Back | Next
Contents


Chapter One

As the axe clanged off his shield, Herzer knew he was having a bad day.


His opponent was as fast as he was and darned near as tall and strong. Furthermore, Herzer had never in his life fought someone who used an axe with such effectiveness. The weapon had a meter and a half metal-covered shaft and his opponent used it as a combination of quarterstaff and axe to great effect.


Herzer Herrick was a young man just nearing his twenty-fifth birthday, a shade over two meters tall and broad in proportion, with black hair and dark green eyes that, as now, slitted into fiery intensity when he was in combat. His face had a long scar on the cheek and more scars crisscrossed his unguarded forearms, visible proof of his many battles.


Herzer flickered the tip of his longsword forward and was rewarded with another one of those nasty spin and catches, the haft of the axe clanging into his blade then the head sliding down to trap it. Before he knew it, the butt of the axe was hammering into his shield and he leapt back, disengaging his blade with difficulty.


"Think you're tricky?" Herzer panted.


"Very," the man said. He began spinning the axe overhead, clockwise, moving back and forth lightly on his feet. "Trickier than you, Major. As you'll learn when I kill you."


Herzer knew there was a reason to the motion but he couldn't divine it. The axe could slam down but with all that momentum there was no way that his opponent could use it for an effective block. Especially if he came in low. He circled to the left, then lunged forward in a shield bash, his sword held low at his side, point angling upward to slip through chinks in his opponent's armor.


It took him a moment to realize what was happening as the axeman brought the spinning circle of steel downwards and neatly kicked the sword out of midline. The axeman rode the shield bash backwards, actually loosing contact with his axe as it spun around the fulcrum of Herzer's useless sword. Then his shield was wrenched outwards as a tremendous blow struck him on his chest armor.


"Kill point," the judge said. "Break."


"Kill point?" Herzer protested, looking down at the blue mark. The axeman had first pulled his shield outward, then used his own energy to hammer the reverse point of the training axe into his armor. He supposed it would have punctured the armor and given him a wound. But he'd had, and fought with, far worse.


"In space," Colonel Carson said, pulling off his helmet, "that would have opened up your armor and vented your atmosphere. It's a kill. Trust me."


"Well, it's a good thing I'm not going along on your mission, then," Herzer said, grinning. "On the other hand, I can think of two or three counters to that move. All of which would leave you disarmed, or dead, or both. How many do you have in your bag of tricks?"


"Hopefully enough," Carson said with a grin. "We've been training for this mission for two years and from what Miss Travante tells us, New Destiny had yet to even begin to plan when she . . . errr . . ."


"Megan generally uses the term 'escaped,' " Herzer said with a grin. "I generally say something like 'blew that popsicle stand.' Sometimes she doesn't get the humor."


"I see," Colonel Carson said, somewhat uneasily. While it was true that he outranked Major Herrick, there was no one in the army of the United Free States, with the possible exception of Duke Edmund Talbot, who was more famous. And with his engagement to the new Key-holder, Countess Megan Travante, Herrick's career was presumably unlimited. Carson was well aware that he was probably dueling with a future boss and certainly someone with the ear of some very important people so he chose his words carefully. "I don't say it will be a cakewalk, unless they intend to just let us steal all the fuel and do nothing about it. But we should be able to handle anything they throw at us."


Herzer grimaced despite the careful phrasing and shrugged.


"Colonel, with all due respect," he said, carefully, "I would strongly suggest that you not even think that. New Destiny is, in many ways, better at this war than we are. They are better at intelligence gathering, they are better at . . . call it 'special systems' development and they are not stupid when it comes to tactics. I've taken that attitude before and it bit me in the ass. So has Duke Edmund and it bit him in the ass. I would strongly suggest that you assume New Destiny is going to throw something you've never seen at you, that is game winning, and plan for it. Otherwise, it's going to bite you in the ass. And there won't be a second shot at this mission, sir."


Carson sighed. "So I'm aware."


"Big pressure, sir," Herzer said, nodding. "Welcome to the world-saver's club. Admission is hard. Staying in is harder," he added with a grin, holding up one arm that terminated in a complex prosthetic.


"You haven't had that replaced, I notice," Carson said, walking over to the racks and putting up his armor and weapons.


"Well, Megan has access to the power," Herzer admitted. "And Mistress Daneh, or even her daughter Rachel, is more than capable of doing the regeneration. But . . ." He looked at the device and clicked it thoughtfully. "It has some things it does better than a hand and, in general, I've found that those are useful. Maybe if we ever win this damned war I'll have it replaced. Until then, I think I'll keep it. Great for opening beer bottles."


