So have another analysis thread, Baen once again, this time a decidedly unfinished duology collaboration between David Weber and Linda Evans. This series is about a conflict between two transdimensional civilizations, one rooted in magic with some magical equivalents to several 20th/21st Century technologies, the other a late 19th Century techbase with the addition of psychic 'Talents.' One is the Union of Arcana, the other Sharona.
In this series, portals exist linking many worlds, all essentially identical in geography (and all identical to our own Earth, I'll be providing Earth names as we go). Which is incredibly convenient, since things like gold, oil, iron, timber, rubber etc. are usually where you found them the first time. The portals are usually several miles across, but exist hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Until the first book, neither side has encountered another human culture, despite centuries of exploring alt-Earths. Other animals are there, but not man, and so manmade changes to the world are lacking, both shaping the landscape and selective breeding of plants and animals.
But let's get down to it.
He gazed up into the painfully bright afternoon sky, blue-gray eyes slitted against the westering sun, with his helmet tucked into the crook of his left elbow and his right thumb hooked into the leather sling of the dragoon arbalest slung over his shoulder.
The average Arcanan soldier is armed with an arbalest (steel-armed crossbow) with a magically-assisted winding mechanism. Also a close-quarters blade and sometimes a daggerstone. But more on that later.
The dragon's arrival was a sign of just how inaccessible this forward post actually was. In fact, it was just over seven hundred and twenty miles from the coastal base, in what would have been the swamps of the Kingdom of Farshal in northeastern Hilmar back home. Those were some pretty inhospitable miles, and the mud here was just as gluey as the genuine Hilmaran article, so aerial transport was the only real practical way in at the moment.
Arcana has airlift via dragons. This is awesome.
Hilmar is the Arcanan name for South America, setting this strategically crucial portal somewhere in Northern Brazil? Maybe Columbia? Depends on much north and how much east goes into 'northeastern Hilmar.'
The newcomer was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and even taller than the noncom, although much younger, and each point of his collar bore the single silver shield of a commander of one hundred. Like the noncom, he wore the shoulder flash of the 2nd ATS, and the name "Olderhan, Jasak" was stenciled above his breast pocket.
Meet Hundred Jasak Olderhan, our sympathetic Arcanan commander. In the Arcanan military, noncom ranks are weapons, Sword, Spear, Lance etc. Even a Shield. Officers, though, are ranked by roughly the size of their command. Olderhan commands a company, so he's a Hundred, with a pair of Fifties under him. Jasak's old man is a Five Thousand.
Halathyn vos Dulainah was very erect, very dark-skinned, and very silver-haired, with a wiry build which was finally beginning to verge on frail. Jasak wasn't certain, but he strongly suspected that the old man was well past the age at which Authority regs mandated the retirement of the Gifted from active fieldwork. Not that anyone was likely to tell Magister Halathyn that. He'd been a law unto himself for decades and the UTTTA's crown jewel ever since he'd left the Mythal Falls Academy twenty years before, and he took an undisguised, almost childlike delight in telling his nominal superiors where they could stuff their regulations.
Wizards are properly called Magisters. Only a very small minority of Arcanans can use magic. A larger group, about 20-30% have enough magic in them to use magic items created by Magisters.
UTTA is the Union Trans-Temporal Transit Agency, the government organization responsible for exploring and developing the portal network.
He was also, as his complexion and the "vos" in front of his surname proclaimed, both a Mythalan and a member of the shakira caste. As a rule, Jasak Olderhan was less than fond of Mythalans . . . and considerably less fond than that of the shakira. But Magister Halathyn was the exception to that rule, as he was to so many others.
From what little is shared, magic was discovered by the Mythalan Empire, which covers Africa and the Middle East and nearly conquered the world with it. But the world unraveled the secrets of magic and united against them and eventually the three superpowers formed the Union. Mythal to this day maintains a rigid caste system based on magic. Vos, the mages are the rulers, scholars and god-kings, Muls, those who can use magic items and weapons form the warrior caste, and everyone else gets to be wretched serfs.
Halathyn is sort of a Mythalan heretic, having split off their society and academia decades ago to found his own school on New Arcana.
"And how is my second-favorite crude barbarian?" he inquired in genial Andaran.
"As unlettered and impatient as ever, Sir," Jasak replied, in Mythalan, with an answering smile.
