Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Dear reader(s),

In order to ensure the quality of writing you see here, and the quality of my current move, this blog will be on hiatus until August 7. I look forward to resuming our journey then.

the Curious Monk

Monday, July 29, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Eighty-Eight

            That left my personal aide and head of intelligence and communications. I didn’t need to hear it. “Enough,” I said. “Ash, give the order. Break out the boats. We’re going tonight. We eat and sleep aboard ship.” 
            They did not complain because it was the right decision. Also, I had selected for that trait. Later, the ranks did grumble, though. I took this as evidence that they were happy.
            We were out in three days. After all that, three weeks of dredging and training and warring with the apes, we left the swamps of Redmarak in good order and precisely when I chose. Casualties were light in Redmarak. We lost one boat to leviathan attack, and five of its crew. But then, my command had been blessed from the beginning here. Deaths to the apes numbered less than one hundred. Leviathans took two dozen. Bloodfish had claimed an even ten, with three of those being cases of blackbrain to which the victims had succumbed. There were five cases of various other illnesses, none fatal. Two men had gotten lost in the swamps and likely drowned. That was it, in three weeks of swampy slog. Damned fortunate.  
            When you leave the sunken forests of Redmarak, at least if you do so afloat, you simply follow one of the Profuse River’s currents until it rejoins the rest. You go through a canyon much like the Eye of the Faith, only the walls are neither so high nor so steep. The trees fall away, and you sail out into the open, with only river bluffs on either side. The grasses stretch away forever, green and golden and brown, all the way to either coast. Like many plains, Nogilia is not so even as it appears. The grasses conceal gullies and rises until you stumble upon them. And the whole affair cants slightly toward the southern ocean, though of course you cannot see it. The only significant interruption appears to be the vast Profuse River that cuts it way south right through the middle of them.
            I did not plan to remain so obvious.
            “So what can we expect here?” I asked Ash, who stood beside me one evening. We had climbed a river bluff to look out over the adjacent fields. “Lions crossed with wolves? Mechanical vultures? Grass that devours men?” I was in a good mood. Coming up together had been my idea, and thoroughly unnecessary. My scouts reported well, and often.
            Ash looked at me strangely. The unceasing wind whipped both our hair, vast distances yawning all around. “No, our Guardian, nothing. These are the tamed lands, worked and occupied for centuries. There will be rodents, perhaps a few hawks. Nothing else is permitted. Our danger now is....”
            “The Augers themselves.” I nodded. The plain before us was not entirely natural. Black clouds formed silently on the far-away horizon. It was the first nightwind we’d seen since Ariel. I looked southwest, where my scouts had indicated a particularly fearsome smear.  
            “That’s it,” I said, seeing what they saw. “Leave the boats. We walk from here.”  
            Wise Ash, he went without comment. But we needed weaponry, and I wanted our movements unpredictable. Bound to the river, we would certainly reach the sea, but have nothing to show for it when we arrived except perhaps hordes of pursuers. Jerem Cozak had conveyed, without exactly saying so, that he wanted more. So did I. If the legends held, this would be the land of the valkyries, which we on Earth call magsleds, those riding machines that float above the ground. The weapons that had broken the siege around Cibola would certainly be useful now, and the plains of Nogilia made an excellent field of implementation. 
            “What do we do with the boats?” Ki asked, when I returned to the herd.

            I frowned, thinking. “Leave them on the docks.” The whole part of the Profuse River that passes through Nogilia had once been festooned with ports of call, for barges to load and unload. Their long piers stretched for hundreds of meters out into the water. We had just reached the first of them, near a likely military target: an Auger city, and the Profusionist cache we knew it covered. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Eighty-Six

Chapter Nine
            They took to calling themselves the dead. That was the name of my new army. I suspect Nogilian began it, though I did nothing to fight its spread. It asserted common experience, bonding the men together. It reminded them of what they fought for and who had done it to them. And it connoted a certain invulnerability: you can only really kill the living.
            Oh, I would have tried that last upon myself. In the end, Ash had to tie me to my cot until the delirium passed. Though he would never admit it, for most of three days Nogilian had been in command. Afterwards, I tried to convince him to stay that way.
            “You’re clearly more suited,” I said. “The men worship you every time they stand.”
            Ash had finally explained that strange hand motion with the crooked thumbs. It’s both a religious gesture and salute, with the fingers. They’re showing eight, the number of the inhabited regions of the world, the number of the months, of the days of the week and hours of the day. It’s also the number of the Guardians, the number of the parts of the temples, the number of years of significant life phases. Hell, Elmy, it’s probably the number of times they shit.
            It used to terrify them that the Augers came in ranks of nine. That meant the universe was out of whack. It meant excess and chaos and cancerous disagreement. And wouldn’t you know it, it also signified the end of the world, which turned out to be more or less correct.
            Nogilian did not respond. Elmy, I lost one interstellar battle. Nogilian had lost two armies. “You have the infantry, then,” I said. “Someone’s got to see to the purely military side of things. Get my people trained.” 
            When his eyes fell I knew he had accepted. I was sorry. But only his heart had broken, and a great deal of his will. His talent for command remained intact. And he retained too much honor to let his grief affect his duties. He knew what needed doing, and I needed everyone who could get it done.
            So I behaved capably myself. Those old softies the apes, I soon discovered, did not even attack parties larger than fifteen or so. I kept all our squads to ten, and my knowledge to myself. I was playing this one to win. We needed the experience.  
            We soon filled the archipelago. Ki had non-combatants shovel new islands into being, which may have also been a suggestion from me. There came a day when I ordered a leviathan hunt. We lost as many men doing that as we did during the average monkey raid. But Ki said we did it by the book, that the ones standing as bait understood they took their chances.  
             “How many today?” I asked Nogilian. We were all meeting outside my tent in our nightly confab. Just as the Academy taught it. Identify, delegate, and reassess. Each led a portion of the army but took different additional duty.
            “One in the morning. None this afternoon. We’ve exhausted all the grids.” He was bored but did not say so. In even our brief conversations, it was clear that he was the most sublime tactical mind I had ever met.   
            I turned to my logistics man. “Tevantes?” I asked.
            “If we go much further into the swamp, our foragers will have to take rations with them.”
            “Right, that was what I thought. Ki?”

