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Authors: Richard Meredith

At the Narrow Passage

BOOK: At the Narrow Passage
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GREETINGS FROM THE YEAR 4000 A.D. WE
HAVE BEEN WAITING UNTIL THE LAST POS-
SIBLE MOMENT, BUT WE CAN WAIT NO
LONGER. WE ARE ALL DOOMED.
THERE IS A CIVILIZATION ON THE FAR SIDE
OF THE GALAXY, TOTALLY ALIEN TO ALL
THAT IS HUMAN AND KRITH. THEY HAVE
BEEN BIDING THEIR TIME. BUILDING A
GREAT ARMADA -- AND WE ARE ALL BUT
DEFENSELESS AGAINST THEIR WEAPONS.
ALL THE WORKS OF OUR MUTUAL CIVILI-
ZATIONS SHALL PERISH UNLESS . . .
The message ends there. It's never completed -- only
repeated endlessly, picked up by a huge transmitting
station on the moon in one of the Timelines. It will
continue to repeat itself until the day, some two thou-
sand years from now, when the world is destroyed --
unless we can change the future now.
"Breathless adventure."
-- Library Journal
"An attention-holding and entertaining book."
-- Fort Worth Press
AT THE NARROW
PASSAGE
RICHARD C. MEREDITH
THE TIMELINER TRILOGY
BOOK ONE
This book is dedicated to the memory of H.
Beam Piper and to the Paratime Police, to
Verkan Vail, to Tortha Karf, to Hadron Dalla,
and to all those who guard the multiple worlds.
AT THE NARROW PASSAGE
Copyright © 1973 by Richard C. Meredith
ISBN: 0-872-16552-3
Contents
1. France, Line RTGB-307, Spring, 1971 9
2. Change of Command 13
3. Kearns 21
4. Kar-hinter 24
5. The Lines of Time 38
6. Up the Loire 47
7. The Villa 57
8. Ambush 68
9. Pursuit 74
10. Contact and Report 83
11. The Cabin 95
12. Captive 105
13. Staunton 114
14. The Greatest Lie 129
15. Of Mica, Sally, and G'lendal 141
16. Of Democracy, Sautierboats, and Guns 150
17. "Red Mobile to Red Leader" 162
18. Voices 171
19. Recovery 175
20. With Sally in Eden 183
21. Across the Lines 196
22. Dreams and Nondreams 209
23. The Western Timelines 215
24. Kar-hinter, Kearns, Tracy, and Death 226
25. "They Are Almost Human" 235
26. Out of Probability 237
27. "Something's Got to Be Done" 239
At the narrow passage there is no brother, no friend.
-- ARABIAN PROVERB
Some billion years ago, an anonymous speck
of protoplasm protruded the first primitive
pseudopodium into the primeval slime, and
perhaps the first state of uncertainty occurred.
-- I. J. Good, Science, February 20, 1959
1
France, Line RTGB-307,
Spring, 1971
It was spring in France when I contracted to kidnap Imperial Count Albert
von Heinen and his wife.
It was a spring that had been too long in coming, and the bitter winter
that had come before it had frozen all of western Europe and brought the
war to a virtual standstill until the weather, in its own fickle way,
finally began to warm and allowed us to return to the bloody games we
were being paid to play.
The trenches in which we lived were very old and deep and muddy and
cold when those first spring days came suddenly, almost unexpectedly,
and though warm breezes blew across France, the trenches still remained
cold, down deep in them, and it seemed that they would never dry out.
Trenchfoot was rampant. Most of us who hadn't come down with frostbite
or pneumonia or one of the other diseases of the trenches that winter,
finally gave in to that disgusting flesh rotting that I guess has been
feared by foot soldiers as long as men have fought wars.
At least I had been lucky so far. We had a small stove in our dugout --
the one I shared with Tracy and two subalterns -- and I had kept my boots
and socks more or less dry most of the time, and even though my feet stank
a good deal more than I liked, they hadn't begun to rot. I was grateful
for that, though that was just about all I was grateful for. Maybe I
was getting a little bitter even then.
