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Eyes of the Calculor

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Eyes of the Calculor

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Author: Sean McMullen
Publisher: Tor, 2001
Series: Greatwinter: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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In Sean McMullen's glittering, dynamic, and exotic world two thousand years in the future, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, there is no electricity, fueled engines are banned by every major religion in Australica, humanity has split into two species, and intelligent cetezoids rule the oceans.

In space, the enigmatic Mirrorsun has begun to spin. Immense solar sails are pushing vast amounts of energy into its ancient orbital band, energy that could tear it apart--or be directed down at Earth. Already the hypnotic Call has ceased, and all electrical machines have been reduced to molten metal. A religious prophet has risen and is attempting to bring together the entire continent of Australica under her rule.

Meanwhile, her diesel-powered sailwing shot down by religious fanatics, the American princess Samondel is forced to set aside her trade-seeking mission and disguise herself as a student. Her only friends are a disgraced monk who is a member of the secret police and a beautiful young librarian who is a dangerous and unstable psychopath. From these unlikely friendships she must form an alliance between two continents and two species, and prevent ultimate war.

Fundamentally, unexpectedly, things are changing everywhere. As catastrophe looms and civilization begins to crumble, the Dragon Librarians of Australica have just one means left to hold their world together: to kidnap every numerate person on the continent and rebuild their out-of-date human-powered computer--the Calculor.




Twelve miles above Eastern Australica

Relations between Earth's intelligent species had been less than satisfactory for a very long time. For several hundred years humans had hunted whales and dolphins so intensively that many of their clans, attractens, and associons were wiped out. Those memories were fresh and raw when the humans managed to revive a cetacean warrior from a civilization older than the human race itself, a warrior skilled in the ways of warfare that had unleashed an undersea Armageddon nine million years earlier. There is nothing like a common enemy to inspire unity, and humanity was certainly that. The Call, a mind weapon, began to sweep over the land, permanently blanketing some areas, especially near the coast. Lured to the sea to drown, or held starving in a mindless reverie, the human population declined by nearly three orders of magnitude. The cetezoids could easily have wiped Homo sapiens from the earth, but then there would have been no common enemy left. Humanity was suffered to survive through sheer political convenience.

In the dying years of the Anglaic civilization, however, one last and desperate attempt was made to counter the cetaceans' weapon. Noting that birds were not affected by the Call, some of the last genetic engineers on the continent of Australia added tracts of bird DNA to the human genome. Overseas, frightened and confused armies flung nuclear weapons at each other, then chaos descended in the form of a nightmare winter that lasted centuries. As the world warmed again it was noticed that some people were immune to the Call, people who were also lighter, stronger, faster, and generally more intelligent than humans. These bird-people, the aviads, were slaughtered whenever they were recognized, and the genocide continued for two thousand years. Slowly, unobtrusively, the aviads began to organize their own nations in areas permanently blanketed by the cetezoids' Call, and their hatred for humanity was no less intense than that of the cetezoids. Within the Calldeath lands they were safe, secure beyond the reach of humans and their predilection to annihilate anything superior than themselves.

Then, on the 13th of September, A.D. 3961 the Call ceased to exist. Completely. Humans were free from the Call weapon that had ravaged their numbers and rendered vast areas of land uninhabitable for two millennia. The aviads of the continent now known as Australica were suddenly at the mercy of a human population a thousand times its number.

Fortunately this happened just as the only member of Earth's newest intelligent species decided to annihilate all electrical machines on the face of the planet. This was not entirely coincidence either, for the fourth intelligence had once been an aviad.

* * *

The sunwing Titan was a half mile in wingspan but barely fifty feet in length. It was pure wing, nothing more than a wing powered by electrical motors driven by direct or stored sunlight. Two thousand years earlier it had been designed to cruise the stratosphere forever, regenerating ozone to restore the delicate balance of Earth's atmosphere, never landing, self-repairing. It was an island of habitat in the sky. An air pressure of just below that of sea level was maintained by pumps to strengthen the Titan's structure, and waste heat provided warmth for the cabins were where maintenance crews had been meant to live. The aviads had boarded the Titan, removed the ozone generators, and learned to steer it. Aviads could now cross human territory without fear of lynch mobs, torture, and inquisitions. They could even cross oceans.

The Titan was cruising twelve miles above southeastern Australica on the 13th day of September 1729 in the Greatwinter calendar of Australica, and 3961 in the Anno Domini calendar of North America. There were twenty-two aviad souls aboard the huge wing: three crew and nineteen passengers.

Captain Raffe Terian seldom steered the Titan. As captain he tended the running and security of the town-sized wing, managing the provisions, waste disposal, security, and maintenance of the living areas. He had a bridge from which he could adjust the course, but in practice this was little more than his office. This trip was quite routine, it was merely to transport aviad refugees from the humans' Carpenteria mayorate of the far north to Tasmania Island, where the mayorate of Avian was barely six years old. It was ironic that so many aviads were often born to human parents, so that the humans who hated them were their best source of recruits. Terian noted that they were above the Cenral Confederation's lands, but borders made little difference at a height of twelve miles. Even crawling along at an airspeed of just seventy miles per hour they would be above Tasmania Island in twelve hours.

"It is hard to believe that there is a battlefield down there," said Watch Officer Varel, standing at the observation plate with her arms folded behind her back.

"The Central Confederation and the Southmoors, I believe," replied Captain Terian. "It is nice to see humans killing each other instead of us."

"With respect, Fras, I never like to see anyone killing anyone," retorted Varel.

"Spoken like someone shielded from the tender attentions of a human mob, Watch Officer. What has been your background with humans?"

"I have been shot twice and raped once during the course of recruiting five dozen aviad brethren from among the humans. I have also killed eleven times."

Terian shook his head. "After all that, you still have a trace of compassion for the human exterminators?"

"They are just afraid of us, Fras Captain. Aviads are so much better in so many ways."

"That does not make it any more pleasant to be killed by them. Some factions say we should kill them all--"

The console before the captain suddenly hissed, then billowed acrid smoke. The light strips blackened and failed too, but clear panels in the roof allowed light from Mirrorsun to illuminate the interior of the Titan. Everything electrical had smoked, melted, or exploded at the same instant.

"What in all hells has happened?" demanded Captain Terian, fanning at the smoke between him and the ruined console.

"The nearest engine pod is trailing smoke, Fras Captain," reported Varel, staring through a roof panel. "Its propeller is just spinning unpowered."

