Home :: Fantasy :: Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 5: The Nexus by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)

Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 5: The Nexus by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)

Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 5: The Nexus by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)
 
(3 reviews)  

The Nexus is alternate-history Irish-flavoured Christian science fiction and is the sequel to The Peace, The Friends, The Exile and The General (Volumes One to Four of The Interregnum).

The Nexus continues Mara's story from the conclusion of the trial over which Tad O'Kelly presided as Senchus in The General, through new foreign assignments, then back to Tara to await the coming nexus and the crisis it will bring to Hibernia's capital. There she battles pirates, gun runners, kidnappers, and a host of plots against the realm.

Elbon the Builder of Meta (John Dominic on Tirdia) returns from a meeting of the Metan elders to Tirdia and the orphanage at Berea, unaware that his daughter Eider has followed him. She encounters Lucas and the two have a narrow brush with two of gangster Al Marcotti's thugs. In the aftermath, Lucas eavedrops on Eider's conversation with her father and hears of their relationship and of the other earths. His loyalties now torn, Lucas leaves that afternoon's creation debate to strike out on his own. But Eider follows, and the two are caught up in both the nexus and Marcotti's ongoing violence.

Maeve Derry sends one of her Centralia cadets out on a training mission, only to have to pull his body from the bottom of a river several hours later. What she learns next necessitates the reappointment of Tad as Senchus, and another sensational hearing at Tara, one punctuated by a shocking and cowardly attack. After Maeve's return to Centralia, she is lured to the St. Charles islands, and there disappears.

We experience the nexus with Lucas, Eider, Catherine, Mara, Margaret, and Maeve, then hear the account of the aftermath at Tara's court the next day, when MacCarthy forces mount an all-out attack, but find themselves under pressure from the Friends at other locations.

Events of The Nexus play out on Hibernia at Tara, Dublin, Afghanistan, India, Berlin, Moscow, Mergui, the St. Charles Islands ,and Centralia well as in Chilliwack and Vancouver on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada (Tirdia) and in the Builder's City and home on Meta.
--- Volume 5 of The Interregnum.

Print:
ISBN/EAN13: 192163605X / 9781921636059
Page Count: 668
Trim Size: 5" x 8"

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3 Most useful customer reviews (see all reviews):
Philip Allfrey
Thanks for another great book.
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Janet Sketchley
...a panorama of characters and backdrops that feel like they should exist. I'm amazed...I hope you're already working on The Builder! Too many tantalizing loose ends. You're good!
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Steven Weyhrich Apple II History
Excellent. I know what Tolkien's readers must have felt like when then finished The Fellowship Of The Ring and had to wait a year for The Two Towers and then another year for The Return Of The King! I want to read the rest of the stories NOW.
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Sample Chapter

Kent's popular version of the founding of the kingdom is satisfactory for the general public, but lacking in details known to scholars.

Many historians have commented on the remarkable convergence of history between Tirdia and Hibernia at any distance from Jerusalem and Rome. In this work, we advance the hypothesis that the two worlds were still joined in some way and the nexus did not complete for nearly a millennium. Evidence to support this view abounds. For instance, no discernible difference can be found in the key figures of Irish history at least to 1014, and the same is true in many other parts of the world, the Mediterranean excepted, for which we have similarly detailed records though we are hampered in efforts to establish this by the destruction of many critical documents on Tirdia. Our research strongly suggests the nexus that began at Jerusalem when Pilate decided (on our world) not to wash his hands of the Christ did not complete until the day of the battle of Clontarf, for from that date forward, convergence everywhere, not just in Ireland, is much less strong. (Publication note: Metan scholars now confirm this explanation is correct.)

To review our history, when the forces of Meathe withdrew at the onset of the battle, one of their soldiers decided not to go, but remained loyal to Brian Boru. That he joined the nearby Delcassian contingent and fought with them to carry the day is of no consequence, for the same outcome eventuated on Tirdia. That there is on Tirdia no record of this extraordinary man suggests the last nexus either completed when he made his decision, or perhaps when his double was killed in battle on Tirdia. That our two histories diverged sharply only then, and those of other nations began slowly to depart from a common stream the same year, even where not influenced by Ireland's, we offer as proof of our contention.--from Lessons of Clontarf, by Ard Seanachas Doyle Whelan (posthumously) and Jana Whelan

Chapter One

Mara, at Tara of Hibernia, from September 21, 1998

As soon she could evade the persistent newshounds wanting staffage of participants in Tara's most spectacular trial in history, Mara wheeled herself rapidly past the fountain in the great hall, halfway down South Hall and along to Royal Way.

Her limbs had largely regrown, but her legs still pained her too much to walk any distance. As for the nightmares of having them cut off while she lay paralysed from nerve gas....

At least Tad had nailed most of the guilty. She shook her head to clear the phantoms and slowed, preoccupying herself by viewing some of the kings' portraits hanging there. From a fanciful artist's rendering of Brian Boru crowning Cormac Meathe to a sober photograph of James IV taken just before his 1941 deposition, these faces were Tara. The palace reeked of history.

Some, she knew, had been cleverly restored after the fire resulting from the 1601 attempt to blow up the old palace, the event that inspired the Trolls' Day fireworks and feis every second of July since.

