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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

May, Year 10 A.E.

Bab-ilim; Gate of the Gods; Babylon the Great. Kathryn Hollard still felt a prickle of awe as she rode toward the northern gate. Turning in the saddle, she called out: "All right, let's show them what real soldiers look like!"

After four months, the Babylonians that she and the training cadre had been working with could march, at least. Rifles over their shoulders, arms swinging, booted feet striking the earth of the roadway in unison, the six hundred troops marched like a single organism toward the Ishtar Gate. A banner went at their head; blazoned with the gold sun disk of Shamash and the spade of Marduk. Outriders traveled before them, crying for the crowds to make way-and enforcing the order with their whips when necessary, through the horde pouring into the city for the springtime New Year festival.

The city she approached was not yet the Babylon of the Bible, the city rebuilt by Nebuchadrezzar and the site of the captivity of the Jews, that would not be-would not have been-for another six centuries. The current Babylon was mostly the city of Hammurabi the Lawgiver, sacked by the Hittites and refurbished by King Shuriash's ancestors. The Kassite kings dwelt more in their citadel of Dur-Kurigalzu a little to the west, but Babylon remained the greatest of their cities and the symbol of holiness and kingship in the land.

On this March morning it was warm but not hot, and for once the countryside of the Land between the Rivers looked halfway appealing with its leafy orchards and green-gold barley. Her command had been on a route march and field exercise for the last week; her body itched with dried salt and crusted alkaline dust.

Now and then she saw figures standing on the flat, flower-planted roofs of a nobleman's mansion looking toward the road and the novel sight of the First Infantry. Travelers crowded to the side of the road to let them pass, staring and gawking, and peasants stopped their work to look. Children ran alongside shouting. Kathryn smiled at them, and now and then threw a few copper pennies when the press grew too great. Even if they'd never heard of coined money, metal was valuable here-her action generally resulted in a squirming heap of naked youngsters, yelling and grabbing for the coins at the bottom of the pile.

A mile out from the real defenses of Bab-ilim was the wall that enclosed the suburbs proper. It was impressive enough, twenty feet high, studded with towers twice that. Within were clustered gardens, groves, here and there the colorful, blocky form of a temple, once an enormous walled enclosure around the Akitu shrine, where much of the New Year ceremony would take place. What she principally noticed were the trades considered too noisome to allow in the city proper: huge tanneries, rows of dye-vats, and the city's execution ground. It was small compensation that the roadway turned from packed clay to a broad avenue of baked brick.

And there was the growing stink of the city itself, probably the greatest in the world in this age, two hundred thousand souls or more-and all their livestock.

I'll get used to the stench again, Kathryn told herself. Of course, in a way that made it worse. And it was so big. Yes, any of the mainland cities she'd visited up in the twentieth dwarfed it, but those were fading memories. This was here, now, real. The continual clamor of wheels, feet, hooves, voices, was like a vibration in her flesh.

Then the city itself appeared, raised above the floodplain over centuries by the decay and rebuilding of the mud-brick buildings of which it was made-the living city raised on the bones of its ancestors, since time out of mind. The city wall proper rose like a mountain range that ran from right to left beyond sight, baked-brick ramparts sixty feet high and thirty feet thick and studded with towers every hundred yards or so. Another wall of equal proportions stood thirty feet within, and the gap between them was filled to the very top with pounded rubble and then paved with a roadway broad enough for three chariots to pass abreast. A moat drawn from the Euphrates ran at the foot of those man-made cliffs, a hundred feet across and twenty deep, the water green and foul.

Kathryn Hollard gave a silent whistle at the sight, impressed despite herself. Oh, we could knock it down, she thought. Given enough shells and enough time, of course. Trying to take or hold the city beyond

The road itself rose on an embankment toward the city; crenellated fortress walls rose to flank it on either side, until they were marching through an artificial canyon. Great winged man-headed bulls marched in high relief along those walls, twice her height and made of molded brick, their bodies painted red, wings blue, stern hook-nosed faces with blue-black beards and golden crowns.

