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Hard Lines

 

 

 

 

 

HARD LINES

by

 

P. K. Lentz

 

 

Text copyright © 2008, 2015 P.K. Lentz

All Rights Reserved

 

Originally published 2008 in Tales of Moreauvia Issue #1

 

 

 

 

Adrastos the Athenian did not know what it meant to ride the hard lines, yet that was just what he had done for… how long now? A year? He had lost track of time, for there were no seasons in this black ocean of stars.

The vessel in which he rode was called Boomtown, and its crew, among which the Athenian did not count himself, numbered three.

First there was raven-haired Maral, who against all reason and propriety, if not the gods themselves, was in command. The Athenian called her by the epithet Whore, if only in his mind, on account of the evidence that she could not cook (a daimon in the shiny iron walls did that) and that she gave openly of her body to all aboard Boomtown, including himself.

Next there was blonde Jotun, a handsome fellow whom the Athenian thought of as the Horseman because he so often lazed about, casually demanding favors with the air of privilege that had been the hallmark of that uppermost social class in Athens.

Lastly there was the Athenian’s favorite of the three, Treg. The Athenian conceived of Treg as a fellow laborer because he talked infrequently and did the bulk of what little work aboard Boomtown was not accomplished by daimones. But because his skin was many shades darker than that of the others, the Athenian more readily thought of Treg as the Foreigner.

All three crew members spoke proper Attic Greek now, facilitating communication, though that had not been the case when the Athenian had first found himself aboard Boomtown. Then, only the Whore had been able to speak to him.

“We are so sorry,” she’d said haltingly. “We really didn’t mean to kidnap you. But now you’re stuck with us and you can’t go back. So… just deal with it, okay?”

In the course of ‘dealing with it’ the Athenian had picked up some of the crew’s tongue, enough of it, anyway, to understand what the Whore said now as they all sat strapped into the soft chairs of Boomtown’s steering chamber.

“Hardline in five… four… three…” She cocked her head to one side as if stretching out a knot. “Hardline.”

No sensation of movement accompanied her announcement. There was only, as ever, the stars winking simultaneously out of existence in the expansive viewing dome above their heads.

The Horseman heaved a sharp sigh.

“Don’t sigh at me like that!” the Whore snapped. “You think you could do better?”

The Horseman dismissed her with a wave.

“And don’t distract me!” the Whore said. “You’ll only make things worse!”

The Horseman scoffed. “Worse? How could they get worse? You took a wrong line, and if you do it again we’ll probably softline and end up stranded.”

“Better stranded than strewn across the subverse!” she shot back. “And anyway we’re not going to softline.”

“We might.”

“We won’t!”

“All I’m saying is maybe it’s time to backtrack.”

“And if they’re following us?” the Whore said. “What then, big man?”

He held up a finger. “One, if we keep going we’ll hit the Sundered Layers.” He added another finger. “Two, I’m sure they’ve given up by now.”

“Please. Do you know how expensive a hardliner is? And have you met my father? Believe me, he’s still after us.”

Another scoff, another wave, and the Whore answered both with a silent, rude gesture. “De-line in fifty-five,” she said.

The Horseman, typical to his nature, did not let the matter rest. “Try to de-line near someplace inhabited,” he said. “We’ll get out, have a stretch and figure out what to do next. The food’s starting to taste like dust anyway, so the ship could use some organics.”

The Whore’s roar filled the small room. “It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine!” she said. “Everything is fine! So shut up!”

The Athenian sensed it might be unwise to interject at this point, considering the Whore’s mood and his own incomplete grasp of their language, but he did so anyway.

“Perhaps you could vote,” he suggested.

“Sounds great to me,” the Horseman said swiftly.

The Whore laughed. “Sorry, Addy, but we’re not in Athens anymore. Democracy on a ship is called mutiny. I’m in charge here, so with all due respect just shut the hell up.”

The Athenian obliged, and retreated once more to the inner world in which he spent most of his time aboard Boomtown.

Like waves on the shore at Piraeus, the longing for home regularly ebbed and flowed in the Athenian’s breast, and hearing now the Whore speak the name of his city made it flow. He missed the sun browning his neck while he cut wheat. He missed tasting the season’s first oil, the pressing of which left no nostril in Attica untouched. He missed walking in the packed city streets with his tribemates on festival days. And even though not all about Athens was pleasant, he missed now even the unpleasant things. All of it lived on only in his memory.

The Horseman asked the Whore, “Who says you should be in charge anyway?”

“Says the fact that we stole Boomtown from my father, plus it was my idea and I’m the one who can do the math.”

“The ship does the math.”

“But I understand it.”

“In that case you should be navigator, except it looks like you’re even worse at that—”

“Will you please just give it a rest!”

Finally, with a smirk and an aristocratic shrug, the Horseman demurred.

“Listen,” Boomtown’s Whore-captain went on calmly, “if things don’t look better when we de-line, we can try Addy’s stupid democracy thing. Fair?”

“Fair,” the Horseman agreed.

Silence then dominated aboard Boomtown until the Whore announced, “De-line in ten, nine, eight…”

“Cross your fingers,” said the Horseman.

“Shut up! Two, one… de-line.”

The stars returned. The Whore stared at her instruments

She stared some more.

“Well?”

“Shh!” She chewed her lower lip.

“Gentlemen, we’ve softlined!” the Horsemen shouted.

“We have not!” The Whore rubbed a finger idly on her instrument panel. “I mean, technically, the ship just hasn’t found a new hard line yet, but it will.”

