prevail. For a time. Until he and his council of dictators discovered the next ‘path of righteousness,’ the next ‘true form’ of humanity.

“And all of us would be his powerless slaves.

“I choose not to be a slave. I choose not to enslave my sister’s children and the children of my friends. I choose to fight.

“On the shores of this land, once upon a time, was a great nation called ‘America.’ It is from the seeds of this nation that our present culture derives. The beliefs of the nation were simple: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

“Through their vision, and their beliefs, the people of America, often alone, fought the tides of history and despotism and finally created our society, one in which all of those rights, and more, were protected.

“Paul Bowman, Celine Reinshafen, Minjie Jiaqi, Ragspurr and Chansa Mulengela stand in opposition to those beliefs.”

“I wish that it were possible to take an accurate poll of the feelings of all of you. But I cannot. I can only hope that you stand with me, and the rest of the Council, as this black night descends upon us.

“But I believe, together, that we can win through this night, and create once again that society that we hold so dear. The way will be long, but we will stride it together, one nation, one people, conceived in the concept of liberty and true to those philosophies that we hold so dear.

“Thank you, good night, and good luck.”

“Sheida?” Daneh said as the image winked out. “SHEIDA??? Oh, great. Not a word for your sister?”

“I guess she was just a little focused on her problems,” Rachel said, then snorted. “Not like anyone I know in the family.”

Daneh shrugged agreement at the same time as she gave her daughter a quelling look. “Well, if she’s in that much trouble, it means that the world is screwed.”

“It can’t be that bad, Mom,” Rachel said with a shrug. “Could it? I mean, it’s the forty-first century. Things like this just don’t happen!”

“Well, it’s happening,” Daneh said with a frown. “Right here and right now.” She sighed and shook her head unhappily. “Why now? Why us?”

“Well… why doesn’t one side or the other just give up?” Rachel asked. “Mom, people are going to die. Some already have,” she added, gesturing at the pile of blue dust.

“More than Marguerite, and more thoroughly,” the woman said, shaking her head. “I know delving geologists who work in the magma. They’re gone.” She shook her head. “Gone. Just like that. No warning at all…”

“Mom?” Rachel said after a few moments. “Mom. Why doesn’t one side just quit? Say ‘Okay, have it your way, it’s not worth fighting over?’ I mean, it’s not worth people dying, is it?”

“Some things are,” Daneh said after a moment. “It’s hard to explain that without understanding history. Sheida does understand history. But bad as fighting is, will be, the deaths that are bound to occur, as bad as that is, some things can be worse. I’d tell you to go look up things like the Cultural Revolution, the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge, but there’s no way to look it up.”

“The Holocaust and the Khmer I remember from history reading,” Rachel said. “But people are going to start dying soon. I mean, the war is going to do the same thing that the Khmer did, in its way. We don’t have any farmers, Mom. Without farmers, we don’t have any food. And you don’t just pick it up. It’s a skill.”

“Good girl, now you’re thinking,” Daneh replied. “But there are some farmers.” She looked at her daughter significantly.

“That’s the point, Mom,” Rachel sighed. “There were farmers in Cambodia. But the Khmer and that guy… Pol something… he sent people from the cities out to farm. They didn’t know how and they were told how to do it wrong and millions died. Mom, I don’t know what day to start plowing, do you?”

“Oh.” Daneh thought about that for a moment and nodded. “No, I don’t, but Myron does, and so do his sons.”

“If you think I’m going to marry Tom or Charlie and settle down as a farm girl you’re out of your mind, Mom,” Rachel chuckled. “I’m going to be a…” Her eyes widened as she realized how much had been lost. “I was going to be a doctor, Mom. What in the hell can you do under these circumstances? There’s no nannites!”

“Uhmm…” Daneh said, her eyes widening. “Oh… damn. You’re right. Not only that, no… medicines. Those were chemicals that were used prior to nano-insertion techniques. No medicines, no tools.” She shook her head. “I don’t even know how you… I think the term is ‘suture’ a person, that is sew them up.”


“It’s how they used to close wounds,” Daneh explained. “But if this is going to go on for some time, we need to get ready to leave. There’s not much food in the house. We… we need to get to Raven’s Mill.”

“How, there’s no porting!” Rachel said then shook her head. “You’re not thinking of walking are you? We don’t even have horses.”

“Yeah, I wish now we hadn’t gotten rid of Buck,” Daneh said. “Well, we might as well get used to it. We need to go find some of the Faire stuff. There’s… sacks and things. I think I’ve got some traveling food around…”

“Mom, it would take weeks to walk to the Mill!” Rachel practically shouted.

“Would you rather stay here and starve?” Daneh asked, grabbing her by the arm and shaking her. “Do you think that Sheida is going to just give up? How about Bowman? If they don’t, Nothing Will Work. No food. No water unless we dip it out of the river! We have to get to the Mill and we have to get there before our food runs out! And you’d better hope that the weather holds.”

Overhead, in the clear sky, thunder started to rumble.

* * *

“This is too complex,” Sheida said, shaking her head as she arose from Dream. “An elf couldn’t keep up!”

“We need to break it down in such a way as it is legs complex,” Ungphakorn said, spreading his wings. “We have control of generators but we are throwing groups into them willy-nilly. We need to form teams…”

“We need to be able to concentrate on one particular area,” Aikawa said. “We are starting to break out into regions again by taking the generators and controlling the power locally. We should start thinking about that.”

“Are you saying form regional blocks?” Ishtar said, irritably. “To what purpose?”

“We need to start thinking of the world again,” Aikawa said. “We’re going to have to help people rebuild. And we need to consolidate our power base. If humans are to survive this, they are going to have to learn to rebuild. We need to encourage that. And that is a regional function.”

“This is a battle between factions of the Council,” Ishtar said. “Not between nations.”

“Now, it is,” Aikawa said. “Don’t ask me about tomorrow.”

* * *

“We have to make plans!”

“I don’t have much food in my house, where are we going to get food?”

“People are going to be coming here, we need to get ready to take them in!”

“Take them in? We don’t have enough for ourselves!”

As if by pre-formed agreement, the permanent residents of Raven’s Mill had made their way to the pub, despite the sudden and unexpected thunderstorm. The temperature outside was dropping and the wind rattled the solid doors and shutters of the inn. What it was like inside was well-nigh indescribable.

“OYEZ!” Edmund yelled after a few minutes of shouted debate. John Glass and Tom Raeburn looked like they were about to start beating on each other. “This is out of control. We’re going to have order here or I’ll start cracking heads.”

“And I’ll help,” Myron said. “I’ve got food in my storehouses. I’ll not be selling it in penny packets to madmen so we’ve that. The planting season is nearly here. As long as the weather clears we’ll be fine.”

“But not if we start taking in every person who comes here!” Glass shouted.

“ORDER! We will have order here!”

“I nominate Edmund as Speaker, hell, mayor,” Tom Raeburn said. Myron’s bullnecked son had his jaw set hard, but he was managing to keep his temper. “We haven’t needed one before but we do now.”

“Second,” Myron snapped. “There’s going to have to be decisions made.”

“Mayor, okay,” Glass said. “But not lord. We’re to have a say. And I say that, whatever Sheida says, we’re to turn away refugees. We’ve problems enough of our own!”

“The vote at hand is whether to elect Edmund mayor,” Bethan Raeburn said, standing up. “We should keep this simple and straightforward for now. Any other nominations?”

“Me, I’ll nominate myself,” Glass said. “I like Edmund, but I don’t think that he’ll have the interests of Raven’s Mill in mind.”

“And what are the interests of Raven’s Mill?” Edmund asked. “I’m not sure I want to be mayor, or earl or lord or any other damned thing. But you’d best understand what I think are the interests of Raven’s Mill. We’re not some damn island. There are about a billion people on this earth. Maybe, maybe a couple of thousand outside of Anarchia have any ability to survive without technology. We are going to have refugees. And we’re going to have to integrate them into the society. We’re going to have to expand. And in case you didn’t understand the messages we got from the Council, there’s a war on. I was already asked to come to Sheida’s headquarters to help them. I refused because I’m thinking about the world. We’re going to have to rebuild it. And Raven’s Mill is going to be a part, perhaps a large part, of that rebuilding.

“We’re going to have to take those refugees in and teach them how to not only survive but prosper. Teach them the skills that we know. Myron farming, John glassmaking, coopering, smithing, all the things you have to have if you don’t have replicators or even factories. The first of them will be trickling in maybe as soon as tomorrow. We’re going to have to prepare for that. That is what I think, where I stand. And one more thing…” He paused and looked around the room at the sea of now thoughtful faces.

“There’s a war going on. I side with Sheida. I understand, in a way that I don’t think that even Bowman does, what his program would mean. Maybe, maybe, simply letting him take over would be for the best. But that’s only because the downside of a war in our situation is the death of up to ninety percent of the remaining population world-wide.”

“What?” Charlie Raeburn was the first to speak. “How many?”

“There’s no food. And right now there’s no way to get what food there is distributed. Where will food come from? The farms in the central plains supply the world. There’s no way to move it. The weather that just broke is probably because the weather controls broke down. What is the true weather of the world? Will we even be able to plant this year?”

“We’ll be able to get something done,” Myron interjected. “Even with weather like this. Won’t be easy, but the seeds we’ve got these days aren’t bulgur wheat. It’ll grow in a hurricane. And the output on it… well let’s just say that even with rotten farmers we shouldn’t be facing starvation after the first harvest.”

“So we can plant and grow some. But if the only people left alive are in Raven’s Mill, what good does that do the world? And as I said, I side with Sheida. The way things look, that might mean we have to fight. Hell, probably we will have to fight if no other group than bandits that want our food. This is not going to be easy.

“But I’m not going to throw a wall around the town and say ‘no, go away and starve.’ Now, the people coming in are going to think we owe them a handout. That’s not true either. But I want you all to understand that I’m committed to saving every human being that we can. For our species, for the world, for the cause of freedom that Sheida represents. And if you don’t want that than, well, I think you should vote for John. Although if everyone’s dead, I don’t know who he’s going to sell his little glass figurines to.”

“Edmund, can we do that?” Lisbet McGregor asked. The wife of the innkeeper looked troubled. “It’s hard enough supplying the Faire with everyone wanting period foods. I… we’ve got Elsie to worry about. Maybe other children in time. I’m willing to… to try to help out others. But not at the expense of our own children.”

“I don’t know,” Edmund admitted. “If we threw a wall up around the town, difficult with it just being us, mind, and turned everyone away and if we didn’t have our crops burned by the bandits that produced and if the refugees didn’t decide to just overrun us and take all our food and goods, then we might be able to survive. And it might be easier than trying to save people. But… I’d have to live with that for the rest of my life.

“Again,” he added. “The refugees coming to us will have to be shown the reality of life now. Nobody gives you anything but a smidgen of charity. After that you’re on your own. They’re going to have to learn to work. And in a way, so will we. When we tire of a project or a hobby, we go on to something different. Well, you’re not going to be pulling food from the Net either. Right now, the most powerful man in this town is Myron. He’s got all the food.” Edmund looked over and saw the shocked look on Myron’s face. “Hah! Hadn’t thought of that, had you? But if you want your thresher fixed, you’d best be willing to give some up to me. And I need a half dozen barrels and you need even more, so Donald’s sitting pretty. I don’t think any of us wants the tavern to go away so McGregor has a job. Hmmm…” He looked over at Robert and Maria McGibbon and frowned.

“Falcons hunt food,” Robert said. “Which we’ll need. And I haven’t done bowyery in sixty or so years, but that’s because I got bored when there wasn’t anything else to learn. Call me Huntsman Bob.”

“Game,” Edmund said. “The hell with sending one fellow out with a bow; the woods are teaming with game. Deer, bison, turkey, feral cattle, goats, horses and sheep. Send a hundred refugees out as beaters and drive the damned things off a cliff. This is about gathering food, not sport.”

“Save the domestics,” Myron interjected. “We can redomesticate them. The big cattle bulls we can deball and use as oxen. We’re going to need draft animals. There’s wild horses and even donkeys as well. And the horseflesh on some of them is first rate. Emu, bison, wapiti, all of them can be adequately domesticated. We can rebuild stocks out of the ferals.”

“There’s not much leather around,” Donald Healey said. The cooper used it in various ways and tended to go through a lot. “We’re going to need the skins.”

“Meat’s not all you get,” McGibbon interjected. “Bone, horn, hair, all of it is useful.”

“We can do this,” Lisbet said. “You’re right.”

“Won’t be easy,” Edmund replied. “Easy just ended. But we can do it and we will do it, so help me God.”

“Okay, okay,” Glass said, raising his hands. “I see which way this is going and I’ll even say I agree.”

“We need a vote,” Myron said. “Any other nominations? Edmund, do you accept?”

The smith looked at the ground and to the others. A weight appeared to settle on his shoulders and something old and hard seemed to be in his countenance. But when he looked up his face was clear.

“I do.”

“Any other nominations? No. All in favor say aye.”


“Opposed?” There was silence. “Passed by acclamation, Mayor Edmund.”

“But no handouts!”

“Well, a bit,” Edmund said, stroking his beard in deep thought. “The refugees that come in are going to be in shock. We can probably last one season with them still in shock but we have to get fields planted, material made. They’ll need to get on their feet and learn skills. But which skills and how? Say we… hmmm…”

“Yah,” McGibbon said. “A training program?”

“But, they don’t have any idea, most of them, how much work all of this is,” Bethan said in exasperation. “And most of them have never worked a day in their lives! It’s hard running a farm, from either side of the kitchen! I mean, just the washing!”

“And we’ll need tools, seed,” Myron shook his head. “We’ll need farmers, Edmund, lots of farmers. And that’s not just sticking seed in the ground.”

“We’ll handle it,” Edmund said definitely. “In this room is probably a thousand years of accumulated experience in how to live in preindustrial conditions. There are people in this room who know things about their skill areas that masters of any other age wouldn’t have dreamed about learning. We’ll feed the new people and teach them until they’re more or less ready to go out on their own.”

“Training program, hmmm…” Tarmac said. The innkeeper looked around in thought. “Break them down in groups, run them through a few days to a week of each of the things that we’ve got skilled craftsmen to teach.”

“Yeah,” Myron replied after a moment. “Have them do the stuff that apprentices would do. Give them at taste of the job.”

“Work them hard but slowly,” Tom Raeburn said. “Build them up to it.”

“And, remember, many of the refugees who come here are going to be Faire goers,” Edmund said with a nod. “Yeah, most of them don’t know a whipple tree from an apple-tree, but they’ve got some experience of living rough. And there are others, guys like Geral Thorson and Suwisa, makers and dealers mostly, who have really useable skills. I don’t know who is going to make it, I don’t know where anyone on Earth was when the power turned off. But some of them are bound to make it. And when they do, we’ll be as ready for them as possible.”

Edmund glanced up as a figure glistened into visibility by his shoulder.

“Edmund, I need some time,” Sheida said, looking around at the crowd. “Myron, Bethan,” she said, nodding.

“Sheida, what’s going on?!” Maria McGibbon shouted.

“Please,” the avatar said, raising her hands. “Please, I don’t have time. I’m… even now we’re fighting and it’s… it’s like fencing mind to mind. They think of a way to attack us, we think of a way to attack them. They’re dropping… rocks, satellites, things like that on Eagle Home at the moment. We’re deflecting them but that’s taking power and that means we can’t attack back.”

“When is the power going to come back?” Myron asked.

“I… I don’t know,” Sheida answered. “Not soon. Edmund, we have to talk.”

“Folks, what I want you to do is break up. Tarmac, you and Lisbet are in charge of figuring out what we need for minimal rations for refugees and where and how to serve them. Get a couple of other people together with you. Robert, you’re in charge of preparing to do large-scale hunting and gathering ferals. Get with Charlie on how to keep them and setting up a mass slaughter program. You’ve run the Faire the last couple. Get to work, people, we don’t have much time. Myron, you’re with me.”


Edmund led Sheida in to the back room of the pub as the conversation exploded behind him. But he could tell from the sound that they were working, not panicking, not spinning their wheels. They were all smart, and experienced and self-starters. All they had needed was a touch of self confidence and a direction to point. With that he could more or less let it run and just make sure it didn’t run out of control.

“You done good, Edmund,” Sheida’s avatar said.

“Thanks,” he replied then looked around. “Are you an avatar or a projection?”

“I’m… I’m an autonomous projection,” Sheida replied.

“That’s proscribed!” Myron snapped.

“So is dropping rocks on my home,” the avatar said with a sigh. “I can only handle about fifteen of these but they can give orders and gather real information while I handle things that only I can do, like give code commands to the Net. Right now, both sides are fighting for controls. We discovered that we could lock out programs and sub-programs and we’ve been doing that as fast as we can. Unfortunately, they noticed and now they’re at it. And it requires direct orders of a council member. So creating full avatars was the only way to get anything else done. Every hour or so I take a break and upload all the data I’ve gained and make any corrections I have to. It’s working. We know that because we’re still alive.”

“Is it that close?” Edmund asked.

“Every few minutes I think they’re going to finally kill me,” she answered with a sigh. “And then sometimes I think we’ve finally come up with the one true thing that is going to wipe the floor with them. And it never does.”

“Bitchin’,” Edmund said with a snort. “You need to back up. This kind of battle never gets won thinking purely tactical. Back up and take a look around for a deep strike.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sheida asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t understand the nature of the battlefield. But winning a war is not about killing your opponent, it’s about making them give up. To do that you place them in a situation where they believe, whether it is true or not, that they’ve already lost. In the best of all possible worlds, your enemy creates those conditions for you. But that takes an idiot on the other side. I take it that Paul hasn’t shown any signs of tactical idiocy. Let’s hope he’s less capable at strategy. And that is what you should be thinking about.”

Sheida thought about that for a moment then shook her head. “I don’t see anything off the top of my head. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. Later, maybe. But not right now.”

The room had a table where during the Faire Tarmac would sometimes retreat to play chess. But the rest was filled with barrels. After rummaging for a bit Talbot came up with a cup and poured some liquid out of an unmarked barrel. He took a sip and wrinkled his face but didn’t pour it out.

“So, talk,” Edmund said.

“Why didn’t you come here when I asked?” Sheida said. “The answer didn’t make any sense.”

“You, we, have huge problems,” Edmund said.

“So far I’m keeping up,” Sheida said dryly. “Maybe you should go slower, though.”

“Glad to see you’re keeping your sense of humor,” Talbot replied. “But I’m not just talking about the ‘war.’ I’m talking about the famine.”

“Yesss…” Sheida sighed. “So, any answers?”

“Why do you think I brought Myron,” Edmund said with another chuckle.

“Right now our greatest problem is farming,” Myron replied. “Or rather, lack of it and where it does exist it’s of no use. We’re going to have to have food, and soon. We still have some supplies but we’re going to burn through them fast. And other places don’t have anything.”

“We’re getting started on that,” Edmund noted. “We’ll be putting the refugees we get to work.”

“Well, Edmund, you know farming is an art more than a science, especially at this level,” Myron contradicted with a shake of his head. “Every farm, every patch of soil, is different. And it’s not as if we can run up a soil analysis. Chemistry, conditions, weather. It all comes down to knowing what you’re doing with your farm. Learning that… well… I’ve been studying it a lifetime and there’s still things I don’t know.”

“So you’re saying that everyone is going to die of starvation,” Sheida said, shaking her head. “Maybe we should just give up.”

Edmund frowned at her angrily and shook his head. “War… you know, Paul knows, nothing about war. It is said that war is the most evil thing ever invented by man. That statement is fatuous and downright ignorant. Man has created much worse things than war. More people have been killed by totalitarian regimes, during times of peace, than in all the wars in the world combined.”


“This war will be… awful. Worse, I think, than the AI wars. The lack of industry, transportation methods other than teleportation and the explosives proscriptions mean that we’re going to be forced to a preindustrial or at least pregunpowder lifestyle.”

“I… hadn’t thought it out that far,” Sheida admitted.

“Many people are going to die in the first two years…”

“Two years?” Sheida asked. “We… I was hoping that… Well wars don’t have to take that long!”

“Are you winning? Right now? Decisively?” Edmund asked.

“No, I told you that. If anything, we’re losing.”

“If you don’t lose in the next three months, and I pray you don’t, then it’s going to be a long war. And until the Council stops sucking up all the power, we’re not going to be able to recover.”

“What about more plants?” Myron interjected. “I mean… why can’t you just build more? I know it will be a race who can build them the quickest…”

Sheida sighed in exasperation and shook her head. “More proscriptions. I didn’t realize how many we worked under until this. Power usage peaked shortly after the AI wars during the regrowth period. Usage eventually got so high that it was affecting the biosphere; the heat from all the energy usage was melting the ice caps and to prevent flooding Mother was having to divert more energy into various ways of preventing it. So the Council of the time, and it was a very controlling period in Council history, when the explosive prohibitions and several others were introduced, placed a cap on construction, requirement for Council approval for new construction and roll-back targets. We were well under the roll-back targets, and still had an abundance of power, before the Fall. But now, if we lose a power plant it’s gone. We can’t get it back. And power distribution, under the Council… severance proscriptions means having physical control of the plants.”

“Ugh,” Myron said, shaking his head. “I’m beginning to understand why Edmund hated the whole system.”

“So am I,” Sheida admitted. “There’s also a fuel problem.”

“Why? The plants run off of hydrogen don’t they?” Edmund asked.

“No, they don’t,” Sheida sighed. “They run off of helium three. It’s produced by the sun and drifts out on the solar winds. It collects in various places, notably the lunar regolith and in the upper atmosphere of gas giants like Saturn and Jupiter. Hydrogen produces radioactive byproducts, H3 doesn’t. So they’re more ‘green’ this way. The problem is…”

“Who controls the fuel?” Edmund asked, warily.

“Right now, each plant is fueled for several years of maximum output,” Sheida admitted. “But the tanker will return in… five years.”

“If this isn’t over in five years,” Edmund mused, “there is going to be one hell of a battle for that tanker.”

“Yes, there will be,” Sheida admitted.

“Not a problem for right now, though,” Edmund said. “The point is, are you going to see this through? Are you going to fight to the end or give up out of weakness?”

“I’m not weak, Edmund Talbot,” she snapped. “The question is…”

“The problem is, you don’t even know how to frame the question,” Talbot cut her off. “Because you don’t understand war.”

“No, I don’t,” Sheida admitted. “That’s what I have you for.”

“The question is, is this a just war? Would you admit that?”

“I… guess,” Sheida said. “But is there such a thing as a just war?”

“There are two types of war, purely defensive and policy difference,” Edmund said. “Lecture mode time.”

“Okay,” Sheida smiled. “As long as it’s short.”

“Purely defensive is ‘you attacked me and I did nothing to cause it.’ In one way, that is the war that you are in. But not really. What we have here is a policy difference. Both sides believe their cause is just. The question is, is it a just war for you to fight?”

“I don’t know,” Sheida said after a moment. “There will be… have been… so many deaths.”

“There are preconditions worked out over history for a just war,” Edmund explained. “In short, there are seven. Just cause; right authority; right intention; reasonable hope of success; proportionality of good achieved over harm done; efforts made to protect noncombatants; and aim to achieve a justly ordered peace. I’m not going to cover all of them, but let me tell you that when the Fall happened I thought about what you had told me and what Paul said. And this war meets every item. At least on ‘our’ side. Just one thing: What is your intention?”

“To return things to the way they were,” Sheida said.

“Virtual utopia, while I found it personally boring, has got to be better than a worldwide, omnipresent, omnisicent dictatorship of the ‘right’ people, wouldn’t you think?” Edmund chuckled.

“Yes… but…”

“No buts. Remember what I said about defeating the enemy?” Edmund snapped. “It works in both directions. If you were just going to give in, you shouldn’t have started. But given what Paul did, you have to know that it’s the best thing to do. Paul is well on his way to replicating every totalitarian state in history, with the full power of Mother behind him. And that we cannot allow! Paul’s way leads to dozens of separate species of specialized insects. Not human beings with free will and the rights of man. We will survive this, and so will the human race. And we will win!”

“Yes, milord,” Sheida said shaking her head. “I hear and obey.”

“Something else to remember,” Myron said with a thoughtful smile. “What applies to us, applies to Paul and company. Who is advising them?”

* * *

“Farming is going to be our biggest problem,” Paul said gloomily. “With that bitch Sheida’s attacks we can’t move food around. And people are going to start starving soon.”

“Well, I have some ideas on that,” Celine said. “I think we can handle it quite readily. It all comes down to Chansa.”

“What do you mean by that?” Chansa asked harshly.

“Well, farming’s not exactly what you call difficult,” Celine said, waving her hand. “People have been doing it since they chipped stone after all. But the people who make up the refugees are weak and don’t know how to work. They’re all lotus-eaters, agreed?”

“One of the greatest problems with the world that was,” Paul said, nodding his head. “They shall learn to strive again, learn to work again and thereby learn true freedom again.”

Celine glanced at Chansa to see his reaction, but the giant was simply looking at Paul with a furrowed brow. Wondering exactly how much history Paul knew, Celine cleared her throat delicately.

“Are you perhaps saying something like, oh, ‘work will make you free’?”

“Why, yes!” Paul said, nodding and smiling as his frown cleared. “That’s it exactly!”

“Oh, well,” Celine said weakly. “In that case. Uhmm, where was I?”

“Farming’s not difficult.”

“Ah, do a minor modification to the refugees. Make them more resistant to physical effort, conditions, food quality. Perhaps a bit less… mentally refined; farming can be very boring work. Do a bit of selective memory work so that they are not so depressed by current conditions. Just generally… tweak them to make them more suited to the modern environment.”

“So what you’re saying is you want to make them dumb?” Chansa asked, with a raised eyebrow. “Is that how you see me?”

“No, not at all,” Celine replied smoothly. “I just want to make them strong. And… tough. Capable of surviving better than standard humans.”

“We are trying to escape Change,” Paul pointed out, frowning.

“Oh, this isn’t really Change,” Celine said. “Just… tweak-ing.”

“That will take energy,” Chansa said. “Where are we going to get it?”

“We can take it from their own bodies,” Celine replied immediately. “There is a program to enhance ATP conversion. It will leave them initially weak, but food and work will help them to recover.”

“I did not take the course that history set before me to turn the human race into moronic drones,” Paul intoned.

“No, you didn’t,” Celine hastened to agree. “But this increases their chances of survival and when the war is done we can change them all back.”


“And loyalty conditioning,” Chansa said. “And touch up their aggression. I need foot soldiers.”

“Loyalty conditioning?” Paul asked, seeming to be perplexed by the sudden change.

“For soldiers it’s all you need,” Chansa replied. “And some aggression. Like farming, soldiering does not require much in the way of brains.”

“And some basic skills,” Celine added, making a note on the paper before her. “Soldiering and farming are pretty simple. We’ll give them the baseline skills for each. They’ll all know how to plow and… well other things.”

“That should work perfectly,” Paul said, looking at his steepled hands. “Perfect.”

* * *

“The problem is, Myron, that all these refugees are weak-armed, weak-hearted do-nothing lay-abouts,” Talbot said disgustedly.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Sheida replied. “They’re all in good basic condition, much better than the average farmer in history. Just point out to them that the alternative is to starve. We’re not going to be giving food away, they’re going to have to produce it on their own. They either produce it or they die. And so do we.”

“Lovely,” the smith snorted into his pewter mug. “It may sound like I’m blithe about this but I’m not. They don’t have any skills and they’re not used to hard day-in and day-out manual labor. The last time this was tried a quarter of the population died.”

“When was that?” Myron asked.

“Pol Pot, Cambodia,” Edmund said. “Just a tad over two thousand years ago. He’d just won a civil war and decided that all the people of the cities were to move into the country and work the land. A quarter of them, three million people, died. Many of them from being beaten or killed by thugs, but most of them from starvation. There was a similar situation in the same area a few decades before, and that one killed even more people. And those groups at least had the concept of work.”

“And it’s possible that a quarter of this population will die,” Sheida replied sadly. “But if food isn’t produced, all of them will die. And there aren’t any farmers.”

“Think they can learn it, Myron?” Edmund asked with a jerk of his chin.

“It’s best if you’re raised to it; that way you don’t consider working day in and day out every day of the year to be hard,” Myron replied with a grim chuckle. “Otherwise…”

“I guess you’ll just have to do a lot of classes,” Talbot said, taking another sip of beer. That, too, was going to be in short supply soon; they’d have to concentrate on wheat over barley for the time being. “Me too,” he added with a grimace.

“You need to be running things, not beating out sword blades,” Sheida corrected.

“Well, I don’t know how much time I can take training people and also run the farm,” Myron noted. “And if I don’t run the farm nobody will be eating next winter. Not to mention the fact that I can’t be everywhere at once.”

“What about Charlie and Tom?” Sheida asked.

“Well, what about them?” Myron replied. “They’re both ready to take over, but they’re also wanting their own farms…”

“Set one of them to be the instructor?” Edmund asked. “Maybe something like an agricultural agent.”

“Mayhaps. But he could be growing food himself.”

“I’ve come up with a way to have a sort of… roving instructor,” Sheida said. “A widely roaming one. It would have some problems associated with it, among others not being home much. Ask them if one of them would be interested. Lots of travel.”

“Okay,” Myron said dubiously. “Honestly, Tom probably would. He likes the theory of farming, but he doesn’t really like the work if you know what I mean.”

“In the meantime we’ll get the familiarization program going,” Edmund said. “Most of them will end up having to farm. But you need more than farmers. Especially if this lasts as long as it looks like it might.”

“Something else to put on the list,” Sheida said, making a note. “If it works here, we’ll pass the information around and see what comes of it.”

“One other thing, Sheida, this is a war. That means that when we start supporting you, Paul will probably find groups to attack us.”

“Yes, he will,” the council woman replied. “And I’ll help you to the extent that I can. But…”

“Well, the good news is I may not know shit about fighting a Web war, but if they have a ground force commander that’s my equal, I will be very surprised.”

* * *

“Clothing,” Roberta said. Tom’s partner was the village seamstress and it was one of the first points raised when the three went back to the meeting. Sheida’s avatar had stayed since the other avatars stated that the groups they were monitoring were still mostly spinning their wheels. Raven’s Mill’s plan of setting up an apprenticeship familiarization had been passed through the avatars and was meeting with mixed reactions.

“We can grow cosilk,” Myron noted. The hybrid cotton that integrated many of the properties of silk was hardy and made excellent cloth, but it was generally considered a hot-weather plant.

“We can also raise sheep,” Bethan said.

“You can get more material per square acre out of cosilk,” the farmer pointed out. “Admittedly, wool is a lot better for cold weather; cosilk doesn’t insulate worth a damn. But I’ve only got five sheep; we’ll have cosilk in abundance long before we have much wool.”

“There’s ferals,” Robert pointed out. “You know what the ridges look like in the summer.” Most of the ferals were from modern sheep stocks that automatically dropped their wool when the weather turned warm. This had originally been a genetic design to eliminate the chore of shearing but with the ferals it meant that for a few weeks in early summer the ridgelines above the valley were dotted with patches of white. Many of the birds’ nests in the area were made of pure wool, finer than the best cashmere.

“You have some?” Edmund asked. “Cosilk that is.”

“Aye, I’ve never grown it but I know how.”

“Cosilk has more uses than clothes,” Robert said. “We’re going to need it for bowstrings, rope…”

“Better hemp for the rope. We can get at least one crop of silk in this year. Carding and spinning though… very manpower intensive. I don’t suppose there’s much chance of some powered carding and spinning plants by the time the crop’s in?”

“When?” Edmund asked.

“By September, say?”

“Maybe, there’s so many draws on the few artisans we have. Put it on the list. What’s the growing season?”

“Off the top of my head I don’t recall. After the ground is good and warm and longer here than down south; it grows better in hot climes, but, then, many things do.”

“Tea,” Edmund grumped. “I’m nearly out.”

“No caffeinating materials at all,” Myron agreed. “I’ve a few hothouse tea plants but not enough to make more than a cup or two a year. No coffee, tea…”

“I can’t believe you guys poison yourselves that way,” Sheida said disparagingly. “Caffeine is horrible for your body.”

“… No chocolate,” Myron continued.

“No chocolate?”

“It’s got caffeine in it,” Edmund said with a grin.

“Well, trace elements,” Sheida replied with a sniff. “But no chocolate?”

“Requires several products that are only grown in the tropics,” Myron said dolefully. “No chocolate. Not until some sort of trade is established.”

“Well that is going to get a priority then!”

“Citrus,” Edmund said, shaking his head. “I’m going to miss citrus. And it’s a good scurvy preventer.”

That you can grow in Festiva,” Myron replied. “If the weather settles out.”

It had started within a day of the Fall; the weather had closed in and stayed that way. Wind, rain, sleet, rivers flooding. It seemed as if it would never stop storming as all the pent-up fury of weather long leashed was released upon the land.

“It’s going to,” Sheida replied with a shake of her head. “Did you hear what happened?”

“No?” Myron replied but everyone looked interested.

“The program that did weather control was an AI, that I knew, but what I didn’t know was that it was one of the really old ones; it actually predated weather control and was a weather forecasting AI.”

