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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

"We must stop this war," Paul said, looking up from the report. "We must stop it. Now."

Paul had called a full meeting of the New Destiny Council to "discuss some ramifications of the current conflict." Celine had known it would be contentious when she arrived and Paul was striding up and down the Council Chamber, literally tearing at his hair. She had always thought that was just an expression.

"Why?" Chansa exclaimed, looking across the room at the Demon. The black armor didn't move or twitch in any way at the strange statement.

"The deaths!" Paul yelled, pointing at the projections. "We've finally gotten a census in the portions of Ropasa that we control and thousands, millions are dying or already dead! This was not supposed to be a war. The point is to prevent the extinction of the human race, not cause it!"

"What about horror?" Celine asked. "We were going to win! I've got plans!"

"The plan has failed," Paul snapped. "Forcing them to quit was a good plan, but not in the face of the death of the human race!"

"Actually, Bowman, it has succeeded beyond your wildest dreams," the Demon rumbled.

"What?" Paul said, cocking his head suspiciously. "Explain yourself."

"I can, Paul," Celine said, waving the projections away and bringing up new ones. "I prepared the reports. Current population of the earth is just above one billion. Control of the Net has fractured, power has failed, different members of the Council have seized, for the most part, certain historical areas. Chansa in Frika, Sheida in Norau, yourself in Ropasa, etc."

"Your point," the council leader ground out.

"My point is that deaths are going to be high in the first two months. Very high. But in each of these areas, council members are acting, as they see fit, to ensure the survival of as many as possible."

"We're still talking about millions of deaths!" Paul snapped.

"But we're talking about far more population increase," Celine continued as if he hadn't interrupted. "Indeed, we're talking about a near doubling of the population in two to three generations."

"What?" Paul paused. "How?"

"Frankly, your initial plan probably would not have worked," Celine said. "As long as there were artificial means of replication and reproduction management, birth levels would remain low no matter what you did to encourage it. However, with all of that taken away, birth rates are bound to skyrocket."

"What in the hell are you talking about?" Paul ground out.

"The nannites have turned off," Celine replied with a smirk. "That means other things have turned on."

* * *

Rachel was more or less moping around the house when Daneh found her.

"Come on, girl, time to start your education," Daneh said, snatching up a satchel.

"What do you mean?" Her mother was acting different this morning. Rachel couldn't put her finger on it but something of the despair had seemed to leave her. Whatever the reason, she was glad.

"You said you wanted to be a doctor," Daneh replied, heading for the door. "Bethan Raeburn has started to bleed internally. That's all I know. Come on."

Tom Raeburn was outside the house with two saddled horses, looking very worried.

"What can you tell me?" Daneh said as she mounted with a wince.

"Not much. Mom just started bleeding all of a sudden. From her . . . well from her bottom."

"From her anus?" Daneh asked. "There's various reasons that that might occur, none of them life threatening." They were already starting to canter down the hill, not following the main road but cutting across the open area around the side of the town.

"Not from her . . . anus," Tom said. "The . . . the other part. I'm sorry if I'm being unclear, but this is my mother, okay?"

"Okay," Daneh answered. She wracked her brain for what might be wrong and there was something nagging at her. But for the life of her, the only thing that came to mind was some sort of internal injury. "Did she fall? Was she hit?"

"Not that I'm aware of," Tom said.

Daneh held her peace until they reached the sprawling farmyard, then hurried inside with Rachel at her heels.

They went upstairs to where Myron was standing outside the bedroom door, wringing his hands.

"Thank God you're here, Daneh," Myron said. "I . . . she's . . . I just can't take it. Please help her!"

"I'll see what I can do, Myron," Daneh answered, secretly fearful that there wouldn't be much she could do. Without nannites she was virtually helpless. She might know the inner workings of the human body, but fixing that body took tools she no longer possessed.

Inside the room she found Bethan in bed, apparently naked, curled up in a miserable ball on her side, the sheet on the bed pulled up on her hips.