“Holy crap,” the Horseman said. “I was just kidding, but you’ve done it, haven’t you—you’ve stranded us!”

“I have not!”

“You have!”

“What does it mean to softline?” the Athenian asked, if only to get a break from the pair’s childish back-and-forth.

“It means,” the Horseman said, “we have to go to sleep for a very long time until we find another hard line to take us somewhere. And because we’re on the run, it also means that her father is probably going to catch us.”

“He will not!”

“Can’t we just turn around?” the Athenian asked.

“The line we just left is too dispersed here to get back on, hence the term softline, and hence we are fucked.”

“We’re not…” The Whore threw her hands in the air. “You know what, just forget it. I give up.”

“The captain gives up,” the Horseman said. “What a tremendous day!”

“FYI, I did manage to put us someplace not just habitable but inhabited,” the Whore went on. “Which is way more than you could have done.” She tapped her instruments. “Population one-point-five billion, has heavy industry but no EM transmissions.”

“What’s this paradise called?”

“As a matter of fact, it’s Earth, shit-for-brains. Thirty-six hours away.”

“Earth?” the Athenian said. “Isn’t that—”

“—where you’re from?” the Whore finished for him. “Sure is, Eizenstein.”

“Then I can go home?”

“We’re going there anyway,” the Horseman said. “If you want to stay, stay.”

“Hey!” the Whore said. “I may be stepping down, but that doesn’t put you in charge. We should keep looking for a hard line.”

“The ship needs organics.”

“The ship needs a captain. I nominate Treg.”

“Does that mean we’re voting?”

“Yes, and I vote Treg.”

The Horseman said, “Well, I vote me, and I also vote that Adrastos gets a vote.”

“He’s not crew.”

“Then I vote to make him crew. Treg?”

Thus invited, the Foreigner, ever quiet and ever able to suppress what disgust he must have felt for his childish superiors, made a rare contribution. He said casually, “He has as much a right as any of us.”

“There!” the Horseman said, smiling. “Two to one says the Greek’s one of us now, and he gets a vote.” He turned to the Athenian and spoke slowly and clearly, “Who do you think should be captain, buddy?”

Ignoring the condescension, to which he had become accustomed, the Athenian answered, “You, of course, Jotun.” He’d had to struggle to recall the Horseman’s real name. “It is the natural order of things.”

The Whore’s eyes rolled. “Oh, puhlease!”

“And you, Treg?” the Horseman asked. “You voting for yourself or for me?”

The Foreigner, in typically laconic fashion, just gave a little wave, thereby either casting his vote for the Horseman or abstaining—it did not matter which.

The Horseman clapped. “I accept!” He pointed to the Whore. “Navigator, take us to Earth.”

The Whore scoffed, but her hand went to the controls and touched a lit square. “Why don’t we just put the fucking primitive in charge?” she muttered.

  • * *

A day and a half later, the Athenian looked out the high dome over Boomtown’s steering chamber, and he marveled.

He had learned since coming aboard Boomtown that his world (and most of the rest, for there were many) was a sphere, and that the parts of it upon which dwelt all of the Greeks and Persians and Egyptians and Ethiopians constituted but a tiny fraction of its whole surface. He knew this, and he had seen two other spheres (one amber, the other ruddy brown) but these things failed to prepare him for the vision of his own world seen from the vantage of a Titan.

It was a tiny, round bubble of deepest blue in a vast black lake, and in that bubble there floated substantial islands of green and ethereal ones of dancing white.

The dark-skinned Foreigner gave the Athenian a knowing smile. The other two paid him no heed.

“Where is Hellas?” the Athenian asked.

“Even if it were facing us,” the Foreigner said, “you’d barely be able to see it.”

“We are going there?”

The Foreigner shrugged.

Captain Horseman said, “One place is good as the next.”

Over the next twenty minutes, the Athenian’s stomach fluttered as they penetrated clouds like those which must have decked proud Olympus itself and soared over wine-dark seas and over hills that looked like the spiny backs of warthogs. They passed over swaying fields of wheat like the ones the Athenian once had harvested and dreamed now of harvesting again. They crossed winding rivers that would have stopped an invading army for days—and then, far below, was the city.

“There’s Athens, Addy,” the Horseman said. He gestured above him and a segment of Boomtown’s viewing dome displayed a different image, that of a city, seen from a nearer perspective and wobbling just slightly. But the city in the display was as far removed from the place the Athenian had called home as Boomtown was from a trireme.

“You have made a mistake,” the Athenian said with less confidence than he would have liked, for the landscape did indeed appear familiar. Then again, he had never seen other places, which might well all look alike. “This is not Athens.”

“‘Fraid so, buddy.”

“He doesn’t understand,” said the Whore.

“Then explain it.”

“Why me?”

The pair might have continued bickering along these lines, but the Athenian stopped listening. Amidst the spindly towers and blocks of grey stone that were much larger than even the richest man’s house in the city of his memory, the Athenian spotted something he knew well. It sat at the center of that unrecognizable grey morass, that city which looked like a god had spat wet clay from the heavens and let it trickle gently down the slopes of a hill.

There at the center of that blot was the Acropolis, and upon it, like some fallen marble crown, stood eight pillars on a shattered platform, unmistakably the remnants of Athena’s once proud Temple.

“Goddess…” he said in a bare whisper.

