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CHAPTER TEN

April, Year 9 A.E.

Lot of work," Kathryn Hollard said, looking up at the bulky three-step shape of the water-purifying works.

"Worth it," Clemens said fervently. "Come along-you should see this."

The base hospital's priority had been high enough that it was more or less finished. The walls were thick adobe brick, whitewashed inside, with a number of bays off a long I-shaped block and smooth tile floors. Light came from tall, narrow windows high in the walls, under the cross-timbers that supported the low-sloped tile roof. The wards were airy and cool; adobe made good insulation. Mostly they smelled of fresh mortar and new wood, and of disinfectant; but Major Hollard wrinkled her nose slightly as Clemens led her into one of the bays. An orderly pushed past with a basket of soiled cloth pads.

"Sorry, but there's only so much you can do when diarrhea hits."

They walked down the line of beds; a few near the door were Marines; the others, several dozen locals. Their faces were alike, though, drained and pale. Another orderly was pushing a wheeled cart down the row of bedsteads, stopping at each to make the occupant down a glass of what looked like water. Several of the locals were alive enough to try and reject the dose, squirming in mute terror. Their hair and beards had been shaved, a dreadful shaming thing to a Babylonian of this era.

"What is it?" Hollard asked.

"It's the reason we spent so much time on that slow-sand filter setup. Specifically? Damned if I know. It's a form of bacterial dysentery; I think I've isolated the causative agent. It's not cholera, but it works a lot like it. Rehydration with sugar-and-salt-laced water works fine, or by IV for the worst cases. A fair number died before we realized what was happening. The locals are afraid of our magic; I had to get a guard detail to bring some of these men in. That's what I thought you might help me with."

"You need a couple of squads?" Hollard asked.

Clemens shook his head, frustration turning his naturally sunny expression to a scowl. "No, what I need is help. More hands. I need some people who can be taught basics-changing bedpans, giving them the solution, getting them to the jakes if they're ambulatory. It would help if they could speak Akkadian. I thought of using some of the laborers, but they're too frightened-and the peasants well, the term 'thick hick' might have been invented for them. They're even more ignorant and parochial than an Alban fresh off the boat."

Kathryn nodded. "I'm not surprised. Albans have to look after themselves, mostly. These peasants, they're pretty firmly under the thumbs of their bosses, and they don't encourage them to think, from what I've seen." Suddenly she grinned and snapped her fingers. "Tell you what-I think I can do something for you. Come on."

She turned and strode decisively away. Clemens followed, walking a little faster than he liked to keep up with the tall woman's stride, squinting under the brim of his floppy canvas campaign hat.

The tent they came to was theoretically the officers' mess; in practice, a lot of the work of the camp was done there, especially with most of the permanent buildings still under construction. Tables and benches stood under an awning, with the sides drawn up to let what breeze there was circulate. Clemens stopped and pointed to several plates of bread, cheese, and cold meat.

"There!" he said. "That's what I mean!"

Colonel Hollard and a pair of other officers were sitting talking to the councilor for foreign affairs and his assistant, with stacks of papers in front of them. The commander of the First Marine Regiment looked up at the doctor's outburst.

"What is, Lieutenant?" he asked mildly.

"That sort of thing is why we're having this problem with dysentery," he said. "Sir," he added after a moment, remembering hasty classes in military courtesy.

"I thought it was the water?"

"It's usually the water. But the locals won't dig the latrines deep enough, or remember to throw in dirt after they use them. Flies to feces to food-it's a wonder we don't have more than a couple of dozen down as it is."

"A wonder and your good work, Doctor," Hollard said. "What's this in aid of, Kat?"

Kathryn grinned, sat, and tossed her hat down, reaching for a pitcher of the weak, cloudy local beer and a straw. The Babylonians drank it that way, to avoid sucking in the sediment.

"Now I see why they avoid the water, after what Jus has been showing me," she said. "This rush of runny guts is overburdening his sick bay, and he needs some help. I thought it might kill two birds with one stone, so to speak."

"Ah, yes, the king's embarrassing generosity," Ian Arnstein said, stroking his beard.

