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The Heretic
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The Heretic

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Author: David Drake
Tony Daniel
Publisher: Baen, 2013
Series: The General: Book 9
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

ABEL DASHIAN'S WORLD DOESN'T NEED A HERO

Duisberg is one of thousands of planets plunged into darkness and chaos by the collapse of the galactic republic, but where other worlds have begun to rebuild a star-travelling culture, Duisberg remains in an uneasy balance between mud-brick civilization and bloodthirsty barbarism.

The people of Duisberg have a god: Zentrum, a supercomputer from the ancient past. Zentrum has decided avoid another collapse by preventing civilization from rising from where it is. And because even a supercomputer and the powerful religion which it founded cannot block all progress, Zentrum has another tool: every few centuries the barbarians sweep in from the desert, slaughtering the educated classes and cowing the peasants back into submission. These are the Blood Winds, and the Blood Winds are about to blow again.

This time, however, there's a difference: Abel Dashian, son of a military officer, has received into his mind the spirit of Raj Whitehall, the most successful general in the history of the planet Bellevue--and of Center, the supercomputer which enabled Raj to shatter his planet's barbarians and permit the return of civilization.

One hero can't stop the tide of barbarians unless he has his own culture supporting him. To save Duisberg, Abel must break the power of Zentrum.

With the help of Raj and Center, Abel Dashian must become... THE HERETIC!


Excerpt

1

"Bows and muskets, blood and dust—" six-year-old Abel Dashian sing-songed as he played in the yard of the temple storehouse. The afternoon was hot and humid, and the air was still.

He jumped from capstone to capstone upon the carved blocks of reddish-yellow stelae that surrounded the storehouse, teetering perilously, gloriously, on the brink of a fall to the hard-packed dirt below.

Teetering, yes—but never quite falling. Abel knew he would make his next jump, and the next. He liked that he was good at stuff like this, better than most boys his age.

"Flint and powder, broken bones—"

Nearby was the pile of baggage he was supposed to be watching while his father checked in with the district's ruling cleric, Prelate Zilkovsky. Abel and his father had been in Hestinga for several days, having hooked up with a fast caravan to arrive earlier than expected. His father had used the extra days of leave to acquire a dwelling near the military compound, to find a nanny for Abel, and generally to set up housekeeping. Abel had gotten to know some of his new neighborhood, but spent most of his time unpacking his cache of personal belongings, including the treasured locks of his dead mother's hair.

Today was the first official visit Abel's father had made to the district priest, and custom required that he present his family—which was, in his case, only Abel—when he reported in. His father, whose name was Joab, had brought along the official deliveries he'd been charged with transporting from the capital to Hestinga.

The day before, Abel had finally given in to his curiosity, pulled back the large reed mat that covered the stack of items in a corner of the common room at his home, and taken a peek at this material. He had no idea what most of it was, but he had noticed a basket full of blank papyrus scrolls. Abel loved to draw, and spent a few moments lusting after them. Then he'd turned his attention to a carefully wrapped case with something hard bound within in it—carefully wrapped, but not so hard to open, even for smaller fingers. The case revealed a shiny new set of obsidian sacrificing knives. His father had walked in from watering the donts and caught him just before Abel made the major mistake of touching one of the knives.

"These were sent to the district prelate by the Abbot of Lindron himself," his father said. "How do you think it would look if Zilkovsky found a bunch of fingerprints all over them?"

Seeing Abel's downcast eyes, his father had taken pity upon him and given Abel one of his old throwing knives as a consolation prize. Abel had spent a happy afternoon practicing with it against a wooden post.

Today, Abel had been put in charge of watching over this baggage while his father went in to make his initial presentation, and he was determined to keep himself away from the sacrificing knives, which he still longed to play with.

I want to see one of those knives split papyrus, Abel thought. A friend back in Lindron had seen a prelate do that once with an obsidian blade. No. Absolutely cannot touch. Father will whip me ragged.

So he'd looked around for something to distract himself, and soon noticed an interesting picture that was carved on the sides of the standing stones that ringed a nearby large building. He'd wandered over to see what it was.

A carnadon. A dangerous river beast. And a really good likeness, too. Carnadons were Abel's favorite animals.

The carnadon carved on these stelae was a symbol the priesthood liked to use—he'd seen it near all the holy sites in Lindron—but he wasn't exactly sure what it meant.

Each stela had a carnadon relief carving on it, and who could resist climbing up on top and jumping from stone to stone to get away from them?