They have a world government on Arcana, but not a unified language.
A portal cluster . . . In the better part of two centuries of exploration, UTTTA's survey teams had located only one true cluster, the Zholhara Cluster. Doubletons were the rule—indeed, only sixteen triples had ever been found, which was a rate of less than one in ten. But a cluster like Zholhara was of literally incalculable value.
So much data in a tiny packet. Arcana has been exploring and expanding into the multiverse for almost two hundred years and found over 160 alt-Earths. Most worlds have just two portals, forming 'chains' of alt-Earths, but there are a few triplets where new chains start and, though vanishingly rare, the odd cluster.
This far out—they were at the very end of the Lamia Chain, well over three months' travel from Arcana, even for someone who could claim transport dragon priority for the entire trip—even a cluster would take years to fully develop. Lamia, with over twenty portals, was already a huge prize. But if Magister Halathyn was correct, the entire transit chain was about to become even more valuable . . . and receive the highest development priority UTTTA could assign.
They're 20 worlds away from home. With portals hundreds or thousands of miles apart, or occasionally on the far side of the Earth, they can make the trip in 3-4 months, relying largely on air travel. The closer they get to home, the more developed things should become, and I'd presume linking portals would be a priority.
But second, and far more important, was the patronage system which permeated the Arcanan Army, because patronage was the only thing that kept Garlath in uniform. Not even that had been enough to get him promoted, but it was more than enough to ensure that his sponsors would ask pointed questions if Jasak went that far out of his way to invite another fifty to replace him on what promised to be quite possibly the most important portal exploration on record. If Magister Halathyn's estimates were remotely near correct, this was the sort of operation that got an officer noticed.
Which, in Jasak's opinion, was an even stronger argument in favor of handing it to a competent junior officer who didn't have any patrons . . . and whose probable promotion would actually have a beneficial effect on the Army. But—
The Arcanan military is dominated by the Andaran Confederacy, and built on their model. The Confederacy is a superpower embracing North and South America in a militant aristocracy, with occasionally warring duchies and kingdoms. Jasak's family, for instance control the Ducy of Garth Showma: New York, Toronto and a bite of Pennsylvania on New Arcana, the first world they settled. The downside of a military aristocracy being the patronage system.
The portal's outbound side was located smack on top of the Great Andaran Lakes, five thousand miles north of their departure portal, in what should have been the Kingdom of Lokan. In fact, it was on the narrow neck of land which separated Hammerfell Lake and White Mist Lake from Queen Kalthra's Lake. It might be only one hour east of the base camp, but the difference in latitude meant that single step had moved them from sweltering early summer heat into the crispness of autumn.
And on the world that will be called Hell's Gate, the Arcanan portal puts them in Great Lakes region, Jasak later says about 80 klicks from where his family's land would be back home.
Garlath was supposed to be a temporal scout, after all. That meant he was supposed to take the abrupt changes in climate trans-temporal travel imposed in stride. It also meant he was supposed to be confident in the face of the unknown, well versed in movement under all sorts of conditions and in all sorts of terrain.
Some of the training the temporal scouts (the military units seconded to UTTA) receive. All very common sense.
Magister Halathyn's tone had been dismissive when he described the portal as "only a class three." But while the classification was accurate, and there were undeniably much larger portals, even a "mere" class three was the better part of four miles across. A four-mile disk sliced out of the universe . . . and pasted onto another one.
Don't hear a ton about the portal classification system. Halathyn was worried that if Hell's Gate is a cluster (and of course it is) their development of it would be bottlenecked by the small portal. Of course, four miles leaves room for a lot of road, I'd be more worried about it being in a godforsaken swamp 700 miles from anything.
A portal appeared to have only two dimensions—height, and width. No one had yet succeeded in measuring one's depth. As far as anyone could tell, it had no depth; its threshold was simply a line, visible to the eye but impossible to measure, where one universe stopped . . . and another one began.