A lot like Kash's father, she thought, suppressing a grin. She shivered slightly and gripped the horse more tightly with her knees. God, I miss Kash.

The gate itself was a massive fortress with the road running over the moat on piers and then through it; a hundred-foot tower of reddish brick at each of the four corners, with an arched passageway sixty feet high between, sky-blue rosettes in molded brick covered by polished sheet copper, flanked by bronze lions twelve feet tall. The gate doors were made of huge cedar trunks thicker than her body and taller than a four-story house, brought from Lebanon in centuries past with incredible labor and trouble. They were sheathed in bronze, and the bronze was worked in low relief with gods, demons, dragonlike creatures, heroes slaying lions.

The Marine officer looked up. There in the dim heights of the gate tunnel were bronze grilles, and she could hear the crackling of flames. If anyone smashed those gates and tried to rush through this enormous tunnellike passageway they'd get a very warm welcome-boiling oil, boiling water, red-hot sand.

Royal guardsmen in crested helmets and bronze scale armor or Nantucket-made chain mail stood to either side-mostly with their backs to her, holding back the crowd with their round shields and spear held horizontally like a fence with living posts. Three more sets of gates divided the passageway before the travelers came out blinking into the brightness beyond.

More guards cleared a way through the street, named Aibur-Shabu, No Enemy Shall Pass, the broad processional street that ran north and south parallel to the Euphrates.

The crowds behind the leveled spears gaped and shouted and pointed, or rested with aloof patience and pretended detachment; she saw a noble standing in his chariot while his leather-clad driver wrestled the team into obedience; a priest robed and spangled with silver astrological symbols waited with folded hands, surrounded by his acolytes; a scribe pridefully held his jointed, wax-covered boards and stylus; what was probably an expensive courtesan glittering with jewels lolled voluptuously in her slave-borne litter, robes filmy and colorful, eyes painted into huge dark circles, peering with interest over an ostrich-plume fan.

One thing I regret, Kathryn thought, as she saluted the guardsmen's bowing captain, is that I can't go incognito here. It would be interesting to see the city when everyone wasn't gaping at her. Not possible-her height and features would mark her out. Pity.

The iron horseshoes of her mount rang on stone, hard white limestone thirty feet wide, flanked by ten-foot strips of red breccia veined with white on either side-unimaginable extravagance in this stone-less land. More soldiers were holding a passageway open through a tall gate in the wall, with inset brick pillars candy-cane-striped in red and blue. That was the entrance to the North Palace, where the Islanders would be quartered and the First Kar-Duniash would have their barracks.

"By the right right wheel," Sergeant Kinney shouted behind her.

The battalion turned like a snake, men on the inside of the turn checking their pace and those on the outside striding longer with the smoothness of endless practice. They passed through another fortress gate and into the outer courtyard of the House That Was the Marvel of Mankind, the Center of the Land, the Shining Residence -in other words, the palace of King Shagarakti-Shuriash. There were times when Akkadian grandiloquence got on her nerves.

But you're thinking of living here permanently, she reminded herself. And it does have its points.

This was the outermost of five successive courtyards, paved with the same white limestone as the processional way and surrounded by three-story buildings on all sides.

"Halt!" Five hundred boots crashed down.

"By the right rightface!."

Another crash, and she rode her horse out in front of the assembled ranks, reining in and turning to face them.

"Presentarms'."

The rifles came down off the shoulders with a slap and rattle of hands on wood and iron. Kathryn returned the salute crisply; they'd worked hard and earned it.

"Orderarms!"

Steel-shod butt plates rang on the stone paving. Her horse pawed the paving as well, curious at the unfamiliar surface. Kathryn controlled it with knees and her left hand on the reins, her right resting on her hip.

"Stand easy!" A rustle of relaxation. "Soldiers of the First Kar-Duniash, you've made a good beginning," she said, pitching her voice to carry. "You've also worked very hard. Dismiss to quarters!"