Not Abel Dashian, that was for sure.

Each of the roughhewn stone uprights was rectangular, flat on top, and wide enough for a boy to stand squarely upon with a couple of steps to spare. They were squat, planted deep into the sandy ground, rising to about the height of a tall man's chest. The gap between the stelae was perhaps a stride and a half, which was a length that Abel could span with a jump—barely.

"I'm the one you'll never catch," he chanted and leaped through the air. He landed on the next stone, took a stutter step, and leaped again, continuing the ancient jingle, a song his mother had sung to him on the cradleboard and then, because he often requested it, through the years up until her death. "I'm the one who catches you."

Land on a stone top, leap, land, and leap again.

"You don't scare me, carnadon. Beer and barley, lead and copper, I'm the Carnadon Man!"

Abel pretended he was crossing the River at one of its rare fording points and must leap from rock to rock to avoid being snatched and eaten. The carnadons lived in hunting packs thick along the riverbanks near the wide spots in the water's flow. River carnadons were creatures horned with scale. They walked about on land with small legs, but in the water they possessed a powerful swimming tail. Their main feature, however, at least by Abel's lights, was a large mouth equipped with a jaw on a flexible hinge that could open wide and swallow a young boy whole.

Abel was both terrified and spellbound by River carnadons. When he'd lived in Garangipore as a very young child, one of his first memories was of watching from the terrace porch of the officer's residence where his family dwelled as carnadons wallowed on the riverbank below. Then in Lindron, his father had taken him to see the Great Tabernacle moats, which were full of well-fed carnadons kept as pets by the high priests.

He'd watched an afternoon feeding and seen the creatures swallow chunks of meat as big as barrels without once chewing. In the River, the creatures made their grisly living on fish and weak land creatures. In Garangipore, he'd seen one bring down a young herbidak that visited the riverbanks to graze. Carnadons also didn't mind feasting on the occasional villager when they got the chance—a fact which his mother had never let him forget.

I won't forget, Mamma.

"Teeth all snapping, tails all whapping, try to bite me if you can!"

Even though Abel was only six, he knew that the stone from which the stelae were made was not local. It was rock from the desert wastes beyond the River: the Redlands. Here in the valley, the natural stone was always black or dark brown like river mud unless you dug a hole very deep. You never saw buildings made of stone like this in Lindron, the city where Abel had lived for the past year, and the city where his mother had died. But here in Hestinga, near the Valley Escarpment, there were official buildings and even a few houses made from the red stone.

"You can't catch me, I'm the Carnadon Man!"

Abel completed his second circuit of the storehouse yard and sprang down. He took the landing with bended knees and rolled as his father had taught him Scouts did when jumping from a rooftop or a cliff. He came up facing the door to the building the stones circled. It had the look of some kind of storehouse, maybe an old granary. The structure was made of the same Redlands stone as the stelae, but the door was of thick-plaited river cane and looked solid, many layers thick. A pile of windblown sand had built up at its base. There were no hinges on the door that Abel could see.

Maybe it swings inside to out, Abel thought. Or maybe it slides to the side into an opening. That would be interesting to see.

Abel had always been good at picturing sizes and arrangements of things in the world, and figuring out how things moved or might look on the other side just by thinking about them. He'd been surprised to find that not everybody could do this, not even some adults.

On the right side of the matted door was a metal plate with a long piece of flat, dark metal emerging from it. Abel moved closer and saw that the flat piece was the shaft of a key. It was sticking out of a keyhole.

Abel had seen metal locks like this before in Lindron on the very old buildings, but this was the first he'd come across in the week they'd lived here in Hestinga. He'd been interested enough to ask his father how locks worked, and his father had demonstrated a wooden version on a small reed chest in his office that held his military credentials and the jade insectoid scarab he used to set a wax seal on official documents.

This key is larger. It's huge.

Abel approached warily. It was at about eye-height to him. He reached up, touched it.

Cold metal. Old metal.

It was made of steel, not iron, and was perfectly smooth. He ran a finger along its edge. It had the fine-cut profile of nishterlaub, a holy metal item from the Chaos Times, the nightmare days before the Law had been revealed to the priests by Zentrum, and the priests brought peace to the Land. Abel knew what to do if he found nishterlaub. Don't touch. Tell a priest.

But the storehouse was in the midst of the Treville District temple compound. Everyone obviously knew about it. This nishterlaub had been collected by the priests themselves. So what could it hurt to—

Before Abel quite realized what he was doing, he turned the key.

