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Orion Shall Rise
By Poul Anderson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Trigonier Trust
All rights reserved.
Somewhere in the western Ocean, a storm came into being. No man ever knew the place. Once moonlets on sentry-go around the planet would have seen and warned, but most of them had come down as shooting stars, centuries past, and the rest gone silent. The Domain could not keep a global watch; metals for aircraft were too scarce, fuel too costly in the manufacture. Unseen by any, save maybe a few sailors, whom it would have drowned, the storm gathered strength as it lumbered eastward. By the time that vessels off the Uropan coasts were radioing news of it, observers in Skyholm had seen the earliest sinister changes in cloud patterns far below them, and called for the Weather Corps.
Iern got word only upon his return to Beynac. He had been riding circuit through the Ferlay lands in Dordoyn, as was his seasonal task – hearing tenants, freeholders, villagers, herders, timber-cutters, their complaints, ideas, hopes, prides, dreads, gossips; easing grievances, arbitrating disputes, negotiating arrangements as best he was able; presiding over various festivals and ceremonies as tradition demanded; rewarding good deeds or faithful service; letting himself be entertained, and in return being a pleasant, accessible guest, from whom there flowed tales of scenes beyond these horizons; in general, reweaving the bonds between his family and the people it led.
Now he and his attendants rode home along the river road. Autumn flamed in hillside forests, but air was mild and sweet. Sunlight slanted from the west, cliffs shone, the stream glistened down the steep length of its valley. From afar, a woodsman's horn sounded lonesome, and found answer in echoes. The cloaks of the men lent vividness, while dust thumped upward by hooves caught light and swirled against shadows like firelit smoke.
Ans Debyron, secretary to Iern, made his horse trot until he rode alongside the master. 'A very successful trip, I'd say, sir,' he ventured. A native of these parts, lately graduated from the Consvatoire of Sarlat, he was inclined to be pompous, though otherwise he was a competent and agreeable fellow. The soft Occitan enunciation of his Francey redeemed his choice of words.
'Well, things seemed to go fairly smoothly,' Iern replied. 'I'm too new at this to be sure.'
'Sir,' Ans declared, 'they like you. You're fair-minded, and you don't need much explanation before you understand a matter –oh, they appreciate your taking the trouble to learn this dialect and its nuances – but you're also ... you're genial. That's not been too common among castlekeepers here.'
'Like my father, when he served his hitch?' The groundling's dismay brought a grin from Iern. 'No disrespect intended, Ans, or at least no more than comes naturally from a son. He's a great man, in his own right as well as in the Domain, but he and I are quite different.' He paused, then plunged; a mission completed gave a special sense of comradeship. 'To tell the truth, when he wanted me to take over this post, I came near to rebellion.'
'Really? May I ask why?'
Iern shrugged. 'Consider. I was newly commissioned, in line for advanced training in aircraft and meteorology, the things I'd been aiming at through most of my Cadetship. Besides, I had a large backlog of pleasures in mind for my free time. And I insisted I had no talent for administration. If he absolutely must put me in charge of a family holding, then couldn't it be in some territory where the girls were ready to hop into bed with me? Certainly I knew nothing about Dordoyn. You remember my ties are to Brezh, where the very language is different.'
He paused before he went on: '"Take your share of the load," my father said, and ended the matter. He's that sort of man. I'm not sorry now. It's lovely country here, grand people. And, of course, I only have to be on hand for two or three months, scattered through the year. Otherwise I fly.'
Enough reserve remained in him that he was glad to break off his confession abruptly, when they rounded a bluff and saw Castle Beynac ahead. 'Hoy, there she is!' he exclaimed and spurred his mount forward and then up the side road.
Ans gaped after him before also setting into gallop. Talence Iern Ferlay was not altogether of Ileduciel; he continued to surprise those who remembered lords more grave.
His stature was only average for a man of the Aerogens, though this made him tall among the stocky Dordoynais. Thanks to the pysan side of his ancestry, he was more muscular than his father; and in him the sharp face was somewhat broadened and blunted, with cheekbones wide and high, eyes bright blue, hair brown and unruly, voice a light baritone. His taste in clothes ran to the flamboyant.
The castle welcomed him with a bravery of banners and sun-gleams off tower windows. Its handsomeness was another thing which reconciled him to his station here. Throughout Franceterr, too many such medieval buildings, reoccupied after the Judgment when there was again a need for fortresses, had been remodeled over the centuries until they were jumbles of styles and functions. The Ferlays had usually had better taste, and when it faltered, later generations demolished the mistakes. Beynac reared mighty on its height above the river, and modern additions – even the radio mast or the airy residential wing – seemed to be treasures that it was natural for the old warrior walls to protect.
As always in these peaceful times, the gates stood open; the few small cannon, armored cars, catapults, and dartthrowers were relics; the sentry who winded his bugle was ornamental. Courtyard stones clattered beneath horseshoes; Clan Talence could afford the iron thus to equip its leading men and their immediate attendants. Dwellers spilled from the buildings and ran to greet the keeper, shouting and windmilling their arms in the Southern manner. Almost as exuberant was the concubine Iern had brought along from Tournev. Eagerness leaped in him. Three weeks or so, out among the chaste Dordoynais, had grown confoundedly long.