“Damn, that is old,” Myron said as the wind tore at the roof of the pub. “And that means it can predict this stuff?”

“Sort of, maybe. So the Fall happens and the Council starts fighting and suddenly it’s got no power to do weather control. It’s back to forecasting. Talk about pissed.”


“Her name is Lystra, and I do mean she. Anyway, it’s not ‘hiding’ like a lot of the AI’s but it has declared itself strictly neutral. It doesn’t care who wins just that they get the power systems back on line so it can get back to controlling the weather! She’s really, really pissed.”


“Yeah, one humorous spot in an otherwise crappy situation. Lystra says about a month and a half.”

“We might be able to get one crop in the ground in time. It’ll have to dry some before we can plant. And a few more plows wouldn’t hurt.”

“I’m on it,” Edmund replied. “I’m glad Angus brought in that load of sheet stock. We need to send someone up to him to get some more material. And he’ll need food as well. We’ll have to see what we can spare.”

Myron took another sip of beer and his face worked. “So, have you heard anything about Rachel?”

“No,” Edmund said quietly as another blast shook the building.

“They’re not at home. One of me went there already but they’d gone,” Sheida said quietly. “Mother’s privacy protocols are intact, damnit, and I can’t simply order a location search without a supermajority of the Council. I’d have to do a full sweep to find them and… I just can’t spare the power. I’ve set out, well, guides, to find travelers. Hopefully one of them will find them and direct them to Raven’s Mill.”

“What kind of guides?” Edmund asked.

“There are… semiautonomous beings, like homunculi and hobs, that manage some of the ecological programs. I found a low-power update conduit that let me reprogram them. They now have the path to ‘safe’ areas mapped for each of their areas and if they find lost travelers they’ll direct them. It’s all I can do right now. Maybe later something more can be done.

“For most of the refugees, there’s not going to be a ‘later,’ ” Edmund said.


They had been traveling for nearly two weeks through the worst weather Rachel had seen in all her life.

The house had turned out to have an immense quantity of material suitable to take on the trip; Rachel had been surprised and even a little dismayed at how many of the objects in the house had to do with her father’s hobby. At times picking through the piles it had seemed as if Edmund Talbot had more of an influence on the home he had never entered than either of the people living there.

But the problem was not so much that they had items, but what items to pack. They both had good backpacks, late twenty-first-century designs that were light as a feather and fit their bodies like a glove. But filling them had taken careful thought. Finally, it was decided that the most important things were food and appropriate clothing and shelter. They had ended up leaving almost everything else. Rachel ended up packing a few items of jewelry and Daneh packed her single “period” medical book, something called Gray’s Anatomy. And with that they set out into the driving rain and sleet.

The weather had never relented. In the last thirteen days it had seemed to rain, sleet or snow an average of ten hours each day. All of the rivers and streams were swollen, and in a few cases the bridges that the hiking groups maintained were washed out. In those cases it was a matter of trying to carefully cross the freezing and swollen stream despite the lack of a bridge, or go upstream looking for a crossing place. Crossing was preferred even though the frigid water flooded under their clothes and seeped into their boots. Better to be soaked than take days out of the way. That finally happened to them at the Anar and it took them nearly two days out of their way before they found an intact log bridge.

This had taken them off the main trail that passed the small hamlet of Fredar and onto less well-tended trails through the wilderness. These weren’t any better or worse than the “main” trail, and the rain had turned them into soup as well. The boots they had dredged up were also late twenty-first century and the mud slid off them like water from a duck’s back. But the effort was still constant, to lift one wooden foot after another, slip, slide, grab at a tree or go down on your face in the sucking bog. It just went on and on in an unceasing view of trees, swollen streams and the very occasional natural meadow.

Every day had been the same. After sleeping overnight in their small tent they would get up and make a fire. They had set out snares or fish-lines the night before but with the rain they had gotten little every day. So they would eat a bit of their road-food, flip the tent into its packing form and head off through the woods. Rachel well understood how relatively well-off they were. They had warm, dry clothing designed by specialists at the very tag end of the industrial revolution for exactly these conditions. They had good footwear, excellent foods and water carriers. In this time of madness they were rich.

They had passed others on the trail who were not so well off. Now, as they crossed over another of the simple log bridges there was one slumped and twisted by the side of the trail looking like nothing so much as a pile of torn clothes.

Rachel turned her head away, hardly looking at the body tumbled up against the tree, but her mother stepped over and examined the woman thoroughly, as she almost always did, finally shaking her head and moving back to the trail.

“She had something in her bag that the dogs had been at. She was wearing waterproof clothing. And her face looks as if she wasn’t even starving.”

“She just gave up,” Rachel whispered, slipping again in the mud and grabbing at a tree as she looked at the sky. It was already starting to get dark and it was probably the middle of the afternoon. She looked over at the corpse, then at the swollen river. What was the use of putting out trotlines when nothing ever bit. “I can understand how she felt.”

“Don’t say that,” Daneh said, sharing her glance at the sky. “Don’t even think it. Think about roaring fires, well-tended thatch and beef red at the bone.”

“Food,” Rachel said. They had been traveling on half rations at first, sharing one of the automatically heating packets between them. But as the food had dwindled and dwindled, despite their efforts at foraging, they had switched to quarter rations. They had been subsisting for the last three days on less than a thousand calories a day and with the walking through the mud and the cold, body-heat-leaching rain, snow and sleet it just wasn’t enough.

“Not that much farther,” Daneh said, taking a breath. “I hate to camp by a corpse but there’s a stream right here; maybe we’ll be luckier if we put the snares down by the water. What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Rachel laughed hysterically.

“Stop it,” Daneh said, grabbing her by the collar. “Food. Fires. Warmth. That’s no more than a day or two away.”

“Sure, sure,” Rachel said with another half-hysterical giggle. “Mom, that’s what you said yesterday!”

“I’ve taken this path before,” she said, determinedly, then shook her head. “But… I’ll admit it was a long time ago.”

“Mother, tell me we’re not lost,” Rachel said shakily.

“We’re not lost,” Daneh replied, glancing at her compass. She also had a positional locator but that was only useful if the path was traced in on it. And she hadn’t had it the last time she had been through when she had been very young and stupid enough to think that a trip up to the Faire on horseback would make an idyllic time. In retrospect, it had. The weather had been fair, as scheduled, and Edmund had taken care of ninety percent of the camp chores. It wasn’t this endless slog through a swamp.

“We need to camp,” Daneh continued. “And set out our snares and lines. We’re not getting much, but not much is different from nothing.” She glanced over her shoulder at Azure as the rumpled and foot-sore house lion walked slowly over the bridge. “Maybe Azure will get something.”

The house lion had actually been bringing in most of the group’s protein. He had started off the trip in fine fittle, despite the rain, tail high and off on what looked to be a very interesting long walk. That had lasted most of the first day, but house lions weren’t well designed for long-distance travel and by the end of the day his tail was dragging. Despite that, in the morning he was sitting by the remains of the fire with a dead and only somewhat mangled possum. And he had continued to bring things in from the woods for the entire first week: twice rabbits, three more possums, a female raccoon and on the third day had turned up dragging a spotted fawn.

But by the eighth day the cat was getting as fine drawn as the humans and for all practical purposes had stopped hunting. Cats were obligate carnivores, which meant that they had to eat meat every day. Daneh had shared small helpings of the readimeals, hopefully enough to keep him from having liver damage, but the cat wasn’t getting enough food, even with his own foraging, to keep him in condition.

Daneh looked at the cat and her daughter, who had also lost too much weight, and shook her head. “We’ll rest here tonight, up the road a bit in case any more scavengers come around. We’ll lay out our snares and tomorrow we’ll do nothing but forage. Maybe we can scare some game out of the woods for Azure to catch. We’ll spend a good bit of it just resting, though. And if we don’t find anything, we don’t find anything. Day after tomorrow we’ll go on.”

“Works for me,” Rachel said, shifting her pack. “Couple of hundred meters?”


Rachel looked around at the rain-sodden woods and shrugged. In another couple of days they’d be up to the Via Appalia and some relative degree of civilization. Surely the worst was over. How much worse could it get?

* * *

“Ten more refugees today.”

June Lasker had been one of the first in. She lived in a house not far to the west, up the Via Appalia at the edge of the Adaron Range. It was comparatively well set up for the environment with wood fireplaces and a few items that could be used to cook in a pinch. But she knew there wasn’t going to be anything to cook in it and as a long-time trader at the Faire she knew right how to find Raven’s Mill. She was one of the relatively well-off refugees, having come in on her own horse and carrying the tools that had made her a successful dealer. Her stock in trade was handmade calligraphy, and the reams of parchment, inks, pens and various quills were well received; no one had thought until they were well into the plan that there was no way to keep records.

So June had become the primary archivist and was training two of the refugees as scribes, including how to make inks and paper. As soon as a few of the artisans were freed up she intended to get started on a printing press.

“Anyone we know?” Edmund asked, looking over her shoulder at the lists.

The rain beat steadily against the roof of the tent that had been set up to receive the refugees. Not far behind it was the mess tent and the sound of the chow lines forming was clear. He turned his attention to the sound for just a moment but it was slow and methodical. Sooner or later they were going to have real problems, but the refugees were, so far, just happy to have some food and shelter and people who had some idea what they were doing. Of course, there were many hysterics; the sudden change from a life of peace and perfection was not easy and that had been borne out in much crying and mnany nightmares. But the three day food and rest period seemed to do the trick. At the end of that time, most of the groups had gotten their act together and were now helping around the camp. Some had declined the requirements necessary to stay, instead hoping for something better somewhere else. Well, they could just keep looking for the pot of gold, if there was ever another rainbow.

“No, but they said there were some wagons on the road behind them. I’d guess that’s dealers.”

“I expected more before this,” Talbot mused unhappily.

“I know,” June replied. “She’ll be all right.”

“They had everything they needed to make it,” he said, definitely.

“You know, Edmund, no one would take it amiss if you got on a horse and went looking,” she said.

“I sent Tom,” Edmund replied. “Between you and me. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m taking privileges of my rank. He went to Warnan and down the trail but he didn’t find them.”


“He said that some of the people on the trail said that the bridge was out south of Fredar on the Annan. If they tried to cross…”

“They probably went around,” June said. “Daneh wouldn’t try to cross the Annan in full flood. If so, they’re on one of the side trails.”

“And I can even guess which one,” Edmund said. “But if I went out looking, all sorts of people would want to go haring off in every direction. And we can’t have that; we’re running on a knife-edge here.”

She worked her jaw but nodded in agreement. “Which makes the other piece of news I got all the more unpleasant.”

Edmund’s face was like stone except for a raised eyebrow.

“The last group in had been… set upon by a group of men. The men took everything they had of value.”

“All the wonders of period travel and now bandits,” Edmund said with a snarl. “We’re going to need a guard force faster than I thought.”

“There are plenty of reenactors…”

“I don’t want a bunch of people painting themselves blue and charging screaming,” the smith said with a growl. “This won’t be the first problem by a long shot. We’re going to need professional guards, soldiers damnit, who can get the job done in a stand-up fight. I want legionnaires, not barbarians. Among other things, I’m not going to see them become the nucleus of a feudal system or my name isn’t Talbot.”

“You need a centurion to have legionnaires,” June said with a smile. “And the proper social conditions as background.”

“If we’re lucky the first will turn up,” he said cryptically. “As to the latter; working on it.”

“Well in the meantime you’d better scratch up a few good Picts before the Norsemen get here.”

* * *

Herzer had been having a very bad week.

The Fall had caught him at home, but like most people he had little of use in the post-Fall world. His parents had kicked him loose at the earliest possible age. Neither his mother nor his father had ever said anything to him about his condition, other than to inquire if it was improving yet, but he was well aware that both blamed the genetics of the other for it. And neither of them were the sort of people who could handle the psychological burden of a child with “special needs.” They had both treated him well when he was young, more like an odd toy than a child, but a well-loved toy; however, when his palsy started kicking in they had become more and more distant until finally, when he reached the minimum age to be “on his own” his mother had pointedly asked him when he was moving out.

Thus he lived by himself. And whereas everyone had a very generous remittance from the Net, he used a good bit of it on his recreation games. Thus his home was modest and so were the things he owned; the term “minimalist” could be used for the small house in which he lived. He’d never even kept the weapons that he trained with, instead storing them “off-line” to reduce the clutter.

So when the Fall came, he was caught flat-footed.

He knew that the Via Appalia was somewhere to the north of him. And he knew that Raven’s Mill was somewhere to the west on the Via. And he knew how to find north. So he started out.

There had been no food in the house at all. And the only material for shelter was a cloak that Rachel had given him years before. It was far too small, but it served, barely, for his needs.

The greatest initial problem was that there were no human trails anywhere around his home. And the terrain and vegetation were horrible; the area was flat and covered in streams, all of them running in full spate with the weather. And the area was thick with privet plants, choking the way for miles on end.

He had followed game trails and his own nose for two days before finding the first human trail. Then he followed that north, striking for the Via Appalia.

What he found, instead, was Dionys McCanoc.

At first he’d just been glad to see him. Dionys had his usual cluster of sycophants around him and it was at least a group to attach himself to. But the attachment palled quickly. Benito had tried to make a bow and arrow to hunt, but none of the rest of the group bothered to try to find food. They had had a small amount of food when Herzer arrived, but the eight full-grown males, nine with Herzer, quickly ran through it.

After that Herzer had tried to forage, but his training had never run that way. He had borrowed a knife and whittled a gorge, then baited it and fished. But it took all day for him to catch just two fish and they were both distinctly strange looking. Neither of them was shaped the way a fish was supposed to be shaped and they had strange whiskers coming from their lips. He also had no idea how to prepare them but he finally decided that doing it the same way as game would work. So he cut of the heads, gutted and skinned them. Then he had to get a fire started in the pouring rain. Dionys had a very old fashioned lighter and with great reluctance he gave it up for the experiment. After several tries Herzer managed to get a fire going in the shelter of a fallen tree. Then he cooked the fish by sticking them on a forked stick. The first stick had caught on fire after getting too hot, nearly dropping the precious piscines into the fire and ruining them. After that Herzer kept in mind the prescription about a “green” branch for cooking. Several pieces of the fish had fallen in the fire anyway as they cooked. And when he was done there was a bare mouthful for everyone in the group. But it was something. And it was hot.

It was only this morning, after going through all of that for a mouthful of half-cooked fish, that Herzer had started to wonder about Dionys’ plans. The giant didn’t seem to be going anywhere or doing anything. He seemed to have an attitude of waiting.

As soon as he flung off the sodden cloak in the morning, Herzer braced Dionys on his plans. It had not, in retrospect, been the most politic move possible. There was no breakfast and no prospect of dinner unless one of them somehow found some food in the rain. And Dionys was not one to take a challenge to his authority lightly. He had heard about half of Herzer’s diatribe then struck the young man in the center of the chest with a punch that would fell an ox.

Herzer had been in innumerable full sensory fights but rarely with his fists and never at full stimulation; only real idiots or masochists had the pain systems turned all the way up. So for just a moment he lay in the mud wondering if the madman had killed him. Finally he got up out of his fetal curl and walked away into the woods.

He wasn’t sure where he was going, just that he wasn’t going to look Dionys in the face for a while.

He returned to the encampment after noon having found no food and no answers. Dionys, in the meantime, had sent some of the hangers on out to watch the trail. Then Dionys had gathered the rest, including Herzer, together for a speech.

“The days of weakness are over,” he said, standing in the rain with his sword unsheathed and planted on the ground in front of him. “Now is the time for the strong to take their proper place.”

It continued in that vein for a good thirty minutes as the four who were not out on watch sat in the rain and, at least in Herzer’s case, wondered where this was going. Finally the purpose of the speech got through to him.

“So, you’re saying we’re going to become bandits?” he asked incredulously.

“Only for the time being,” Dionys responded reasonably. Since Herzer returned he had been treating him with more respect than he had any of the others. “In time we will take our proper place of leadership in this New Destiny.”

“New Destiny,” Herzer said, wiping the rain out of his eyes. “Isn’t that what Paul calls his group? And doesn’t Sheida sort of have control of Norau?”

“For the time being,” Dionys responded. “For the time being. But that depends upon her allies on this continent. In the meantime we can carve out our niche and get out of all this,” he said, gesturing around at the sopping woods. “Surely you don’t want to live in this for the rest of your life?”

“Hmmm,” Herzer said, not looking around. He had done several scenarios where there were bandits to be dealt with and in most of them one of the ways to win was infiltrate the bandit camp. Well, I’ve infiltrated the bandit camp, he thought. How many points do I get?

But he suddenly realized it wasn’t about points. Dionys was deadly serious. Emphasis on deadly. The sword was not out just as a prop; he was more than willing to use it. And Herzer felt a cold chill run through his body as he realized that Dionys was primarily thinking he might have to use it on Herzer.

“Well, of course I don’t want to be in this for the rest of my life,” Herzer snorted. “And I see no reason that we shouldn’t take our rightful place.” There, absolute truth.

Dionys stared at him for quite a while and then nodded.

“Benito, Guy and Galligan are out on watch. There will, eventually, be people moving on these trails. Some of them will choose to join our little crusade. Some will have items to pass on as a toll for use of the roads. All of this to the good. Some will demur. They will have to be… persuaded.”

There was a rough chuckle from around Herzer and he realized that the entire charade had been for his benefit; the… creatures around Dionys had long since sold their souls and had no problem at all becoming bandits under the conditions of the Fall. Only then did he wonder if they had all started off as he had, a toy to be added to Dionys’ collection of fallen souls. He also realized what Dionys had been waiting for. He had been waiting until any of the remnant holdouts, like Herzer, were hungry and desperate enough to have stopped caring.

Herzer also knew that he was surrounded; probably by prior arrangement the others had gathered to either side and at his back. And whereas several of them had knives, and Dionys of course had his sword, Herzer hadn’t even found a stick that was to his liking; he was essentially unarmed.

But at the same time he finally realized just where he stood. He was damned if he’d be the villain. He was damned if he would fall to the level of banditry and brigandage, which was what Dionys was talking about even if he didn’t know the words. Herzer might have some questions about his feelings, especially his feelings about women, but he had never acted as anything other than a good and just person. And he wasn’t going to start just because he was a little hungry. There were too many strange looking fish in the world.

The only question was how to extract himself without having his throat cut. And right now the answer was: acting.

So he’d acted. He knew that acting fully convinced would be wrong, but he’d been willing to go along. Thereafter he noticed that one of the others was always around him, watching, waiting.

It was in this unpleasant state of paranoia, gnawing hunger and delayed mayhem that Benito came running back to say that they had their first customer of the day.

* * *

For purposes of foraging, Daneh and Rachel had split up with Daneh taking the south route back along the trail and Rachel, accompanied by Azure, the north.

Daneh had left three snares at likely looking small-game trails along the west side of the walkway. The snares were simple period ones, braided horsehair bound into a loop. If a rabbit or something came down the trail it would tangle into the loop and get held there until the snare was checked. Or until something else came along and ate it; that had happened more than once on the trip and they’d lost one of the snares that way. But it was the best they had.

She had reached a small stream, crossed by a simple log bridge, and was considering whether it would be a useful place to lay their last trotline when three men appeared out of the woods.

* * *

Herzer’s stomach dropped when he saw Daneh being held by Guy and Galligan.

“Dionys, this is a friend of mine,” he said. He had taken a position as far at the rear of the group as possible, but Benito was still behind him. And as the group spread out on the trail Boyd and Avis dropped back as well.

“Well, that’s a nice looking friend you have,” Dionys said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Daneh Ghorbani. And I know who you are, Dionys McCanoc. What is the meaning of this.” Daneh’s jaw was set but her voice trembled ever so slightly at the end.

“Well, there’s a toll for using this road,” Dionys replied. “I wonder what you have to pay it with.”

“You’re joking,” she snapped, looking at the group then at Herzer who was looking anywhere but at her. “You’re… you’re insane.”

“So some people have suggested,” Dionys said, drawing his sword and placing the tip on her throat. “But I wouldn’t suggest using that term at the moment, woman. Ghorbani… that name rings a bell. Ah! The wife of Edmund Talbot is it?”

“I… Edmund and I are friends, yes,” Daneh said quietly.

“How pleasant!” McCanoc replied with a feral grin. “How exceedingly pleasant. And where is your daughter?”

Daneh had been halfway waiting for the question. “She was in London when the Fall happened. I hope she’s all right.”

“Better than you, I think,” McCanoc said with a smile. “And I know just how you can pay your toll!”

“Dionys,” Herzer said with a strained voice. “Don’t do this.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t think of taking first place,” he said, turning to the boy and pointing the sword at him. “That’s your job.”

Herzer stumbled forward as Boyd struck him in the back and he found himself looking directly at Daneh. The journey hadn’t been easy on her, either; her bones stood out fine on her face and there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. He looked her in the eyes and saw in them resignation backed with something else, something very old and dark.

“Dr. Ghorbani, I’m sorry,” he whispered and leaned forward to drive his shoulder into Guy.

The man was smaller than he and was rocked out of the way. From that position all that Herzer had to do was keep his feet to start running. He made it across the small bridge in a single bound and quickly turned left, smashing his way into the brush and trees along the trail. With that, he was gone.

* * *

“Well,” McCanoc said, swishing his sword back and forth. “That was… somewhat unexpected.” He looked at Guy who was crumpled up on the ground and shook his head. “Get up from there. What a wuss.” Galligan had caught Daneh before she could get away and now held both of her arms behind her. “Hmmm… well, it’s still time to pay your toll.”

“Do it,” she spat. “Do whatever you’re going to do and be damned to you.”

“Oh, we’re already damned. Benito, hold her other arm. You others, grab her legs. I haven’t had a woman in over a week and I’m tired of jacking off.”

* * *

Herzer stumbled through the woods, looking for a stick, a tree branch, any sort of weapon. He finally collapsed to the ground, panting and crying. Even through the rain-muffled woods he could hear sounds behind him but he closed his ears to them, looking for something, anything that could help.

The forest was old grown with a thick undergrowth of bracken and privet. The branches that were on the ground were all old and rotted but finally he found a sapling that had grown to man height then died off from lack of sunlight. He tried to find his path back through the woods but the privet had covered it over. Finally he found a stream, he hoped it was the right one, and he followed it back, part of the time splashing through it. Dionys was the main threat, with his sword and size. But even Benito’s rotten bow and lopsided arrows, despite the rain, would be a danger. The others just had knives.

If he could just make it back in time.

* * *

Guy heaved himself off the doctor and looked down at her.

“Should we cut her throat now?” he asked. “That’s what we always do with the homunculi.”

“No,” Dionys said, wiping at a scratch on his cheek. “But take her rain coat and pants as penalty for not paying the toll willingly,” he laughed. “Let her live.” He kicked Daneh in the side.

“Live. Go and tell your paramour what we did. Tell him we’re coming for him. Not today, not tomorrow, but soon enough. And then, we’ll finish the job.” He gestured at the group and walked down the path to the south across the bridge. “There’ll be more where she came from.”

Daneh rolled over on her side in the mud and covered her face with her hands as the group walked off. She wouldn’t cry. She refused to let them get that satisfaction. She had stayed stone faced through the entire ordeal and she knew that that had taken some of the pleasure of it from them. It was the most she could do and she wasn’t going to lose it now.

She waited until she was sure they were gone and got to her feet, fumbling her clothes on as best she could. She wished that she could tear them off and throw them away, burn them even. But she had to have something against the cold and the wet. She stumbled to the stream and rinsed her mouth spitting out the foul taste and worked at a loose tooth; Dionys had tried to get some response out of her, but other than that one scratch when she worked her hand free she wouldn’t give it to him. There were other cuts and bruises on her body and she winced at the pull of her ribs; there might be a crack there.

Finally she sat down on the bridge and just let the rain fall until she heard steps squelching up the road. Afraid that one of them had come back for seconds, she stood up and turned to run. But it was just Herzer, holding a sapling taller than he was with dirt still attached to the rootball.

* * *

Herzer took one look at her and dropped to his knees, head down, cradling himself around the useless stick.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.


“I’m so sorry, there was nothing I could do, they would have killed me and…”

“Herzer!” she snapped. “I don’t have time for your angst, damn it. I lied about Rachel. She’s up the road. We have to find her and get her out of here before they do.”

“Rachel?” he said, coming to his feet.

“Keep. Your. Voice. Down,” she said tightly.

“I…” He pulled the cloak off his back and handed it to her. “You need this far more than I do,” he said. “And, yes, we need to get out of here.”

“We’ll talk about this,” Daneh said, taking the cloak at arm’s length. “You can walk in front of me.”

“In front…”

“Right now, I don’t like any males near me,” she said with a venomous tone. “So it’s nothing personal.”

“All right,” Herzer replied, edging past her.

“And Herzer.”


“When we get to Rachel, we’re just going to not mention that you were with the group that did this, understand?”

“I… okay. But, no, I don’t understand.”

“I put a lot of effort into saving your life,” she said bitterly. “I don’t want Edmund killing you. Or Rachel.”


Rachel had not been happy.

“I’m going to kill them!” she snarled.

“If you tried, you’d end up just like me,” Daneh said, shivering. Herzer’s cloak was a better fit for her than for the boy, but it was still a poor substitute for her rain gear. And she knew she was still shocky from the trauma of the rape. “I didn’t lie through my teeth just so that you could get raped too. Leave it.”

Azure, already wet and annoyed, wandered around her sniffing and yowling. He sniffed at Herzer as well, and seemed ready to bite, but finally he left off and wandered into the woods, sniffing at the ground.

“There’s nothing you can do, Rachel,” Herzer said tonelessly.

“You can just butt out Herzer Herrick,” Rachel snapped. “Where in the hell were you? Huh?”

“Too late to do anything,” Daneh said. “Leave off, Rachel. We need to get on our way.”

“What about the snares?” she said. “We can’t keep moving without food. Azure needs to eat at the very least.”

“He won’t start getting sick for another day or two,” Daneh said tiredly. “If we move fast we can make it to the Via in a day at most. There are towns up there; we’ll find something to eat.”

“How far up the road did you go?” Herzer asked.

“Only a ki or so,” Rachel said. “The trail is knee deep in mud up the way. Mom, I don’t know if you can make it.”

“I’ll make it,” Daneh said, standing up. “I’ll make it all the way. But I’m not going to wait here for McCanoc and his band of merry men to find me again. Let’s go.”

“God, I hope Dad is still in Raven’s Mill,” Rachel said, gathering up their few belongings.

“He will be,” Daneh replied. “I just hope that he’s willing to overlook the last few years.”

“Home is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Herzer said, quietly. He automatically took the front position, picking up Daneh’s pack and slinging it on his back. “He’ll be there. And he’ll be waiting for you.”

“He’d better be,” Daneh said, bitterly.

* * *

“Naye, naye, you have to heat it more or you’ll be hammering all day to no effect,” Edmund growled, picking up the piece of metal with tongs and setting it back in the charcoal fire.

“I’m sorry, sir, I thought…” The apprentice stepped back and looked around at the group gathered in the forge. A few weeks before, all he’d had to worry about was what to wear to the next party. Now he was trapped in this cluttered workshop, learning a trade so ancient that until the previous week he had never heard of it. And doing badly at it. It didn’t seem fair.

“It takes years to learn the blacksmith trade,” the smith replied, more softly, noting the glance. He jerked a chin at the bellows and waited as the apprentice pumped the fire hot. “Watch the color of the metal and the colors of the fire around it. When it gets white hot, pull it out and then strike. You don’t have much time, that’s why they say you have to ‘strike while the iron is hot.’ ” He leant emphasis to the words, pulling the piece out and hammering it flat, then turning it to shape. “Just a hoe but hoes are what will feed us all soon enough. Hoes and plows and parts for wagons will be your mainstay once you learn.” He thrust the half-formed metal back into the fire and jerked his chin at one of the other hovering apprentices. “Now, you tend the fire while he tries again.”

He stepped back and wiped at his face as the fledgling smith tried to get the recalcitrant metal to do his will, trying not to shake his head. With the scraps and bars that Angus had brought in, they had enough material for the beginnings of a community, but they’d soon need more. He had sent a wagon load of mixed foodstuffs up the road to Angus but the distance was far enough that the oxen would eat a good bit of the load on the way. And it would be three or four weeks before any response could come.

“What about weapons?” the apprentice asked, finally getting the hoe to form. He had got the rhythm of the hammer, and sparks struck a brilliant white in the dim forge.

“You’re a long way from making a weapon, son, other than a spear blade, which is naught more than a hoe shaped a bit differently. But swords and such, or armor, they take a tad more work. Once we have the wire puller going in the water forge we’ll get some of you to work on mail. But for the time being it’s more important to learn how to make farming utensils.” He looked out the door of the shed again, then peered more carefully.

“You all start working on hoes from this stock, I’ll be back in a bit.”

Stepping out of the heat of the forge he shielded his eyes against the sun. As if in expiation for the unending rains the skies had cleared and turned bright for the last few days as the sodden ground steamed. The temperature hadn’t gone up much but the humidity was still high, giving the area a damp chill that sapped energy and made everyone hungry for fats and carbohydrates that were in short supply. But the bright sun and haze made seeing anything at a distance difficult, which was why Edmund had to look long and hard to be sure of what he saw. Then he let out a whoop and headed down to town.

“Class dismissed for the next hour or so,” he called over his shoulder. “Try not to burn down the forge while I’m gone!”

He thought about grabbing a horse but decided that it would take more time and trouble than just walking down the hill.

As he entered the town of Raven’s Mill, which was growing in all four directions, he could see a large crowd gathered around the three wagons that had come from the east, and he pushed his way through to the center without thought until he approached the first wagon, which had stalled for lack of room to move.

“Suwisa, you’re a sight for God-damned sore eyes!” he shouted, clambering up the side of the wagon and enfolding the muscular driver in his arms.

“Why Edmund,” the woman laughed, giving him a hug in return. “I didn’t know you cared!”

“I’ve been trying to run this madhouse and simultaneously teach newbies who are as hardheaded as the metal they can’t shape,” he laughed. “So I’ll admit it’s a purely selfish reaction.”

“I should have guessed,” she replied with a grin.

“Hola Phil,” he called to the man driving the second wagon. “Still selling the condemned mead?”

“Aye, enough to drown you in if you don’t quit manhandling my wife!” the man called back.

“Let me get this cluster out of the way and get the wagons up to the forge. I assume you brought all your tools with you?”

“And spare anvils and a small forge,” Suwisa replied. “And all of Phil’s beekeeping supplies.”

“Forges and anvils we have, tools we’re lacking. And hives for that matter. We’re going to have to have a long talk.”

As he and a group of the newly forming guard force opened a path for the wagons, Edmund considered the priceless asset that had arrived.

He had known Suwisa for at least seventy-five years and had occasionally considered asking her to become his “apprentice.” The problem with that was that by the time they became friends she was a master smith in her own right. He knew things about forming metal that she did not, but the reverse was also true and the level of his “mastery” over hers was an incremental thing. Just as an example, he mostly worked in “hot” forging with metal heated to brightness whereas she generally used preformed plates for “cold forging.” He was undeniably superior at the first while she had a slight edge on him in the latter. She also concentrated on plate armor and decorative works while he specialized in blades. So it was more a matter of complementary styles than superior/inferior.

In the end he decided that if no appropriate apprentice made an appearance by the time he was getting too old to work the forge, he would probably “gift” it to her, along with Carborundum. He was pretty sure that they would get along, and judicious soundings had indicated that she had very few reservations about AI’s.

But with the Fall and his increasing responsibilities, he had despaired of having anyone come along who could take over the training of the new smiths. Smithing was nearly as vital as farming in a preindustrial economy and the number of tools that they were going to need prior to the beginning of the planting season was staggering.

Furthermore, he knew that his personality was not at the best teaching raw newcomers to the trade, especially ones he hadn’t carefully chosen. Suwisa was much more patient with the sort of hamhandedness he had been despairing of this morning.

He got the wagons up to the back side of town, just short of his house, left them with a couple of the guards and one of the pair’s grown children, and led the couple up to the house. Suwisa looked at the expanded sheds and whistled.

“How many smiths do you have in this place now?”

“One,” Edmund replied bitterly. “I’m the only one who has made it in yet, except you. I know that there were more in walking distance of the Mill, but some of the other communities are forming up as well and I guess they made it to them. Or they were on the other side of the world when the Fall hit.”

“Who all has made it here?” Phil asked.

“If you mean of ‘our’ crowd, quite a few. But… well… you know most reenactors. They don’t, actually, know diddly-shit about period life. Or, for that matter, preindustrial technology. And they’re all happy to swing swords for a bit but then they want their meals served on silver platters.”

“I won’t disagree on that, but this is tough,” Suwisa said. “Taking a few weeks to travel by wagon and sleep on the ground for fun is one thing. Having to do it for survival is another.”

“I know,” Edmund said, leading the way into his house. He waved them into chairs around the fire then poked it back to life and pulled out a jug of cider that had been warming by the coals. When he had them comfortable he continued.

“I know that things are tough,” he continued. “But until one faction or the other of the Council wins, this is what life is going to be. And we have to make it as ‘good’ as we can within these parameters.”