Click.

The lock was well-oiled and offered no resistance. Turning the key caused a plate on the door to pop out from its recess by a finger span to reveal a small pulling ring.

Never saw anything like that before.

In fact, the lock seemed as complicated as the most complex thing Abel knew: the firing mechanism on his father's musket. Abel had seen plenty of those. He was the son of a soldier, after all. But complicated or not, with a musket what it finally came down to was pulling the trigger.

So just pull it. See what happens.

Abel grasped the ring and leaned backward. The door didn't budge.

The sand. The buildup at the base of the door was keeping it in place. Abel swept it away with the sole of his sandal.

He tried again, this time throwing all his might into the effort. The door moved, swung outward an arm's length. Abel stumbled back a step as a whoosh of musty air escaped. It set him to coughing.

After he recovered, Abel glanced inside. Dark, but some light got in through window slits set in rows around all four walls. Still, pretty scary in there. Abel stepped away, glanced around the storehouse yard.

There wasn't much by way of a weapon to carry along with him, not even a stick. There was a stone, a black rock from here in the Valley, sitting not far away that, upon further examination, Abel figured must have been intended as a doorstop.

It was all he could do to pick it up with both hands and carry it next to his belly, but any weapon was better than nothing. So armed, he returned to the door and slipped inside the storehouse.

The air inside was cool and stale. He looked up and saw that the window slits near the ceiling were covered with actual glass. Glass was not considered nishterlaub, but it was something you could only find and were not allowed to make, so windows were rare in the Land. Windows were for priests and high officials. Windows were for keeping out rain and wind from important places.

And I guess for some storehouses, Abel thought.

Anyway, you normally didn't need windows in the Land. Strong gusts sometimes blew up the Valley before the spring floods, but usually the winds of the Land were light. Abel had never seen any rain, but his mother had sung him jingles about it. The songs were about water falling from the sky, as strange as that sounded. It wasn't that he didn't believe in rain, it was more that he had a hard time picturing it. Abel imagined rain as thick and syrupy, falling brown and silty like the River's water, and leaving everything with a fine coating of mud.

After his eyes adjusted, Abel stepped farther inside the storehouse. It was a large room, large enough to contain an average-sized house. The ceiling stretched a good twenty spans above him. The official residence he and his father shared could fit in here easily, with space to spare for an outhouse and stable.

This is sure no granary.

All about him were shapes. Twisted, strange shapes like midnight shadows. Large, square shapes. The glint of iron and copper and steel. Glass. Wood. In front of him, a white-colored pipe stretching out perpendicular from some sort of box with what looked like dead briars curling out. Odd. The pipe glinted almost a bit like metal, a bit like glass.

He reached out and touched it—

And recoiled in shock. Plastic.

The pipe was nishterlaub. Abel looked around again and realization dawned. The pipe, the strange shapes, everything in the storehouse. It was all nishterlaub.

His immediate thought was to turn tail and run, find a priest or his father, tell them what he'd found.

But that's stupid, he thought. The priests know the nishterlaub is here. They must have put it here. But I'll bet I will still get in trouble.

Was it wrong for him to be here?

Most of his friends from Lindron would sure think so. Of course, most of them wouldn't have opened the door in the first place. He'd barely been able to convince those guys to leave the alley behind the married officer's quarters. He'd dared them to go out and explore, and when nobody accompanied him, he'd gone himself.

Abel felt the familiar pain of remembering Lindron. Lindron was the before life. All gone.

Gone with Mamma.

She'd called him her brave boy, her little Carnadon Man. Was he still brave without her?

He would try to be. And the priests could give him a hiding if they wanted, he didn't care. Besides, he knew he'd start wondering about the nishterlaub and have to come back to have a look at it sooner or later. He'd be back.

So might as well look around now.

Interesting, said a voice. It was a dry voice, high pitched. Abel was unable to tell if it had come from a man or woman. He spun around. Nothing. No one there.

He moved deeper into the storage house.

A likely lad, maybe, another voice said, this one deeper and definitely male. Then again, maybe not.

* * *

Abel lifted the rock he carried in his hands to his shoulder, ready to strike.

"Who's there?" he said, trying not to let his voice quiver with the fright he felt.

No one answered.

After a moment, Abel decided he must have heard soldiers speaking outside. The storage house was next to the temple guard exercise yard, after all. Maybe a platoon had shown up for morning duty.

But the voices had sounded close. Very close.