At the very end were the twelve Donals' faces, those high lords who took power after James. She stared several minutes at the last, the former Sean Reilly. Was he an ally, trying to prepare and train her for the good of Greater Hibernia, or was he a fiend of hell, as her father once believed? Her last assignment from him had seen her lose all four limbs and nearly her life. She glanced down at her hand, nearly completely regrown. She wiggled her toes. Another week and she could re-train with her weapons. Even now, she could stand if she were careful.

After several minutes, she turned away from the door to her own suite, once itself the kings' quarters. Reoccupying the rooms she used between the Donal's assignments could wait.

She wheeled herself the twenty staves back to the Health Domain entrance, past the second Lord's quarters and the elevator leading to the upstairs infirmary. Mara shook her head sadly and took a deep breath.

"Health, open to Mara Meathe," she said to the door, which promptly rolled aside. When she entered, the entire staff, alerted by the door computer, stood and bowed. Three saluted. They must be former soldiers recognizing her Medal of Honour.

"Please return to your work, Masters, Mistresses," Mara invited, deliberately overstating most of their positions. Several broke into grins and excited whispers as they complied. Many high nobles would treat staff as dirt under their feet, forcing them to remain standing until leaving the room.

A brisk chief clerk she'd not previously met ushered her to the inner door at the far corner. Getting her bearings, Mara realized Catherine's office was directly behind the stairway that curved around the fountain outside in the Great Hall.

"Lady Meathe to see Lady Ryan," the clerk announced. Only the briefest pause ensued before the door slid aside. Catherine would have known she was here as soon as the hallway door recognized her voice.

"Thank-you, Mistress," Mara said to the clerk. "I need not be recognized by the staff on my way out or for future visits." She rolled into Catherine's office and heard the door close behind her.

Catherine stood, back to her desk, and a portion of Mara's mind registered approval. Catherine's office was arranged as her own, she sitting back to the door so there would be no furniture blocking a visitor. Mara wheeled to the side of the massive desk and used its bulk to struggle to her feet.

Mara's own tears were met by the girl's wracking sobs, and the two embraced a long time before Mara's only partially regrown feet forced her to sit again. She watched Catherine carefully as her young acquaintance regained her composure.

With her parents Maria and Liam Ryan dead in the August uprising, Catherine had boldly demanded their place, citing her medical certificate and legal sword, at least in the Roman domain. Court precedents allowed the claim, but the absent Thomas Monde was known to want the position. Certainly, Catherine could not be challenged for two years until she was legally of age at Tara, but surely the girl had only postponed the inevitable. Her caution of Monde had grown, too, for when he returned from the delay Mara had reluctantly imposed on him in Moody to give Catherine her chance, he'd duelled the third and fourth lords, killed both, and now stood at Court next to Catherine, a portent of what could happen to her.

Catherine was pale and frightened, but resolute, accepting Mara's condolences with formal thanks once her tears dried. The bubbly childish enthusiasm she'd known in the girl was replaced by a forced and tentative, but shocked maturity. With her own legs still regrowing, Mara was a cent shorter than Catherine for now, though the latter's much lighter build made her insubstantial beside Mara's powerful frame. Besides, Mara was properly three or four cents taller.

"Mara," Catherine began, "You have your own agenda at Court--protecting the throne. I must serve clan Ryan and Rome, Health, the Donal, and his lady, and to do so effectively, cannot be under your orders as one of the Friends."

"I release you," Mara replied at once, "though our two paths are not incompatible."

"You needn't be concerned I might seek the throne," Catherine assured her.

"I wasn't," Mara answered, "But you're convinced Donal is friend with Monde foe, and I believe it is the other way around." Well, she had reservations about Monde, but....

"Donal is a severe but honest man, and has been ally to Ryan for decades. He is my second father, and will stay so until proven base," Catherine asserted flatly. "If he is harsh with some, it is to prove them. Monde's falseness I sense merely by being near. Evil surrounds the man like a cloud. He hates me passionately, especially now, and would kill me if he legally could. If he favours you, it is only because he would use you."

Mara shook her head. Despite the man's recently revealed violent side, she wasn't ready to believe this of the charming Thomas Monde without direct evidence to link him to the many recent conspiracies. She cast around for common ground. "I believe Dugold Dunnegan to be a good man," she suggested.

Catherine's eyebrows went up in surprise. "He is my teacher and the second closest friend I have at Court," she agreed.

"Philip Desmond appears a dissembler," Mara observed, angling for further agreement. She'd heard the Church's first lord preach recently, and it had rung utterly false--a silly homily about tolerating evil in the name of peace that Court gadflies like Delia Donahue and Gladys Quigley had gushed over afterwards.

Catherine looked disgusted. "He is as bad as or worse than Monde," she averred. "I have heard people say he does not believe in the Lord of Heaven, yet he is High Bishop. What were the priests of Tara thinking to elect such a man?"

"We have some things in common." Mara summarized the fragments. "We are neither rivals nor enemies."

"No," Catherine replied. "We are at least not enemies, though I am allied to one you distrust. However, I would return this, as I may be an impediment to the Friends." She offered her New School badge.

