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The Savior

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The Savior

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Author: David Drake
Tony Daniel
Publisher: Baen, 2014
Series: The General: Book 10
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Sequel to The Heretic, Book 10 in the nationally best-selling General series.

FROM HERETIC TO SAVIOR

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. This is known as the Stasis. 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 conquer the very land of his origin and attempt to destroy the computer A.I. "god" who has doomed his world to an everlasting Dark Age. Abel is a heretic, but now he must go beyond and become--THE SAVIOR.


Excerpt

1

Ingres District

476 Post Tercium

Three moons hung in the night sky. Churchill, the largest moon, was a quarter-sickle to the east. Mommsen and Levot, much smaller, were chips of fire to the southwest. Both were full. It was, as usual in the Land, a cloudless night.

A bonfire burned in a trampled area in the midst of a near-ripe barley field. Although it was dark, there was enough moonlight for Major Abel Dashian to see as he made his way through the barley and toward the fire to check in with one of the platoons of Friday Company.

The tall barley, a few weeks from harvest, swished against his canvas-wrapped legs, until he got to the edge of the cleared spot where the platoon had camped for the night. When the Guardians of Zentrum were on the march, they used no tents. Each man had a thin sleeping roll laid out on a waxen tarp. Beside each sleeping man was his pack. Each weighed three stones and contained rations, gunpowder in two mountain-dak powderhorns, and wicker containers of percussion caps and papyrus-wrapped minié cartridges. Guardians left their personal effects at home. Abel didn't have many to begin with. The only item that he had any deep attachment to, a lock of his dead mother's hair, he kept in a box in his officer quarters back in the city of Lindron.

The resting Guardians in the barley were spread out around their rifle tripods. Every squad had a wooden rack, and eight musket rifles stood neatly on butt-end in a circle around each rack, their barrels meeting in the crisscross of sticks above the lashing. Each man was only a few steps away from his weapon. There were four squads to the platoon, forming a rough circular pattern around the central cookfire. Two crosshatched paths for walking divided the sleeping men into quarters.

Abel made his way along one of these paths toward the fire.

Friday Company was on the eastern edge of the encampment. There were pickets out a bit farther, but this was the edge of the camp proper. Abel was walking the line, checking vulnerable positions. As executive officer of Third Brigade and aide-de-camp to the colonel that led it, this was his job each evening during the northward march.

He'd been a commanding officer himself in the Regulars just nine months ago: district military commander of Cascade, with the rank of colonel. Then the call had come to assemble all Guardian reserves from the various districts, and he'd returned to his old rank, major. The fact that he served under a man he respected, and for whom he even felt fondness, lessened the sting of relative demotion. Colonel Zachary von Hoff had been his favorite instructor at the Guardian Academy. For the past months, Abel had served as his adjutant and chief of command staff for the Guardian Third Brigade.

It helped that a good many of the lower ranks in the Third were men who had risen through a special selection program Abel had created in Cascade. The chosen men were sent off to the Special Warfare School in Lindron, the noncommissioned version of the Guardian Academy. Abel had been surprised and gratified to find that von Hoff had been on the lookout for his Cascade men and had snatched them up for the Third the moment they finished their Guardian boot camp. There were, then, transplanted Cascade men throughout the Third, men he knew and who knew him.

Although the platoon corpsmen—all men in their teens and early twenties—were bedded down, seven older soldiers remained around the fire. Abel recognized a staff sergeant he knew. He was with the other squad sergeants, and a couple of specialist master sharpshooters attached to the platoon. All of them wore the braided sash and twisted armband of carnadon leather that marked their rank.

The noncoms spoke in low voices, and Abel presumed that they were discussing, as most men did with a day's march behind them, company scuttlebutt, women, pay, the possibilities of loot during the upcoming campaign—and what the hell was going on in the Progar District that was so bad it had caused the Abbot of Lindron to send an army of sixteen thousand troops to deal with it.