Okay, it's time to get out of here.

Abel turned to go.

But all this nishterlaub, he thought. I have to see it.

He looked to his right, to the strange box-shaped thing growing briars with the white plastic pipe emerging from it.

Not briars. Not anything that grew from the earth. Abel stooped down, looked closer. They were like vines, yet unlike. A sheath of colorful skin covered a core that glinted reddish-brown, like copper. No, it was copper, somehow.

Electrical wires, the high-pitched voice said. To carry a fluid that is more powerful than gunpowder, than water gathered into a ram. You could think of it as liquid sunlight. The liquid sun brought the machine alive, and it—

Show him, said the low, gruff voice.

Very well. Observe:

Suddenly, the nishterlaub was alive. It beeped like some kind of strange, wounded flitter or an insectoid in the trees at night. Flames like evening glowflies flickered across its surface.

Abel gasped, stumbled back.

This is a simulation. It's a picture painted inside your mind, child. Observe:

And Abel did observe. He was in the room, but not in the room, and the machine, the nishterlaub, was different.

It was fixed. It worked.

The machine chimed, a door slid open in its side, and from it emerged...

Made things. Wonderful things. Like an oven that baked bread in all sorts of shapes, only this oven baked useful items. Tools. A procession of items emerged: hammers, rakes, shoes, scissors, pens ... and then other things whose names began to flood Abel's mind: simple navigation computer, powerpack for kitchen appliances, medical diagnostic meter, pellet gun, wristwatch.

This thing was the Oven of Zentrum. It baked ... nishterlaub!

And then it stopped. The vision disappeared, and the ancient machine stood before him, as destroyed as it had been moments before.

One of many such three-dimensional printers, said the dry, high-pitched voice. Nothing special to those who came before the Collapse. Resolution moderate to low. Production value self-limiting. Cheap goods, made to become obsolete quickly. Unfortunately, no independent power source remains, and key metallic elements have been removed and destroyed or repurposed. Quite useless.

Abel started back. The voice again. He picked up his rock, which had fallen to his feet when he'd touched the... now he knew its name... the three-dimensional printer.

No one was here.

Who was speaking?

It has to be the nishterlaub talking, doesn't it?

Was this why the priests kept it to themselves? But if the nishterlaub spoke, why did they abandon it here in the storage house? Obviously no one had been inside this building for a long, long time.

Three point five Duisberg years, said the high-pitched voice. It was opened for the delivery of a piano.

The meaning of what a piano was suddenly flooded Abel's mind—along with quick images of its use. Abel tried to grasp what he was being shown, but shook his head stubbornly after a moment.

"Cut that out," he said aloud. "Stop making me think things I don't ask to think. Anyway, I get it. It's a kind of musical instrument, right?"

Correct. The strings and other metal elements were stripped and recast. You can see the remains and the keys in a pile by the door over there.

Abel turned and looked. There was indeed a mass of broken wood and a neat stack of rectangular white stones. They looked like giant teeth.

Boggles the mind. Three years ago the piano—and nobody has been back since, said the low voice.

If I were a priest, I would spend all my time talking to nishterlaub, Abel thought. How could you not, once you knew it could answer, that it could tell you what it was, and, more importantly, what it did?

Abel looked away from the piano remains and turned to the holy item behind him. Its surface was a kaleidoscope of colors.

More plastic, Abel thought. Pretty.

It was larger than he was and looked like an enormous flitterdont. Well, it had what looked like wings, anyway. Flitterdonts hunted in flocks and could be dangerous. Abel had been warned by one crusty old Scout in the caravan that the flitters sometimes made a meal of human blood. Maybe the Scout had been having him on. Maybe not. The flitters allegedly lived in the Escarpment overhangs, and there were plenty of those around here.

But this thing, whatever it was, was not alive, and didn't look likely to suck his blood. He gulped, then, after a moment of indecision, reached out and touched its smooth surface of swirling colors.

Abel tried to forget about flitters and to clear his mind and concentrate. Maybe the next flood of information wouldn't make him feel so dizzy if he was prepared.

"Okay, tell me," he said.

An impulse flyer, used for personal transport. This is a foot-mounted model peculiar to this sector, pre-Collapse, and this one obviously belonged to someone with extravagant design tastes, perhaps an adolescent. This flyer here is perched on its side, of course. Obviously the priests had no clue as to how to arrange it after depositing it. Imagine the item rotated horizontally. That is its correct position.

