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Imagine a glittering, dynamic, and exotic Earth two thousand years in the future, where librarians fight duels to settle disputes, there is no electricity, fuelled engines are banned by every major religion in Australia, humanity has split into two species, and intelligent cetezoids rule the oceans.
Fundamentally, unexpectedly, things are changing everywhere. As catastrophe looms and civilization begins to crumble, the Dragon Librarians have just one means left to hold their world together: to kidnap every numerate person on the continent and rebuild their out-of-date human-powered computer-the Calculor.
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Sean McMullen is one of the leading Australian SF authors to emerge during the 1990s, having won more than a dozen national awards in his homeland. In addition, he has sold several dozen short stories to magazines such as Analog, Interzone, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was co-author of Strange Constellations, a History of Australian SF. He established himself in the American market with the publication of the Greatwinter trilogy (comprised of Souls in the Great Machine, The Miocene Arrow, and Eyes of the Calculor). His fiction has been translated into Polish, French, and Japanese. The settings for Sean's work range from the Roman Empire, through Medieval Europe, to cities of the distant future.
He has bachelor's and master's degrees from Melbourne University, and post-graduate diplomas in computer science, information science and business management. He is currently doing a PhD in Medieval Fantasy Literature at Melbourne University, where he is also the deputy instructor at the campus karate club, and a member of the fencing club. Before he began writing, Sean spent several years in student reviews and theatre, and was lead singer in three rock and folk bands. After singing in several early music groups and choirs, he spent two years in the Victorian State Opera before he began writing.
He lives in Melbourne, and has one daughter, Catherine.
TOUCH OF APOCALYPSE
Twelve miles above Eastern Australica
Relations between Earth's intelligent species had been less than satisfactory for a very long time. For several hundred years humans had hunted whales and dolphins so intensively that many of their clans, attractens, and associons were wiped out. Those memories were fresh and raw when the humans managed to revive a cetacean warrior from a civilization older than the human race itself, a warrior skilled in the ways of warfare that had unleashed an undersea Armageddon nine million years earlier. There is nothing like a common enemy to inspire unity, and humanity was certainly that. The Call, a mind weapon, began to sweep over the land, permanently blanketing some areas, especially near the coast. Lured to the sea to drown, or held starving in a mindless reverie, the human population declined by nearly three orders of magnitude. The cetezoids could easily have wiped Homo sapiens from the earth, but then there would have been no common enemy left. Humanity was suffered to survive through sheer political convenience.
In the dying years of the Anglaic civilization, however, one last and desperate attempt was made to counter the cetaceans' weapon. Noting that birds were not affected by the Call, some of the last genetic engineers on the continent of Australia added tracts of bird DNA to the human genome. Overseas, frightened and confused armies flung nuclear weapons at each other, then chaos descended in the form of a nightmare winter that lasted centuries. As the world warmed again it was noticed that some people were immune to the Call, people who were also lighter, stronger, faster, and generally more intelligent than humans. These bird-people, the aviads, were slaughtered whenever they were recognized, and the genocide continued for two thousand years. Slowly, unobtrusively, the aviads began to organize their own nations in areas permanently blanketed by the cetezoids' Call, and their hatred for humanity was no less intense than that of the cetezoids. Within the Calldeath lands they were safe, secure beyond the reach of humans and their predilection to annihilate anything superior than themselves.
Then, on the 13th of September, A.D. 3961 the Call ceased to exist. Completely. Humans were free from the Call weapon that had ravaged their numbers and rendered vast areas of land uninhabitable for two millennia. The aviads of the continent now known as Australica were suddenly at the mercy of a human population a thousand times its number.
Fortunately this happened just as the only member of Earth's newest intelligent species decided to annihilate all electrical machines on the face of the planet. This was not entirely coincidence either, for the fourth intelligence had once been an aviad.
* * *
The sunwing Titan was a half mile in wingspan but barely fifty feet in length. It was pure wing, nothing more than a wing powered by electrical motors driven by direct or stored sunlight. Two thousand years earlier it had been designed to cruise the stratosphere forever, regenerating ozone to restore the delicate balance of Earth's atmosphere, never landing, self-repairing. It was an island of habitat in the sky. An air pressure of just below that of sea level was maintained by pumps to strengthen the Titan's structure, and waste heat provided warmth for the cabins were where maintenance crews had been meant to live. The aviads had boarded the Titan, removed the ozone generators, and learned to steer it. Aviads could now cross human territory without fear of lynch mobs, torture, and inquisitions. They could even cross oceans.