Correct. There is talk of the march, and there is also discussion of the relative merits of the various whorehouses of Bruneberg, said a thin, high-pitched voice in Abel's mind.

It was a familiar voice, a voice Abel had heard since he was six years old.

A voice like nightscraper chirps, if they were made of words instead of squeaks, Abel thought. He'd heard more nightscrapers in the past few weeks than he had in years. It was good to be in the field.

These sergeants speculate that there may be a pause near Bruneberg, perhaps an encampment of several days that would be long enough for them to travel into the city proper, conduct experiments in regard to the whorehouses, and compare notes.

The chirping voice belonged to Center, a being who claimed to be an artificial intelligence descended on a traveling capsule from the sky. Center, whom Abel had decided to call "he" long ago, shared a portion of Abel's mind with another ghostly presence: a man named General Raj Whitehall.

The bastards should hope to march on past or the town will drain them of every barter chit they possess, said Raj in a voice so deep it was almost a growl. If all goes well, on the trip home they'll have a rucksack full of spoils to spend on a proper leave.

Raj was a rougher being than Center, foul-mouthed on occasion, and most definitely male. He claimed to have once been a conquering general on a planet called Bellevue several hundred years ago and multiple millions of leagues away. Now he was a voice in Abel's mind, an artificial intelligence construct, the same as Center. As forceful as Raj's presence was even now—at times threatening to overwhelm Abel's own will—Abel could only wonder what it would have been like to meet the living general in person.

Abel emerged silently from the barley, surprising the hell out of one of the sergeants who saw a fully armed form materialize from the darkness. Abel might be a commanding officer, but on night duty he carried a rifle himself, slung around onto his back, where it was held by a strap, its bayonet unfixed and strapped in its holder on the underside of the stock. He was also armed with his own dragon, a flare-muzzled blunderbuss pistol held under his belt strap. He carried it on the left side, handle reversed, for drawing. A sword in a scabbard of carnadon leather hung at his left side as well. The sword was a mark of rank, and was generally useless in battle. But it was Abel's concession to tradition, a family heirloom, given to him by his father when Abel had made captain of scouts in the Regulars.

It had not been entirely useless, either: Abel had killed men with the sword. And so had his ancestors.

"Evening, Major Dashian," said the startled staff sergeant, recovering himself and saluting.

Abel returned it.

"Evening, Staff Sergeant," he replied. He knew the man. He came from the Guardian capital garrison and not from the reserve call-ups. What was his name?

Silverstein.

Abel took a knee by the fire. One of the other noncoms offered him a clay cup of steaming hard cider. Abel took it with a nod of thanks. The cider had a burnt taste and was very hot. He held the cup on his upright knee to let the cider cool, and glanced around the fire.

Silverstein was a short man of River Delta stock. The staff sergeant's jaw moved in a regular motion. He was chewing gum. Delta men substituted such gum for the tobaccolike nesh that Abel had grown up around in Treville District. He did not dip or chew himself, but he did smoke a pipe of nesh weed occasionally.

Abel remembered Silverstein because not many of the enlisted from the Delta ever made corporal, much less moved up to a higher rank. He'd inquired and found that Silverstein had made his mark by fighting in a bloody engagement against the Flanagans, the wild tribe of barbarians who inhabited the coast to the east of where the River spilled into the Braun Sea.

"So, Staff Sergeant, how did we do on the march today?" asked Abel. "Do you think we can get another eight leagues out of them tomorrow?"

Silverstein looked up at Abel with a faint smile on his face. "I think they'll do all right, Major," he said. "We have some tired feet and broken sandals, but it's nothing that a good night's rest and a bit of stitching in the morning won't fix."

"Glad to hear it, Sergeant," Abel replied. "Because I think we're going to try for ten tomorrow."

This caused a low groan from the others gathered around the fire, but Silverstein nodded. "We'll soon be in Treville District, where the roads are broad and tended, not to mention much safer, what with your father in charge of the Black and Tans there, sir."

