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The humpback whale cruised slowly northward through the blue waters of the eastern Atlantis Ocean, listening to the sounds of the sea around him. Sound carries far under water, depending upon its frequency. The humpback did not use sonar, but used the sounds created by other sea creatures large and small, to create a three dimensional map of its surroundings that stretched, with decreasing accuracy, for a bubble hundreds of miles around.

To the southwest were several schools of fish. Birds were diving on them and tuna were working over one while a school of spiny sharks was attacking another. To the northwest, by the lands of ice, a pod of fellow humpbacks, the ocean's great communicators, were giving their siren calls, imbedding in them a constant litany of information. A school of squid was in the deeps below the humpback, but he was neither a pelagic hunter like the sei and blues, to go after the schools to the south, nor a deep hunter like the pod of sperm whales to the west, that could make the five hundred meters down to the shoal. No, he was an inshore hunter, who could gorge on herring for a few weeks and then survive for months on the stored fat.

So Bruno told himself. But he was still hungry and the resupply ships weren't due for another two weeks.

As he was mentally grumbling to himself, and turning to the east to stay inside his patrol zone, he picked up the frantic squealing of delphino. He listened and then continued his slow and lazy turn until he was pointed in the direction of the distant pod just sculling along a hundred meters below the surface where the interference from the surface chop dropped off. The sound was attenuated by the distance, the high-frequency pinging of the delphinos dropped off rapidly even in cold water, but the humpbacks were not merely the loudest whales in the ocean, they had the best hearing. He waited until the sound began to shift and then surfaced, blasting out the air he had held in his lungs for long minutes and taking in a deep gulp of cold north Atlantis air. He then dropped back to a hundred meters, turned tail up and began to let out a deep series of throbs, like deep, giant drumbeats that resounded through the ocean.

* * *

The mer was lying in mud, his hands interlaced behind his head to keep it up out of the glutinous black mass. Asfaw didn't like sitting in mud, but the alternative was swimming back and forth and that got old quick. He thought to himself, as he had at least a hundred times, that he ought to do something about there being nothing but mud down here. But then he reminded himself that writing memos was a pain in the tail and probably nothing would be done anyway; support of the mer was a pretty low priority around here as their quarters proved. So he continued sitting in the mud, lying in the mud and occasionally playing with the mud through the long watches.

As he was contemplating, again, that he'd much rather be back at Blackbeard Base or even out with the scouts, he sat up and cocked his head to the side. He listened for a moment then blanched, his fair skin turning fairer in the dark waters. He quickly swam to the surface and took a breath of air, using it to blast the water in his lungs out through the gill-slits in his ribcage. There wasn't anyone on the floating dock so he swam over to the ladder and climbed up it, hand over hand, until he could see over the side of the dock.

The messenger was sitting on a chair, see, he at least had a chair, his head bowed on his chest. The moon had set but lantern light was more than enough to see that he was slightly drooling and twitching in his sleep.

"Robertson!" the mer snapped. "Wake up!"

"Whah?" the messenger said, sitting up and looking around blearily.

"Wake up and get ready to take a message," the mer said.

"Yes, sir," the private replied, turning up the oil lamp on his table and fumbling out writing materials and instruments.

"When you've delivered the message, go wake up the rest of the messengers; we're going to have a busy day."

"Yes, sir," the messenger repeated. As the mer dictated, the pen of the messenger trembled and his face, too, turned stark white in the red lamplight.

* * *

"As you can see," the young man said, drawing another line on the chalkboard. "Subedei used indirect methods in each of his campaigns. And in each of his major battles, although often heavily outnumbered by equally trained forces, he was able to overcome them by destroying their will to fight or their means."

The instructor was, if anything, younger than most of his students, which were a young crowd. He was barely twenty, but eyes were cold and old and his hard face was lined with scars, as was the hand that wielded the chalk. His other hand ended in a complex hook and clamp prosthetic. That was currently hooked in the belt of his undress uniform, a gray kimonolike tunic with an undershirt of unbleached cosilk, a heavy cosilk scarf wrapped around his neck and tucked into the tunic, blue pants with a light blue seam down the trouser-leg and heavy, rough-leather boots. The uniform was somewhat faded with use and washings and the boots had seen heavy use too. But it was clearly comfortable wear to the young man, clothes that he had worn for enough days and years to consider them normal wear. Besides being young, he was also a large man. Very large. The chalk looked like a stubby twig in his hand.

"Now," he said, turning to the class that was rapidly trying to repeat his sketches. "Can anyone tell me of a strategic use of the indirect approach?"

"The latter United States battles against the Soviet Union?" one of the women at the back of the room said, not looking up from her sketch.

"Very good, Ensign," the young man said. "And can you give me another example from the same time period?"

The young woman looked up in startlement at that and shook her head.

"The War on Terrorism?" one of the males asked.