Mara refused it. "If you cannot wear it openly, sew it on the inside of your vest for security. You can come and go as guest at our schools as you will, so long as you keep our security. You can practice at the sword there out of sight of those you fear. We'll leave you out of our councils so you can reveal nothing of our affairs. Spar with Jonas. He is our best. Or, I would be honoured. In any case, I assure you of the Friends' protection and care, next only to the throne."

Catherine nodded. She was clearly having trouble damming up further tears, and Mara felt sorry for the girl, forced to take on as much responsibility as herself, though at a far younger age. She asked the question she had come for. "What did the intruders get from your family system?" Catherine had warned her even before Mara's kidnapping and mutilation that the Ryans' local storage was compromised.

Catherine collected herself, but looked grim. "According to Alvise, they saw the old medical records. He thinks most of what was taken was a smokescreen to disguise their interest in one file."

"That was?"

Catherine looked at Mara unhappily. "Material from the battle of Glenmorgan and after. Anyone reading it would surely know your father as the man treated under the name of Brian McIlhargey. If they guessed, the burned servant might be recognizable as your mother, Lady Katherina. I think you have to assume your secrets from those days are out. That file may even be the reason my parents were killed, though this was not the first attempt on them."

Mara shook her head. "That information probably doesn't matter any more. My father is dead, and my mother, if she lives, has vanished. They know I am Devereaux and Rourke."

However, she thought, they probably couldn't guess her connection to Seamus Meathe, despite her use of the name. She reflected a moment longer and said aloud. "No one but you knows I'm a physician, and I want to keep it that way. My pills arrive by mail now, and I'll only find out who was behind Haggerty when someone threatens to cut off the supply." They'd been supplied to her ever since Frank Haggerty infected her with the disease the Tirdians called AIDS. Her enemies also didn't know she and Nellie had defeated the disease themselves. Another potential weapon in Ireland's never-ending family wars.

Catherine shrugged. "I have no problem keeping that secret from Donal, but you had better keep it from Monde and Desmond."

Mara shrugged. "I'll certainly take your advice that far."

She almost turned to go, but instead impulsively made a peace offering. "Nellie and I developed an an-synth and PIEA implant we call 'Auntie'. So far there's just the two of us and Maeve Derry testing it on ourselves, so we're only slowly refining the software, but it's saved my life at least once. We'd be pleased to give you one if you want."

"No obligations?"

"Just to let us know how it does in an emergency. That's the catch with something like this. You hardly ever need it, so we don't have much data, and at this stage, only a physician can make much use of it."

"All right."

"Good. I'll have Nellie send you the latest version of the nannies and the software."

The two talked longer, then shook hands on their limited understanding. Mara left, saddened she could no longer count Catherine as a friend, even help her much. Yet it was still in Mara's interests to train Catherine at the sword, whether the younger woman challenged for the throne or not. Should Donal turn against the child, she would surely rejoin the Friends.

On the other hand, if Catherine was right and Monde was the enemy, she could be counted on if the crunch came. At the front row position where the girl now stood, only Mara could challenge up to protect her from the front row, for no one else could match Monde's blade. Apart from that eventuality, Catherine would have to establish her own protection at Court. Mara had other duties.

When she returned to her suite that evening after a day in her office, Sheana was waiting for her. "I need to talk, my lady," she said excitedly, face flushed.

"So, talk," Mara invited, smiling. She had some idea what was coming.

"I told my story to Lord O'Toole and let him see my ring while you were away. He took one look at it and showed me an identical one he kept in his desk, except it wasn't broken. Look what he's done this very day." She extended a copy of a legal document, her hand shaking with emotion, then sketched again the story of her rescue from the ship by her adoptive mother.

Mara looked over the paper. Over the signature and certification of Brendan O'Connell, Ard Brehon of Tara, and Patrick O'Toole himself in his capacity of Chief Herald, it named Sheana Maguire O'Toole as his granddaughter and legal heir. Mara looked up and grinned. "My Lady O'Toole, I believe." As heir-presumptive and given that Patrick O'Toole was unmarried, she deserved the courtesy title.

"It's too much to take in," Sheana replied. "I grew up fighting for my life in the alleys and streets of the Penal City, living for months at a time by my wits and in filth. I never dreamed of places like Tara where the fine people live. Now I'm a high lady. What do I do?"

"Trust your grandfather. He is the wiliest survivor ever. Work with your sword until not even I could bar your way. You have your GAC and Ollamh in administration. Get one or two more certificates so you can stand in the front row. Your sword is good enough for that already." Then, a crafty smile on her own face, she observed, "I hear the O'Tooles have been working closely with Alfred Dennison." Sheana's renewed blush was all Mara needed. It was a good day after all.

"Lord O'Toole...my grandfather, that is, said it was expedient to surround Alfred Dennison with the best and most powerful security possible. He volunteered to be his personal safety officer. We've spent much time there. I came to ask permission to move from here to the Dennison manse with...my grandfather. I can protect them both better by being there, and you have others to watch for you. The other Friends say they almost feel safe now in the streets, but Alfred has to watch his every step. Do you know there have been ten attempts on his life in the last four months?"

"Lady Sheana," Mara said, "You no longer need my permission for anything. Why, you outrank me in some ways, because you are heir of O'Toole, and I am a commoner. By all means protect Alfred Dennison and your grandfather. They are very important men." She paused, then decided to broach the more important subject. "What do you think of Alfred personally?" She tried to make it sound innocent.