"Get up to the navigation bubble, check if any others have failed."

Watch Officer Seegan burst into the bridge as Varel was climbing the steps. He reported that there was smoke everywhere, and that the passengers were beginning to panic.

"All engine pods are trailing smoke, Fras Captain," called Varel from the navigation bubble. "Some propellers have jammed, others are just spinning unpowered."

"All?" cried the incredulous captain.

"All that I can see from here."

"Then we are going to lose the sunwing."

By now the smoke was dispersing, but in the distance someone was having hysterics and screaming that they were all going to die.

"Even with total loss of power this thing will take over two hours to glide to the ground," Terian pointed out as he hurriedly thought through some figures he had learned for an examination years earlier. "That gives us space to breathe."

"Fras Captain, breathing could actually be a problem; we are also losing air pressure," reported Seegan, staring at a large mechanical dial. "We will be dead ninety minutes before the air can be breathed."

Terian closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears as he thought for a frantic moment.

"Perhaps not," he decided. "Draw your guns, come with me."

Although there had been safety drills aboard the Titan, there was no precedent for total failure of all electrical systems with no warning whatsoever. They were at twice the height of Mount Everest, although none of them knew of Mount Everest as anything more than a folktale.

The first thought of the passengers was to escape from the smoke, and the evacuation drills had made the location of the parachutes common knowledge. One of the musketeers strapped on a parachute, then led a group of passengers to the ferry bay of the Titan. The ramp was normally released by electrical relays when at lower altitudes, but now the switches remained firmly locked. Selecting an area of the low, sloping roof, the musketeer began slashing at the tough fabric. The already depleted air rushed out all the more quickly, sucking acrid smoke and fumes from the sunwing.

Eight of the passengers tumbled out through the hole, but within minutes five of them were dead, suffocated as they hung from their parachute straps in the rarefied air. Three others knew that survival depended upon reaching breathable air quickly, and did not open their parachutes. By the time they had reached denser air, however, they were dead from the wind chill. They had been dressed for the warm, comfortable cabins of the Titan.

Back aboard the crippled sunwing another three had died, suffocated by the smoke, but the captain had been quick to grasp what options were available for those aboard the doomed craft. Crippled the Titan might be, but it was descending in a long, shallow glide and would take a very long time to hit the ground. He and the two officers left the smoking control deck, shouting for all that could hear to make for the captain's cabin, and to ignore the parachutes. He got a mixed reception from the passengers, and even his authority could not convince them that true safety did not lie with immediate escape. The captain seized a woman who was leading her two children aft, shouting at her to come with him. A confused man knocked him to the deck and tried to lead the family away. Watch Officer Varel shot the man dead.

Fifteen minutes after the catastrophic failure, three more passengers on the Titan were dead, asphyxiated in the corridors whose air pressure had by now become equal with the rarefied atmosphere outside. After half an hour the sunwing had shed six miles of its height and was down to thirty thousand feet. In the captain's cabin, two men, three women, and two children were huddled together in the increasing cold, yet they could still breathe. The cabin was air-tight, and had contained no electrical devices. Through the single forward observation plate they watched as detail on the Mirrorsunlit ground gradually grew more distinct. They moved little. One of the crew, a monk of the Avianese Gentheist Church, talked them through meditative breathing exercises. They were down to eighteen thousand feet at the end of the first hour. Slowly the captain bled the air from the cabin, and breathing became more difficult.

"I thought the idea was to save air," said the mother of the children.

"The Titan is descending more slowly in the denser air, so I don't know how long it will take to reach a level safe for parachuting."

"What do you mean?"

"The pressure in here is that of two thousand feet above the ground, and we are nine times higher. The air outside can be breathed but it is very thin. Decompression sickness will soon kill us if we open the door and jump now, so we need to slowly accustom our bodies to the lower pressure."

"And if we are approaching the salt water before we are accustomed?"

"Then we take a chance and jump anyway."

After two hours they were a mere mile above ground.

"We are over Southmoor territory," said the captain. "Not a good place to jump."

"Fras Captain, will we reach the Rochestrian Commonwealth?" asked the watch officer.

"Yes. In ten minutes, I estimate. Now listen to me, and listen carefully. The pressure outside must be nearly the same as in here, so I am about to open the door. Go to your cabins and collect all your money and papers. Put on the heaviest clothing and boots that you have, then come back here for your parachutes."

The air outside the cabin was cold but breathable as they emerged, but Captain Terian discovered another problem. There had only been twelve parachutes aboard the Titan. Eight had been taken by those who had jumped at twelve miles.

The passengers quickly returned, dressed in coats and boots. The officers shed their jackets for bush coats.

"The mother, Watch Officer Varel, Frelle Tarmia, and yourself will have parachutes," the captain said to Seegan as he helped him into a parachute's harness. "You and Varel can hold a child each as you jump."

"That is only six of us, Fras Captain."

"I know. You will have to look after the group on the ground. Get them to Rochester and the safe house."

"You are going down with the wing?"

"In the absence of any realistic suggestions to the contrary, yes. I hereby surrender my authority to you, beginning when the Titan crashes."

Two hours and forty-five minutes after the invisible pulse of electromagnetic energy had crippled the Titan, the captain helped the six other survivors out through the rent in the sunwing's fabric made by the musketeer. In another five minutes all six were alive and gathering together on the ground in the darkness while the sunwing glided on, trailing smoke from the central section. Aboard the Titan, the fires set by the captain consumed sensitive documents and maps while he exchanged clothing with one of the dead passengers.

The ground was very close as the captain selected a bulkhead and put his back to it. A minute went by, another, then yet another. With a ground speed of fifty miles per hour, the Titan scraped trees, fences, and bushes, then ploughed into lush grass and rich soil. Branches, posts, and rocks gouged through living cellulose spars, ribs, and fabric. Bushes and small trees were torn from the ground, and electrical engines were ripped from their mountings and went tumbling across the fields. Then there was silence and stillness.

The full span of the Titan lay like a crumpled blue ribbon across the green pastures of the northern Rochestrian Commonwealth, still complete to a distant viewer, but internally shattered, with its belly torn out. Over two dozen sheep had died as they slept, shepherds had run screaming, mothers in nearby hamlets had dragged their children under the beds, the Kyabram town militia had been called out, and every dog that had been under the Titan's glide path was barking hysterically. It was dawn before anyone dared to approach the immense wreck, and it was to be several days before it had been completely explored. No survivors were found.