Abel ran his hand along the surface of the flyer, trying to do just that. His hand passed over a depression in the surface. Nearby was another, similar depression. Both were about two elbs across and a half-elb deep.

Footholds. They activated the stabilization field and allowed the passenger to ride standing up without fear of overbalancing.

I don't get it, Abel thought. They stood on this and flew?

Show the boy, said the gruff voice.

I am not sure that such a young subject will be able to properly integrate a full virtual immersion. There is considerable risk to his neural networks.

He'll either adapt or break. Either way, we'll have our answer, the gruff voice replied. Show him.

"Yeah," said Abel. "Show me!"

Very well. Observe:

And then Abel was flying.

* * *

He was standing on the flyer in the air. The ground was far, far beneath him. For a moment, he almost did break. This was impossible. He was outside. He was flying like a flitterdont through the air. The world spun like crazy as dizziness overcame Abel. He started to fall.

But couldn't. Something held him in place.

Stabilization fields. Of course, this is merely a simulation, but it is an extremely precise approximation of what a flyer ride was like.

Abel shook his head, regained his balance. He looked down again. Far below were the roofs of Hestinga. It was perched on the edge of the oxbow lake that formed the great Treville oasis, one of the few places within the Land that was more than a day's walk from the River. From this height, the waters of Lake Treville sparkled as a small breeze caused the surface to ripple.

"I'm flying! Am I really flying?"

Unfortunately, no, answered the high-pitched voice. This is a form of make-believe. A projection based on extrapolation. You are still physically within the storehouse. But given the historical records in my databanks and an accurate survey of the local geography prior to landfall, this simulation should be accurate to within one tenth of one percent of a hundred.

In other words, lad, this is what it feels like to fly, said the gruff voice. How do you like it?

Abel looked around. Far to the west, the River was a shining strip barely visible on the horizon. Between were the rolling hills of the Treville salient with its massive irrigation system, its ditches and canals, derived from the River and culminating in Lake Treville. Abel's father had explained to him how it all worked, how the alluvial paddocks and washes along the way were watered by a system of ditches and aqueducts, and coaxed to yield wheat and barley, flax and rice.

Duisberg barley, said the high-pitched voice. The planet was renowned for beer and whiskey. Liquor was the principle export, pre-Collapse. Since settlement, Duisberg has remained mostly agricultural, which is probably why the Sector Command Control Unit AZ12-i11-e Mark XV remained set in his ways. Cultural accretion often creates waves of repetitive behavior to which even artificial intelligent units find themselves subject.

"Huh?"

Zentrum is stuck, lad.

We have come to unstick the unit. More importantly, we have come to reintegrate Duisberg into the reconstituted Galactic Republic.

"Zentrum?" replied Abel, confused. "But Zentrum's just a special name for God."

Zentrum is not a god, and he is not God. He is a computer.

It is the being your priests serve, boy, said the gruff voice.

Zentrum was the word for God that the priests used when they were talking about the Laws. The Edicts. The Stasis. All the stuff you learned in Thursday school.

Whatever. It was the most boring stuff in the world. He wanted to fly, to keep flying, forever. This was so much fun!

The wind was whipping past him and, in the process, making a terrible din, like a storm. He leaned to his left. The flyer tilted sharply with him, and Abel quickly straightened back up. Too much. "How do I steer this thing, anyway?" he shouted.

Quiet lad, said the gruff voice with a laugh. You'll accidentally summon the guards. Remember, you are actually still in the storehouse. You needn't speak. We can hear words if you think about saying them.

Can you hear this? Abel thought.

Yes, boy.

Abel didn't know if he liked the fact that the nishterlaub voices could eavesdrop on his inner thoughts. But for the moment, all he really cared about was keeping this trip going, to fly like a flitterdont across the landscape.

I dreamed of this. The day before Mamma died.

The sickness had grown worse, and she was wrapped up and shivering on her pallet even though it was a hot day outside. And that night, he'd dreamed of flying with his mother beside him, her flowing robes trailing behind her as they both laughed and zoomed over Lindron, over the River, and into the beyond.

But that dream was nothing compared to this!

He shifted his balance slowly and carefully to the left again. The flyer reacted by swooping into a graceful arc.

I can do this! I can steer this thing like a reed boat.

He leaned to the right, almost overbalanced, but caught himself, pulled the flyer into a sweeping curve.

I want more, he thought/said to the voices. I want to go farther. Let's go. Show me! Show me everything!

Done, said the high-pitched voice.