            She knew what I was asking. “We’re right at five thousand. Cohesion is what it is. They can march, they’ll do what we say. We’ve done a lot of training, and we know they’ll stay together in most situations. The mixed ranks are doing well, but the civilians have never fought an enemy they could actually see.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Eighty-Four

            Getting quite a head for herself, that one.
            “What are they like, Ki? What are we dealing with?”
            “They are large, nearly as tall as you or I, and aggressive. Their chests and arms are much more densely muscled. The males particularly are very strong, only weaker than an armored suit. They’re territorial. They use strategy. They prefer to divide and isolate the weak. They use simple tools: rocks, logs, clubs. And of course you cannot see them until they are standing directly beside you.”
            “Yeah,” I said. “What’s with that?”
            “We never figured it out. Many Historians believed that they have adapted to the swamp, perhaps by forming a relationship with a chameleonic parasite. We know of lizards like that. But others argue that since these are mammals they must carry Profusionist machines in their hair, that the ability was given to them artificially.”
            I sighed. Sleeping had not improved my mood. In fact, it had only seemed to worsen. I wanted to lie back down, or perhaps wander away into the swamp.
            “Right,” I said. “Thank you. Nogillian, double the size of the foraging parties, make sure everyone is armored and armed. That goes for the search work, too. Ki, I want multiple patrols and sentries all around these islands. Ash, we’re on the buddy system. From now on, the discipline is you take a shit, you take a friend. Anything else? Thank you all. I’m going back to bed.”  
            Everyone paused. “I’m fine,” I said. I may have let my exasperation slip. “Go.” I put a little something extra in my glare. Everybody went. I slipped inside the flap.
            I do not think my head hit the clothing I used as a pillow before all the lights went out. When Ash woke me it was dawn. Ki had come back, too. Their faces blurred. I reflected, internally, on the fact that there is much misery in life.
            “What’s going on?’ I asked. “What’s wrong?”
            Ash moved his hand from my shoulder to my forehand. “She has a fever.”
            “How do you feel?” Ki asked.
            “Apparently I’m running a temp,” I said. “No aches or anything. I’m thirsty.”
            Ki shook her head, brown locks tumbling. “No. How do you feel?”
            I thought about it. “Like I’m an already rotting corpse. That nothing is worthwhile. That none of us should even bother.”
            Ash glanced at her, and she nodded. “Blackbrain,” she said. “Good catch.”
            I must have looked confused. “Blackbrain,” she said again. “An infection sometimes carried by the bloodfish. You got it when they slashed you. The fever will not last. But it alters basic human mood. You will feel great sadness. Soon, you will want, very much want, to throw yourself in water, to drown. Of course that is the entire point of the disease.”
            I kept my poker face.
            “This is no joke, Guardian. Though we may treat it, this illness has no cure. The despair will pass but recur in times of fatigue and stress. Omeh Ital, the Guardian of this land, was said to have carried it from boyhood. Only the strongest can resist the urges for so long. I am sorry, Guardian Cassan Vala. You have blackbrain. And you’re going to have it for the rest of your life.” 

             So long as that may be. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Eighty-Two

            Suriel came back. I couldn’t tell you if it was before or after I fell asleep or what. He ignores my various states of consciousness. He’s come when I was awake and alert and walking around. He came during my hunger strike and amidst hallucinations. He visited me in the depths of interstellar hibernation. Nothing affected his appearance in any way. I had gotten the impression, without anyone ever actually saying it, that his kind were immortal, or very nearly so.
            He curled all around himself to fit inside my tent. A lithe spring, poised to unfurl. The whole place filled with golden illumination. Sometimes, when the Niskivim come, you feel like you can hear the interstellar winds, a sort of static hiss. They are creatures of the universe’s empty space, so far as I can tell. I heard its distances yawning now. And he radiated cold.  
            “Lis/ten,” Suriel said. It was odd for him to insert other words like that, words I could not understand within a word I could. Usually, the Niskivim respect linguistic units. This probably meant he was trying to convey something profound on levels of meaning humans almost certainly couldn’t comprehend.
            I was not impressed. My head hurt, and dreaming or not I couldn’t shake my sour mood. Still, I listened.
            “Nothing but the crickets, old pal” I said a while. I wondered if there were crickets on this world.
            A shake of furious negation. It had taken, in the beginning, about a minute and half for Suriel to pick up the full range of human physical expression and begin implementing it flawlessly. It’s the kind of thing that either impresses or annoys.      
             “Lis/ten with/in” he said. “It has/will be/is speaking to you.” His face, like ours only worn down by water, radiated forlorn yearning.
            I groaned. I have not become enamored of all the Niskivim’s problems with time. “I’m no mystic, Suriel. You know that. I don’t do it. It’s not my temperament.”
             He waited a moment, as though trying to think of something else to say. I felt his frustration, because you always feel whatever a Niskivim feels, as much as he or she does. Sometimes I think we feel it more. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, he was gone.  I muttered something unkind and rolled over.
            Ki shook me awake. “Guardian,” she said. “I’m sorry to disturb you. Nogilian insisted.”
            I looked outside. It was dark. Huh? I’d meant to sleep for twenty minutes. That never went wrong. The Academy built up my internal clock to spec. Muzzily, I stood.
            “Stay with me,” I said. “This has to be important.” After spending about a minute with Nogilian, you knew he would not be easily overwhelmed. It was equally excellent that he and no one else had come. It meant the men respected him immediately.
            I walked out to meet him. “What time is it, Nogilian?” I asked.
            “More than half the night has passed. Two foraging parties did not return. We searched their grids. We did not immediately look overhead, where they were hanging in the trees.”
            Foraging parties? I thought. Oh, hail, Elmy. Hail the competence of actual officers! Getting all the additional men food was something I had been too stupid to consider yet.
            I started cursing myself for that oversight. But beside me my lady captain swore in real time.
            “Tell me, Ki,” I said, because she knew the swamps first-hand. “Have we met the enemy? That something Augers do for fun?” They hadn’t used to on Earth. But then you never knew.