The Titan was cruising twelve miles above southeastern Australica on the 13th day of September 1729 in the Greatwinter calendar of Australica, and 3961 in the Anno Domini calendar of North America. There were twenty-two aviad souls aboard the huge wing: three crew and nineteen passengers.
Captain Raffe Terian seldom steered the Titan. As captain he tended the running and security of the town-sized wing, managing the provisions, waste disposal, security, and maintenance of the living areas. He had a bridge from which he could adjust the course, but in practice this was little more than his office. This trip was quite routine, it was merely to transport aviad refugees from the humans' Carpenteria mayorate of the far north to Tasmania Island, where the mayorate of Avian was barely six years old. It was ironic that so many aviads were often born to human parents, so that the humans who hated them were their best source of recruits. Terian noted that they were above the Cenral Confederation's lands, but borders made little difference at a height of twelve miles. Even crawling along at an airspeed of just seventy miles per hour they would be above Tasmania Island in twelve hours.
"It is hard to believe that there is a battlefield down there," said Watch Officer Varel, standing at the observation plate with her arms folded behind her back.
"The Central Confederation and the Southmoors, I believe," replied Captain Terian. "It is nice to see humans killing each other instead of us."
"With respect, Fras, I never like to see anyone killing anyone," retorted Varel.
"Spoken like someone shielded from the tender attentions of a human mob, Watch Officer. What has been your background with humans?"
"I have been shot twice and raped once during the course of recruiting five dozen aviad brethren from among the humans. I have also killed eleven times."
Terian shook his head. "After all that, you still have a trace of compassion for the human exterminators?"
"They are just afraid of us, Fras Captain. Aviads are so much better in so many ways."
"That does not make it any more pleasant to be killed by them. Some factions say we should kill them all--"
The console before the captain suddenly hissed, then billowed acrid smoke. The light strips blackened and failed too, but clear panels in the roof allowed light from Mirrorsun to illuminate the interior of the Titan. Everything electrical had smoked, melted, or exploded at the same instant.
"What in all hells has happened?" demanded Captain Terian, fanning at the smoke between him and the ruined console.
"The nearest engine pod is trailing smoke, Fras Captain," reported Varel, staring through a roof panel. "Its propeller is just spinning unpowered."
"Get up to the navigation bubble, check if any others have failed."
Watch Officer Seegan burst into the bridge as Varel was climbing the steps. He reported that there was smoke everywhere, and that the passengers were beginning to panic.
"All engine pods are trailing smoke, Fras Captain," called Varel from the navigation bubble. "Some propellers have jammed, others are just spinning unpowered."
"All?" cried the incredulous captain.
"All that I can see from here."
"Then we are going to lose the sunwing."
By now the smoke was dispersing, but in the distance someone was having hysterics and screaming that they were all going to die.
"Even with total loss of power this thing will take over two hours to glide to the ground," Terian pointed out as he hurriedly thought through some figures he had learned for an examination years earlier. "That gives us space to breathe."
"Fras Captain, breathing could actually be a problem; we are also losing air pressure," reported Seegan, staring at a large mechanical dial. "We will be dead ninety minutes before the air can be breathed."
Terian closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears as he thought for a frantic moment.
"Perhaps not," he decided. "Draw your guns, come with me."
Although there had been safety drills aboard the Titan, there was no precedent for total failure of all electrical systems with no warning whatsoever. They were at twice the height of Mount Everest, although none of them knew of Mount Everest as anything more than a folktale.
The first thought of the passengers was to escape from the smoke, and the evacuation drills had made the location of the parachutes common knowledge. One of the musketeers strapped on a parachute, then led a group of passengers to the ferry bay of the Titan. The ramp was normally released by electrical relays when at lower altitudes, but now the switches remained firmly locked. Selecting an area of the low, sloping roof, the musketeer began slashing at the tough fabric. The already depleted air rushed out all the more quickly, sucking acrid smoke and fumes from the sunwing.
Eight of the passengers tumbled out through the hole, but within minutes five of them were dead, suffocated as they hung from their parachute straps in the rarefied air. Three others knew that survival depended upon reaching breathable air quickly, and did not open their parachutes. By the time they had reached denser air, however, they were dead from the wind chill. They had been dressed for the warm, comfortable cabins of the Titan.
Back aboard the crippled sunwing another three had died, suffocated by the smoke, but the captain had been quick to grasp what options were available for those aboard the doomed craft. Crippled the Titan might be, but it was descending in a long, shallow glide and would take a very long time to hit the ground. He and the two officers left the smoking control deck, shouting for all that could hear to make for the captain's cabin, and to ignore the parachutes. He got a mixed reception from the passengers, and even his authority could not convince them that true safety did not lie with immediate escape. The captain seized a woman who was leading her two children aft, shouting at her to come with him. A confused man knocked him to the deck and tried to lead the family away. Watch Officer Varel shot the man dead.