Abel leaned back and, yes, the flyer tilted up as he'd hoped it would, climbed higher. The River was now in view below him, as were both sides of the Valley. It wasn't at all straight, but twisted like a legless dont whipping through the dust.

How high am I?

In local terms? Approximately half a league. Seven thousand feet. You are at the maximum recommended altitude for an uncovered flyer such as this. But this should be sufficient for the purpose.

What do you see below you, boy? the gruff voice asked.

The River. There's Garangipore to the north, where the main canal and the River meet. I see the Valley. The Land. But not all of it.

You couldn't see all of the Land, not unless you flew nearly to orbit, out of the air itself.

Air ends somewhere in the sky? That's a lie. Has to be.

What I say to you will never be a lie, Abel.

Whatever.

He looked back down.

Like a map. Like one of my father's maps. I love maps. I can almost read, you know. Mamma taught me a lot. And Father has taught me all about maps, too.

We are aware of your strong literacy skill set, replied the high-pitched voice. This is one among several latent abilities, some of which you do not yet realize you possess. As you see, the Valley here at the branch-point of the Treville salient is at its widest. To the southwest, it becomes narrower until it finally reaches the capital of Lindron and then Mims, the city just above the River Delta. At Mims, the River widens, drops its alluvium to form the Delta islands and the tidal estuaries, and then flows into the Braun Sea. The average width of the Valley is two days' travel on foot.

The Valley is hardly twenty leagues across at its widest, said the gruff voice. But its length from the top of the cataracts to Fyrpahatet on the coast—now, that's another story. In fact, that's the whole story of the Land and why things are the way they are.

I don't get it.

Wouldn't expect you to, boy. You've never known anything else. The River drains the whole of the western continent on this planet, northeast to southwest.

Don't know what he's talking about and don't care, Abel thought and tried to keep the thought to himself. He had a feeling the gruff voice could be just as impatient with what he viewed as foolishness as his father. Just let me keep flying!

He must have at least partially formed the words in his mind, however, because the gruff voice stopped short, let out a growl.

You either care or you'll be made to care, lad, the voice grumbled. Center, impress upon our young charge what it means that we are inside his thoughts.

Are you certain that's wise?

We have to push now. If the lad's what we're looking for, he'll survive it.

Agreed, said the high-pitched voice, which must be "Center," the possessor of the high-pitched voice that the gruff voice was speaking to. This may prove disorienting. I will physically alter certain neuronal firing sequences within your brain and impart to you sufficient strata of term denotations to enable you to understand otherwise undefined referents.

Didn't sound good. Not good at all. Whoever or whatever this Center was, it or he or she was about to alter his thoughts. Could it alter his memories? Everything?

Cause him to forget.

Mamma.

No!

I'm afraid this will be necessary.

I'll jump. I'll fall and die.

You are, in actuality, already standing on the floor.

Don't poke inside me, I mean it!

I will perform only necessary poking.

Please! No!

I'm... sorry, Abel.

"Wait!" Abel screamed, this time sure to do so aloud. Maybe he could summon the priests or a guard. The gruff voice had cautioned him against shouting. Maybe he could use this against them. "I'll yell!"

No, said Center, you won't.

Abel's opened his mouth to prove Center wrong. Not a sound came out. He struggled to shout. Nothing, not even a voiceless puff of air.

Okay, Abel said. Okay, you win. It's going to hurt. It's going to hurt, isn't it?

Yes, said Center.

And suddenly his head exploded in pain.

And understanding. Continent. Orbit. Energy. Northern hemisphere. He began to comprehend.

The world is round!

Yes.

And the Land is not all of the world. Not by a long shot.

The Land and its surrounding desert reaches, which stretch to the Schnee Mountains in the east and the Braun Sea to the west, are the only portion of Duisberg inhabited by humans.

You keep saying Duisberg. That's the name of this... planet? asked Abel.

Correct.

And there are lots of other planets?

Lots, said Center. And other suns.

And he was made to understand.

That's what the stars are.

Correct.

"Why should I believe you?" said Abel, speaking aloud. The thought was too hard to form completely without hearing it first. "You're probably lying to get me to do something, like those beggar boys in Lindron who said they'd show me a hardback riverdak out of its shell. What they really wanted was to steal the slingshot Father made me. I had to fight six at once when they chased me to the barracks row."

And did you win, lad? asked the gruff voice.

"Nope," Abel replied. "They got the slingshot. But it took all six of them to lick me."