No one bothered to explain to him exactly what it was he did not understand, and the Athenian did not seek to remedy that. He merely sat in a daze as Boomtown swooped in for a landing in some brush on a shaded hillside.

“Treg, take the Porter and fill organic stores,” the Horseman said presently. “Addy, you come with me. Maral, watch the ship.”

“Excuse me?” the Whore interjected.

“That’s ‘Excuse me, sir.’ What is it, navigator?”

“The captain’s the one who stays with the ship. I’m going with Addy.”

“This was my idea.”

“I got us here.”

“Yeah, stranded.”

“We’re not stranded.”

On and on that went. Without bothering to excuse himself, the Foreigner disappeared, evidently to begin his errand involving the Porter (the same device by which they had inadvertently ended up with an Athenian on board, or so they had told him). The end result of their tedious exchange was that the Whore would accompany the Athenian on the first expedition while the Horseman waited and went out second. He was reclining with his feet up before the departing pair had left.

Outside, the Athenian recognized some familiar hills in the distance.

“So where to?” the Whore asked in her strangely accented but fluent Attic Greek.

“To the city, of course,” the Athenian answered. The words in his native tongue, spoken in open air, tasted sweet.

A brief walk through farmland brought them to a dirt road, which brought them to another road of a type the Athenian had never seen. It was raised in the center and paved as if with tiny fragments of stone all fused together. He tried hard not to let on that the heart within him despaired to see it. Soon the road became lined with ugly rectangular structures built of wood and brick and inset with windows covered by the smooth, transparent material he had first seen on Boomtown.

There were people here, too, quite a number of them, darting in and out of the structures and walking the paved street. Some briefly stared at the Athenian and his whorish companion, not a surprising thing considering how differently the pair was clothed. Since joining Boomtown the Athenian had adopted its crew’s style of dress: loose leggings with many ‘pockets’ (which were convenient, he had to admit), a shirt with arm-tubes and thin ‘jacket’ worn over the top when it was chilly. The clothing worn by the people here was more akin to Boomtown’s fashion than to what had been common in his Athens, but while Boomtown’s crew wore many colors, the people here preferred a more stark black and white.

A familiar, rhythmic sound reached the Athenian’s ears, and he turned to see a cart drawn by two horses—only the cart was sleek and black and enclosed, with transparent windows, like a miniature, mobile building. It passed them by at speed, the driver urging on the animals and the carriage wheels sending up clouds of choking dust.

“Fucking primitives…” the Whore muttered at the thing in her own tongue.

Mustering up courage, the Athenian walked into the midst of a swarm of men, some of them accompanied by women in elaborate (but at least recognizably feminine) garb. He chose one black-clad man and addressed him.

“Good day, friend,” the Athenian said, but the man did not favor him with so much as a glance. “Is this city Athens?” Again, nothing. The Athenian stopped keeping pace with the man, letting him continue on his way, and selected another who had a woman beside him. “Excuse me, friend. Is this Athens?”

This man, too, ignored him, except to put a hand on his woman’s arm to draw her nearer. The woman gave the Athenian a sidelong glance and sneered.

The Athenian tried a third time, approaching a young woman walking unescorted, obviously a servant or a prostitute, even if her dress seemed no less elaborate than those of the wives.

“Good day, lady,” he said. “I am sorry to trouble you, but could you tell me if this is Athens?”

The woman slowed a bit, treating the Athenian to the briefest of eye contact accompanied by a curl on her painted lip. She raised one slim hand to a purse near her waist and withdrew something small and circular which she tossed at the Athenian’s feet before resuming her former pace.

Letting her go, the Athenian stooped and plucked the thing from the dust. It was a copper coin, far more perfectly disc-like in shape than any coin he had seen before, with sharp edges and detailed writing and images on both faces. The Athenian had never learned to write, but he knew Greek letters when he saw them, and there were none on this coin.

“Don’t waste your breath, Addy,” the Whore said in Attic, appearing at his shoulder. “They don’t speak Greek, and probably think anyone who does is a beggar.”

She took the copper from the Athenian’s palm and looked it over.

“I ran a check on the street signs,” she said. “These people speak a form of Persian, and the picture on this coin seems to be…” She held it up to her right eye, which had changed color from brown to yellow, something it tended to do before she cited some obscure knowledge. “…Xerxes the Nineteenth.”

“Xerxes?” the Athenian breathed. He fought to keep his strangely clad legs beneath him. “Then Athens… she—she gave of earth and water!”

The Whore shrugged. “Yeah, I don’t know what that means… but sure, whatever, I guess. You hungry? I’m starving.” She held up a surely stolen purse of the local style, which appeared to be full. “You like Persian food?” She scanned the buildings along the street. “I don’t know yet if I do or not. Let’s find out.”

The Athenian grabbed the Whore’s arm and forced her to face him. “You must tell me how this is possible! Where are we? What are the hard lines?”

Throwing off his grip, the Whore conceded, “All right, don’t get testy. Let’s find some food, enjoy the sights, such as they are, and I’ll fill you in.”

On an adjacent street they found a pushcart from which a vendor hawked a foodstuff consisting of roasted meat and vegetables wrapped in bread. They purchased several and sat on a crumbling wall away from the bulk of foot traffic.

The Whore’s attention was all on her meal, which she began to devour.

“You were going to explain,” the Athenian reminded her.

“Oh, yeah, right,” she said, and bits of lettuce flew from her lips. “Hard lines, et cetera. So Boomtown rides them and, well, here we are.”