            “No, our Guardian.” She made that odd religious gesture, palms out and thumbs bent in. “It means that the apes have started hunting us. They are territorial creatures, and feel that we are rivals. Men in armor should be able to fight them. But never men alone. The foraging parties must be large and fully armed.”

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Eighty

            “Well,” I said, “bring on the chameleonic apes.”
             He shook his head. “You do not want that. They hunt leviathans.”
            I raised my eyebrows. I could not imagine. “I thought you were born in Ariel.”
            He shrugged. “Benefits of a Temple education. But most of these creatures are known everywhere by legend.”
            We got back to poling. I noticed that we moved more cautiously. I felt sad all of a sudden, the way we inched our way along, bringing up the dead. Or were they? The language Nogilian had used concerned preservation only. The poet and the politician had seemed very well kept indeed. Perhaps there was some kind of stasis technology on this world? I remembered that the cache that held those two had been immediately beneath the cache that had once healed the ailing of an entire city. That would be a way to do it. Shove the critical, exotic cases downstairs while the cache sentience got to working on an answer. Revive them when it’s time to get their shot. Maybe. I had hibernated my way out here. Stasis would not be far off from that.
            I turned to Ash. “What do you normally do with these vents?” I couldn’t figure why you’d put stasis in a swamp. “They for mass burials or cursed lovers or something?”
            He pursed his lips, shook his head. “You’d have to ask Ki, or one of your new captains. But I have never heard them used for anything. Likely, if the Profusion ever meant them for a purpose, it has been lost, like much upon this world.”
            Ki, right. There were other things I needed to be doing. The afternoon proceeded quietly. The men we pulled sat unspeaking in the boats, though I did see that they occasionally helped to aid another up from the depths. There were no more leviathans or bloodfish, as I learned the swarms were called. I reflected on Ash’s tone. Had there been a little bit, when referring to others of my staff? I decided I was bored and wasting time. I had the men return to grid A1, and leave me on our new home island.
            First of a whole potential archipelago, as a matter of fact. I did not know how long we’d be staying. Nor did I know how many we’d receive, though I saw Ki was already at it. She had the men felling trees to make bridges to the other islands. No one wanted to do any more wading than they had to, a truth I understood. But I was astounded to see black and silver armor working together so soon.
            I conveyed my surprise to Ki.
            “Oh,” she said, “it’s not so great as all that. They were all soldiers. The real division’s between those who did and did not fight. The armored ones resent commands from staff.” She gestured to her own tunic. “We stick out.”
            I stood there on the sandy soil and closed my eyes and cursed. Of course. I’d expected staff to be a neutral presence mediating the camp’s natural division. Instead, both sides were turning against it. Elmy, it’s never the problems you think you see coming.  
            “Ash,” I said. He came. “Have the men start pulling armor from the dead, the ones we can’t revive. Then have the staff from Ariel start training. We’ll all need it soon enough anyway.” A second thought struck. “Get me one, too. White if you can find it.” The Guardian of this swamp had died somewhere.
            Ki frowned when he’d gone. “That only elides the issue. Our faces are already known.”
            “I expect Nogilian to be persuasive.” I’d left him in charge of my section of the great swamp revival. I sighed. My glumness persisted. “Till then, make sure staff gets their hands dirty with something. Doesn’t matter what.” After a beat I added, “I’ll be inside my tent. I need some time. Ash will see to things.”

            I hadn’t slept the last two nights, what with all our preparations and departure. Ki did not protest. Ash insisted. I walked over and pulled aside the flap and hurled myself down. I was glad of the cloth netting Ash had thought to install. The biting bugs had gotten beyond annoying. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Seventy-Eight