“Or until one side gives up,” Suwisa said, taking a sip of the cider.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Edmund replied. “Paul is in too deep and is too… fanatical I guess is the best word. And Sheida thinks the world, even as devastated as it has become, would be worse off under Paul’s unrestricted control.”

“I don’t know that I fault her there,” Phil agreed. “We heard some really weird rumors on the way over here.”

“You mean about Paul Changing people to fit the conditions of the Fall better?” Edmund asked. “We’ve heard the same. But it’s always somebody’s brother who heard it from somebody else.”

“Doesn’t Sheida know?” Suwisa asked.

“I haven’t talked to her in two weeks, so I don’t know if she does or not.”

“So what do you want us to do?” Phil asked.

“Well, in Suwisa’s case I want her to take over training all the apprentices and turning out metalwork,” Edmund admitted. “I’m up to my ass in alligators every day and I have neither the time nor the patience to handle a gaggle of apprentices.”

“Mallory and Christopher can help with that as well,” Suwisa said with a nod.

“Right now it’s all farm implements,” Edmund warned. “Real blacksmithing. But in time we’re going to need armor and swords. I’m still working on the guard force but the plan is to produce a professional military as well. And there’s a training program starting so you’re going to have to set up an orientation to blacksmithing, basically what the job of an apprentice is and a few tricks for farmers. Most of the people going through the orientation are going to end up farming.”

“All right, and how do I get paid?” Suwisa asked.

“Right now the basis of what currency we have is food chits. You can use them to trade for meals in the chow-halls or you can get raw food to cook yourself. We’ll figure out something equitable for your training time and, of course, you’ll get paid for your finished materials. We haven’t really got an economy beyond that and it’s all based on Myron’s supplies.”

“This is going to be fun,” Phil said. “That’s an inflationary economy if I’ve ever heard of one.”

“Well, yes and no. Most people get three food chits per day. If they starve themselves they have ‘extra’ money. Skilled artisans get four for days spent working on communal projects, and they can try to find materials to trade for more. But there’s not much surplus floating around. So far, by restricting the chits we’re both controlling the food supply, which is really important, and keeping the economy noninflationary. Sooner or later we’ll get large enough we have to come up with a better system, but for right now it’s working. There are too many other problems for me to want to knock it.”

“Such as?” Suwisa said.

“You’ve heard about the bandits?”

“There was a group of five guys who tried to, I don’t know, hold us up?” Phil said. “They had a few sticks and a knife. We pulled out three swords and a crossbow. They lost interest really quick.”

Edmund chuckled for a moment then shook his head. “One of the things I’m worried about is that the small communities have all the food, and other goods but right now food is paramount. Sooner or later the bandit gangs are going to start banding together and attacking the towns. I want to be ready for them before they do.”

“If there’s one thing that reenactors can do it’s swing a sword,” Suwisa said with a gesture in the general direction of the town.

“Not as well as they think they can and that assumes they have them,” Edmund said with a frown. “Most of them started out from wherever they came from with a sword or a bow or a glaive of some sort. And most of them left them somewhere as well. They’re heavy, don’t you know?”

“Damn,” Phil said, shaking his head.

“And, frankly, I’d rather have raw recruits than most reenactors with live blades. We’re going to form a militia and everyone is going to learn at the minimum to defend themselves. But I want a professional military at the core. Two tiered for right now, longbow and line infantry, the line infantry based loosely on Roman legions.”

“Why longbow?” Suwisa asked. “Crossbow is easier to train.”

“Hmmm… a lot of reasons,” Edmund replied. “Both of them have their pros and cons and you have to understand, despite the last week or so I’m talking with Sheida fairly often. I’m starting to get a grasp of what the strategic situation is and how it might fall out. So I’m thinking in terms not of days or weeks but of years of war.”

“Shit,” Phil said. “I’d hoped…”

“You’d hoped this would be over quick and we could go back to our lives. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I’m not too sure we’ll be able to go back to our lives even after the war is over. But we were talking about longbows.”


“Longbows and crossbows both have their pros and cons. Some of them are universal and some of them were specific to the conditions. Okay, here’s one: what’s the only wood you can use for a longbow that is made in Ropasa?”

“Yew,” Suwisa answered. “Well, okay, yew and ash. But you can use hickory… oh.”

“Right. One of the reasons for longbow rarity in Ropasa was the lack of materials. Which meant a longbow cost a lot. And towards the end the Britons had to import all their yew from the Continent, which was a critical strategic fault in the system. But in Norau hickory makes an excellent longbow and it is widely available. Here, longbows can be made by anyone with a knife and some knowledge.

“Cons of the longbow are rarity of materials, we covered that, difficulty of training and the fact that you have to have very physically able persons to use it. That is, they have to be physically strong and in good shape, not sick.

“Taking the last first, we’re not dealing with medieval peasants. The human of today, even those who are not Changed, are the result of multiple generations of tinkering. Do you know what ‘dysentery’ is?”

“Only from history,” Phil said. ” Diarrhea. ‘Runny guts’ as they used to call it.”

“Right. The most common reason for dysentery was water that was contaminated with the giardia cyst. On the way here, did you drink from streams?”

“Sure, we always have,” Suwisa said. “Why?”

“Did you get diarrhea?”


“That’s because you’re immune to the effect of giardia. Also the common flu, typhoid, syphilis and a host of other bacteriological and viral infections. We’re born that way; it’s bred into us. Just as greater strength, both for men and women, is innate. Women of today have the potential to be as strong as the average man was in the thirteen hundreds. And men have the potential to be enormously stronger. Furthermore, the basic… human material we have, now, from the refugees, is so much better than the average medieval peasant it doesn’t bear discussion. Taller, stronger, healthier, everything that you need for the baseline of a decent longbow archer.”

“Most of that relates to crossbows as well,” Phil said, stubbornly.

“Except for height, yes,” Edmund replied. “But the point is, it takes away one of the ‘cons’ of longbows. The next one is training. Well, I’ve seen people train to be competent, not expert but competent bowmen in four to six months. And as they continue to train they get better and better. By next fall I want to have a small but growing longbow corps. And in a few years I want it to be a large and growing longbow corps.”

“But none of that touches on crossbows,” Phil replied.

“Okay, what are the pros of longbows? They have a higher rate of firepower, for the same training, than crossbows. That is, they can put out nearly twice as many arrows in an hour and more for short periods. They are easier to manufacture; a trained bowyer with seasoned wood can turn out a longbow in an hour. And their training is identical to that for compound bows.”

“You mean ‘composite’?” Phil asked. “I’m not sure you want to use those. The glues we’d have to use to make horn-bows are hydroscopic. They’re really only good in very dry conditions.”

“Phil, I’ve been doing this for nigh on three hundred years,” Edmund said, letting the first sign of exasperation through. “Give me the benefit of using the right term. No, I mean compound, the ones with the pulleys. You can use a bow that is nearly twice the ‘standard’ strength of a longbow with compound bows because the archer only takes the full weight of the pull for about ten percent of the draw and the ‘hold’ strength is a fraction of the full strength. But, right now, we don’t have the logistics to produce them in quantity. However, in time we will. And then we’ll have archers who can be easily cross-trained to bows that have five times the potential, in combination of pull and rate of fire, of any reasonable crossbow.”

“Hmmm…” was Phil’s reply.

“Maneuvering is another problem with archers,” Suwisa interjected. “Less so with crossbowmen.”

“Not really, they both have the same problem,” Edmund said. “Resupply. Archers going into battle have to have crates and barrels of arrows. Also spare bows and other things. I’ve got some ways to fix that as well. We’ll use modern training techniques for them and for the line infantry and a four-thousand-year history of maneuver that wasn’t conceived of for most of history and generally lost even after it had been developed.”

“You’ve thought about this carefully,” Suwisa said.

“As carefully as I can. There’s more to it than that.” He paused and wondered if he really knew Suwisa well enough to cover the rest but then shrugged. “Have you realized that this might be a multigenerational thing?”

“No,” Phil said, then blanched. “That long?”

“If Sheida wins, and that’s a big if, it might not be soon. I’m not even sure how to win this war, and I’ve studied every war in history. I’m having to juggle ‘now’ constraints while thinking about what the long term effect will be of everything we do. Take crossbows versus longbows. A longbow, as I said, can be made by anyone with a knife and some knowledge. There’s plenty of game, so in a few years every farmer in the area will be trying his hand at bringing in the odd deer. I want them to have a template for the weapon to use. Because if we have a solid and large yeomanry of trained bowyers, having any sort of ‘aristocratic’ class arise will be difficult.”

“Hard to be a lord when any serf with a grudge can knock you off the horse,” Suwisa said. “Tricky.”

“I’m trying as hard as I can to replicate postindustrial republics,” Edmund admitted. “Making crossbows, especially good ones that can kill a knight, is a hell of a lot harder than making longbows. Or even compound bows. I want it to be understood at the core of the society that the right to weapons is a fundamental right. As long as you have a relatively law-abiding society, weapons in general ownership and use prevent tyranny from taking hold. Nothing else in history has ever managed it.”

“There’s a difference between a professional bow-man and a farmer who kills the occasional deer,” Phil argued.

“Sure, but it’s a difference of details, not the quantitative difference between a knight in armor and a serf with a pitchfork.”

Phil shrugged reluctant agreement to that, then grinned. “You won’t mind if I build crossbows, will you?”

“Not at all, as long as you sell them to anyone with money,” Talbot agreed with an unusual grin. “We’re just a small little outpost of civilization in world that’s turning to barbarism. Historically, the barbarians tend to win. Not as long as I’m in charge.”

“Okay, we’ll build you your arms and armor. Just use it right,” Suwisa said.

“Hey,” Phil interjected. “You can get a superior bend to the bow with beryllium bronze! That means you can get nearly as good a loft out of a light crossbow as from a longbow! And nearly the firepower.”

“Do you know how to cast beryllium bronze?” Edmund asked.


“Well, I do. But I’m not going to spend all my time doing casts for crossbows. Okay?”

“Okay,” Phil said with a laugh.

“Speaking of casts,” he added. “There’s somebody you need to meet.”

* * *

“I didn’t know you were friends with any AI’s,” Suwisa said, mopping her face at the heat from the forge. “Hello, Carborundum.”

“Well, there’s a lot about me you don’t know,” Edmund replied. “How goes it, soulless fiend?”

“It’s bloody cold is how it goes,” Carborundum said. “And the Net is well and truly screwed. Your friend Sheida and Paul between them have put up blocks bloody everywhere.”

“We’re a bit short on carbon at the moment, old fiend,” Edmund said, then scooped up a generous helping nonetheless and tossed it onto the red glowing coals. He wiped the black soot from his hands and shrugged. “We’re cooking some charcoal now, but it’s a slow business and the wet isn’t helping.”

“Lystra says only another couple of days in this region,” Carb added. “And I’m sorry, but I’m still not finding anything on Rachel and Daneh. The fairies are circulating back word on people moving in the wilderness, but of course they don’t know one human from another. They were definitely at the house, both of them, at the Fall. And the house-hob said they left. But that’s all I’ve got. Some of the AI’s are being really uncommunicative, some of them are on Paul’s side, mostly because they think he’s going to win, and direct access to the Net is generally cut off between Sheida and Paul’s blocks.”

“Thank you, Carb. I’ve got Tom out looking as well.”

“Well, I’ll tell you if anything comes up.”

“Thank you, again. But I’m introducing you to Suwisa for a reason. I’m going to have to be more and more connected to this mayor business and she’s going to be taking over the smithing and armoring. So I’m probably not going to be seeing you much.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Carb said. “Honestly. I know you’re busy but don’t be a stranger.”

“I won’t. I hope you and Suwisa get along, though.”

“Oh, I’m an old hand at breaking in new smiths,” Carb said with a laugh like a couple of plates of iron striking.

“And I’m an old hand at old hands,” Suwisa said. “You were mentioning a need for charcoal I believe?”

“Arrrrgh! Edmund, come back!”

“You two have fun,” Edmund said, turning to the door. “And, Suwisa, you need to come meet your class soon.”

“I’ll do that, after I get done discussing things with Carborundum here.”

“When do you think Tom will get back?” Phil asked as the two of them stepped back into the rain.

“In a day or two I’d suppose.”

“And then you’ll know?”

“Phil, I may never know,” Edmund replied softly.


Herzer stopped and shook his head at the sight before him. The area had apparently sustained a forest fire sometime in the recent past. No more than a year to a year and a half ago from the looks of the few visible trees. And the area that had burned was now covered, for several acres at least and stretching across the trail, in thick vines that were just starting to come out of winter hibernation. The overall color was brown but it was shot through with green leaves. And it choked the path from side to side.

“What the hell is that?” Herzer muttered as Rachel stepped past his bulk.

“Kudzi!” she shouted, running forward. She darted to one of the greening areas and rummaged into the vines. “Yes! And it’s already fruiting!” she shouted, pulling out a small, bluish ovoid and thrusting it in her mouth.

Herzer walked into the patch and found another then, after a moment’s hesitation, took a tentative bite. Then he stuffed the whole thing in his mouth and searched for another. The fruit was an absolute taste explosion, something between a grape and a strawberry. It was blue, so he knew it had to be genegineered and he thanked whatever soul had in some distant past time created it. As he pulled out a handful of the fruit he thought better of stuffing them in his mouth and carried them over to Daneh instead.

“Here, you need this more than I do,” he said. A large, mature chestnut tree had fallen either just before or during the forest fire and its root bole held the trunk up off the ground. The combination had created a perfect little one-person shelter. Herzer steered the doctor under the tree and found a dry bit of bark for her to sit on. They had been traveling for nearly a day after the incident at the bridge and the doctor was looking more and more wan. He was afraid that something internal might have been damaged, but if so he couldn’t imagine what to do for her. The fruit would at least provide some sugars and liquid.

“Thank you, Herzer,” Daneh said tonelessly, taking a bite out of the fruit and settling in the shelter.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine,” she snapped then shook her head. Really, I’m fine, Herzer. How are you? Any shakes?”

“Just from hunger,” he joked. “And these are helping. What is this stuff?”

“It was derived from a noxious weed called kudzu,” Daneh said, taking another bite. “It used to be spread all over eastern Norau; it grew wherever there was a disturbance in the ecosystem, which in those days was everywhere. Sometime in the late twenty-first century a researcher released a controlled retrovirus that modified it to kudzi. The fruit was a gene cross of kiwi fruit and plum; kiwi meat and plum skin. Anyway, that’s where it comes from. And just like kudzu, it grows up anywhere there has been a disturbance like a fire or tree-clearing; it’s a right pain in farming.”

“Well, I was thinking,” Herzer said. “With all this food here we might think about stopping. I’m pretty sure they’re well behind us.”

“No, we need to keep going,” Daneh said, lifting her chin with a “t’cht.” “We need to make it up to the road.”

“Okay, if you insist. But we’re going to stop and get some of this fruit. It will give us enough food to make it the rest of the way.”

“All right.” She nodded, taking another bite and wiping the juice off her chin. The fruit seemed to bring some color back into her cheeks and she smiled for the first time in what seemed like ages. “You go pick fruit. If you don’t mind I’ll just sit here and let you young folk do all the work.”

“Ummm, this is good,” Rachel said as he walked up. She had a bunch of the fruits in a makeshift cradle of her shirt and was biting into another. “Thanks for taking some to Mom.”

“She’s looking better for it, but she insists on keeping going,” Herzer said.

“We need to find some meat,” Rachel said stubbornly. “This is fine for us, it will keep us going at least, but Azure has to have some meat.”

“He looks thin, but…” Herzer said, looking over at the cat, which was rummaging in the vines as well.

“Cats are obligate carnivores,” Rachel replied. “That means they have to eat, every day. And they have to have protein, every day. If they don’t, they get sick. Something about fat buildups on their liver. It can kill them.”

“Well, I’m sorry, Rachel, but I don’t see any rabbits coming up to be killed.”

“Kudzi fruits before anything else,” Rachel said. “And they stay in fruit as long as the vines are green. That means that there’s going to be something coming up to eat it besides us. We probably scared some things away when we came up. Possums, raccoons, deer, something. If we just stay here a while and let Azure hunt…”

“Tell it to your mother,” Herzer replied. He had taken off Daneh’s rucksack and was filling it with the fruit, hoping that it wouldn’t release too much juice and ruin the inside of the bag.

“I will,” she said determinedly, and stalked over to where her mother was resting under the tree.

Herzer observed the exchange from afar but could more or less tell how it was going. First Rachel handed Daneh some of the fruit. Then she gestured around at the large field. Next she pointed out the cat, which was poking in every possible hole in the vines looking for something edible to a feline. The argument clearly weighed on Daneh but she shook her head and said her piece. The Rachel said hers with more force. Then Daneh’s face set and she gestured to the south, forcefully. Then Rachel’s voice could be heard from halfway across the open area. Then she stormed off.

“I have never known a more pig-headed, stupid…” she muttered as she passed Herzer.

As she passed, Herzer heard a scurrying in the vines and a field rat ran right in front of him. He had been carrying his staff with the knapsack in his left hand and he quickly dropped the bag, switched hands and then lashed out with the staff. The first blow missed but it turned the rat and the second blow hit.

He called to the cat and tossed the rat towards him as he thought about the implications.

“Rachel, is there some way you can get Azure to sort of… station himself on one side of the vines?”

“I… don’t know, why?” she asked, taking a bite out of a fresh fruit. They had been starving, but the fruit had taken the edge off and now it was already starting to pall.

“If he did we could walk along and sort of push stuff that is in the vines towards him. Things are running in front of us all the time; we’d just sort of have it run in front of us towards him.”

With a little persuasion on Herzer’s part it was done. Daneh continued to sit it out while the two younger members of the group walked back and forth across the vines. Azure quickly became aware of the nature of the game and waited patiently at the edge of the open area as the game was driven to him. In less than an hour he had bagged several field rats and a small rabbit. For Herzer’s part, that was an hour that Daneh wasn’t driving herself to keep going. She had simply sat out of the rain and eaten kudzi fruit until she was near to bursting. All in all it had been a very successful exercise in tact and diplomacy.

* * *

“And what is that you’re eating?” Chansa asked, appearing out of the air.

As usual Celine was in her workroom, which was filled with a cacophony of whining, bleating and croaking calls. He glanced at one of the cages along the wall and shuddered at the strange octopus-looking creature in the water-filled interior. The door had a sturdy lock but the creature was pushing at every opening with every appearance of intelligence. It saw him looking at it and came to the front, its skin going through a variety of color changes.

“Jelly babies,” Celine replied, lifting one of the squirming creatures that very much resembled small human children and popping it in her mouth. “Try one?”

Chansa shook his head and turned from the octopus to look at the writhing mass of faintly whining creatures. They were colored various shades and squirmed most unpleasantly.

“Avatars do not eat, Celine,” he reminded her.

“Yeah, that’s why I don’t use avatars,” Celine responded, popping a couple more in her mouth. “Uhmm, lemon.”

“Celine, we need to talk,” Chansa said, making a moue.

“Hmmmr?” she rumbled, her mouth full.

“Have you noticed Paul getting… strange?”

“You mean bug-house nuts?” she asked. “Yeah.”

“I’m not sure he’s quite what we need in the way of leadership,” Chansa said, carefully.

“See yourself in that position?” she asked, standing up and going over to one of the cages along the wall.

“No…” he answered carefully, watching as she extracted another one of her little monsters. This one looked like a fairly normal hamster for a change. He wondered what it was food for. “I was actually wondering if you would consider the position. You have seniority on the Council after Paul.”

“Hah! No thank you. I like it right where I’m at.” She lifted the hamster and cooed at it, bringing it up to a cage that held a weird creature the size of Chansa’s massive hand. The beast might have been a spider or a scorpion; it had features of both. The scorpion’s stinger and pincers coupled were fronted by a spider’s mandibles, and the body, overall, had a very spiderish look to it with long, black legs that ended in sharp points. Celine waved aside the force screen at the top of the cage and dropped the hamster in, waving the field closed as she did.

The spider/scorpion had turned and reared up as the hamster was dropped in and it pounced immediately towards the prey. But as it did the hamster made a flip in midair and, using one paw, bounced off of a branch in the cage. Before the monstrosity in the cage could shift its ground, the hamster was on its back, drawing back its lips to reveal long, fanglike teeth. The fangs punctured the carapace of the spider/scorpion and as the hamster locked its claws into the back of the beast its body visibly shuddered as it sucked out the juices from the interior. The scorpion tail had been jabbing into the little monster repeatedly but it seemed utterly unaffected by the poison.

“No, Chansa, I do not choose to oppose Paul,” she said. “The first reason is that a touch of madness is quite amusing. The second is that you never know how dangerous a simple-looking thing can be.”

* * *

As they came down the slope of the Ridge, Rachel paused and looked around.

“Is this Raven’s Mill?” she asked, incredulously.

“That it is,” Tom replied. He had caught up to them just south of the Via Appalia. Too late to help rescue Daneh, for which he had been almost embarrassingly apologetic, and clearly unsure about Herzer’s place in things. He had accepted Daneh’s toneless statement that Herzer had also arrived too late to prevent it, but he didn’t pretend that he liked it. He had wanted to ride back down the trail after the band but Daneh convinced him that it was not worth the danger.

Now he was leading the horse that held Daneh and he, too, stopped to look at the scene of activity. “But it’s changed even since I left.”

Rachel had been to the Raven’s Mill Renn Faire on numerous occasions. The bowl of the valley was broken up into, effectively, four different quadrants. The southeast quadrant was “Edmund’s.” It was there, on the east side of Raven’s Creek, that he had his house and a small open area, “cleared fields of fire” was how he put it, around it. Myron also had two or three fields in that sector that he used in rotation.

The “southwest” sector was mostly Myron’s, a large area of cleared fields, some fenced, with a large orchard and vineyard on the hills to the southwest. Up in the hills to the south, behind the two original “owners” of the area, was the mill that had given the town its name. It drew its power from Raven’s Creek and there was a millpond, and dam, up in the hills.

The “northwest” sector was the main area of the Faire. It was a large, mostly cleared area that snuggled up against the northeast hills. On the top of the hills were a few permanent buildings devoted to the Faire. The “northeast” sector, across the creek from the Faire, had been wooded, as had all the hills. Many people preferred to pitch their tents over on that side of the valley during Faire, to get away from some of the crowding and the noise in the main Faire area.

Near the center of all four “zones” was the town of Raven’s Mill, which had consisted of about five large home/workshops, the tavern and some outbuildings.

Now it had all, seemingly, changed. The Faire area was being slowly covered in rough wooden buildings, mostly made from half-formed logs. There were gangs of workmen assembling two buildings even as they paused. The northeast quadrant was, apparently, supplying much of the material, for there were gangs on that side of the stream stripping it of trees, grubbing up the roots and otherwise clearing the land. There were even some buildings going in over there. The town itself showed signs of building as well, with at least two new buildings under construction. All in all, it seemed entirely transformed.

Then Rachel noticed that some of it hadn’t changed. There was, still, the large cleared area around Edmund’s house and Myron’s fields hadn’t been touched. She was glad that something, at least, hadn’t changed. Then she noticed that up by the mill there were new buildings. So it wasn’t some protective spell that stopped the changes at a line through the town.

“What are those?” she asked, pointing at the distant buildings.

“I see they got the sawmill working,” Tom replied. “Fast work.”

“Do you think we could actually head down there?” Daneh said, tiredly.

“Of course, m’lady,” Tom replied, looking over his shoulder at Herzer. “I’m going to take the ladies up to the house. There’s going to be a reception area down there. You should go there.”

“Okay,” Herzer replied. “I… I guess I’ll see you all later.”

“Even with this many people it will be hard to miss you, Herzer,” Daneh replied. “Take care.”

“And you, ma’am,” the boy said, waving a hand as he walked down the road.

“I wonder where Edmund is?” Daneh said, looking around the scene of industry.

“He didn’t come looking for us, why should we come looking for him?” Rachel said nastily.

Daneh didn’t even bother to reply. Since the incident with McCanoc, Rachel had been getting more and more bitter about her father’s “failure.”

“He’ll either be down at the town hall or up at the house,” Tom said uncomfortably.

“Let’s go to the house,” Daneh said. “All I want to do is take a bath and go to bed.”

* * *

Edmund was hosting still another meeting at his home when he looked out the window and saw the small cavalcade proceeding up the hill.

The endless meetings all came down to lacks; lack of materials, lack of farmers and lack of skilled labor. The shipment of metal from Angus had melted rapidly in the face of various needs, from fittings for wagons to the parts for the new sawmill. And even as fast as it was dwindling there wasn’t enough metal for all the needs or enough smiths to shape it all.

And they hadn’t even started on weapons or armor.

He knew what was really needed, but so did everyone else on the town council and in some cases what they “knew” was different from what he knew. And in some of those cases it wasn’t really a matter of right and wrong. Take the new farm program. There were a few protofarmers whom Myron considered marginally qualified to start a farm. And that acceptance had been grudging. So they were, under regulations so new the ink hadn’t dried, eligible for loans to set themselves up farming. None of them had anything to trade so it all had to be loaned.

There were things, besides land and seed, that every farmer needs. Arguably, the only other things that he needs are an axe and a hoe. But having a draft animal and a plow made for much more efficient farming. So did rope. And being able to fix some of his own equipment was helpful, so arguably he should have some blacksmith tools. Then there was how to get the produce to town, so maybe he should have a wagon.

But that was definitely getting into the category of “too much” to loan to a complete unknown. Based upon historical precedent it was expected that at least sixty percent of the “pioneer” farmers would fail. Given the problems that they were up against, that percentage was probably optimistic. Based on more similar precedents they could look at eighty to ninety percent. So that meant that between six and nine in ten of the farmers would be unable to recoup whatever they were loaned. Now, if they were loaned more, more seed, more tools, more draft animals, they were likely to be more successful. But that meant fewer seeds, tools and animals to loan to others. Who got what and how much was at the basis of the arguments.

The argument wasn’t going to be resolved today or tomorrow or maybe in a month. Maybe not until harvest time or next year. But it had been raging almost nonstop for a week. All of the council meetings had been fixated on farm policy and so had the last town meeting. And that was another sore point with Edmund.

After the first meeting in the tavern, people had taken it as expected that he’d turn up at every such meeting. For the first week there had been one every other day until he pointed out that he had other things to be doing. At which point the term “dictator” had first been raised, initially by a few of the more loudmouthed of the new arrivals but later in mutterings even among some of the long-term residents of Raven’s Mill.

It had started with his “high-handed” decision to put Bethan Raeburn in charge of the treasury. She had taken up the handling of the commissary from the beginning and as food chits had quickly turned into currency, it had only made sense for her to continue applying her practical knowledge and increasing experience in handling them. Oh, but that did not sit well with some of the new arrivals. Brad Deshurt had been a researcher in preinformation technology economies and had made plain, with a large number of polysyllabic words, that the basis of Raeburn’s plans were inflationary and would otherwise cause the world to end. As if it hadn’t already. Deshurt was just about the only person Edmund had ever met who was frankly obese and he remained “fleshy” even after walking all the way from the region of Washan. Edmund was rather sure that the basis of Deshurt’s animus was that Bethan refused to let people have seconds.

Nonetheless, under fire and holding their positions with difficulty, Bethan hung on to the treasury and, remarkably, the sky had yet to fall. What was worse, Deshurt had somehow argued his way into a position of “expert on everything” and it had turned out to be impossible to shake him. Edmund was pretty sure that he was going to run in the next council election and since the world seemed to hate him, the loudmouth was probably going to win.

However, above and beyond Edmund’s decisions with regards to the treasury and who should run it, his cut-the-Gordian-knot approach to farm policy was considered even more evil. Edmund knew that he had, at most, a vague layman’s knowledge of period farming. To him the difference between, say, Republican Roman farming conditions and those of the Middle Ages existed only as a backdrop to the social, political and military climate of each age.

But in each of those periods the farming techniques influenced the military at least as much as the reverse. So he was well aware of what sort of farming he wanted to occur and what sort he didn’t. Fortunately he and Myron were in agreement, for similar reasons, and while Edmund knew next to nothing about farming, if there was anyone with more knowledge than Myron among the refugees, Edmund had yet to find them. So he put Myron in charge of making the decisions.

O! Woe was he! The screams had started almost immediately and they revealed a bitter undercurrent he’d only started to sense. Myron was very much the villain of the piece already. It was through his “stinginess” that food rations were so small. Edmund had never heard the term “bloated plutocrat” outside of an old novel until some yammerhead had stood up at the last meeting and shouted it at Myron.

Myron had no idea how to handle the pressure. He was, in his own mind, just a simple farmer. His previous experience with “public life” had been to give tours of his farm during Faire. Suddenly being at the center of a raging controversy was not his cup of tea. He’d tried to abdicate the responsibility but Edmund wouldn’t let him. Myron knew what needed to be done and how to do it and the various yammerheads, as their own proposals proved, did not.

Mostly the arguments boiled down to a few broad groups. One held that anyone who wanted to farm, knowledge or not, should be given everything that they felt was necessary and then given as much land as they could stake out. Generally “stake out” was based upon “blazing” trees to define their area. Edmund hadn’t been able to come up with all the reasons that was a stupid idea so he let others carry the ball. It was pointed out by several that there was a limit to the materials available, not to mention the people with the skill to make anything from them. Others pointed out the long-term arguments that would arise from such ephemeral markers as blazes.

The yammerhead that had called Myron a “bloated plutocrat” was at the head of the “all for one and one for all” group who felt that all materials should be held in common and used in common. They were in favor of putting all the resources of the town into a communal “usage storage” and letting people draw from it. All the land would be held in common and people would do what they could, giving material back into common holding.

Edmund had been the main one to put his foot down on that. He had dredged up dozens of half-remembered historical references, from the early Pilgrims in Norau, who had nearly starved before they gave up communal ownership, to the great debacles of the latter twentieth-century “communist” states and communal farms, which had starved most of a nation for fifty years.

The last group, and this one was the scariest, was led by Brad Deshurt. He had proposed that Myron’s farm simply be expanded and use the labor of the refugees to do the work. Despite his background in preinformation technology economics, the term “latifundia” was not part of his background nor was he willing to admit the resemblance to “slave plantations.” But since Myron wasn’t about to let a giant plantation be raised on bond labor, with the long-term implications that would raise, the argument was moot. In fact, the problem that Edmund was having with Myron was the exact opposite; he wanted regulations to prevent any one person from ever owning too much land. They had talked about it for hours the night before.

“Latifundia, either true latifundia with large numbers of semi-bond labor or corporate latifundia where the corporation owns the land and works it through hirelings, are eventually a given…” Edmund had explained.

“But… Edmund, the whole basis for a decent preindustrial democracy or republic is the small farmer. If you get latifundia, eventually you get feudalism, either implied or in fact. You either get the Middle Ages or the postslavery South. You don’t want that, I don’t want that. The only way to avoid it is to prevent any group from getting too much power.”

“Every law against monopolies, especially land-holding monopolies, has failed,” Edmund pointed out. “It’s like laws against ‘moral crimes.’ If you create a law that involves that much money, either people will flout it or the lawyers will find a loophole. It’s like the idiots who don’t want hemp planted because it can be used as a drug. Great, it’s also the best basis for making paper and rope, two things we need. People who want to get addicted to hemp can feel free. Trying to keep them from growing it, given that the seeds are available and the land is for the taking, is impossible. It’s a law designed to fail. And if you set up a law to fail, you set up the law to be ignored.

“No, avoidance of latifundi would be a good thing, but in all honesty there’s no way to do it. Initially, I’ll agree that individuals cannot prove and register more than five hundred hectares during their lifetimes. But after it is proved and registered, it’s open season. If someone wants to sell out, they can sell out. Assuming that there is any capital to sell it to.”

“I hate latifundi,” Myron grumped. “It was the corporate latifundia that put the stake in the heart of the small farmer. And you know where that led.”

“To a huge argument about which came first the chicken or the egg,” Edmund said with a grin. “Truthfully, so do I, but open-market democratic capitalism isn’t the best system of government in the world, it just works the best. Actually, there’s a real question whether it’s the best for this sort of society. Arguably, we should be setting up a centralized dictatorship or a feudalism. Those are generally the most stable in this sort of situation. But we’re not; we’re going for the long ball of republicanism. History will tell us if we were right or wrong. Hopefully, if we’re wrong, history will tell us after our grandchildren are dead.”

And through it all, the arguments continued to rage.

He had pointedly tuned out the current argument, which was specifically about minimal farming needs, and was looking out the window when he saw Tom’s horse, first, then recognized who was slumped in the saddle. At that point he rapped the hilt of his poignard on the table.

“This meeting is adjourned until tomorrow,” he said, standing up.

“Why? That’s rather high-handed, isn’t it? We’re not even close to done!” Deshurt snapped.

“You can keep arguing if you want, but you’re going to do it somewhere else,” Edmund said, walking to the door. “Now.”

“Oh, my God!” Myron said, standing up so fast his chair went over backwards. He had looked out the window as well.

“Out,” Edmund growled. “Now.”