Sheana's voice took on a dreamy tone. "He is rigid and unbending, but kind and trustworthy, a man of deepest integrity, and a believer who really knows what it means to be a forgiven and redeemed sinner in Christ. I never thought I could care for a man again after Tim was killed." She shook herself and stopped. "Is it disloyal for me to feel affection for someone else? Do you think me silly to long for security? What is Tim thinking of me?" Sheana blushed, and hung her head in confusion.

Mara laughed out loud, but it wasn't half the joy she was feeling. "Sheana, if that lunkhead Alfred Dennison notices Lady Sheana O'Toole, you will make him the best of wives. It is not cruel or disloyal for the living to love the living, and your love for Tim can no longer grow. It can remain in you, but your heart did not die with him, and it can now house a new love alongside the old one. I will help you land Alfred if I can," she added. She stood awkwardly and hugged her friend thoroughly.

When Sheana returned to O'Toole's office, Mara felt much better. There would be no more nonsense about her being Alfred's queen. She pictured a crown on Sheana's head and grinned.

Moments after Sheana left, Mara called Jonas and asked him out for a walk on the palace grounds. They did the promenade, he pushing her chair, and talking mostly business, but Mara felt a peace and satisfaction being with this man that she got from none other. She longed to know he felt likewise, but was far from asking, even hinting. She would let it grow. They made small talk as they wandered the vast parklands behind the palace, and Mara relaxed. It was good to be alive. It had been a narrow thing back in that Tirdian hospital. She wondered a moment if there would ever be a chance to thank Lucas properly for saving her life, but dismissed the thought as an impossibility.

As they were returning to the buildings, her eye caught the lights around the loading dock behind the kitchen, and she recalled the days when she had raided low Tara's garbage bins to keep herself fed. She began to feel impish.

"How secure is the palace from forced entry, do you think?" she asked Jonas.

Tara's second in Security answered her apparently whimsical question matter-of-factly. "We have your scanner-sniffers on the front doors, and there isn't a hallway without a guard inside. Your suite door, and those of the other nobility living here, are all watched. The windows are shatterproof, and there are alarms and sensors there and on the walls and roofs. All emergency exits are alarmed. The grounds are well lit, and I have reason to believe Friends keep track of the palace and each other better than Security could." He grinned and winked. Jonas knew unofficially about the Friends' security measures. "Master Driscol gives me freedom with personnel and most of key points are watched by Friends, though he is always in the palace, and takes his administrative job very seriously. Do you know, I have yet to work a shift when he was out of the complex?"

Mara had scarcely been listening to the last part. "Bet I could get in," she boasted, slyly.

"What, break our security? No chance."

"Bet you the cost of dinner tonight at a restaurant of the winner's choice," Mara teased.

"You're on."

"All right, follow me." Mara picked up two small stones, and wheeled straight for the loading dock, pulling out her sling as she went. Just before she came within range of the robotic sensors, she sent one stone to the right and another to the left. There was a little clatter and the dock was suddenly in complete darkness. A robot moving scraps to the garbage bin came to a standstill partially blocking a doorway. Mara dodged around it and through the outer door, with Jonas on her heels.

She pulled a small piece of plastic from her pouch, leaned in her chair, and ran it along the frame of the second door. There was a soft 'click' and the inner door swung open. "Mechanical lock on this model," she informed him. Wheeling inside, she palmed a large red switch and Jonas saw the lights come back on outside as the inner door closed again. She glanced at her timepiece. "Fifteen seconds from the time I got in range. Not bad, but not my best time. I'm a lot faster on legs."

"You've done this before," Jonas accused.

"Lots of times," she agreed, not telling him it had been to raid dumpsters in Tara's alleys before her father died. "The standard loading dock uses visible light and can be disabled or enabled by these switches," she explained. "Outside, the old-model scanners can't pick up a fast moving object, and if you aim right you can turn the whole thing off. Then you do as you please for two minutes before turning it back on, because that's how long the delay lasts before the dock software sends an alert to the main system."

Mara led the way to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and poured two glasses of the fruit juice she knew was stored there, and to which she had often helped herself on nighttime excursions to the kitchen after long hours of study.

Jonas was staring around in wonder. "I've never been here," he said. "It's amazing what goes on behind the scenes that you never think about."

Suddenly, the two looked at each other, the same thought occurring to each. "You had better get some Friends working in the kitchen, and I'll put some trusted men here, too," Jonas said, voicing their concern. "Somebody could put nannies or poison in the food or water and take out the whole palace from down here."

She grinned back. "I shall have a big, juicy, New Tara style steak with mushrooms at McTavish's in Old Town," she announced, reminding Jonas of his lost bet. "If we hurry, we can be there when the bards start their evening recital. For dessert, I want a double serving of Black Forest cake with an ice."

Jonas laughed, but as they went back upstairs, out the front door and down the wheelchair ramp, he resolved to get his people down there first thing next morning to modify that dock so even Mara couldn't break in.