"Yes," the instructor replied. "At no point in either war did the U.S. directly attack those countries which were the most dangerous to them, politically and strategically, through the use of terrorism. Instead, it attacked the countries that aided and supported them in their cultural memes or directly assaulted those memes. By destroying the economy of the Soviet Union in the first case, and by destroying the cultural, not to mention financial, support of terrorism in the second, the U.S. in both cases destroyed an enemy that, arguably, was capable of winning the war. The Soviet Union by a direct nuclear strike, or a ground assault upon America's allies, and the terrorist-sponsoring states through economic embargo or direct sponsorship of weapons of mass destruction terrorism. But in each case, by strategic ju-jitsu, the American nation attacked at the weakest point, winning vast wars with very small engagements."

"Iraq was not the weakest state in the region," the female ensign said. "They had more forces than the expeditionary force could field against them for logistic reasons."

"Which EF used the indirect approach again," the instructor pointed out. He wiped the preceding sketch from the board and started to draw another. "The enemy was in fixed, and very strong, positions, along the probable avenues of approach. Approaches that had been used, notably by the Briton allies of the Americans, in previous wars. By using movement through what the enemy thought was impassable ground, logistically, the Americans and their Briton allies forced the enemy into a battle of maneuver that it could not win against their air superiority. And then by placing forces in the region they drew off the majority of attacks against the civilians in the allied state of Israel as well as their home countries.

"Again, Subedei and Genghis, by destroying the fields before their enemy's gates, created an environment the enemy believed could not be crossed, and then crossed it, crushing the superior Persian force in detail. They then put the entire region to the sword, which tended to prevent the sort of problems the Americans saw, but that was a different time. Slim used much the same approach in his battles along the Irriwady shore where he was facing a highly capable, proven dangerous enemy. One that had previously beaten him, badly, on the same terrain, I might add." The young man laid down the chalk and wiped his hand on a rag held by the prosthetic. "One wonders if the generals of that time studied Subedei as well," he added with a grin.

"But . . ." the female ensign said.

"Yes, Ensign Van Krief?" he said, mildly.

"What happens if the enemy is smart enough to overcome your indirect approach?" Amosis Van Krief asked. The ensign was just below medium height with short blond hair, a hard, triangular face and a broad, strongly muscled body. She also had bright blue eyes and very nice legs, which the instructor was careful not to comment upon or even appear to notice.

"In that case," the young man smiled lopsidedly, "you'd better have one hell of a go-to-hell-plan. Because you only use this approach when you don't have a choice; when your forces are inferior or of parity. It's always better, if you have a steam hammer, to crack the walnut that way. The problem is, you usually don't have a steam hammer. Cracking the nut when you don't appear to have the strength requires subtlety."

The door to the room opened softly and a young female private entered and popped to attention.

"Captain Herrick," she squeaked nervously, "the general wants to see you at . . . at your . . ."

"Earliest convenience?" the instructor asked with a slight grin, wiping his hands again.

"Yes, sir," the private replied.

"The commandant?"

"No, sir," the private said, biting her lip, "Duke Talbot, sir."

The instructor paused and then turned on one heel to the fascinated ensigns.

"Class," he snapped. "Your assignment for tomorrow is to examine the Inchon landing and the Nipponese attack on Myanmar in the Axis-Allies War. Come up with at least three viable alternatives for each. Be prepared to defend your alternatives. Attention!" He waited until the group had snapped to the position of attention then looked around at them.

"What's our motto, boys and girls?" he sang out.

"No plan survives contact with the enemy!" the class shouted in unison.

"And who are we?" he asked.



With that he marched out of the room.

* * *

Megan "Sung" checked the level of liquid in her "waste" retort and shook her head. She had had enough material for her plans for months, had had to, carefully, dispose of the excess, but just kept building it up. She knew how to kill Paul, but she wasn't sure what to do after that.

Megan had been sixteen when an old traveler found the tall, lithe, pretty, if rather dirty and underfed, young brunette washing clothes by the side of a Ropasan stream. She had helped the old man across the river and the next thing she knew she was here, wherever "here" was, in the harem of Paul Bowman, head of the New Destiny faction of the Council of Key-holders.

Things had initially been . . . tough. The senior female in the harem was Christel Meazell, one of the women with whom Paul had had a child prior to the Fall. She was both in charge of making sure the girls understood their "duties" and managing the logistics of the harem. Since she had gotten very little educationÑprior to the Fall there was no strict need to learn to even write your nameÑmanaging the accounts associated with the girls' supplies was a day-to-day nightmare. Especially since it all had to be done by hand and Christel could not get the same number twice in a row if she had to add two plus two.

She had taken that frustration out on the girls and they had, in turn, passed it on. When Megan had arrived, conditions had been vicious. The girls knew better than to do permanent or disfiguring damage, but they took out their boredom and frustration in other ways, many of them sexual and all of them cruel.

Megan had dealt with that aspect of the life rather quickly. Her father had trained her intensively in almost lost arts of self-defense; he had seen protection fields fail from "personal" reasons too many times to fully trust them. But a blow to the gut was a blow to the gut.

So the "new girl" had not been the soft touch the regulars had come to expect. She had kept the ability more or less secret, only pointing it out a couple of times to the "Alpha Bitches" in the group. But with them firmly under control, the rest didn't dare bother her.