“I need more than that, Whore.”

“Hey now, I warned you about that name. But you’re upset, so I’ll let it slide.” She swallowed and postponed the next bite temporarily. “So the hard lines run through the subverse, which is what connects all the various layers, of which there are at least billions, at most infinity. No one knows how many because of the barrier called the Sundered Layers. Hardliners go in, but they don’t come out. We’re not far from those now.”

“Layers? Layers of what?”

“Just layers. Of reality, I guess. What you and these other primitives call a universe—the earth and the sun and the so-called heavens—all that’s just part of one layer. You cross the subverse to another layer and there’s another one. And another and another, and so on.”

“I don’t understand ‘another.’”

“Another layer,” the Whore said, obviously exasperated. “Another universe, including another Earth and moon, assuming that layer has them, which this one obviously does.”

“Another Hellas and another Athens and another Persia…”

The Whore smiled, resumed eating. “Now you’re getting it.”

“So this is Athens, but it is not my Athens.”

“Right. Few thousand years and a few million layers off.”

“Years? We move in time as well?”

The Whore scoffed, spewing more bits of lettuce. “Yeah, but lets not even get into that, okay?”

  • * *

When they returned to Boomtown, the Athenian found that things there had changed considerably. He knew this because the moment he set foot on the ship there was a flash of sapphire light which caused the Whore to collapse into a heap on the floor. He watched her fall, then looked up to see the Foreigner pointing a sleek bit of metal at him.

“Do you want to go home, Adrastos?” the Foreigner asked.

“This is not my home,” the Athenian said.

“I know. I mean the real thing. The people on their way here now can take you back. Do you want that?”

“I do.” The Athenian gave this answer with rather more confidence than he felt. Seeing the city of his birth Medized, abandoned by its gods, and turned into a dark blight on the pleasant land had shaken him.

The Foreigner lowered his lump of metal and said, “Then I can trust you.” Kneeling beside the Whore’s inert form he arranged her arms behind her back and slipped thin silver shackles onto her wrists. He searched her clothing and relieved her of a bit of metal like his own. “Help me carry her.”

The Athenian complied, and the two deposited her in one of Boomtown’s many unoccupied sleeping quarters. The Horseman was confined to another chamber, the Foreigner explained.

“At our last stop, a few months back,” the Foreigner said subsequently as they headed for the steering chamber, “I picked up a message from Maral’s father’s people, offering a pardon to me or Jotun if one of us turned his daughter in and gave back Boomtown. So that’s what I’m doing. I’ve contacted them, and their ship will arrive in fifteen hours.”

“You asked them to take me home?”

The Foreigner paused at the steering chamber entrance. “Not exactly. But they will.”

“And you trust they will keep their word to you?”

“All I know is this isn’t what I came along for. I wanted adventure, but all we do is run. A year ago I actually liked these two, but now…” He laughed. “Maybe if they’d taken Boomtown for a good cause, some kind of purpose, then they’d be more than just petty thieves, but I realize now they deserve whatever punishment they get. This is just a joyride, and it’s not even fun anymore.”

The Foreigner touched the panel that signaled the daimon to open the steering chamber, and they stepped inside.

The Athenian said, “Outside, the Whore told me about layers, but I still don’t completely understand. I would know more.”

As he sank into a soft chair, a look of tranquility came over the Foreigner’s face. He did not need to say, for the Athenian shared the sentiment, that he rather enjoyed the long-overdue absence of constant bickering. “What do you want to know?”

The Athenian sat as well. “Since leaving my home,” he said, in Attic Greek since it was the only tongue in which he could competently express himself. “I have learned that what I believed to be the world was in fact but a tiny portion of a sphere, which in turn is but a tiny fragment of the cosmos. This was a difficult lesson, yet it did not shatter my conception of the order of things.

“That has changed. I am forced to realize now that the place in which I was born, the place my grandfather and his father died to keep from falling into subjugation, is not unique. It is but one of a multitude. Where my forefathers succeeded, others have failed. Where one rises another falls, and for what reason? Do the same gods watch over both? What’s worse, I find that a man can even step through time and bear witness to sights which should only ever be seen by his remote descendants. I struggle to comprehend what this all means, yet I am afraid such understanding may never come.”

The Foreigner gave a smile that was a shade short of condescending and repeated, “What do you want to know?”

“I do not know where to begin, so perhaps a better starting point would be the end. The Whore mentioned ‘Sundered Layers.’ What are these?”

“They’re layers where all the hard lines go soft,” the Foreigner said. “Either they were wrecked by some kind of trauma, some say a ‘layer war,’ or they were just born malformed, but once you go in, you don’t come out. Of course the border is fuzzy, which makes it more dangerous. As you get closer you just run into more and more soft lines, until suddenly they’re all soft.”

“What’s inside?”

The Foreigner shrugged. “Pure chaos, they say. Fragments of worlds, failed worlds, half-formed layers, layers bleeding together, subverse leaking into layer-space, you name it. Some say nothing can live there, that it’s just plain death.”

“Erebos,” the Athenian said, to no reply.

Unenthusiastically, the Foreigner answered several more questions which added little to the Athenian’s understanding. At length the Foreigner reclined and shut his eyes. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “I could use a rest.”

The Athenian quietly excused himself from the steering chamber and headed for his own rather stark quarters. As he walked he pondered the terrible wars that his forbears had fought for their homes, wars that had seen Athens abandoned and razed to the ground. He thought of those who had rebuilt his city and wondered when the next war would come and tear it all down again.

