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East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Saturday, December 17, 2005 23:06 EST



    "Dinner was nice," Megan said as she came in the bedroom wearing a thin nightgown. "They're very nice people. But is Mike always so..."

    "Monosyllabic?" Herzer said, grinning. "When he's not sure of his ground, yeah. When he's comfortable he opens up a little. But he's never what you might call a big talker. He leaves that to Courtney. So, did you get enough information about my girlfriends?"

    "Did it really bother you?" Megan said, sitting down on the edge of the bed and starting to brush her hair.

    "No," Herzer replied. "I suppose it's easier than pulling it all out of me. If I go through the list I don't know whether it's just being honest or boasting."

    "And quite a list it is," Megan said, thoughtfully.

    "Not all that long," Herzer argued.

    "Long enough," Megan said, turning around and smiling at him. "I'm not bothered by it but I wonder if it's part of something I couldn't put a finger on."

    "What?" Herzer asked, frowning. "About me?"

    "No..." Megan said, sighing in frustration. "I think it might be part of how I'm viewed, though. Nobody knows quite what to make of me in this town. Given my...relationship with Paul, I'm clearly not a virgin or any sort of pseudo virgin. I therefore, in their eyes, have to be either hyper-sexual, from my experiences, or asexual. Shanea's an example of the first and Meredith of the second. Love it or renounce it. And I'm afraid that, possibly because of your reputation, they've decided I'm hyper-sexual. It makes Duke Dehnavi's advances more...understandable. And angering."

    "And, if anything, they've gotten it backwards," Herzer said, sadly. "Sorry. I guess I didn't think about my baggage."

    "I haven't renounced sex, Herzer," Megan said, sorrowfully. "I'm just not ready."

    "I know," he replied, holding out his arms. "Are you done brushing your hair so I can give you a hug?"

    "How do you put up with this?" she asked, turning down the lamp and snuggling into his side.

    "With difficulty," Herzer admitted. "But I love you and I trust that, someday, you'll be able to...get back on the horse as Bast put it. In the meantime...I'll wait."

    "How long?" she asked, quietly.

    "Long enough," Herzer said. "If it's going to be 'never' then you'll find the strength to tell me. And we' something out. I don't want to give you up."

    "You are very strange, Herzer," Megan muttered. "How are the demons?"

    Herzer paused as he did a quick internal inventory.

    "Not good," he admitted. "That encounter with Duke Dehnavi''d you put it?"

    "Doxie?" Megan asked.

    "Yeah, doxie, caused them to slip their leash a little. Bottling them back up without...some outlet, is difficult."

    "Were you attracted to her?" Megan asked, carefully.

    "Hell, yes," Herzer replied, grinning in the dark. "I mean, I wouldn't toss her out of bed for eating crackers; the Duke at least has good taste in doxies. If you want me to lie about it, I will. But I try not to."

    "No, don't lie," Megan said, yawning. "I'm afraid I'm going to dream of doxies tonight."

    "Good dreams, sweetie," Herzer said, twisting to kiss her on the head. "Only good dreams."



    Herzer had read somewhere that sleeping with a woman and not having sex was the closest form of intimacy. The writer should have tried doing it for four months in a row.

    At this point, Herzer had to admit that in the deeps of the night, as Megan's breath whispered on his arm, that it was hard in more ways than one. Some nights seemed like one continuous wrestle with his demons. During the day he could keep active and, in general, his lack-a-nookie condition was no big deal. Occasionally there'd be an encounter with somebody like the Duke's doxie and it would get...hard. But mostly it was no problem.

    In the nights, however, it was starting to be a problem. No, in honesty, it had started to be a problem a long time ago. Now it was starting to be a big problem.

    Part of it was that he hadn't been getting enough exercise so he wasn't sleeping as well. Early to bed and early to rise would have helped. Even a ruck run every morning didn't really impact him much. Honestly, it didn't even keep him in shape. He was used to three to six hours of solid exercise a day and with the schedule he'd been keeping there just wasn't a time.

    So he lay awake every night, pondering the various problems of the day and trying to convince Mr. Happy that he wasn't going to get any.

    Hard. Good word.

    He rolled over and contemplated the darkened wall then closed his eyes and told himself to go to sleep. Ignore it, it will go away he told himself, clicking his prosthetic lightly in thought. The faint noise made Megan mutter and roll over so he stopped.

    He'd just about convinced himself when he heard the pounding on the door. Rolling to his feet his sword had whispered out of its scabbard before he really knew it was in his hand.

    "Crap," he muttered, walking to the door of the bedroom. There were legionnaires on the door of the apartment and in the street below. And it was unlikely that an assassin would knock. Unlikely, not impossible.

    "What is it?" Megan said, sleepily.

    "I dunno," he muttered, going out of the room and down the corridor to the entry foyer.

    "Yes?" he called as there was another pounding on the door. "What the hell do you want?"