“I’ll be back with Bethan,” Myron said, heading for the door. “Come on. It’s Daneh and Rachel. Give the man some peace will you?”

“Oh, if that’s why… Edmund, we can meet tomorrow…”

Talbot just nodded his head as the group filed out the door, then strode quickly to the mounting rail.

“Daneh,” he said, taking in the sight of her. He had already noticed that she was wearing a borrowed cloak, unlike her daughter. Now, as he got closer, he took in the look in her eye and the yellowing bruise on her cheek.

“Edmund,” she sighed and slid off the horse. As he reached for her she flinched and then held out her hand. “I’m glad to be here.”

“I’m glad you’ve come,” he said quietly, standing away from her. “Rachel,” he added, nodding at his daughter.

“Father,” she replied. “Nice to see you, too. Finally.”

“Come into the house,” he said, nodding at the implied rebuke. “I’ll have… I’ll get a bath drawn and some food on the table.” He turned to Myron’s son and stuck out his hand. “Tom… thank you.”

“Any time, Edmund,” he said then shrugged. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry I didn’t find them… sooner.”

Edmund’s jaw worked and he nodded in reply, following Daneh and Rachel into the house.

* * *

“Tom,” Myron called as his son trotted into the farm-yard. “Daneh looked…”

“I’ll let Edmund or her tell you about it,” Tom said, sliding off the horse and shaking his head angrily. “It’s about what you’d expect I reckon.”

“Damn,” Myron said with an angry hiss.

“You know Dionys McCanoc?”

“That I do,” Myron nodded. “And I’d guess he’s not long for this world.”


Edmund had the luxury of drawing hot water off of the forge, and fixing a bath for Daneh had been simple enough. She had withdrawn with a small vase of wine and some old clothes after which Edmund returned to the kitchen to face the wrath of his daughter.

“She was raped,” Rachel said, looking up from a plate of cold roast pork. As the warmth and light of the room sunk in, she was beginning to realize she was safe. Deep inside she had feared through the whole journey that Dionys would reappear. But now, in her father’s house, she knew she was protected. Which, for some reason, was just making her angrier.

“So I gathered,” Edmund replied sitting down across from her.

“No thanks to you, Father. Where were you?!”

“Here,” he answered bluntly. “Right here. Trying to create something for you to come home to.”

“Nice excuse.”

Edmund sighed and took a sip of wine. “It is not exactly an excuse. It is a reason. When I was asked to do the job, I recognized that one of the concomitant realities was that I could not go looking for you and your mother. I knew that you had both been home at the Fall and I knew that you were both resourceful. I recognized that you had a higher chance of something… I almost said ‘untoward’ but the real word is ‘bad,’ something bad happening to you and your mother. I chose to accept the larger responsibility.”

“Well that larger responsibility got my mother raped, Father,” the girl hissed. “You’ll forgive me if I’m just a little pissed about that.”

“Probably about as much as I am,” Edmund answered. “But I will not second guess the choice. It is the one I made. I’ll live with it for the rest of my life. As will you. And your mother.” He noted that she looked down and he nodded. “And what choice is it that you wonder about, Rachel?”

“I…” The girl sagged and swallowed hard against a bit of pork. “We’d split up to forage. She went south, I went north. If only I’d…”

“Rachel, look at me,” Edmund said and waited until she did. “If there is a God, I will thank Him for the rest of my life, and so will your mother, for that choice. Your mother is much older and wiser than you, and probably stronger as well, although you have great strength in you. But if I was forced to choose who to send into something like that, I would have chosen Daneh over you for all that I love her. And so would she. Know that.”

“I do,” Rachel said in almost a wail as she dropped her face in her hands. “But…”

“Survivor guilt is a very false form of guilt,” Edmund said. “We cannot undo the choices that we make in our life. And so many times, who survives or who is not wounded comes down to simple chance. Regretting that you were not raped is silly. And regretting the fact that somewhere in you you are glad it was not you is sillier.”

“I never said that!” Rachel snapped.

“No, but you have thought it and you regret the thought,” Edmund replied, firmly. “I’m old, girl. I’m so old it’s hard for you to understand. And I know what it is to survive when others do not. And I know the evil thoughts that creep in. Face them, show them the light of reason. At first it will not help, but over time it will. If you won’t do that for me, do that for your mother. She is going to have her own thoughts that creep in unbidden. Small, petty, maddening thoughts. Yours will be easier in some ways and harder in others. And you will need to talk about it. But you need to have them under some control. For her and for the, yes, the ‘larger’ picture. We have done much here but there is much work yet to be done and you are going to be part of that doing. If you start it out in bitterness and hatred for those you love, and for yourself, the work will never be the best. And it deserves your best.”

“How can you be so cold about this!” Rachel shouted. “Don’t you have a gram of feeling in you?”

“Yes,” Edmund said after a moment. “But I don’t show it in the way that you think I should. You’ll just have to decide for yourself. On the other subject, were the men involved just random passersby or are they likely to be more of a problem.”

“Oh, I think they’re likely to be more of a problem,” Rachel said, lightly. “The leader was Dionys McCanoc.”

For the first time in her life, Rachel started to understand why people treated her father with respect. For just a moment, something flashed across his face. It was an expression beyond anger, something odd and implacable and deeply terrifying to watch. And then it vanished except for a jumping muscle in his jaw and he was the same, plain, wooden-faced creature she had known her whole life.

“That is… interesting,” Edmund said with a sniff. “I’ll put the word out, wanted for banditry and rape.”

“That’s it?” she asked. “Just ‘put the word out’?”

“For now,” her father said coldly. “For now. People like McCanoc tend to end up killing themselves. If he doesn’t do it for me, I’ll find the time. But for now, I have other things to do. Just as you do. You need to rest up.”

“And what are you going to do?” she asked, looking out the window. While they had been talking the sun had fully set and it was clear that unlike during Faire, Raven’s Mill rolled the streets up at dusk.

“Me? I’m going to work,” Edmund said. “People, they work from sun to sun, but a politician’s work is never done.”

“Very funny, Dad.”

* * *

“Edmund?” the voice said out of the darkness.

“Sheida, where’ve you been?” he said looking up from the endless paperwork and pushing his glasses down his nose. Daneh and Rachel had both gone to bed but he was still up burning the midnight oil.

“Even split like this, I’m being run ragged,” she replied, her voice faint and her projection a half-seen ghost image in the lamplight. The vision was clearly the worse for wear, and Edmund shook his head.

“Get some rest,” he said unctuously. “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.”

She chuckled at the ancient joke and sat on the chair across from him. “You look pretty worn yourself.”

“It ain’t easy. We’re up to nearly a thousand people; just making sure they’re all getting fed three times a day is a challenge.” He gestured at the paperwork, pulled off his glasses and leaned back in his chair. “You heard about Rachel and Daneh.”

“Yes, all about Rachel and Daneh,” Sheida said with a sigh. “Something has to be done about McCanoc.”

“I think Dionys is going to be less of a threat than I’d anticipated,” Edmund said. “I’d expected him to turn up and start causing problems before now. Instead he’s turning bandit.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Sheida said. “We’re starting to piece together intelligence on Paul’s supporters in Norau. And he’s likely to be one of them; I think that Chansa authorized some illicit mods on him. Just before it all came apart the Council was presented with a formal mods challenge from the elves in regards to him. It would have taken a council member to allow them. So he may have backing you don’t realize.”

“That’s as may be,” Edmund said. “But, frankly, given his background in shitting all over social organizations, I’d rather have him as an outlaw than on the inside causing trouble. If I can get this damned town organized, he’s not going to take it away. And that’s my primary responsibility, as I mentioned.”

“Agreed,” she said. “And one that some people aren’t rising to. I’ve got problems, old friend. I need some advice.”

“Advice I’ve got aplenty.”

“You’re forming a democracy here,” she said, waving out into the darkness towards the town. “But too many of the communities aren’t. Strongmen are taking charge and… I mean it’s getting feudal out there.”

“Not surprising,” Edmund said, taking a sip of wine well-mixed with water. “It’s not entirely a democracy, more of a republic. They chose me and when I thought I was right I’ve run roughshod over a couple of votes. And there are times when I’ve wished I could just order people to do things or toss them out. We’ve done that in a few cases, people who wouldn’t work, one thief. I’ve been tempted with a couple of yammerheads. And even more tempted in the case of a couple of ‘minstrels.’ ”

Sheida chuckled. “You never did like minstrels.”

“I like people who can sing,” he said. “I’ve got perfect pitch; listening to most ‘minstrels’ is positively painful. And getting someone who considers themselves a bard to actually work is… tough. Even when there’s no pins to throw them they think they can ride on generosity. Maybe in a few years they’ll be able to. But not now.”

“But the… strongmen,” Sheida said.

“Call them warlords,” Edmund said musingly. “Well, the first thing you do is tell them that they’re not allied with you if they don’t institute democratic reforms. Then you draw up a simple document that states what the rights of all persons are in your government and what the duties are of the local and overall government. Preferably you gather representatives from all the communities that are allied with you to vote on it, but get the outline settled before the arguments start.”

“You’re talking about a constitution?”

“Aye. And a good one. Just what happened to Daneh proves that we need some laws to hang our hooks on. Right now, if I went out and hunted down McCanoc and hung him from a tree, I’d be as much in the ‘wrong’ as he is.”

“Nobody would question it, though,” Sheida said. “Not and get very far.”

“Sure, but that’s not law, that’s anarchy,” Edmund pointed out. “At its base, all government is about ensuring that people abide by contracts. McCanoc violated an implicit contract that one does not force women to have sex, much less steal their rain gear when conditions are cold and wet. But with the Council’s authority broken, there is no process to enforce the contract. Nor is it a written contract. Look at some of the historical models; you’ve still got access to them. Then write the constitution. Then, if any of the ‘warlords’ refuse to join, remove your support from them.”

“I haven’t been able to give much support,” Sheida admitted.

“But you will be giving support and more as time goes on,” he added. “You’re the only source of power available unless they go to Paul’s side.”

“And what if they do?”

“Then you deal with that as it comes,” Edmund said bluntly. “This is a war. If someone wants to be neutral, that’s fine. If they take the part of your enemy, then they become your enemy. Make that clear as well.”

“One of them is Rowana,” Sheida said. “Martin down there has set himself up as the local lord. Including a… a harem I guess you’d call it. I haven’t been able to sort out how much of it is voluntary, how much is desperation, and how much is forced. But I know that all those women didn’t jump into his bed because he’s God’s gift to women.”

“And if Rowana goes to Paul we’ll have a knife pointed at our back,” Edmund said, musingly. “Well, that’s all right, by the time he can get his act together, we’ll be in a position to smash him if it comes to it. One of things you’ll need to write into that constitution is how new groups are entered into it. That is the way that geographical boundaries are settled, who has full voting rights, that sort of thing.”

“Hmmm…” Sheida said with a distant look. “I’ve already accessed a few of the more well-known historical documents.”

“And one thing.”


“The first Constitution of the United States of America, the Second Amendment. Whatever you write, if you want my support for it you’ll have something similar or stronger.”

She smiled at him and nodded. “Will do.”

“Is there a way that you can take Harry with you?” he asked, suddenly.

“Perhaps,” she said. “Why?”

“The cut that I did to his leg is never going to heal right short of nannite rebuilding,” Edmund said with a shrug. “In this society he’s practically a cripple. That’s not good, but the other side to it is that he’s got a good basis in preindustrial war and government. If he could be someplace where he’s not seeing how crippled he is, or that he could get repaired, he could still contribute. But as it is, he’s not doing himself or anyone else much good.”

“I’ll see if I can gather the power for a teleport,” she said after a moment’s thought. “We’re working on some lower powered methods, but until then we’re stuck.”

“Well, if you can do it, you can do it. If not, we’ll find something for him. He can train in sword-play just by shouting if it comes to that.”

“Okay,” Sheida said with a nod. “Thanks for the advice.”

“Anytime. And, really, do get some rest.”

“I can sleep in the grave.”

“Which is where you’ll be if you don’t get straight,” Edmund said.

“It’s… there’s so much. They’re just more powerful than we are, Edmund,” she said, sighing and lowering her face into her hands. “I don’t know where they’re getting all their power. We’ve actually got two more plants than they do and we’re drawing on the Stone Lands power source. But they’ve got two or three times our power. They’re not using it very well, but we have to use every erg to defend against it. And in the meantime it leaves them free to do…” She stopped and shuddered. “I can hardly believe some of the things they’re doing.”

“I probably can,” Edmund said, thinly. “But I’m a firm believer in the concept of original sin and the basic corruptness of the human soul.”

“Well, I’m getting that way,” Sheida said. “Paul’s got enough power to make it nearly impossible to send an avatar into most of the areas that he has assimilated but we’ve slipped in a few long-range aerial scouts and it’s horrible. He’s rounding up all the refugees and Changing them against their will.”

“Not surprising,” Edmund nodded gravely. “If he’s got the power.”

“He does but he’s mostly drawing it from their own bodies. He’s using humans as a power source. Sometimes it kills them. And what it leaves behind!”

“Let me guess. Low intelligence, brutish in appearance, a few rudimentary skills and… hmmm… aggressive. Stupidly aggressive, right?”

“You’ve heard.”

“Oh, I’ve heard the rumors. But more than that, I know the people involved. That’s not Paul’s game they’re playing there, it’s Chansa and Celine and to an extent the Demon.”

“Why?” Sheida said seriously.

“Well, Celine has been bitching for a hundred and fifty years about the medical and bioengineering locks that the Web imposes. She wants to make monsters. Why? Because she likes monsters. Monsters are cool.”

“The wasps that attacked us were probably Celine’s doing,” Sheida said.

“Yes, and so are these… things. These Changed. As to Chansa, have you ever wondered why he would make himself so huge? That’s pure lack of confidence. What he has always wanted was control, over himself, over the people around him. I don’t know what made him that way and don’t really think it matters; maybe somebody beat him up as a kid. Whatever, he wants to subordinate those around him. He wants subordinates, not equals. Celine creates this great unterrace for him lord it over and they both pitch it to Paul as ‘for the good of the people.’ ”

“Do you have a spy in the New Destiny Council?” Sheida asked seriously. “Because that’s exactly the story that I got.”

“No, but it’s pretty damned obvious if you know the players.”

“What about the Demon?”

“Convenient, isn’t it, how he just showed up right when things went south,” Edmund said sourly. “You really think that’s coincidence?”

“You think he was in on it from the beginning?”

“I think he was in on it from before the beginning. It’s a little late to search out now, but it might be worthwhile to look at how Celine, who was a nut-job from the word go, and Chansa got on the Council in the first place. The Demon is old, Sheida. Older than either of us. Old as some of the elves.”

“You think he planned this?” she asked. “All of this? Even he isn’t that insane, is he?”

“The Demon? Yes, he is, Sheida.”

She sighed and nodded her head tiredly. “I suppose you’re right. But where does that leave us?”

“In one hell of a hole,” Edmund admitted. “But that’s what shovels are for. Go home, Sheida. Let everything go to hell for one night. Pull in all the avatars and get some damned rest.”

“Okay,” she said smiling impishly. “I wish I was here; I’d get some rest with you.”

“Not tonight,” Edmund said. “I’m going to be doing nightmare watch.”

“True,” Sheida said shaking her head. “If you find him…”

“I’m going to nail his gonads to the first tree,” Edmund said. “You see, deep down inside, I don’t give a shit about laws.”

* * *

Herzer had accepted a meal chit and headed for the shelters before his brain really kicked in. He was in Raven’s Mill, the rain had stopped and for the first time in weeks he was going to be able to eat and sleep under shelter. Not much food, he’d been warned, and not very good shelter. But it was food and shelter and that was a good thing.

There were already lines forming for food and he got at the end. He was annoyed when some people came up and cut the line, evidently slipping in in front of friends. But there didn’t seem to be anyone around to prevent it.

The people collected in the line were a sorry sight. All of them were obviously travel worn and clearly not used to it. Many of them just appeared… beaten, as if they were never going to get any better than this, for the rest of their lives. Others, though, were different. They were chatting amiably with others and looking up and around. There didn’t seem to be any difference, any way to spot which was which or any way to guess who would be looking up and who would be looking down. Some of the apparently weakest of the group were the most active and some of the most rugged looking seemed to have just fallen apart.

Beyond that the group was odd in another way; there were very few Changed. Herzer was used to any similar group being at least a quarter Change, from winged men to cat girls. There was one of the latter, a really cute reddish blond tabby, and what looked like it might be a werebear or werepig near the front of the line. But that was it for Change. He didn’t think the town was excluding them, but there had to be a reason they were so few and far between.

The line led into a large open shed that looked almost like a warehouse. At the entrance a bored looking woman was accepting chits from people. She turned one person away who didn’t have a chit, without any explanation offered or given. Inside there were some trestle tables, obviously rough hewn from logs — there was still sap exposed on most of them — with crudely carved wooden bowls and spoons piled up. Following the example of the person in front of him he took one of each and then accepted a small piece of cornbread from one of the servers. At the kettle the bowl was filled with some sort of stew, it looked to be mostly beans, and that was it.

At the far end of the warehouse were more rough tables with benches, most of them filled. He walked almost to the far end before he saw an open space next to a young man about his own age. He walked up and gestured to the spot.

“Do you mind…?”

“Not at all,” the young man said after a quick glance at the girl across the table from him.

“Thank you,” Herzer said, sitting down. “Herzer Herrick,” he continued, sticking out his hand.

“Mike Boehlke,” the young man said, and gestured across the table. “That’s Courtney, Courtney Deadwiler.” Mike was blond with short hair, stocky and about a meter and a half high. He was medium good looking for the period but his muscles had the indefinable look of someone who had worked on them, not just had them sculpted. The one odd thing about him, not quite Change but something close, was his eyebrows. They pointed sharply upward at the end. And his brow had a distinctly strange cast.

Courtney had red hair and was… buxom was the only term that came to mind looking at her. She had bright green eyes with a lively intelligence that did a quick appraisal of Herzer and then seemed to accept his company without any show of other interest.

“Hi,” Herzer said, ducking his head in greeting. Then he picked up his spoon and basically inhaled the food.

“You have to be careful with that,” Courtney said with a snort. “I did that the first night and then threw it up all over the table.”

“I think I’ll be okay,” Herzer said. There was a slight queasiness, but Tom had had some rations left so he hadn’t been starving the last day or so. He mopped up the bowl with the small piece of bread and then ate that. “That’s it, right?”

“Right,” Mike said gruffly. “New here?”

“Just got in,” Herzer said then paused. The details of his journey didn’t make for very good storytelling.

“We’re on our second day,” Courtney explained. “You know you get three days?”

“Yes. And they said someone would be around to find me then. I’d wondered about that; how do they keep track?”

“Some people skate out,” Courtney nodded towards the tent. “But on the third day they stop giving you meal chits if you’re not otherwise employed. They’re talking about some sort of apprenticeship program. We’re hoping to get into that.”

“What else is there to do? I saw a couple of guards.”

“They’re not much,” Mike said. He had a tight, short manner of speaking that was blunt enough to be right on the edge of rudeness. But Herzer sensed it was just the way he was rather than anything intentional. “There’s talk that Talbot’s going to set up a professional guard and police force. But there’s been too much going on with the farm battles.”

“Farm battles?” Herzer asked. “We’re having wars already?”

“No, not that,” Courtney interjected. “It’s just the arguments about how to get the farms running.”

She gave him a fairly concise description of the various positions, then shrugged. “Mike and I, well…” she looked over at him and shrugged again.

“I want a farm,” Mike said. “I want my own farm, mine and Courtney’s. I don’t want to farm somebody else’s and I don’t want to share it with a bunch of people. I know I can make it run if I don’t have to worry about sharing it with a bunch of losers.” He gestured at the various people still sitting at the tables.

“I suppose that makes sense,” Herzer said. “I’d never thought about being a farmer myself…”

“Farming is what makes an economy like this run,” Courtney interjected enthusiastically. “It’s hard work, maybe the hardest there is. But it’s rewarding, too, if you get good land and do a good job at it. We’ll succeed,” she reached across and took Mike’s hand. “I know we will.”

“But you’re going to do the apprenticeship program anyway?” Herzer asked. He noticed that Mike seemed uncomfortable with the touch and disengaged as quickly as possible.

“I want to see what else there is,” Mike said. “And there’s more to farming than just putting seeds in the ground. Knowing a little bit about coopering and carpentry and smithing will be useful.”

“There’s supposed to be a week or two of combat training, too,” Courtney noted.

“Well, I guess I’ll see about this apprenticeship program,” Herzer said. The sun was setting in the west and he suddenly realized he was bone weary. “Where do people sleep?”

“There’s separate bunkhouses for the men and women,” Mike said. “I usually walk Courtney over to hers and then find a place to sleep.”

“You can come with us if you want,” Courtney said.

“Uhm…” he looked at Mike who shrugged disinterest in whether he did or not and then nodded. “Okay, if you don’t mind.”

They walked through the crowds in the gathering darkness to one of the many log-frame huts. Up close they were much less sturdy than they appeared at a distance, and the walls were filled with cracks where the logs didn’t meet. The roofs were made from wooden “shakes,” slightly mounded pieces of wood about two decimeters long, a decimeter wide and a couple of centimeters thick. He suspected that they leaked like a sieve in the rain.

He waited as Courtney kissed Mike good night, on the cheek, then followed the young man across the encampment. Mike seemed to find his way in the dark remarkably well for having been there only a day.

“I think you see better at night than I do,” Herzer said as he stumbled on one of the innumerable potholes. The area had been a forest up until a few days before and while the stumps had been rooted out and the holes filled, the rains had caused the soil within to slump.

“A couple of generations back on my mother’s side is a cat Change,” he said. “I do see well at night.”

“Do you know why there are so few Changed here?” Herzer asked, the question that had been nagging at the back of his mind coming to the fore again.

“Not really, but Courtney and I were discussing it. She thinks it’s a matter of adaptability. Most of the Changed take more energy, either food or externally derived, than unChanged humans. So, naturally, they were going to be at a disadvantage when the Fall came. Think about a werebear, for example. They need a lot of food, every day.”


“Or, think about a guy with wings. He’s got wings, but he can only fly with external power. And the wings weigh thirty, forty kilos. Take away power, make him have to walk for days to get to shelter…”


“Makes me glad I never Changed. You ever think of Changing?” The question was hard edged, almost accusatory but, again, Herzer put it down to personality.

“Not really,” Herzer answered honestly. “A little bigger, a little beefier…” He flashed back to the scene at the bridge. Bigger wouldn’t have helped unless he was the size of a giant.

“You’re pretty big already,” Mike said with a questioning tone.

“That’s mostly natural genetics,” Herzer replied. “I… the muscle is sculpted but I worked for it. I was sick most of my life and I couldn’t bulk up no matter how hard I tried. So when I got fixed…”

“Yeah, whatever,” Mike said. “Here we are.”

Mike pushed open the flap — which appeared to be made of rough-cured deerskin — and led the way into the interior. Already the room was filled with the sound of snores.

“There’s a spot over here,” he said, pointing down the middle of the room.

To Herzer the interior was as black as pitch and quite cold. “Are there any blankets?”

“Not unless you brought one, but it warms up after a while,” Mike replied. He led the way down the center aisle to a spot between two of the sleeping bodies.

“Keep your boots on and double knot the laces,” his guide said. “I had somebody try to steal mine the first night.”

“Okay,” Herzer said, sitting on the floor. It was dirt and both moist and cool, and the air in the room was damp and filled with odors. He was suddenly glad that the problem of human body odor had been solved generations before, otherwise the room would have been truly foul.

He fell asleep on that happy note.


Rachel woke up with a face peering at her upside down.

“Who is this sleeping in my bed?” the girl asked. Her voice was low and sibilant with odd under and overtones, as if she was speaking through the opening in a cello.

Rachel sat up, pulling the bedclothes to her and spun around so that she could see who she was addressing.

The girl standing arms akimbo by the bed was short, no more than a meter and a quarter, and very oddly dressed. She had a sharply pointed face and long, black hair that dropped in curly waves down her back. She was wearing what could only be described as a green leather bikini made of some soft, washed leather. Leaves were entwined in her hair. On her left shoulder she had a pauldron while the other was bare. On her right calf she had a metal greave while her left calf was covered in a fur leg warmer. She was wearing sandals with a very slight heel and on her left forearm was an archer’s brace. That appeared to be the only bit of her ensemble that wasn’t for show since it was heavily scarred on the inside.

Her ears were pointed and her eyebrows curved upwards sharply…

“Are you an elf?” Rachel exclaimed. She had met a few. They were all tall, slender, and wore refined delicate clothing… the exact opposite in many ways of the caricature before her.

“Hai,” the elf exclaimed, sticking out a hand. That was another oddity; most elves avoided personal contact. “Bast the Wood Elf. Pleased ta meetcha. And who might you be?”

“I’m Rachel, Rachel Ghorbani… Edmund is…”

“Oh, aye! I know you! Haven’t seen you since you were a wee brat, though. No wonder you’re fillin’ up my bed. I nearly snuggled in with Edmund but he seemed as if he needed the sleep.”

“O-kay,” Rachel said. “Snuggled in…?”

“Oh, aye,” the elf replied. “Yer father an I go way back,” she added with a wink. “Before your mother, actually. And after a bit. Not during, though. I think Edmund had been hit on the head one too many times those days to toss me out of his bed for that wee slip of a lass. And you do be favoring her. You’re not going to go doing the same, are you?”

“With my father?”

“Ack, guess not. Good. We’ll be friends then.” Bast grabbed her by the shoulder and dragged her out of the bed, still clutching at the covers. For all her diminutive size the elf was enormously strong. “Come on, gal! Day’s a wastin’! Time to be up and about! Time for singin’ and dancin’. Wine, men and song!”

“Oh, Good God,” Edmund said from the open doorway. “I wondered what that racket was.”

“Mundi!” Bast yelled and ran across the room to swarm up the smith. She wrapped both legs around his waist and planted a kiss on him that would have scorched most men to the floor.

Father! I’m not clothed!” Rachel snapped.

“I’ve seen it. Hell, I cleaned it as a baby,” Edmund answered in a muffled tone. “Bast,” he added, unwrapping the elf from his body and lowering her to the floor, “where in the hell did you come from? I thought you were in Elfheim.”

“And on that we need to be talking, Edmund Talbot,” Bast said with a tone of sadness. “We’ve much talking to do. But as I was tellin’ yer daughter, when I got in last night she was in one bed, Daneh, as I now take it, was in another and you looked all done in. Badly in need of a bit of snugglin’, but all done in. So I slept in the forge.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Edmund said.

“Eh, Carb’s good company,” the elf said with an eloquent shrug of her shoulders. “He knows some right good dirty jokes.”

“Yes, he does,” Edmund said, shaking his head. “And you’re too old for them. Rachel, for God’s sake, get some clothes on and then join us in the kitchen.”

“I will if you’ll get out of my room!” Rachel snapped.

“Well, maybe later,” Bast said, glancing at her again. “I’ve been known to care for the fairer sex as well…” she added with a wink.

She left Rachel sputtering.

* * *

When Rachel entered the kitchen she was surprised to see both Bast and Edmund looking sad and somber. She’d gotten over her surprise at the awakening and was looking forward to talking to the wood elf who had been the first person since the Fall who seemed actively cheerful.

“What’s wrong now?” she asked, scooping up a bowl of cornmeal mush, loading it with sorghum syrup and sitting down.

“Elfheim is closed,” Edmund said, seriously. “Closed from both sides, apparently.”

“The Lady does not want to be involved in your human war,” Bast said with another elegant shrug. “So She has closed Elfheim. All of the openings are shut.”

“But it’s not just a ‘human’ war,” Rachel said. “Paul is against all the Changed as well!”

She looked at Edmund’s wince and Bast’s amused expression and shook her head. “What did I say?”

“Elves are not Changed,” Bast said. “We were before Change. We are ourselves. Not human, not half-human. Humanlike, but not human. We are Elves.”

“Paul won’t care,” Rachel pointed out.

“Ah, agreed,” Bast said. “But the Lady makes the decisions for Elfheim and all the Race. And Her decision is to sit this one out as we sat out the AI wars and the Final War. In all of those, individual elves chose sides. It was from the group that fought in the AI wars, on both sides, that the wood elves arose. But the Lady stays neutral.”

“Not if Paul wins,” Rachel said. “If he wins he’ll destroy the elves.”

“Maybe,” Edmund said. “And then again, maybe not. The Lady has power in her own right. A lot of power. I wouldn’t want to go up against her. Is it just you on the outside?”

“No, Gothoriel and others are in exile. I don’t know where Gothoriel is now, but he said that he would come here anon.”

“And you?”

“I think for a while I will guest with you humans,” Bast said with a smile. “The woods are lovely in spring, but after a while hunting for the pot day in and day out begins to pall.”

“It’s not all beer and skittles here, Bast,” Edmund warned. “We’re all working as hard as we can.”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find a place to fill some need,” the elf said. “There are so many opportunities!” she added with a wink and a wiggle that would have been banned in most ages.

“Minx,” Edmund said, standing up. “I’ve got another meeting to attend in just a few minutes so I had better go get cleaned up. I guess you two can keep yourselves entertained for the day. God help me.”

“Oh, I’m sure that Rachel won’t let me get in much trouble,” Bast said with a wink. “Go scrape a razor on your face, you look like a yeti.”

“They’re just legends,” Rachel said.

“Tell that to the one I was married to for a while,” Bast snorted.

“You were married to a yeti?” Rachel snorted. “Even if they were real, I mean why?”

“You ever seen their hands?” Bast said with a laugh. “Now think lower!”

“Argh, I stepped right into that.”

“You know you like it,” Bast chuckled.

“As the master said to his slave,” Rachel retorted then slapped her hand over her mouth. “I can’t believe I said that.”

“Neither can I!” Bast said with a glower. “You beat me to it!”

“Bast, there’s something important I have to tell you,” Rachel said.

“It’s okay, I don’t really go both ways,” Bast replied. “Often.”

“No, not that,” Rachel said exasperatedly. “I’m serious. On the way here my mother… we ran into some men.”

Bast leaned forward and stared into Rachel’s eyes. “She had a bad time with them?”

“Yes,” Rachel replied, thankful that she didn’t have to say the words.

“Where?” Bast asked.

“On a trail. South of the Via Appalia.”

“Hai. Take me to the place. They will not make same mistake twice. I’ll use hot irons, they’ll even be able to walk after a few days. If they survive the shock.”

“It’s a long way from here…” Rachel said.

“Not so far, I’d make it in one day,” Bast replied.

“And they’d be gone from there…”

“Am I not Bast? The greatest tracker in all of Norau, perhaps all of Elfdom?” Bast said.

“I don’t know, are you?” Rachel replied with a slight chuckle. “Bast, the point is, we also know who they are. It was Dionys McCanoc and his merry men.”

“Ach! That one! Him I’d kill just for the fun of it!”

“But the point is that going back to where it happened wouldn’t help.”

“No, you’re right,” Bast said, frowning. “He would not linger. So I must find him further afield.”

“What? Why?” Rachel said.

“He hurt your mother,” Bast said as if that settled it. “You are my friend. And he hurt the lover of my best human friend, Edmund Talbot. For that, I shall mount his balls on my trophy wall!” She paused and frowned. “If I can ever get back to my apartment in Elfheim.”


“Close enough for human words,” Bast said. “More of a closet, really, but with a very fine view of the next tree and if you lean way over,” she added, suiting actions to words, “you can see a stream. A small one. More of a run-off creek, really. Intermittent anyway. Elfheim is… rather crowded. We’re immortal. Even with not having babies very often, hardly at all, really, it’s gotten… crowded.”

“I’m surprised more of you don’t live in the World,” Rachel said, wide-eyed. Her image of the elves had never included them living shoulder to shoulder.

“Me too,” Bast admitted. “But in Elfheim, most of them live in the Dream of the Woods, rather than in the real woods. In some ways, the Dream is better, more intense, than the reality. But I like to touch the woods, to see the trees grow, to watch the petal open in reality, even if it is less… beautiful than Dream.”

“And so you’re caught out here,” Rachel said.

“Yes, severed from the Dream,” Bast sighed. “Some day the Lady will relent and we exiles will return. Until the Dream palls upon me and I must walk the world of Men once more. To see the buds open in the sicamauga tree and to watch the trout leaping in the streams. To see each day anew, less perfect than Dream but oh so much more real.”

“And as if the last few days haven’t been really bad enough,” Daneh said from the door to the kitchen. “Hello Bast.”

“Daneh! My friend, how are you?” the elf asked.

“Better than I was,” she replied. “Did I hear you two talking about Elfheim?”

“A bit, I like your daughter. She has grown much. You humans grow so quickly!”

“And die just as quickly,” Daneh sighed, coming over to the table and sitting down. “How have you been?”

“I have been much,” Bast said. “I have traveled much this time out. Always before I was in Norau, and eastern Norau at that. The woods are so lovely now, I have watched them grow and grow. But this time I took a trip to the jungles in the south. They are much more rich than the woods, especially the parts that missed the Great Killing, but… I missed my woods. And there were too many things in the south that made me itchy.” She paused and looked past Daneh. “Daneh, stay still. You are being stalked.”