"Yes, should be no need for these whole company pickets in Treville."

Which meant that there was a need for such large units standing watch here in Ingres, the less populated district that lay between the districts of Lindron and Treville. Redlander barbarians who wouldn't set foot in Treville, at least in the past eight years after their total defeat at the Battle of the Canal, had shifted their raiding to Ingres.

"Of course, anybody who'd take on an army of Goldies would have to be crazy in any district," another of the sergeants put in. Goldies was the familiar term for the Guardian Corps, whose colors were gold and tan.

"Or desperate," Abel said. He took another sip of the cider and discovered that it had cooled enough to drink. He tipped the cup back and drained it. It was a bit burnt from sitting over the fire too long, but had a familiar and welcome taste from his days as a Treville Scout.

One of the other sergeants looked up and held a dipper full of cider from the pot that was boiling over the fire. "Refill, Major?" he asked.

Swiiiish.

A movement that was not wind through the barley. It came from somewhere off to the side of them.

Silverstein grunted in pain, and dropped the ladle, the cider hissing as it hit the fire.

A crossbow bolt protruded from his neck.

Crackle of barley. Someone out there in the darkness. More than one.

Multiple hostiles at thirty paces north-northeast, reported Center.

Get down, lad! Raj shouted in Abel's mind.

The instincts of his dozen years as a Scout kicked in, and Abel dove for the ground. He immediately went into a roll to pull his musket around to the front, and ended the movement lying prone, his face staring into the darkness beyond the fire ring. He could see nothing, nothing at all.

Dust take it, I've been staring into the thrice-damned fire and lost my night vision.

Whiiiisk!

He might not be able to see, but he knew that sound. Arrowflight.

Whiiisk! Whiiisk!

The unmistakable thunk of more arrows hitting human flesh.

No, not normal arrows. Too high-pitched.

You were correct before in your assessment, said Center. They are crossbow bolts.

Cries of pain from two other men at the campfire. Abel glanced back over his shoulder, again compromising his night vision. Silverstein was down, grasping at his neck. One of the other sergeants rose up and pawed at his face for a moment, then his arms went limp and he pitched forward into the fire. The other hopped around clutching at his leg. It was too dark to see exactly what was going on, but Abel figured there was a bolt lodged there in his thigh.

With a cry of anger, Silverstein yanked the bolt from his neck.

"Bloody hell!" he cried, and ran for the nearest stack of rifles. Before he could get there, three more bolts caught him in the chest and legs. Silverstein collapsed in front of the musket stand, his legs twitching.

Where are they? Abel thought-spoke. Give me a direction!

As stated, to the north-northeast, Center replied calmly.

Thrice-damn it, Abel thought. How am I supposed to know which way is east in this black field?

Churchill's to your rear, man, and she's in the west, said Raj's deep voice. You're facing east. Angle to your left.

The others of the platoon had heard the sergeant's cry. Several started up from their bedrolls and stood—and a couple got crossbow bolts in the back for their trouble. There was moaning and cursing all around.

The fallen sergeant had rolled out of the fire, and it cast its light once again.

"Sentries!" Abel called out to the edge of the darkness. "Keep your back to the flames!"

He wondered if there was anyone out there to hear him. The ambushers may have taken the sentries out first. Or they may not have known about them. Abel found one of the wider paths leading away from the fire and crawled down it as fast as he could. After reaching the edge of camp, he turned to the platoon and called back. "Stay down and get your rifles."

He crawled several more paces into the waving barley. It was only then that he stood up, looked around quickly for any sight of the company sentries, and ducked back down. He crawled another few paces, then popped up again.

There! The silhouette of a man not ten paces away. Could be an ambusher. Abel made his way toward the form as silently as possible. As he approached, he saw the man was facing out and staring into the darkness, moonlight silvering his shoulders. One of the armed sentries, then. Abel let out a low whistle, and the man turned.

"Goldie approaching!" Abel called out in a low but clear voice.