Even more fascinating, it was as if each of the universes it connected were inside the other one. Standing on the eastern side of a portal in Universe A and looking west, one saw a section of Universe B stretching away from one. One might or might not be looking west in that universe, since portals' orientation in one universe had no discernible effect on their orientation in the other universe to which they connected. If one stepped through the portal into Universe B and looked back in the direction from which one had come, one saw exactly what one would have expected to see—the spot from which one had left Universe A. But, if one returned to Universe A and walked around the portal to its western aspect and looked east, one saw Universe B stretching away in a direction exactly 180 degrees reversed from what he'd seen from the portal's eastern side in Universe A. And if one then stepped through into Universe B, one found the portal once again at one's back . . . but this time looking west, not east, into Universe A.
The theoreticians referred to the effect as "counterintuitive." Most temporal scouts, like Jasak, referred to it as the "can't get there" effect, since it was impossible to move from one side to the other of a portal in the same universe without circling all the way around it. And, since that held true for any portal in any universe, no one could simply step through a portal one direction, then step back through it to emerge on its far side in the same universe. In order to reach the far side of the portal at the other end of the link, one had to walk all the way around it, as well.
In other words, portals are two dimensional and squareish, and either side transports you to the other universe like this.
World Blue: A||B
World Green: B||A
Go in A, come out A and vice versa. But since portals range from a couple of miles across to tens of miles, unless you keep to the very edge it becomes almost impossible to circle around and access side B from side A, and going through the portal won't help you any. Hence, the "can't go there" effect. If you do stick to the very edge, than you can access either side quickly enough, but will probably still have some walking to do to get anywhere.
Frankly, every time someone tried to explain the theory of how it all worked to Jasak, his brain hurt, but the engineers responsible for designing portal infrastructure took advantage of that effect on a routine basis. It always took some getting used to when one first saw it, of course. For example, it wasn't at all uncommon to see two lines of slider cars charging into a portal on exactly opposite headings—one from the east and the other from the west—at the exact same moment on what appeared to be exactly the same track. No matter how carefully it had all been explained before a man saw it for the first time with his own eyes, he knew those two sliders had to be colliding in the universe on the other side of that portal. But, of course, they weren't. Viewed from the side in that other universe, both sliders were exploding out of the same space simultaneously . . . but headed in exactly opposite directions.
Sliders being magic-trains, naturally. And herein is the problem, you can develop both sides of a portal, but militarily you have to defend both sides of a portal, sometimes along a pretty wide front.
This particular portal was relatively young. The theorists were still arguing about exactly how and why portals formed in the first place, but it had been obvious for better than a hundred and eighty years that new ones were constantly, if not exactly frequently, being formed. This one had formed long enough ago that the scores of gigantic trees which had been sliced in half vertically by its creation had become dead, well-dried hulks, but almost a dozen of them still stood, like gaunt, maimed chimneys. It wouldn't be long before the bitter northern winters toppled them, as well, yet the fact that it hadn't already happened suggested that they'd been dead for no more than a few years.
New portals are forming all the time, and this event is pretty rough on the surrounding area. Both because the portal slices and dices the land for miles and because both sides equalize somewhat in temperature and pressure and when the portal first forms this process is violent.
Jasak saw the display flicker to life and moved a little closer to look over her shoulder. She sensed his presence and looked up. For an instant, he thought she was going to be annoyed with him for crowding her, but then she smiled and tilted her wrist so that he could see the display more clearly.
In many ways, it looked a great deal like a standard Authority navigation unit. He quickly identified the latitude and longitude readouts, and the built-in clocks—one set to the base camp's time, and one which automatically adjusted to local time on this side of the portal—and the compass and directional indicator arrows. But there was another arrow in the glassy heart of the sphere of sarkolis crystal, and it was flanked by two waterfall displays which had never been part of any navigation unit he'd ever used.
"This one," she said quietly, tapping the green waterfall, "indicates the portal's approximate distance. And this one," she tapped the red waterfall, "indicates its measured field strength. And the arrow, of course," she grinned, "indicates the direction."
Magic PDA and GPS, made of a green sarkolis crystal which serves as the basis for all their magic items. This one has an experimental portal detector app.
"But the important thing," he continued, allowing her to drop the subject of her own competency, "is that I've never had a nav unit that pointed me directly at an unexplored portal before. It beats the hell, if you'll pardon the language, out of humping the standard detectors around the countryside on a blind search pattern. Especially someplace like this—"
How portal-finding is traditionally done. Sweep the whole damn planet with short range detectors. I imagine that takes a while, even with aerial transport. Then again, portals are miles across and high, assuming any detector is going to be better at finding them than the Mk. I eyeball, or what's the point, it's a bit less daunting. A bit.