Some distance away, Watch Officer Seegan quickly gathered the survivors together and had the parachutes bundled and buried. He led his charges across a field, then along a hedge-fringed lane, walking for a dot on a line map that he had salvaged. As they hurried through the darkness, they rehearsed their story and roles.

"So who are we?" Seegan asked the youngest child for the third time.

"We're hikers, returning from a picnic."

"And where do we come from?"

"The Central Confederation. We're going to the paraline wayside, to take the pedal train to Rochester."

"Good, good. And what do you say if anyone asks you if you saw the huge flying thing?"

"My mother told me not to talk to strangers."

"Excellent, you have it."

By now they had turned onto a cattle track and were picking their way wearily among the muddy puddles and piles of droppings.

"How much further?" asked the child peevishly.

"According to the map five miles, but walk slowly; we want to arrive after dawn. Now try to look as if you enjoy this sort of thing. Remember, everyone, we are aviads and this is a human mayorate. The actual killing of aviads has been illegal in the Rochestrian Commonwealth for the past twenty years, but a lynch mob of yokels will not bother about fine points of legislation."

It took many hours of hard and determined tramping to reach the wayside. The dot on the map that denoted Stanhope wayside was transformed into an earth and timber platform, a rain shelter, the wayside master's cottage, some sheep pens, and a dozen cottages. As the sun rose the children sat sullenly, huddled together for warmth. The adults bought tickets and bread at the wayside kiosk.

"Did you see that thing that flew over?" asked the serving girl.

"The long thing, trailing smoke and flames, yes, we did, from our camp," replied Watch Officer Seegan.

"I was so frightened. My Garren and I, we were awake and, well, we were awake. He grabbed his birdshot musket and set off after it with the Stanhope town militia. Garren's so brave."

"But it was flying. How could they catch it?"

"Oh, it crashed. You can just see the wreck from the town's lookout tower."

"Oh. Does he think it might be dangerous?"

"Silly, it's not alive," the girl giggled. "It's like a paraline train, just a machine. Except that it's pushed by forbidden engines, not honest muscle. Garren says they might capture evil heretics in the wreck and turn them over to the Gentheist church."

"Ah, yes. Good, good."

"They're bird people, those aviads. Dirty folk, they sleep in big nests made of twigs, and lay eggs."

"Really? I have never met any."

"Strange things happenin'. Why, a couple of hours before that thing crashed, the wayside master's new clock and desk calculor both burned, and at exactly the same time, too. Both powered by electrical essence, they were. Electrical essence is really lightning, you know. What I says is that lightning is always lightning, you just can't tame it. My, we were runnin' about with pails of sand and water, he were lucky that the cottage didn't burn down."

"How amazing! We were far from all that. Close to nature. That is the saying of all hikers: Close to nature, close to Deity."

"Aye, yes, that's good. Where are you folk from? You don't sound like locals."

"Hah, you are very observant. We are from the Central Confederation, on a holiday. The Confederation Guild of Accountants Hiking Club. See, my papers."

"Oooh. Sorry, like, I don't read."

"We have just hiked from Kyabram. Lovely city."

"You hiked from Kyabram? Gor, you're lucky to still be alive and carryin' your purse. Dangerous country, freebooters, you know."

"Really? We were not told."

"You should always check at the city constable's watchouse."

"Really? In future, we shall do that always. Now we are going to Rochester to see the sights."

"Rochester, eh? My Garren once went there. He were beaten up and robbed."

"Really? We must be careful."

Their accents were unusual to the girl, but their Austaric was easily intelligible. Minutes later the white form of a pedal train appeared on the paraline tracks, and the Titan's survivors gathered together as the long bentwood and canvas pedal train reached the wayside. The train's guards eyed the group carefully before deciding that they were harmless. They climbed aboard into the pairs of double cabins, settled into the benches, and prepared to push. The train's captain blew his warning whistle, then everyone aboard strained against the pedals as the brake blocks were released and the long, sleek train glided out of the wayside.

Seegan was alone in his cabin, and felt like doing anything but pedal for the two hours needed to reach Rochester. The Titan was gone, ripped from the skies by a disaster that should not have been possible. It had been built of independent modules, yet every system on the gigantic aircraft had failed. How? he kept asking himself. Sabotage? That was unlikely, as most of the Titan had been inaccessible. Somehow it had been just too big to crash, to be aboard the Titan was like walking on solid ground. He pushed listlessly at the pedals, thinking of the captain. He had gone down with the stricken giant, he had taken responsibility for the catastrophe that was none of his doing. Beyond the window slit the late winter sun was slowly climbing in the northeastern sky. The pedal train began to slow for the next wayside. They were to pass through Cooper and the junction town of Elmore before reaching Rochester itself. Cooper wayside was even smaller than Stanhope, and there was only a single figure on the platform. A shuffling, weary figure, bowed with fatigue, all muddied and--the watch officer scrambled to open his cabin's hatch.

"Fras Terian, over here!" he called, even before the pedal train had stopped.

He raced back along the platform, then escorted the captain up to his cabin, talking loudly all the way.

"How many times have I told you, stick together when we go hiking. There are freebooters in this country, you were lucky you weren't robbed. The rest of us were worried sick about you. In here, there's a space in my cabin."

In all, the captain of the Titan had saved seven out of twentytwo who had been aboard, including all of the women and children. His stricken craft had taken almost three hours to crash, but he had been there until the very end. Now he did not even have the strength to pedal. He sat listlessly, watching the sky, trees, and pastureland.

"So, the crash was not too bad?" asked Seegan.

"No crash is good," Terian replied.

"But it was good enough that you survived."

"What can I say? I stood with my back to a bulkhead and waited. There were a few lurches, then everything wrenched and collapsed around me. I burst through the bulkhead, hit the one behind that, broke it too, and ended up in the control cabin. Everything was silent. The forward canopy was smashed, and there was a dead sheep beside me. The crash had frightened all the local humans away, so I crawled out and made for some nearby woodlands. Once I was under cover I got my map and compass out and set off for the paraline."

"By the sound of it you are not badly injured."

"My right arm is broken, and probably a few ribs too. There is a lump on my head and my ankle is twisted."

"Ah...but better than being dead."

"Not so!" moaned Terian with a hand over his eyes. "I lost the Titan."