Abel leaned hard to the left, then hard to the right. The flyer yawed, and he could feel a buzz as the invisible stabilization fields, whatever they were, gripped him tight. He leaned to the left again, attempting to rock the flyer into capsizing.

If I'm not really flying, then I can turn this over... and fall! I won't die, because I'm really in the storehouse. But maybe that'll get them out of my head.

Another gruff laugh. Good try, lad.

General Whitehall, we have much to accomplish today, said Center. Foundations must be laid. It, he—Abel decided Center sounded more male than female—seemed irritated.

Almost. The flyer was almost tipped over on the right side. One more hard rocking motion and—

Enough!

The flyer froze in place. If he'd been on the edge of a cliff, Abel's momentum would have made him fall. Instead, the stabilization fields seemed to absorb his motion like a down pillow.

We must decide if this child is the one, the gruff voice said. If so, then agreed, we will proceed. If not... The voice trailed off.

That doesn't sound good. That's the kind of voice father uses just before he takes out his sharpening strop.

Abel stopped rocking and ceased trying to end the flying simulation. Besides, he really didn't want to, not yet. It was time, however, to change the subject. "So you, the squeaky one who sounds like a cross between a three-year-old and a priest, you're Center?"

Correct.

"And the other, you with the mean voice, you're General White-something?"

Call me Raj, lad, the gruff voice replied. It's my first name. I have a feeling we're going to get along fine. May even be friends.

You wish! But Abel did his best to keep his misgivings to himself and tried not to let them form into a full thought. He found it helped if he considered other things at the same time. Feeling like a flitterdont flapping around. The wind in his face. Clouds.

It did seem that the two voices couldn't know exactly what he was thinking unless a thought was so complete he was on the verge of speaking it out loud.

At least so he hoped.

Well, Raj, you can call me Abel, he said, and I don't think we're going to be friends. He hoped the tone of defiance was clear in his thought-speech.

From Raj's quiet chuckle afterward, he figured it had been.

Abel turned his attention back to flying. He'd now reached the River. He'd approached from the east, and he leaned to his right to tilt the flyer into a north-northwest direction, parallel to the general trend upriver, although the water's course itself wound back and forth in a completely crazy fashion.

The wind whipped by his ears and caused his hair, plaited by the nanny into a single pigtail, to stick out like a riding dont's neck plumage. He leaned forward, and, to his delight, this increased the flyer's speed.

You'll notice that there are very few clouds to obscure your view of the Valley below, Center intoned.

Yeah, so?

Precisely, said Center. There are never many clouds. Due to the extreme height of the Schnee formation—we are still not level with the smallest peaks, even at this altitude—almost all westerly wind current is blocked on the eastern side of the massif. The prevailing winds on this side of the continent are strong northeasterlies, channeling up from the Braun Sea to the wastes above the River's springs and, ultimately, flowing through the high passes and into Duisberg's Arctic, where what moisture there is becomes locked up in snowfall and ultimately ice. The northern glaciers calve into the Braun, and the cycle continues, for this geological moment, at least.

Massif.

Continent.

Arctic.

Abel winced as each of the unfamiliar words seemed to twist and squirm inside him before they locked on to a set of meanings. Every moment of new knowledge acquisition was also a moment of pain. Center had not lied. It hurt. But in the end, he made sense, or believed he made sense, of what the voice was saying. He understood.

The River itself originates near Chambers Pass in the Schnees and is the sole drainage for the western continent. It flows south-southwest to the Braun Sea. Duisberg is extraordinarily dry as settlement planets go, and there is no comparable hydrological system anywhere else, not in either hemisphere. The terrain created by the River provides the only planetary region capable of feudal-style agriculture such as is practiced in the Land.

Your deserts and scrublands are herder territory, said Raj. Fit only for nomads. And the Redlands will only support scraggly grazing animals at that, given the present condition of development. That's one of the reasons that raiding has become such a way of life for those... what do you call the tribes outside the Land?

"Redlanders," said Abel. "Even talking to them can get you crucified."

And yet talking goes on all the time, I'll wager, answered Raj.

Correct, said Center.

"But if you touch a Redlander, you'll get sick and die!" Abel exclaimed.

You never really believed that, did you, boy?

Raj was right. When Abel mentioned the Redlander curse to his father, his father had nodded, but he'd smiled in the same way he did when Abel asked him if it was true swimming in a temple pool made a baby grow in a mommy's tummy.

"I guess not."