Rumor made the councilor an absentminded polymath genius. Clemens hadn't seen much of him, apart from a few dinings-in with the commodore, but he suddenly wondered how much of that was a pose. The russet-brown eyes under the shaggy brows were disconcertingly shrewd.

"Generosity, Councilor?" he said.

Doreen Arnstein sighed, in chorus with Colonel Hollard; they looked at each other and chuckled. The Marine commander took it up: "King Shuriash decided to be really hospitable, so he just sent us two hundred palace servants," he said dryly. "Slaves, to be precise."

"Oh," Clemens said.

He knew the Republic's policy; they couldn't go crusading against slavery all over the planet-or a dozen other abominations-but the Islanders didn't tolerate it where they had the option. Ur Base was sovereign Nantucket territory, and there were severe penalties for any citizen who dabbled in slavery. Doing a Walker, it was called informally, the name for any sort of unethical dealings with the locals.

"At the same time," Ian said, obviously following his train of thought, "we can't just manumit them and turn them loose. For one thing the king would be mortally offended; for another, they'd starve or get re-enslaved or something of that nature right away."

"That is a problem," Clemens said. "Ah sorry I hadn't heard about this, Colonel."

"We're all busy," Hollard said tolerantly. "As a matter of fact, we're all insanely busy. Kat?" He looked at the younger Hollard.

"Well, we've got them understanding that they're free," she said. "And they understand who does not work, does not eat; this place is run along those lines anyway. So when Jus explained his problem, it struck me that he could use fifty or sixty of them-start them off at fifty cents a day and keep, like the construction workers."

That was about a third of what an unskilled worker made back on Nantucket, but extremely generous by the standards of anywhere else.

"Not the singers or dancers or most of the ah entertainers," Kathryn went on. "But the cooks and housemaids, it wouldn't be a big change for them."

"That would be more than I need," Clemens said, alarmed.

"It'd be part-time," Kathryn said. "They could do the language and literacy classes say, two days a week, and work four."

Hollard nodded. "Good idea, Kat, and it'll free up our own people. All right with you, Lieutenant?"

"Ah yes," Clemens said. "It'll pay off in the long run. I'll keep an eye out and have the brighter ones taught real nursing when we get some time."

"Good idea," Doreen Arnstein said. "If-forbid it, God-we've got a really big war on our hands, that could be crucial." She smiled, a hard expression. "And it'll give us an advantage over Walker. I doubt he wastes his precious time on clean water."

Ian Arnstein shook his head. "I only wish that were so, Doreen. More's the pity, I think he's too smart not to. And he has Alice Hong."

"She's a monster."

Clemens cut in: "Doctor Coleman says she was a monster, all right-but a pretty good physician for all that. She'll be able to give him good advice, if he takes it."

"With our luck, he probably will," Kathryn said mournfully. The pitcher made a gurgling sound as she sucked on the straw. "Pah! That last mouthful was solid ground barley. Well, Jus, let's go-you can look over the dancing girls and make a selection, like a sultan!"

Clemens cursed the blush that rose to his cheeks. At least the sunburn hides it, he thought. Small compensation for increased likelihood of melanoma, but you had to count your blessings in this post-Event world.

And at least I don't have to see Ellen every day.

"So, we have to ask ourselves, before we can become virtuous, what is virtue?" Doreen said, nibbling a pistachio.

The priest of Ninurta began to answer, then stopped, suspicious. He was an old man, his beard white and his olive face deeply seamed; the years had left him sunken and scrawny in his flounced, fringed robe, but his eyes were snapping with intelligent anger.

"Virtue is the knowledge of what the great gods our masters require of us!" The priest thumped the inlaid sissu- wood of the table for emphasis.

"Ah, thank you," Doreen said politely. "Then knowledge is something that can be taught?"

"Of course, woman!"

"Then from whom should we learn it?"

"From the priests of the gods, the great gods our masters-they who know the wisdom of old, that which is written on the clay, that which is difficult to learn."

"The high en priest of Marduk, here in Dur-Kurigalzu, he would be a very wise and virtuous man?"