"Don't take it so hard, there was nothing you could have done."

"It must have been sabotage, I was not vigilant--"

"Stop it! I am your commanding officer now, remember? Listen to me! The serving wench at the wayside said that all electrical machines in the town burned, apparently at the same time as the Titan was crippled. Did that happen at Cooper too?"

"Cooper is a privy pit with a ticket kiosk. They had no electrical machines. Seegan, I lost the Titan! Nobody has ever lost a sunwing."

"I would imagine that all sunwings have just been lost, and I doubt that most people aboard were as lucky as us. We reach Elmore in a half hour; I wager that everything electrical has burned there as well, and the same will have happened in Rochester."

"But why? I don't understand."

"Mirrorsun; it has done similar things before. In 1708 GW it destroyed an army with some invisible power. Now it has decided that electrical essence machines are also annoying, so it has destroyed them too."

"But Mirrorsun built the Titan, out of things mined on the moon."

"Terian, I have a few facts, not every answer. What is certain is that you were not responsible for the Titan's loss. Now, then, you were my commanding officer until recently and I need informed advice. What are we to do, Fras?"

Terian rubbed his eyes, then began to drag himself out of the miasma of self-pity, misery, shame, and pain where he had been wallowing. They were fugitives and refugees, but they were alive and free, and not entirely without friends.

"If our papers get us past the border post at Elmore, we must stay together and travel on to Rochester tonight. It is a big city, and if all electrical machines really have burned, there will be plenty of chaos for us to hide behind. The safe hostelry will welcome us."

"Terian, remember that none of this was your fault."

"That may be the truth, but history will be written by how I am judged."

The Rochestrian Commonwealth, Eastern Australica

In Rochester, the first official sign that the world had changed came within three minutes of the massive electromagnetic pulses from the sky that destroyed every circuit on the planet. Armed Dragon Librarians of the rank of Orange, Red, and Green hurried into the great, domed reading room of Libris, led by a Dragon Blue. The readers looked up uneasily, as did the duty librarian in charge. One student, Rangen, noticed that a new electric clock was trickling a streamer of smoke into the air. The Dragon Blue strode to the raised central desk and struck the gong for attention.

"The reading room will be cleared immediately!" she declared. "Gather your personal effects and leave."

The combined clattering, groans, and muttering of two hundred readers echoed up to the dome. Helicos and Rangen were a little slow in packing, and attracted the attention of a Dragon Green.

"Anything you can't carry by the second gong gets left here," he said firmly, his flintlock drawn and its barrel resting back on his shoulder.

"But, Fras, closing time is not until midnight," protested Rangen. "We have exams--"

"No readers allowed in the library, young Fras," replied the Dragon Green. "That's the order of the Highliber."

Nine minutes after the electric calculor had begun to smoke, there was not a single reader in the domed reading room. They were not ejected from the Libris grounds at once, however. The readers were made to form several queues in the plaza just behind the main gates, and the notes of every one of the annoyed and flustered readers were inspected at portable desks, by the light of lanterns. Dragon Green librarians questioned everyone about their courses and past studies, then they were allowed to go, although under the escort of Dragon Orange guards.

"Suppose it's the theft of some very rare book," said Rangen to Helicos as they stood waiting.

"Have you been stealing again to supplement your scholarship?" asked Helicos.

"Not from here," replied Rangen.

Rangen watched as other readers were cleared to go. Being a gifted student of mathematics who specialized in associative logic, he had a tendency to look for patterns in everything around him--particularly in the mundane backdrop of everyday life. He watched for any variation in the treatment of those being questioned, but there was none. Now he looked further afield. A student of ancient Anglaic dialects was marched away to the distant gatehouse by a Dragon Orange. They reached the gatehouse, walked beneath the arch, and turned left. Rangen listened to what several more students were saying as he neared the Dragon Green questioners. Economics, sciences, mathematics, law, history; there seemed to be no connection between the way that they turned at the gatehouse and what they studied--law left, but economics right--sometimes. All those taking history left. Those with mixed disciplines were turned in mixed directions.

Helicos reached the Dragon Green.

"Name and field of study?"

"Helicos Theon, University of Rochester, studying mathematics at the level of third year."

"But Fras, your notes are to do with Archaic Anglaic," he said as he examined the notes that Helicos had placed on his desk.

"I'm doing a short course of scholarly languages to assist my studies of ancient mathematical systems."

"Class C," the Dragon Green said to his scribe, then he turned back to Helicos. "You may go."

Helicos was already walking away beside a Dragon Orange when Rangen was chilled by a sudden suspicion. He began to unpack his notes very slowly.

"Name and field of study?"

"Rangen Derris, University of Rochester," began Rangen, who then dropped a sheaf of poorpaper to the flagstones of the plaza.

"Hurry, hurry, there's others who wish to be out of here," said the Dragon Green.

Rangen gathered up the notes, dropped some of them again--and out of the corner of his eye saw Helicos guided to the right by his Dragon Orange escort. The door to the right did not lead to the street outside. Rangen stood up and spread the papers on the librarian's desk.

"Rangen Derris, student of languages," he said quickly and softly, desperately trying not to stammer.

"Your notes are from the same texts as that last student," observed the librarian.

"Why, yes. He is my friend; I am helping him with his Archaic Anglaic for some mathematics examination."

"So you must know some mathematics as well?"

"Not at all, that was why I chose languages, Fras Dragon Green. I have no talent for figures."

The librarian glanced along the queue of restive students behind Rangen, then shook his head.

"Class R," he said to his scribe, then indicated the gate to Rangen with his thumb.

The librarian did not notice that Rangen had suddenly become suspiciously efficient while repacking his notes. Rangen began walking, a Dragon Orange beside him.

"What is all this about?" asked Rangen as the gatehouse loomed nearer.

"If you think a Dragon Orange would be told anything, Fras, then you have obviously never worked in a library. Turn left, and proceed to the outer gate down that corridor. No loitering near the gate when you are outside."

Rangen stole a glance at the door to the right. Four Tiger Dragons stood before a closed door, and two of them had their flintlocks drawn.

Rangen was no more relieved when he cleared the outer gates of the library walls and emerged into the darkened streets of Rochester. Knots of students were gathered here and there, obviously waiting for friends to emerge. Rangen kept walking, noting the time on a nearby tower's ancient mechanical clock.