"How are you, Beth?" she asked, pulling the sheet down. There was a wad of rags stuffed into the woman's crotch and it was spotted with red. There was more that had trickled down the woman's leg onto the bed. All in all it looked as if she had bled about a deciliter.

"Daneh," Bethan said helplessly. "I don't know what's wrong."

"Be calm," Daneh answered, taking her hand and wrist. She remembered the simple method of taking a pulse but she didn't have a way to time it. The woman's pulse felt fine, though, strong and a bit fast, but that could be put down to understandable fear. "Other than the bleeding, what are the symptoms?" she asked, feeling the woman's neck and face. No signs of fever and while she was a bit pale she didn't seem to be in shock.

"Nothing," Bethan answered. "I've been a little . . . grouchy lately and then I started to hurt in the stomach yesterday. Then today I just started bleeding!"

"No impacts?" Daneh asked. "I'm sorry to ask this, but nobody hit you, did they?"

"No!" Bethan practically snarled. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Like I said, I've been grouchy. I would have hit them, not the other way around!"

"There doesn't seem to be a reason," Daneh said in exasperation. "I can't sew it up. And I can't get into the interior to see what's bleeding!" She knew better than to show her discomfort in front of a patient, but this was the first time she'd had to deal with something like this. "No tools, no diagnostics. Aggh! I need to think." She looked at the woman and took her pulse again. Still strong. "Bethan, whatever is happening, you're not showing any other signs. You don't appear to be . . . damaged from the bleeding. Just let me think."

She stood back and paced as she ran through the anatomy of the female reproductive system. Something had clearly gone badly wrong. Cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries . . . Something was haywire. She hadn't paid much attention to the system since medical school, it was just there, as useless as the vermiform appendix that most people no longer had. With uterine replicators reproduction had all been moved out of the female body thank God and . . . Oh, My, God!

She stopped with her face in her hand, blinded by her own stupidity. But she wasn't the only one who had missed the obvious.

"Bethan, do your cows reproduce naturally or do you have them raised in a replicator?" she asked.

"They reproduce naturally. We try to . . . Oh!"

"And do they ever bleed? The females?"

"Yes, after they've ovulated," Bethan said with horror in her voice.

"And that's once every?"

"Six months or so. But humans . . ."

"Humans ovulate every month!" Daneh wailed. "The curse! Damnit, I knew this was familiar!"

"This is natural?" Bethan asked. "This is supposed to happen?"

"Once a month," Daneh said, the memory finally dropping into place. "Every twenty-eight days."

"For how long?'

"I don't know . . . a week?"

"Oh, My, God!"

"Mom, what about me?" Rachel asked, frantically.

"You, me, all of us," Daneh responded.

"When is it going to start?"

"Soon. Bethan was the first. Probably there will be more by the end of the day. The nannite fields had ovulation turned off and the natural hormones that were generated by the cycle were replaced and released in a steady stream. Now we're going to be slaves to that damned curse again!"

"That sucks," Rachel said. "I'm not going to!"

"You don't have a choice," Daneh replied, thinking furiously. "They used to have ways to . . . catch the flow. Terms, old terms. On the rag. Riding the cotton pony."

"Where have I heard that before?" Bethan asked.

"You find it in the literature of the day," Rachel replied with a frown. "King, Moore, Hiaasen . . ."

"Ah, the masters," Bethan smiled wanly.

"I don't know what they used, but we'd better think of something," Daneh said with a frown. "And soon. Or this whole town is going to be one hell of a mess."

"So I'm not dying," Bethan said.

"No, you're going through a perfectly normal monthly cycle that has been survived by countless women throughout the ages," Daneh replied astringently. "And there's so much good news attached to it, too."

"Oh?" Bethan asked warily.

"Yes, it means you're now as fertile as one of your cows. How many more children do you plan on having?"