Fifteen minutes after the catastrophic failure, three more passengers on the Titan were dead, asphyxiated in the corridors whose air pressure had by now become equal with the rarefied atmosphere outside. After half an hour the sunwing had shed six miles of its height and was down to thirty thousand feet. In the captain's cabin, two men, three women, and two children were huddled together in the increasing cold, yet they could still breathe. The cabin was air-tight, and had contained no electrical devices. Through the single forward observation plate they watched as detail on the Mirrorsunlit ground gradually grew more distinct. They moved little. One of the crew, a monk of the Avianese Gentheist Church, talked them through meditative breathing exercises. They were down to eighteen thousand feet at the end of the first hour. Slowly the captain bled the air from the cabin, and breathing became more difficult.
"I thought the idea was to save air," said the mother of the children.
"The Titan is descending more slowly in the denser air, so I don't know how long it will take to reach a level safe for parachuting."
"What do you mean?"
"The pressure in here is that of two thousand feet above the ground, and we are nine times higher. The air outside can be breathed but it is very thin. Decompression sickness will soon kill us if we open the door and jump now, so we need to slowly accustom our bodies to the lower pressure."
"And if we are approaching the salt water before we are accustomed?"
"Then we take a chance and jump anyway."
After two hours they were a mere mile above ground.
"We are over Southmoor territory," said the captain. "Not a good place to jump."
"Fras Captain, will we reach the Rochestrian Commonwealth?" asked the watch officer.
"Yes. In ten minutes, I estimate. Now listen to me, and listen carefully. The pressure outside must be nearly the same as in here, so I am about to open the door. Go to your cabins and collect all your money and papers. Put on the heaviest clothing and boots that you have, then come back here for your parachutes."
The air outside the cabin was cold but breathable as they emerged, but Captain Terian discovered another problem. There had only been twelve parachutes aboard the Titan. Eight had been taken by those who had jumped at twelve miles.
The passengers quickly returned, dressed in coats and boots. The officers shed their jackets for bush coats.
"The mother, Watch Officer Varel, Frelle Tarmia, and yourself will have parachutes," the captain said to Seegan as he helped him into a parachute's harness. "You and Varel can hold a child each as you jump."
"That is only six of us, Fras Captain."
"I know. You will have to look after the group on the ground. Get them to Rochester and the safe house."
"You are going down with the wing?"
"In the absence of any realistic suggestions to the contrary, yes. I hereby surrender my authority to you, beginning when the Titan crashes."
Two hours and forty-five minutes after the invisible pulse of electromagnetic energy had crippled the Titan, the captain helped the six other survivors out through the rent in the sunwing's fabric made by the musketeer. In another five minutes all six were alive and gathering together on the ground in the darkness while the sunwing glided on, trailing smoke from the central section. Aboard the Titan, the fires set by the captain consumed sensitive documents and maps while he exchanged clothing with one of the dead passengers.
The ground was very close as the captain selected a bulkhead and put his back to it. A minute went by, another, then yet another. With a ground speed of fifty miles per hour, the Titan scraped trees, fences, and bushes, then ploughed into lush grass and rich soil. Branches, posts, and rocks gouged through living cellulose spars, ribs, and fabric. Bushes and small trees were torn from the ground, and electrical engines were ripped from their mountings and went tumbling across the fields. Then there was silence and stillness.
The full span of the Titan lay like a crumpled blue ribbon across the green pastures of the northern Rochestrian Commonwealth, still complete to a distant viewer, but internally shattered, with its belly torn out. Over two dozen sheep had died as they slept, shepherds had run screaming, mothers in nearby hamlets had dragged their children under the beds, the Kyabram town militia had been called out, and every dog that had been under the Titan's glide path was barking hysterically. It was dawn before anyone dared to approach the immense wreck, and it was to be several days before it had been completely explored. No survivors were found.
Some distance away, Watch Officer Seegan quickly gathered the survivors together and had the parachutes bundled and buried. He led his charges across a field, then along a hedge-fringed lane, walking for a dot on a line map that he had salvaged. As they hurried through the darkness, they rehearsed their story and roles.
"So who are we?" Seegan asked the youngest child for the third time.
"We're hikers, returning from a picnic."
"And where do we come from?"
"The Central Confederation. We're going to the paraline wayside, to take the pedal train to Rochester."
"Good, good. And what do you say if anyone asks you if you saw the huge flying thing?"
"My mother told me not to talk to strangers."
"Excellent, you have it."
By now they had turned onto a cattle track and...
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