"You may have heard that magisters can be just a little . . . paranoid about their research." She smiled briefly, and Jasak managed to turn a laugh into a not particularly convincing cough. "A little paranoid," in this case, was rather like saying that White Mist Lake was "a little damp."
"Well, all right, maybe it goes a bit further than that," she said with a reluctant grin. But the grin faded quickly, and she shook her head. "In fact, it goes a lot further than that where Magister Halathyn is concerned. Especially for something like this. There's no way he was going to let even a whisper about this project out where the Mythalans might hear about it before he was ready to publish."
Jasak nodded in suddenly sober understanding of his own.
"While I'd never like to suggest that Magister Halathyn doesn't hold you in the highest respect, Hundred Olderhan," she continued, "the real reason we're out here? It's the farthest away from the Mythal Falls Academy he could get for his field test. And—"
So, 20 worlds is the farthest they could get from home? And I somehow doubt it's just coincidence that Halthyan wound up with a commander who is a close personal friend and set to inherit the land his shiny school of magic is built on when performing this historic experiment.
"Either the thing's completely screwed up—which is always possible, however little we might want to admit it—or else there is at least a total of five portals associated with this one." A jerk of her head indicated the swamp portal. "Or, more precisely, this one is one of at least five associated with this one," she amended, bringing up the original display on the strongest and nearest of the other portals.
Size of the Hell's Gate cluster.
"You said 'at least,' " Jasak observed intently, and she nodded again.
"We never expected to hit anything like this on our first field test, Sir Jasak, so there are only a total of six 'slots' in the spellware. In theory, we could nest as many as fifteen or twenty—it just never occurred to us to do it. I suppose that was partly because the Zholhara Cluster only has six portals, and it seemed unlikely anyone might find one even bigger."
And yes, magictech works by nesting command-activated spells in the green crystals. Thus, the spells laid on a device, and thus the functions it can perform, or called spellware. Which is where that Mythalan caste division comes in. The average person can't activate these devices, and the people who can do just that are stuck with whatever spells got preloaded in, unable to cast on their own or modify the spellware.
"The Zholhara portals are as much as three thousand miles apart. The maximum range on our detector—assuming we got our sums right—is only about nine hundred miles. In fact, according to the readouts, the farthest one we've detected is less than six hundred miles from this portal right here."
Range of the revolutionary new portal sniffer. And how uncommonly close the portals are on Hell's Gate, the nearest being only 30 miles (48 km) away.
There was something . . . ominous about the officer's total immobility. That would have been true under any circumstances, but Janaki chan Calirath wasn't any old Imperial Marine officer. No one was supposed to take any official notice of that, but every member of the platoon-captain's command was a Ternathian (which, chan Yaran knew, wasn't exactly an accident), and that made this officer's petrified lack of response downright frightening.
And over to a Sharonan. I'm just going to go ahead and explain, like Mythalans, Ternathians sometimes add a descriptor to surnames. Well, mostly just "chan" for every former or presently serving member of the military. Hence, a military unit of all Ternathians will have "chan Calirath" and "chan Yaran."
A spot of Sharonan history. Ternathia, Ireland on our map, was the place where psychic talents were discovered in the Late Bronze Age, and the Ternathian Empire, a Constitutional Monarchy in the Brisith model (I sense the hand of Weber in this) effectively ruled the world from then until the early modern era. Or at least all Europe, Africa and the lion's share of Asia. In the last few centuries, the Empire has contracted to just Western Europe, plus Poland and Sicily, peacefully ceding territory to independence and home rule movements over time and retaining a stunning amount of global goodwill over it.
Ternathia has been ruled from time immemorial by the Calirath dynasty. Because they're all freaking OP precogs, able to forsee major disasters and threats to their lives. It's some weird genetic quirk, they break all the normal precog rules, but it's definitely inheritable. Which is the reason (well, a reason) the crown prince's military unit (also a British tradition, the military or diplomatic service) is manned entirely by specially briefed Ternathians.
Mostly though, it just amuses me to think there's a reality out there where the Irish conquered the world. Also that the procedure for prophetic visions is "wait it out, and get a strong drink ready for when he's done."