They gave a brief cheer and the formation dissolved as men slung their weapons, turned, chattered, hailed friends. Sergeant Kinney came up and took the bridle of her horse.

"I'll settle them in and see to the baggage train, ma'am," she said. "Good to have a rest."

"God's truth. I've got to go check in with the king."

She and her officers, including the provisional promotions from among the locals. She swung down, looking around as they fell in behind her and an usher led them on. Molded-brick shapes covered the walls up to the second story, all painted in yellow, white, red, and blue; after the predominant dun-mud-brick color of the land, it was a pleasant change. Above and on either side of the gates that linked the courtyards were huge terra-cotta faces, leering or smiling-protective spirits to frighten away demons.

A crowd of people were about, courtiers and smooth-cheeked eunuchs, soldiers swinging by with a clank and clatter, messengers, servants, scribes with their wax-covered boards and palm-size damp clay tablets for taking notes, officials, a flutter of girls from the king's harem-they weren't shut in there, although they were supervised fairly closely. All of them drew aside and murmured; she caught curiosity, awe, fear, the odd flat hostile glare.

The last gateway was flanked by granite lions tearing at recumbent enemies. On their backs were artificial palm trees of bronze and gold. Tall carved doors opened into the main throne room, a huge vaulted chamber fifty yards by fifteen. Here the bright light was muted to a glow through the high clerestory windows. Beams stabbed down through a mist of incense, a strong hieratic smell. The walls were hung with softly vivid tapestry rugs of kings past at war or sacrifice or the hunt, interspersed with heroes battling monsters, protective genies, flowered mountains.

Guardsmen stood at a parade rest copied from the Islanders, making a laneway down the center of the hall. The heads of their spears were steel now, reflecting more brightly than bronze would have; when sunlight caught one of the motionless blades it seemed to blaze with light. So too did the figure of the king on his throne, inlaid with lapis and gold; his crown was gold as well, shaped like a city wall. Kathryn's party came to a halt; the Babylonian officers prostrated themselves, the Nantucketers clicked heels, saluted, and bowed their heads slightly-citizens of the Republic groveled before no man.

Shuriash smiled. "Greetings, my valiant ones, and officers of my allies," he said. He looked at Kathryn. "My son, the prince of the House of Succession, declares that you have done well; that my soldiers learn the art of the fire-weapons."

"Oh King, your men have labored long and hard and have learned very well," she said. True enough. Not up to Corps standards by a long shot, but they'd started from a lower base.

"Know that you have the favor of the king," Shuriash said, beaming.

He signaled, and an official glided forward to put a chain around her neck. It was fairly heavy, solid-gold links and a beautifully worked pectoral in the shape of the Bull of Marduk, with eyes of lapis lazuli and chinbeard of onyx.

"My thanks to the king," Kathryn said, flushing in embarrassment.

"Many of your countrymen are here for the celebration of the New Year festival," Shuriash said. "You will feast with the King's Majesty; may the celebrations make your heart glad. Now you have traveled far and will wish to refresh yourselves."

The Babylonians went on their bellies again, and the Nantucketers bowed and walked backward until it was possible to turn without lese-majeste.

"Christ, I could use a bath," Kathryn muttered.

And Kash would be here. Tied up in ceremonial to the armpits, but they had to find some time.

"Trachoma," Justin Clemens said, holding back the child's eyelids. "See, the redness and swelling, and it looks like grains of sand are stuck in the soft tissue?"

"I am familiar with this disease," Azzu-ena said, nodding. "Very common-usually the clear part of the eye is distorted and opaque, at the end, bringing blindness with no cure. Is it contagious!"

She repeated the whole phrase in English, for the sake of practice. The sounds were hard for someone brought up to the Semitic gutturals of Akkadian, but she was slowly overcoming it.

"Very," Clemens said. "Spread by touching, by contact with cloth that has touched the eyes, and by flies. A disease of crowding and not enough washing."