Then Talence Hald Tireur, his first officer, pushed through the crowd to his stirrup. The man's face was grim. 'It's well you're back, sir,' he said without preamble. 'A message came today for you from Weather Corps headquarters. You're to call in at once.'
Iern swore at himself for not having taken a transceiver in his kit. Inexperience. It wouldn't happen again. He swung from the saddle and raced to the donjon.
Lamplight relieved its gloom, furnishings and artwork its starkness. Iern hardly noticed. He believed he knew why they in Skyholm wanted him, and his nerves thrummed.
A circular staircase led to the tower room where the radio equipment was. He took it three hollowed-out steps at a bound, and flung himself into the operator's chair. His fingers sped across the keyboard. Through the clicking he heard a buzz, and he smelled a pungency as the set warmed up. It was big, for the vacuum tubes in its wooden console filled much space, and crude compared to the transistorized portables – those were trade goods from the Maurai Federation – but, powered by the castle's coal-fired generator, it could fling a signal as far as Skyholm, and that sufficed.
From this elevation he spied the aerostat, low above a ridge to the north. Closer here than it was to the country where he had been born, it showed correspondingly larger, almost the size of a full moon, pale and faintly webbed in the window. A hawk sailed by, briefly hiding the sight behind wings which the declining sun turned fiery gold. A slight shiver passed through Iern. All his training in science and logic had never quite erased what Breizhad pysans muttered by their firesides in his childhood, of omens and fates.
He shoved superstition aside. The set was ready. He transmitted his identification code. After a moment that hummed, a female voice came from the speaker: 'Communications Center. Lieutenant Dykenskyt Gwenna Warden on duty.' Her Angley bore a Rhinland accent; she must spend most of her groundside time there. 'You are ... are you Talence Yern Ferlay? I'll switch you directly to Weather Command.'
'Iern,' the man corrected, pronouncing the unaccented first syllable as ee. A part of him snickered at himself. Why did he care how his name was spoken? Why, because the odds were that what lay ahead would bring him glory, if he survived, and in his youthfulness he wanted no confusions about who the hero was.
'Apologies,' Gwenna replied indifferently. Was she brusque because the business was urgent, or because she was young too and, like so many of today's young, chafed at formality and restraint? He wondered fleetingly what she looked like. When the Thirty Clans numbered some sixty thousand individuals, the officers among them ten thousand, you couldn't meet everybody in your lifetime. And how did she feel, off in her aerie thirty kilometers above earth and sea and oncoming storm? That must be a terrifying piece of weather on the march. Why else summon all the Stormriders in the Corps? It had to be the whole of their small elite, for otherwise Iern would have been left to finish his tour of obligation among his groundlings.
Buzz, click-click, mutter, and another female voice, but now of a person he knew, his superior, Colonel Vosmaer Tess Rayman: 'Lieutenant Iern!'
'Madame,' he said into his microphone. 'I salute.'
'You've doubtless guessed. A hurricane is in the Gulf, aimed at the Zhironn coast. Force Twelve. It'll flatten the Etang area, drown a score of fishing villages, and probably wreck Port Bordeu, with everything that that implies for shipping. Local authorities say they can't evacuate more than a third of the inhabitants. The loss of life will be enormous.'
'But you think we can break it?' Trumpets resounded in Iern's head. The hair stood up on his arms. 'Ready for service, madame!'
Anxiety softened her tone. 'Are you certain? You've had a day's journey, you must be tired, and this mission is an order of magnitude beyond any previous entries you've made. The least error – We need every data point we can get, but we don't need a wrecked plane and a dead pilot.'
'You won't get either one from me, madame.'
Tess sighed; he could almost see her head shake. 'No boy realizes he can die, does he?' Crisply: 'Very well, Lieutenant. Proceed to Port Bordeu. They'll have a briefing ready for you, though I'm afraid it will be brief indeed. Too little information as yet. You're the closest Stormrider; you'll reach the objective first, in spite of this late call-in. What you discover will be critical.' She paused. 'On your way, then. Blessings fly with you.'
'Thank you, madame.' Iern snapped up the main switch, left his chair, and ran.
From his aircraft as he neared, the hurricane made a black mountain range under which the sun had already set. Clouds flying before it hid the Gulf below their rags, though now and again he glimpsed water lashed into white violence – once a ship, sails furled, sea anchor out, crew waiting to learn if they would live or die. Elsewhere the sky was clear, violet in the east where stars blinked forth, blue overhead, greenish in the west. As yet, Skyholm caught sunlight and cast it from the north, sheen and shadow chased each other across the clouds beneath, but soon it would darken.
Well, Iern thought, he'd be blind anyway, after he invaded the tumult ahead.