The next day Enko and Kazue Miyamoto arrived with poet-samurai Toru Ikeda and singer-samurai Takashi Fujima. With Chief Herald O'Toole's permission, Mara installed the four in her suite. The place was enormous and she could have easily accommodated a dozen more. Besides, it felt good to have company now Sheana had moved out. She introduced the two bodyguard/artists to the Ard Filea and other palace bards, receiving assurances that places would be made for both, though the concept of a Seanacha-warrior was somewhat novel.

That afternoon, she brought the young couple and their bards to the council chambers and had them credentialled. Enko and Kazue were given positions at the head of the fifth row, and Toru and Takashi were placed in the second between the Irish bards and the Clergy. Their colourful costumes created quite a stir, and Mara heard the foursome being invited to the homes of several nobles afterward. Mara herself was read a public commendation for making the new arrangements with Japan, and given the right to face the Court and council while introducing the newcomers, but got a wicked glare from John Davis before returning to her place. He and co-standing Erwin Davis were still furious over her deft removal of their family from influence in Japan.

That evening, she took all four newcomers to the Old Town school, introduced them to the students and faculty, and worked them into the routines. The two veterans would teach Japanese sword, and they and Enko would study the western blade. Kazue would join the beginning students for the fighting classes and teach Oriental customs and languages.

All four already had their patches entered in the Friends' database, and Mara made sure they went through a scanner a couple of times to register their body characteristics for security reasons before returning the foursome to the palace. She then took to the tunnel from her private study and wheeled vigorously back to Old Town to spend time going over reports Charles O'Connor had left on her desk. She visited briefly with Selma MacCarthy and her family before settling down at the MT in the back office for several hours of study. She trusted the security of the one in her palace suite, but this one had her direct satellite uplink to the Friends' network and she preferred to use it even now under assumed names so no one studying public records would know what she was interested in. This night, she was checking trade figures and troop movements in various parts of the world, and coming to some conclusions about where she would go next to keep the Peace. She was sure the Donal wouldn't regard her wheelchair as an impediment to sending her to some hot trouble spot by herself. She'd be free of it soon, anyway.

At two o'clock, she made the wheel back to the palace and called it quits, to catch three hours sleep before starting again. It was a typical day for the workaholic Mara, and she loved the pace. September of 2000 was a long way off, though it loomed in her subconsciousness like an evil spirit.

After taking her Japanese friends back to Old Town next morning, she went around to visit Cam and Rainbow. On the way, she stopped in next door to Stephen McTavish's restaurant at Mary McTavish's clothing and outfitting emporium, and made a number of purchases, leaving most for delivery and taking only the smallest item along. She dropped by St. Patrick's, and was pleased to see the restoration work proceeding well ahead of schedule and some of the scaffolding already down. Then she crossed the street and rapped on the door of the rectory. She sensed a flutter at the window, there were footsteps inside, the door flew open, and Rainbow threw herself into Mara's arms.

"Oh, Mara, I'm still in shock that you're back and alive. What a trick you played on me on the Lord's Day. I so hoped you'd come today."

"It's a day for visiting family." Mara grinned. This was one place where she would get unconditional approval.

"Come and see," Rainbow invited, excitedly.

Mara left her chair outside, made it up the steps and through the rectory's narrow halls with minimal help from Rainbow, shortly finding herself in a brightly decorated room at the rear of the rectory where a tiny smiling face greeted her from a little bed. "May I?" Mara asked, reaching for the baby, and with Rainbow's assent lifted the little one to hold against her breast. "So beautiful, and I'm so honoured you named her Meghan, after me."

Tears filled Mara's eyes and she bowed her head. Suddenly, she was filled with both longing to have a child of her own, and dread that it might never be. Overcome with emotion, she stood with her head down, leaning on the high bed for support, tears dripping on Meghan for several seconds.

She heard a small noise and looked up to see through misty eyes a brown robe over a broad bluff frame in the doorway. She handed Meghan back to Rainbow and wiped her eyes. Father Cam was embarrassed, and so was she. After all, had she chosen differently, this child might have been hers.

"Are you all right?" Rainbow asked, concerned.

Mara nodded. Despite the longing the child had produced in her, the tears were of joy, not sorrow. She took two deep breaths, pulled the small package from her pouch, and held it out to Rainbow. "You have blessed me before our Lord in Heaven and done me the highest honour," she said, formality creeping in as she fought for control of her emotions. "Now, I shall do for her as an aunt should."

Rainbow's mouth made a big "Oh," and she put Meghan back into the bed to open the package. She held up the gold chain with the small white heart-shaped pendant on the end.

"Oh, Mara," Rainbow said, wonderingly.

"It is her amphora," Mara observed, unnecessarily. "I ordered it hand-made in the old style from alabaster. It is filled with nard. She will be the most fragrant of brides."

Cam objected. "Mara, this must have cost hundreds of shamrocks. You could have...."

Mara held up a hand to halt the lecture on giving to the poor she knew was coming. "You can get her another when the time comes, and she can break that one and make this her heirloom instead, if she wishes." She leaned down to stroke a tiny cheek. "If the Lord of Heaven wills, I will make a better world for you to grow up into than I had, little Meghan."

Cam and Rainbow could say no more to her, and when Mara straightened up again, it was to remark, "You must safeguard her amphora, Rainbow, as my life is too dangerous for me to keep it against the day she makes the vow, as an aunt should. I had to come today, because I will be going away again shortly, and don't know when I could have visited otherwise."