            I watched with bated breath when the next boat found a man. He was just as Nogilian had said, beside a vent that sent warmer water to the surface. My staff had to nearly submerge themselves before they reached him. They pulled him halfway out and hesitated. When they looked to me, I returned indifference. They knew what to do.
            So they did. They kissed him. When he woke he seemed not as alert as Nogilian had been. He coughed and sputtered like he drowned. Only then did he accomplish what Nogilian had done immediately: groped around in the water until he found his quicksword. But he went in a boat all the same. It finally occurred to me that we were probably going to do this several more thousand times. No one had told me, ever, how large my army needed to be or could in fact become.
            Not that I needed that answer. You take as many as you can. You split them if you need to. 
            Men pulled more men out of the swamp. They weren’t hard to find, once you knew what to look for. And the reviving wasn’t hard to do, once you accepted it was possible and stopped asking yourself so many damned questions. I directed full boats back to the large dry islands on the border of the swamp. Soon I’d go back and start managing encampment. Right now, Ki was supposed to be there talking to people. I wanted them to trust her, too. And not everyone we brought up wore silver armor. There was black stuff there, too, the enemy’s signal color when this world had been invaded.
            It was afternoon when the first leviathan struck. Simply overturned a boat, I assume with a lazy flick of its tail. I was not there to see it. But reports indicated the creatures were enormous. Not much was visible in Redmarak’s murky water. There were glimpses of brown reptilian hide, huge head, teeth as long as human forearms.  The deep, slow ripples that indicate a large creature submerged. It ate only four of the men probably because it was not hungry after that. The six remaining climbed up a tree that lacked visible handholds of any kind. They were still there when I came to investigate. I had to do my best persuading to get them to come down.
            Turns out, they weren’t only terrified of the leviathans, which consume their prey whole largely to avoid the swamp’s other menace. After a short while it came in form of swarms of vampiric fish, drawn to the small quantities of blood released by four men being eaten. These ripples were not slow or deep. For a while, I thought it was raining – not a wild assumption, as it would turn out. But that was just the horde trying to nab birds along the way. Back up in the tree, the men swore and made religious gestures. In the boat, my men grabbed the sides and ducked, and I understood Renly’s insistence on thick wooden hulls instead of my proposed leather.   
            I dove too late. I was standing up and shouting, making sure the other boats knew about the fish. One cut me. Then another. Ash leaped and dragged me down as just about a dozen of the things whizzed by overhead. Ever my right hand, he tore off a corner of his shirt and pressed it firmly where the little nippers slashed.
            “I’m okay,” I said.
            He shook his head. “They are very, very good at smelling blood.”
            I got it. I wondered how many fish it would have taken to knock me overboard. I did not have to wonder what would have happened to me if they had. Clearly, the idea was that the leapers found prey and slashed it, communicating its wherabouts to the swarm beneath. Then up would come as many as it took to knock the offending creature in the water where it could be devoured. I shivered. I would prefer death by leviathan.
            But afterward, they passed us by like we were a floating log. They could not reach the men in the tree. When Ash nodded, everyone in my boat stood up, visibly relieved.
            “What about the reptile?” I asked. “They get it, too?”

            Ash shook his head. “Leviathan armor is very tough.” He nodded at the gunwale, which now bore significant chinks and dents. Nothing leaking, though.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Seventy-Six

Chapter Eight
            I got sick. Much else happened, of course, but I want to emphasize this. In a swamp populated by chameleonic apes, carnivorous fish, and, oh, yes, leviathans, I fell prey to the military’s most ubiquitous companion: the medical malady. That my illness turned out to be exotic does not detract from the historical lesson. I was a stranger on foreign soil. I was exhausted and malnourished and running on very sparse fumes. I took no precautions and knew nothing of the environment. So of course I got sick, and soon enough was little good to anyone. Thankfully, I had by that time accrued enough people predisposed to being good to me.
            Including Nogilian, it would turn out. That was not his real name, of course. It was the name of the land to the south of here, a vast plain that fed, so far as I could recall, most all the population of this world. The Guardian of that land had been defeated there and retreated to refuge in these swamps. He’d fallen defending the floating cities, failing there as well. I understood. I respected his desire, and called him what he chose. I also thought wistfully about alternative names for myself.
            Nogilian told me what to do. “Everyone,” he said, when he finally stood. “Find everyone like me. The swamps are strange. There are chemical vents that heat the water that make this steam. You’re standing over one. Others fallen around them may be preserved. You will find no shortage of those. And you’ll need everyone you can find.”
            I allowed that I hadn’t told him exactly what I wanted to do just yet.
            He looked at me as though I’d suggested the sun might cause daylight. “You’re no Auger. You wear no armor. But everyone looks to you to know what to do. But they lack your martial bearing. So you have your staff. Now you need your army.”
            Practical man, that Nogilian. I had to tell him where I was from because he did not ask. He was not impressed.
            “Earth came here,” he said. “They fought in the skies over these cities. They fought while we died defending this place. And then they fled, before the battle was over.”
            Well, no getting out of that one. “I commanded that fleet,” I said. “My captain died just before we arrived. So I ordered the attack. And I certainly signaled the retreat.”
            Nogilian regarded me again. Then he shrugged, too. “We walk the corridor between the walls of the future and the past. Do as I say, and you will find your army.”
            He started to slog toward the others.
            “I don’t have a ship,” I said, “this time. I took a one-way ticket. I’m here for the duration.” I didn’t tell him about the fleet, or about one hundred days. He did not seem a man prone to irrational exuberance.
            He also did not seem to be saying anything else.
            “We’ll get you a boat,” I said.
            I turned and started giving orders. I had to cut through a certain amount of awe and admiration. They had not seen anyone revived before. But they could do whatever I could. So I repeated Nogilian’s instructions, including the addendum about the kiss. Everyone got moving. I had already had us searching the swamps by grids. There seemed no reason to discontinue.

            We poled. It occurred to me that three million dead might not be exaggeration. We hit Profusionist metal everywhere we poked. Must have been a heck of a battle. Course, what does it take to bring down cities with sufficient energies to hold themselves aloft? Even on Earth we didn’t have those. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Seventy-Four