"And speaking of Lady Megan," Carson said, smiling. "Where is your fiancée?"


"Getting ready for the Foundation Ball, sir." Herzer grimaced, looking up at the wall mounted chronometer. "Which I'm also supposed to attend."


"Hanging out with the nobs, eh?" Carson said, smiling. "Why don't you look happy? Plenty of majors would like an opportunity to bend the ear of the Army commander, for example."


"Well, honestly, I can bend Duke Edmund's ear any time I'd like, sir," Herzer said, shrugging. "And if he thinks it's worthwhile he'll bring it to Minister Spehar, which carries more weight than a major doing it. But, honestly, sir, it's four hours of standing around making polite conversation with people who will take your words and use them as a knife in your back. Then there are the after-dinner speeches. I don't even get to sit with Megan since she's real high society and I'm just her . . . fiancé. I'll be down in the peanut gallery with the lowlifes like . . . well . . . colonels and select members of the House of Commons."


"Sounds idyllic," Carson said with a chuckle.


"Thanks," Herzer replied, putting away the last piece of armor. "I hope to see you again before your mission, sir."


"I'm sure we'll meet again, Herzer," Carson said, holding out his hand. "Try to enjoy yourself at the ball. I understand that the cream of Washan's lovelier ladies will be there as well."


"I've already got the loveliest girl at the ball," Herzer replied with a grin.


 


"You look absolutely lovely, Megan," Mirta said, taking a last tuck in the councilwoman's dress.


Megan frowned at the mirror and opened her mouth, then cut off the comment. She couldn't say she hated the dress because Mirta had made it and, honestly, it was beautiful. And she couldn't comment on her hair with Shanea putting the final touches on it. Finally she grimaced and shook her head, lightly.


"I've got a spot developing on my nose," she snapped.


"It's impossible to see," Mirta replied sharply. "Take a deep breath. You killed Paul; facing these people is a minor inconvenience. Your dress is lovely and beyond the height of fashion. It's going to set the fashion for at least the next year. Your hair is lovely and it's going to set a fashion. Your makeup is lovely. You are lovely. Meredith is fully dialed in on everything you're going to achieve this evening and she is lovely but just a shade less lovely than you. You are absolutely going to slay them. Don't you always?"


"I think this will hold even in the humidity," Shanea said, teasing Megan's hair up and spraying a stray strand into place. "You'll look great at the ball. I wish I was going instead of Meredith."


"There will be other balls, Shanea," Megan said, smiling. Shanea was a dear but she had the brains of a gnat, and the Foundation Ball would be attended by all the highest of society. Which meant that more deals would be made and more bills finalized than in all the committee meetings in the next month. Which in turn meant that it would be a vicious political dogfight taking place over cakes and champagne. Taking Shanea into that was out of the question.


Megan stood up and allowed Shanea and Mirta to help her into the dress. She could easily do it herself and would have preferred to, but the two, along with a few others, had attached themselves to her like limpets and, honestly, they were far more capable of this sort of thing than she was. She nodded as Meredith came into the vanity room and smiled.


"You look like Athena, Meredith," Megan said.


"Thank you." Meredith Amado Tillou was a tall, exquisite brunette dressed, like Megan, in a dress that was backless with a high collar and cut low at the front. Hers was not cut quite as low as Megan's and it lacked the slits on the side that teasingly revealed long legs. She was not going to the ball to be noticed. Quite the opposite. If she had a choice in her manner of dress it would be a full coverage dress and a hooded cloak.


Her expression was much the same as it had been for four years in Paul Bowman's harem, blank. But the eyes were different. While in the harem she had participated in one of the two revolts against Paul's bondage and, when unsuccessful, she had been brain locked and kept as an imbecilic brood mare for Paul's "breeding group." When Megan killed Paul it released the bond, and the memories of four years of unwilling bondage, of the things that had been done to her and of the things she did. Now she viewed the world through eyes that were as cold as an iceberg and for all the world as deadly.


As Megan had quickly learned, the mind that had been released was at least as good as her own. Behind that blank mask was a brain like a computer with a virtually perfect memory and a phenomenal ability to synthesize information, making connections where others did not see them. For all that she had, apparently, no ambitions for greater power. She had become Megan's political aide and would be attending the ball in that position.


As Mirta was fastening the last catch, Ashly walked in the room, frowning.


"Megan, there's been a change," she said, unhappily. "You were supposed to go to a late meeting with Duke Dehnavi and his wife after the ball. I just got word that he's planning on bringing . . . someone other than his wife."