"Donal sends you abroad already?" Cam asked. "You still need a chair, don't you?"

"For another week or so, and not yet, but he will," Mara replied, enigmatically. She stayed another hour, hugged Rainbow and Cam, held Meghan one more time, and left in a riot of emotions.

She didn't notice the small crooked man with the face of a weasel who stared back and forth between her and the rectory as she left. Nor did she notice his vile grin as he shuffled along the street behind her.

Mara wheeled straight to Donal's office on her return to the palace. His secretary waved her inside without asking her to wait, and she sat for a few seconds before his desk while he finished a call. He leaned back in his chair and glared. "Been expecting you," he growled, impatiently.

"I have no message from you," she observed quietly.

"Shouldn't need them any more," he snapped. "Do your own research. Draw your own conclusions. Otherwise you aren't any good to the realm."

"To Indonesia first with troops to intervene in the religious war," Mara shot back, irritated. "Then to Russia to bargain further with the Czar, and finally back to India to deal with the aftermath of the railway construction." She stated her results in the briefest form possible. "Mexico needs some help too, but you'll send someone else. Likewise the troubles in Mayo."

Donal didn't react, instead keeping a fixed scowl. "You overlooked Babylon, not our city, but Para," he amended, shortly. "I want you there as ambassador for the spring meeting of their executive when they table the budget estimates for the space program. Indonesia can wait months if not a year. I've also got a SpecialOps report on a problem between Tibet and China you need to resolve."

Mara was momentarily taken aback, then realized that she had not looked at interplanetary trade and relations, only what went on here on Hibernia. "Get the whole picture before opening your mouth," she reminded herself sharply.

* * * * *

Despite his surly demeanour, Donal was delighted. Indonesia, and Mexico were obvious. There was no way Mara could have known about the Babylonian assignment or Tibet, but he hadn't expected her to note the remaining subtleties of the Russian situation, or comment on domestic Irish affairs. He hadn't taken much notice of India himself, but now that she mentioned it, he'd better activate a few operatives to keep an eye on things until she could return. Once the railway was complete.... He refrained from gleefully rubbing his hands together. A couple more years and she would be ready. Then he sobered. A couple of years was all he had, perhaps all any of them had.

"Your flight to Jakarta is booked for ten tomorrow," he continued, briskly, giving no hint of his thoughts. "We have three battalions of regular troops on station. You have a month to assign new officers and get them into shape before everything breaks loose. Your budget is whatever it takes to do the job in three more months, because Russia can't wait past the end of January."

"I want Takehiro and his Samurai. They need to play a role beyond the borders of Japan."

"Consider it done."

"I want him to have the same Royal Army rank as I."

"Your discretion."

He tapped his hand on his desk for a few seconds, then abruptly decided on a disclosure. "One more thing. Show me your coff."

She pulled her army ID from inside her shirt, looking puzzled, then slipped the light chain over her head. Everyone in the army called the tag a "coff", short for "coffin tag" because of where they often ended up.

"Hold it by all four edges at once and squeeze," he ordered, "then tell me what you see."

Mara complied, her puzzlement changing to astonishment.

"The background changed from green to blue. My rank has erased itself, and the motto...'Lend all assistance'?" She looked up sharply. "This is a SpecialOps badge. It says I'm operative twenty-one. Since when?"

"Since you saved my bacon at Moody."

Mara blinked rapidly, and he grinned openly. She'd never realized he was "Sergeant Reilly".

"That bit of plastic gives you the power to command full generals if you think you need it, but you have to answer to Zeke or Tad if you use it."

"Not you?"

"I've delegated command of SpecialOps."

He looked down to his papers in silent but obvious dismissal, and Mara turned to go. Just as she reached the door, he called out, "Pick a dozen or so of your buddies and send them down to Mexico with Alfred Dennison. It'll be a covert operation at first, then open battle."

Mara turned to acknowledge the additional order, then left. He pursed his lips in slight satisfaction. Good. He'd signalled that he knew about her "Friends" and didn't care. Now she could wonder why he didn't regard them as a threat to his chair--because he thought his own power overwhelming, or because he approved of her operations for reasons of his own? Let her figure it out. But he would have to get on to Sandy about finding the traitor in her organization. He didn't want Mara's ability to act against him impaired. That was another reason to inform her about her SpecialOps status. Even a general might need it.

He waited until he was sure she was out of earshot and indulged himself with a rare but hearty laugh. Twenty years as Donal was long enough. If he could stiff Mara with the job, he could find something else to do. Afterwards there would be the throne to think about.

* * * * *

Though somewhat shaken by Donal's latest revelation, Mara went straight to Dugold, as before her last assignment. He switched on a privacy screen and a broad smile, greeting her with, "In the name of the Architect, a good afternoon to you Little Daughter, and how may I serve you today?"

"Anything new?" Mara asked.

"Things come to a head on Prime, or Tirdia as you term it. Our operating committee has considered dates, and agree with you on the night of September third of 2000 after eleven o'clock and before three in the morning on the fourth, Irish meridian time. We believe the nexus will begin at the eastern edge of Vancouver."

It took Mara a few moments to recall the place, then she remembered a sprawling city by that name had grown up on Tirdia to the west of where the much smaller Hibernian town of Moody was located.