    "I'm sorry, major," a voice said in the hallway. "There's a messenger here for you and Countess Travante from Duke Edmund."

    Herzer looked through the peephole and recognized one of the guards but when he opened the door he did it from the side with two feet of steel pointing out.

    "Sorry, major," the messenger said. He was an ensign in undress uniform with enough smell of horse that he must have ridden hard. He had a dispatch case in his hands and opened it up, proffering a heavy linen envelope.

    "Stay here," Herzer growled, taking the envelope with his prosthetic and closing the door in the ensign's face. He walked to the couch and lit one of the lamps with a match then slit the pouch with his sword, tossing the latter on the couch.

    It didn't take long to read the short note.

    "Son of a BITCH!"


    "THE WHOLE TEAM?" Herzer shouted, ignoring the fact that the other people in the room far outranked him. "The whole god damned team?"

    "Sit down, Herzer," Edmund said, pointing at a chair. "Megan, thank you for coming at this time of night."

    "No problem, Edmund," Megan said, sitting down at one end of the conference table. "This is very bad news."

    "Yes, major," General Galbreath said, taking a sip of coffee and gesturing for Megan and Herzer to be served. "The whole team. Icarus is gone."

    "With all due respect, sir, what the hell happened?" Herzer asked, taking a cup of coffee from a senior NCO with a nod of thanks.

    "A group of assassins descended on the training facility," Edmund said. "We've only got the first words off of the semaphore. Apparently some were human but the rest were some sort of large bug, sort of like a giant scorpion..."

    "Possibly solfugid mods," Megan said, shaking her head. "Basically giant camel spiders with metallic mandibles. The same thing that Celine sent after Minjie Jiaqui's assassin."

    "The personnel were sleeping so they went through the barracks...well there weren't any survivors," Edmund said. "The message made it sound rather bad."

    "Didn't they have guards?" Herzer growled.

    "They were well guarded, Major," General Galbreath said, sharply. "A company of legionnaires with Blood Lord officers. We don't know what happened to them."

    "Probably poison spiders," Megan said, thoughtfully. "That was how they got through to whatsisname."

    "A response team from Seventh Legion got most of them," Edmund said. "Apparently the rest escaped into the night. They're either still out there in hiding or they'll go on a rampage in the area."

    "So what now?" Herzer asked.

    "Well, we're going to have to form a scratch team," General Galbreath said, looking at him pointedly.

    "Oh, Christ on a crutch," Herzer muttered. "Let me guess."

    "You got it," Edmund replied. "You're now the head of the Icarus assault team. Congratulations. It comes with a promotion."

    "Oh, crap," Herzer muttered. "I won't ask 'why me.'"

    "There's more," Edmund said, looking at Megan. "The team had been analyzing the systems on the ship and they had come to the conclusion that it was going to be necessary to have at least one Keyholder on the mission. I'd been discussing it with Sheida. Effectively, since Norau is carrying the ball on the mission, the choice comes down to you or me. I'd been arguing, quite hard, for me. Sheida disagrees."

    "So do I," Megan said, shaking her head. "You're too involved in the planning for the assault on Ropasa. You can't leave. I'm...less important."

    "Like hell you are," Herzer protested. "Without you we'd be planning on an invasion without the bare minimum forces we need."

    "But the most important parts of the politicking are done for the moment," Megan pointed out. "I'll be back to the capitol in three or four months. Nothing really critical should come up between now and then."

    "Megan," Herzer said, closing his eyes, "this is not your...this is not something that you're trained for or...this is not your... Damnit!"

    "Herzer," Megan said, laying a hand on his arm. "This is something that has to be done. And I'm the best person to do it, apparently. Who goes? Edmund? Sheida?"

    "Yes!" Herzer said. "Edmund is damned near as good at surviving as I am! Sheida is... She has a background in surviving."

    "So do I," Megan said, angrily.

    "Not this!" Herzer snapped. "I don't care how well planned this mission supposedly is! It's going to turn into a blind-sided cluster fisk! I can feel it! I don't want you in the middle of that!"

    "And you'll be there to protect me," Megan said, smiling faintly. "Besides, we're going to have to train for this, right? Which means we get more time together. You'd been complaining about not seeing enough of me."

    "When the air is whistling out of your suit, what am I supposed to do but watch you die?" Herzer asked, bleakly.

    "I'm going, Herzer," Megan said, flatly. "That's final."

    "I know," he replied, flexing one muscle in his jaw. "But I don't have to like it." He paused and shook his head. "I don't like any of it. I don't even know the plans. I mean, I know that the team planned on going up to the ship and seizing it. But I don't know how they were going to get there, what the ship is like, what the battle plans were... Jesus! And everyone that knew the plans is now toast!"

    "Not quite everyone," Edmund said. "Evan Mayerle was consulting on the mission. He wasn't part of the team so he was off-site when the attack occurred. He's still alive and he knows the plans and the details of the ship. The basic mission is simple; take control of the ship and ensure that New Destiny does not. If you can't ensure it, make sure that the ship is unusable, probably by crashing it into the moon."