The Babylonian's mouth quirked. "Like most?"

"Like most," Clemens said. It had become a bit of a running joke between them.

He was handling this clinic in an out-of-the-way chamber of the palace; an autoclave and water purifier were running in the next room, and an outer chamber was crowded with those waiting. He wrinkled his nose a bit at the rank smell of old sweat soaked into wool. No way around it, they hadn't invented soap here, and the palace bathing facilities were luxuries for the elite; so were enough clothes to change and do laundry frequently. And what water these people could get would be dangerous anyway.

The patients were mostly palace laborers and their families; he reserved this day for them. And let the nobles fume and wait, he thought. Looking after the locals wasn't his responsibility, but it bred goodwill and the demand was overwhelming.

Some of the people waiting were from out of the city, kinfolk of the palace workers; that wasn't supposed to happen, but he wasn't going to turn them away, particularly the children. I feel like someone trying to sweep back the ocean with a broom, he thought helplessly, then forced himself to optimism. Azzu-ena is learning-Christ, is she learning! And she isn't the only one.

The Babylonian was taking notes, too, preparing a handbook in her native tongue-diagnosis and treatment of the most common ills, especially the ones that could be handled with local resources.

"What treatment?" she said.

"Well, penicillin, if we had enough," he said, which they didn't. "Antiseptic drops are the alternative."

He told the mother, and she gripped the boy child's head and tilted it back despite his squalls. Damn, have to get deloused again after this, Clemens thought, looking at the tousled black hair.

"Do you see what I do?" he asked the woman. She was thin, dark, looked about fifty and was probably in her third decade, with a weaver's calloused hands.

"Yes, great one."

He ran the dipper into the bottle, sealing the top with his index finger. Both were plain clay; if you handed out glass ones the recipients would sell them-food came first, and glass was an expensive rarity here. The solution inside was their all-purpose disinfectant, and it stung. The toddler wailed and struggled, but his mother gave him a tremulous smile. Good teeth, at least, Clemens thought abstractedly. Most people here did have them, at least until middle age; no sugars in the diet.

"Three times each day," Clemens said. "If you do this faithfully, it will be cured. Bring the child back to me when the medicine is gone. Do you understand?"

"Yes, holy one," the woman said, and suddenly she gripped his hand and kissed it; her own eyes filled and tears ran down her cheeks. "Thank you for saving my son's sight, holy one! He is our last child left alive, now he may live and father children of his own! Thank you-I have little, but what I have is yours."

"Go, go," Clemens said roughly, embarrassed. He went over to the table he'd set up and scrubbed his hands again. I'm going to wear my skin off in this filthy country, he thought.

"Lord," the palace usher said, looking about him with contempt. "You will miss the ceremony!"

"Just one more," he said. "Then we'll clean up and go."

It was another child, although barely so by local standards, a girl of twelve or thirteen. To Island-raised eyes she would have passed for nine-barefoot, dressed in a ragged gray shift with a shawl over her braids.

"What is the child's illness?" he asked the mother. Another skinny underfed weaver.

"A demon of fever, holy one," the woman said, bringing her shawl up under her chin in modesty; an upper-class woman might have covered her mouth as well. "For a night and a day now. She cannot eat the good bread."

Fever. Well, that was the all-purpose term here. He wiped down a thermometer and stuck it in the girl's mouth.

"Don't bite; just hold that under your ton-"

A desperate grab saved the instrument, and he looked into the hazed, defiant black eyes. Her mother raised a hand, but stopped at a gesture.

"Here is a date stuffed with pistachios," Clemens said. That was a treat rare enough to tempt someone with no appetite. "If you hold this thing in your mouth as I say, you may have it."

The girl considered, then nodded.

"Give me the date," she said.

"Here. But don't eat it yet."

This time the thermometer stayed in. Clemens got out his stethoscope and the blood-pressure apparatus and began his examination, throwing comments over his shoulder to Azzu-ena as she handed him the equipment he required.

