The Iron Triangle Autumn, 533 ad




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THE DANCE OF TIME

Eric Flint and David Drake



This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2006 by Eric Flint & David Drake

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
www.baen.com

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-0931-8
ISBN-10: 1-4165-0931-3

Cover art by Alan Pollock
Maps by Randy Asplund

First printing, February 2006

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Flint, Eric.


The dance of time / Eric Flint, David Drake.
p. cm.
"A Baen Books original"--T.p. verso.
ISBN 1-4165-0931-3 (hc)
1. Belisarius, 505 (ca.)-565--Fiction. 2. Supercomputers--Fiction. I. Drake, David. II. Title.


PS3556.L548D36 2006
813'.6--dc22
2005034212

Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

Production & book design by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH (www.windhaven.com)
Printed in the United States of America


 

Prologue

The Iron Triangle
Autumn, 533 AD


Belisarius watched Eusebius and his crew as they carefully slipped the mine off the deck of the Victrix, using a ramp they'd set up in the stern for the purpose. Because of its design, it had been relatively easy to adapt the fireship to the task of becoming a mine-layer. Doing so with the Justinian would have required a major reconstruction of the armored gunship.

The sun still hadn't come up, but there was enough light from the approaching dawn for Belisarius to see. Quietly, almost soundlessly, the mine slid below the surface of the water. Eusebius measured off the depth of the mine's placement using the prepared lines, squinting at the marks nearsightedly.

A trio of ducks flew past swiftly, just above the level of the reeds. Their quacking sounded like the slap of bamboo canes.

You are fortunate to see them, said Aide, the crystalline being that rested in Belisarius' neck pouch. Those are pink-headed ducks, very rare here in the Indus Basin. Indeed, they're not common even in Brahmaputra.

When we've defeated the Malwa, Belisarius replied silently to the voice in his mind, perhaps I'll retire to a monastery and write a treatise on natural history based on my travels. Of course, first we have to defeat the Malwa.

We will, said Aide firmly; and that was not a joke.

Aide had come—been sent—to Belisarius from the far future; from one of two alternate futures, more precisely. Aide's purpose was to prevent the Malwa Empire from conquering the world as it had already conquered most of the Indian subcontinent.

The real horror of a Malwa victory would come tens of tens of thousands of years in the future, when the Earth was ruled by the so-called "new gods" that had evolved from men. In human terms, though, what a Malwa victory meant in this 533rd Year of Christ was bad enough.

Laying the mine took some time, because the crew had to lower it slowly and carefully. There wasn't really much danger of the charge going off simply due to a rough landing on the river bottom, especially as muddy as the Indus was. But, understandably, no one wanted to take any chances.

Eventually, the lines grew slack. The heavy stone weight that had dragged the mine below the surface had reached the bottom.

"About where we want it," Eusebius proclaimed, checking the marks on the lines. "She'll be sitting just the right depth to cave in any ironclads the Malwa send at us."

By now, his crew had placed so many mines in the rivers that formed two sides of the Iron Triangle that the rest was routine. The lines were hauled up, after the ends were released so they could slip easily through the mine's handles. Very easily, since the shell of the mine was nothing more than an amphora sealed to contain the charge and the air that kept it floating above the weight that anchored it to the river bottom.

All that was left was the very thin wire that would transmit the detonation signal when given. Like all the mines the Romans had placed in the Indus and the Chenab, the mines were designed to be exploded on command. It would have been possible to design contact fuses, but the things were tricky and Belisarius saw no need for them.

In fact, mines with contact fuses could conceivably become a handicap. Belisarius wasn't expecting to use the rivers for a rapid assault, but war was unpredictable. If he did find himself doing so, he didn't want to be delayed by the dangerous and finicky work of removing the mines. With command detonation mines, if need be, he could clear the rivers in less than a minute. Just blow up all the mines.