Then he wondered across how many ‘layers’ those same men had fought the same battles to different outcomes.

His thoughts were broken by muffled shouting in which he recognized immediately the voice of the Whore. He couldn’t make out her words, but sensed they were well-suited to her social standing. He went to the unused berth in which she was imprisoned and made the daimon open it. Inside, the Whore sat with her shackled wrists now in front of her waist instead of behind. She was many things, this Whore, and one of them was flexible.

“Addy!” she said. “What the hell’s going on?”

The door-daimon shut the Athenian inside with her. “Treg has turned you in to your father in exchange for his freedom from prosecution. A ship is on its way.”

“Shit!” the Whore said. “Addy, are you working with him? You have to let me go.”

“I cannot do that.”

“They won’t keep their word! They’ll kill him, and you, and do much, much worse to me, I just know it!”

“You are thieves, and the law is the law.”

“Come on, Addy,” she said, and batted her eyes at him. “Haven’t I always been nice to you?” Her admittedly shapely form wriggled in its bonds. “Nicer than the others?”

“You have all treated me like a child. Although your culture may be more advanced than mine, it is not superior.”

“I’m sorry,” the Whore said. “You’re right, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Why do you think I left home? Women have too much freedom where I come from. I need rules… you know, structure and discipline. So tell you what: we’ll take the ship, just the two of us, and I promise we’ll find some Earth that’s totally ruled by Greeks, where there’s democracy everywhere and—statues! Oh my god, Addy, so many statues!”

“Does such a place exist?”

“It must!”

The Athenian squatted to come level with her. In the spaces between shock and revulsion and despair to which it had alternately been subjected, his mind had been busy conceiving of plans. And so he said to the former captain of Boomtown, “It does not surprise me that a whore should have a honeyed tongue. I know your offer is worth less than your own stained virtue. Yet perhaps there is something you can give me in exchange for your ill-deserved freedom.”

The Whore’s dejected pout erupted into a grin. “Name it,” she said.

  • * *

The Athenian burst into the steering chamber shouting, “They have gone!”

Rousing, the Foreigner shot from his chair. “What?”

“I went to check on them, but they had escaped.”

“That’s impossible.”

“The rooms are empty. I even checked some others to be sure I did not have the wrong ones.”

The Foreigner mouthed a curse and raced from the room drawing his small daimon-powered weapon. “Stay here,” he said.

The door closed, leaving the Athenian alone. He waited several moments in which the Foreigner’s footfalls faded, then he reopened the door. He went to the nearby spot where the Whore and the Horseman were hiding together (without arguing, by some miracle) and ushered them into the steering chamber. Their wrists were still bound, for even had the Athenian possessed the key, it suited him to leave them this way for now.

Hands still behind his back, the Horseman fell awkwardly into a chair. The Whore took a seat at Boomtown’s instrument panel, and the fingers of her bound hands flew into motion.

“If I find you’ve betrayed me,” the Athenian said, standing behind her, “I will ensure Treg uses his weapon on you again, and you will face your father’s justice.”

“I won’t,” she said, and her tone was solemn enough that the Athenian could nearly believe her. “It’s done,” she said shortly, in the same tone.

“What’s done?” the Horseman asked. “Someone want to tell me what’s going on?”

“Shut up,” the Athenian said. “When Treg returns, just keep your word to me and you too will escape justice, thief.”

The Horseman, perhaps surprised to be spoken to in such a manner by anyone but the Whore, only scowled, and the three sat there in silence, waiting.

The Horseman asked, “How long you think it will take him to—”

“Quiet,” the Athenian said.

There were no further outbursts until minutes later when the steering chamber door slid wide and the Foreigner bolted through. “I can’t find—” he began. Then he saw his missing prisoners and raised his weapon.

“Wait, Treg,” the Athenian said. “I brought them here, and I wish to make a proposal.”

The Foreigner shook his head. “No way. I’ll only get one chance at a pardon, and I’m taking it!”

“Clearly that choice is yours,” the Athenian said. “But it does you no harm to listen.”

Hesitantly, the Foreigner agreed.

“I propose another vote for captain, and I present myself as a candidate.” He looked to the Horseman. “Jotun?”

“I vote for Addy,” the Horseman said dully, honoring his promise.

“Maral?”

“Me, too.”

“And I vote for myself. That makes a majority, but I would prefer it to be unanimous.”

The Foreigner waved his weapon at the two prisoners. “It’s obvious how you got their votes, but why should I agree to this? I want my pardon.”

“You told me you wanted something else. Adventure. Do you still?”

“I’d prefer the pardon. I’ve had enough of those two for a lifetime.”

“What if, as captain, I promised that you would outrank them and could thus subject them to whatever discipline you wished?”

“Hey!” the Horseman shouted.

“Oh, shut up,” said the Whore.

“Both of you!” the Athenian snapped, and they fell silent.

The look on the Foreigner’s face said he was impressed, and his words indicated he was intrigued: “What kind of adventure?”

“The course is already set. The lines are chosen. Soft lines.”

The Foreigner’s jaw dropped. “The Sundered Layers?”

“No!” the Horseman cried. At the controls, the Whore only frowned.

“That’s right.”

“It might be suicide.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps the Sundered Layers are oblivion. I know only that I cannot return to my farm knowing as I now do that although things in my world are one way, they may just as well be another. I cannot stay here and be a beggar, and even less would I wish to live in the world which has produced these two overgrown children.”