"Cancel it," Megan snapped. "I'm not going to be seen in public with him and his latest doxie!"


"He's a key vote in the Intelligence Joint Subcommittee," Meredith said, evenly. "Your father will need his support for the new funding bill. Especially if he wants to increase the size of the agent training program. The meeting will not cinch it but canceling it would inevitably cause him to view anything brought up by a Travante through a negative light. He has openly boasted of having managed to arrange it. He is also involved in the Agriculture Committee which will be looking at bills related to military food support over the next six months. Various other political items come to mind since he is a quiet power in the Corporate Party. Which is why Ashly arranged the meeting."


Megan sighed and grimaced.


"Careful," Mirta said, "don't break the makeup."


"Mirta, analysis, please?"


"Okay," the older woman said, sighing. Mirta looked as if she was in her late teens, one of the reasons Paul Bowman had picked her up along with the others. In fact she was well over a hundred and besides being Megan's seamstress acted in the role of socio-political advisor. Ashly handled the social planning but Mirta advised on who could and should be graced with the presence of the newest, and youngest, and prettiest, Key-holder in the increasingly political climate of the United Free States capital.


"Short term, you gain," Mirta said. "You need the vote to get the bill out of committee without having it gutted. Long term . . . you're giving support to the cookie eaters. That means all the wives will really get their knives out for you. If you were married to Herzer, he wouldn't dare try this. But he thinks since Herzer's your fiancé, and you're assumed to be . . ."


"Carrying on relations," Meredith continued for her.


"Yes. That. Since you're carrying on regardless, he thinks he can score points and make it more acceptable for him to trot out his cookies. Since his wife is a rhino, politically, it's actually better for him to attend with his cookies, believe it or not. But . . ."


"Herzer won't want to come, anyway," Megan muttered. "Ashly: Send a message to the duke telling him that I will be unattended by my . . . fiancé . . . and since it would be imbalanced, etc."


"Good call," Ashly said, relieved.


"Public, Ashly," Megan snapped. "Very much public. A male aide, fine. I'll have Meredith with me. A doxie, no."


"Will do," Ashly muttered. "De Funcha. Very new, very hip, brightly lit, I know the maitre d' so getting you a good table at the last moment won't be a problem, not that it ever is—"


"Handle it," Megan said. "Meredith, let's go."


 


"The Honorable Jasper Thornton!" the majordomo at the top of the steps cried over the buzz of voices in the ballroom. "Mrs. Jasper Thornton."


"Her name is Amelia, for God's sake," Megan muttered angrily.


"Smile for the cameras," Herzer muttered as they stepped forward. "Although, I really hope he doesn't screw up and call me 'Mr. Megan Travante.' "


"Countess Megan Samantha Travante!" the functionary said without a glance at the card Herzer handed him. "Major Herzer Herrick!"


The low buzz of conversation stopped and the group broke into apparently spontaneous applause as a chemical flash caught the couple standing hand in hand. It would probably make the morning edition of the Washan Times, society page if not the front, and be in Lasang in no more than two weeks by courier.


Megan waved in appreciation of the applause as, shadowed by Meredith, they stepped down the stairs to the floor of the large room. The room was not filled to overflowing, by any stretch of the imagination, but Washan in summertime was hot and the candles and lamps that lit the room added to the heat of the pressed bodies, turning it into a sauna. Megan was afraid she could already feel her hairdo wilting.


"Remember, the slave said," Herzer said, leaning over to whisper in Megan's ear, "you too are mortal." He was dressed in the most formal uniform of the UFS, a tight coat worn short, open at the front in deference to the heat, with a blinding white undertunic on which his Eagle hung from a thick scarlet ribbon. The coat was gray, the newly chosen color of the UFS Army uniform, with light blue lining to denote his branch of infantry. The gray pants had a blue stripe down the side as well. It was topped by a light blue beret. The coat was heavy with his medals and qualification badges; two silver eagles to match the gold, the now defunct aurea victorous, wound badges, dragon qualification, maritime aviation badge, air combat medal. Megan had insisted that he wear all of them. There were a few with more medals in the room, the UFS Army was already getting medal happy. But there were none with more medals for valor in combat.


Megan snorted softly and took the first hand that was outstretched to her.


"Duke Okyay, a pleasure to see you this evening . . ."


 


Herzer detached himself as soon as Megan began politicking, grabbed a glass of sarsaparilla and a plate of munchies and worked his way over to the corner where Edmund and the Army commander were ensconced.