Mathematicians! The Dragon Librarians were taking mathematicians into custody. This had happened before, years before he was born. Mathematicians had been slowly culled from the universities, streets, towns, schools, and even monasteries. They had worked for years in the first of the human-powered calculating machines, the mighty Calculor of Libris. Some had spent a decade in slavery before the early electrical essence calculors had been introduced. A few had been shot while trying to escape, and others had even been put in battle calculors and sent to war. Now it was happening again, but this time it was not a stealthy culling but the sweep of a mighty sickle that harvested everyone who could count with reasonable skill.

Rangen stopped at Wakefield's Electrical Essence Machineries, and was surprised to see lantern light inside. He glanced about for any suspicious watchers, then entered. He was immediately struck by the stench of burnt wax and paper insulation, and noticed sand strewn about on the floor and benches. Wakefield and two apprentices were gathered around a charred tangle that might once have been a bank of calculor relay switches.

"Fras Wakefield, I had an order for a custom relay rack due next week, I thought I'd check on it," Rangen called across the shop.

"Better come back next month, Fras," the artisan called back. "There was a freak lightning bolt. It roasted every circuit in my shop."

Much to Wakefield's surprise, Rangen thanked him and hurried away without so much as a single curse. Mathematicians were being taken behind heavily guarded doors by Dragon Librarians, and after electrical switches had suddenly burned to cinders and slag. Years ago the manual, slave-powered calculors had been displaced by electrical calculors, but now the reverse was happening. Rangen Derris was one of the few mathematicians in Rochester to have reached the correct conclusion before the Highliber's net ensnared him. He turned down a laneway, then another. Crouching down behind a pile of rotting garbage he discarded his notes. Next he took a knife to his clothing before rubbing it into the grime on the cobblestones.

Before long a filthy beggar emerged onto the street, leaning heavily on a staff made from splintery packing-case wood. A length of cloth covered one eye, and he had hacked his lush, neat beard down to an unkempt stubble. He watched as fifteen men and women wearing crests of the Guild of Accountants were marched past by the city militia on the way to...where? The watchouse was not in that direction, but Libris was. A few late-night revelers cheered to see the accountants being marched away. Nobody paid Rangen any attention.

Rangen sat down with his back against a wall, placed a broken pottery bowl beside his feet and sat in silence. For now he was safe, but what next? If he tried to flee the city there would be guards, inspectors, and Dragon Librarians at every gate. If he got past them, there would be more guards, inspectors, and Dragon Librarians in every regional city and town. A copper coin clinked into his bowl.

"Blessings of the Deity upon your house," said Rangen in a mixture of foreign accents.

Presently he fell asleep.

In the morning he awoke, and was dismayed to find that the past night had not just been a particularly harrowing dream. Again he sorted through his alternatives. If he fled to the frontiers, there would be bounty hunters waiting for anyone numerate enough to complain if they were not given the right change by a vendor. He would be safe enough in the wilderness, but he would not last long. He had only slept outdoors twice. Once had been when he had been too drunk to find his college after a revel and had spent the night in a flower bed in the university gardens. The past night had been the second time. Another copper landed in his bowl.

"Blessings of the Deity upon your house."

He had some silver in his purse, a gold royal concealed in the heel of each boot, an eating knife and the clothes that he was wearing. Clink.

"Blessings of the Deity on your house."


Three coppers, collected in as many minutes. Admittedly that had been during the rush after the shift change in a nearby bakery, yet three coppers would probably buy a cut of bread. This was certainly easier than hunting possums in the forests. The weather was mild, and he could probably crawl into the stables at the university and sleep on the straw.

He started off for the university, displaying a limp and hunching his shoulders over. Before long a line of riders appeared ahead, escorting five covered wagons. Rangen cowered against a building as they passed, noting the faint, muffled sounds from the wagons as they passed. Gagged people would sound like that. Gagged people trying to attract attention before they reached the gates of Libris and vanished from sight forever.

When Rangen reached the university his worst fears were exceeded. Groups of students were huddled together, whispering, while cloaked editors scuttled between buildings as if afraid to be seen in the open. The doors to the Department of Mathematics stood open, and the latch had been smashed from the wood. Rangen looked longingly at his college dormitory, but he dared not enter it to claim the clothes, books, border papers, oddments, and money that were all his. Two mounted Dragon Librarians were observing the scene from near the gates, and more would surely be lurking about in disguise.

Rangen knew that without the protection of the Beggars' Guild he could be beaten up and robbed by any bully boy who thought that he might carry the price of a pint of ale, but to gain membership of the guild he had to be inspected by a medician. That was out of the question. He limped toward the laundaric and rapped timidly at the open door. The turbaned head of the washerman bobbed up from beneath the counter.

"Off, going away, out!" he shouted. "No beggarings!"

"Please, noble Fras, I'se wantin' work, like," replied Rangen.

"No beggarings. Out!"

"I can stoke tubs a-night, I'se lame, not weak."

The washerman of the laundaric pointed and opened his mouth again, but now Rangen was pointing--directly at him.

"Just a moment, now," he said, letting his new accent slip. "Northmoor sash tied up like an Alspring turban, a Kalgoorlie kaftan, and a very unconvincing Southmoor accent."

"I am Kamis bal-Krees, laundaric master from the distant mayorate of North--argh!"

Rangen had struck off his makeshift turban with his crutch.

"All the way from your father's estate in Rutherglen, by the look of your hairstyle."

"I surrender, I surrender!" the washerman cried, raising his hands. "Grand and merciful Dragon Librarian, master of disguise--"

"Shut up and keep your bloody voice down!" hissed Rangen, as he pulled the door closed. "Now, who are you--really?"

"I--I am Rhyn Ponsington-Taraven, student of general studies and youngest son of Lord Ponsington-Taraven, in the mayorate of Rutherglen."

"Ponsington-Taraven, ah yes, I have heard your name spoken among the mathematics editors. You took five years to pass some subject like Basic Arithmetic for Very Stupid People with Very Rich Fathers."

"I say, that's being a bit harsh. It was Introductory Mathematics and Commercial Methods...or was it Introduction to Commercial Mathematics and, ah, er--"

"And my bet is that you dashed in here when the Dragon Librarians arrived to abduct anyone who could count more than their allocation of fingers and toes, noted that the washerman had already been carted away, and tried to take his place."

"Why, how did you--"

"Have you a razor here?"