    "That would be...bad," Megan said, frowning. "That would mean both sides would lose the power."

    "Better that we lose the power than New Destiny get it," General Galbreath said. "I'm afraid that, given the conditions, it's unlikely we can lock New Destiny out entirely. It's complicated, but you'll get fully briefed."

    "But we've got serious personnel shortage," Edmund added. "Besides the fighters, the team has to have people that know how the ship systems work and they're incredibly ancient. That ship has been out there plying its path for well over a thousand years. It's been maintained but never really updated; there was no need. We'd found or trained people on the old style computers it uses, engineers for the ion drive engines and pilots for the shuttle craft..."

    "Shuttle craft?" Herzer asked. "What shuttle craft?"

    "I'll get to that," Edmund said. "But they're all dead. We need to find replacements and we'll need to find them fast. We'll get to work on that. You concentrate on the strike personnel. The Icarus team, I always thought, was too small. It was concentrated on getting in and doing the mission but I'd been arguing that they weren't prepared for things to go to hell in a handbasket. I don't have to worry about that with you in charge."

    "No, sir," Herzer said, dryly. "I mean, they've already gone to hell in a handbasket. All we can do at this point is steer."

    "You can draw on anyone you need, Major," General Galbreath said. "And I do mean anyone."

    "Where are we going to get the techs?" Herzer asked.

    "We'll be going over records," Edmund said, frowning. "Unfortunately, most towns didn't record what people did pre-Fall and if they did they haven't told the Federal government. The census didn't record it, either. So the only place I know has lists of people's training, pre-Fall, is in Raven's Mill. We'll probably start there and work our way out."

    "We can't exactly take out ads on this," Megan pointed out, shaking her head. "There are probably a thousand people in Norau with each of the specialties we need. But finding them is going to be tough. Especially with the time constraint."

    "I'll put Lt. Van Krief to work on it," Edmund said. "She's a miracle worker when it comes to ferreting out information. And I'll get June Lasker from Raven's Mill with the records from there and put out a call for similar records."

    "Where were they training?" Herzer asked.

    "A facility near the Perzburg reactor," General Galbreath said. "I assume you'll want to use the same facilities."

    "Rather than reinvent the wheel, yes, sir," Herzer replied. "That's near Tarson and Harzburg. Joy. I hoped I'd never have to go up there again."

    "You won't be going to Harzburg," Edmund said. "And for the time being you'll need to stay here in Washan while we assemble lists of potential personnel. Again, you concentrate on the strike operators. We'll find the techs."

    "I'll make a list," Herzer said, thinking about good soldiers he had met and fought beside. Unfortunately, many of them were dead. "They'll all be missed by their commands."

    "You'll get them," General Galbreath promised.

    "Are we done for tonight?" Megan asked, looking at the clock mounted on the wall. "Not that it's worth going back to bed. I have a breakfast meeting in two hours. I'll start clearing my schedule immediately."

    "You're detached from ops as of now, Herzer," Edmund said, "and promoted commander. Congratulations."

    "You said that," Herzer replied. "I wish I could be happy. But we'll get it done. One way or another. Oath of the Bull God we will."



    "What do you think?" Megan asked as they returned to the apartment in her carriage.

    "I don't know enough to think anything," Herzer replied. "Except that we need to upgrade your security. And Edmund's come to think of it."

    "I've got wards up to look for Celine's little toys," Megan said. "Don't worry about them. And enough power to cover both of us in personal protection fields."

    "They can take those down," Herzer pointed out. "But I get you. I didn't know that, though."

    "I hadn't thought about it," Megan replied, honestly. "But they're there. Also to check the personnel. I knew that there was only one additional person present when you went to the door. If there had been more I would have told you. But I didn't see any reason to bring it up before. It's just...second nature at this point. I was thinking about the mission, though."

    "So was I," Herzer admitted. "But until we get some sort of full briefing, I don't think we can do more than fret about it. I wish I'd gotten some sleep, though."

    "Don't tell me you were still awake," Megan said. "You need to figure out some way to get to sleep better."

    "Well, there's nature's tranquilizer," Herzer said then grimaced. "Sorry."

    "Yes, there is," Megan said, seriously. "And, damnit, I'm going to get back on the horse. Soon. I promise. It's not fair to you and I'm tired of being afraid of it. I'll be honest, I miss sex. Even bad sex which was about all I got from Paul. It would be nice to find out if there's such a thing as good sex."

    "Oh, lady," Herzer said, pulling her into his arms. "I don't know if I'm good enough, and it's going to be hard to I'll have to be. But I'll try, I promise."

    "You tempt me, you truly do," Megan said, with a grin that segued into a grimace. "But that damned meeting..."

    "Not tonight, love," Herzer said. "You've got a meeting. I'm off duty. I'm going to catch some sleep until there's more news. I suspect that sleep is going to be optional for a while."

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