“That’s just Azure,” Rachel said. She walked over and opened up the cold stove and took from it some more of the meat she had had the night before. “Here Azure.”

The cat took it and sniffed at it then held it down with one paw to tear at the meat. He didn’t seem particularly hungry, though, because after taking a bite or two he started to toss the piece around like a squeaky-toy.

“That is a white leopard if ever I saw one,” Bast said warily. “They seem friendly, sure. But I had one leap on me in the mountains once. What a fight!”

“When was that?” Daneh asked, getting her own bowl of mush.

“When I lived with the yetis that this youngster says are a myth,” Bast replied. “They lived in high mountains, far from here. I had heard of them and wanted to know the truth so I stayed with them and took a man among them. I bore his child and then when the child aged and the man was long dead I left, lest I see the child age and die as well.” For just a moment she looked sad but then she brightened. “Hey, there are probably some long-lived yetis these days, ey?”

“You lived with…” Daneh said. “You had… I don’t believe it!”

“Tell me I lie,” Bast said with a chuckle. “Go there and find out.”

“How did you, I mean…”

“Everyone’s the same height lying down!” Bast said.

“Not something I want to think about right now,” Daneh said.

“So I was told,” Bast replied, looking sad again. “Are humans long lived enough to forget?”

“Forget, never,” Daneh said. “Repair? Rebuild? I don’t know. Ask me some other time.”

“Nothing gets better if you pick at it,” Bast said. “You are too good to be always in hurt. Someday, get back on the horse. Well, maybe not horse…”

“Bast!” Rachel snapped.

“You can’t quell her,” Daneh said, shaking her head. “She’s been like this for as long as I’ve known her and longer.”

“Life is too short to cry,” Bast said. “Even for an elf. Horse, it’s gonna buck and you’re not going to like the ride at first, but you’ll get past it. You’re strong. Hey, Rachel, let’s go out and see what mischief we can wreak!”

“Bast…” Daneh said.

“Always so serious,” the elf replied soberly, reaching out to stroke her cheek. “I won’t get your child in trouble, Daneh Ghorbani-Talbot. On my honor as a wood elf. Right now, you have enough problems.”

“It’s just Ghorbani, Bast.”

“So, if not horse you get back on…”


“Right, we’re out of here,” she said, grabbing Rachel by the shoulder again.

Rachel found herself being dragged to the door. “Bye Mom. We’ll talk later!”

“Try to keep her out of trouble,” Daneh said.


“You have sense.”

Azure watched them wander out, then looked over at Daneh.

“I don’t know,” the woman grumbled. “You think I can keep an eye on her?”

The cat seemed to shrug then, with one more look at the woman, turned in the other direction and nudged open the back door.

“And don’t you stay out too late, either!” Daneh called after him.

* * *

Sheida sat up in her bed and stretched, rubbing at her temples in an attempt to quell the myriad voices that seemed to be running around in her head. Managing the avatars was turning out to be harder than she had ever imagined. Each of them was an almost perfect replica of her, just as sentient, just as “alive” and just as capable of making decisions. But she was the final repository and judge, so every day, sometimes every hour, they sent her gestalts of their actions. The gestalts tended to have their own personality attached and since the avatars were “her” there would be emotional content included. It was the best way to manage the massive number of interactions necessary to maintain some order in the chaos following the Fall, but it was beginning to drive her just a little bit crazy.

She crawled across the bed and stuck her feet into slippers, padding across the empty room to a table at the side.

“Tea, raspberry,” she said, sitting down on the float-chair and taking the tea as it appeared in the air. She sipped the bitter-sweet concoction and considered the situation that her avatars had reported. So far, the loss of life in Norau had been low, considering the conditions. People were responding to the emergency much better than she had dreamed was possible. Communities were opening up their limited stores and trying to get people back on their feet. In the central plains area it was easier than in the others since food, for the time being, was in abundance. It would be nice if there was some way to move it outward, but so far none of the plans for that had worked.

She shook her head and realized that she had to start worrying long term rather than short. Right now things were stabilizing. But Paul was continuing his assault on every power plant available to the Coalition and he’d managed to take two down. Furthermore, he was beginning ground attacks against settlements that were in support of the Coalition. There had to be some way to counterattack, but everything they had tried had failed.

“Sheida.” An avatar of Ungphahorn had appeared in the room and she looked at it with a frown. It was hard to read a quetzacoatl but he appeared worried.


“Paul has destroyed the Amricar power plant,” the quetza said tonelessly.

“How?” she sighed.

“A massive energy burst burned through the force-field and he sent in a suicide squad behind it. They overwhelmed the guards and then sent the plant into overload.”

“Where in the hell are they getting all this power?” she snarled. “It’s all we can do to keep them from breaking through our defenses and they have enough storage for this?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I have given the full report to Harry, perhaps he can shed some light on the subject. In the meantime, I have other needs to attend to. Take care.”

“Same to you,” she sighed again, pulling at her hair. The door chimed and she shook her head. “Enter.”

Harry came in carrying a pad, his expression grim.

“You know about Amricar?” he asked, pulling up another float-pad. Since being translated to Eagle Home he had taken up a position equivalent to aide, dealing mostly with minor issues that required human management but that she didn’t even set her avatars on. He also had been trying to develop as much intelligence about Paul’s side, including their near-term intentions, as possible.

His thigh had been repaired but he still had a slight limp. She sometimes wondered if it was from lack of therapy or if it was psychosomatic. Nobody in this fallen world seemed to be without scars.

“He told me, but I don’t believe it,” she snorted. “How much power did they use?”

“Nearly forty terawatts, concentrated in an area less than a meter across,” he replied.

“Forty?” she gasped. “Even Mother would find it hard to manage that!”

“And She is the only one that could be providing it,” he replied, grimly. “That’s not all. There was another attack on Sowese and they used another thirty on that. They have the constant output of their plants, to the watt, on our shields; we can’t even move in or out without translating, which takes power. And yet they’re finding more, much more, to attack us.”

“The elves?” she asked, quietly.

“I… don’t know,” Harry said. “Do the elves have their own power sources?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Powerful ones. But… the Lady said that they were sitting this out.”

“Perhaps you should contact her and get some confirmation on that,” Harry said dryly.

“The Lady is not someone you just send an avatar to,” Sheida replied. “Among other things, with Elfheim closed, there’s no way that I know of to get to her. She’d have to contact us.”

“One of the elves that is in the Outside?”

“I don’t think they can get through either,” she said with a shake of her head. “There is one hanging around Edmund, I’ll send him a message. But we must find new sources of power!”

“We’ve penetrated the Stone Lands and all the other active volcanic areas in Norau and off the coast,” he said. “There’s no more to be drawn there. We could try deep mantle insertions, but that has never been very stable.”

“Nuclear, hydro… there were other forms of power generation once,” she muttered.

“I suppose,” he replied, frowning. “But they did a lot of damage. And how much could you get from them? Compared to a fusion plant or the tectonics?”

“We can get some,” she replied. “With the loss of Amricar we are truly up a creek without a paddle. I think I’ll contact Aikawa. He sees opportunities where most don’t.”

“In addition to the power wars, Paul is moving on the ground as well,” Harry said, bring up a hologram. “He has consolidated all of Ropasa and Frika. Chansa has taken control in most of Frika, and Celine controls Efesia. Minjie and Aikawa are battling over control of Vishnya and the other areas around that region.

“The oceans are a real toss-up. Most of the mer and delphinos are taking a neutral position but Paul has a significant number of kupuas and ixchitl that have come to his side. They’re not attacking the mer, yet. But I think they’re biding their time.

“And there are significant Destiny societies in both Soam and Norau with virtually no corresponding Coalition areas in Ropasa or Frika. Or areas that have declared themselves to be neutral, in Norau at least.” He said the latter with a frown.

“I’m not going to force them,” Sheida said, shaking her head. “We need to get in contact with all the towns that have gotten on their feet. It’s about time for a constitutional convention.”

“You’re actually going ahead with that?” he said, shaking his head in reply. “Sheida, this is a war. It’s not something you want run by a committee!”

“I’m also not going to fight it with slaves,” she replied. “Or serfs or anything of the sort. People will fight harder for their freedom than they will for chains.”

“But not necessarily as well,” Harry said. “Okay, if that’s how you want to run it, fine. But we’ve got enemies in our bosom right now. And the Kent has declared itself to be neutral. We need those horsemen if we’re ever going to fight on the ground in earnest.”

“In good time,” Sheida replied. “Is there any good news?”

“Ungphakorn seems to be holding the Destiny forces that have been pushing against him from Edor. He gathered up a motley army of refugees and they are holding the main pass out of Edor into Bovil where most of his communities have concentrated. Other than that, no.”

“Well, we’ll just have to hope that it holds,” she replied.

“I… have a question,” Harry said, looking at the hologram of the world that was still spangled with red and green.


“Tanisha has turned in her Key,” Harry said.

“Yes, she has,” Sheida replied evenly. “She found herself slipping into Dream.”

“Has it been reassigned?”

“Yes, it has.”

“To whom?”

“Elnora Sill. She is a protégé of Aikawa.”

“Okay,” Harry replied, flexing his jaw. He paused for a moment then shook his head. “Did you even consider asking me?” he asked, evenly.

“No,” Sheida said, just as evenly.

“What? Why?” Harry said, surprised.

“Aikawa asked for it to go to Elnora,” Sheida replied. “And I have known Elnora for some time. She is well trained in Web management and has practiced extensively in avatar generation. That was what crushed Tanisha; the inability to split herself and the lure of Dream. You have no training in splitting or resisting Dream.”

“And I can’t get it if I don’t have a Key,” Harry argued doggedly.

“You could,” Sheida replied. “It doesn’t take any more power than what you are doing already. And it’s a good way to get things done. Very effective time management. But also somewhat dangerous. It’s easy to find your personality splitting or to lose control of an avatar that becomes too much ‘itself.’ If you want to split, just ask and I’ll approve it.”

“And to get a Key, I have to learn to split myself?” he asked.

“There is no sure path to becoming a member of the Council,” Sheida said. “But learning to split, effectively, is a good first step.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the aide said, flexing his jaw again.

“Don’t get snippy,” Sheida said tiredly. “You asked. I answered.”

“I understand,” Harry replied, standing up. “Is there anything else?”

“No,” she said. “I’m going to have a light meal and get some real sleep. All my avatars have been dispelled and for once I can wake up knowing it’s me.”

“I… very well,” he replied, frowning. “Good night, then.”

“Good night, Harry,” she said to his retreating back.

And it will be a cold day in hell before I let you have a Key.

The first thing that a Council member should know is that it was a curse, not a boon. And wanting it was halfway to never getting it.

“For Brutus is an honorable man,” she muttered. “Genie, light meal…”


Rachel was even more amazed to see the encampment in the morning. Besides the large area of shelters, more permanent structures were going up and everywhere there was the sound of sawing and hammering. Crowds filled the street as well and there was a… reek of humanity that she had never experienced before. In general it wasn’t unpleasant, but it was very strong.

“Humans are always like this,” Bast sighed. “Like beavers, even with dams,” she added, pointing up the hill to where, yes, another dam was under construction. “Backwards from beavers, though. First humans build shelters then dams.”

Bast was armed now, having picked up her saber and bow on the way out the door. She wore the weapons as if they were just another form of clothing, to such an extent that they almost escaped notice. In fact they mostly did escape notice because everyone was looking at the elf carrying them.

“Not so in Elfheim?” Rachel asked, trying not to notice the looks of the men in the area. Bast was a walking advertisement in more ways than one and made her feel positively homely. Bast, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice at all.

“No, our homes are in the Wood,” Bast said. “And we don’t change the area around us more than necessary. I suppose, with humans, this is necessary.” She sighed again. “So many humans. I haven’t visited the human cities in many years. This is more than I have seen in one place in a long time.”

“More than I’ve seen in a long time, too,” Rachel admitted.

“Some of them are not so bad, though,” Bast said. “Look at those two over there, one for each of us!”

Rachel looked where she was pointing and laughed. “I don’t know who the one on the left is, but the one on the right is Herzer Herrick.”

“A friend?” Bast asked, walking towards the two young men. “Introduce me?”


“Oh, sorry, is he yours?” Bast asked. “I never stop to think about that.”

“No, he’s not ‘mine,’ ” Rachel said. “It’s just…”

“Good, then you can introduce me and you can have the other one!”

“What if I don’t want one?” Rachel asked.

“You like girls?” Bast asked. “Hmm… I haven’t tried it in a long time. Maybe threesome?”


“Oh, sorry, virgin princess time, eh?” the elf winked. “I know that ploy, too. Works every time!”

Bast!” she hissed as they neared the two men. “Be good!”

“I’m not just good, girlie, I’m great.”

“Hi, Rachel,” Herzer said. He was dirty and looked as if he hadn’t had time to wash that morning. He also looked as if he hadn’t slept well.

“Hi, Herzer, this is Bast,” Rachel said.

Bast in the meantime was circling the young man and inspecting him as if he was a prize horse. “Hmmm…”

“Hi, Bast?” Herzer said. “Rachel, this is Mike. I met him and Courtney last night.”

“Quick work,” Bast said. “I think maybe I like you a little more cleaned up, but if you work that quick…”

“Courtney is Mike’s…”

“Girlfriend,” Mike said, looking at Rachel with approval. “And you’re…”

“Sorry, Mike, this is Rachel Ghorbani.”

“Oh, I’ve heard about you,” he said, sticking out his hand. “You’re Edmund Talbot’s daughter.”

“Always,” Rachel said sourly. “How’s it been, Herzer?”

“Well, dirt is remarkably soft to sleep on if you’re tired enough,” he said cheerfully. “And breakfast was cornmeal mush. Just that. But things are looking up; we’re both going to be going into the apprenticeship program. What are you going to be doing?”

“I’ve got the funny feeling I’m being groomed as a doctor,” Rachel admitted.

“Makes sense with who your mom and dad are,” Herzer admitted. “And you, Bast?”

“I’m just wandering through,” she said, looking him up and down. “I know where there’s a creek that’s just right for a bath. Want to join me?”


Herzer looked shocked for a minute then tried not to grin and tried not to look at Rachel at the same time. “Uhmm… maybe later?”

“Sure, I’ve got things to do with Rachel right now,” Bast admitted. “Sometime this afternoon?”

“Uh, sure,” Herzer said, clearly not sure if he was having his leg pulled.

“After lunch, I’ll meet you by the tavern in town,” Bast said. “I’ll bring the soap.”

“Okay,” Herzer said, looking light-headed.

“See you then,” Bast said, waving as she turned away. She grabbed Rachel by the arm and gave them a wiggle in goodbye.

“Where are we going now?” Rachel asked acerbically. “Now that you’ve mortally embarrassed me.”

“The other one looked as if he wouldn’t mind sharing the stream,” Bast said philosophically. “And I want to see who’s coming in. There were more people headed this way and people are so much fun to watch.”

Rachel sighed as she was towed, very much like a barge behind a smaller tug was the thought that crossed her mind, to the edge of the encampment by the Via Apallia.

There were large numbers of people on the road. Not thousands, but a steady stream of every sort of humanity. Some of them kept going down the road, either for other settlements that were their planned destination or just into the wilderness for some reason of their own. Most, however, were turning into the village, and Rachel hoped that this was the peak of the flow. If it wasn’t, Raven’s Mill would quickly become uninhabitable.

“So many people. Some stopping, some not,” Bast said finally.

“Tom told me yesterday that there’s a guard post up the road. They warn the people about the rules of Raven’s Mill.”

“What rules, nobody told me about rules,” Bast said unhappily. “I hate rules.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Rachel said. “The rules are pretty simple. You can get three days’ food and shelter. After that you have to find work. There’s an apprenticeship program starting up and some people are going into that. To stay permanently you have to abide by the charter of Raven’s Mill. You have to agree to defend it, to pay taxes, things like that. But you also get a vote on major items. You can stay for the three days without being bound to the charter, but after that you have to abide by it.”

“Hmmm… taxes. I hate taxes.”

“I don’t think anyone’s going to try to tax you Bast.”

Bast was having a fine old time, pointing out the more humorous individuals and groups with quick, witty descriptions. Then she stopped and frankly stared at the latest apparition. The man was fairly old for a human, with graying hair cut short to the sides of his scalp. He was dressed in old, worn leather armor with a short sword banging on his hip. On his back was a huge leather rucksack and across it were two poles from which hung more bags. On his right arm was a large wooden shield with an iron rim, the boss of which had been worked into the figure of an eagle with its wings spread.

He had been marching down the road, back ramrod straight and at a very steady pace. When he reached the turn to Raven’s Mill he made a precise left face and marched towards the reception tent.

“So who is that man? He looks as if he’s a badly made marching toy or as if someone has shoved a piece of steel in his spine. And it hurt.”

“Oh, he’s a reenactor,” Rachel said with a laugh. “I’m surprised you’ve never met him; he’s been friends with my father since forever. His name is Miles Rutherford but everybody calls him ‘Gunny.’ ”

“He doesn’t come across as your normal Pict or Viking or knight in shining armor.”

“Oh, no, he’s an early industrial reenactor.

“Early industrial?”

“Yeah. There were some big wars fought in the Po’ele back in the preinformation period. The character he plays is one of the noncommissioned officers of the infantry that fought in those campaigns.”

“Oh. Okay? If his name is ‘Miles,’ why does everyone call him ‘Gunny’?”

* * *

“Good morning, my name is June Lasker,” June said without looking up from the record of the last arrival. She knew it was impolite but she didn’t seem to have time to do it any other way. She heard the next person walk up and stomp to a halt but she hadn’t seen who it was yet. “I’ll be asking you a few questions, giving you a short introduction to Raven’s Mill Settlement processes and then answering yours to the best of my ability. What is your name?” she said, looking up.

The man in front of her was two hundred and fifty if he was a day. He was standing with his legs spread shoulder-width apart, a shield leaning against his left leg and a heavily loaded rucksack leaning against his right. His left arm was steadying the shield with his right hand over the left. His back was ramrod straight and he was staring just about a decimeter over her head.

“Ma’am, my name is Miles Arthur Rutherford, ma’am!” he barked.

June looked closely to ensure that he was not in some way making fun of her but it was apparent that he had simply answered the question. His face had not changed expression a bit. She noted the name in her log and continued.

“Is that your legal name or a character name?” she asked.

“That is the name I was given at birth, ma’am!” he responded.

“Were you met at the border?”

“Yes I was, ma’am!”

She shook her head but decided that barking out declarative sentences was simply the way he talked.

“And did the guards tell you the minimum restrictions of Raven’s Mill? That you are granted three days food and shelter? And that after those three days you can either enter into a training and placement program or assume duties of your own? That after those three days, with the exception of the placement program, you are on your own, required to feed and shelter yourself while following the rules and regulations of Raven’s Mill? That you must agree to abide by the Raven’s Mill charter to continue living here after three days. That at minimum you must agree to provide for the common defense, pay taxes as provided by the local elected government and obey such laws as that government might see fit to write.”

“Yes, ma’am, that is what I was told!”

“Do you agree to these strictures?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do!”

“Is it possible you could look me in the eye?” she finally asked, a hint of irritation entering her voice.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he answered unbending enough to look down.

June felt for a moment as if she were staring into a pit. He didn’t look at her so much as through her and she felt chill bumps run across her body occasioning an involuntary jump.

“Uh…” she looked down quickly to check her notes then looked around flustered. “Uh…”

“The last question you asked, ma’am, was on the subject of do I agree with the strictures, ma’am!” Gunny barked helpfully.

“Oh, uh…” She looked at her list of questions and found her spot after a moment. “Ah. Are you a reenactor of any sort?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She waited a moment until it was clear that was all she was going to get.

“What sort?”

“I specialize in mid to late industrial reenactment, ma’am.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s disappointing; those skills don’t help much right now. Do you have any skills which relate to preindustrial technology which may be of aid to Raven’s Mill?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She looked up again involuntarily when he didn’t continue but he was back to staring over her head. “Would you… do you mind telling me what they are?”

“No, ma’am, I would not mind. I was a recreationist specializing in premedieval combat technology, especially Roman weaponry, training and tactics. I am the equivalent of a journeyman armorer and blacksmith. I can build all my own armor and clothing from base materials but it takes me more time than a professional armorer and seamstress and the results are cruder. I am familiar with the design and construction of basic siege engines and can construct a ballista with an untrained crew and provided base materials in no more than two days. I can maintain a field camp and instruct others in its construction. I am partially trained as a preindustrial farmer. I am a trained furrier and can tan and work with leather. I am trained as a saddler to the level of journeyman. I am a trained bowyer to the level of apprentice. I can hand, reef and steer on-board ship. I can turn a heel in knitting.”

“Ah, well, that should… help,” she said weakly. “All that?”

“I have been a reenactor or a person living in a preindustrial lifestyle since I was born, ma’am.”

“You have?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How… People are not a reenactors as a children… Mr. Rutherford.”

“No, ma’am.”

“So you have lived in preindustrial conditions? Not just for a few days?”

“Yes, ma’am.”


“Ma’am, I am not at liberty to disclose that information.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“Ma’am, I am not at liberty to disclose that information.”

“Ooookay,” June said, shaking her head and finding the next question after noting down as much of the list as she could remember. “Do you know anyone who was a resident of Raven’s Mill prior to the Fall?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m getting tired of dragging this out of you, sirrah. Who?”

“Ma’am, I am a long-time acquaintance of Edmund Talbot.”

“Oh, really?” she asked, interested for the first time. “Where’d you meet Edmund?”

“Ma’am I am not…”

“At liberty to disclose that information?”

“No, ma’am. But I have known Lord Talbot for most of my life.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of you. And he’s not called ‘Lord Talbot.’ ”

The new recruit didn’t seem to have much to say about that for a moment then he cleared his throat.

“He doesn’t talk about me much, ma’am.”

“Can’t imagine why. Very well, if you exit to your left when we are done, at the end of the street is a quartering tent; they will tell you where you stay. You need a token,” which she handed him, “for that. You get three meals a day. You can check in at the quartering tent each morning for your meal chits. That is all you get and what is served is what is served. We’re short on food, shelter and everything else. Take only what you can eat, eat everything that you take.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Later on you’ll be told where to go for orientation.” She looked up at him and shook her head with a smile. “Welcome to Raven’s Mill.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, scooping up the quartering token and his gear. “Somehow I’m starting to feel right at home. May the Bull God bless and keep you.”

“And may the Warrior keep you, Mr. Rutherford,” she said as he marched out of the tent.

* * *

Gunny did not turn towards the barracks, as he thought of them, but towards the house on the hill. There was a group of guards on the road up, if you could call them guards. A bunch of reenactor punks with rusty halberds was another way to describe them.

He was polite, though, and determined from them that Edmund was not at the house but probably in town at the town hall.

The town hall was another new building with another set of useless guards. They were both leaning on their spears when he walked up and asked to speak to Mr. Talbot.

“He’s busy,” the guard on the left growled. “Too busy for any old reenactor to just barge in on him.”

“I am not surprised that he is busy,” Gunny said coldly. “What are your standing orders in the event that someone states that they are a close personal friend and have business with him?”

“What?” the guard on the right asked.

“Okay,” Gunny growled as patiently as he possibly could. “What are any of your standing orders?”

“We just got told to keep people out that don’t have business in here,” the intellectual on the left said uneasily. “I don’t know about any standing orders.”

“Right, get me the sergeant of the guard,” Gunny snapped, losing patience.

“Who’s that?”

“WHO’S THAT?” he shouted. “YOU WILL STAND AT ATTENTION WHEN YOU ADDRESS ME YOU PIMPLE ON A REAL GUARD’S ASS! OTHERWISE I’LL TAKE THAT PIG-STICKER AWAY FROM YOU AND SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS SIDEWAYS! LOOK AT THIS THING!” he continued, snatching the spear out of the surprised guard’s hands and submitting it to a minute inspection. “IS THIS DRY ROT THAT I SEE ON THIS SHAFT? THIS THING IS A PIECE OF CRAP EVEN WORSE THAN YOU.” He broke the spear, which was in fact in lousy shape, across his knee and threw half of it on the ground, using the other half as a pointer to emphasize his words. “YOU TWO ARE, WITHOUT A DOUBT THE LOUSIEST EXAMPLE OF GUARDS IT HAS EVER BEEN MY DISPLEASURE TO SEE IN ALL MY BORN DAYS AND I HAVE SEEN PLENTY OF SHIT ASS GUARDS IN MY DAY!”

* * *

Edmund looked up from his paperwork and gave Myron a relieved glance.

“Ah, unless I’m much mistaken Gunny has arrived.”

* * *

“I’ve been busy with other things,” Edmund said with a shrug. The two guards had been relieved to go clean their weapons up, and to get their shattered nerves back together if truth be told, and Edmund had brought Gunny into his office, where he was explaining some of the facts of life. “I haven’t been able to train the troops the way they need to be. Not the way that I know they should be and you know they should be. We’re back in the bad and the scary, Miles.”

“You’re the king,” Gunny growled. “That’s not your job.”

“I’m not the king,” Edmund stated. “I have no plan to be the king. If nominated, I will not run, if elected I will not serve. Monarchy is a great place to play in but you wouldn’t want to build a society on it. I’m going to turn this place into a constitutional democracy if it breaks my heart.”

The NCO nodded and gestured out the window with his chin. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Train ’em.”

“Who? How? What technique?”

“I was thinking pike.”


“Gunny, we’ve had this argument before…”

“Pike’s nothing but phalanx without the armor. Legion beat phalanx. They will if they have any control of the terrain at all. On perfectly flat, level ground, phalanx might beat legion. But, there, you can beat phalanx with chariots. Legions can beat them both.”

“Projectile weapons?” Edmund asked.

“Bow. Crossbow or self, take your pick. Lightweight spears for the legionnaires, what else. Find somebody else to train the bow-pussies. And they’d better be able to maneuver with us.”

“I will. It will be longbow. There are trainers available and if they’re not in town we’ll find them.”

“Legionnaires. Again. Can’t wait.” After a moment, though, he sighed tiredly.


“I’m not sure it’s possible,” the NCO admitted. “There’s a… belief system that these guys ain’t got. The Romans, the Norau Marines, the Britic Redcoats, all of them came from a society that understood the concept of discipline. These young pukes…”

“The Gaels made damned good redcoats,” Edmund pointed out. “They built the Britic empire.”

“The Gaels were more disciplined than they were made out to be,” Gunny growled. “And they trusted the Gaels that fought by their side. They might be from a different clan, but they were all Gaels. You can’t teach something like that; it’s learned with the mother’s milk!”

“We’ve had this discussion before,” Edmund added dryly. “The point is that it has to be done.”

“It’s all in the heart, boss,” Gunny said after a long pause. “It’s all in the soul. We have to come up with something that will give these boys the intestinal fortitude to stick it out when the shit hits the fan. Until the Fall, they never cared about nothing in life except nanadrugs, women and going to parties. They’ll need something to keep them going when everyone is dying around them. So that they will give their lives, carefully, precisely and creating the maximum possible honor guard, but so that they will not turn and run from anything. That comes down to leadership, yeah, but it also comes down to tradition. Keeping true to your comrades and true to your salt. And we ain’t got no tradition.

“With a little polishing they’ll make decent legionnaires on the surface. But the legions fought for the people and the Senate of Rome. And anything that we wave at them will have exactly the same gut message as saying that they’re fighting for Rome. They need something, something… special. And special just ain’t my meteor.”

“I think I have an idea,” Edmund said after a few moment’s musing. “At least, something that will help. We’re going to need good troops, Gunny. The best. Better than ever. This is going to be a long, big war. We need Rome built in a day.”

“The difficult we do immediately…” Gunny said with a grimace.

“The impossible takes a little longer. I’ll give you six months.”

“Aye, aye,” the NCO said, moving his shoulders as if settling a weight. “We’ll just do that little thing, my lord.”

* * *

The world seemed to swirl around her as Sheida studied the energy flow diagram. She had finally taken Edmund’s advice and started thinking strategically, letting her sentient avatars drift out to handle the moment-to-moment crises that were cropping up everywhere.

But here was the crux of the Freedom Coalition’s problem; there wasn’t enough energy. Each side had about the same “base” energy due to their seizure of power plants. But the New Destiny Alliance was finding more from somewhere.

Since they hadn’t been able to even determine where the “somewhere” was, thus making it impossible to attack, the Coalition had to find some way of either raising more power or hobbling their enemy’s use. Ishtar and Ungphakorn were working on the issue of finding new sources, she and Aikawa were working on ways of hobbling the enemy. There didn’t seem to be much chance directly. Paul was using the energy flows from his plants efficiently and they were mainly going to hold down the Coalition’s power use. The “extra” seemed to be coming from nowhere and it was that he was using, abusing in her opinion, for all his other attacks and… uses.

More information had come, this time through refugees, about the changes that Paul was making and she had to admit that if those were his worldwide plans, this was the ultimate “just” war.

She considered the “improvements” that had been made and thought, not for the first time but perhaps for the first time in a concentrated fashion, how they had been made. The obvious answer was “Change protocols” but that begged the question, what went into a Change protocol.

Becoming a council member meant far more than just being able to split your personality and survive. The first requirement of a member is that they have some fundamental understanding of the Net and she kicked herself for forgetting that simple piece of information residing entirely within herself. She had been studying the politics of the Council and information and power management for so long, she had forgotten that it all rested on the back of a series of programs and protocols. Change was the Net, upon a simple command “change thus” bringing up various resources and managing the Change. She called up a theoretical Change program similar to what Celine was apparently doing and then had the full process open up its detailed list of subprograms and requirements. Frankly, it was not as power intensive as she would have thought, especially if you drew spare power from the human body itself. That program was buried in the mix, a medical program for reducing epileptic side effects from botched Change. There hadn’t been such in a thousand years, but the program was still out there, hanging around.

She studied the detail of the process for more than thirty minutes and then smiled, sending a mental message out to her allied council members and summoning avatars for a meeting.

“I think I have a way to put a stick in Paul’s wheels,” she said with a smile.


Celine looked up in annoyance as Chansa entered her lab without permission.

“I’m working on a very delicate experiment,” she said, irritably, her hands continuing to shape the form before her. “Couldn’t this have waited?”

Chansa glanced at the humanoid figure in the hologram and grimaced; it was all hair and fangs with odd, floppy, patches of skin in places. “No, not if you want to be able to actually make a monster like that. All of the Change stations are reporting that the Changes have failed.”

“What?” she asked, waving at the design program to halt. As she did it flickered and then died. “That wasn’t supposed to happen,” she muttered, waving at the spot where the hologram had stood. “Genie, reactivate design program.”

“Unable to comply,” the genie said, forming. “Program unavailable.”

“What in the…”

“That’s what’s going on at the Change stations as well,” Chansa said, smiling at her discomfiture.

“Genie, diagnostic, design program,” she said then watched as the box unfolded. Four of the subroutines of the programmed were in red, indicating unavailability. As she watched, another turned red. “Genie, override lockouts.”

“Authorization required.”

“I’m a council member! I’m all the authorization you need!”

“Override, Celine Reinshafen. Set password. Minimum fifteen characters. Password required for each lockout. Authorization council members only unless further authorizations distributed.”

“Genie, this is stupid. Full override.”

“Unable to comply. Security implemented by five member Council vote.”

“Damn them!” Celine shouted. “Those…”

“What’s happening?” Chansa asked.

* * *

Paul looked thin and worn as the meeting members appeared, but for the first time in days his eyes were alive; the challenge presented seemed to have woken him up from whatever dark place his mind had been traveling.

“So the rebels are locking out subroutines,” he mused. “Two can play at that game.”

“They can’t touch teleportation or communications,” Celine said, fury in her voice. “But they’re locking out everything else. And they can’t lock out groups, they’re having to go through routine after routine. But they’re shutting down my research!”

“You can override,” the Demon rumbled.

“Yes, but it’s a pain. I have to… chant damned passwords over and over again!”

“Can we override the overrides?” Chansa asked.

“We have six Keys,” Celine said. “We can override them all, if we have a vote to pass authorization for that from all our Keys and get the Finn to side with us.”

“I’m not comfortable with passing authorization,” Ragspurr said.

Celine looked at Paul but he simply looked at Ragspurr then nodded. “Who would have this… extraordinary override?”

“Whoever is running down the lockouts,” Celine said. “Someone, some human has to do it. Not an avatar or a nannoform.”

“And the person could not be externally controlled in any way,” the Demon said. “I, too, would be uncomfortable with such an override. They could apply lockouts as well as remove them.”

“Well, I don’t want to take up all my time doing it, but I will if I have to,” Celine said, looking around at her fellow council members.

“The Finn has, thus far, sided with the Coalition,” Paul pointed out. “His day is coming, but in the meantime I think that it is unlikely he would support us.”

“This is restriction on the use of the Net,” Celine argued mulishly. “He will surely find that unacceptable!”

“You would also need my authorization,” the Demon said. “Passed to a third party. I do not so authorize and would certainly not pass it to anyone else.”

“Are you mad?” Celine snapped. “This is going to hamper us more than them!”

“No, it will hamper you,” the Demon said, a note of malicious delight in his voice. “It will hamper me not a bit.”