"A razor? Why, yes. The former washerman's effects were left behind when he was carried away."

Rangen hurriedly sorted through a rack of clothing.

"Take this, this, and this, shave your head, then come back here. You are now Bandilsi ba'Krees, a refugee Southmoor eunuch."

"I say, but I was calling myself Kamis bal-Krees."

"Which is a mixture of Northmoor and Alspring words, and which would get you arrested just as soon as you opened your mouth and moved your tongue. You are now working for me."

"Oh yes, I--what? I say, I'm meant to be running this laundaric."

"Where is the soap?"

"The soap. Ah..."

"That blue jar on your right with soap written on it. Where do you get water?"


"By lowering a bucket into that hole beneath the sign that says Caution--Well. Where is the register of garments?"

"What's that?"

"That book on the counter in front of you."

"Yes, well, er...granted, I have had little time to familiarize myself with the procedures here, but--"

"Fras Rhyn, a dog wearing an academic cloak who tells customers that their laundry will be ready by 'Woof! Woof!' would make a more convincing master of the campus laundaric than you. If you want to stay out of the new Libris calculor for longer than it takes for the next member of the Libris Espionage Constables to walk through the door, you will work here as my eunuch and do exactly as I say. Agreed?"

"Well, I do concede that I am not sufficiently endowed with lower-class cunning to maintain this disguise for long, but--but do I have to be a real eunuch? I mean I'm rather attached to--I mean it would probably hurt to--"

"Fras Rhyn, that is your option, but you must at least shave your head. Oh, and rub in some umber brown to hide the paleness of the skin. Go now, hurry!"

Before ten minutes had passed a new customer entered the laundaric. To Rangen's eyes she was no more genuine that Rhyn or himself. By now Rangen was dressed in the former washerman's tunic and apron.

"Ah, pretty Frelle, how can I be helpin' ye?"

The woman frowned at him, hooking her thumbs into her belt.

"I was told that the washerman had been arrested."

"Aye, ye were told truth."

"Then who are you?"

"I be Skew."


"I be Skew, the washerman's deputy. I were a musketeer, aye, and a corporal. Bone in me leg were broken by a shot, but healed skew, like. Tha's me name, Skew, 'cause I'm, like, skew. I'se strong an' willin', but, and I can do anythin' if its not ter be done at a run."

"Can you count?"

"Aye, yeah, ter ten, aye. Like the washerman did the countin' till today, but nothin' cost more than ten coppers in here, so I'se able ter take over."

"So, you can count coppers when students pay for washing?"

"Ah, aye. I can write names, too. If anyone comes in, I takes their washing an' chalks their names on a slate ter go with the bag. And I'se got a eunuch fer to do stokin'."

"A Southmoor? Is he educated?"

"Fras Bandilsi? Nay. Can't write or count, but he's strong. Now, what can I be washin'?"

"Only yourself," muttered the Dragon Librarian, who turned and walked out again.

Rhyn emerged from the back of the laundaric. His head was shaved, but he had rubbed the umber brown into his face alone, leaving the rest of his head gleaming white. Rangen shook his head.

"Your wages are fifty--ah, fifteen coppers a day, and you can lodge in the lumber room."

"But, I say, there's no bed there."

"Yes, there is, it's cunningly disguised as a pile of hessian sacks. Just evict the cockroaches and it will be just like home."

As Rangen stretched out on the former washerman's bed that night he contemplated his good fortune. In just twenty-four hours he had become a fugitive, commenced a new career as a beggar, changed careers to work in the university's laundaric, and given himself a promotion to laundaric master. Now he had accommodation and financial security, but best of all he had anonymity.

Mounthaven, North America

On the other side of the world, it was late afternoon when the electrical devices of the world had died. It had been a day after a massive air battle over the wastelands of central North America. A long and particularly brutal war had been won, a war engineered from a continent halfway around the world. The invaders and their allies had been crushed completely.

The following day, when dawn had risen over those celebrating victory in Forian, some scholars noticed that their experimental electrical devices had been reduced to char and metal slag. Few cared, for there were matters of much greater importance to deal with. The Call, the cetezoids's strange and deadly mind weapon, was gone. For two thousand years it had confined humans to tiny areas in the North American highlands, but with it gone there was suddenly a huge frontier to settle. However, the restraints of the Call had also shaped the American nations and royal houses, in fact it underpinned the very system. Already their rulers were feeling anxious.

It was late in the morning when the victorious Council of Mount-haven Airlords met to discuss the consequences of what had just happened. The walls of the Forian palace were still pockmarked with bullet holes and the glass was missing from many windows, but the jubilant Yarronese had cleaned away the dust and debris. In the Chamber of Deliberations tapestries had been hung over the worst of the damage to the frescos, and carpets covered the mutilated mosaics and tiles of the floors.

First there was the procession of airlords from the palace wing-field, where their tiny gunwings stood with the artisans and ground crews. Cheering, jubilant crowds flung spring flowers into their path while bands played marches and royal anthems, and for once the guards that marched with them were merely for spectacle. Wardens and other nobles marched too, all with their jewel-and-gilt-encrusted flight jackets sparkling and gleaming in the sun, although many wore bandages as well. Waves of louder cheers rippled out along the avenue as particularly well known heroes of the war passed. There was the invincible Airlord Sartov, who had transformed the Yarronese from being fugitives in their own domain to the leaders of a victorious alliance. Warden Bronlar Jemarial, with forty clear air victories, was the first and greatest of Mounthaven's female wardens. The bandaged Warden Serjon Feydamor who had bombed the royal palace at Condelor and killed the Bartolican airlord, came behind her. He had an unprecedented 104 victory symbols sewed in gilt onto the collar and shoulders of his flight jacket.

The vanquished Bartolicans were there too, having joined the alliance against the Australican invaders after Greater Bartolica was split into five lesser domains. Airlord Samondel of Leover, the Airlord of Highland Bartolica, was the only female airlord ever to engage in clear air fighting, and had the symbols for two enemy gunwings and three sailwings sewn into the throat of her flight jacket's collar. At nineteen, she was also the youngest airlord alive. Rather than cheers, a trough of silence and muttering trailed through the Yarronese crowd as the Bartolicans passed. It was not the place of commoners to heckle American royalty, but nobody was forcing them to cheer, either. Eggs, rotten fruit, and vegetable scraps were reserved for the shabby line of captured invaders from Australica, whose hair had been soaked in lubricant grease and smothered in feathers. There were only nine of them, all captured aviad artisans. Their warrior masters had fought to the death, or killed themselves rather than submit to capture.