The priest permitted himself a dry, wintry smile. "Of course. Although he is not of my temple, his piety and learning are well known; all this city knows of it." He was also a collateral relative of the king, which made the priest's words wise in themselves.

"Thank you again, O priest of Ninurta," Doreen said. She paused for a moment, then went on, "I suppose priests would strive to teach virtue to their sons, then?"

The priest settled back on his stool, arranging his robe. "Surely."

"Then, for example, Yasim-Sumu, the high priest's son, should be a man of exceptional virtue?"

The priest opened his mouth, closed it again, and flushed darkly. But he was an honest man, in his way. "No," he bit out.

Doreen smiled politely and inclined her head. I'll say. The relatives of several ex-maidens had come looking for Yasim-Sumu with pruning hooks; his relatives would probably be able to buy them off, but the sons of a nobleman he'd killed in a drunken brawl might be less forgiving.

"Then apparently virtue is not something that can be taught, O en priest of Ninurta?"

The Babylonian stabbed his bronze stylus into a fresh clay tablet. "Well, what in Nergal's name is virtue, then, woman?"

"Oh, I don't know either," Doreen said cheerfully. "It seems we're both equally ignorant!"

A few seconds later, Ian Arnstein stuck his head through the door and caught her still giggling.

"What had him storming out so fast?"

"Oh, I used the First Sophistic on him," Doreen said, taking another nut out of the bowl. "The negative elenchos. Have a pistachio."

Ian accepted, groaned, and sank down on a stool beside the table. The room was dim but quietly sumptuous; light came from an opening in the ceiling, that could be closed at need with a mushroomlike cap of baked clay.

"Doreen, you've got to watch that. Remember what it got Socrates?"

"Well, yes, but he didn't have diplomatic immunity, did he?"

"Jesus, Doreen, we're supposed to be making an alliance here! These people believe in omens the way Americans believe-believed- would have believed-in vitamins. If we get the priesthoods against us. how do you think every divination will turn out? And no, we can't bribe them all. For one thing, some of them are honest."

Doreen hung her head slightly. "Sorry but old Samsu-Indash is such a doddering reactionary twit! I'm supposed to be teaching him our math, and he's utterly incapable of believing I can add up to twenty without looking at my feet, for God's sake."

"Yeah, but he's a Babylonian, you can't expect him not to be a sexist pig," Ian said. "Anyway, there's news."

She sat up at his expression, alarm chilling her despite the hard, dry warmth of the air.

"From the fleet. The broadcast was incomplete, but they've run into some really bad weather."

"I want everyone on a line," Marian Alston said grimly. "Storm canvas, and do it now. Signal to the flotilla."

The swell had been increasing for hours, and the light had taken on a weird, sulfur-tinged quality. To the north was only blackness, towering up to swallow the late-afternoon sky. And heading our way very fast. She set her teeth and looked around, trained her binoculars on the other ships of the flotilla-four of them, since they'd left the schooner Frederick Douglass at Mauritius. They all looked as ready as possible.

Her skin was prickling all over. This is bad. This is very bad.

She waited impatiently until the last work aloft was done and ran her eyes over every inch of it, sails on top of the yards and lashed with double gaskets; the forward staysails, the gaff and two close-reefed topsails still up, to keep way on her once the hurricane hit. A ship without sails couldn't be steered, and that meant death. There was an ominous, naked angularity to the masts with only those scraps of storm canvas up.

"Commodore," a petty officer panted, "the kids are strapped into their bunks, and Martinelli's with them."

"Thank you, Seaman Telnatarno," Alston said. That was all they could do. Now she had a ship to sail, and that would require all her attention.

Something was racing toward them across the sea from the north, a mile or more before the darkness. A line of white, as if the sea were being churned by an invisible laser.

"It's coming across the swell," she said mildly. "Damn."

Jenkins shouted a warning through his speaking-trumpet, and those on deck braced themselves, clutching at rigging and rail.