            They speak, so far as I can tell, no less than six languages simultaneously. And I don’t mean like pretentious polyglots. That’s consecutive, in series. The Niskivim can’t help but speak six tongues in parallel. It’s a hard thing to listen to. It’s easiest, by far, if you only understand one of the languages they’re speaking to you. I mean, sure you’ll miss the nuance, but at least you’ll be able to find your way out of the sentence. 
            Today, though, it appeared there would not be much talking anyway. Suriel hovered in the forest just at the edge of my vision. It occurred to me that this was my second day without sleep. I soon had all the other boats launching. I’d left the grid with the island for myself and my makework staff. Meanwhile, Suriel flicked at the edge of my vision, flashing from place to place. He flashed back and repeated the sequence. I’d always suspected they could play with space like that. I sighed. Yeah, yeah, buddy, I hear you. I’m on my way.
            I’ll probably never know why Suriel has taken such interest in me. Maybe because I led the forces for which twenty-nine of his kin had given their own lives. Maybe because Ship is right, and a combination of circumstance and character have conspired to place me in the path of historically significant events. Suriel has never said, or much responded to interrogation.
            My own personal Niskivim. I clambered up into the boat. Naturally, the man fallen in white armor had not expired on our island.  All aboard, we poled after Suriel, letting the current propel me and my crew. The poles were mostly for steering this close to the main channel. Suriel led on though the drowned forest. I knew without asking that the others did not see him. Mist everywhere, and I couldn’t tell if it came from the water or from me. There were trees as thick as houses. The water rippled, and I remembered Ash’s leviathans and worse. The birds and bugs went crazy overhead.
            When I saw rubble sticking out of the water, I figured we were close.  When Suriel stopped, flaring like the sun, I supposed that was it. I suggested a redirection. The place was what looked to be the courtyard of a fallen, broken city. The poles indicated a very solid bottom. The water, when I ordered everyone out, came up to my thighs. I walked over to the center, where the mist was so dense that it could not have been natural. To the others, I’m sure I disappeared. Suriel sure had.
            So I stepped on him before I saw him. I reached down and pulled up what turned out to be a hand. Gauntleted in white. I’ll be damned. I dropped it and groped around for what seemed a chestpiece. I pulled up. The warrior fallen in white armor was simply very heavy. It was all I could do to hold his chest and head above the water. My feet sunk into the mud.
            Some of the others were coming over, having heard my splashing stop. Go for the dramatic, I thought. I kissed him. I sure as hell didn’t know what else to do. I hadn’t put everything together yet.
            The man fallen in white armor was young and handsome and preserved in an expression of almost perfect serenity. His skin was light brown in tone and I tried to remember what that meant upon this world. I jumped when his eyes opened. And I let go. So he was falling back into the water just when he took his first panicked breath. His eyes, I saw as he fell, were the color of almonds. I’d read about someone like that.
            He splashed around until he got himself half-upright, kind of kneeling at my feet. He reached out and used one of my legs for support. He vomited out more water than I thought he should have. Then I finally got it. There was only one kind of soldier that wore white armor on this world. A circle of peers of such rank that no higher standing had been possible.
            “Guardian Dovan Santu,” I said. It was a fifty-fifty shot.

            He shook his head, wiping the spittle from his mouth. “Nogilian,” he said, “is the only name I’m not too dead to answer to.”

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Seventy-Two

             Mute, incredulous assent. I remembered my own first field promotion. “I hope you enjoyed sitting down to eat,” I said. “It might be the last time you ever do. Get everyone ready. We’re breaking camp. Now. Go. ”
            They left without ado. I stepped outside my tent and started pulling at a rope. Ash insisted on helping me, which I saw as a serious waste of talent. Without anyone ever saying so, I’d gotten the idea that before I came, he was what passed for authority in old beat-down Ariel. Then I realized that the men were stealing glances to watch an officer help an officer. I shut up. I expect obedience, but there are no peons in my command. Later, I went and helped him.
            It’s a lot of rowing to get to Redmarak. Oh, the river narrows to that which lets two decent barges pass. But the current runs slower than it ought to, perhaps mechanically induced. Machines, always machines on this damned world. You know they even determined vocation that way? Took you into the Temple with a bunch of relics to see what jumped. Those that didn’t ended up sweeping the streets or such. The things a world will think of.
            I brooded through the night. Ash wouldn’t let me row. We passed through what the locals called the Eye of the Profusion, an interminable canyon barely wider than the river. Cliffs rose forever on either side. Mountains piled on after that. The first Faith had apparently gained some great victory here. The men made religious gestures, all with their thumbs tucked tightly against their palms. I wondered at the significance of that.
            Dawn found us on the edge of the swamps. We made for a large and treeless island. If I guessed right, this was the site of one of the battles that sent shrieks through the Auger soul. The saplings tickling my ears with their leaves suggested the right age. I told the men about a warrior fallen in white armor. Then I remembered the cache I’d found in the city square.
            “Breathe on him,” I said. I ordered everyone back to their boats. Let the search begin.
             “Suriel,” I said, “now would be the time.”
            And I’ll be damned if he didn’t show up.
            This is going to take some explanation. Humans are not alone in the universe. We always thought we were. The Profusion assumed we were. Hell, I certainly thought we were – until a golden being nine feet tall unfurled its wings inside my living room. Ship says it doesn’t matter. That I should evaluate my conversations with Suriel as though he could exist, or not. But that’s just Ship’s fancy way of saying he doesn’t quite believe me. And I’ll admit I’ve always encountered Suriel in psychologically suspect circumstance.
            But the Niskivim feel more real to me than I do. I’ve never touched one, dared not approach. Somehow I’ve always expected that meant certain incidental death. Yet Suriel has guided me in ways I never expected. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t know why they’re here. But I saw thirty of them break the siege around Cibola and guide me precisely to the places necessary to disable an army. I felt the coldness of Suriel lounging in my favorite recliner. And it was Suriel who guided me to that cache in the center of Ariel, where the two entombed men hid.