Unfortunately, not everyone recognized that, and the Arcanan Army's tradition, particularly in its Andaran units, was for officers and noncoms to remain within their original brigade or division for their entire careers. It produced a powerful sense of unit identification and was an undoubted morale enhancer, but it could also enhance petty resentments and hostilities.
Back to Arcana, and officers and noncoms tend to stay in more-or-less the same unit for their entire careers, so best to get used to each other.
"What makes you say that?"
"I could say it's because I'm Gifted, and that I was always good at social analysis spells. Which happens to be true, actually." Her smile had considerably more amusement in it than his had. "On the other hand, those spells have always been overrated in the popular press. They work quite well for mass analyses, like the polling organizations undertake, but they're pretty much useless on the microlevel." She shrugged. "So instead of falling back on the prestige and reputation of my Gift, I'll just say that he seems a trifle . . . sullen this morning."
Social Analysis spells, a lot of these do sound like computer programming, particularly the emphasis on math in magic.
Falsan chan Salgmun froze in disbelief, staring down at the river.
The man—and it was, indisputably, a man, however he'd gotten here—looked completely out of place. And not simply because this was a virgin world, which meant, by definition, that no one lived there.
It wasn't just his uniform, although that pattern of dense green, black, and white would have been far better suited to a tropical rain forest somewhere than to the mixed conifers and deciduous trees towering above him. Nor was it his coloring, which, after all, was nothing extraordinary. It was the totality of his appearance—the peculiar spiked helmet, covered in the same inappropriate camouflage fabric of which his uniform was made; the clubbed braid of bright, golden hair spilling over the back of his collar; the knee-high, tightly laced boots; the short sword at his left hip . . . and the peculiar looking crossbow carried in his right hand.
It was like some weird composite image, some insane juxtapositioning of modern textiles and manufactured goods with medieval weaponry, and it couldn't be here. Couldn't exist. In eighty years of exploration under the Portal Authority's auspices, no trace of any other human civilization had ever been discovered.
Until, chan Salgmun realized, today.
And what the fuck do I do now?
* * *
Trooper Osmuna stared at the impossible apparition. It wore brown trousers, short boots, and a green jacket, and its slouch hat looked like something a Tukorian cattle herder might have worn. It had a puny looking sheath knife at one hip, certainly not anything anyone might have called a proper sword, and something else—something with a handgrip, almost like one of the hand crossbows some hunters used for small game—in an abbreviated scabbard on the other hip. It was also holding something in both hands. Something like an arbalest, but with no bow stave.
It couldn't be here, he thought. Not after two hundred years! Despite all of his training, all of his experience, Osmuna discovered that he'd been totally unprepared for what had been laughingly dismissed as "the other guy contingency" literally for generations.
His heart seemed to have stopped out of sheer shock, but then he felt his pulse begin to race and adrenaline flooded his system. He didn't know exactly what the other man was holding, or how it worked, but he knew from the way he held it that it was a weapon of some sort.
And what the fuck do I do now? he wondered frantically.
* * *
Chan Salgmun shook himself. He was only a private employee of the Chalgyn Consortium these days, working for one of the private firms licensed by the Portal Authority to explore the links between the universes. But in his day, he'd served in the Ternathian Army, which considered itself the best on Sharona, with reason, and he recognized the other man's confusion. Confusion that could be dangerous, under the circumstances.
Here we both stand, armed, and scared as shit, he thought. All we need is for one of us to fuck up. And that damned crossbow of his is cocked and ready to go. I know I don't intend to do anything stupid . . . but what about him?
His thumb moved, very carefully disengaging the safety on his Model 9 rifle.
* * *
Osmuna saw the not-arbalest move slowly, stealthily, and the level of adrenaline flooding his system rocketed upward. Doctrine was clear on this point. In the inconceivable event that another human civilization was encountered, contact was to be made peacefully, if at all possible. But the overriding responsibility was to ensure that news of the encounter got home. Which meant the people who had that news had to be alive—and free—to deliver it.
And if Osmuna intended to stay alive and uncaptured, it probably wouldn't be a very good idea to let this stranger point an unknown weapon at him.
He moved his left hand to the forearm of his arbalest and tipped it upward slightly.
First Contact. It does not go well at all.
Also, we see that while exploration is strictly a government/military operation for the Arcanans, on Sharona they went with the private option.