… Listen! Among the many struggles and catastrophes associated with the return of the Draconis, not all were stories of honorable struggle. Some, although reckoned by blood as counted among the Noble, chose to turn craven in their obeisance to the new Powers in the land.
Among these were the leaders of House Draejan, those stemming from Constantine’s Branch. In exchange for petty commercial concessions from the new overlords, Draejan’s forces cooperated in the hunting down and extinguishing of their traditional rivals, House Raylinth, until none were known to still be abroad in the land. The Draekjan, as they were now called by many, had complete concession over the lucrative tanning, mining, cartage, and gate rights — a sizable portion of which they handed over to their masters with extreme precision and regularity.
Herodian the Younger might have been mistaken for a townsman, a grasping merchant by his dress and demeanor. He was fat, and covered his belly with a wide belt of fashioned gold, inlaid with gaudy jewels. But he stood in true generation from Constantine and he from Falheim. Herodian had never seen a battle he couldn’t buy his way out of. He was not known to have seen any battles at all.
At this time, he was bent on adding — to the other accounts of his tollage — the lumber rights and grain millage from the great wheel on the river. This was steady income, and of no interest to his Draconic masters, or their lesser servants, and he coveted the additional coins. Even in such times, food-growers and herders needed wood for their barns and fencing, and would find a way to pay. In not in coin, then in service. Herodian did not scruple at demanding any form of service, many of them vile or simply cruel.
The mill was situated at a fall of water by the eastern edge of the Savage Woods. In those times down to our own, no one enters (and few ever leave) the Woods, fearing what dwelled within A few members of House Dilathi were thought to survive within, relatively safe from the predations of the Draconis due to the resistant wood of the native trees, and the efforts of a few greater Druids. If the Fae had portals within, they were never spoken of.
The millkeep was a fair, respected half-orc named Glum. He ran a fair mill, a brisk business day and most of the night, and kept everything in order.
On a fair day in September — I recall it in full, said the Chronicler — Herodian rode, or rather, rolled, up upon the mill, with a dozen spear-carrying henchwards in tow, bypassing the line of peasants and demanding to speak at once to Glum.
With a deep, rumbling grunt, and heave of his arms, Glum disconnected the mechanism that spun the grindstone, and it slowly spun to a halt.
“What is it?” he bellowed as he came out.
“You are Glum, the Miller?” queried Herodian, speaking through a lackey.
“I am. State yer business, I have orders to fill, and ye see the line.”
“Very well. Upon examination of the accounts, my Master finds that you are 10 years in arrears on this operation. How will you make satisfaction?”
“WHAT? Outrageous. Everything on this side of the river is House Dalathi, and has been for years uncounted.”
“The Dalathi are all dead,” murmured Herodian. “And these are new times. I could have this stream redirected, and whom would your mill serve then?”
Just then, three wagons emerged from the forest, the drivers hooded and cloaked and the horses huge and ringed with fog, or perhaps it was sweat from the effort of their labors.
Herodian thought he saw a chance to gain some profit. “Seize them!” he ordered, and his henchwards pushed forwards, ready to seize the wagons and the horses. By force if the woodmen were inclined to fight.
A screeching came from the woods beyond, as if from the rubbing of great treelimbs in a gale. A dozen Treants emerged, striding between the wagons. With their long limbs, they grabbed the frontmost of Herodian’s men, two apiece, and continued marching towards the river.
Herodian stood upright in his stirrups a moment, in shock. And then he turned his horse and made to ford the river, to safety.
A laughing voice from the shadowed woods was heard, “Thus Herodian abandoned his odious claim.”
A few of the henchwards managed to sprint, and swim, into the river and back to their homes.
Glum laughed. Turning back to his work, he offered a terse observation to those of his customers within earshot.
Getting the Bauble Back:
A Simple Stealth Module for Draconis
It is nighttime, misty and dark. The Violet Thorn is busy
A hooded person enters, orders a drink, and asks if
Aloysius is nearby.
“Why yes, he’s right over there.”
The Barkeep points to the table where Aloysius is sitting,
enjoying a drink with his friends.
“Thank you, good sir.”
HOODED PERSON drops a few coins on the bar, then walks
quietly over to Aloysius’s table and coughs into her hand,
apparently in order to get his attention without attracting
that of others in the tavern.
HOODED WOMAN (CONT’D)
“Might I ask for private word with
Aloysius looks the Hooded Person up and down.
“Very well, I’ll back in a moment
Together they walk into a private room. About a minute
later, Aloysius exits the room and returns to his table,
while the Hooded Person leaves by the front door.