"W-who is it?"

"Dashian," Abel answered. The last thing he wanted to do was announce his rank to the darkness. He crawled closer.

"P-password?" asked the frightened sentry.

Abel had assigned the night's password himself.

"Carnadon Man," he said in a rasping whisper. He didn't want to give the call sign to the ambushers. Then he spoke louder. "Get down. You're making yourself a target."

"Where are they?" the sentry said, and looked around wildly.

"They'll find you if you keep talking!" Abel said more loudly. "Get down, corpsman!"

The sentry came to his senses quickly—he was a Guardian, after all. He sank to a knee beside Abel. And, despite his shakiness, the sentry did not fail to notice the command sash slung over Abel's shoulder, although he couldn't count the knots in the darkness.

"What's the plan, Colonel?"

There's an experienced soldier. He knows when in doubt to use the highest feasible rank.

"Major," Abel said. "First of all, don't look back at the fire. Keep your night eyes. I'll lead us to those bastards, but we need to get in the other pickets if we can."

"There's a rally plan," said the sentry. "But Staff Sergeant usually gives the order."

"Staff Sergeant is down," said Abel. "Call those pickets to us."

"Yes, sir."

The sentry stood up, put a thumb and forefinger together and placed them both in his mouth. He took a breath and blew hard and long. A piercing whistle erupted from the man, as loud as any sound Abel had heard coming from a human before. The sentry followed the long whistle with two shorter bursts. Then he quickly sank back down into the barley beside Abel.

"They'll know it's me and where to look, sir," he said. "I'm standing east quadrant."

Within moments, the other sentries were with them. Abel ordered them all down.

A crunching noise coming from camp. Abel turned, trying to shield his eyes from the firelight. He needn't have bothered. Human silhouettes blocked the light. Several of the men behind had found their weapons and were walking toward them through the barley.

"Stay down, you dickless daks!" Abel shouted back at them. "That's an order! Stay down until we—"

Whiiisk!

Another round of crossbow bolts.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Bolts met flesh. Flesh gave way.

Screams in the night. A muffled cry of anguish. Then the rest of the approaching men quickly dropped on their own accord.

They're down, but they'll still have itchy trigger fingers, Raj said. Gold on gold fire waiting to happen, and muzzle flash to blind everyone.

"Mind your caps," Abel shouted to them all. "Hammers down."

He turned back to the northeast and scouted the terrain ahead.

Sonic spectrum separation complete, Center said. Running steps discernible. The ambushing group is moving away rapidly toward the rise in the direction you are facing.

Abel gazed over the tops of the barley plants. There. A low hill. He'd seen it in the daylight and had briefly pondered why it was so much higher than the surrounding terrain—he'd deliberately kept his thoughts from Center in order not to receive a geology lesson. It was a pile of rocks about a fieldmarch high. He figured the stones had been cleared from this barley land over hundreds of years and piled up in a central midden.

He stood up and spoke to the sentries. "It's all right now. Get up. That low hill to the right of Levot—that'll be their fallback point."

"Yes, sir," answered the sentry who had whistled. "Do you hear them, sir?"

Abel turned to him. He couldn't resist. "Don't you? They might as well be a herd of daks," said Abel.

"Uh . . . no, sir."

Don't tease the lad, Abel. There is nothing for him to hear.

Abel put a hand to the sentry's shoulder.

"It's just my Scout's ear," he said, giving the guy a smile to put him at ease. He turned to the other sentries. "We'll doubletime for that hill. Echelon right, keep your sightlines. No verbal unless necessary." He turned to one of the other sentries. "You, what's your name?" He couldn't see faces in the darkness except for brief flashes of the eyes, but the Guardian was sitting in a relaxed position and seemed less rattled than the others.

"Corporal Messerschmidt, sir," the sentry replied.

A Cascader. Son of a Bruneberg tanner, if he had the right man.

Correct. He was sent south from the Bruneberg selection program two years ago.