Hmmm. A hundred and one degrees-no wonder she's cranky and off her feed, he thought. Let's see There were so many diseases here, and many of them were just that-diseases, with no names in the books he'd studied.

Azzu-ena was craning over his shoulder. "That looks like a rash," she said. "Reddish patch."

"Mmmm-hmmmm." He pulled up the girl's shift; she pulled it down again and slapped his hand. Clemens sighed. "I am a physician. Eat your date."

More of the red patches, with little flecks of dried blood, as from a fleabite

Clemens felt the color leave his face; for a moment the room swam, and he made a choked noise. Azzu-enu stepped forward, alarmed.

"No!" he said, his voice crisp. "Get back-don't touch me, don't touch her. Get into the other room." She hesitated, looking at him with astonishment. "Go!" She fled.

"You," he said to the usher. "Fetch soldiers. Have this part of the palace sealed-completely sealed, no one to enter or leave. Go, do it, then come back here." The usher drew himself up, tapping his staff.

Clemens caught his eye and spoke, his words slow and cold. "I am the one who saved the king's favorite. If you do not obey me in every particular, man of Kar-Duniash, the king will have you impaled. Do you understand me? For I speak the truth and I do not lie."

The usher's olive face went pasty; he backed away, bowing, hand before his mouth in the gesture of submission.

"What is it?" Azzu-ena called sharply through the door of the room that held the autoclave.

"Possibly the end of the world," Clemens said, his mind racing.

The dirigible's at Ur Base, he thought. They can get here by tomorrow morning. All right, that's five hundred doses. Maybe, oh, God, maybe-

He turned to the woman, kept his voice gentle as he looked into the enormous dark pools of fear that were her eyes. "Who is your man?" he said quietly. "How many other children do you have, and where do they dwell?"

"Ahhhh," Kathryn Hollard said, sinking into the tub until only her nose was above water, scratching vigorously at her scalp and the short-cropped sandy hair, reveling in the animal comfort.

Her quarters in the section of the palace turned over to the Americans weren't large, but they did run to the Babylonian equivalent of a bathroom; a big ceramic tub, with a drainpipe and a brazier in a corner to heat water. Sin-ina-mati had managed to wangle an appointment as her batman and had the whole thing ready for her, for which she was profoundly grateful. It was amazing how you could soak up dirt and dust and sand, and even if you kept your scalp stubbled and shaved everything else, the war against lice and fleas was never completely won. Still, she moved the gently exploring hand aside.

"Not now, Mattie," she said. "Not in the mood."

Sin-ina-mati pouted slightly and then grinned and tossed her the sponge.

"Ah, the handsome Prince Kashtiliash fills your thoughts," she said. "And you wish he would fill your-ai!"

Laughing, Kathryn held up her hand, ready to scoop more of the water at her. "Common knowledge now, is it?" she said, as Sin-ina-mati pretended to cower, laughing herself. "Hell, you can still scrub my back, Mattie."

"Not very common, but there's little secret here in the palace," the Babylonian woman said, bringing up a stool and sitting on it to use the sponge. "And I hear everything there is to hear."

"Happy to be back?" Kathryn said, taking the sponge before slipping down to soak again. She dropped back into English for an instant: "Christ on a crutch, this country is parasite heaven. "

"I am happy to be back as a free woman, with silver of my own," Sin-ina-mati said. Serious for a moment: "I have paid my family's debts, and soon they will buy back their land that now they rent. Several families have asked me to tutor their children in the Nantukhtar letters, with generous fees. Thank you."

Kathryn nodded, slightly embarrassed. That was how the girl had ended up as a palace slave in the first place. Her peasant family had sold her off as the only alternative to starving for the whole bunch, from grandmother to nursing infants. That could happen here, if you were up against it, borrowed against the next harvest, and got seriously unlucky.