Eusebius leaned over the rail of the Victrix and handed the end of the signal wire to a soldier in a rowboat. Moments later, while the soldier holding the wire kept a good grip on it, the other soldiers in the boat rowed it ashore. The wire would join others in one of the many little mine bunkers that lined the banks of both rivers in the Triangle. A spotter in the bunker would already have noted the location of the mine.

Eusebius straightened. "And that's pretty much all there is to the business, General. The old emperor had the right of it."

Grinning, then: "Much as he still pisses and moans about how much he'd like to build a submarine. But the fact is that for the purpose of fending off those ironclads the Malwa are building upriver, these mines will do the trick just fine. And it's a lot less risky than spar torpedoes."

"Not to mention a submarine," Belisarius chuckled. "All right. I just wanted to get a sense of how it was going."

Had the Malwa been simply an Indian dynasty, they would not have posed a threat to the present world, let alone that of the far future. Aide had showed Belisarius visions of both past and future. Indian nations had often been rich and powerful and influential, and would be again; but never in the timeline that led to Aide and those who created him had the men and women who ruled India looked beyond their own subcontinent. Missionaries and traders from India would turn most of Southeast Asia into a cultural extension of Hindu India; and, through Buddhism, India would have a major impact on the societies of the Far East. Still, no Indian ruler in that timeline ever attempted to conquer the world in the manner that the Malwa Empire was doing—using methods of conquest that were even more savage than Genghis Khan's, with an end goal that had none of the Mongols' tolerance as actual rulers.

But the ruler of the Malwa Empire was not a man or woman, to begin with. The real ruler of the empire was not the official emperor, Skandagupta. It was Link, a machine, a monster, which the "new gods" had sent to change the past and bring their bleak future into existence. If the Malwa armies defeated Belisarius and his outnumbered forces here in the angle of the Indus and Chenab Rivers, the losers would not only be the citizens of the Roman Empire but also all other humans in all times.

Belisarius glanced to the side, where the Justinian was slowly steaming. The gunship was keeping a distance from the mine-laying activity, but it was still close enough to come to the Victrix's support in the unlikely event that the Malwa tried to launch an attack on the fireship.

The very unlikely event. The Victrix herself had already proven to the Malwa, several times, that she could destroy any wooden riverboats sent against her. And the one time the Malwa had sent down a partially armored boat, the Justinian had blown it into wreckage in less than a minute. For the past several weeks, there had been no Malwa incursions on the river at all. From the reports of spies, the enemy had apparently decided to wait until their new heavy ironclads were finished.

Furthermore, if Justinian and Eusebius were right, even those wouldn't do them any good. The Malwa had no way to build completely iron ships; none, at least, that would have a shallow enough draft for these rivers. Their ironclads were just that: clad in iron. The underlying boats were still wooden—and even these small mines would be enough to break such hulls in half.

"To tell you the truth, General," Eusebius commented, "I don't even understand why the Malwa have kept building those ironclads. There's no way to lay these mines secretly, even working at night the way we've been doing. By now, they must know we've got both rivers saturated with them."

Belisarius had wondered about that himself. Link had just as much knowledge of future warfare as Aide did. The effectiveness of mines against warships in any constricted area of water was so well established in that future that he couldn't imagine Link having any real hope his ironclads could bull their way through a large and well-laid mine field.

Your theory's the right one, I think, Aide said. Link is shifting to the defensive. 

Yes. I hadn't thought it would, not this quickly. I'd expected the monster to try a massive assault to drive us out of the Punjab, before we could get really settled in. But . . . it's not. And if it waits much longer, it'll be too late. 

Too late, indeed. The Romans and their Persian allies were slowly but surely gaining control of the Indus and both of its banks all the way from the Sukkur gorge to the Iron Triangle, after already having conquered the Sind south of the gorge. So the spearhead that Belisarius had driven into the Punjab during the course of his campaign the previous year would soon be well supplied. The fortifications across the northern side of the Triangle were already strong enough to break any army Link could send against them within a year or two. Not even the Malwa Empire had an inexhaustible supply of men and munitions, ready to hand.