            They’re not really golden, of course. Just gold-colored, with veins of green and blue. You can see those because Niskivim are semi-transparent. I suspect they do not exist entirely on this plane. Their bodies are just like supremely muscled versions of ours in that they can walk and talk upright. But they also have wings, membrane-thin wings that they wrap around themselves like cloaks. And they have an extra set of arms that they carry crossed behind their backs. But those arms don’t end in hands, only gradually transition into what look and function like swords. When they fight, they move with all the rigidity and awkwardness of wind over water. I have seen them slice through Profusionist armor with a flick. I have never seen Suriel waste a motion, or stand in any way but gracefully. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Seventy

            The refugees, when they came, were not many. Two men and a woman who had been inmates or guards. The line between those was not clear, though the floating cities had been the prisons of this world. Way they saw it, it didn’t matter how you got in there, only how you got out. So you worked your way up the ranks. Your fellows voted you your freedom.  
            Amazing, the things a world will think of. All gone now, of course, the cities sinking in the swamp. Whatever formed anew on Thaeron, it could be nothing like the old. There weren’t enough people left. 
            I vowed to keep that in mind as I welcomed my guests.
            They seemed surprised by the modesty of my tent. But that’s just old military wisdom. Separate, do not elevate. So I was part of no circle, and kept my fire as I liked it. But I had nothing I had not ordered my men to have for themselves. And I never would. My tent was only larger than most for the purpose of accommodating meetings such as this.
            “Please sit,” I said. We all sat, on sacks of flour absconded from a barge sitting at the docks. At least they were carefully arranged. Ash had seen to that. We ate mostly in silence.
            “Tell me what it was like,” I said, near the end. “Tell me what it’s like to be an Auger. What it’s like being infected by the nightwind.” It was not the purpose of the meeting. But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t hurt.
            Ki, the woman, began, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Guardian, it’s not like you think,” she said. “There’s no...you’re not mindless. They don’t take everything away. They add things. I finally thought my body was great. I felt attractive, like all the men would want me. You feel included and important. I thought I’d finally understood the secrets of the universe. The meaning of life, death, it’s all so clear. It’s the New Profusion. All our lives had been pointing toward the moment we accepted it. And when I did I was finally complete.”
            The stories of the men were much the same. Tevantes, a tall wiry man, had discovered a nascient gift for mathematics and abstract theory. Renly, absurdly handsome, had finally healed from the deaths of his parents when he was a small child. The common denominator was that it had all come so quickly, an epiphany the moment the nightwind figured out what would work to switch you over.     
            Then one of the questions I’d actually called the meeting for. “And now? Now that there is no nightwind? What do you think? How do you feel?” I needed to know what I could expect from them.
            Tevantes spoke up. “Guardian, my father was a drunk,” he said, looking down at the reed mat which I passed off as carpet. “Had been all his life. Said there were years he couldn’t remember. When I was ten, the Temple finally convinced him he needed to sober up, or he finally decided it himself. Well, he did. He really did. And it was good. He was calmer than he used to be. He spent more time with us.
            But every now and then something would happen, a surprise or something, and you could see that he was scared. Not terrified, just wary. Like he half-expected the universe to trick him. Funny, huh? Anyway, this is like that, I think. We’re okay. We know the nightwind was a lie. But what’s to say you’re not lying, too?”
            His eyes widened. He bowed quickly, almost hitting his head. “Our Guardian! I apologize.” 
            “Nonsense,” I said. I helped him up. “I am leading you off to war. But if I have lied to you it has been poorly. I have told you we would work. I have given you work aplenty. I have told you we will fight the enemy. We will see enemies very soon. I have told you we will reclaim the world. And we are leaving tonight.”

            Three pairs of eyes on me. “Ash tells me you all hail from Redmarak. I don’t care why you were there or your status when released. I’m giving you your status now. Ash is overburdened. I need senior commanders. You know the swamps where you’re going. Each of you now directs a third of our boats. The individual captains report to you. You report to Ash. Ash reports to me. If anyone changes that, it’s going to be me. Understood?”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Sixty-Eight

            We had our navy floating within a week. Or whatever an accumulation of oversized rowboats is called. Then as reward I had them practice maneuvering in the harbor, which was as close to the city as I ever let the men return. They were mine now, and this was also as close to rest as they were ever going to get. But they grew nervous when it became clear I was simulating navigation around many obstacles and currents. I finally pressed the issue.
            “Why are you afraid of the swamp?” I asked Ash, the first young man I’d met at the Temple. I’d made him into something of a lieutenant. He was by far the most recovered. “I landed alone in the middle of it and walked through unharmed.”
            He swallowed, eyes big. “You are very fortunate, Guardian Vala.” Fortunately, the general term for military personnel on Earth had become a high honorific here. Thaeron’s Guardians had been a circle of military peers of that rank such that no higher standing was possible.
            He went on. “There are creatures in the swamp that are not natural to this world. Leviathans. Apes the color of the forest. Swarms of vampiric fish. Then there are the usual obstacles of a swamp: disorientation, disease, drowning or entrapment. Redmarak is not safe. Beyond that, it is difficult to say.” 
            I averred that he should try.
            He swallowed again, a gesture I was coming to know well. “Guardian, when the floating cities of Redmarak fell, it was the greatest battle the Augers had ever known. Three million died. Three million in three days. It was the place where the nightwind first fell from the sky. Never before had this happened. We never returned. We did not go back. We are not Augers anymore. But the place is still a scream within our souls.”
            Well. Curiouser and curiouser. You never imagined the enemy had psychologies of any kind. Not when their whole modus was to infiltrate yours.  What must it have felt for the fifteen million they lost taking the world Centauris? Or, not even on Earth, where casualties had been too large and swift to calculate, but what about just Cibola? Where we killed thousands every single day for two years? And then drove them back?
            I nodded once, slowly, a gesture of Jerem Cozak’s. “You are not Augers anymore. And we need Redmarak. But I promise you I will not rest until this entire world is a primal scream for the ones who did this to you.”
            He nodded, eyes wide again. I plowed ahead.
            “Have the men stop maneuvers. Navigation practice is complete. We break camp tonight.”
            He looked at me, incredulous. “Our Guardian?”
            “I am no friend to fear. Had I known this we would have left two days ago.”
            He nodded twice quickly. “Of course, Guardian.” He turned to go.
            “Ash,” I said. He stopped. “I am not prone to explanation. Don’t expect it again. But I welcome input. If you know anything like this about the men or about this world that I might not, do not hesitate. Tell me. I am a stranger here. I won’t let that get us all killed.”
            A second thought struck. “I understand that there were refugees released from Redmarak before the floating cities fell. If there are any among those who are also captains, send them to my tent this evening.” I had them divided ten to a boat, sleeping and working and rowing together. “Tell them to bring their dinner.”