“Pretty soon you won’t be able to summon a cup of blood to drink without chanting some damned password!” Celine snarled.

“Unlike some, I already use passwords,” the Demon replied. There was no way to read face or body language through the black armor, but if anything could be read from his tone, he found her suggestion amusing.

“This will not stand in the way of our ultimate triumph,” Paul said, standing up. “Ours is the side of right, and no one can stand before the right and triumph. We will deal with this as we have dealt with all the other actions of those who stand against the progress of the human race! We will defeat them, drive them down and bury them in the mists of history!”

Celine looked at him in surprise then shook her head. “And that’s your final word.”

“We will deal with this as we have all the other slights,” Paul said, leaning forward on the table. “They send their spies against us, their sneaking creatures in the night. Well, we shall send against them. If it is war that they want, then war they will get, they who have killed millions! Celine, we will not be able to overcome this directly, but we shall in the end. You must make greater strides in your research. If they will not come to their senses, then we must ensure that they understand the consequences! Prepare your monsters, for we will send upon them horror! We must win this war for the good of all mankind and if we fail, all mankind will fail!”

“Oh, that’s easy,” she smiled brightly then looked over at Chansa. He was leaning back in his chair, a blank expression on his face, looking at the Demon.

“Easy,” she repeated, happily. Getting the programs functioning would be a pain in the ass, but compared to free rein to open up some of her projects that had been put “on hold,” that was nothing.

“Very well,” Paul said, smiling in triumph. “We will win! For all of mankind! Meeting adjourned.”

* * *

Daneh stood in the doorway of the house looking out at the encampment and then set her shoulders and stepped out. She walked steadily down the hill and into the crowds, occasionally nodding at people she recognized, until she reached the newer buildings near the town hall. Edmund had told her that somewhere in this mess Lisbet McGregor was running the logistic end of things. And Daneh was damned if she was just going to hide in the house.

She stepped through the first door she came to and then froze as a man spoke to her from a shadowy corner.

“You’re not supposed to be in here,” the man said.

“I’m looking for Lisbet,” she replied evenly, trying to control the surge of adrenaline. She knew that her voice was shaky, but that was just a bit out of her control.

“She’s in the next shed over,” the man said. As her eyes adjusted she saw that he was bent over some paperwork and the shed had a musty smell of poorly washed cloth.

“I’m sorry,” she replied, as evenly as she could. “Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I snapped,” the man said; there was a flash of a grin in the dimness. “It’s just that people are always coming around asking for something. There’s only so much to go around.”

“I understand,” Daneh said with a nod then stepped back out the door.

She took a deep breath and told herself to calm down. As she was fighting off the incipient panic attack she was bumped from behind and practically screamed. She turned around but whoever it was had already faded into the crowd. She backed up against the wall and fought to regain her breath. For just a moment she wondered if she was going insane. She closed her eyes and raised her hands to her face, trying to hold back the tears.

“Mistress Daneh,” a gravelly voice said, kindly.

She pulled her hands down and looked to the side. A tall, older man was standing at least double arm’s length from her. He was wearing armor and had a very hard look. But for some reason, maybe that he knew her if not the other way around, she wasn’t frightened of him. Every other male in sight, yes. But not this one. And there was something vaguely familiar about him.

“Yes, I am,” she replied. “Can I help you?”

“I was wondering the same thing,” the man replied, not stepping any closer. “You appear to be distressed. Would you like me to get Sir Edmund?”

“No, I would not,” she said, sharply. Then she sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. I’m just a little… out of sorts.”

“You are more than out of sorts, mistress,” the man replied. “Can I ask why you came down here today? I understood that you were to be resting.”

“Is what happened to me common knowledge in the whole town?!” she said, angrily.

“No,” he replied. “As far as I know it is not. But I just arrived. Edmund told me as part of my briefing. We are old friends; as a matter of fact I was at your wedding, but I doubt you remember me.”

“Now I do,” she replied, looking at him carefully. “Gunny…? Is that what they call you?”

“Yes, ma’am. And Sir Edmund only told me because he’s putting me in charge of the defense force. It was not idle gossiping.”

She looked at him for a long moment and then nodded understanding. “I suppose it wasn’t. Where were you headed?”

“I suspect the same place you were, to see Lisbet McGregor.” He gestured courteously for her to precede him and then paused. “Or… would you prefer that I go first?”

She thought about it for a moment then squared her shoulders again. “I’m fine,” she said. She took a deep breath and turned her back to him, stepping over to the door.

This time she knocked and the wooden door was practically snatched open.

“Go away,” the man on the other side said. “Unless you’re authorized to come in here, this is not where you are supposed to be!”

Daneh initially recoiled but then her innate temper got the best of her. “How in the hell do you know if I’m supposed to be here or not?” she snapped. “You don’t even know who I am!”

“But I do,” Lisbet said, stepping forward. “It’s okay, Sidikou, this is Daneh Talbot.”

“Ghorbani,” Daneh correctly automatically. “Hello, Lisbet.”

The shed was as dim as the previous one but larger, and the far end was piled with sacks and bundles. Lisbet was bent over a list trying read it in the dim light.

“You’ll ruin your eyes that way,” Daneh said. “Oh, Lisbet, this is Gunny…”

“Heya, Guns,” Lisbet said brightly. “Now we know the place is going to wrack and ruin; Gunny has turned up.”

“Oh, it gets worse,” Daneh said lightly. “Bast came wandering in last night. Now she’s dragged my daughter off to who knows where.”

“Oh, dear,” Lisbet said with a laugh. “I hate to think what mischief they are getting into. Bast should have been named Puck.”

“Wrong gender,” Gunny said, grimly. “Otherwise accurate. She is not a well-disciplined person.”

“Nobody, is well disciplined compared to you, Gunny,” Lisbet said with a smile. “We don’t all prefer to wear hair shirts.”

“I don’t wear hair shirts,” Rutherford replied. “It’s an unnecessary form of punishment. There are better ways to induce pain.”

“Speaking of pain,” Daneh said, with a questioning glance at Gunny, “Edmund said something about me setting up as a doctor. But to do that I need somewhere besides the front parlor to practice my trade. Not to mention bandages, splints, materials for sutures, medicines. Is there anything available?”

“Not much for right now,” Lisbet said with a shrug. “Just what we’re able to glean off the woods or had in storage.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t even know exactly what I need,” Daneh admitted. “I’ve never set up a period hospital.”

“A period infirmary should be set up in an area away from latrines and middens,” Gunny said. “Preferably in an elevated area to let prevailing winds act upon it. It should have windows that are screened to prevent the intrusion of insects. If metal or plastic screens are unavailable, cheese cloth can be substituted. The windows should have shutters to prevent intrusion of draughts during the winter. Fire-pits, places or stoves should be scattered through the infirmary to ensure the comfort of the patients during convalescence. The infirmary should be separated into three broad areas: a triage wing, a surgery wing and a recovery and convalescence wing. The wings can be in separate buildings but walkways should be covered or, better, enclosed.”

“Where did you pick this up?” Daneh asked, startled.

“Gunny is a font of information about the military,” Lisbet said with a smile. “Jerry!”

“Yo?” The man who entered the shed from the back was obviously another long term reenactor dressed in early Scots-Gaelic period clothing. But instead of a claymore he carried a case from which poked a roll of paper.

“Gunny, Daneh, this is Jerry Merchant, who manages, and I use that term advisedly, our construction program. Jerry, Mistress Daneh is setting up an infirmary. She and Gunny are going to be looking for an appropriate spot. If there’s not an appropriate building available, we’ll have to build it to spec.”

“What’s the priority?” the man said. “I’ve got five projects running right now, including the bathhouse and the new dam?”

“I’d put it ahead of the bathhouse,” Lisbet said after a minute’s thought. “I’d rather have a hospital than segregated bathing.”

“What’s Edmund going to say?” Jerry asked, uneasily.

“He’s going to say ‘yes, dear,’ ” Daneh answered with a laugh.

“So is that it?” Lisbet asked.

“No, Gunny has something as well.”

“Not as urgent,” Gunny said. “But in time more complex. Edmund has assigned me the task of setting up the line infantry. In time there is a list of items we will need. Some of them are simply base materials but others, such as armor and weapons, will require artisans to construct. And, initially, we’ll need some buildings and quite a bit of leather and cloth.”

“We’re short on both,” Lisbet admitted with a sigh. “Very short on leather; cloth is a bit better. When do you need it?”

“A few weeks,” Gunny said. “I have to train a few trainers first. I’ll need some materials for them, but not much.”

“Well, if it’s after the roundup, that will be better. We’re going to do a big drive in the woods and that will give us some more leather. How much is anyone’s guess, but more.”

“Very well. I’ll get you a list of what I need and the points in the training when I’ll need it and we’ll schedule the training around anticipated availability. How does that sound?”

“Eminently reasonable,” Lisbet replied with another laugh. “Now, Jerry, why don’t you go look around and see what Daneh needs in the way of facilities and I can get back to making bricks without straw.”

“Hey!” Jerry complained. “That’s my job!”

* * *

Edmund looked up and frowned as Daneh came in the kitchen. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“Out,” she replied, sharply, then sighed. “I’m sorry, Edmund, that was unkind. I was out looking at facilities with Jerry Merchant and Gunny, looking for somewhere to set up a hospital.”

“Oh,” Talbot said, shaking his head. “Now I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped. But… I just thought you should take some time off… Get your bearings again. I’m the one that’s supposed to be working all hours.”

“I’ve got my bearings,” she replied, her jaw clenched. “I’m fine. I wish that people would quit trying to wrap me up in a cocoon or something!”

Edmund started to say something and then stopped, shaking his head.


“I was going to say that however you feel, you need to talk about it,” Talbot replied. “But not to me. And, frankly, I don’t know anyone who would be a good person to talk to about it. There’s nobody around who has dealt with this sort of… trauma. I know some things about it, but I’m no expert.” He frowned and shook his head in exasperation. “The problem is, you’re not the only one in town who… had a bad time on their trip here. And there’s nobody who is trained to handle that sort of thing. And it’s just going to get worse; this isn’t going to be the last time by a long shot.”

“So what do we do?” Daneh asked. “I guess as the local doctor, and a female no less, it’s my job to organize this?”

“It would be, but you can’t do it,” Edmund sighed. “And the one thing that I know about… rape trauma is that handling it wrong just makes the person worse.”

“Which just annoys the crap out of me!” she practically shouted. “Edmund, I’m fine! Fine, fine, FINE! How much more pointed do I have to make it!”

He worked his jaw for a moment and looked at her evenly until she looked away. “And shouting at me when I’m discussing something that’s obviously a problem for the whole town is normal?” he asked evenly.

Edmund wasn’t sure what he had said to cause her to go as white as a sheet, but he paused and let her regain her equilibrium.

“What?” he asked, finally.

“Just… tone…” she whispered. “I’m going to go take a bath, now.”

“Okay,” he said with a sigh as she left the room. There had to be someone for her to talk to. But who?

* * *

Herzer watched in reverent awe as Bast came up out of the stream. Her body was just as perfect naked as it had appeared to be half naked. She had light pink aureoles and nipples which, when she was excited or cold, as she was now, crinkled up and poked out like daggers, and a tiny tuft of jet black pubic hair that had turned out to be as soft as silk. For just a moment the queasy thought crossed his mind that she looked far too young to be sexually active, more like a fourteen-year-old than an adult female. But then he told himself he was stupid; she wasn’t just older than he was, she was older than the trees.

They had started off with swimming, naked as he’d been warned and he had been a tad… apprehensive. But the swimming had changed to washing and then mutual washing and things had proceeded from there. And the proceeding had been quite an education for all its brevity. He still didn’t know why she had chosen him, but he realized that he was the one luckiest guy in the world.

That caused him to flash for a moment on all the reasons he shouldn’t be the luckiest man in the world and he swallowed hard. For a moment he was caught in an emotional vice between fear that she would no longer care for him if she knew both his internal struggles and of his cowardice and shame that he should be here, with her, after both.

She had brought along a fur blanket, a patchwork quilt of many small skins, and she now lowered herself gracefully onto it in a cross-legged seat then started pulling the tangles out of her hair with a twig. Looking off into the woods.

She was within easy arm’s reach so despite his qualms he carefully ran one finger up her thigh.

“The wonder of young humans,” she said with a smile, looking downward. “Give them five minutes and they’re ready to go again!”

“Is that why you picked me?” he asked. He hadn’t wanted to ask but it had been nagging at him.

“Only in part,” she replied, rubbing his hand in welcome. “You seemed to be… wise for your age. That is important. I’m old, Herzer. Many of my kind think that I’m… perverse to take human lovers. Even if you live through the wars that will come, I will see you age and mature, as I have watched Talbot age and mature. And then some day you will die, as I have seen countless lovers age and die. But you live your lives, fully in the now in a way that elves do not. And that I love. But in time I will take other lovers, as you will take other lovers. And you seemed wise enough to understand that, as other humans might not.”

“I’m not wise,” Herzer said bitterly. The compliment had just made his internal turmoil more vigorous and he felt as if bile from self-loathing was going to rise in his throat.

“I said ‘for your age,’ ” she replied, touching him on the top of his lowered head. “Look at me, Herzer.”

He looked up into her cat-pupiled green eyes and cringed at the depth of knowledge behind them. It felt for a moment as if she was looking into his very soul. But at the same time, it felt as if even when she saw what was there, she felt no loathing. There was a depth of understanding in those ancient eyes.

“It is said that everyone has one secret. This is not true,” she said quietly. “Everyone has many secrets, many faces, many masks. All humans, and dwarves and elves, are the sum of their masks, young Herzer. You are young, yet, and your masks have many rough edges. And you do not see that this is the case of everyone. It is what you do in life, not what torments you in your soul, that matters. And who you are in life, not who you fear you might become.”

“And what if you have done something wrong?” Herzer asked, looking down.

“Did you cause others harm?” she asked, gently.

“No. But through my inaction, harm occurred,” he said, carefully.

She sighed and shook her head. “Herzer, I’m your lover, not your priest. I’m not here to take your confession and I’m the wrong sex, the wrong species and the wrong religion to give you absolution!” she chuckled.

“What’s a priest?” Herzer asked.

“Oh, my, sometimes I realize just how old I am!” she cried, laughing. “My fair knight, unshorn, unvigiled and unshriven. My, how times have changed. Say that priests were an early form of psychological therapy. You could talk to them and nothing that you said, supposedly, could be passed on to others. So you could unburden your soul. Then, under the laws of their religion, they could tell you to do some prayers and chores, maybe pay money, and their God would forgive you.”

“Sounds like a racket,” Herzer said, interested in spite of himself.

“So was psychotherapy and just like priests they would tell you to come back weekly. But in the case of psychologists, until they started to understand the chemical basis of depression and other psychological problems, they couldn’t make people feel as good as priests could. Which was, generally, worth the money. Let me ask you this, if, right now, you could tell someone all sorts of things that are bothering you and then they would tell you that you were forgiven if you did some task and you believed you were forgiven, absolutely, would you do that task?”

Herzer thought about it for a moment and then nodded his head. “Oh, yes. If it would… well, yes. But it couldn’t undo what was done.”

“No, but it could make you feel better about it. That was what the quests were often about to begin with. The concept of ‘geas’ was a binding requirement to attempt a task and either succeed or die in the attempt. In either case they were forgiven. But if they did not succeed and gave up, when the knight died they would burn in hell.”

“Ouch,” Herzer said. “That’s not the way it is in the games.”

“No, but something to understand is that the people of that time, by and large, believed in the truth of confession. Just as many in later times believed that having someone tell them it wasn’t their fault but the fault of bad potty training made things better. And in both cases, because what was going on was entirely in the person’s head, most people ended up feeling better.”

“So where do I sign up?” Herzer asked, grumpily.

“Oh, Herzer,” Bast laughed. “I don’t know of a single remaining Catholic priest in eastern Norau. So I think you might be out of luck, there. But I will give you this much to cling to: although there are some actions in life that are unforgivable, I refuse to believe you have done any of them.”


“Hush, my love. Have you killed someone in anger rather than defense?”

“No, but…”

“Have you committed rape?” she asked, carefully.

“No,” Herzer said, after a long pause.

“Hmm… we come close to the boil there I think,” she replied. “And I’m not one to lance it. But that ‘No’ was definite enough for me. I suspect I know what part of your problem is and while I’m no psychologist, what I don’t know about kinky sex hasn’t been discovered.”

“What?” Herzer laughed.

“I’m simply going to have to show you what’s what in the area of rough sex,” she answered, looking at his eyes. “Let me guess, rape fantasies, right?”

“Uh,” Herzer said, blushing furiously. “Bast!”

“Little girls?”


“Whips and chains? Little Riding Hood?”


“All totally normal,” she replied, suddenly serious. “Many men want to be the Big Bad Wolf. And that is okay. As long as you know how, when and where to do what. And that, me bucko, is what you’re about to learn.”

“You’re joking,” he said, looking at the fur blanket and stroking a piece of white ermine nervously.

“Not hardly. I can’t believe in this day and age you’re going around all screwed up about dominance fantasies.” The elf snorted. “I’ll admit that I’m not fetished that way but I know the moves and enjoy it from time to time.” Suddenly she smiled shyly and dropped her chin so she was looking up at him out of the side of her eyes, clasping her hands to her chest. “Oh, sir, you’re so big and strong,” she said girlishly, then smiled innocently out of big round eyes. “I’m just a little lost. Do you think you could lead me through the woods?”

Herzer blushed bright red again as his member made it clear that she had hit the bullseye.

Suddenly she took his chin and faced him with total seriousness.

“Look at me, Herzer Herrick. It is not what you feel that makes you evil. Those feelings are natural. Perhaps, someday, I will explore the why to that. But for now, know that. They are as natural as breathing. It is what you do with them that decides if you are a villain or a hero. Let me ask you, and look me in the eye when you answer. If you found such a girl, young, nubile, all alone and lost in the woods, what would you do?”

Herzer looked at her for a long moment, a muscle in his chin working, fighting not to drop his eyes.

“I’d lead her back to town,” he said, finally, with a slight sigh that might have been regret.

“Aye, and give your life in her defense methinks,” Bast answered. “Whatever your past failings.”

“I couldn’t do anything!” he said.

“Shhhh,” Bast replied, laying her fingers against his lips. “And that is the other side. A hurt, once made, cannot be unmade. But they heal, in time. Most anyway. In your case, the hurt, too, will mostly heal. But what will bind the wound and reduce the scar tissue is what you do, Herzer Herrick. But you know that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied, looking at the carpet again.

“Then let us do,” she replied seriously then smiled. “From the looks of things, I’m going to be busy. You have had a hard journey, are you sure you’re up to it?” She winked at him and covered her chest modestly, widening her eyes again. “Oh, sir! I was just bathing and I can’t find my clothes!”

“For you milady,” he said looking up with a gleam of tears in his eyes, “who is young as the air even if you are old as the trees, I will always be up to it!”

“So I see!” she said with a laugh. “And so gallant! Let’s see how long we can make it last this time, fair knight!” She picked up a scrap of towel, placing it over her chest and looking at him with a hint of fear in her eyes. “Please, sir, I’m all alone and you’re so big!

“The Belle Dame Sans Merci!” Herzer groaned.

“Oh, you’ve heard of me,” she chuckled throatily. And then there was no more talk.


Daneh had stayed in the kitchen puttering with herbs. She knew that some of them had healing properties, but not which and in what proportions. Some of Edmund’s books had marginal notes on them, though, so she had gotten the few available and had been grinding sorrel when Sheida appeared.

“Daneh,” Sheida said from the doorway.

The mortar and pestle flew across the room, the pestle cracking in two against the hard stone wall, as Daneh practically jumped out of her skin. “Don’t do that!”

“I’m sorry,” the avatar replied. “I didn’t think.”

“Well sorry doesn’t cut it, Sis,” Daneh replied, bitterly.

“Well, I am,” Sheida said. “If I’d suspected it would… come apart so fast I would have… done more.”

“Thanks for nothing, Sister,” Daneh snarled. “All you would have had to do was set a damned avatar looking for me. Was that too much to ask?”

The avatar sighed and shook her head. “In retrospect, no. But at the time I was… rather busy. And, as I said, I didn’t expect lawlessness to break out so fast. Humans are so…”

“Sick,” Daneh said. “We’re beasts inside, Sis, that’s something you never realized. Or at least never internalized. I don’t know that I did until I met McCanoc.”

“Well, I’m getting a lesson in it worldwide,” Sheida replied. “There are four thousand three hundred and twenty reported rapes just in the towns that are reporting to me. And in the ones that aren’t… the conditions in some of them are… I don’t know some days, Daneh. Sometimes I think we should just give in to Paul, given what the world is like today. Being a woman in this world is…”

“What women survived for millennia,” Daneh replied. “And don’t come crying to me about your problems, I guarantee that you don’t wake up nights in a cold sweat seeing McCanoc’s face in front of you. Or worse.”

Sheida paused for a moment then shrugged. “Daneh, I can… how to put it. This can go away for you. No more nightmares.”

Daneh thought about it for a moment then shook her head. “Can you do it for all of them?”

“In time, perhaps,” Sheida said after a moment. “It doesn’t take much more power than simply talking like this.”

“No,” Daneh said after a moment. “No, that’s not the answer. I’m fine, really, except for the nightmares. And they’ll go away. They have to,” she trailed off.

“You need to talk about it,” Sheida said. “I’ve… accessed some very old texts. Rape is as forgotten as…”

“Everything else,” Daneh nodded. “Rape and economic and sexual domination. We were shielded from it for so long. ‘Machines freed women and computers empowered them.’ But it’s all back and in a way it’s all of a piece. Take away the technology and women are nothing but pawns to the males. We have to find a way to deal with it now and in this world. Not patchwork in the old world.”

“Then find someone to talk to.”

“That’s what everyone keeps saying, except the women who went through it. And we don’t want to talk about it, thank you. Especially to family, Sis.”

“That’s… what the texts said you’d say. But they also are definite. You need to talk about it, to get out the… bad thoughts and find out what is real in you and what is an effect of the rape.”

“I don’t suppose you can get some of these texts to me?” Daneh said sourly.

“Not yet, soon maybe,” Sheida said. “Sending an avatar is one thing; teleporting texts or even items that can receive updates is another. We’re on the thin edge of losing right now. If we can just get some breathing room, maybe then.”

“Well until then, thank you but no thank you. I’ll just put up with the nightmares. And ‘get back on the horse.’ ”

“Be careful with that,” Sheida said. “You’ll probably have some ugly flashbacks. And other things.” Sheida paused and shook her head. “You’re right. There’s things I don’t want to talk to you about. Just… be careful. Everything that happens may not be… natural. Damnit, in that whole camp of historical idiots there has to be someone that has studied rape! It was a natural feature of all that wonderful history they love so much!”

“The only ones that might have are Edmund and maybe a guy named Gunny,” Daneh said. “And I don’t care to talk to either of them about it, thank you very much.”

“You’re being very stubborn about this, Sister dear,” Sheida said.

“I’m a Ghorbani,” Daneh said with a faint smile.

Sheida started to say something then looked startled. “I have to go. Talk to someone, damnit!”

“Good bye, Sheida,” Daneh said.


Daneh took a deep breath after Sheida left and thought about the roster of people in Raven’s Mill. “Damn, she’s right” she muttered then walked to a cupboard and took out a bottle of brandy. She looked at the cups and then shook her head and took a deep pull from the bottle. “I can’t believe that I’m going to do this.”

She looked at the door and then pulled a cloak down against the evening chill and went walking out the door. She had and idea who to talk to. Now to find her.

* * *

McGibbon had just drawn a bead on the lead doe of the herd when he froze at a flash of white out of the corner of his eye. He couldn’t figure out what the patch was until it moved again and then he identified it; it was that damned cat of Rachel’s.

He’d been stalking the herd of deer for the last half hour. Stalking was a highly skilled art but he’d been practicing for nearly fifty years and it was second nature to him at this point. The first part was finding the quarry, which was a matter of moving through the woods as if he was a deer himself. That required moving a few steps then pausing and actually making a bit of noise. If you tried to move absolutely silently it was impossible. So you had to move as if you were a foraging animal. A few steps. A movement of a foot. Watch, listen, smell, then move on.

The most important thing was to sight the deer before they spotted you. If you did that, you could close in on them with relative ease. Foraging white tails couldn’t spot movement when their heads were down. And they flipped their tails before they raised their head. So you kept an awareness of their movement, an alpha state in which whenever they started to flick you froze instantly and, at least at his level, almost unconsciously. They would raise their heads, look around and then go back to eating. Which let you get closer.

He had gotten to within a stone’s throw of the deer and had just drawn his bow when he spotted the cat.

On the other hand, it was doing much the same thing. He watched it as it froze in its stalk just as the deer lifted their heads again. There were about fifteen deer in the herd, foraging on fallen acorns at the edge of a natural meadow. He was on the west edge of the meadow and the cat had apparently entered on the southeast edge. Now it was doing a careful and quiet stalk, and despite the fact that the town needed the food he let the bowstring slip silently forward to watch.

As soon as the deers’ heads went back down the cat moved forward again, its belly to the ground half-hidden in the tall grass at the meadow’s center. It moved cautiously, lifting each paw and placing it so that Robert suspected it was making less noise than he would.

Slowly it worked its way to the edge of the tall grass and appeared to focus on one deer on the edge of the herd. The button buck was probably from the last year’s births and just about ready to be driven out of the herd. As a sign of its relative status it had been driven to the edge of the herd where the acorns were the fewest and it was assiduously searching for anything edible it could find. This meant it had its head down far more than the rest of the herd and far more than was wise. And if the cat wasn’t overreaching, the buck might not live to learn the lesson.

Robert watched the stalk until the cat paused at the edge of the grass, then drew his bow again. It was the only compound bow in the village and while it was a very strong draw the nature of the compound bow dropped the “hold weight,” the amount of pull necessary to keep drawn to its full length, to barely half it’s maximum hundred and fifty pounds. But even seventy-five pounds can be a lot to hold for very long and he hoped the cat would make its move soon.

It did, as the buck moved just a tad further out, searching for the elusive wind-blown acorns. When the deer got to within a bare five meters of the cat, the white and orange tom burst out of the grass in a dead sprint and leapt onto the deer’s back.

Robert hadn’t bothered to watch the charge. At the first flicker of movement he had loosed the arrow straight into the “sweet spot” behind the doe’s shoulder. However, despite having a broad-head arrow through her heart the doe bounded away with the rest of the herd, intent on leaving the commotion of the attack of the cat behind her.

Robert now watched in bemusement as the cat first shifted its grip to the deer’s throat, dragging it around and down by sheer weight. Then, as soon as the buck was on the ground, the cat made a lightning change to a clamp on its muzzle. Deprived of oxygen, the deer thrashed and twisted but to no avail; the house lion had the big buck down and down it was going to stay. With a final kick and thrash, the deer lay still.

“Bravo,” McGibbon said, clapping lightly in applause. “Very nice. But you made my doe run off. Now I’m going to have to track her down.”

Azure looked up in startlement as if he hadn’t noticed the human until then and let out a mew. He stalked over through the grass, his tail high and butted into Robert’s hand, getting blood from his muzzle all over the archer’s glove.

“You’re some cat,” the hunter chuckled, rubbing him behind the ears. “I’m more of a dog person, but I could take a shine to you.”

* * *

When Daneh pushed open the door to the pub she was hit by a blast of sound. A redheaded female minstrel was leading a Celtic band in a rollicking jig. Daneh glanced around the crowd and didn’t see who she was looking for so she started to back out when Estrelle appeared at the edge and nodded at her.

“Mistress Talbot, it has been a long time,” the homunculus said. She had her usual skimpy tavern-wench outfit on and a tray held up in either hand but she nodded in greeting.

“Hello, Estrelle,” Daneh said and asked if she’d seen her quarry.

“Right down by the foot of the stage,” Estrelle said. “She comes in here every night to dance.”

Daneh wormed her way uneasily around the edge of the crowd and stopped about half way. The heat and the noise and the smell was starting to get to her but having come this far she was damned sure going to keep on going. Finally she got up near the stage and saw her.

Bast had shed her bow and sword and now was a spinning dervish in front of the stage. There were several people in a line on either side trying to keep up with the jig but even if it had started slow the tempo had sped up to the point that no normal dancer could possibly keep up. Bast, however, was no normal dancer. She was perfectly on beat and adding additional moves including spins, kicks and even the odd backflip, each of them perfectly in time to the music.

The jig had reached the end of the cycle and the redheaded fiddler tried to pick up the tempo again but the band began falling apart; it was simply too fast for most of them to play. Bast, however, stayed right with them until the minstrel finally gave up with a screech of her bow and nodded in defeat to the elf.

People, mostly men, were crowded around the elf but she seemed to be able to fend them off with some sort of karma personal protection field; even the drunkest was giving her her space. She nodded to the band, walked over to pick up her weapons and wormed her way through the crowd to where Daneh was standing.

“Methinks you didn’t come down here for a drink,” Bast said, looking at her calmly.

“No, I didn’t,” Daneh replied with a gulp.

“And this is no place to talk,” Bast said. “I suggest Edmund’s house.”

“Okay,” Daneh said, following her out. As with the dancers around the stage, when she moved through the crowd it seemed to part as if by magic and Daneh kept close on her heels all the way to the door.

“What I wanted to talk about…” Daneh said when they got outside and she could talk without shouting.

“How much liquid courage did you take on board to go find me?” Bast asked.

“I… had a drink of brandy.”

“Just one?” the elf said, amusement in her voice. “Not nearly enough. Wait until we get to the house. But do not fret on the way. Yes, I know what you need to talk about. And, yes, I know some of what you need to know. And, no, it will not be easy. On either of us. But it will be well. I tell you this as Bast. And Bast is never wrong.”

Strangely comforted by that, Daneh followed her back to the house. In silence the elf rummaged in the drink cupboard and pulled out a bottle of wine, then made a fire and settled the two chairs in front of the fire. She pulled out goblets and filled them both to brimming.

“Drink,” she said, pointing at the goblet.

Daneh picked it up and took a sip.

“No, drink,” Bast said, taking her own and tipping it up to drain it.

Daneh swallowed and then lifted the goblet to down it. The wine was not brandy but it was fortified, “winter wine” with a higher than normal alcohol content. The total of the goblet was probably more alcohol than in the shot of brandy she had had before going to the pub. She suddenly remembered that she had skipped dinner.

Bast filled both the cups again, then nodded.

“You were raped by Dionys McCanoc,” Bast said. “And others. How many?”

“There were… seven others,” Daneh said shuddering. “I don’t think…”

“You will talk about it,” Bast said. “You must. You can talk about it. You relive it every night. Don’t just talk to yourself, talk to me. Bast knows. Bast knows the evil that comes in the night, in dreams and without, oh, yes, Bast knows.”


“It takes much to rape an elf,” Bast said obliquely. “I know the evil in humans and elf. I am old, Daneh. I have seen the evils of the AI wars. I know. Eight of them, then. They held you?”

Daneh took a deep breath and started talking. Haltingly at first but as Bast drew her out with careful questions it all spilled out and as it did she relived it, every awful moment, as if it was happening all over again. By the time she was crying she realized that she’d drunk most of the bottle of wine and wondered how that had happened.

“So, and…” Bast said when she was finished. “There is more to it, though. What did Herzer have to do with it?”

Daneh hesitated and looked at the elf, her head cocked on the side. “You and Herzer are…”

“Friends,” Bast said with a smile. “He, too, bears scars. I have not invested the time in him that I have in you, but I have invested enough. I want to know what his scars are, from you.”

“He was with Dionys when they caught me,” Daneh said. “There were too many of them and Dionys was armed with a sword. There was no way he could keep me from being raped. So… he ran. He tried to knock them off me on the way, at least I think he did. But he didn’t succeed. And then he came back… after.”

“Thus and so…” Bast sighed. “What fun we are all having. Have you tried to get back on the horse?”

“No,” Daneh said in a small voice.

“Not long enough, methinks,” Bast replied with a nod. “Tell me about the dreams.”

“I… that’s… hard.”

“Harder than the rape itself, methinks,” Bast said with an unhappy grin. “Let me tell you a few things, then. You relive the rape, yes?”

“Yes,” Daneh said, tightly.

“And sometimes the reason you wake up in terror is that you orgasm.”


“True?” the elf said hardly. “True.”

Daneh lowered her face into her hands and nodded. “Yes.”

“Normal,” Bast said, definitely. “You think that you are evil or sick or twisted beyond repair, yes? But this is normal. For humans anyway.”

“That’s sick,” Daneh said, crying.

“Hey, one of the reasons we elves know you humans are the result of evolution is how screwed up you are mentally; a well designed species isn’t so flighty.”

“So elves don’t have these problems with rape?” Daneh asked, interested in spite of herself.