"Messerschmidt, go back and get the platoon in order. You may be the closest thing we have to a working sergeant. Bring them up behind us."

"Yes, sir," Messerschmidt replied. "I'll see they behave like Goldies." Without another word, the corporal made his way through the barley back toward camp.

"Let's go," said Abel. "I'll take point since I know where we're going."

The three sentries got into position quickly.

"Move out."

Abel swung his rifle back around his shoulder and drew his blunderbuss pistol. He trotted forward, the sentries trailing after him. This would also leave a trampled path in the barley as a path for the remainder of the platoon.

Analysis of aerodynamic sonic signatures indicates an attacking group of six to eight armed men, said Center.

They concentrated their fire, too, Raj put in. Shows organization. There'll be command among them.

Concur, Center said. Behavior indicates a trained unit.

They'll mow us down if we try to take them head-on. Better to flank them, Abel thought.

Aye, agreed Raj.

Incoming. Center broke in without inflection of alarm—or any emotion at all.

"Down!" Abel called to the sentry nearest himself in a harsh whisper. The sentry passed the word along and then complied with the order.

But the invisible clouds of bolts were not aimed at them.

Another flurry passed over their heads. Mercifully, there was no round of screams to follow it.

Wildfire at shadows. They can't be that well trained, Abel thought. But we are. And Messerschmidt must have the platoon advancing low to the ground. Good.

Abel waited a moment more to be sure that there was no second wave of fire intended for suckers, then rose up and moved forward another hundred paces. They were nearing the base of the small rise. He signaled to the man behind him to break to the left. They cut diagonally toward the side of the rocky hillock and trotted another hundred paces.

Grouped fire to the right, Center announced. Well away from our position, however.

They hear the platoon out there. They don't know we're close, Abel thought.

The ground sloped upward and the barley thinned. The soil underfoot became rocky.

There is a natural alluvial rise beneath the rocky exterior in this place. The hillock is otherwise of human origin from field clearing, Center put in. Differential soil composition and weathering patterns puts the rise at approximately 10,250 Duisberg years old.

Okay, Abel thought. Thanks for that. I don't know how you figured it out but—

I am able to make use of the contrast ratio between the cones and the rods in your eyes—light receptors—to make analytical calculations for the chemical compositions of the pebbles underfoot. It is a process similar to x-ray spectrum analysis used in physical chemistry—

—but we have no time for this now, Abel thought. The one emotion, the one seemingly not entirely rational drive that Center possessed was an eagerness to share any and all information he had at any given moment. Abel supposed he couldn't blame Center. Information was, after all, Center's primary function and—if he could believe what he'd been told—Center's very being. To expect Center to know when to shut up was like expecting a carnadon to know when it had eaten enough dakflesh.

They came out of the barley and walked on loose stone. Abel moved his extended palm up and down in a wigwag signal for those behind him to tread as quietly as possible. The sentry behind him passed the order back. They climbed the hill for about twenty paces, and then Abel cut diagonally to his right. He called a halt and motioned for a weapons check. On more than one occasion in the Scouts, he had failed to put in a priming cap, or even to load his weapon, and might have gone into a firefight essentially unarmed had it not been for his captain reminding him to double-check. He thumbed back the hammer on his own pistol and was reassured to see the gleam of the cap on its fire nipple.

He made a quick check and saw from moonlight glint that all the rifles had their bayonets fixed.

"Hammers back. But quiet," he whispered.

Abel cocked the hammer slowly. The others did likewise with their rifles. Rifled barrels or no, these were single shot muzzle-loaded muskets. The first shots had to count. Even for Goldies, with their legendary thirty-blink reloads, getting off a second shot during a charge was unlikely.

That was what the bayonets were for.

Abel led the sentries forward at a trot.