Especially men. Their morale must be close to the breaking point, I think. Link's army needs a rest, and it knows it. That's why it didn't order the assault. It can afford a stalemate, even for long period, where it can't afford another string of defeats. 

The sun was coming up.

Softly, proudly: You really hammered them, these past few years. 

Chapter 1

Bukkur Island, on the Indus river

He dreamed mostly of islands, oddly enough.

* * *

He was sailing, now, in one of his father's pleasure crafts. Not the luxurious barge-in-all-but-name-and-glitter which his father himself preferred for the family's outings into the Golden Horn, but in the phaselos which was suited for sailing in the open sea. Unlike his father, for whom sailing expeditions were merely excuses for political or commercial transactions, Calopodius had always loved sailing for its own sake. 

Besides, it gave him and his new wife something to do besides sit together in stiff silence. 

* * *

Calopodius' half-sleeping reverie was interrupted. Wakefulness came with the sound of his aide-de-camp Luke moving through the tent. The heaviness with which Luke clumped about was deliberate, designed to allow his master to recognize who had entered his domicile. Luke was quite capable of moving easily and lightly, as he had proved many times in the course of the savage fighting on Bukkur Island. But the man, in this as so many things, had proven to be far more subtle than his rough and muscular appearance might suggest.

"It's morning, young Calopodius," Luke announced. "Time to clean your wounds. And you're not eating enough."

Calopodius sighed. The process of tending the wounds would be painful, despite all of Luke's care. As for the other—

"Have new provisions arrived?"

There was a moment's silence. Then, reluctantly: "No."

Calopodius let the silence lengthen. After a few seconds, he heard Luke's own heavy sigh. "We're getting very low, truth to tell. Ashot hasn't much himself, until the supply ships arrive."

Calopodius levered himself up on his elbows. "Then I will eat my share, no more." He chuckled, perhaps a bit harshly. "And don't try to cheat, Luke. I have other sources of information, you know."

"As if my hardest job of the day won't be to keep half the army from parading through this tent," snorted Luke. Calopodius felt the weight of Luke's knees pressing into the pallet next to him, and, a moment later, winced as the bandages over his head began to be removed. "You're quite the soldiers' favorite, lad," added Luke softly. "Don't think otherwise."

* * *

In the painful time that followed, as Luke scoured and cleaned and rebandaged the sockets that had once been eyes, Calopodius tried to take refuge in that knowledge.

It helped. Some.

* * *

"Are there any signs of another Malwa attack coming?" he asked, some time later. Calopodius was now perched in one of the bastions his men had rebuilt after an enemy assault had overrun it—before, eventually, the Malwa had been driven off the island altogether. That had required bitter and ferocious fighting, however, which had inflicted many casualties upon the Roman defenders. His eyes had been among those casualties, ripped out by shrapnel from a mortar shell.

"After the bloody beating we gave 'em the last time?" chortled one of the soldiers who shared the bastion. "Not likely, sir!"

Calopodius tried to match the voice to a remembered face. As usual, the effort failed of its purpose. But he took the time to engage in small talk with the soldier, so as to fix the voice itself in his memory. Not for the first time, Calopodius reflected wryly on the way in which possession of vision seemed to dull all other human faculties. Since his blinding, he had found his memory growing more acute along with his hearing. A simple instinct for self-preservation, he imagined. A blind man had to remember better than a seeing man, since he no longer had vision to constantly jog his lazy memory.

After his chat with the soldier had gone on for a few minutes, the man cleared his throat and said diffidently: "You'd best leave here, sir, if you'll pardon me for saying so. The Malwa'll likely be starting another barrage soon." For a moment, fierce good cheer filled the man's voice: "They seem to have a particular grudge against this part of our line, seeing's how their own blood and guts make up a good part of it."