In fact, the current aristocracy is made up of Redlander stock, said Center. Observe. The Land is merely two to three leagues across roughly east to west, but is over two hundred leagues long north to south. It would take the better part of a Duisberg year to walk its length from the Delta to the upper cataracts.

A strategic weakness, said Raj. Would be fatal if the scrub lands weren't so poor. So it is in the interest of Zentrum to keep them poor or at least to keep them sedated. And he doesn't care how he does it, either. When the Redlanders have built up to any extent, he doesn't just allow them to invade. He practically invites them in.

Your people have myths of these nomadic invasions. They are called the Blood Winds.

"I know about that," said Abel, again returning to the spoken word to expresses a more complicated thought. "Elder Newfeld taught us about it in Thursday school."

The people of the Land had grown wicked and disobeyed the commandments of God, the elder had said. So Zentrum, God's voice, allowed their enemies to attack and destroy every other man, woman, and child. Even the donts. That was the part Abel particularly hated.

Zentrum made an accommodation with the invading Redlander tribes. They were given lands, titles, wealth. They stayed, interbred—and were absorbed into the surviving populace. This has happened time and again.

It's going to happen again, Abel, Raj said. Soon.

What's going to happen?

Blood Winds. They're coming.

Abel leaned back, slowed the flyer. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach. In the stories, the Redlanders hadn't just killed the people of the Land. They'd spitted babies on the ends of their spears. They'd taken kids away to be slaves forever.

And worst of all, they tortured the riding donts before they slaughtered them. Cut off their hoofpads. Tied their mouths closed and plugged their blowholes so they couldn't breathe.

Abel loved riding donts, loved everything about them. It hurt him inside to hear a dont scream in pain. It really bothered him if that pain came from a whip lashing or the kick of a glassrock spur. If he hated one thing more than all else, it was people who were mean to donts.

"They're going to kill the donts? All of them? They can't do that!"

Maybe they can and maybe they can't, Raj said, his tone softer. That's part of why we're here, Center and me.

You can stop it? But you said God wants them to win, to—

Raj cut him off. Zentrum. Again, lad, Zentrum is not God. God doesn't care who wins or loses a fight. Well, let's just say God's thinking on such matters is a bit hard to figure. Zentrum, on the other hand, has a very simple plan. Keep things the way they've always been. Forever. Maintain stasis.

He has achieved this aim on Duisberg for nearly three thousand years by restricting the population to this peculiar blend of Neolithic and early industrial-age technology.

Abel pictured the Land, the rolling fields of barley and flax he'd passed on the way from Lindron to Hestinga. The flitterdonts and the hardbacks and especially Mot, the little riding dont that was his special mount.

"What's wrong with Stasis? That's what all the Laws and Edicts are supposed to be for."

Can't last, Raj said. And there's no fallback.

Zentrum has made a fundamental miscalculation that will destine this planet to ruin, said Center. It was based on insufficient information. After all, when the Collapse came, the slide was rapid due to nannite viral infection of electronica via the Tanachi Net. A secured military or planetary defense computer of some sort, a being such as myself in original configuration, is often the only electronic suite that survived intact. My kind can be an extremely protective, even paranoid, lot.

Creativity, innovation, people having a say in their own governance, said Raj. Zentrum hates all that.

The words and their meanings again exploded in Abel's mind. He closed his eyes against the strain, but it didn't seem to help. This was not a headache. It was more like a mind ache.

And within all the words, one shining, horrible, wondrous, amazing fact stood out.

What the voice said was true.

Zentrum was not God. Not even the voice of God.

Zentrum was a mean Thursday school teacher who wanted you to sit up straight and recite the Law for watch after watch. Who never let you do anything that wasn't Edict. Who whacked you with the correction stick when you got out of Stasis for even one second.

In the Land, it's Thursday forever, lad, said Raj.

When Abel opened his eyes again, he was hovering over the Fourth Cataract near the River's headwaters as it cascaded out of the Schnee.

A village stretched below him. Its rooftops not flat, as were all roofs Abel had ever seen so far. These were oddly tilted and joined at the center in ridges.

They're for shedding the autumn rains, lad, Raj said with a chuckle. Never seen the like, have you? Not only that, sometimes in midwinter they're topped with snow.

White, like in the stories?

Yes, lad. At least for a day. Then the dust settles in and browns it down.

Behold Orash, Progar District, said Center. Behold the gateway of the Blood Wind.

Copyright © 2013 by David Drake

Copyright © 2013 by Tony Daniel


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