(He lowers his voice)
“Well, my friends. It seems we
have an opportunity to make a
little coin at minimal risk. IF we
act fast. Would you like to hear
more about it?”
“Well, that lady, hmmph, is an old
colleague of mine from an earlier
part of my career.
LATER: THEY MEET
THE HOODED WOMAN AT
(In a low voice)
“Brynne, We’re here.”
Driving home, Scofield recalled how he and Bob Thompson had first put together what became the Kronsys calibration unit about a dozen years ago.
Calibration, in this technical area, is a rare talent. It requires — almost — someone with Asperger’s syndrome-like skills in attention to detail. Bob Thompson had this — the ability to pick up on the slightest disharmony among the instrumentation.
As with traditional piano tuners and their set of forks, there was in their sort of instrumentation a physical, ‘ground truth’ to what they did. That empirical ground truth was located in a specific, custom-modified six-amphere wire from a standard microwave gun that Bob had devised. It was Scofield who had figured out a means of putting a company together, the traditional garage-and-credit-card based startup.
Thompson’s hack was reliable, clever, and (unfortunately) unpatentable. And considered a trade secret by Kronsys, once they had brought bought them out to acquire their technology. They hired on Thomson and Scofield to run the new product group.
Coming back to the present as he pulled the car into his driveway, Scofield guessed that Bob and the others had been unceremoniously RIFed. In other words, fired. His old friend had probably been seen out the door with nothing but his pictures of his kids in a box under his arm. They had built that unit from nothing, and now it was gone.
Once he was back in his apartment, it didn’t take Scofield long to dig out Bob’s old AOL account and open it to a chat window. Then, he popped open a beer to wait.
At 9:30, Bob logged on. He sent over a few lines of text:
“I must have Moscow Rules”
…and then the daughter window closed, a little ‘hung-up phone’ picture taking its place
James looked at the screen a moment, leaned back and cracked his knuckles as he was wont to do when puzzling something out, and then got up. Time for him to visit the local Dunks’, it appeared.
But Bob never arrived. It turned out, as he learned late that night, that Bob Thompson was dead.
Just about the time Scofield was thinking of walking out and dumping the whole business, he heard the sound of a cart coming down the corridor. He looked, and saw a young man bringing what he could only guess was a PC of some unknown brand, the ‘workstation’ he had been expecting.
“Scofield, J-7? right? This setup is here for you,” said the fellow, who looked and sounded like “Desktop Support” was his chosen line of work.
“Yes. I’m Jim. Your name?”
“I’m just an outside contractor, here for the day. Call me Jay if you like. I’m her to set this up for you.”
“OK, Jay. Well, I’ll get out of your way and head to lunch, then.”
Not the talkative type, Scofield thought.
Jim got up from his chair, and retraced his steps, all the way back to his car. He got in, drove the short distance to the closest Dunkin’ Donuts, and bought a coffee and a muffin. He sat down to contemplate the whole crazy business.
While he was sipping his coffee, Scofield spotted the facade of the big, old 19th-century public library building. He wondered if it might be open, and then realized, of course it would. On a whim, he decided to burn up a few minutes of his break with a little quick and dirty-style research on their Internet PC’s.
He first searched for mentions of Kronsys as covered by the local news media. There weren’t any, at least not since the building had gone in, a dozen years ago. Next, he searched for hits on his ex-boss and ex-colleagues. He knew, for instance, that Bob had competed in bridge tournaments, and that Skip was fond of get-togethers for tasting freshly made craft beers. And, come to think of it, hadn’t Jon submitted — successfully — a technical paper for a recent Statistical Signal Processing Workshop put on by IEEE? About waveform transformations or something?
It took a few minutes, but he did find a couple of likely-looking e-mail addresses for his colleagues. He fired off a quick “Hi from Jim, I’m back” to each of them before logging off (after checking to erase his browser history) and returning to Kronsys.
The reminder of the day was nearly as tedious as the morning had been. His workstation, that nondescript, no-label PC, was up and running as he sat down. And, glory be! There was an Excel file of the call log records. That much was a relief.
There was also a phone on his desk. It appeared, however, to be unpowered and unconnected. The whole shebang still felt so alienating and impersonal.
Scofield worked until it was nearly 5:00, poking around the seemingly endless rows of call data, still without finding anything that seemed like a pattern. At the stroke of 5:00, in walked Severin again; he noted that he was still here, and suggested that he would see Scofield tomorrow.