* * *

The three days of rest were cut short for the starting of the familiarization classes and on the second day after arriving at Raven's Mill Herzer found himself in a mixed group of males and females clearing land along the Shenan River on the far side from Raven's Mill.

The work was backbreaking. The majority of the trees in the area were "secondary old growth." That meant that while the area had once been cleared, had, in fact, been the fringe of the massive megalopolis that had once stretched down the entire coast, the buildings and other structures had been gone long enough for multiple generations of forest to have grown on the spot.

Herzer didn't know the names of the trees and didn't particularly care. They were just horrible growing things to be attacked with axe and saw. He supposed that given his friendship with Bast he should be more understanding. She had, after all, seen the trees grow from seeds or acorns or whatever and loved them like children. But it was hard to be kindly thinking towards the trees when your hands ran with blood from the blisters.

He had taken turns in a rota using the two crosscut saws they had available and that was bad enough. The motion used muscles he didn't even know he had and by the first hour he was in agony from it. It took a particular stance and motion to get the most out of the saws and he suspected that for long-term users it was relatively easy. Relatively. Drawing a saw back and forth for hour upon hour could never be characterized as "easy." But surely easier than it was to learn. And then there was the question of "coasting." It was nearly impossible to determine if the person on the other side of the saw was working as hard as you were and it was tempting, especially on some of the more recalcitrant trees, to suspect that the person was not, in fact, giving their all.

Herzer had noticed by the morning of the first day that not everyone worked equally. There were ten males and five females, most of them younger like Mike and he. Herzer, Mike and a few others, males and females, threw themselves into all the tasks with as much energy and enthusiasm as they could summon. In Mike's case he seemed to have a real drive to learn the details of each of the jobs while in Herzer's case he had an obstinate refusal to do less than his best.

Most of the rest, though, were just there to pick up a meal chit. There had been some muttering the first day, especially after they found out how hard they were going to have to work, about "slave labor," but the incipient rebellion had been quelled quickly by the supervisor of the clearing effort, a reenactor named Jody Dorsett.

He had stood with his hands on his hips in front of a group of the "apprentices" who had simply dropped the axes they had been wielding. He looked at them with cold blue eyes.

"You can pick them up and start working or you can drop out. It doesn't matter to me. And if I think you're not working as hard as you should, I can dock your rations. So don't think you can just pick the axe up every few seconds and give the tree a love tap. I've seen it all me buckoes and if I see any more of it out of you you'll damned well be thrown out of the program."

So the malingerers got back to work, grudgingly, as Herzer and a few others threw themselves into their assigned tasks.

For Herzer and Mike it had started with the crosscut saw. The objective was to drop the trees in a certain direction so they could be extracted more easily, but the trees didn't always want to go that way. Indeed, it seemed they were bound and determined not to.

Herzer, working with another man whose name he never did quite catch, had started on a smaller tree, but a tough one. Only about two thirds of a meter across where they were cutting, it had nonetheless taken nearly an hour to cut through. They had first cut an angled slit down one side then driven wooden "wedges" into the slit. With that done they notched out the far side with an axe then started the crosscut. The blade had bound a time or two, requiring that wedges on the "pushing" side be loosened and wedges be driven in around the blade. But finally, after it felt they would never get the damned thing to fall it did, right at Herzer.

At first it seemed to be going well but then the cut at the base split and the tree turned, partially pressured by the winds that had sprung up, and aimed itself in Herzer's direction.

Only a quick yell from the supervisor, who had been keeping a wary eye out for the junior team, had prevented the boy from being crushed. As it was, he barely made it out of the way of the trunk and was actually struck a glancing blow by one of the smaller, lower branches.

Jody's only comment was a snarl for getting the blade bound under the trunk and nearly breaking it. As soon as it was loose he set Herzer and a new partner to cut a larger tree with a trunk nearly two meters across, wide spreading branches and gnarls all over its trunk. Herzer groaned in fatigue but set to it without further comment.