            “Yes, our Guardian.” He crossed his arms then extended his hands, the Thaeronian military salute. I’d have to think about reforming it. These men were not like any other soldiers the world had ever known. Not the least of which because they had no military training. They were mine, and mine alone, to do with as I chose. I went into my tent and wished I knew what that was. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Sixty-Six

           Whoever wants, meet me on the Temple stair at dawn. The rest of you, go and build this city again. That is needed. I just can’t help you. But whatever you do, the time of being broken is over. It’s time for our occupation to begin.”
            There. I’d met them with the best steel I had. Then I slipped inside my tent and silently wept. I was the hope the universe had handed them. Thank the gods, you mostly do it with your tone.
            The next morning, I stepped outside. A few hundred sat on the Temple stairs. Everyone else had gone. Of who had stayed, it was mostly who you’d expect: a majority of young men, (including the very first I’d met), some fiery women, a surprising number of pubescent youths I’d have to find good use for.  
            My morning speech to them was shorter. “Let’s begin,” I said.
            I concentrated on names. 

Chapter Seven
            We built boats. We could have scavenged the Temple to do so, of course. Buildings like that never fully burn. But I had said that the time of living off the dead was over. So we climbed down from Ariel and went out into the hinterlands to cut trees. The whole valley was a patchwork of farms, all with easy access to the river or a major road. Each was separated by a woodlot or a fencerow. It was very picturesque. You got the feeling that someone had planned all this from his vantage atop the plateau. I had the men cut selectively.
            They acted funny about constructing the frames. When I suggested shallow rather than deep draft, they grew momentarily hesitant. When it became clear we were building for far more than our few hundred, they looked deeply puzzled. Then, of course, they simply continued work. They were young. They were feeling their power come back to them. They had a cause worth working for. And I encouraged no dissent. We worked from earliest dawn till the last of the sun faded from the sky. And we did so gladly.
            I will never understand the phenomenon of leadership. People do things for no other reason than I tell them to. Yet nothing marks me as distinct. My physical presence does not overwhelm. I am no beauty, and my genius has never staggered anyone. My rhetorical skills pale in comparison to the best of the Academy. And my field experience is brief and erratic in the extreme – I am no old and seasoned hand. Anyone, most likely, could have my ideas and speak my concerns. But I’m the one who says them. I’m the one who decides to go. Others follow. So I try to be reasonable, if not brilliant. I try to be fair, if not spectacularly insightful. I do not seek command, but I love it when all the work is humming.  

            Just because I don’t understand my power, Elmy, doesn’t mean I won’t try to take advantage. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Sixty-Four

           “I’m here to make sure no one ever does that to you again,” I said.
            He didn’t say anything. From time to time I heard him crying. I learned as an officer not to press these matters. After a while a woman straggled along, looking confused. I motioned for her to sit beside us. She did, rearranging her long dark hair as she sat down.
            “It’ll be okay,” I said to them. “They left you here because they believe you cannot fight. I want you  because together we can take back your world.”
            She didn’t respond just yet, but then I did not want her to. I wanted my words rattling around inside her brain as the shock passed, as she got back on her feet. I wanted her to associate her strength with mine. An old trick, but the Academy’s used it to build officers for millennia. They used it on you, Elmy. They used it on me. And they meant it every time.
            When the third person came, I shared out my supplies. This is how you build an army, not the fighting machine, but the men and women who make it up. Discipline comes later. These people needed care. They came by ones and twos and threes. Some had met the politician or the poet. Most had just met some other soul wandering toward the Temple. I welcomed them all. I circulated, offering water, a few moment’s silence. Now and then I hugged. When darkness fell, I gently organized those most well—they were generally the longest there—into making a bonfire on the square. I made a brief speech about helping others in the wake of horrors that cannot be lived through alone. Then I returned to the cache to get more food. I had the first young man see to getting bedrolls.
            It went like that for two more days. People started talking. They wondered how their world had fallen. They asked me why the enemy would do all this. Some spoke with the gleam of vengeance in their eyes. I kept the bonfires burning. Each evening, I declared a little feast. Scavenging gave people something to do. Which was good, because the food in the cache was soon exhausted. By the third dusk I guessed we were nearly a thousand strong. I looked at my motley crew. Men and many women, mainly young. Quite a few children, dirty and malnourished. That explained the surprised looks I’d been getting about the food. Apparently, the nightwind isn’t much for basic human needs.  
            But we would deal with that later. Right now, I had to convince these people to leave the comfort of what was probably the only home they’d ever had.
            “You’re not fighters,” I said. “I know that. In fact it’s pretty clear why the enemy left you behind. They wanted you to breed. They wanted more soldiers to throw at more free worlds. But that’s over now. The nightwind is gone. Your hearts are yours again. This is your city again. These are your children, now and forever. I can help it be so that they will never belong to anyone but you. I certainly insist they do not come with us. 
            But I have to ask the rest of you. There are more of the enemy coming. And they don’t mean to set foot on this world. They want to strike it from orbit. They want to wipe your city off the map. And the only way to stop them is if we take back this whole world for ourselves. We need ships to reach the stars. I know where those ships are found!
            You’re tired. I know. You’re scared. I am, too. But I’m not from here. This is not my world. I’m from the Earth. Where we beat the enemy. The Augers tied to take our last free city and they failed! For two years they tried and they still failed! We drove them back! And you have every weapon we did. And you have more! You have the White Swarm! You will walk through the nightwind! And it will not touch you!