From the (unstaffed) Building C-West foyer, he took the left stairs up to the second floor. Another corridor, comprised of high-wall cubicle workstations, both sides, over its entire length. All of these were empty. Eighteen, twenty, twenty-two steps down, on his left-hand side he spotted his own first name and initial, and an integer. “James S-7.” He sat down in the chair. No laptop, no phone, just the muted grays and browns of the sparse cubicle furnishings.
After about a minute, a fellow came down the corridor and walked into James’ cube.
“James, Major Scofield—Jim? Hello. I am Adrian Severin.” He held out his hand, and Jim shook it. “I’ve been assigned as your manager. How do you do? And, I should say, Welcome Back!” He looked like he was about to try some lameass sort of salute, but at Scofield’s look he thought better of it.
“Fine, thanks, umm, Hi.” Scofield offered his hand. “Did Bob retire?”
“I couldn’t say. You know, protocol.”
“Oh, for fucks’ sake. Right, OK. Sorry. Well, who is around? Skip, Stephen, Jon?
“You’re kidding me.”
Severin shook his head.
“Who is in our workgroup then?”
Severin frowned again. “You are it, I’m afraid”
Severin stood looking at him a moment, then said, “I’ll be right back.”
This was all very cryptic, and unlike the corporate culture Scofield remembered. “What’s the deal?” he wondered. They must have laid everyone off. It was the only logical explanation. But why all the secrecy?
∞ ∞ ∞
A little while later, Severin returned with a hefty stack of what appeared to be printouts of telephone call logs.
“While we’re waiting to get your workstation set up, I wondered if you could tend to a short-term task for us? To pour over these, basically, and look for anomalies and patterns.”
“Such as?” This was the stupidest-sounding request-order he had heard in a long time. And, over in-country, he had heard some doozies.
“As you can see,” Severin continued, “these are color-coded to indicate Authorized calls, in green bars, and Unauthorized calls— orange bars.
“And if you could go through the ‘Unath’ lines and look for patterns, clusters, anything that leaps out at you, whatever might help us towards discover something actionable.”
“By hand?” Scofield scowled. “This would certainly go a lot faster with even the simplest bit of programming applied to the problem. What system houses the call records?”
“The phone system.”
There was a moment while Scofield suppressed the urge to explicitly mock this bullshit.
“Right. Look, Adrian, is there something you are not telling me?”
“Such as, maybe Kronsys has closed down my old department, and, because of the VRR/USERRA stuff, you don’t know what to do about me?
“I suppose that might be a reasonable inference for you to make. But we do have work that needs to be done.”
“I see. Well, OK. How about I dig into these until lunch, and then after a break and a bite to eat, maybe we could discuss this further? How can I reach you—since I don’t even have a desk phone yet?”
“Sounds good. Your workstation should be set up by the time you return; and, with any luck, your phone—internal calls only at this point.”
“All right then. See you at 1:00”
Scofield pulled the stack of printouts towards him, put the yellow pad and fine tip marker at his right hand, and dived into the work.
Two hours later, his eyes hurt and he hadn’t started to glimpse any pattern to be discerned in the small set of ‘Unauth’ call records. He really was starting to conclude that the whole setup was merely ‘make-work’ and that they were pulling a CYA to keep out of hot water with their funders at the Pentagon.
He thought instead about his inexplicably odd and disquieting first day back at work, starting just ten hours ago, this morning. At his final Army debriefing, His CO had suggested that he take a break, a week anyway, but he was not a fan of idleness. He had jumped right back in.
Scofield recalled that he was driving to work yesterday morning, heading in for his first day back at his civilian job at Kronsys Corp, a MIL-SPEC defense equipment manufacturer. He had been deployed in Afghanistan for eighteen months, and he was looking forward to seeing his old buds again, especially his old business partner Bob Thomson.
Due to the security protocols of the contracting work they did, personal, off-the-job electronic communication was forbidden among Kronsys employees. Although of course it went on anyway, here and there. Like office romance and harassment, it was discouraged but never quite squelched entirely. He had tried to contact Bob while he was away but, ever a stickler for ‘the rules, Thompson never wrote him back. In fact, he hadn’t heard hardly a thing from Skip, or Jon, or Stephen, the other guys on his team since shipping out. Nothing in the work Inbox other than required official crap from corporate. He was looking forward to rejoining their old lunchtime walking club, and catching up on all the skinny.
Scofield parked his car in a pretty good spot, got out and entered the lobby. The young lady staffing the reception desk was new. Pretty, too.
“Hi, I’m Jim, I work here. I am restarting.” He held out his badge for her to see.
“Very good. Sign here please, while I print you some identifying information and an access pass.”