The remark produced a ripple of harsh chuckling from the other soldiers crouched in the fortifications. That bastion had been one of the most hotly contested areas when the Malwa launched their major attack the week before. Calopodius didn't doubt for a moment that when his soldiers repaired the damage to the earthen walls they had not been too fastidious about removing all the traces of the carnage.

He sniffed tentatively, detecting those traces. His olfactory sense, like his hearing, had grown more acute also.

"Must have stunk, right afterward," he commented.

The same soldier issued another harsh chuckle. "That it did, sir, that it did. Why God invented flies, the way I look at it."

Calopodius felt Luke's heavy hand on his shoulder. "Time to go, sir. There'll be a barrage coming, sure enough."

In times past, Calopodius would have resisted. But he no longer felt any need to prove his courage, and a part of him—a still wondering, eighteen-year-old part—understood that his safety had become something his own men cared about. Alive, somewhere in the rear but still on the island, Calopodius would be a source of strength for his soldiers in the event of another Malwa onslaught. Spiritual strength, if not physical; a symbol, if nothing else. But men—fighting men, perhaps, more than any others—live by such symbols.

So he allowed Luke to guide him out of the bastion and down the rough staircase which led to the trenches below. On the way, Calopodius gauged the steps with his feet.

"One of those logs is too big," he said, speaking firmly, but trying to keep any critical edge out of the words. "It's a waste, there. Better to use it for another fake cannon."

He heard Luke suppress a sigh. And will you stop fussing like a hen? was the content of that small sound. Calopodius suppressed a laugh. Luke, in truth, made a poor "servant."

"We've got enough," replied Luke curtly. "Twenty-odd. Do any more and the Malwa will get suspicious. We've only got three real ones left to keep up the pretense."

As they moved slowly through the trench, Calopodius considered the problem and decided that Luke was right. The pretense was probably threadbare by now, anyway. When the Malwa finally launched a full-scale amphibious assault on the island that was the centerpiece of Calopodius' diversion, they had overrun half of it before being beaten back. When the survivors returned to the main Malwa army besieging the city of Sukkur across the Indus, they would have reported to their own top commanders that several of the "cannons" with which the Romans had apparently festooned their fortified island were nothing but painted logs.

But how many? That question would still be unclear in the minds of the enemy.

Not all of them, for a certainty. When Belisarius took his main force to outflank the Malwa in the Punjab, leaving behind Calopodius and fewer than two thousand men to serve as a diversion, he had also left some of the field guns and mortars. Those pieces had savaged the Malwa attackers, when they finally grew suspicious enough to test the real strength of Calopodius' position.

"The truth is," said Luke gruffly, "it doesn't really matter anyway." Again, the heavy hand settled on Calopodius' slender shoulder, this time giving it a little squeeze of approval. "You've already done what the general asked you to, lad. Kept the Malwa confused, thinking Belisarius was still here, while he marched in secret to the northeast. Did it as well as he could have possibly hoped."

They had reached one of the covered portions of the trench, Calopodius sensed. He couldn't see the earth-covered logs which gave some protection from enemy fire, of course. But the quality of sound was a bit different within a shelter than in an open trench. That was just one of the many little auditory subtleties which Calopodius had begun noticing lately.

He had not noticed it in times past, before he lost his eyes. In the first days after Belisarius and the main army left Sukkur on their secret, forced march to outflank the Malwa in the Punjab, Calopodius had noticed very little, in truth. He had had neither the time nor the inclination to ponder the subtleties of sense perception. He had been far too excited by his new and unexpected command and by the challenge it posed.

Martial glory. The blind young man in the covered trench stopped for a moment, staring through sightless eyes at a wall of earth and timber bracing. Remembering, and wondering.