The air went limp, she decided. Just for a moment the single close-reefed topsail sagged flat, all the roundness out of it. Then the wind struck, and tore the tough storm canvas out of its bolt-tops with a single shrieking burst, turning it to vanishing scraps and tatters that snapped like whipcracks. She could feel the whole thousand-ton weight of the Chamberlain heeling as the wall of air and water hit- over, further, further under the fury of the blow, and she watched the port rail go under with fascinated horror. Above her a line snapped with a crack like cannonshot, and something whirred by her. The scream from the wheels would have been deafening normally; she could barely hear it, or see through the froth of seawater that filled the space between. She leaped for the circles of wood, staggered as a body slammed into her, then fell to the deck clutching at its ribs.

Alston plunged on, vaguely conscious of Swindapa at her side. There had been six deckhands at the wheel; now one was just gone, two more down, their blood turning to pink froth in the Niagara that was pouring over the side. The two women leaped to the platform beside the wheels, waited until the spokes slowed, then grabbed them with a shock that thudded through arms, shoulders, and legs. Alston bared her teeth in a grunting rictus of effort. The frigate had heeled to forty-five degrees, and she had to brace her foot against the mount of the wheels to stop herself from hanging down like a loose rope end.

Slowly, slowly, the Chamberlain roared upright again, shrugging tons of water overside and through her scuppers as if she were a submarine broaching-familiar except for things that should have been there but weren't. Lieutenant Jenkins was back on his feet, yelling orders through his speaking-trumpet. Alston raised her eyes beyond him, squinting through the stinging spray, twisting to look astern.

At least it isn't freezing, she thought; she'd gone through storms in the North Atlantic where the spray turned to ice three inches thick on every exposed surface. Then she saw the size of the wave that was bearing down on her ship bearing down on the broadside of the ship.

"Do Jesus!" she yelled. "Jenkins, get the staysails over!"

Thank God. He'd heard her and plunged down to the waist to get the dazed line crews hauling. The wind was trying to force the nose of her ship toward the monster wall of water that would crush it like a cup under a boot.

"Haul! Bring her around!" she shouted and felt Swindapa's long, slender body straining beside hers. The other two hale steersmen were with her, she could hear one of them screaming a prayer, but it wouldn't be enough. Then one of the men whose face had been lashed open by the broken line staggered up onto the platform across from her, his teeth showing in a grisly smile through a loosened flap of cheek.

"She's coming 'round!" Alston shouted exultantly and heard her lover's long hawk-shriek beside her. The staysails and gaff were keeping steerage-way on, and it might be enough.

Do Jesus, I wish I could put on more canvas. Impossible; nothings would hold in this. What I've got up may be enough. May be.

Or might not be. The light had vanished as if the sun had never risen, and the blackness was lit only by endless stabbing flashes of lightning. Come on, sugar, point a little further south for me, she thought to the ship. Come on, come on

The stern began to climb, slowly at first and then faster, as if they were climbing backward up a cliff of blue-black tipped with darkling white foam. Alston saw the curl hanging above her and to the starboard, waiting, waiting now. The cliff fell on them, and she could hear the ship's frame screaming in protest, the rigging humming like some great harp in agony. The water cataracted forward, and she took a deep breath to hold as it broke over the quarterdeck.,

Sea filled eye and nose and ear, battering at her body with huge, heavy hands that tried to tear her away from the spokes of the wheel. The ship heeled again, further this time, over on her beam-ends, and the sharp bow dug deep into the trough of the wave, as if the Chamberlain were going to run down the side of the wave and straight to the bottom.

She's broached deep, ran through Alston. Hatchways caved-she'll never come up from this. Fear of death was distant; an immense irritation was greater-there was still too much to do-and grief for Swindapa and Heather and Lucy harder still. At least her lover was by her side; the children were so young, and all alone in the dark-

Air broke around her; sin-dark, full of flying wrack, but the scream of the hurricane through the Chamberlain's rigging was the sweetest sound in the universe. The wheel bucked under her hands, and she felt the ship's living movement flow up through her feet. Waves buffeted her, a formless savage chop that twisted the masts, bending them like whip-antennas, and the ghastly flicker of lightning saw identical stunned grins on the faces of the others at the wheel. Jenkins fought his way back up to the quarterdeck, with a party at his heels to carry off the injured-those who weren't just gone-and relieve them at the wheel.

