Chapter 99: Aimed Shot
We left our heroes at the beginning of what looks like three months
(subjective time) of evacuation of the nephilim et al. from Yazatlan.
They had just heard of a caliph who doesn't hold with the evacuation and
is using his nephilite powers to trap his people in their city with a
First, we scope out the situation with our windows, in freeze-frame. The city is in the Desert of Tears, quasi-Arabic in style, medieval in tech-level. It's just about dawn and the whole thing lies in the eye of a very small, sandy hurricane, festooned with tornados at the edges. Doesn't look remotely natural.
Inside the city walls, the streets are nearly empty, everyone kept inside by dust devils that rove the streets. We note three big structures near the market place at the center of the City of Tears: N'Tabo Bey, our local contact, identifies them as a palace, a temple, and a sort of sprawling general civic building, which includes offices, barracks, and diplomatic accommodations for foreign dignitaries -- including visiting dragon-lords.
Scoping out the palace, N'Tabo Bey quickly leads us to a small but lavish room that serves as the caliph's study. At the moment, much of the furniture has been shoved aside in favor of a big table in the middle, looking considerably heavier and out of place. It bears a square pan of steaming water, which reflects images of the storm-harried city.
Around the table are five richly-dressed men, whom N'Tabo Bey identifies as the caliph, his vizier, and three priests, all of them apparently endowed with nephilite powers. They all stare intently at the images. The doors of the study are guarded by three pairs of guards.
The presence of priests causes us to ask N'Tabo Bey about the local religion. It's a pharaonic god-king sort of thing, very natural in a place dominated by the half-angelic nephilim. The main objects of worship are the caliph himself and his ancestors. No wonders he doesn't want to change jobs.
Scoping out the city hall, we note a row of guards outside. Some are brown, but some are ... khaki. And some have muzzles. Members of one of the near-human breeds of draconian. Oops.
Checking inside, we find a tableau set in a vast and ornate reception hall. It makes N'Tabo Bey very unhappy. There are two groups confronting each other. One is an ambassador of the caliph, backed by four human guards and flanked by a huge and nephil-looking guard. The other is a khaki dragon-man, dressed aristocratically, flanked by a very saurian guard and a human-looking fellow in very severe but elegant robes, whom we tentatively identify as the dragon-man's pet wizard. Nine near-human guards like those outside are behind him. N'Tabo Bey is sorry to identify the dragon-man as the Desert Lord, the local dragon-lord. Tom is puzzled to see such a near-human is a dragon-lord, but N'Tabo Bey remarks that the Desert Lord is a shape-shifter.
Just outside the "city hall," we find a caravan unloading, of mixed human and dragonish servitors.
This is very bad. N'Tabo Bey thinks the Desert Lord may be here because he is suspicious. We know the dragons will notice our escape very soon, but we really need them to not notice until it's over. How soon would they find out if this city evacuates right in front of the Desert Lord? Do they have radio or telepathy?
N'Tabo Bey says they could find out almost immediately. They don't use radio, but the pet wizard could, in fact, be a telepath, which-- N'Tabo Bey then blinks and wonders WHY they dragons don't use radio, when they clearly had star ships and dimensional gates and such, which they used to sack Destine. For that matter, why hasn't he or any of his fellows thought about rebuilding their high tech, in all the centuries they've been here?
We can't give him an answer. Tom, at least, had assumed the dragons did have high tech and suppressed any rise in tech-level on the part of the humans and nephilim. Dafnord suggests that, if the dragons used high tech, the other side would inevitably get it and use it to undermine the dragons' basis of power. It would, Tom supposes, make the playing field too level. As to why N'Tabo Bey nor anyone else ever thought of it -- some kind of draconian hypnosis? A wee deficit in the nephilite imagination? There's very likely an interesting puzzle here.
But meanwhile, we need to eliminate the Desert Lord. Quickly and definitively. Well... we have a couple of star ships. And one of them, the Baron Munch, is an old, fleet-surplus destroyer that still has all its guns...
The Munch is "currently" parked in a force-shielded hangar at Jumping Jacks, on Hellene. We gate into the ship's bridge and ask the computer, Edvard, how things are going. "You have mail," is the upshot. The most urgent messages are from Cantrel, who is upset about the last time (a few minutes ago for him) we opened a portal in front of a ship's guns and fired onto another planet while still parked in a hangar. He'd like to know what the hell is going on.