The martial glory Calopodius had sought, when he left a new wife in Constantinople, had certainly come to him. Of that, he had no doubt at all. His own soldiers thought so, and said so often enough—those who had survived—and Calopodius was quite certain that his praises would soon be spoken in the Senate.

Precious few of the Roman Empire's most illustrious families had achieved any notable feats of arms in the great war against the Malwa. Beginning with the top commander Belisarius himself, born into the lower Thracian nobility, it had been largely a war fought by men from low stations in life. Commoners, in the main. Agathius—the now-famous hero of Anatha and the Dam—had been born into a baker's family, about as menial a position as any short of outright slavery.

Other than Sittas, who was now leading Belisarius' cataphracts in the Punjab, almost no Greek noblemen had fought in the Malwa war. And even Sittas, before the Indus campaign, had spent the war commanding the garrison in Constantinople that overawed the hostile aristocracy and kept the dynasty on the throne.

Had it been worth it? 

Reaching up and touching gently the emptiness which had once been his eyes, Calopodius was still not sure. Like many other young members of the nobility, he had been swept up with enthusiasm after the news came that Belisarius had shattered the Malwa in Mesopotamia. Let the adult members of the aristocracy whine and complain in their salons. The youth were burning to serve.

And serve they had . . . but only as couriers, in the beginning. It hadn't taken Calopodius long to realize that Belisarius intended to use him and his high-born fellows mainly for liaison with the haughty Persians, who were even more obsessed with nobility of bloodline than Greeks. The posts carried prestige—the couriers rode just behind Belisarius himself in formation—but little in the way of actual responsibility.

Standing in the bunker, the blind young man chuckled harshly. "He used us, you know. As cold-blooded as a reptile."

Silence, for a moment. Then, Calopodius heard Luke take a deep breath.

"Aye, lad. He did. The general will use anyone, if he feels it necessary."

Calopodius nodded. He felt no anger at the thought. He simply wanted it acknowledged.

He reached out his hand and felt the rough wall of the bunker with fingertips grown sensitive with blindness. Texture of soil, which he would never have noticed before, came like a flood of dark light. He wondered, for a moment, how his wife's breasts would feel to him, or her belly, or her thighs. Now.

He didn't imagine he would ever know, and dropped the hand. Calopodius did not expect to survive the war, now that he was blind. Not unless he used the blindness as a reason to return to Constantinople, and spent the rest of his life resting on his laurels.

The thought was unbearable. I am only eighteen! My life should still be ahead of me! 

That thought brought a final decision. Given that his life was now forfeit, Calopodius intended to give it the full measure while it lasted.

"Menander should be arriving soon, with the supply ships."

"Yes," said Luke.

"When he arrives, I wish to speak with him."

"Yes," said Luke. The "servant" hesitated. Then: "What about?"

Again, Calopodius chuckled harshly. "Another forlorn hope." He began moving slowly through the bunker to the tunnel which led back to his headquarters. "Having lost my eyes on this island, it seems only right I should lose my life on another. Belisarius' island, this time—not the one he left behind to fool the enemy. The real island, not the false one."

"There was nothing false about this island, young man," growled Luke. "Never say it. Malwa was broken here, as surely as it was on any battlefield of Belisarius. There is the blood of Roman soldiers to prove it—along with your own eyes. Most of all—"

By some means he could not specify, Calopodius understood that Luke was gesturing angrily to the north. "Most of all, by the fact that we kept an entire Malwa army pinned here for two weeks—by your cunning and our sweat and blood—while Belisarius slipped unseen to the north. Two weeks. The time he needed to slide a lance into Malwa's unprotected flank—we gave him that time. We did. You did."

He heard Luke's almost shuddering intake of breath. "So never speak of a 'false' island again, boy. Is a shield 'false,' and only a sword 'true'? Stupid. The general did what he needed to do—and so did you. Take pride in it, for there was nothing false in that doing."

Calopodius could not help lowering his head. "No," he whispered.

But was it worth the doing? 

 

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