David Weber

How firm a foundation


Castaway Islands, Great Western Ocean; Imperial Palace, City of Cherayth, Kingdom of Chisholm; and Ehdwyrd Howsmyn’s Study, Delthak, Kingdom of Old Charis

Nights didn’t come much darker, Merlin Athrawes reflected as he stood gazing up at the cloud-choked, stormy sky. There were no stars, and no moon, through those clouds, and although it was summer in Safehold’s southern hemisphere, the Castaway Islands were almost four thousand miles below the equator on a planet whose average temperature was rather lower than Old Terra’s to begin with. That made “summer” a purely relative term, and he wondered again how the islands had come to be named.

There were four of them, none of which had ever been individually named. The largest was just under two hundred and fifty miles in its longest dimension; the smallest was barely twenty-seven miles long; and aside from a few species of arctic wyverns and the seals (which actually resembled the Terran species of the same name) which used their limited beaches, he’d seen no sign of life anywhere on any of them. He could well believe that any ship which had ever approached the barren, steep-sided volcanic peaks rising from the depths of the Great Western Ocean had managed to wreck themselves. What he couldn’t figure out was why anyone would have been in the vicinity in the first place, and how there could have been any surviving castaways to name the islands afterward.

He knew they hadn’t been named by the terraforming crews which had first prepared Safehold for human habitation. He had access to Pei Shan-wei’s original maps, and these miserable hunks of weather and wind-lashed igneous rock, sand, and shingle bore no name on them. There were still quite a few unnamed bits and pieces of real estate scattered around the planet, actually, despite the detailed atlases which were part of the Holy Writ of the Church of God Awaiting. There were far fewer than there’d been when Shan-wei and the rest of the Alexandria Enclave were murdered, though, and he found it fascinating (in a historical sort of way) to see which of them had been christened only after dispersion had started shifting the colonists’ descendants’ Standard English into Safehold’s present dialects.

He wasn’t here to do etiological research on planetary linguistics, however, and he turned his back to the howling wind and examined the last of the emitters once more.

The device was about half his own height and four feet across, a mostly featureless box with a couple of closed access panels, one on each side. There were quite a few other similar devices-some quite a bit larger; most about the same size or smaller-scattered around the four islands, and he opened one of the panels to study the glowing LEDs.

He didn’t really have to do it, of course. He could have used his built-in com to consult the artificial intelligence known as Owl who was actually going to be conducting most of this experiment anyway. And he didn’t really need the LEDs, either; the storm-lashed gloom was daylight clear to his artificial eyes. There were some advantages to having been dead for a thousand standard years or so, including the fact that his PICA body was immune to little things like hypothermia. He’d come to appreciate those advantages more deeply, in many ways, than he ever had when a living, breathing young woman named Nimue Alban had used her PICA only occasionally, which didn’t keep him from sometimes missing that young woman with an aching, empty need.

He brushed that thought aside-not easily, but with practiced skill-and closed the panel with a nod of satisfaction. Then he crunched back across the rocky flat to his recon skimmer, climbed the short ladder, and settled into the cockpit. A moment later, he was rising on counter-grav, turbines compensating for the battering wind as he climbed quickly to twenty thousand feet. He broke through the overcast and climbed another four thousand feet, then leveled out in the thinner, far calmer air.

There was plenty of moonlight up here, above the storm wrack, and he gazed down, drinking in the beauty of the black and silver-struck cloud summits. Then he drew a deep breath-purely out of habit, not out of need-and spoke.

“All right, Owl. Activate phase one.”

“Activating, Lieutenant Commander,” the computer said from its hidden cavern at the base of Safehold’s tallest mountain, almost thirteen thousand miles from Merlin’s present location. The signal between the recon skimmer and the computer was bounced off one of the Self-Navigating Autonomous Reconnaissance and Communications platforms Merlin had deployed in orbit around the planet. Those heavily stealthed, fusion-powered SNARCs were the most deadly weapons in Merlin’s arsenal. He relied on them heavily, and they provided him and the handful of human beings who knew his secret with communications and recon capabilities no one else on the planet could match.

Unfortunately, that didn’t necessarily mean someone-or somethingoff the planet couldn’t match or even exceed them. Which was, after all, pretty much the point of this evening’s experiment.

Merlin had chosen the Castaway Islands with care. They were eleven thousand miles from the Temple, eighty-seven hundred miles from the city of Tellesberg, seventy-five hundred miles from the city of Cherayth, and just over twenty-six hundred miles from the Barren Lands, the closest putatively inhabited real estate on the entire planet. No one was going to see anything that happened here. And no one (aside from those arctic wyverns and seals) was going to get killed if things turned out… badly.

Not that it looked that way to the recon skimmer’s sensors at the moment. Indeed, according to them, there were thousands of moving, human-sized thermal signatures scattered around the islands in half a dozen “towns” and “villages.” One of those towns was centered on the device he’d just examined twenty-four thousand feet below the skimmer, which had just come to life as Owl obeyed his instructions. No one looking at it would have noticed anything, but the skimmer’s sensors picked up the new heat source immediately.

Merlin sat back, watching the thermal signature as its temperature rose to approximately five hundred degrees on the Fahrenheit scale Eric Langhorne had imposed upon the brainwashed colonists almost nine hundred Safeholdian years ago. It held steady at that point, and if there’d still been any human (or PICA) eyes to watch, they would have noticed it was beginning to vent steam. Not a lot of it, and the wind snatched the steam plume to bits almost more quickly than it could appear. But the sensors saw it clearly, noted its cyclic nature. Only an artificial source could have emitted it in such a steady pattern, and Merlin waited another five minutes, simply watching his instruments.

“Have we detected any response from the kinetic platforms, Owl?” he asked then.

“Negative, Lieutenant Commander,” the AI replied calmly.

“Initiate phase two, then.”

“Initiating, Lieutenant Commander.”

A moment later, additional heat sources began to appear. One or two of them, at first, then half a dozen. Two dozen. Then still more, scattered around the islands as individuals and in clusters, all in around the same temperature range, but registering in several different sizes, and all of them “leaking” those cyclical puffs of steam. The cycles weren’t all identical and the steam plumes came in several different sizes and durations, but all of them were clearly artificial in origin.

Merlin sat very still, watching his instruments, waiting. Five more minutes crept past. Then ten. Fifteen.

“Any response from the kinetic platforms now, Owl?”

“Negative, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Good. That’s good, Owl.”

There was no response from the computer this time. Merlin hadn’t really expected one, although Owl did seem to be at least starting to develop the personality the operator’s manual promised he would… eventually. The AI had actually offered spontaneous responses and interpolations on a handful of occasions, although seldom to Merlin. In fact, now that he thought about it, the majority of those spontaneous responses had been directed to Empress Sharleyan, and Merlin wondered why that was. Not that he expected he’d ever find out. Even back when there’d been a Terran Federation, AIs-even Class I AIs (which Owl most emphatically was not)-had often had

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