“Very hard to rape an elf,” Bast repeated. “Harder to survive. Few things that can break an elf out of Dream, few things that can make them hate. Elves are too happy to hate. But when we hate, we hate well. Elf that is raped dreams, oh, yes. But they dream of new and more awful things to do to their rapist. Dream their death over and over again. Elves hate very well. One of the things we’re designed to do is hate. But, mostly, we’re too happy. Be glad. Elves not so happy, humans no longer be here. You need to get back on the horse, but not yet. And know something, when you do, it won’t be good. No matter how loving Edmund is, you’re going to be back there again. Worse, you might enjoy it. There is such a thing as bad sex and that’s it.”

“Yes,” Daneh said.

“But it will get better,” Bast said with a shrug. “Each time it will be a little easier. Other problem. How do you feel about men, now?”

“I’m… not sure,” Daneh said. “Some of them… I’m okay with. Others… make me want to scream.”

“Don’t get to hating them all,” Bast said. “It is an easy trap, to run away from them and wish they were all dead. Even elves don’t hate that way. Each man is different. The ones that make you want to scream… you’re probably feeling something from them. Trust that instinct. But don’t hate them all. That, too, is damage you have to work on. Last Big question: Were you a submissive before you were raped?”

Daneh opened her mouth to voice her favorite protest then clapped it shut; it was a valid question. “Not… openly.”

“Did you play the games?”

“No,” she admitted. “I never could… I couldn’t bring it up.”

“Not even with Edmund?” Bast said, surprised. “He’s not fetished that way, but he plays the game very well.”

“Not even with Edmund,” Daneh admitted.

“Humph. Bet he knew. Fantasies?”

“Yes,” she said quietly.


Daneh paused then sighed. “Yes.”

“Okay, Doctor Bast recommend not play that game for a while.”

Daneh couldn’t help it, she started giggling which turned into a full-bore laugh which somehow segued back into tears until she was sobbing so hard she couldn’t catch her breath. She realized she was in Bast’s lap and being held by strong arms.

“Cry little human, cry,” Bast whispered. “Cry until you’re cried out. Tears are the only thing that shows that humans might have had a Creator. Too weak, too fragile, scared of the whole world. But if there was a Creator She gave them tears to face it and go on.”

Daneh finally caught her breath and looked at the elf holding her. “Thank you,” she said and then, for some reason, kissed her full on the lips.

“You’re welcome,” Bast said after the kiss was over. “But not tonight, I’ve got a headache.”

Daneh broke out in giggles again and shook her head. “Me, too. All that wine I think.”

“Yes, and I think it’s time for you to go to bed,” Bast said, lifting the larger woman effortlessly off her lap. “Alone.”

“Alone,” Daneh agreed and was surprised and worried that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be alone. She’d never had a sexual thought about another woman before. “Bast, I don’t want you to think that…” she paused.

“Is okay, I’d put it down to another effect of the rape,” Bast said, supporting her to bed. She got her undressed and tucked in and then kissed her on the forehead. “Lots of things messed up in you from it. But you’ll get better. Trust Bast. Sleep. Deep sleep no dreams.”

“No dreams,” Daneh said muzzily, wondering why she was so tired.

“Sleep little human,” Bast said, placing her hand on her forehead. “Sleep well.”

As Daneh faded into sleep the last thing she remembered was Bast curling up on the floor as if she intended to stay for a while. And if her sleep was troubled by dreams, they fled at the sight of a sword-wielding being in white.

* * *

Sheida nodded tiredly at the avatar of Ishtar and then sighed at her face.

“What is it now?” she asked, unwrapping her jewel-covered lizard from her neck and cradling it in her arms.

“I have determined the source of the power that Paul’s faction is drawing upon,” Ishtar said without preamble. “It is a power draw from core storage.”

“But…” Sheida paused. “But the only ones who can do a core draw are the elves. That is how the Lady is closing Elfheim.”

“That is not the only source for core draws,” Ishtar said bitterly. “They are using power from the terraforming projects.”

“Oh,” Sheida said after a moment’s thought. “How… truly good.”

“What I have been unable to determine is why they can draw upon it,” Ishtar went on. “They have to have a quorum of the board of directors of one or more of the projects agreeing to release the power. And… I can’t imagine that happening.”

“I can,” Sheida said after long thought. “But, oh, but that is a deep laid plan…” she muttered.

“What plan?” Ishtar asked, her brows furrowing.

“Edmund, he told me to look to the Demon at the center of this,” Sheida said with a grimace. “And I think he must be right. I was… asked to look into some things before this… war erupted. There had been some disturbing things going on with the Wolf 359 terraforming project. One of the people who had risen to prominence was… well known to me. Not a good person and not the sort of person to…”

“Care about something that wasn’t going to do him any good?” Ishtar asked.

“Something like that. But it didn’t come together. Now it does. And we are truly in trouble.”

“But the rest of the board members?” Ishtar asked. “They have to be present to vote!”

“In the event of large scale disruption there is probably a protocol for rump voting,” Sheida said, dropping into the Net to open up the data. “Yes, there is,” she said, distantly. “And while we cannot access the board members’ location or status, Mother assuredly could. If they had assassins waiting for the majority of the board…”

“Then their hand-picked members would be the only ones left,” Ishtar hissed. “Evil.”

“Yes, and much too Byzantine for Paul,” Sheida added, rising back up out of the data-flow. “This has the Demon’s fingerprints all over it.”

“What do we do about it?” Ishtar asked.

“Find the members of the board,” Sheida said. “And either get them to vote to store the power or at least stop them from giving it to Paul.”

“And how do we do that?” Ishtar asked, throwing her hands in the air. “We don’t know where anyone is!”

“We’ll send out a list to all the communities that report to us,” Sheida replied, pulling up the list. “These are all the members who were alive before the Fall,” she added, looking over the list. “Know any of them?”

“No,” Ishtar said, then looked at her fellow council member’s face. Sheida stopped looking at the list with a frozen and angry expression on her face. “What?”

“I do,” Sheida hissed.


“We must stop this war,” Paul said, looking up from the report. “We must stop it. Now.”

Paul had called a full meeting of the New Destiny Council to “discuss some ramifications of the current conflict.” Celine had known it would be contentious when she arrived and Paul was striding up and down the Council Chamber, literally tearing at his hair. She had always thought that was just an expression.

“Why?” Chansa exclaimed, looking across the room at the Demon. The black armor didn’t move or twitch in any way at the strange statement.

“The deaths!” Paul yelled, pointing at the projections. “We’ve finally gotten a census in the portions of Ropasa that we control and thousands, millions are dying or already dead! This was not supposed to be a war. The point is to prevent the extinction of the human race, not cause it!”

“What about horror?” Celine asked. “We were going to win! I’ve got plans!”

“The plan has failed,” Paul snapped. “Forcing them to quit was a good plan, but not in the face of the death of the human race!

“Actually, Bowman, it has succeeded beyond your wildest dreams,” the Demon rumbled.

“What?” Paul said, cocking his head suspiciously. “Explain yourself.”

“I can, Paul,” Celine said, waving the projections away and bringing up new ones. “I prepared the reports. Current population of the earth is just above one billion. Control of the Net has fractured, power has failed, different members of the Council have seized, for the most part, certain historical areas. Chansa in Frika, Sheida in Norau, yourself in Ropasa, etc.”

“Your point,” the council leader ground out.

“My point is that deaths are going to be high in the first two months. Very high. But in each of these areas, council members are acting, as they see fit, to ensure the survival of as many as possible.”

“We’re still talking about millions of deaths!” Paul snapped.

“But we’re talking about far more population increase,” Celine continued as if he hadn’t interrupted. “Indeed, we’re talking about a near doubling of the population in two to three generations.”

“What?” Paul paused. “How?”

“Frankly, your initial plan probably would not have worked,” Celine said. “As long as there were artificial means of replication and reproduction management, birth levels would remain low no matter what you did to encourage it. However, with all of that taken away, birth rates are bound to skyrocket.”

“What in the hell are you talking about?” Paul ground out.

“The nannites have turned off,” Celine replied with a smirk. “That means other things have turned on.”

* * *

Rachel was more or less moping around the house when Daneh found her.

“Come on, girl, time to start your education,” Daneh said, snatching up a satchel.

“What do you mean?” Her mother was acting different this morning. Rachel couldn’t put her finger on it but something of the despair had seemed to leave her. Whatever the reason, she was glad.

“You said you wanted to be a doctor,” Daneh replied, heading for the door. “Bethan Raeburn has started to bleed internally. That’s all I know. Come on.”

Tom Raeburn was outside the house with two saddled horses, looking very worried.

“What can you tell me?” Daneh said as she mounted with a wince.

“Not much. Mom just started bleeding all of a sudden. From her… well from her bottom.”

“From her anus?” Daneh asked. “There’s various reasons that that might occur, none of them life threatening.” They were already starting to canter down the hill, not following the main road but cutting across the open area around the side of the town.

“Not from her… anus,” Tom said. “The… the other part. I’m sorry if I’m being unclear, but this is my mother, okay?”

“Okay,” Daneh answered. She wracked her brain for what might be wrong and there was something nagging at her. But for the life of her, the only thing that came to mind was some sort of internal injury. “Did she fall? Was she hit?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Tom said.

Daneh held her peace until they reached the sprawling farmyard, then hurried inside with Rachel at her heels.

They went upstairs to where Myron was standing outside the bedroom door, wringing his hands.

“Thank God you’re here, Daneh,” Myron said. “I… she’s… I just can’t take it. Please help her!”

“I’ll see what I can do, Myron,” Daneh answered, secretly fearful that there wouldn’t be much she could do. Without nannites she was virtually helpless. She might know the inner workings of the human body, but fixing that body took tools she no longer possessed.

Inside the room she found Bethan in bed, apparently naked, curled up in a miserable ball on her side, the sheet on the bed pulled up on her hips.

“How are you, Beth?” she asked, pulling the sheet down. There was a wad of rags stuffed into the woman’s crotch and it was spotted with red. There was more that had trickled down the woman’s leg onto the bed. All in all it looked as if she had bled about a deciliter.

“Daneh,” Bethan said helplessly. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“Be calm,” Daneh answered, taking her hand and wrist. She remembered the simple method of taking a pulse but she didn’t have a way to time it. The woman’s pulse felt fine, though, strong and a bit fast, but that could be put down to understandable fear. “Other than the bleeding, what are the symptoms?” she asked, feeling the woman’s neck and face. No signs of fever and while she was a bit pale she didn’t seem to be in shock.

“Nothing,” Bethan answered. “I’ve been a little… grouchy lately and then I started to hurt in the stomach yesterday. Then today I just started bleeding!”

“No impacts?” Daneh asked. “I’m sorry to ask this, but nobody hit you, did they?”

“No!” Bethan practically snarled. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Like I said, I’ve been grouchy. I would have hit them, not the other way around!”

“There doesn’t seem to be a reason,” Daneh said in exasperation. “I can’t sew it up. And I can’t get into the interior to see what’s bleeding!” She knew better than to show her discomfort in front of a patient, but this was the first time she’d had to deal with something like this. “No tools, no diagnostics. Aggh! I need to think.” She looked at the woman and took her pulse again. Still strong. “Bethan, whatever is happening, you’re not showing any other signs. You don’t appear to be… damaged from the bleeding. Just let me think.”

She stood back and paced as she ran through the anatomy of the female reproductive system. Something had clearly gone badly wrong. Cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries… Something was haywire. She hadn’t paid much attention to the system since medical school, it was just there, as useless as the vermiform appendix that most people no longer had. With uterine replicators reproduction had all been moved out of the female body thank God and… Oh, My, God!

She stopped with her face in her hand, blinded by her own stupidity. But she wasn’t the only one who had missed the obvious.

“Bethan, do your cows reproduce naturally or do you have them raised in a replicator?” she asked.

“They reproduce naturally. We try to… Oh!”

“And do they ever bleed? The females?”

“Yes, after they’ve ovulated,” Bethan said with horror in her voice.

“And that’s once every?”

“Six months or so. But humans…”

“Humans ovulate every month!” Daneh wailed. “The curse! Damnit, I knew this was familiar!”

“This is natural?” Bethan asked. “This is supposed to happen?”

“Once a month,” Daneh said, the memory finally dropping into place. “Every twenty-eight days.”

“For how long?’

“I don’t know… a week?”

“Oh, My, God!”

“Mom, what about me?” Rachel asked, frantically.

“You, me, all of us,” Daneh responded.

“When is it going to start?”

“Soon. Bethan was the first. Probably there will be more by the end of the day. The nannite fields had ovulation turned off and the natural hormones that were generated by the cycle were replaced and released in a steady stream. Now we’re going to be slaves to that damned curse again!”

“That sucks,” Rachel said. “I’m not going to!”

“You don’t have a choice,” Daneh replied, thinking furiously. “They used to have ways to… catch the flow. Terms, old terms. On the rag. Riding the cotton pony.”

“Where have I heard that before?” Bethan asked.

“You find it in the literature of the day,” Rachel replied with a frown. “King, Moore, Hiaasen…”

“Ah, the masters,” Bethan smiled wanly.

“I don’t know what they used, but we’d better think of something,” Daneh said with a frown. “And soon. Or this whole town is going to be one hell of a mess.”

“So I’m not dying,” Bethan said.

“No, you’re going through a perfectly normal monthly cycle that has been survived by countless women throughout the ages,” Daneh replied astringently. “And there’s so much good news attached to it, too.”

“Oh?” Bethan asked warily.

“Yes, it means you’re now as fertile as one of your cows. How many more children do you plan on having?”

* * *

The three days of rest were cut short for the starting of the familiarization classes and on the second day after arriving at Raven’s Mill Herzer found himself in a mixed group of males and females clearing land along the Shenan River on the far side from Raven’s Mill.

The work was backbreaking. The majority of the trees in the area were “secondary old growth.” That meant that while the area had once been cleared, had, in fact, been the fringe of the massive megalopolis that had once stretched down the entire coast, the buildings and other structures had been gone long enough for multiple generations of forest to have grown on the spot.

Herzer didn’t know the names of the trees and didn’t particularly care. They were just horrible growing things to be attacked with axe and saw. He supposed that given his friendship with Bast he should be more understanding. She had, after all, seen the trees grow from seeds or acorns or whatever and loved them like children. But it was hard to be kindly thinking towards the trees when your hands ran with blood from the blisters.

He had taken turns in a rota using the two crosscut saws they had available and that was bad enough. The motion used muscles he didn’t even know he had and by the first hour he was in agony from it. It took a particular stance and motion to get the most out of the saws and he suspected that for long-term users it was relatively easy. Relatively. Drawing a saw back and forth for hour upon hour could never be characterized as “easy.” But surely easier than it was to learn. And then there was the question of “coasting.” It was nearly impossible to determine if the person on the other side of the saw was working as hard as you were and it was tempting, especially on some of the more recalcitrant trees, to suspect that the person was not, in fact, giving their all.

Herzer had noticed by the morning of the first day that not everyone worked equally. There were ten males and five females, most of them younger like Mike and he. Herzer, Mike and a few others, males and females, threw themselves into all the tasks with as much energy and enthusiasm as they could summon. In Mike’s case he seemed to have a real drive to learn the details of each of the jobs while in Herzer’s case he had an obstinate refusal to do less than his best.

Most of the rest, though, were just there to pick up a meal chit. There had been some muttering the first day, especially after they found out how hard they were going to have to work, about “slave labor,” but the incipient rebellion had been quelled quickly by the supervisor of the clearing effort, a reenactor named Jody Dorsett.

He had stood with his hands on his hips in front of a group of the “apprentices” who had simply dropped the axes they had been wielding. He looked at them with cold blue eyes.

“You can pick them up and start working or you can drop out. It doesn’t matter to me. And if I think you’re not working as hard as you should, I can dock your rations. So don’t think you can just pick the axe up every few seconds and give the tree a love tap. I’ve seen it all me buckoes and if I see any more of it out of you you’ll damned well be thrown out of the program.”

So the malingerers got back to work, grudgingly, as Herzer and a few others threw themselves into their assigned tasks.

For Herzer and Mike it had started with the crosscut saw. The objective was to drop the trees in a certain direction so they could be extracted more easily, but the trees didn’t always want to go that way. Indeed, it seemed they were bound and determined not to.

Herzer, working with another man whose name he never did quite catch, had started on a smaller tree, but a tough one. Only about two thirds of a meter across where they were cutting, it had nonetheless taken nearly an hour to cut through. They had first cut an angled slit down one side then driven wooden “wedges” into the slit. With that done they notched out the far side with an axe then started the crosscut. The blade had bound a time or two, requiring that wedges on the “pushing” side be loosened and wedges be driven in around the blade. But finally, after it felt they would never get the damned thing to fall it did, right at Herzer.

At first it seemed to be going well but then the cut at the base split and the tree turned, partially pressured by the winds that had sprung up, and aimed itself in Herzer’s direction.

Only a quick yell from the supervisor, who had been keeping a wary eye out for the junior team, had prevented the boy from being crushed. As it was, he barely made it out of the way of the trunk and was actually struck a glancing blow by one of the smaller, lower branches.

Jody’s only comment was a snarl for getting the blade bound under the trunk and nearly breaking it. As soon as it was loose he set Herzer and a new partner to cut a larger tree with a trunk nearly two meters across, wide spreading branches and gnarls all over its trunk. Herzer groaned in fatigue but set to it without further comment.

And the blisters started almost immediately. Unlike most of the rest he had some calluses, but they were from sword and bow, utterly unlike the calluses from a saw or axe. So in no time at all his hands had become swollen with blisters which just as quickly popped under the unremitting punishment.

This time Herzer was teamed with a guy named Earnon Brooke. He had been one of the brief mutineers and true to form, Herzer was sure that he wasn’t doing much more than leaning on the end of the saw. Herzer had to practically push it through on each cut, instead of simply moving with it and maybe putting some pressure against the trunk. And when he did his pull there was more resistance than he thought there should be; it almost felt like the guy was leaning back on it and letting Herzer pull him through.

Herzer put up with it for about ten minutes, which had barely gotten them started on the wedge cut and then he’d had enough. He dropped his end of the saw at the end of his pull and walked over to the other man.

Earnon was tall and good looking but he had the shiftiest eyes Herzer had ever seen. He was, however, at least a good decade older than the boy and Herzer tried not to let that intimidate him.

“Look, you’re not pulling your share of the weight,” Herzer said calmly. “We’re never going to get this tree cut if you don’t work at it.”

“I am working at it,” Earnon said stepping forward and snarling at the boy. “If anybody’s not pulling his own weight, it’s you, boy. Don’t you be blaming me if you’re afraid the thing’s gonna fall on you again. It wasn’t my screw-up that time; it was yours.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Herzer said, backing up. “I’m not slacking off, you are!”

“The hell I am!” Earnon shouted and pushed Herzer, hard, on the chest so that he stumbled back further.

“Whoa,” Jody said, walking up behind Herzer and grabbing his arms as the boy crouched to spring. “No! No fighting! Herzer, Earnon, you’re both docked for the afternoon meal!”

“What?” Herzer said, struggling in his arms. “I was just trying to get him to do some work!”

“This boy’s been doing nothing but hanging on the end of the saw,” Earnon said righteously, crossing his arms. “Then he came over and accused me of not working. I’m not going to take that. And you can’t dock me for defending my rights!”

“I can dock you for looking at me wrong, Brooke,” Jody said dangerously. “And if I was to guess who was the troublemaker here, it wouldn’t be Herzer. But you’re both getting docked for fighting. Now you can either get out or get back to work. I don’t really care which.”

“Are you going to be able to keep it together?” Jody asked Herzer, releasing him.

“Yeah,” the boy said, shaking his head and picking at torn skin from a blister. It was only halfway through the morning and he was already starved. Missing lunch was going to hurt. “But I didn’t start this.”

“If you have a problem, you come to me,” Jody said. “You don’t start a fight.”

“I was just trying…”

“You don’t start a fight,” Jody said dangerously. “You come to me.”

“Okay, I’m coming to you,” Herzer said, quietly, turning towards the boss. “I don’t care what you set me on, but I’m not going to try to cut down this big-ass tree with this useless asshole.”

“The hell with you, punk,” Earnon said, charging forward.

“Hold it!” Jody said, stepping between the two. “Watch your tongue, Herzer. Okay, if you two can’t work together, that’s fine.” He looked around and shook his head at the total lack of work out of the rest of the group. “What does this look like, street theater?” he shouted. “Are you guys a bunch of minstrels to sit around on your butts? Get back to work!” Then he waved at one of the men. “Tempie, get over here.”

He waited until the other young man came over then waved at Herzer. “Go clear limbs if you can’t work in a pair.”

“I can work in a pair…” Herzer said hotly.

“Go,” Jody said, waving at the axe that Tempie had dropped.

Herzer stalked over to the axe without another word and started chopping at the limb that Tempie had left.

The axe was broad bladed with a rounded head wrapped around a circular haft. It was designed more like a battle-axe than a standard wood cutting axe but it was sharp enough and each of Herzer’s furious blows took out a huge chunk of wood. The tree he was working on was large like the others. Instead of the branches spreading out they were fairly short and tight together. Nonetheless they were rather thick at the base and took some cutting. Which was fortunate for Herzer because it gave him a chance to work out his rage at the injustice of the previous incident. Unable to let go of his anger he rang blow after blow on the branch until it broke free, then started immediately on another. As he worked the rhythm of the blows, and the physical exhaustion that working at the pace induced, tended to relieve the anger and he slowly started to gain equilibrium and think about the incident instead of just running around in a fugue of anger at the injustice.

“You need to slow down or you’ll kill yourself,” Courtney said, coming up behind him.

As she said it the axe bounced sideways barely missing his leg and he swung it back into line carefully then set it down, panting.

“You’ve got a point,” Herzer said, turning around.

Some of the females had started to help with the cutting but the greater muscle mass of the males quickly proved that they could do it faster and longer. In general they had taken over the “lighter” jobs like dragging aside cut limbs, replacing broken equipment and watering the workers. On the other hand, two of the women were still at it, as if to prove that they were as good as, or better than, any of the males. One of them was Deann Allen, who just attacked everything like Herzer had been attacking the tree, and the other was Karlyn Karakas, who must have had some major body mods; she was over two meters tall and built like a male body-builder. Deann, on the other hand, was much smaller but if anything more aggressive about the work; she seemed to have a chip on her shoulder about a mile wide. So since she was clearing limbs just as well as any of the males, Jody hadn’t even suggested that she leave off.

The other three women, Courtney, Nergui Slovag and Hsu Shilan had taken up the lighter tasks. They were pulling the lighter branches aside as they were cut and piling them up, bringing tools, driving wedges and carrying water.

Which was why Courtney thrust a pottery cup at him, half filled with water.

He shook his head and downed the water then stared at the cup. It was poorly made and the impression of a finger was still visible, cast into the interior by the firing. It was already cracked at the top and slightly porous so his hand holding it was dampened by the water seeping through.

It was at that moment that things really caught up with him and he thought he would break down, right there, and cry. He was really here, having to work or starve. And he was never, ever going back. He suddenly, desperately, wanted to see his small cabin in the woods. It had never been much more than a place for him to sleep and keep a few things he treasured. But he wanted to lie in his bed and have the genie bring him a glass of beer and a great big steak. He wanted this to all be a strange dream and just be over.

“You look like somebody killed your dog,” Courtney said. “Is the water that bad?”

“No,” Herzer said, trying not to sob. “No. It’s just… I just suddenly realized, this is it. This is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life!”

“Well, hopefully not this,” Courtney said cheerfully, then nodded soberly. “But… yeah.”

“I just…” Herzer stopped and shook his head. “Never mind. Thanks for the water.”

“LUNCH BREAK!” Jody yelled, banging two pieces of metal together. He waved at Herzer. “You can take a break until it’s over.”

“Why?” Herzer said with a shrug, picking the axe back up. “I’ll keep working.”

Jody looked at him with an inscrutable expression for a moment, then nodded, and headed over to the pots that had been smoking over a fire.

“It’s not fair,” Courtney said hotly. “You didn’t start that.”

“I know,” Herzer said, spitting on his hands and wincing when the spittle hit his now bleeding blisters. “But I think I kind of understand it.”

“What, telling you you can’t eat? Because you complained about that useless jackass?” Mike asked, walking up.

“Because of how it ended up going,” Herzer replied, taking his first hit at the next branch. “None of us have ever had to work for a living. We’re having to learn how. How to work in groups, too. Jody’s got a tough job and the only way he can do it is to be a hard-ass.”

“Well he pissed a lot of people off today,” Courtney said hotly, looking over at where the foreman was being harangued by Earnon. It was clear that the man couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to be permitted to eat.

“I know, Earnon’s already got friends,” Herzer nodded.

“Oh, not that,” Courtney said. “I suppose a few of them don’t like it because of him. But most of us are pissed off that you got caught up in it. Earnon’s the problem, not you.”

“Oh,” Herzer said. “Uh. Thanks.”

“We need to go eat,” Mike said, taking Courtney by the arm. “Herzer, we can hold a little by…”

“If Jody finds out, he’s likely to dock you two, too,” Herzer said, shaking his head. “You go eat.”


By the middle of the afternoon Herzer was swaying from fatigue and hunger. He was still clearing branches and doing it at a pretty good pace, but he didn’t know how much longer he could go on. His arms felt like lead and he was light-headed. Every now and again he started to sway and his axe blows no longer hit where he wanted them to.

He didn’t even notice Jody when he came up behind him and started when the man cleared his throat, the axe glancing off the branch and flying out of his hands.

“I thought so,” Jody said. “Mike told me you didn’t get the full three days rest.”

“Courtney or Mike?” Herzer asked, blinking his eyes as it seemed the edges of his vision were going gray.

“Mike, but I suspect Courtney put him up to it,” Jody said. “Do you realize you’ve cleared about twice as many branches as anyone else?”

“No, I wasn’t paying attention,” Herzer said with the honesty of the punch drunk.

“You need to take a break and get some water. The ones that are working hard are just about worn out and the ones that are slacking are getting better and better at acting that way, so I’m moving dinner up and we’ll break before sunset. But we’re starting tomorrow at dawn.”

“Okay,” Herzer said, stepping back and sitting down on a cleared log. “Works for me.”

“Take a break, Herzer, that’s an order,” Jody said, waving at one of the water carriers.

“Here,” Nergui said, shoving a cup at him and slopping half of it on the ground.

“Thank you,” Herzer said tiredly and drained it. “Now could I have some more.”

“Only one,” the girl said angrily. “It’s a long walk to the spring. You need to slow down, you’re making the rest of them look bad.”

“Not all of them,” Herzer said, draining the second half filled cup. “Just some.”

“Hmmph,” the girl snorted, snatching the cup back and walking away with a flounce.

“Well, are you happy you son-of-a-bitch?” Mike said, sitting down next to him.

“Not you too!” Herzer said.

“I’m joking,” Mike replied, stone faced. “Really. But I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did if it hadn’t been trying to keep up with you. You made out of damned iron or something?”

“Not right now,” Herzer said. “I feel like rubber. What’s with Nergui, anyway?”

“She and Earnon hit it off right away,” Mike said. “You didn’t notice?”


“Two peas in a pod. Anyway, she’s mad cause Earnon didn’t get any lunch and she nearly got caught passing him some food. And then you’re working like a damned machine and that made him look twice as bad. You know Jody’s had to change partners on him twice and that tree still isn’t half sawed through?”

“Hmmm…” Herzer replied, really taking a look around for the first time since early morning. Several trees had been downed and mostly cleared and topped, their logs now lying on the muddy ground in preparation for hauling off. The branches, leaves and other detritus had been collected in large piles and he suddenly realized, identifying trees, how much of those piles had been his work.

But the giant spreading tree that had been the source of contention was still standing, the trunk not even half sawed through as Mike had said.

“Well, I guess that proves who was working and who wasn’t,” Herzer chuckled then guffawed. “And Jody’s had him on that tree all day?”

“Yeah, I complained, lightly in the middle of the afternoon. I’ve been on the other saw all damned day and we’ve downed three trees. They’ve not even gone through one.”

Herzer looked at the other trees and had to admit that, while the others were smaller, that was much more work than that single tree.

“I think Jody’s just trying to make a point,” Herzer said. “I’m not sure what the point is, but I’m pretty sure there is one.”

“Oh, I know what the point is,” Mike growled. “Earnon is a useless slacker.”

“Have you had other partners?” Herzer asked.

“Yeah, he’s run just about everybody by my saw. Some of ’em are okay. Guy and Cruz and Emory pull their own weight, I guess so do Tempie and Glayds but they don’t really work at it, they just do what they have to do. Frederic, Cleo and Earnon are fisking useless.”

Herzer chuckled and gestured with his chin at Karlyn who was lifting a branch the size of a small tree onto her shoulder to drag it off.

“Yeah, Karlyn, too. Mostly. She doesn’t have the mass sometimes, I guess. And neither does Deann but she just makes up for it with anger.”

The latter was topping one of the trees that had been mostly cleared of branches. Once the trunk narrowed to a certain point it wasn’t worth clearing the rest and the top was cut off, “topping”, and dragged into the brush pile. Deann had one of the battle-axe type axes and was attacking the tree as if it were the neck of a hostile dragon, an expression of absolute fury on her face.

“Trees! She hates trees!” Herzer whispered with a chuckle.

“Well, if you think that’s bad, you should have seen you when you started out,” Courtney said, coming over and sitting down by Mike. “I was afraid you were going to take that axe to Jody’s neck!”

“Not Jody,” Herzer said. “But if Earnon had come over to continue the discussion, I’m not making any bets.”

“I was thinking about what you said earlier,” Courtney said. “And you’re right. But there’s more.”


“It’s what you just said. There’s no PPFs. If you took it in your head to go kill Earnon with that axe, there wouldn’t have been much anyone could do about it.”

“So Jody comes down with both feet on fighting,” Mike added. “I started to tell off Frederic when he was on the saw and then I just walked over and talked to Jody. Frederic tried to interrupt but Jody just shut him up and put him to topping. I didn’t cuss him out or anything, just told Jody he was riding the saw and I wanted him off.”

“I guess that’s what I should have done,” Herzer said with a shake of his head.

“Well, if I hadn’t seen the example, I would have done what you did,” Mike admitted. “And I probably would have cracked that useless fisker’s head on top of it. So I’m not exactly glad you screwed up first but…” he grinned and picked up a twig to chew on, using it to pick at his teeth.


Herzer joined the others in line for food and took his bowl of beans and cornbread. That was it again and after getting it he sat down on one of the logs and contemplated the food for just a moment.

“You going to eat it or just look at it?” Mike asked, spooning up his beans between bites of bread.

“I get such pleasure from the anticipation,” Herzer said lightly. “But soon it will be all gone!” He picked up his spoon then set it back down and lifted the bowl to his lips, sucking down the mixture. There was a small, very small, piece of pork in the bowl and he worried that for a few moments then wiped out the bowl with his cornbread. When that was gone he was done.

He contemplated licking the bowl out but finally convinced himself not to. Instead he carried it over to the stack of dirty dishes and got a large dipper of water from a barrel.

“Herzer, here,” Jody said, coming up behind him with a large bowl of cornmeal mush. Herzer could see some bits of mystery meat embedded in it.

“Hey!” Earnon shouted. “I didn’t get any lunch, neither! Why the hell does he get extra?!”

“Because he didn’t sit on his ass all afternoon,” Jody answered to a chorus of chuckles. “If you don’t have something to eat, you’ll be useless in the morning. And you deserve it.”

“Thank you,” Herzer said, taking the bowl carefully. After a moment he shrugged and sucked it down just as fast as the beans.

Jody chuckled and set the bowl on the pile with the rest. “Don’t worry about it; the cooks will clean up.”

“Okay, folks, here’s the deal,” Jody said, striding over to where most of the cutting crew was finishing eating. “You can walk back to Raven’s Mill or you can stay over on this side of the river. If you stay here, I’ll show you some ways to make a shelter. Either way, breakfast is before dawn tomorrow. So if you stay over there you’d better get somebody to wake you up and walk back or you’ll miss it.”

“What’s for breakfast?” Earnon asked. “And why can’t we just eat over there?”

“Because you don’t get chits for meals, yet,” Jody said. “We’re feeding you for your work. And this is where we’re feeding you. Any other questions?”

“How do I get out of this chicken-shit outfit?” Cleo Ronson asked with a bitter laugh.

“Any time you want you can walk away,” Jody said. “And if I hear enough complaints you will be out of this outfit. Any more questions?”

“Same thing on the agenda tomorrow?” Mike asked.

“Pretty much,” Jody said. “We need to clear a large area by a couple of weeks from now. We’re going to work on cutting for three more days, then clear the logs and burn the trash. After that we’ll work on making some rough buildings. Then you’ll be done with this portion and I’ll get another crew.” He looked around and nodded. “Okay, grab the tools and stack them and we’ll start making some shelters from all this trash.”

Herzer grabbed his axe and carefully stacked it, feeling a massive and unexpected wave of fatigue flow over him. Before he knew it, it was all he could do to stay on his feet. He listened while Jody explained how to make a lean-to. But in the end, between his swollen and puffy hands and his overwhelming fatigue, he couldn’t find the energy for the effort. Taking one of the blankets that had been provided he went over to the giant tree that had missed felling and collapsed onto one of the large roots, resting his head partially on it and partially on the dirt. Before he could even squiggle around to get comfortable he was asleep.