"Tirdia will divide and become two worlds?"

"We believe it almost certain," Dugold confirmed.

"What will be the effect on the Federation?"

"Unknown," Dugold replied briskly. "We cannot see Para being affected directly, but you are next to Prime in the Timestream, and with a building crisis of your own. There are likely to be critical decisions made here, too."

"Might this world also divide?" Mara asked, a sudden vision of little Meghan becoming twins entering her thoughts.

"No such thing has happened before," he assured her. "I think it can be ruled out."

"Why has there been no nexus since the time of the Christ?" she asked.

Dugold got slightly flustered at this, the first time she had seen him so. "We of Meta have believed it our duty under Heaven to prevent such," he informed her. "That is why we promoted the last dynasty, the Federation, and some of your technologies, for instance."

"Otherwise, Hibernia would have divided." It was not a question. Mara's recent work had included a lot of history.

"Only the Great Architect knows such things certainly, but we believe there could have been disaster or division in 1791."

"The year the Federation was actually established," she observed. "Did you prompt the nobles to depose the King sixty years ago?"

"No. We were busy on Tirdia."

"Helping the English win the Battle of Britain they shouldn't have," Mara baldly asserted.

"There was that," he admitted, "and other turning points in their version of the war. We knew change was indicated here, but Salmon said we could trust James IV to do what was needed. We took a closer look after Salmon was killed, but the King had disappeared by then, and the situation seemed to stabilize, so we took no further action. I must say," he added, "It created quite a stir among the elders a few years back to discover Salmon had a great-granddaughter here on Ortho. I wonder," he added reflectively, "if you would take a small test for us."

When Mara didn't decline, he pulled a small box from a desk drawer, and held it out. It contained a motley assortment of odds and ends thrown together without any evident theme. It could be so much junk. "Could you sort these items?" he asked, his voice tightly controlled.

Saying nothing, Mara dumped the contents onto the desk and fished through them. Dugold hadn't said what criteria to use, but most of the objects fell into four categories. She placed several pieces of stone in one pile, a bit of twig, a leaf and the carcass of a beetle in a second nearby, then a button, a nut and a screw along with a spherical glass ball in a third. On this last, she looked up with raised eyebrows, and Dugold explained. "It is from Prime and part of a child's game called 'marbles'."

Mara shook her head. Trust Tirdian children to play with glass trinkets instead of wooden swords. She returned to task. This left four items that felt warm to her touch. One had the appearance of an amphora, a second was another glass ball like the first in appearance, the third a carved gem, and the fourth a miniature painting of a dragon. After some hesitation, she put the second glass ball in a place at the far right, and the other three items in their own group between it and the others.

"Name the piles," Dugold invited.

She started on the left. "First, found items formed by the forces of the weather. Second, other created things once living and not altered in form." She paused to think of descriptions for the other two piles.

Dugold tossed in an observation. "Some people still claim life arose by chance. The theory is especially popular among scientists on Prime, the world you call Tirdia."

"Theirs will learn the folly of that fancy as ours did two centuries ago," Mara countered. "There never was any evidence life arose by chance, and few even among unbelievers in the Lord of Heaven would seriously propose such nonsense today in the face of overwhelming proof of God's design."

"It is what Malone and his crew believe," Dugold informed her. "They also hold the Irish are a super race, the highest evolved form of life, and have a duty to eliminate lesser breeds."

"What about Donal and Monde?" Mara asked. Dugold's information was new to her, and she pressed for more.

"Don't know what they think about such things," he replied, returning her attention to the test. "What do you call the other groups?"

Mara waved at them, her mind made up. "The third is items manufactured automatically or carved by craftsmen. The fourth are shaped by a finer hand. There is something of the soul of the crafter in them. They are like my shamrock pendant. I'm sure John Dominic told you about that."

He didn't immediately respond. "The last item?" Mara could see Dugold was excited, but was unsure why.

"The last stone is like the others, but of much greater power and beauty. It feels like every particle was built into it by someone with extraordinary creative ability." Mara saw him react to the word "built", and drew several conclusions at once. "Ah," she said immediately, "This was made by one of your leaders called the 'Builder'. But," she added, "I can tell it was not John Dominic, but another."

"It is Magel's," Dugold agreed, "from when he held office." Mara started to say something, but he cut her off. "You are a healer as well," he noted, "and Elbon has told us what you did with Black Crow at Moody. Few even of Metans have such shape sense."

But Mara was on another track, and put in, thinking out loud. "You obviously come and go between the worlds at will, and I know of no place you could hide the bulky timestream vehicles, so you Metans must have the ability to travel through the Timestream with little or no equipment. I am guessing none." She pointed a finger at Dugold as conclusions flowed, almost unbidden. "Such ability makes one a Metan elder, and the best able to read and use the Timestream is the Builder. It is that sense you depend on to predict the future from trends and so to intervene when you can." She looked at him carefully. "I detect in your manner I have passed your test, so far. What next?"

Dugold did not answer, speaking nothing into her extraordinary chain of deductions, so she concluded with another question. "Why don't you stop the nexus on Tirdia, if you know the when and where of it? Doing so might end the problems here."