“He’s fucking crazy,” the Horseman muttered. “Maral, you can’t be going along with this!”

The Whore shrugged. “Anything we’ll find in there beats what my dad has in mind.”

“I am willing to believe that the Sundered Layers are not certain death,” the Athenian went on, ignoring them. “They may be Ocean, or Hades, or Olympus, or something else. If Ocean, we will cross it and come out the other side. If Hades, then we will seek audience with the Lord of the Dead and beg safe passage. And if the Sundered Layers are, as I suspect, the gates to Olympus, then what greater adventure can there be than to stand face-to-face with the deathless gods?”

“And if they’re something else?”

“Then we shall see, and perhaps report back to your people one day.”

Silently, the Foreigner pondered.

Into the silence, the Horseman shouted, “I take back my vote!”

The Foreigner trained his weapon on the Horseman. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, “because he has mine now. Your only choice is whether you want to stay aboard or leave.”

“It is agreed, then?” the Athenian asked.

The Foreigner nodded. “Will you stay or go, Jotun?”

The Horseman exhaled in a massive, petulant sigh and stared at the floor. “I’m with you,” he said faintly.

The Foreigner put away his weapon and unlocked the restraints first of the Whore and then the Horseman.

“Maral, take us away from here,” the Athenian ordered.

Boomtown shuddered and rose from its resting spot, spiraling up into a clear sky. It soared over the spiny hills and snakelike rivers of a conquered Hellas, mounting higher and higher, and the Athenian did not once look back.

Under new and primitive command, the ship plunged back into the ocean of stars seeking an invisible and imperfect current. When it was found, the Whore at the vessel’s helm touched a control. The stars winked out, and Boomtown sank into the subverse, riding the lines into a vast, cosmic unknown.

 

END

 

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]]A Sample of ATHENIAN STEEL by P.K. Lentz

It is the best book I have read in the last fifteen years and easily makes it my top 10 of all time (most of which are Hugo and/or Nebula award winners).” – Amazon review

GREECE 425 BCE. Four hundred Spartans are besieged on an island by the wily Athenian general Demosthenes. Fate has decreed that Athens shall win this battle, but that victory in the long, grinding war shall go to Sparta. When a woman’s corpse washes ashore before the battle and springs to life, Fate is undone, history unwritten.

ATHENIAN STEEL is a unique, violent, and sexy blend of gritty historical fiction and classic sci-fi set during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The story is rich in historical detail, featuring bloody and brutal battles, but at its heart is the complex, dysfunctional, and ever-evolving anti-romance between Demosthenes and his starborn ally Thalassia.

The first volume of The Hellennium, ATHENIAN STEEL begins a saga of altered history that will span centuries.  Unique. Twisted. Bloody. Epic. Iron Age Sci-Fi.

  • * *

PROLOGUE: Longing for Oblivion

 

“Geneva, I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for this,” said Lyka, an unwelcome presence hovering over the pilot’s controls in the hardliner’s steering chamber, “but it looks as if we’re in the wrong layer.  It’s Severed.  There’s no way back.  We’re trapped here.”

Lyka did not seem particularly alarmed, but then Lyka was old, much older than her two crewmates, even if she did not look it, and was perhaps less prone to fits of excitement than other fighters of the Veta Caliate.

Eight seconds later, Lyka’s severed head floated free in the zero-grav, haloed by a cloud of tiny globules which burst into flat red flowers on contact with the chamber’s smooth surfaces.

The head drifted gently past the small room’s only hatch, which presently opened at the approach of the third and final individual aboard the hardliner Longing for Oblivion.

Eden had certainly overheard Lyka’s observation.  Now her eyes went wide at the sight of her slaughtered crewmate.  At her pilot’s console, Geneva triggered a control to quickly seal the hatch.  Four fingers of Eden’s hand were pulped in the closing orifice as she tried, and utterly failed, to hold it open.  She did not scream.

“Geneva!” she instead howled in rage at the fibresteel door.  “You’re dead, traitor!”

Alone in the steering chamber but for the two wayward parts of the nominal superior she had just killed, Geneva ignored Eden’s promise and the stream of stinging insults which followed it.  She double-checked her instruments.  This was the right layer.  Not the one on their mission manifest, of course, but the right one.  His layer.  That was his Earth directly ahead.

Pre-industrial, which was good.  And the hardliner’s current course would land it somewhere in the western hemisphere, which was also good.

Their landing would be less a landing than a fiery disintegration in this Earth’s atmosphere.  But it was vital that Longing not survive, and for that reason Geneva had overridden those elements of the liner’s systems which enabled it to transition between void and atmosphere, gravity and none.  The hardliner would break up on entry, and the three crew aboard would make landfall, or seafall, separately from their vessel and each other, and with no protection but their voidsuits.  All three would surely sustain catastrophic damage.  But they would heal.  They would survive.  Geneva had hoped to be able to destroy her companions utterly before reaching her destination, but that was far from a simple task, the tools for which were not typically present on a hardliner.

No, her sabotage had not gone quite as planned, but then plans only worked in perfect worlds, and perfect worlds did not exist.  For that reason, Geneva had few certainties concerning what she would do when she got groundside.  Rather, she trusted in her ability to take advantage of whatever opportunities might arise to work toward the achievement of her aim.  