“I have that. Here … ”
“Oh. No, you need a new one, and a new photo. Protocol, you see.”
“Yes, OK. Like in the Army, I know.” He smiled as he handed over the old ID.
No return smile was offered.
“Hmm. Not so pretty inside, maybe,” he mused.
Getting new ID only took a few moments. The receptionist handed it to him—He put a hand out to proceed through the second, access door, waiting for her to buzz it open.
She looked up at him. “You will need directions.”
“You’ve been relocated.”
He realized that he should have expected some changes like this. “Where to?”
“Down the length of this corridor, then out; proceed to Building C2, across the quad. You’re still within the compound there, so your badge will work when you get to the Building C entrance.”
“OK. My boss is Bob Thompson, can you call him and tell him that I am on my way?”
She looked at her screen, and then back at Scofield. “Building C, 200 west. Proceed until you locate your cubicle, it will be on your left. There you should find your new workstation and assignment materials. There will be someone around soon to discuss your re-entry schedule.”
“I couldn’t say, sir. You know, protocol.”
She hit a button on her screen, and a sensomotor on the doorframe made an unlocking sound.
Scofield walked through it, and began walking down the long corridor. That he was pleased that to observe, he did remember. “One goddam thing is the same, at least.” And so on, out into the quad, arriving at the front of Building C. He held up his new badge to the doorway reader and heard an unlocking motor whir again. He entered.
[I’ve been working on this one for a while, and while I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, I don’t know that I’m going to finish it. ]
“Under VRR/USERRA, military services members returning to the civilian workforce have enforceable reemployment protection, and are entitled to the same seniority, status and pay, as well as other rights and benefits, as they would have had reason to expect had they not been called up.” — U.S. Department of Labor/Veterans Affairs (VA)
If asked to name one person of his long acquaintance whom Major James Scofield, recently ex- of the US Army Reserves, would have considered the least likely to commit suicide, his pick might been his business partner, Bob Thomson. And yet, as he read in the Metro section of the Boston Globe online, last night Bob Thompson had done just exactly that.
He re-read the Globe’s brief reporting. “Former calibration engineer Robert Thompson, 43, was found dead at his Waltham home this evening. An official on the scene stated that the victim’s single gunshot wound appeared to be self-inflicted. Police are still on-scene.”
Steve Allison, another old Kronsys colleague, had sent him the link. Kronsys staff were instructed, on day one and on an annual rotation subsequently, not to personal e-mail addresses, supposedly due to the security requirements demanded of a defense contractor. But Scofield had this one, as well as Thompson’s, since before their small calibration shop had been acquired by Kronsys, only 36 months ago. He didn’t especially like or admire Allison – Bob had hired him – but he was a good worker and effective at his specialty.
Scanning his inbox, Scofield determined that there were no recent messages from Bob. Thompson was ever a stickler for the rules. Pushing back his chair, he grabbed a beer from the mini-fridge and reflected, trying to make an assessment of what the hell he did feel about the death of his quirky friend. He was not able to yet; he couldn’t take it in. It was too large and dark and troubling. With an effort of will, he turned his mind to something else. Also disturbing but less, he expected, painful. There was nothing to be done for poor Bob Thompson at this point, anyway.
I was wrapping the brick in my room. Yeah, I had it. And yeah, I was going to hand it over to the client. You get a reputation for delivering on your contracts, and you need to uphold it. I was only worried about how I would get it back into the museum without being caught.
In this part of the world, and in the circles I had to travel in, Siberian tea bricks were once again the preferred form of currency. It sounds crazy, but after the fall of the G8 and the corporate moguls, there was no trust in government specie anymore and traders reverted to the old forms. And no tea bricks were more valuable than the old pre-fall, Communist ones. Pressed and dried by long-dead Commissars back when both China and Russia laid their jealous eyes on Tibet. They were things of beauty, well-constructed and, in a pinch, functionally useful. If you liked tea, I suppose.
As a gifted Traveller, and a bit of a off-license thief, I was able to slip between times and worlds without all the usual paperwork. This was a great advantage for jobs like this, but it carried all manner of attendant risks. The largest of which was Banning. If I were caught swiping the artifact from some museum in a time and place other than my homeline, they’d go into my head and do some “ad-justing” and “re-educating” and I’d be relegated to singletravelling like every other poor sod on this foolish and fallen rock.
And, above all, I didn’t want that to happen.
But right now, I had to get the brick to the man. And that in itself was far from a sure thing. You have no idea how inconvenient crosstown traffic had become since the most recent takeover.