Dafnord steels himself and reports in by video link. He politely informs Cantrel of what we did and that we're planning to do it again, probably a few times, but it's nothing he wants to know about yet. Grumbling but mollified, Cantrel refrains from forbidding anything.
We decide to fire a test shot first. We poke the main cannon through one portal, into the pantope, and out the other, pointing down at a patch of desert that we just recently evacuated, so we know no one is there. Edvard will take firing orders from Tom's laptop, which he's programmed to shut the exit portal as soon as the shot is fired, to avoid blowback. The portals are halfway around the pantope from us, to reduce risk. Ready, aim...
...and a short but intense wash of heat as if one had just been licked by a sun.
Jeez, that was even worse than last time. We decide this was due to two factors. First, being exactly half-way around a closed geometry puts you dead center for a re-converging wavefront. Second, the portal stayed open for almost a third of a second, because Edvard couldn't "hear" the laptop over the electromagnetic backwash. Well, both of these can be fixed. Meanwhile, what did the cannon do to the desert?
Yazatlan now has a new crater, about 20 meters wide by ten deep, full of molten glass, not to mention a much wider ring of heavily disturbed sand. We contemplate the fact that this cannon is for shooting at heavily shielded targets hundreds of kilometers away, through vacuum.
N'Tabo Bey remarks that, after our efforts at rescuing Mr. Sun's unlucky messengers, he'd thought us softhearted. But...
The cat clears his throat and asks if several shots like this at a friendly city might be, um, overkill?
We agree. We ask Edvard what is the minimum power we can safely shoot. 10%. We'll go with 15%. We'll also put the portals 90 degrees around, and do the timing blind rather than try to head the little laptop's signals. Does Edvard understand?
Yes, he does. He also understands he's being asked to shoot inside the hangar again, but that's okay. He's ... coping. (Tom takes a quick telepathic glance and suspects we are harassing this computer into sentiency.)
We take aim, straight down over the Desert Lord's head, from the floor above him. As a final thought, we stick a wide-range psilencer on the tip of the cannon, to shut off any telepathic contact. If the dragons are monitoring the situation in the city, they are going to get nothing but a sudden end of contact.
Well, that's more like it. Viewing at one-tenth speed and well outside, we watch one whole end of the city hall totally crumble. The guards and caravan outside are well and truly blown away.
So much for the Desert Lord, we hope. How about the caliph? The basic solution is simple: we open a hole in his ceiling and drop through a bunch of stun grenades set on short fuses.
His guards are good! There's one on each grenade by the time it goes off. Of course, everyone still falls over, but it was a nice try. Dafnord then steps into the caliph's study and hauls His Majesty's unconscious form out. He then takes the caliph to a heavily psilenced stateroom on the Tellemataru, accompanied by Markel and N'Tabo Bey.
After the caliph wakes up, he's very disoriented. As far as he's concerned, Yazatlan is "the world," there is no other expect the afterlife, and his subjects were caught up in mass hysteria or something. It takes Dafnord some time to explain the idea of evacuation to him. This includes a bit of a tour of the ship, with aliens and forest and stars below, and a demonstration of the bronze tunnel of the telemporter.
On the other hand, the caliph was no friendlier with the dragons than he absolutely had to be, and the idea of getting away from them is very appealing. (We begin to regret blowing away the ambassador and his staff. Still, even had we known, we might not have been able to do any better.) He's very pleased to learn that the Desert Lord has been blown away.
And can he keep his caliphate, where he's going? Dafnord offers to dump him and his in some separate spot. "We are agents of the Exodus," he tells the caliph. "What happens after the Exodus is up to the Children of Destine to decide." We are not, in short, in the business of deposing god-kings, whatever we may think of such a form of government.
We now have the caliph reasonably on our side. We return him to his study. Just about then, he can hear the thunder of the collapsing city hall. Moments later, more guards come slamming through the doors. They see unconscious forms, their caliph, Dafnord, and Markel. The caliph orders them aside and strides to the front of the palace. Their, we offer him glamour-amplified public address facilities. He loudly orders his populace to evacuate, taking the bare minimum, while around him the winds die down and, behind him, the tunnel mouth appears in the air over the market place.
This evacuation takes longer than any so far, partly because no one had a chance to get ready beforehand, partly because, starting from inside the city, people take a much larger view of the "bare minimum" they can take, and soon the corridors of the Tellemataru are clogged with carts and herds of sheep. (They expand to accommodate.) Not to mention what the caliph wants to pack for himself. Looks like at least five hours' work. But they're moving out.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.