Her final aim.  Her last mission. –

She knew what she would not do.  She had no interest in ruling this world or in depopulating it by the thousands, both of which were available options.  One way or another, her existence would end in this endeavor, and she would have the luxury of taking her time at it, since Caliate pursuit seemed unlikely.  She could live a life here.  Many lifetimes.  Primitive ones, but surely enjoyable.  

Maybe her two companions would even unwittingly help.  Neither bifurcated Lyka nor furious Eden, pounding uselessly on the hatch with one hand and one freshly made stump, had any inkling as to why they were doomed.  They were Geneva’s siblings, of a sort.  Two of thousands, most of whom called her vile names behind her back, if not to her face, and who only grudgingly trusted her because Magdalen told them they must.  Magdalen was wrong after all, it seemed: wayward Geneva had been a traitor to the Caliate once before, and now, with this act, she became one again.  Betrayal was easier the second time.

They hit atmosphere.  Instruments showed the steering chamber getting very hot very fast.  Eden’s pounding stopped, and she screamed a few last words in the moments before the hardliner Longing for Oblivion achieved its eponymous wish.

“I will find you, bitch!

Staring blankly at the instrument panel, Geneva paid her no heed.  

Above the clouds, and far above the square sails of wooden ships crewed by mariners to whom the sea on which they fished and traded and made war was the center of the world in more ways than one, a strange vessel’s long journey met its catastrophic end.  Three of the many small, burning fragments into which the vessel shattered had once been alive, and would live again.

[] I. PYLOS \ 1. Strange Flotsam

 

Ninth day of Metageitnion in the archonship of Stratokles (August 425 BCE)

By moonlight the Helot rowed his tiny boat, its hull patched and rotten, toward the shore of the mountainous island that dominated Pylos harbor.  Sphakteria, it was called, an ugly name for an ugly lump of rock.  Windswept waves from the Ionian Sea poured relentlessly through the narrow channel between island and mainland and threatened to swamp his little craft, a fleck of chaff on Poseidon’s vast domain.  But such were the only conditions in which this voyage might be made, for in daylight and when the weather was fair, Pylos harbor was watched over by Athenian triremes, the crews of which would halt and slaughter any who tried to run their blockade.

But what was the risk of death to one enslaved by birth to men whose sons hunted and killed his kind as practice for the killing of better men?  Ever had that been the lot of Messenians, at least since their ancient conquest by Sparta, to toil in servitude as Helots whose highest hopes in life were to meet a natural death and leave behind a few sons to inherit their hard lot.  Until now, that was.  Now there was cause to dream of more, for the Spartan forces besieged on Sphakteria had promised to make rich men of any who could smuggle them food, and free men of any Helots who did the same.  Yes, the risk of this short excursion was high, but so was the reward—freedom, an unthinkable thing for one upon whose people Sparta renewed annually her declaration of war, in order that a Helot’s murder might cause his killer no ritual impurity.

Now the Spartans were embroiled in a war more pressing than the perennial one against their slaves.  In six years of war with Athens, Sparta’s ancient hegemony over the Peloponnese, her own backyard, had gone unchallenged—until this summer, when out of nowhere the Athenian general Demosthenes had landed at Pylos and built a fort.  Thinking Demosthenes their deliverer, Pylos’s Messenian population had gone over to him, yielding the city to Athenian control.  A Spartan army, recalled from its annual siege of Athens, had descended swiftly on Pylos from its landward side, whilst even more troops were brought in by sea for a naval assault.

Either Demosthenes was favored by his city’s gods or the Spartans had angered theirs, for when the desert dust had settled and the tide had rinsed the shore clean of blood, the Athenians remained in place.  The Lakedaemonian army still held the surrounding plains, but Athenian ships controlled the harbor where sat the isle of Sphakteria, on which Sparta, confident as ever in eventual triumph, had stationed a garrison before the battle.

Now those men were trapped.  When Sparta’s attempts to negotiate their release were met in far-off Athens with scorn, the proclamation had gone forth: freedom to any Helot who risked bringing the trapped men provisions.  It was an offer only a fool could refuse, but Pylos, it seemed, was a city of fools, for instead of seeing that the Athenians cared nothing for their welfare, but only for humiliating their enemy, Messenians had flocked in even greater numbers to Demosthenes.  Did they not realize that the moment Athens’ aims here were achieved, her forces would abandon Pylos to the mercy of its once and future masters?  And those masters knew no mercy.  When the last Athenian ship had sailed and their shortsighted local allies fell, as surely they would, the punishment for those Helots who had turned, along with many who hadn’t, was sure to be swift and brutal.

This Helot, though, was no fool.  He saw what the future held, and so he rowed on through the crashing waves.  He cast a backward glance over one shoulder at his destination and saw Sphakteria rising from the silvered water like the spine of a great black serpent bathing in the harbor.  In silhouette the island’s shore did not look treacherous, but it was, so much so that his decrepit little boat was unlikely to survive the landing.  No matter.  It needed only to get him ashore along with the precious cargo that would make him a free man.

Land came unexpectedly in the form of jagged black teeth jutting from the water.  The sea around the boat frothed white on the rocks, pelting the Helot’s face with chill, salty droplets.  Squinting down the darkened shore he picked out a spot where the rocks seemed fewer and less rugged, and he hunkered down and pulled harder on the oars.  A swell thrust the boat’s prow into the air, and as it slammed down, the oar in his right hand snagged between two rocks and snapped in two. 

No cause for panic, he told himself.  The current, choppy as it was, was bearing him toward his chosen landing.  He gripped the remaining oar with both hands and put it to use as a pole to ward off sharp rocks.