Ever more strong through the murmur of the jet engine he heard the air, and he felt how his craft shivered and bucked. As hands and feet danced through the rhythms of control, he laughed for delight. This was not the little propeller-driven sparrow, half wood and canvas, which had taken him from Beynac to Bordeu; this was a falcon, as good as anything the Maurai themselves possessed. The alloys in it were worth a Captain's ransom, and it burned fuel in torrents, hence few of its kind existed on Earth – but it could outpace sound or ascend to Skyholm. It traveled unarmed, for what could attack it? Not that it would see use in war; it was too valuable. If Iern went into combat, he would fly a machine scarcely better than the one which belonged to the estate.
Across his mind flickered a question about how that would feel. The Espaynian conflict had occurred before his birth, and he had been an adolescent Cadet during the Italyan campaign. Would there be more affrays? The Domain had failed to keep Lonzo de Zamora from bringing most of Iberya under his Zheneralship, but later it did check his son's ambition to get control of the western Mediterr Sea. ... Iern hoped the peace would endure. He didn't relish the idea of killing men. He didn't even hunt –
A voice in his earphones recalled him. 'What was that, Lieutenant? You sounded amused.'
'Oh. Oh, nothing,' he answered. A blush went warm over his cheeks. It wasn't professional to admit enjoyment of a dangerous mission. Hastily: 'I hear a bit of static. How are you receiving from my instruments?'
'Satisfactory. We now have three more units on the fringes and are receiving from them too, so we're beginning to get a picture. Take heed.' Aloft in the aerostat, with the Domain's single powerful computer, the analysis officer rapped forth a series of technicalities and figures.
Iern scowled. 'Not enough, not enough information by a dozen bowshots.'
'Of course. Your assignment –'
'Listen,' Iern interrupted. 'I expected this. By the time we've learned what we need to know, being cautious, the brute will've reached land. No, I'll make for its middle instead. I recommend my fellow pilots dive at least halfway into the cyclone pattern, at appropriate altitudes, from where they are.'
'You will transmit my recommendation, Major.' Iern knew his teammates would follow it; pride of self as well as the honor of the Corps commanded them. 'I am about to accelerate. Prepare for a high rate of input.
Did he hear a gulp? 'Very good, Lieutenant.'
A glow as from wine mounted within Iern. In the present kind of situation, a Stormrider awing outranked everybody but the Captain of Skyholm. This was his first exercise of that authority. It felt almost like having his first woman.
And here was his first proper foe, too! He had plunged into wild weather often before, but simply for practice and to collect data for the forecasters and scientists. A storm so great that men fought against it came but twice or thrice in a career.
From beneath his fingers on the controls, power surged. The jet-plane short upward on a slant that pressed Iern into the leather of his seat. Ten kilometers high, he throttled back, tilted over, and peered downward while he circled. His enemy filled most of his vision with rolling, lightning-shot murk, though eastward across the curve of the world he glimpsed open water and the shores he hoped to help save. The sight had a wild magnificence, but to dawdle over it would be treason to his cause.
Radar beams probed from the craft. Infrared sensors converted radiation into measurements. A television camera relayed an optical image to flesh out what Iern saw through his calibrated magnifiers and described in semimathematical language. (A recent addition to the arsenal, that television, a scarce and expensive import from the Maurai – but he blessed the commerce which had brought it to Uropa.)
Though he had located the eye of the storm, he had yet to map it. 'I am ready to descend,' he announced.
'Zhesu ward you,' said the major shakily.
Iern shrugged. He attended services because that was what a proper Clansman did, but made no bones about being an agnostic. 'Thank you, sir,' he replied. 'I'll spiral in loops of three kilometers' radius, two kilometers apart. That looks to me like the best flight plan.' He couldn't resist bravado: Ask my comrades to wish me good hunting, as I wish them it!'
His falcon stooped.
Night closed in. Wind raved and tore, lightning flared, thunder crashed, rain and sleet smote metal and hammered the pilot's canopy. Flung back and forth, up and down and around, half deafened by skirl and roar, he lost himself in the fight to keep his antagonist from ripping his craft asunder or casting it into the sea. Sometimes he lurched out into the calm at the center, but instantly speared back into the wall. And always as he whirled, his instruments gauged, while a hard-driven ultrahigh-frequency beam sent their messages outward – pressures, velocities, ionizations, potentials, gradients – the numbers of the beast.
Afar in Skyholm, computer technicians fed their engine what he and his fellows gave. To the meteorologists it returned an understanding that grew. Its program was the product of hundreds of years of study, thought, trial, and ofttimes fatal error. Even during the Isolation Era that the Enric Restoration ended, that work had gone forward. For was not the Aerogens king and queen of heaven?
Iern's radarscope glowed a warning at him. He was close to hillhigh waves; he had done what he could, and his next duty was to escape. He reeled out of turbulence, into the central quietness, stood his vessel on its tail, and climbed. Above him the sky was a disc of purple wherein a star trembled.
Excerpted from Orion Shall Rise by Poul Anderson. Copyright © 1983 Trigonier Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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