"I thought we were sunk, skipper!" he yelled in her ear.

"So did I, Lieutenant!" Alston said, grinning in relief. "Keep her so-if we get any more big surges, it'll be from that direction."

"Aye, aye!"

Lightning flashed again and again, closer, closer. Then a crack, and a flash that blinded her through an upflung hand. The change in the Chamberlain's movements beneath her feet and the crackling roar of white pine snapping told her their story in the second before sight returned.

Her eyes confirmed it. The frigate's hundred-and-twenty-foot foremast had been struck by lightning, had leaped in its socket like a living thing writhing in pain, and then snapped off three feet above the deck. It plunged to port, drowning its flaming tip in the wild water. Already it was swinging the ship's nose away from the south, into the wind. Caught in a cradle of rigging, the great mass of timber pounded on the ship like the stick of a mad drummer as wind and wave swept it about.

"Jenkins, take the helm!" Alston shouted. There was no time to think, only to do. "Everyone else, follow me. Axes! Axes!"

She led the rush down the quarterdeck and into the waist. They snatched the tools from the ready-racks as they passed-axes, hatchets, prybars, cutlasses. Then forward, past crew down moaning or crawling with the heave of the ship, injured or stunned by the fall of the mast and yards, the furled sails, and the huge tangle of cordage that was rigging when whole and a demon's spiderweb dragging them all to death now. Crossing the two hundred feet was as much swimming as walking, more like tumbling in heavy surf on a rocky shore than either. The wild water and tearing wind wrenched at them, flinging bodies into each other and the unyielding fabric of the ship with bruising force. Even over the banshee scream of the gale she heard the slamming drumbeat of the mast against deck and hull, booming up through her feet with the promise of wreck.

She and the others dragged and pushed crew to the crucial lines, the remnants that held the ruined mast to the hull, as well as slashing themselves. Blades flashed, thumping into hemp rope and wood and more than once into flesh as desperation and the mad heaving of the hull sent them staggering.

It's going, it's going! she thought, and brought her ax around in a two-handed swing. Thunk. The last of the six-inch-thick stayline parted. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the next monster wave running down with the cold inevitability of a glacier. The mast swept away, then back one last time like a battering ram in the hands of Poseidon. Oak shrieked under the impact, but that added its bit to the straining helm and shoved the bow away from the oncoming water. Alston threw down the ax.

"Hang on!" she shouted. Some of the crewfolk were still hacking mechanically at dangling bits of wreckage, heedless of everything else. She staggered to the nearest, looping ends of line around their bodies, vaguely conscious of Swindapa doing likewise.

There was a moment of almost-stillness. She rose from tying off a line under the armpits of a crewman and saw the wave strike her ship on the port quarter. Feet skidded out from beneath her as the Chamberlain's stern flung upward and the ship pitched on her beam-ends. Water poured toward her, driven by winds building over a thousand miles of ocean. She felt her body leave the deck, hurl toward the bow and the railing, then slam into something unyielding. Pain lanced through her chest, and the hands that scrambled at rail and rope were strengthless. Everything moved with the slow-motion inevitability of dream.

Always expected to drown eventually, ran through a corner of her mind, even as her will doggedly forced her arms to lock in an effort she knew would be futile. The wave would take her overboard, and that would be the end.

Swindapa fell down the canted deck toward her, hair like a banner of yellow silk, shocking in the lightning-shot darkness. The younger woman's right arm clamped around her waist with desperate strength; the left was wound into a bight of line.

"Don't you leave me!" the Fiernan screamed in her ear. "Don't you dare!"

Wasn't planning on it, she thought, sucking in a last deep breath and holding it despite the salt spray that rasped at her lungs. And Christ, 'dapa, you'll get yourself killed too!

The wave struck, lifted them, slashed them backward and then smashed them down again against the decking with casual brutality. Alston let the last of her consciousness drain into her arms, locked around Swindapa and the rope.

Blackness.


CHAPTER NINE | Against the Tide of Years | CHAPTER ELEVEN







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