About halfway there, a pale shape in the surf caught his eye.  It poked out from behind some black rocks a few oar-lengths shoreward, rising and falling gently in a tangle of undulating seaweed.  Craning his neck for the few seconds that he could safely divert his attention, he made out curled fingers attached to a forearm. 

A corpse. The sight was no surprise, for the summer’s naval battle had consigned a great many bodies to the depths.  Poor men, their shades would drift inconsolable for eternity, denied entry into Hades’ hall.

The Helot had seen his share of corpses in his lifetime, but never a drowned one, and so as his progress past the rocks gradually brought more of it into view, he couldn’t help but steal a glance when caution allowed.  Someone had told him once that a body left at sea bloated up like a fatted pig and turned just as pale, yet this corpse’s skin had pigment yet, or at least it seemed so in the moonlight.  And it was thin, slighter even than the average man would be in life.

When at last the wave-tossed corpse stood revealed from head to waist the Helot gaped in amazement, for this was no sailor, but a woman.  A scrap of black cloth covered one of her sea-girt breasts, but the other stood bare, its nipple a dark crown on a mound of silver-blue flesh.  Tendrils of hair writhed about her face in a black corona.  He could not make out the features clearly, but they appeared sharp and serene, hardly misshapen by violence or bloated by drowning.

Tempted as he was to stare, especially upon discovering that her lower half too was bare, he tore his attention away and focused on the nearby beach.  Only a few more rocks were left to navigate, little danger by the look of them, and he would come aground.

A wicked thought occurred to him, swatted down as swiftly as it arose, that if he were careful he might pick a path back over the rocks by foot from shore and search the corpse for jewelry.  But no, he had come to Sphakteria for his freedom, not trinkets of silver and bronze, not even gold.  Were he to be caught plundering the dead, he might spend his first day as a free man awaiting execution.  No, he would simply tell the Spartan garrison what he had seen and be done with the matter.

At last he ran his little boat aground on the rocky shore, holing its hull in the process, and thoughts of the woman fled his mind.  He was alive and soon would be free.  Throwing his body ashore, he scooped pebbles from the beach and pressed them to his lips, but he wasted little time in that enterprise.  He had to unload his cargo quickly, lest the tide come in suddenly and sweep it away.  There were too many canvas sacks for him to carry all at once and so he made three trips, piling them at the top of the beach.  While he was doing this, a voice boomed over the rush of the breaking surf.

“You there!”

Startled, the Helot looked up to see a lone figure approaching down the shoreline.  Moonglow turned the man’s bare chest blue, his long hair fell in a cascade over his broad shoulders, and his dark beard was wild and untrimmed.  “You bring us provision?”

“Aye, lord!”

Even in the dim light, wearing a coarse cloak of undyed wool, the speaker was unmistakably a Spartiate, an Equal, born to fight and kill, just as Helots were born to serve.  Wearing their armor of leather and bronze, bearing eight-foot ash spears with blades of sharpened iron, Spartiates were Stygian beasts who struck fear into the hearts of all men.  Naked but for his cloak, this one proved that Equals needed no such trappings to inspire terror.

The Helot waited with two sacks piled on his back while the Spartiate closed the remaining distance across the beach, crouched, and thrust a gnarled hand into one of the sacks on the ground.  It came out with a barley cake, which he examined in the low light before replacing.  No doubt he was starving, but discipline forbade him from partaking before his share had been allotted, even when the sole witness was a Helot whose word was worthless against his.

“You’ll have your freedom for this,” the giant Equal said.  He hefted the remaining three sacks and balanced them on sinewy shoulders.  

“Thank you, my lord!”  Blood pounded a triumphal march in the Helot’s ears, a wave of euphoria imparting fresh strength to tired limbs.  As he began to walk behind the master whose name he did not know, he remembered what he had seen on his approach to the island and mustered the courage to raise the matter.

“Lord!” the Helot called out.  He bore only two sacks to his master’s three, yet he practically had to run to keep pace with the far-striding Equal.  “I saw a body washed up on the rocks!”

“That’s common enough,” the soldier said without stopping.  “We’ll send someone.”

“But lord, this was a woman!”

Now the Spartan halted and turned.  Even bent beneath his greater burden, he stood taller than the Helot, at whom he gazed down curiously from the shadowed pits of his eyes.  “A woman?”

“Aye, lord.  She looks… fresh.”

The Spartiate sighed, shrugging the sacks from his back onto the rocky sand.  “Show me.”

 

  • * *

BY THE SAME AUTHOR:

THE PATH OF RAVENS

Thamoth died once in Atlantis. He’ll die again in the armies of Ares or Odinn, if the world-devouring Myriad has its way. Epic Fantasy steeped in Norse and Greek Myth. 

"In some ways it's one of my favorite manuscripts of the past few years, and I'm dying to read the sequel.  [Lentz is] on the highest professional level when it comes to creating a scene, whether it's a blood and guts action scene or a tender scene of hairwashing.... [T]hose kick-ass female characters ... are among my favorites of all time. This one is perhaps the best because [he shows] such genius in creating all the complexities of her character ... without giving her a single word of dialogue. This is a bravura performance." -  R. G., early reader & SF/F publishing industry veteran

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Hard Lines

  • Author: P. K. Lentz
  • Published: 2015-12-01 07:35:08
  • Words: 8584
Hard Lines Hard Lines