As the parade reached the palace gates, each airlord broke out and marched through alone while the others in the parade streamed off to the right and left to be cheered by yet more crowds. When the last of the Bartolican airlords had entered the palace, the battered, splintered gates were pushed shut.

Airlord Sartov gave the keynote address, and his words were crammed with warnings. The whole of the North American continent was suddenly open for all humans to settle. Mounthaven had the most advanced technology in the known world, but Mexhaven had several times its population. Mounthaven was at the crossroads of destiny only a day after its greatest victory in two thousand years.

"We could maintain our traditional way of life in Mounthaven and defend our frontiers," concluded Sartov, "but in a decade we would be ringed by Mexhaven farms and warlords. In two decades we would be running a trade deficit with Mexhaven settler domains, and in five we would be losing wars with them. Our only possible course is to expand into the new and fertile frontier lands before anyone else. I favor claiming a vast stretch of frontier, and declaring that any Mexhaven settlers who enter it are subjects of the Mounthaven airlords. Palaces and wingfields can be built, and new domains can be proclaimed after a suitable time."

Sartov resumed his chair, and the herald announced that Airlord Samondel would now lead off the debate.

"As all of you know, much has been learned about Australican artisanry during the war," she began, standing at the podium with her arms folded and speaking without notes. "We know that humanity has split into two species there, the featherheads and humans like us. The featherheads' hair looks like long feathers under a microscope, but they are different in many other ways. The Australican humans have suffered just as much at the hands of the featherheads as we have, but there is evidence that some featherheads of goodwill are allied with Australican humans. Most Australicans support us, and I have interviewed one of the military advisors that they sent here to help us during the war. The linguist Darien has described how large animals have survived in Australica, large animals available to our ancestors when they began to settle this continent two thousand five hundred years ago. Horses, ponies, donkeys, camels, and cattle. They also have sheep and goats for the lush frontier grasses. Their kangaroos can thrive on near-desert forage, but most important of all are their horses. Horses can walk with loads over trackless wasteland, while eating whatever grows at their feet.

"Airlords can overfly any frontier, but it is those on the ground who control it. We could put in tracks for our steam trams and trains, but Mexhaven militias can tear up the tracks faster than we can lay them. Besides, according to my royal statistician, there is not enough spare iron in Mounthaven for such a venture. Squads of Mounthaven carbineers riding horses would be exceedingly fast and mobile, and could shatter the ranks of many times their number in enemy infantry. I propose that the entire wardenry of Mounthaven be sworn to both mapping the new frontiers from the air, and to procuring horses and other large animals from Australica. Thank you."

"Warden Drell of Montrass," called the herald as she sat down to a buzz of surprised comments and whispering.

"Saireme Airlord Samondel, I too have a royal statistician here," declared the young man, who was only months older than Samondel. "According to ancient maps, the overland route to Australica is over eleven thousand miles of ice, desert, forest, swamp, and jungle. It also involves crossing at least seven short stretches of salt water, and as we have been told by the Australican envoy, the sea intelligences have ended the scourge of the Call--but only as long as the seas are left to them. There can be no sea travel."

Samondel waved her interjection pennant.

"Darien said that on Australican shores, beached whale animals are rescued where possible, and in return they permit crashed flyers to swim ashore," she countered. "Semme Darien has assured us of this. It can apply to us too."

"Nevertheless, they are quite clear that no boats will ever be permitted," Drell countered. "Wingfields will have to be built to cross the stretches of seawater, transport wings the size of Yarronese super-regals will be needed to ferry humans and horses through the air, and fuel for the giant wings will have to be transported up to eleven thousand miles. My statistician estimates that the endeavor would take fifteen years and consume twenty-five times the money and resources that the war has cost Mounthaven. If hostile tribes are found anywhere along the way, it will add to the cost and take even longer. Besides, Darien also says that there are religious prohibitions against engines in Australica."

"Warden Samondel of Highland Bartolica," called the herald.

"My statistician concurs with yours," she announced, then paused for emphasis. The airlords glanced to each other, then looked back at Samondel expectantly. "I have, however, learned through my intelligence advisors of the capacities of the Yarronese super-regals. Airlord Sartov, do I have your permission to speak about the range of your aircraft, your marvels of Yarronese artisanry?"

Sartov glowered, but nodded.

"At a cruising speed of one hundred miles per hour, a superregal can stay in the air for twenty-five hours. With all weapons and fittings removed to make way for extra tanks and five hundred pounds of load, a super-regal could fly for thirty hours. Using midair refueling from a second super-regal flying only part of the way, this could be extended to forty-three hours."

"True, but according to the ancient maps the largest gap over seawater is only three hundred miles," said Sartov, waving his interjection pennant.

"On Warden Drell's route, yes. Examine an ancient map of the Pacific Ocean, however, and you will see that wingfields could be established on three of the larger islands that are no more than two thousand miles apart. The route would be a mere seven thousand miles, and once the three wingfields are built we would need no more than a large volume of compression spirit for the engines."

"Seven thousand miles over water?" exclaimed Airlord Drell, holding his interjection pennant high in the air. "Madness!"

"Four leaps of two thousand miles or less."

"But each super-regal takes as much compression spirit as eight gunwings! Add the spirit burned to transport spirit to the island wingfields and each flight would take more compression spirit than Montrose, Senner, and Highland Bartolica normally use in a year."

"Yes, but with all of Mounthaven's compression spirit farms and distilleries working together, I calculate that we could establish three wingfields and reach Australica within four months. The cost would be five hundred times less than using the land route, and a hundred times quicker."

"But what about the Australican religious prohibition against fueled engines?"

"Semme Darien said steam engines. Our wings are powered by compression engines."

There is only one thing worse than an impossibly expensive scheme, and that is a realistically expensive scheme. The debate raged for another forty minutes. The airlords worked figures out on slates, waved interjection pennants, and shouted proposals and counterproposals. Sartov was curiously quiet for the entire time, although he did exchange a few words with the Cosdoran airlord. Suddenly he interjected.

"My current super-regals could carry only two horses each, based on their estimated weight. Even then they would have to be lying down."

"One might select only young horses," suggested Samondel.

Sartov thought for a moment then nodded.