            Take your time. Decide tonight what you will do. Then sleep well. Because war mostly is not fighting. War is mostly work. And I will give you work. I will give you more work than you have ever known. But it will be for something. It will be for this city, which heals and only heals. It will be for your children, so that darkness will not come for them again.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Page a Day: Hiatus

Page a Day is on vacation until July 8, when it will return as Two Pages a Day! So it's a great time to catch up!

Page a Day: Sixty-Three

            And stood. That white mist had been thick when I entered the cache. It was absurdly heavy now. I barely saw the hand before my face. Around me total silence fell. Something clicked, and I understood. Some of the so-called fog came out of my own nostrils. All through the poet’s journal there’d been prophecies about some new machine, something white and cloudy. Now I’d found it in this White Swarm.  
            Or it had found me. White dust had covered the poet and politician in their coffin. In the Well where the provisions were, I had thought it odd to see my breath in a room that was not cold. But it was just the first time in this city that I hadn’t had an energetic barrier. I had been breathing those machines. For a moment, standing there in the center of Ariel, I wondered what they did.
            Then it hit me: no nightwind. There was no nightwind anywhere I saw. I reflected on what Jerem Cozak had said. Damned neat, these new machines. 
            The Temple of the History of the Profusion was just across the square. Spires and towers, a ruined mess. There’d been a fire during the riots or perhaps the city’s fall. No one had rebuilt. I thought that odd. On my world, the nightwind built the Augers whole cities of barracks and warehouses. Maybe on Thaeron they were tired of all the striving. This wasn’t a warring world, not anymore. I walked over.
            There was someone already there. A young dark-haired man, large and slumped over on the front steps, his skin more than a little off-key. I recalled that nanotechnical invasion is rarely kind to the physiologies of anyone.   
            He blinked when he looked up. “There’s no one to take care of me,” he said.
            ‘I know,” I said. I sat down beside him. “Me neither.”

            I reflected. On Earth I’d gotten out just ahead of this problem. How are you managing it, Elmy? How do you enclose ten million souls who once were Augers, but were supposedly no more? It changes your brain. That’s the purpose of the nightwind. But when you take the machines out, does the mind remain the same?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Page a Day: Sixty-Two

            He closed his eyes. “This world was once rumored to have starships that bent light and time around themselves, that were lost when the very last of the Profusion fell. You’re going to find them.”
            I blinked. “Aren’t stories like that mostly legend?” I asked. “After three days and nights he was healed?’ That stuff’s boilerplate on Earth.”
            He shrugged. “Perhaps,” he said. “But you are standing where that thing occurred. Let oceans enfold you.”            
            I assumed that last was ritual farewell, because he turned again and left. So went my first meeting with the politician Jerem Cozak, now turned warlord. I do not remember yet if there were any others. I did wonder what he was going to do in the next sixty days. Those boats must be a damned long ways away.
            I sat and wondered. I had not been looking for an army. I had not wanted any strategy. Most of all, I was not eager to lead more men and women to their deaths. My success to failure ratio as a general was still dead even. And the enormity of the defeat was still outstripped only by the accidental nature of my triumph. No matter what the people of Cibola say, my dear lieutenant.
            And I needed to decide that bit about the nightwind. It’s the thing you always fear, even more than death. That you’ll be infected. That you’ll turn. That you’ll never say no to the Augers again, because the nightwind takes that desire and possibility away. We fought against it in Cibola for two long and bitter years.  I sent tens of thousands to their deaths so that it would not come. And the citizens of Cibola championed me, not for my tireless services, but because I brought the nightwind down in clouds of ash.

            I stood. I gathered supplies in one of the empty sacks. Well, if the nightwind got me I wasn’t going to do much on its behest. I climbed the wall with no weapon, no armor, and my tactical knowledge of the Earth now five years out of date. Stupidly, I held my breath. I crawled up on dry hard land. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Page a Day: Sixty-One

            “Priest?” he asked.
            “A minor religious functionary during the Profusion. It seems to be a medium-level government official on that world.”
            “Always fear the bureaucrats.”
            “He seems to be kept alive, coincidentally, mostly by the nightwind. Half his body’s made of the stuff.” I hesitated. Here was where the information from the message ended and detail from a very vivid deep-space dream began.
            “He also seems to have located a relic near the galactic rim, a piece of technology far beyond the capacity of our species. Not even the Profusion could have made it. It allows him to utterly control the nightwind and to have a measure of control over even worse things. Nine worse things, to be exact.”
            He shuddered. I saw the darkness in his eyes. He knew, then. They’d been to Thaeron, too.
            “When you came to this city, you came from the south?” he asked. I nodded. “You passed then through the cliffs that mark the entrance to this valley. Did you see two great towers overhead, tall and thin, atop the mountains on either side?”
            I nodded. “You called them the Needles, I believe. They are actually weapons for sub-orbital defense. Earth has them around the cities, but you have them all over each continent. They destroyed my fleet. But they fight specifically against invasion. They forced the Augers to be indirect, conquering your world. But they will not save you from this fleet. Those ships will never come in range. They don’t need to.”
            He sighed. For a moment, I believe his head hung. Then he laughed.  “If we succeed, then towers will not matter. If we fail, then nothing we could possess would have saved us anyway.”

            “Considering our respective weaponry? I’d bet on the latter at this point.”