"Duke Edmund," he said, pushing past an aide. Most of the flunkies were staying well back from the great men and surreptitiously acting as a filter. The Army commander's new aide had apparently not recognized the unknown major.


"Hey, Herzer," Edmund said grumpily. "Welcome to the jungle."


Herzer grinned slightly when he saw the turning aide grimace and face back to watch the goings-on.


"I'm afraid I'm going to be spending far too much time, here," Herzer said, frowning. "Megan's taken to it like a duck to water."


"Don't be too sure," Edmund replied. The duke was noticeably older every year as the weight of being the preeminent field commander of the UFS forces bore down on his shoulders. What little hair he had left was entirely gray and was shorn close to his scalp. But he still retained his salt and pepper beard and an almost alarming presence. Next to him General Galbreath, ostensibly the commander of all UFS ground forces, was a pale, thin shadow. Effectively Edmund let Galbreath get on with the politicking and administration while Edmund got on with winning the war.


Barely seven years before, the world had been a virtual utopia with unlimited power and technology so advanced it approached magic. Disease and want had been eliminated and a worldwide network of teleportation and replication permitted humans to live as gods, their bodies and lives playthings in a continuous life of merriment.


In a moment it ended as the Council of Key-holders that controlled the network fell out in what amounted to a worldwide civil war. Now the majority of the power from the twelve remaining fusion power plants was devoted to energy attacks between the two factions of Key-holders and armies were forming on both sides. The Freedom Coalition, those who fought on the side of Queen Sheida and her allies, used unChanged humans for their forces while the New Destiny coalition modified the bodies of their soldiers, and increasingly their support forces, into bestial creatures that were almost incredibly tough and strong while being loyal to the point of suicide. Already, the United Free States, the portion of the Freedom Coalition that held Norau, had beaten off major attacks from the orcs of New Destiny. It was time for some payback.


Edmund Talbot had been a reenactor before the Fall, a person who spent his time creating a very close approximation of a time "when." He'd lived in a stone house, crafted swords and armor, and generally lived a comfortable life as a feudal lord with extra amenities such as antique flush toilets. After the Fall it had been revealed that he was one of the few legends of the pre-Fall period, Charles "The Hammer," a man who had gone into Anarchia and tamed it in a few short years, disappearing thereafter, as mysteriously as he had appeared, but leaving in his wake a stable government that, as far as anyone knew, still existed.


Since the Fall he had been the UFS' preeminent general, winning battle after battle against New Destiny.


The brand new Key hanging from a ribbon around Duke Edmund's neck, the one recovered from Elnora Still after her assassination by New Destiny, showed just who had true precedence between the two.


"Your reputation precedes you, Major," Galbreath said, sticking out his hand. "I think that what the duke meant was that, given the planned counterattack on Ropasa, it would be . . . difficult for the Army to lose one of its brighter field lights to politic in Washan."


"I've got a dozen posts I need you at now," Edmund growled. "Professor at the War College comes to mind. So does a battalion command. Hell, command of the new legion we're trying to raise. Get married, go on your honeymoon, get your tubes cleaned and then pack your bags."


"Hell of a choice, sir," Herzer said, grumpily. "With Megan, who I love and want in a the worst possible way, in the capital, doing this," he said, with a dismissive wave at the height of Washan society, "or eating cold monkey on a stick in Ropasa."


Edmund chuckled. "Let me guess which way you'd hop."


"Cold monkey," Herzer admitted. "Although, if I was at the War College Megan would at least be no more than a day away."


"Once we have control of a significant portion of Ropasa," Edmund reminded him, "we can set up portals. Then she's just a jump away."


"You're going for a direct invasion of the mainland?" Herzer asked. "Megan supports an invasion through Gael and the retaking of Breton first."


"Is that an unofficial message from a fellow council member?" Edmund asked, raising one eyebrow. "That is, after all, what parties like this are really for."


"No, of course not," Herzer said, testily. "But you know she supports the Gael. Don't you?"


"I'm well aware of it," Edmund said. "But with an invasion force on his home coast, Chansa will be forced to recall the units that are attacking the Gael. Then they can have Breton for all I care."


"There's that," Herzer said, frowning. "I suppose you're correct."


"Penny for your thoughts?" Edmund grinned.