"Because we lack the knowledge of the who. Prime has billions of people, more than twenty times Ortho or Para. The Enemy is less obvious than usual, and we don't know through whom he is attempting to work. There are too many candidates. No, this time, nexus seems inevitable."

Mara reflected a moment and asked, "Any chance the key decision will be made by someone not of Tirdia, but from one of the other Earths? And, what, by the way, is this 'enemy'?"

"To your first question, we have no answer. It had not occurred to us, but I don't know how we could follow up on the idea. To your second, not 'what' but 'who'. He is the old enemy of God, whom the scriptures call Satan or the Devil. He has been very active on Tirdia for decades--one reason why affairs are so much worse there than here, where he has left things pretty much alone since we last intervened to get the Federation started."

"You haven't met him, have you?" Mara was astonished at Dugold Dunnegan's casual acceptance of Satan not as a vague Biblical personality or abstract force of evil, but as an active individual still influencing the course of history.

"I have not, but do know some who have. More to the point, Satan has an ally, one we call Pelik, in your language 'Rejected Wanderer', or 'Traveller'. This man Pelik is seeped in evil, drenched in his victims' blood. He pleasures himself by cooperating with Satan's Apollyon or destroyer aspect and his victims are innumerable. Pelik I have met several times. These days he calls himself Joshua Caine, sometimes just Kane." Dugold lapsed into thoughtful silence.

Mara quickly changed the subject. "Was Catherine born of Maria and Liam, or was she adopted from their domain?"

"She is their child. I've heard them talk about the difficulty they had in conceiving her, and the help they got from the fertility labs. Why?"

The nagging idea Mara had entertained about Catherine drained away with his answer, and she waved the subject off as idle curiosity. She started to leave, then flushed as she remembered another question. "At what age do Metan women commonly mature enough to...ah...have children?"

She had hesitated in her query, and Dugold looked her over speculatively before answering. She made her own mental assessment. Fully his height, and with wide shoulders, powerful muscles, an almost flat chest, and no broadening in the hips, her figure was to Hibernians more that of an athletic man than a woman's.

"You are about twenty or twenty-one?" Mara confirmed the estimate with a nod, and Dugold, who obviously realized the source of her concern, replied in carefully measured words, "Full height among women on Meta, or Builder's World as residents term it, is usually reached between twenty and twenty-five, but some grow until thirty. Puberty in women is anywhere from twenty-five at the earliest to forty at the latest."

"Hannah Transky was pregnant before twenty, when she was attacked, before my grandfather married her," she observed. It was difficult and improper to talk about such things with a man, but he was the only Metan available, so she grit her teeth and persisted.

"True," he replied, "But she was not full-blooded, and you are less so, though I would say you appear quite typical for a healthy Metan woman your age. Perhaps you are a genetic throwback."

Mara was relieved. She had been afraid from her lack of development she might be sterile, but Dugold's assessment postponed that fear for now.

"If I were to visit Meta, is there someone I could talk to?"

"Alnech's wife would be the person," he told her. "I'll get you a language cube when the time is right," he appended.

"Thanks," she said abruptly and left Dugold for another visit with Jonas in the Security facility nearby before returning to her own office to make preparations for Indonesia. As before her last assignment, she encountered Thomas Monde on her way through the halls. The man could invariably be recognized from a distance because, above his clan tartan, he always wore black, never the colourful brocaded shirts and vests the other nobility sported.

He was solicitous and charming, bending down to her level in the chair, and pumping her for information about her latest assignment. She answered only in generalities, and they parted after a few minutes. Again, Mara had the impression of sincere interest, even pride in her work. No, despite what Catherine believed, Monde actually liked her, and the Donal surely did not.

* * * * *

Mara, at Tara of Hibernia, December, 1998

By this time completely healed, and nearly aglow over her close partnership with Takehiro, Mara returned from her successful Indonesian campaign in mid December, determined to spend another Christmas with her friends at Tara before going to Russia the following month. To her initial dismay, she discovered Alfred Dennison had arrived from Mexico a week before, and the Taran news channels, which she had not been watching, were making a hero of him. They did a series on his life, and the people at the entertainment channel were preparing a dramatization of the Mexican campaign. Mara worried at first the extra attention would make Alfred more vulnerable to attack, but after thinking it over decided the opposite was true. Alfred was less accessible to an assassin in front of cameras. Reporters could be quite persistent in their hounding of people they deemed newsworthy.

She read up on events in Mexico and was delighted to discover Alfred's work was brilliantly inspired. Local regular army troops had been dismally ineffective under the less-than-stellar leadership of a minor Reilly lord, but Alfred and the Friends he brought to shape up the dispirited battalion all but wiped out the much larger rebel force. Only their enigmatic commanding officer escaped. Evidence suggested another Davis, but there was no proof.

Meanwhile, Mara's Indonesian campaign had been tough-slogging hard work, and though an equally well-fought victory, it lacked the fascination of the Mexican affair, and the MT entertainment people certainly had a nose for glamour. After dealing with her brief resentment, Mara realized Alfred needed the public behind him, and once she got to that stage in her thinking, and saw the cameras following him everywhere, she was relieved to be ignored, taking it as the Providence of Heaven's Lord.

Editors' note: Someday, if we have time, and there is any demand, we may tell the stories of these two campaigns in a more personal way than can be found in the military gazettes.

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