* * *

“You need some sleep,” Edmund said as he entered the wooden hut that had been set up as a temporary hospital until there was time to build a real one. Daneh was at a bucket of steaming water, washing her hands as Rachel and another woman scrubbed at blood-covered tools.

“Don’t start,” she said tiredly. “I’ve had to do two amputations today, one major and one minor, while trying to get the heads of all the women in the camp around the fact that they’re about to start bleeding.”

“We need to talk about that,” Edmund said. “You’ve requisitioned just about every scrap of cloth in the town for this and all the unspun cosilk. We have other needs, Daneh.”

“I know, but this one is a right now need, Edmund,” she snapped. “I’m running out of bandages. And the women are either going to have the material or they’re going to run around bleeding all over the place. Which would you prefer?”

“Do you need so much is what I’m asking, as pleasantly as possible,” Talbot replied, taking a deep breath. “We need the cloth in making tools. We need it to repair clothes; most of the people’s clothes are getting to be in tatters.”

“If we don’t need it all, we’ll turn it back in,” she replied. “We won’t be throwing any of it away; the women are being told to wash the material and reuse it. We’ll only use as much as is needed. And this is for the benefit of the whole camp, Edmund.”

“All right, Daneh,” he said with a sigh. “You said that you’ve talked to the women in the town, what about out in the camps?”

“I hadn’t even given it a thought,” she said tiredly, looking out the open window to the darkness. “It’s too late now…”

“And you’re needed here,” Edmund continued. “Rachel. You’re doing it. Tomorrow. Go to each of the camps and all of the groups that are going through familiarization. If anyone gives you any trouble tell them to come see me. Talk to all the women, tell them what’s going to happen and that we’re getting materials ready.”

“Yes, sir!” she said sarcastically.

“You’re still young enough for me to turn over my knee, young lady,” Edmund said with a smile. “Watch that tone.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want Daddy mad at me,” Rachel said, again snippily. “You realize I’m going to start any time, don’t you?”

“Yes, I had thought about that,” Talbot replied with another smile. “Take the appropriate precautions.”

“Appropriate precautions,” Daneh said with another sigh. “You realize that includes avoiding pregnancy?”

“Or terminating it after it starts,” Talbot answered with a nod. “Sheep guts for the first and tansy for the second.”

“You’re serious,” Daneh said with a shake of her head. “What do sheep guts have to do with preventing pregnancy?”

“Well, see, you rub them all over your body…” Edmund started and then laughed at her expression.


“Okay, seriously, you use the outer, hard, layer of sheep intestines as a prophylactic condom.”

“A what?” Rachel asked. “What in the hell does that mean?”

“Prophylactic is a term for a preventative…” Daneh replied. “But…”

“You take a section of sheep intestine that is of appropriate length, cut it off and sew one end shut,” Edmund said dryly. “The male slips the sheep intestine, which can be kept dry but has to be softened with water before use, over his penis. This prevents the ejacula from entering the woman’s body.”

“That’s… obscene,” Rachel said with a grimace.

“And of course some men have to use bigger animals than sheep,” Edmund continued with a chuckle, shifting up his belt theatrically.

“That would probably work,” Daneh said with a nod. “But the seam would tend to leak. And I’d have to find you a rabbit…”

“I think they probably waxed it,” Edmund said thoughtfully, ignoring the jibe. “You’d test it by filling it with water and seeing if it held.”

“I can’t believe you’re talking about this,” Rachel said. “Come on.”

“Rachel, you’ve long wanted to be treated like an adult,” Edmund replied without turning around. “Welcome to being treated like an adult. We could treat you like a child and tell you to leave if you wish.”

Rachel opened her mouth to reply hotly then snapped it shut.

“Okay, I had that coming,” she admitted. “But let me point out that you’re my mother and father. Maybe I am too young to handle some conversations because discussions of my father’s penis size is definitely one of them. Okay?”

“Okay,” Edmund said with a laugh. “Sorry.”

“What’s ‘tansy’?” Daneh asked.

“Oh, an herb,” Edmund replied. “That’s really all that I know about it. And that it’s an abortifacient that’s apparently pretty strong.”

“There’s so much I don’t know,” Daneh said with a sigh and a shake of her head. “Edmund, please, the next time you talk to Sheida, tell her that she will sustain a sister’s curse if she doesn’t figure out some way for me to get access to medical texts.”

“I’ll tell her,” Edmund promised.

“It shouldn’t be all that power intensive,” Daneh argued.

“I’ll tell her.”

“And we really need it.”

“I’ll tell her,” he said.

“Okay. And another thing, people are working themselves to death.”

Some people are working themselves to death,” Edmund corrected. “What is your point.”

“We need to start briefing people on safety. We’ve got people who have never held an axe before in their lives doing lumberjack work and people working with heavy machinery who have never done that. The major amputation was a person working in the mill who didn’t have the sense to use some sort of lifting device to pick up one end of a huge beam. He’s lost the bottom of his foot permanently; it was too crushed to even think about repairing. I know in the old days nobody really cared about safety except for ‘try not to get yourself killed.’ But I think we can do better than that, can’t we?”

“I’ll look into it,” he said, pulling out a bundle of paper and a pencil. He held up his hand to forestall her outburst. “I’ll look into it. You’re right, in the old days nobody tried because nobody cared except the people getting hurt. And it might be possible to do better. But I can’t guarantee it. Cutting down trees is inherently dangerous unless you have power systems and a cage. And even then accidents happen. So is farming. It never got much better the whole time men were doing it. So I don’t know what exactly we can do. But we’ll try. Okay?”

“Okay,” she answered. “Last thing for you; we need to schedule a rest day.”


“Every society in history had a rest day,” she continued, ignoring the interruption. “Mostly they were religious in nature but they don’t have to be. People working this hard have to have some time off. I’d suggest one day in seven since that was the old standard and it seemed to work.”

“Sunday perhaps?” he said, amused.

“I don’t care which day of the week you choose, as long as you choose one,” she answered, firmly.

“All right, I’ll figure out which one is the most prevalent. We do have a couple of Jews and at least one Muslim, I think they take Fridays off.”

“Saturday,” Rachel interjected. “For the Jews anyway. Friday night to Saturday night if I remember correctly.”

“Saturday then,” Edmund said with a shrug. “We’ll want to think about holidays as well. Not many. But you’re right, people need some time off.”

“Kane’s brought his herd in. Tomorrow get a horse from him or from Tom Raeburn,” Daneh said to Rachel. “Take a bag with some bandages and go around to the camps. Brief the women on what’s happening and check on everyone’s overall health. There’s a lot of minor injuries here in town; I imagine there are out at the camps too.”

“Yes, Mother,” Rachel said, tiredly then looked up with a blush. “I’m sorry. You’re right. And it’s a responsibility. Thank you.”

“You’ll do well,” Daneh said. “If there’s anyone seriously hurt who hasn’t been reported in, get them to me.”

“I will.”

“I think that’s it,” Daneh said.

“In that case, get some rest,” Edmund replied. “Get up to the house. I don’t want you getting up in the middle of the night unless it’s a clear emergency.”

“I’ll stay here,” Rachel interjected. “That way if there’s something minor, I can take care of it.”

“Good idea,” Talbot said with a nod. “Now, milady?”

“I’m coming,” Daneh replied. “Good night, Rachel.”

“Good night Mother, Dad.” She waited until they were gone, then finished cleaning up the infirmary and looked around. The only place to lie down was the rough wooden surgical table but it would have to do. Putting a couple of blankets on it, she made herself as comfortable as she could and then rolled over on her side. She knew there was no way she could get to sleep but even as she thought it she found her mind wandering into dream.

* * *

In the morning, Herzer felt like a basket case.

He woke up to a hand shaking him awake and groaned. He was curled in a fetal ball on his side and every muscle in his body protested movement.

“Come on,” Jody said, not unkindly. “Breakfast is on and there’s only thirty minutes to eat. You’d best get to it quick.”

Herzer did not feel hungry in the slightest but his enforced starvation of the day before was vivid in his mind so he stumbled to his feet and made his way to the chowline.

The meal was cornmeal mush again with a side of some sort of herbal tea. But this time many of the people did not feel they could eat much. Many of them had only taken a half a bowl and some who had taken whole bowls, like Courtney, did not finish. There was enough left in the huge kettle that Herzer, Mike and a few others could have seconds and after the first bowl settled, Herzer felt drastically hungry. Not only did he get an additional bowl but by waiting by the pail for the used bowls he was able to cadge leftovers from several of the people, most of whom passed them over with every sign of bemusement. The exception was Nergui who when she saw his intention dumped her nearly full bowl out on the ground. This drew a furious reprimand from Dorsett.

“You don’t waste food,” he snarled, striding up behind her. “We don’t have enough as it is. Do something like that again and you can skip the next meal!”

Herzer, at that point, was starting to feel as bloated as a tick so he reluctantly dumped his empty bowl in the bucket and went over to pick up his axe.

He looked at his hands doubtfully. Skin was already starting to spread across the ruined flesh of most of his hand, but much of it was still exposed and dirt had mixed in with a yellow goo that had appeared on the surface. It was an unappetizing sight and his stomach briefly regretted the hearty meal. Wielding an axe was going to be painful; even holding his bowl and using a spoon had been unpleasant — but there didn’t seem to be much of a choice. He was contemplating a bleak day when he heard the clip-clop of horse hooves approaching.

“Hello, Herzer,” Rachel said, dismounting and tying off the horse to a convenient branch. She took a set of saddlebags down and waved at Dorsett. “Jody, I’m here to see about any medical attention anyone needs and then I have to talk to the females you have here.”

“How long is this going to take?” Jody asked. “We have a lot of ground to clear.”

“That depends upon how much I have to do,” she answered, snappily. “Do you have any major injuries?”

“No, but there’s a few of them that have bad hands,” Dorsett admitted, waving at Herzer. “Start with him and I’ll get the others.” Jody started gathering up the ones that he knew had blistered their hands the worst the day before.

“Hey!” Earnon yelled. “I can barely move and my back feels like it’s on fire!”

“I’m not here to deal with sore muscles,” Rachel said, looking at Herzer’s hands. “Good God, Herzer, what were you thinking?”

“I was thinking we had a lot of trees to clear,” Herzer answered, wincing as she probed his abused hands.

“Come down to the stream,” she said, hoisting the saddlebags. “Jody, send the rest down with us.”

“Have you seen Bast?” Herzer asked as they walked to the stream. It was muddy with dirt from the clearing but moving up into the uncleared portion brought them to water that was as clear as gin.

“She’s been around. She’s working with the hunters to bring in game.” She held his hands in the cool water and gently wiped at the accumulated grime. “You need to keep stuff like this clean, Herzer. We’re pretty resistant to disease but surface injuries like this can still get badly infected.”

“I’ll remember that,” he said, grimacing in pain.

“The yellow stuff is suppuration, that’s normal with a skin injury like this, or so Mom tells me. You’re lucky really,” she added.

“How?” he asked as she took the hand out and smeared on an ugly green ointment. There were bits of leaf to be seen in it.

“Unimproved humans would have been days recovering from damage like this,” she replied, smearing on the ointment. “This is supposed to help healing. It’s not much but it’s something and it has stuff in it to keep the bacteria under control.”

“Can I used my hands?” he asked, half hoping that the answer would be “no.”

“I wish you wouldn’t, but there’s too much work to be done to have you idle.” She took strips of cloth and leather out of the saddlebag and started wrapping his hands, first in the cosilk then with the leather. That she ended up tying off to hold the whole collection on.

“The leather will protect the base of your hands. Your fingers aren’t bad, fortunately. Try to keep the damage to a minimum, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied, flexing his hands. The bandages did reduce the pressure on the wounds.

“Your skin will probably regrow by tomorrow then start hardening. Like I said, in this at least we’re lucky.”

“Lucky, yeah,” Herzer said grumpily then paused. “How’s your mother?”

“She’s doing okay,” Rachel replied tartly. “She’s keeping busy and I think that’s good.”

“Rachel, I…” he paused.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she snapped, standing up. “You’re good enough to get to work.”

Herzer looked at her for a moment, then nodded and headed back to the encampment.


Rachel sighed as she finished the last of the badly blistered group. Most of them weren’t as bad as Herzer but a few were close. Gathering up her gear she walked back to the camp and looked around for Jody. Fixing the hands had been the easy part.

“Jody, I need to talk to all the females, now,” she said to the supervisor.

“What’s this about?” he asked. “They’re all working.”

“Edmund told me to come up here, Jody, and I know they’re busy. You really want me to have this conversation, though. Trust me.”

“Okay,” he said warily. “Courtney, Nergui, Shilan, Karlyn, Deann! Over here!”

He waited until the women had gathered around and turned to look at Rachel, folding his arms.

“And now you are going to take a walk,” Rachel said.


“Because I said so, Jody,” Rachel sighed. “Just go. Trust me, you don’t want to be in on this.”

He glared at her balefully for a moment and then strode off.

“Ladies, take a seat,” Rachel said, gesturing at a couple of the fallen trees. We have to have a little girl talk.”

She told them about the visit to Bethan and then about what had returned to visit the entire female species, then waited for the outbursts.

“You’re joking,” Nergui snapped. “That’s just…”

“Disgusting,” Rachel interjected. “Also true. And it’s not going to go away.”

“Ever?” Karlyn asked, eyes wide.

“When all the eggs are dumped it stops, say in fifty years. Maybe longer. But then, without the hormones, all sorts of other problems start. Or you can stay pregnant all the time.”

“Fisk that!” Deann snapped.

“Been feeling a little testy lately?” Rachel said acidly.

“What about it?” Deann responded hotly. “All this…” she said, waving her arms around, “it’s bound to make you a little angry.”

“Angrier than normal?” Rachel replied taking a deep breath. “I can feel it coming on me and let me tell you that doesn’t make me feel very damned happy at all. I’m especially looking forward to the cramps. Bethan said it’s like a pulled muscle that just won’t go away.”

“Are we all going to be like that?” Shilan asked. “I’m not feeling… testy. Tired, yes, but not… unusually angry.”

“I don’t know,” Rachel said. “Mom doesn’t have any texts that cover it in detail. We’ll just have to find out.”

“This… this…” Courtney finally blurted out. “This just sucks.”

“Yep, it does that,” Rachel replied. “We’re coming up with ways to… catch the flow. Like bandages to go on your… on your parts. And, remember, you’re all fertile now. Get a little too friendly with your boyfriend and you’re going to be carrying five or ten kilos of fetus and support structure around for months.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” Nergui snapped.

“Believe it,” Rachel replied angrily. “Believe it. Or don’t and end up bleeding all over the ground! Or pregnant,” she added with a tone of disgust.

“Hey, what’s going on over here?” Jody said, walking over from the cutting.

“Jody, I don’t want to say this again,” Rachel snarled. “Butt the hell out!”

“Look, girl…!”

“No, you look!” she snapped right back. “This is a female conversation. Males are not invited. Now go away!”

“I don’t care who your father is…”

“It’s not who my father is that you have to worry about,” Rachel said, standing up. “We’re done anyway.” She turned back to the women who were still sitting in positions of alternate bemusement and anger. “We’ll try to get the supplies up to you by the end of the day. But be aware that this could start at any time.”

“Oh, great,” Karlyn replied, shaking her head in resignation. “Just fisking great.” She stood up and walked over to an axe, looking for a likely tree branch. As soon as she spotted one she started hewing at it like it was the devil trying to climb out of a pit.

Rachel nodded shortly at the supervisor then went back to her horse, threw the saddlebags on, untied it, mounted and rode away at a canter.

“Is anyone going to tell me what just went on?” Jody asked angrily.

“Noooo,” Deann answered carefully, getting to her feet and wiping her hands. “No, I don’t really think you need to know. Not yet. And when you need to know you won’t want to know.”

“Nope,” Courtney said, getting up and heading over to pick up her water bag.

“Uh, uh,” Shilan added, walking away.

“Not in your dreams,” Nergui replied, finally getting up.

“Just what in the hell is going on?” Jody asked the clearing, shaking his head.

“Strange days,” Herzer replied.

* * *

The next two days continued much the same. With decent food — the second day there had even been a mess of venison stew with potatoes — and constant work Herzer could feel his already considerable muscles strengthening. His hands healed rapidly but he kept the wrappings of leather on nonetheless. He and Mike between them had felled the giant tree, an oak Jody told them, that had defeated the other teams, and the group had cleared a large area by the third day when they started cutting the wood to make buildings.

The day after Rachel’s visit first Nergui, then Shilan had started to complain to Jody of diverse and mysterious maladies. They were quickly sent to town and returned later with bundles of cloth and odd cloth straps. Jody, after a visit from first Rachel and then Daneh, who looked drawn and tired, had passed the word to the males not to ask questions. But when Courtney had doubled over in the middle of the afternoon Mike wasn’t willing to take “it’s a girl thing” for an answer and the whole subject was brought out into the open. The reactions among the males ranged from bemusement to anger, especially since they were getting the details secondhand from the women. That night when food was brought out, most of the cooks were men from Raven’s Mill, hastily conscripted from various other jobs. Apparently what was happening in the wood-cutting camp was also happening everywhere and from the muttered comments of the males Raven’s Mill was in an uproar. The men, furthermore, were not well-trained cooks. The mush was half burnt and an attempt to cook cornbread in something called a “Dutch Oven” was a disaster.

Deann and Karlyn were apparently suffering from the same maladies, but they had gone back to work almost immediately on doing whatever the women were doing to manage it. Deann mentioned that she was feeling cramps and a certain amount of weakness, but in Karlyn’s case there seemed to be no effect other than the bleeding and not much of that. Courtney, as soon as her cramps passed, was back at work as if nothing had happened as was Shilan. Nergui continued to complain of intense pain and while Jody tended to be unsympathetic, without any way to judge the amount of pain involved there was no way for him to order her back to work.

At the end of the fourth day at the site Herzer came over with his food and sat down with Courtney and Mike. As he did Cruz and Emory wandered over as well.

Courtney looked at him and gave him a wan smile.

“How you doing?” Herzer asked, spooning up a bite of beans. The mixture this night was really good, some sort of meat had been minced fine and added to the beans along with a slightly hot spice.

“Better,” Courtney answered. “The cramps are gone at least.”

“So… this is going to go on for five days?” Herzer asked. “I’m sorry, we’re all pretty curious. If you really don’t want to talk about it…”

“No, it’s okay. It just came as a shock at first. In a way I’m glad we’re out here; I don’t want to think what it was like down in the camps.”

“Ugh,” Mike said, spooning up another bite of the stew and taking a bite of cornbread.

“Basically we bleed all the time, so we have to keep a pad of rough cosilk on.”

“That was those strap things they brought up?” Cruz asked.

“Yeah. We don’t know exactly when it stops. And they say it might get worse than it is this time. Karlyn is hardly bleeding at all and Nergui is like a fountain.”

“Yuck,” Herzer said, looking at the rather red mixture in his bowl doubtfully.

“I had the cramps for about twelve hours. Shilan and Karlyn didn’t get them at all. Deann was just about put out by them. You couldn’t tell by the way she was working but she was. Mine were… pretty bad. I couldn’t work through them; I just wanted to curl up in a ball and put heat on them so they wouldn’t hurt so much.”

“Sorry,” Herzer said.

“Why? There’s nothing you could do,” she replied with a smile. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last; Dr. Daneh says that five days is just an average.”

Emory didn’t talk very much, but he started chuckling now.

“What?” she asked.

“You won’t want to hear it,” he replied in a gravelly voice. “What I was thinking is ‘never trust something that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.’ ”

“Oh, thank you very much!” Courtney snapped, fire in her eyes.

“Said you wouldn’t like it,” he chuckled.

Herzer and Cruz coughed in their hands while Mike just smiled.

“Thanks so very much,” Courtney said with a frown then shook her head. “Men!”

“What about ’em?” Deann said, sitting down on one of the stumps.

“Can’t live without ’em and there ought to be a bounty,” Courtney replied.

“You’d better think about living without them,” Deann replied. “Unless you want to be carrying around a baby.”

“What’s that mean?” Mike asked, sharply.

“I’m not trying to cut you off from your… friend,” Deann replied just as sharply. “But bleeding means we’re fertile again. Just like the other animals. So if you go making whoopie with Courtney, you’re going to be looking at a baby in nine months.”

“Well…” Mike looked at Courtney who blushed. “We’d… we’ve been thinking that having a child might make sense. But with the replicators gone…”

“That’s the point lover boy,” Deann said. “The replicators ain’t gone. All us women are replicators now. We’re fertile, Mike. We can have babies. That grow in our bodies like some sort of damn parasite!”

“It’s not that bad!” Courtney replied. “I mean… I don’t know. I’m sort of… looking forward to it. I want to see what it’s like.”

“How many times?” Deann asked. “You’re talking about carrying around ten kilos of material in your belly.”

“So? Deann, we’re designed for it! That’s what our bodies are for. Sure, if I had my choice I’d use a replicator. But I don’t have that choice anymore. So…”

“So you’re going to get pregnant?” Deann asked, aghast.

“If it’s a choice of that or giving up guys, yeah,” Courtney said with another blush.

“What a choice,” Herzer said, shaking his head.

“Man, is this stupid war going to screw up everything in our lives?” Cruz snarled.

“Nice pun,” Emory muttered.

“Wha… Oh, shit,” Cruz said and laughed with the others.

Mike reached out with his boot and tapped Herzer on the foot.

“I think you’ve got a visitor,” he said, gesturing over Herzer’s shoulder.

“Hello, Herzer,” Bast said, looking around at the group with a nod. She was carrying her usual panoply of weapons but also had a basket on her back.

“Bast,” Herzer said, reaching towards her.

“Hello, lover boy,” she repeated, swarming up him in a full-body hug. “Let’s take a walk.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” he said to the group.

“I’ll carry your bowl back,” Courtney said with a smile.

“Thanks,” he said as Bast flipped off him and took his hand, leading him into the woods.

* * *

“Are you headed somewhere to take a bath?” Herzer asked. He knew full well that the clothes he was wearing reeked of days of sweat.

“Not yet,” she replied as they passed out of the clearing into the woods. “There will be time later. There’s a full moon tonight.”

“And what does that mean?” he asked as she stopped to pull something from the ground.

“That we can see well enough to take a bath, silly,” she smiled at him, stripping the dirt from the root she had dug up.

“What’s that?”

Armoracia,” she replied. “Horseradish. It’s a hot spice to be added to food. It also can be used for poultices and to help clear the passages in bronchitis.”

“This is Rumex,” she said touching another small, spreading plant. She tore off a small leaf and handed it to him. “It’s best when cooked, especially with some pork as seasoning, but it can be eaten raw.”

He nibbled at it and found it at tad bitter but overall quite tasty. He tore off a couple of more leaves and followed after her, feeling very much like a foraging horse.

Lindera,” she said, touching a small tree. “It can be used for spices or teas. The bark is the best but buds can be dried as well. Betula,” another tree, this one tall and spreading at the top. “It’s found along creek bottoms where you find willows and poplar. Its buds and twigs are pleasant to chew with a spicy taste and the under bark can be used as a sort of chewing gum.”

They wandered on the through darkening woods as Bast pointed out plant after plant. She knew its growing habits, environment, medical and food uses as well as what animals fed upon it. Occasionally they saw small animals that crossed their paths, and she named each and gave its season of growing with barely a glance.

“Bast,” he said finally, well stuffed with the various plants she had shown him were edible. “Is there anything you don’t know?”

“I don’t why humans cannot leave these woods to their own life,” she answered sadly.

He paused beside one of the small creeks that were everywhere along the mountains and looked at her. The sun was down but the moon had yet to crest the mountains across the valley to the east. The light from it was dimly visible over their shoulder but the valley was still in blackness. She was a barely visible shape in the tenebrous black under the spreading trees.

“Bast, have I hurt you by cutting down the trees?” he asked gently.

“Oh, no, I’m not upset with you, Herzer,” she said, coming up to him and stroking his cheek. “Come, it is time to wash.”

She led him to a spring-filled crack in the rocks, just big enough for two. They ended up washing not only themselves but Herzer’s dirt encrusted clothes and spending half the time having water fights as the moon rose in the east. Finally they were both cleaned and Bast extracted the fur roll from the depths of the packbasket. There by the stream she lit a small fire and prepared a light salad of spring greens. By the light of the fire, with the water of the branch to wash it down, they ate the salad and then enjoyed each other until the moon was high in the sky.

Herzer awoke in the early dawn of the morning to a smell of woodsmoke from the embers of the fire and reached to feel for Bast, who was gone. Opening his eyes he looked around but she was nowhere in sight. Only her basket and blanket remained.

By the fire was a note, written on bark with one of the coals.

“Lover I have watched the trees of this valley grow since before the cities were removed. I watched as the valley returned to its natural state and have walked these woods since time immemorial. I have known these trees, nut and branch, since they were born. I can name them and tell you of their life, each and every one.

I can watch them die no longer.

I shall walk far from the homes of men and visit the forests and fields of my life. Perhaps I shall return some day and perhaps not. I never say good bye, only “Esol.” This means “Tomorrow Again.” Remember us as we were.

Bast L’sol Tamel d’San.”

Herzer set the note down after rubbing at the writing idly, then looked around and sighed.

“Great, Bast. Very touching. But I don’t know where I am.”

* * *

For a change, Edmund and Daneh had an evening off at the same time and could eat a simple but, and this was significant, peaceful dinner. Not a snack snatched up between critical operations or a meal supped with arguing council members.

And it was clear to Edmund that they had no idea what to talk about.

“So, how was your day, dear?” Edmund asked, realizing that it was both prosaic and insufficient.

“The usual round of emergency surgeries without anesthetic. I swear, I’m going to have to get all male nurses to hold down the screamers.”

Edmund wasn’t sure if he should laugh or cringe so he stayed silent.

“Jody Dorsett’s going to have to relearn to use an axe,” she added after a moment. “He managed to cut off his left thumb.”


“Even in the old days of medicine they would have been able to reattach it. I’ve seen references to something called a ‘nerve graft’ but I have no idea how you’d actually do it. And practicing on someone who is twice your size and writhing in pain is a trifle difficult.” Everything was said in a light tone but he could feel the bitterness going bone deep. And she had barely touched her food.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe when we have some poppies you can start working on anesthetics.”

“What I really need is some decent medical reference works. I’ve been all through your library and everything else everyone had. But the only medical references are either first aid, very oblique and opaque statements or suited to a Middle Ages surgery. And I personally refuse to bring back bloodletting for common colds.”

“Perhaps when Sheida…”

“Yes, ‘when Sheida this,’ ‘when Sheida that.’ I need this stuff now, Edmund! All I need is a smidgen of power, some nannites and the authority. Even a damned elementary textbook! But it has to wait doesn’t it?”

Edmund finally realized that what she was saying was not what she was thinking. “Where are you at?” he asked after a moment. “And don’t tell me about surgery.”

“I’m in a very strange place, Edmund,” she said after a long pause. “I’m thinking that it’s time to go to bed with you. And part of me is saying ‘Yes!’ and part of me is screaming ‘NO!’ And I don’t know which side is courage and which is cowardice. Or even which is right and which is wrong. And I’m tired of nightmares.”

Edmund thought about that for a long time then sighed. “There is a part of me that says ‘Say the yes is right!’ And it’s not even the part that’s south of my expanding waistline.” If I can even remember how, he added mentally. “It’s the part of me that has missed my Daneh for many years. The Daneh that I fell madly in love with at first sight. The part that has missed you, all of you. That wants to hold you in the night and cuddle you and make you all better. But I also know that it’s not going to be that easy. So I’m willing to wait. Be it until you find another or if you can’t decide for the rest of your life. Because I love you, I always have loved you and I always will love you, no matter what road that takes us down.”

* * *

On the afternoon of the sixth day in the woods, Herzer and the rest headed back to Raven’s Mill. It took about two hours to walk to the Via Apallia, passing clearings being opened on both sides of the dirt track, and as they crossed the massive bridge over the Shenan, Herzer was surprised to see that Raven’s Mill had changed even more.

Some of the original log shelters had been torn down, apparently to create an open area near town, and different structures had been put in. At the base of the hill to the east of the town a long, low building had been built and more work was taking place stretching up the hill. In addition, a wooden stockade was under construction. Based on the foundation that was being built it would eventually surround the entire “old town” and stretch up the hill near Talbot’s house. Herzer, looking at it, realized that Edmund’s house was precisely where a citadel or keep would be built and wondered how much of that was coincidence. He doubted that Edmund had designed the stockade to make his house the citadel but it would be very much like the old smith to choose the most defensible position to put in a house.

On reaching the edge of the town their group met two others coming in from the same general jobs. The three groups were stopped at the intersection and gestured to the side by a tall, thin gentleman with gray in his black hair.

“My name’s Phil Sevetson. You didn’t meet me before you set out on the first phase of your familiarization, but I’m in charge of the program. You’ve completed your first week successfully and the day after tomorrow you will start on the next phase. What that is depends upon which group you are in and the names and designations of the groups were not communicated before you set out,” he added with a frown.

“Who is Herzer Herrick?”

“I am, sir,” Herzer said raising his hand.

“The group that you are with is group A-5. Who is in the group with Herzer, that was just cutting in the west wood with Jody? Please raise a hand.” He nodded as they raised their hands. “You are all group A-5, that is A for Anthony, Five. Any orders or information will be addressed to the group in that manner. That is, if there is a call for all groups to form in a certain area, you will gather with group A-5. Is that clear?” He waited until he got a nod from each then went on.

“Monique McBride? The group with Monique McBride, that was cutting in the west wood under the direction of Mislav Crnkovic, is group A-4. That is A as in Anthony, Four. All the members of A-4 please raise your hands.”

He continued the process with group A-6 and ensured that, yes, they all knew that they were A-6 and would appropriately respond.

“Very well, now that you all know who you are. Much to everyone’s surprise and massive damage to my training schedule, tomorrow has been designated as a day of rest. That means that you do not have to start your next phase tomorrow. Tomorrow you can rest. Just down the street from the town hall is the apprentice building,” he said, pointing. “After we are done here, go there to draw your meal chits. Your overseers are there now making a report. You will be given sufficient meal chits for this evening, tomorrow and Sunday morning. After the morning meal on Sunday and before noon, report to the apprentice hall again for your next assignment. Is this all clear? Are there any questions?”

“They said we’d get money for doing this shit,” Earnon said. “When do we get it?”

“Your supervisors are currently making their preliminary report to the apprentice hall,” Sevetson replied, pursing his lips. “Additional funds above basic subsistence up to a certain maximum are their determination. The maximum is one additional meal chit per week and a bonus for quality and quantity of work of one chit.”

“What?” Earnon growled. “That’s it? A couple of meals?”

“Meal chits are now the de facto currency of Raven’s Mill,” Phil replied with a sniff. “They can, for example, be used to purchase a bath at the new bathhouse,” he again gestured at the new buildings along the base of the hill. “They do not cost a full chit and there you can get change for whatever funds you are given.”

“Change?” someone at the back of the crowd asked.

“Funds that do not equal a full meal chit,” Sevetson replied. “You’ll get used to the system after a bit; it is, after all, ancient and venerable. Questions?”

“Where do we sleep?”

“Many of the temporary shelters are still available. Be warned that there has been some robbery of materials and money. It is wise to remain at least in pairs.”

“Can men and women sleep together now?” Earnon asked, sniggering.

“Not in the communal shelters,” the supervisor replied, wrinkling his nose and sniffing again. “There are other places that can be rented and you can walk a short distance out of town and sleep in relative comfort in the woods.”

“Great, we’re right back where we started,” Earnon grumbled.

“You are now familiarized with the tasks of woodcutting,” Sevetson corrected. “This is one of the basic tasks of this level of technology. It is a skill that can earn you money, more if you parlay it into skill in charcoal making. Next week you will be familiarized with other skills. Eventually you will be complete and if you have performed well enough at one of the skills, the supervisors may consider taking you on as an apprentice. You are not ‘right back where you started.’ ”

Earnon’s only answer was a glare, so the supervisor shrugged.

“If there are no more questions, go down to the apprentice hall, draw your chits and then you are free to spend your time as you wish.”

With that he strode off in the general direction of the apprentice hall and the rest followed.

In front of the hall under a wooden awning tables had been set up. Inside the hall, which was more of an elaborate log cabin, Herzer could see Jody, bandage on one hand, doggedly arguing with someone.

Earnon, Nergui and a few others from the other groups had pushed their way to the front so Herzer, Mike and Courtney hung back. When Earnon got his chits and counted them he let out a howl.

“I only got one chit for my work! I worked my tail off!”

The young woman parceling out the pay referred to her list again and shrugged.

“That’s what it says,” she replied.

“How much did Herzer get?” Nergui asked, nastily.

“I can’t tell you how much others get. Next.”

“Wait! I demand to see—”

“Me,” Sevetson said, walking over to the argument. “You demand to see me.” The man picked up the list then motioned Earnon to wait and walked into the room. He returned with a sheaf of paper bound together with string and opened it up.

“It says here, Earnon, that on the first day you caused an altercation, is that true?”

“No, it was Herzer that caused it, lying about