"Your mind is a bog, boss," Herzer admitted after a moment. "But Chansa is anticipating a direct attack on the coast and from what I've seen he's building up significant forces around fortified positions. From the reports I've seen he appears to already be pulling back forces from Breton. Even if we get a beachhead, we'll be stuck butting our head against division after division of his orcs, many of them in fortresses. Even if we get the new legion, which is a real hot topic right now, the parity of forces will be extreme. And if we don't take the fortresses, they'll be in our rear. All of the ports are heavily defended so support will have to come over the beach. And it means shuttling all our forces across the Atlantis until we can take and hold a large enough area that Mother will consider it to be held by force majeure and we can set up portals."


"Teaching me to suck eggs, Herzer?" Edmund said, smiling faintly.


"No, just wondering what you're really planning," Herzer admitted. He'd never been able to guess, but . . . it didn't keep him from trying.


"With any luck at all, it will all be moot," General Galbreath noted. "If Colonel Carson succeeds, the war will be over."


"And he is training well," Edmund said, distantly. "Herzer, have you taken a look at the Icarus force?"


"Not in depth," Herzer admitted. "Among other things, I'm not cleared for full information. But I was sparring with the colonel earlier today and he's a formidable fighter. If many of his men are like him, they're going to do well."


"And if we have the fuel tanker . . ." Galbreath said, breathlessly.


"That's it," Herzer said, nodding. "We keep the fuel and as soon as the New Destiny reactors run out, only Sheida and the rest will have power."


"And then we'll be able to stop this bloody war in its tracks," Galbreath added, nodding. "No need for an invasion. For that matter, if we can track down the New Destiny Key-holders, and I'll bet a lot that Sheida will have that well in hand, we can get back to a real life."


Herzer looked at Edmund and raised an eyebrow.


"Color you pessimistic, boss?" he asked, lightly.


"There are few actions that are in and of themselves war winning," Edmund admitted. "Think of it this way; if New Destiny gets the fuel, are we just going to roll over?"


"No," Galbreath admitted, frowning. "Not given what they'll probably do to the world."


"I'd keep fighting," Herzer said, working his jaw. "With my last breath."


"There you are," Edmund said, quirking one cheek in a grin. "And so will New Destiny, if only to keep from having us capture them alive. And the lack of intel on New Destiny's plans makes me suspicious. I know they have to be planning something; they're not asleep. But what is the question."


"Less than a month until the first shuttle lands," Herzer noted. "We'll know soon enough."


"In the meantime," Edmund said, "we keep planning for victory and keeping one eye on failure. Which means we have to have the tenth legion. Even that is not enough. Sixty thousand legionnaires, less than half of them fully trained and the majority with no combat experience, against an estimated two hundred thousand Changed."


"Ten thousand bowmen," Galbreath reminded him. "Six thousand cavalry. And the dragon corps."


"Three thousand actually bowmen," Edmund said, shaking his head.


"And the private regiments," Galbreath pointed out and then winced.


"Damn the private regiments," Edmund said, almost shaking in anger. "If we put that money where it should be we wouldn't be scraping and scrabbling for another legion!"


"Some of them are good," Herzer said, trying to mollify his boss. Under the constitutional strictures that Edmund himself had supported, the de facto existence of small private armies was fully legal. But it had been a huge political firestorm when it had been suggested that they become associated with the regular army and in the end the compromise had been the worst of all worlds. The regiments were to be supported by the army if called to field duty while the army had little or no control over their training, equipment, doctrine or leadership unless they were on field duty.


The training and equipment of the regiments was highly diverse, from local militias founded around pikes to battalions of heavy horse with everything in between.


"And the dragons were decimated in the Atlantis battles," Edmund grumped, apparently willing to forget that the private regiments existed for the time. "Less than a hundred of them are left and all but two are wyverns."


"Hey!" Herzer interjected. "Nothing wrong with wyverns!" The nonsentient two-legged flying beasts made up the bulk of the dragon corps. There were three types of wyverns: Powells, which were the primary strike force; Silverdrakes, which were small, fast and highly colorful air-to-air fighters; and Torejos, which were heavier beasts that were rarely used in direct combat but could be used for aerial resupply or the rare airmobile mission.


"Of course not," Edmund replied, soothingly. Herzer had been in three major battles on wyvern back, despite his official status as an infantry officer. For that matter, he was a fair bowman. "But what I wouldn't give for the same number of greater dragons."


"If wishes were fishes," Herzer pointed out.


"Well, if we want that tenth legion, we'd best get out and circulate," Edmund said, shaking his head.


"Perhaps and perhaps not," General Galbreath said, laying a hand on his arm. "Have you been watching Countess Travante?"


"No," Edmund said. "I'm not a dirty old man."


"It's . . . enlightening if you know the political scene," Galbreath said, quietly. "Just watch."


 


Back | Next
Framed