And the blisters started almost immediately. Unlike most of the rest he had some calluses, but they were from sword and bow, utterly unlike the calluses from a saw or axe. So in no time at all his hands had become swollen with blisters which just as quickly popped under the unremitting punishment.

This time Herzer was teamed with a guy named Earnon Brooke. He had been one of the brief mutineers and true to form, Herzer was sure that he wasn't doing much more than leaning on the end of the saw. Herzer had to practically push it through on each cut, instead of simply moving with it and maybe putting some pressure against the trunk. And when he did his pull there was more resistance than he thought there should be; it almost felt like the guy was leaning back on it and letting Herzer pull him through.

Herzer put up with it for about ten minutes, which had barely gotten them started on the wedge cut and then he'd had enough. He dropped his end of the saw at the end of his pull and walked over to the other man.

Earnon was tall and good looking but he had the shiftiest eyes Herzer had ever seen. He was, however, at least a good decade older than the boy and Herzer tried not to let that intimidate him.

"Look, you're not pulling your share of the weight," Herzer said calmly. "We're never going to get this tree cut if you don't work at it."

"I am working at it," Earnon said stepping forward and snarling at the boy. "If anybody's not pulling his own weight, it's you, boy. Don't you be blaming me if you're afraid the thing's gonna fall on you again. It wasn't my screw-up that time; it was yours."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Herzer said, backing up. "I'm not slacking off, you are!"

"The hell I am!" Earnon shouted and pushed Herzer, hard, on the chest so that he stumbled back further.

"Whoa," Jody said, walking up behind Herzer and grabbing his arms as the boy crouched to spring. "No! No fighting! Herzer, Earnon, you're both docked for the afternoon meal!"

"What?" Herzer said, struggling in his arms. "I was just trying to get him to do some work!"

"This boy's been doing nothing but hanging on the end of the saw," Earnon said righteously, crossing his arms. "Then he came over and accused me of not working. I'm not going to take that. And you can't dock me for defending my rights!"

"I can dock you for looking at me wrong, Brooke," Jody said dangerously. "And if I was to guess who was the troublemaker here, it wouldn't be Herzer. But you're both getting docked for fighting. Now you can either get out or get back to work. I don't really care which."

"Are you going to be able to keep it together?" Jody asked Herzer, releasing him.

"Yeah," the boy said, shaking his head and picking at torn skin from a blister. It was only halfway through the morning and he was already starved. Missing lunch was going to hurt. "But I didn't start this."

"If you have a problem, you come to me," Jody said. "You don't start a fight."

"I was just trying . . ."

"You don't start a fight," Jody said dangerously. "You come to me."

"Okay, I'm coming to you," Herzer said, quietly, turning towards the boss. "I don't care what you set me on, but I'm not going to try to cut down this big-ass tree with this useless asshole."

"The hell with you, punk," Earnon said, charging forward.

"Hold it!" Jody said, stepping between the two. "Watch your tongue, Herzer. Okay, if you two can't work together, that's fine." He looked around and shook his head at the total lack of work out of the rest of the group. "What does this look like, street theater?" he shouted. "Are you guys a bunch of minstrels to sit around on your butts? Get back to work!" Then he waved at one of the men. "Tempie, get over here."

He waited until the other young man came over then waved at Herzer. "Go clear limbs if you can't work in a pair."

"I can work in a pair . . ." Herzer said hotly.

"Go," Jody said, waving at the axe that Tempie had dropped.

Herzer stalked over to the axe without another word and started chopping at the limb that Tempie had left.

The axe was broad bladed with a rounded head wrapped around a circular haft. It was designed more like a battle-axe than a standard wood cutting axe but it was sharp enough and each of Herzer's furious blows took out a huge chunk of wood. The tree he was working on was large like the others. Instead of the branches spreading out they were fairly short and tight together. Nonetheless they were rather thick at the base and took some cutting. Which was fortunate for Herzer because it gave him a chance to work out his rage at the injustice of the previous incident. Unable to let go of his anger he rang blow after blow on the branch until it broke free, then started immediately on another. As he worked the rhythm of the blows, and the physical exhaustion that working at the pace induced, tended to relieve the anger and he slowly started to gain equilibrium and think about the incident instead of just running around in a fugue of anger at the injustice.