The gratitude made her uneasy, though. Sin-ina-mati's new status wasn't her doing; it was the Republic's policy. On the other hand, she'd learned firsthand that Babylonians didn't think that way. Everything was personal obligation or enmity to them, not personified abstractions like nations or governments. And she had gotten her a better job than carrying bedpans.

On still another hand, I'm also grateful that Mattie didn't get too attached. She sighed. It's certainly fun, once you get over the oh-ick-yuk-that's-strange bit, but now that I've tried it I can definitely say that it isn't It, for me. Beats the hell out of solitary vice, but no capital P Passion.

It was always valuable to make a discovery about yourself, but this one was a pity, in a way. There would have been some advantages if it had been It, if she wanted to be career military, and so far she hadn't found anything that better suited her talents. Although I like building things, too.

She wiped soapy water out of her eyes and groped for her watch on the wicker table beside the bath. "Oh, hell," she said. "Got to get going-there's that thing over at the temple. Hand me that towel, would you?"

The occasion was full-dress. Luckily that wasn't very fancy for the Island military. The polished calf-boots, tailored khaki pants and jacket, scarf, and beret with the Republic's eagle-and-shield badge all looked fairly sharp without being too elaborate or labor-intensive. She buffed the badge until the gold of the arrows and olive wreath shone against the silver eagle, adjusted it, took a quick look in the mirror and buckled on her Sam Browne.

Coming up in the world, she thought, snapping out the cylinder of the new Python revolver that had come in with the Werders. And not only better equipment. A smile moved her lips as she flicked a fingernail at the silver lieutenant colonel's oak leaves on the collar of her uniform jacket.

"What is this?" Azzu-ena asked steadily. He could see the fear in her eyes, though; it was but a reflection of his own.

"Life," Justin Clemens said.

He swabbed the skin of her shoulder with alcohol, wiped it dry with the gauze, roughened it with the instrument and applied the vaccine, then taped another piece of gauze across it. When it was done he slumped in relief. The luckless laborers who'd been trapped in the waiting room were next, all six of them.

"Why have you isolated the mother along with the child?" Azzu-ena asked as he stood in thought.

"Because she's almost certainly infected by now-prolonged body contact," he said.

"What is the treatment for this disease?"

"There is no treatment."

"Not even the penicillin?"

"That's useless against this. The vaccine prevents infection, but once the disease is established among people like yours, who've never been exposed, as many as nine in every ten may die."

According to his medical history texts, Mexico had gone from twenty million people to one and a half million within a couple of generations after Cortez's men had arrived, bringing smallpox along with them. After what he'd seen on the post-Event mainland with influenza, mumps, and chicken pox, he believed every word of it. "Virgin field epidemic" had gone from a historical curiosity to a recipe for naked horror.

The woman's eyes went wide; these cities might not have known smallpox before, but they did have epidemics to give a basis for imagination.

"Is there nothing that can be done?"

"I don't have much of the vaccine, and I can't make any more here, and you don't-" How do I explain about cowpox? Which Babylonian cows did not have; he'd checked when he first arrived. No time. "I don't have the things I'd need. Nantucket is two months' sailing from here, and they could only send me a few thousand doses."

"You know this disease well?"

"From books. We wiped it out in our own land by vaccination."

"Nine in ten! Gods of plague have mercy!" She suddenly looked down at her arm. "This preserves, you say?"

"Yes, unless you're already infected, and I very much doubt it."

"Then why me?" Her gaze sharpened on him. "Will you not wish to preserve the king and his household?"

"I suppose we'll have to," he said wearily. "Since we can't preserve everybody. But I'll be damned if it's all going to go out for political reasons."

Suddenly she smiled and rested a hand on his shoulder for a moment. "You are a great healer," she said. "You will find something you can do."

He nodded wearily. "Apart from praying that we can isolate all the cases in time, there's only one thing I can do. It's far better than nothing, but I don't think it's going to go over very well."



* * * | Against the Tide of Years | * * *







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