They came upon the group of ambushers from slightly behind the position of the attackers on the hill. When his group was ten or fifteen paces away, Abel signaled a halt. He motioned the sentries to move out of their staggered line and form up beside him. When the sentries had come up, the four of them stood and watched for a moment. The moonlight outlined the shapes of the attackers nicely. Several of the men were cranking their crossbows back. Another of them was standing slightly behind the group, his hands on his hips.

There's the captain, Raj said.

Abel raised his pistol and drew a bead on the man. He knew when he fired he would be temporarily blinded by the flash. He might try closing his eyes, of course, but these weapons were hard enough to aim in daylight with eyes wide open and a steady hand. He would have to count on the flash having the same effect on his enemies as it did on his men and himself.

"Fire!" This time it was not a harsh whisper, but a shouted command. Abel pulled the trigger on his pistol. Its bang was followed by the crackle of the other three muskets.

The man with his hands on his hips crumpled to the ground. Two of the other silhouetted attackers did so as well. This was all he could make out until his pupils widened again.

Three out of four shots on target, Abel thought. Not bad. But his men were Guardians, after all. You had to be able to shoot straight just to gain admittance.

Abel tucked his pistol, still hot in the barrel, back into his belt. He momentarily considered swinging his rifle around and taking another shot, but instead drew his sword.

"Ready," he said.

The sentries lowered their rifles to hip height, bayonets thrust forward and gleaming in the moonlight.

"Charge!"

With Abel in the lead, they rushed upon the remaining attackers at a downhill trot.

Abel detected a moonlit glint to his left. It was a line of muskets leaning against man-sized stone upslope from him.

They piled their rifles to the side while they got the crossbows ready. Too much equipment at one time would slow them down. And where are their donts?

Hidden around the back of the hill, Center said.

Abel quickly placed himself between the attackers and their muskets. The sentries rushed in. The nearest attacker turned at the sound of crunching sandals on gravel—and took a bayonet to the stomach.

A man without a crossbow saw the onrushing sentries and cried out. "Arbalests right! No, to the right, thrice-damn you!" Abel thought he detected a Progar accent. The attempted re-aiming move was too quick. The bowmen were confused. Bow met bow with a clink, and some of the attackers dropped their weapons or got them tangled up with another's.

Metallic clinks instead of the clatter of wooden stocks.

The moonlight played upon the weapons.

Bronze and iron, Abel thought. They're made of metal, except for the stock. Which meant the crossbows were outlawed by edict. They were nishterlaub, material used in a heretical manner as set down by the Law of Zentrum.

Metal crossbows may as well have been blasphemy.

Even though he understood what Zentrum truly was—an A.I. akin to Center—and knew that the Laws and Edicts of the Land were meant to suppress innovation and maintain an everlasting stasis, Abel couldn't help feeling the crawling sensation in his gut that the sight of nishterlaub evoked.

It had been pounded into him in a thousand Thursday school lessons, after all. Except for permitted weapons, it was forbidden to use metals in combination or for purposes beyond cook pots and knives. To do so was horrible. It was wrong. All technological artifacts must be used in a downgraded manner.

"Nay, nay, forget it, forget it. To the donts," called out the one who had before given the order to turn. "Fall back, you chunks of puke, fall back!"

Definitely Progar—and rural at that.

The attackers turned to run. There were perhaps ten of them still standing. And behind them—

The rest of the Friday Company platoon rose up out of the barley. The click of fifteen muskets cocking froze the attackers in their tracks. Before they could think or move, Abel rushed forward. He grabbed the man who had called out orders and clotted him with the exposed hilt of his sword. The attacker fell to his knees, blood streaming down his face.

"Surrender," Abel called out. "Or die where you stand!"

Slowly, the other men lowered their crossbows. There was something like a collective sigh of resignation that passed among them.

Defeat.

"Mercy," said the man at Abel's feet. "For the love of Zentrum, mercy."

He spoke with the thick accent of a man of Progar.

Abel shook his head grimly. Mercy? That was the last thing the man was going to get.

Copyright © 2014 by David Drake

Copyright © 2014 by Tony Daniel


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