Managing Christel had been harder. But as soon as Megan showed that she was more than capable of doing the "logistic" end, Christel had turned the books over to her with an almost audible sigh of relief. Using that wedge Megan had slowly, more or less, taken over the harem. To the point that from time to time she even gave Christel orders.

So that aspect of the life had gotten better. Recognizing that the biggest problem in the harem was boredom she had cajoled Christel into running exercise classes. These led to more structured learning in sewing, singing, musical instruments. Anything to pass the time and give the girls something to do other than bicker and play "practical jokes" on one another.

She had taken control of that aspect of her life, but there was another over which she had no control. And that had taken a long time to . . . improve.

Megan had not been a virgin when she was brought to Paul's harem but the subsequent rapes, and there was no other term, were not pleasant. But, over time, she had grown not only to accept them philosophically, but even to fall in love with her captor, horrible as that made her feel.

Paul could be a very charming man and he was the only source of news of the outside available to them. Once Megan had, slowly, gotten over her initial revulsion she had grown, however much she hated it, to first liking Paul and then, strangely, haltingly, loving him. She was a strong-willed young lady, educated beyond ninety percent of her generation. She was the daughter of one of the few remaining police in the pre-Fall period. Under her father's pressure, and later her own, she had used advanced technology training methods to become more educated than most human beings in history. She was an expert forensic chemist, was highly trained in self-defense, spoke three dead languages, could cookÑanother almost lost artÑand could do calculus in her head.

Being a harem girl had not been on her list of avocations. So it nearly drove her insane that she was "falling" for her captor.

Eventually Paul, who had done research before setting up what he considered nothing more than a "breeding pool," had explained that her reaction was anticipated. Captives who depended for their survival purely on the will of captors, who kept close and intimate contact, tended to bond to them. Not all; there was one girl, Amber, who had fought the captivity until she was eventually brain drained and left as a willing semivegetable to Paul's desires. But Megan, like most of the rest of the "girls" had come to know Paul, to bond to him and through that bonding to love him.

But that did not mean she wasn't going to kill him.

As soon as she figured out how to do it and survive.

What bothered her about the situation, other than being stuck in a harem, was that she now knew more of the inner workings of the New Destiny faction than anyone outside of it. She knew their weaknesses, knew their strengths, which were many. She longed, dreamed, of getting the information out to the Freedom Coalition. But no matter how she pondered the problem, she couldn't figure out a way to pass on the intelligence and survive. Among other things Paul had let slip in their many conversations was that he had a source very close to the Freedom Council. And escaping with the information would be difficult.

The girls were kept in close confinement, a large compartment in a castle that had been converted to living quarters. There were only two entrances, both blocked by high-technology proscriptions. The walls were stone, which she could deal with, the same way she intended to "deal" with Paul when the time came. But even if the girls somehow made their way past those defenses they were surrounded by the guards of New Destiny, both Paul's special guards, all of them highly trained fighters who were bound to him by Net-imposed loyalty proscriptions, and the Changed legions that made up the bulk of New Destiny's army.

She had only one idea and it was a long-shot. The council members were also called Key-holders because the physical token of their position was a titanium strip. The protocols associated with transfer of "ownership" of the keys were ancient and even baroque. A council member could not "lose" a key; if they absentmindedly left it somewhere the AI that ran the Net, Mother, would simply port it to their location. Paul had told her one time of his early days as a council member when Mother, apparently in exasperation, had ported it One More Time and molecularly glued it to his forehead so he couldn't remove it without a majority vote of the Council. It had taken him a week to build up the votes, over the chuckles, and she sometimes wondered if the compromises over that had led, inexorably, to the present war.

But Keys could be transferred. They could be transferred voluntarily, say if a council member wanted to retire. . . . But if a council member died it was "finders keepers." Minjie Jiaqi, who had been one of Paul's first and closest allies on the Council, had been killed by his military aide, who had taken his Key. Paul, in turn, had had the aide assassinated. But both methods of killing were out of Megan's reach. Minjie's death was from a binary neurotoxin, and although she had a fairly decent chemical laboratory disguised as a "perfumery," binary toxins were a bit out of her league.

His aide had been assassinated, in turn, by being attacked "in flagrante delicto." Council members habitually used personal protection fields. The fields were impermeable to any harm possible to man, certainly given the explosive protocols. But they had to be lowered at certain times. Such as during sex or any sort of intimate contact. Paul always dropped his when he was in the harem and had to recite a pass code to raise it. Thus he was vulnerable.

The problem was Paul also had functional medical nannites. The nannites would scavenge any simple toxin before it took effect. Megan wasn't sure of the extent to which they could cure him from a serious injury. But she was sure that if she could destroy his cerebral cortex, there wasn't much the nannites were going to be able to do.

Therefore, if she could only figure out where he kept his Key when he came to the harem she could kill him, take the Key and port out.


She had been with Paul . . . well she'd quit counting. A large number of times. And she thought she had subtly checked most of his body. So far, he didn't seem to have it on him. He, conceivably, could have it up his rectum. But Paul's personality mitigated against that. She simply could not envision him slipping the key up his ass before he ported to the harem.

But it had to be there, somewhere, and as soon as she figured out where, he was going to be a footnote in history.

No matter how much she loved him.


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