"Very well, then. If the larger domains were to donate twenty gunwing compression engines, and a very large quantity of fabric, wire, and flight-standard wood, my artisans could build two super-regals that could remain in the air for fifty hours and carry six young horses," Sartov declared.

"While each gulps down as much spirit as ten gunwings for those fifty hours," scoffed the Montrassen. "Even that does not include the spirit needed to transport spirit to the island wingfields."

"But it could be done," said Samondel.

To the surprise of most present, Airlord Sartov agreed with her once more.

"Include a few bags of barley and sunflower seeds on each flight, and we could be growing enough compression spirit locally to halve the cost within a year," he suggested. "With a flight every week, we could have three hundred horses within a year."

"Airlord Samondel was saying that one horse carbineer is worth ten infantry carbineers," said the Cosdoran.

"Indeed!" exclaimed South Bartolica's airlord. "We had best introduce the death penalty for horse stealing."

"Or selling them to Mexhaven," added Sartov.

He gazed across at Samondel, stroking his beard, then leaned over to South Bartolica's airlord.

"How did a girl of nineteen with barely any flight experience until only months ago manage to think of this?" he whispered. "Where does she get such drive?"

"We grew up surrounded by engineers and artisans, Saireme Sartov. She also studied history and ancient languages--oh, and mathematics."

"Fine and suitable subjects for a well-bred girl, yet now they are the very skills that the rest of us do not have. I hear that Warden Feydamor plucked her royal flower."

"In exchange for his, yes. But last night he slept with Bronlar, and they intend to marry."

"On further thought, sense begins to emerge. Samondel loses a legendary hero to Bronlar, another legendary hero, leaving her as the airlord of a defeated, third-rate domain."

"True, and Bronlar has eight times more clear air victories than Samondel."

"But Samondel's were in a single day. This would be Samondel's chance to become a legend without having to wait for another war or fight thirty-five duels."

"Why? To get Serjon Feydamor back?" the South Bartolican laughed softly.

"No possibility. The marriage of Serjon and Bronlar has been announced for next month. Even the greatest of royal weddings in history will not rival it for sheer size and splendor. The Condelor palace will be the setting, with all airlords present. No, I think that Samondel's pride is at stake here. As Airlord Samondel Leover, who established a path over the greatest ocean in the world, her name will become immortal. In a hundred years people will say, 'By the way, did you know that Samondel treated a hero of the Great War to a couple of nights in her bed when he was feeling depressed? What was his name again?'"

"Point taken. How much would you say that she weighs?"

"When stripped for action with Serjon Feydamor? One hundred ten pounds at most."

"That's twenty more than Bronlar, but less than any male warden or airlord. I hear she asked the Australican agent, Semme Darien, to provide her with a common Australican language's basic grammar and vocabulary this morning. Austaric, is its name."

"Ah, so she definitely hopes to lead this venture to Australica."

"I think she may be the only one qualified to do so."

"How will you vote?"

"Affirmative, I should think."

All the time that they had been whispering, the debate on Samondel's proposal had raged on. When the division was called, the vote was nine for Samondel's proposal and nine against, but as presiding airlord Sartov did not have a vote. Convention was that any motion was lost on a tied council vote, but there was a single option still left open.

"Is there any dispute against the count that declares this motion lost?" called the herald.

Samondel waved her interjection pennant.

"Saireme Airlord Samondel of the house of Leover, you may state your dispute with any vote."

Samondel rose from her cockpit-seat chair and strode across a stretch of uncarpeted floor, her boots echoing like gunshots with every step. She stopped in front of Airlord Drell, slowly removed the glove from her left hand, then backhanded it viciously across his face. Three of the gemstones on the jeweled and gilt-embroidered glove tore scratches across his right cheek. Samondel offered the glove to Drell.

"I say that you led the vote against my motion out of revenge against me for the invasion of your domain," said Samondel clearly and slowly. "You do not have the interests of either this council, Mounthaven, or even you own domain, at heart. I challenge your vote as an airlord."

Drell felt his cheek, regarded the blood on his fingertips for a moment, then snatched the glove from her.

"I accept your challenge."

"What stake do you call?" asked the somewhat rattled herald, who had not been expecting anything remotely like this at the victory meeting.

"I demand that Highland Bartolica become a province of my domain in the event of Airlord Samondel of Leover's defeat."

"Airlord Drell Darontien of Montras accepts a clear air duel challenge," the herald pronounced.

* * *

News of the duel caused an instant sensation throughout Forian. There was no word about the cause of the dispute, but within two hours of the meeting breaking up, the compression engines of the gunwings Starflower and Dirkfang were chugging evenly as they warmed for ascent. The airlords' reception to honor the newly engaged Serjon and Bronlar was scheduled to last all afternoon, and through matters of precedent and protocol it could not be canceled. After the official announcement, however, Samondel appeared before the honored couple. Her knee-length red hair was bound up tightly, and her violet eyes were alarmingly wide.

"Airlord Drell Darontien and I wish to take leave of your celebration," said Samondel tersely. "We may be back in a half hour."

"Granted," said Serjon and Bronlar together.

Drell and Samondel walked away across the wingfield and past the royal guards. In the distance artisans swarmed over their shuddering gunwings.

"Drell wears Princess Varelfi's colors on his arm, but Samondel wears none," said Bronlar, staring after them.

"Very unlucky," responded Serjon.

"You have colors," said Bronlar pointedly.

"You wear them," said Serjon.

"But I am not dueling today."

"You have already returned my colors to me once. That was one time too many."

The Conciliator spoke with both airlords, but neither was interested in a retraction. He stepped back from them, and the wingfield adjunct cleared his throat.

"Saireme Airlords, do you swear to fight with chivalry and dignity, in honor of the ladies whose colors you wear?"

The words were a formula, but the formula had never before been applied to a woman fighting a clear air duel.

"I do," replied Drell with a smirk.

"I wear no colors because I fight for the honor of all Mount-haven," replied Samondel.

The airlords and wardens looking on applauded, and Drell cast a sneer at Samondel before they turned away and walked for their gunwings. Moments later the two gunwings were in the air, speeding away for towers at opposite ends of the city. Both circled the towers correctly, at summit height, then climbed sharply as they closed again. Samondel climbed more steeply in the Yarronese tri-wing, but Drell climbed faster. Both were inexperienced, fighting with energy and ferocity rather than savvy.

Copyright © 2001 by Sean McMullen


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