"You need to slow down or you'll kill yourself," Courtney said, coming up behind him.

As she said it the axe bounced sideways barely missing his leg and he swung it back into line carefully then set it down, panting.

"You've got a point," Herzer said, turning around.

Some of the females had started to help with the cutting but the greater muscle mass of the males quickly proved that they could do it faster and longer. In general they had taken over the "lighter" jobs like dragging aside cut limbs, replacing broken equipment and watering the workers. On the other hand, two of the women were still at it, as if to prove that they were as good as, or better than, any of the males. One of them was Deann Allen, who just attacked everything like Herzer had been attacking the tree, and the other was Karlyn Karakas, who must have had some major body mods; she was over two meters tall and built like a male body-builder. Deann, on the other hand, was much smaller but if anything more aggressive about the work; she seemed to have a chip on her shoulder about a mile wide. So since she was clearing limbs just as well as any of the males, Jody hadn't even suggested that she leave off.

The other three women, Courtney, Nergui Slovag and Hsu Shilan had taken up the lighter tasks. They were pulling the lighter branches aside as they were cut and piling them up, bringing tools, driving wedges and carrying water.

Which was why Courtney thrust a pottery cup at him, half filled with water.

He shook his head and downed the water then stared at the cup. It was poorly made and the impression of a finger was still visible, cast into the interior by the firing. It was already cracked at the top and slightly porous so his hand holding it was dampened by the water seeping through.

It was at that moment that things really caught up with him and he thought he would break down, right there, and cry. He was really here, having to work or starve. And he was never, ever going back. He suddenly, desperately, wanted to see his small cabin in the woods. It had never been much more than a place for him to sleep and keep a few things he treasured. But he wanted to lie in his bed and have the genie bring him a glass of beer and a great big steak. He wanted this to all be a strange dream and just be over.

"You look like somebody killed your dog," Courtney said. "Is the water that bad?"

"No," Herzer said, trying not to sob. "No. It's just . . . I just suddenly realized, this is it. This is what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life!"

"Well, hopefully not this," Courtney said cheerfully, then nodded soberly. "But . . . yeah."

"I just . . ." Herzer stopped and shook his head. "Never mind. Thanks for the water."

"LUNCH BREAK!" Jody yelled, banging two pieces of metal together. He waved at Herzer. "You can take a break until it's over."

"Why?" Herzer said with a shrug, picking the axe back up. "I'll keep working."

Jody looked at him with an inscrutable expression for a moment, then nodded, and headed over to the pots that had been smoking over a fire.

"It's not fair," Courtney said hotly. "You didn't start that."

"I know," Herzer said, spitting on his hands and wincing when the spittle hit his now bleeding blisters. "But I think I kind of understand it."

"What, telling you you can't eat? Because you complained about that useless jackass?" Mike asked, walking up.

"Because of how it ended up going," Herzer replied, taking his first hit at the next branch. "None of us have ever had to work for a living. We're having to learn how. How to work in groups, too. Jody's got a tough job and the only way he can do it is to be a hard-ass."

"Well he pissed a lot of people off today," Courtney said hotly, looking over at where the foreman was being harangued by Earnon. It was clear that the man couldn't believe he wasn't going to be permitted to eat.

"I know, Earnon's already got friends," Herzer nodded.

"Oh, not that," Courtney said. "I suppose a few of them don't like it because of him. But most of us are pissed off that you got caught up in it. Earnon's the problem, not you."

"Oh," Herzer said. "Uh. Thanks."

"We need to go eat," Mike said, taking Courtney by the arm. "Herzer, we can hold a little by . . ."

"If Jody finds out, he's likely to dock you two, too," Herzer said, shaking his head. "You go eat."

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