Above the intricate mazes of trenches, beyond our most remote lookout
post, on the broken, muddy surface of the ravaged earth, the barbed wire
still hung just as it had all winter, now rusty and even more forbidding
than when we had first strung it the autumn before. Fragments of clothing
-- Imperial gray, they had once been -- here and there a high-crested
Prussian helmet, a rusting rifle with a broken bayonet, the barren,
whitened bones of Imperial horses enduring the rain and snow and frigid
winds that had blown across France during the winter. These were the
silent, solemn reminders of the few foredoomed Imperial attacks that
had taken place since the first winter snows came down and locked us
into our positions.
At first the Germans had not seemed willing to admit that a British
colonial division had set up housekeeping just a few miles from
Beaugency. That was too damned close to their staff headquarters!
And during the first winter storms, and during the lulls between them,
the Sixty-fourth Imperial Hussars, mostly on foot because of the terrain,
had thrown a few feeble, bloody attacks at our lines. They had failed,
as their commanders must have known they'd fail, but the attacks had been
in the grand Prussian style, if for no other reason than to appease and
glorify His Imperial Majesty, Franz VI, by the Grace of God, Emperor of
the Romans.
Ha!
Well, during that bitter winter, suffering more from the weather than
from the activities of the Imperials, the Second, Fourth and Ninth New
England Infantry had sat on its collective ass a few miles southwest of
Beaugency in our old, much-used trenches, a few hundred yards south of
the River Loire and a mile to two from a battered little village whose
name I don't know to this day.
But, as I said, spring had finally gotten around to coming, spring of
the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-One, by the Christian
calendar used locally, the thirty-second year of the Great War, the War
to End All Wars, they said. And with spring had come a renewal of the
fighting and the end of my current contract with the Kriths.
Cannon had begun firing from the vicinity of Beaugency, the German
equivalent of our two-and-a-half, three- and four-inch howitzers, from
the Imperial artillery battalion that sat there. And big guns fired back
from the south, British four-inchers answering the Germans.
Rifle and machine-gun fire crackled intermittently along the lines. Now
and again there was the muffled roar of a hand grenade or a mortar shell
lobbed into either our trenches or theirs. And occasionally a German or a
British head would be foolish enough to show itself above the trenches and
would promptly get itself blown apart, steel helmet or no steel helmet.
Off to the east, nearly every morning an hour or so after dawn, a flight
of British airships moved north, bombers for the most part, bound for the
Imperial encampments in the area of Fontainebleau, the railyards that led
to Paris and what industry still functioned in the French city. They would
unload their crude bombs on Fontainebleau and then return home, those of
them that hadn't been blasted apart by Imperial antiairship guns.
At times we hoped that some of the airships might even get as far as
Paris itself, to begin bombing the Imperial household that we had heard
was setting up spring quarters in what had once, long years before,
been the capital of France, the City of Lights. But we knew, when we
stopped to think about it, that our -- the British -- airships stood a
snowball's chance in hell of getting much beyond Fontainebleau. Between
that city and Paris the Germans had ring after ring of antiaircraft guns
that could knock down the fastest airship that the British Empire could
put into the sky.
German-occupied Paris would hold out, and would keep on holding out until
the British infantry marched right up to the gates of the city and took
it from the Holy Roman Emperor, and that was a thing that in the spring
of 1971 seemed very unlikely, no matter what the Kriths did to help. Well,
short of nuclear weapons, that is, but I damned well knew that the Kriths
weren't going to put nuclear weapons into the hands of the British. Hell,
the British didn't even know there was any such thing -- at least that's
what I believed then,
As I said, it was spring of 1971 and I was a captain of the British
Infantry, American Colonial Forces of His Britannic Majesty, King
George X. More exactly, I was the commanding officer of Company B,
Fourth Virginia Infantry.
My name then was Eric Mathers and I was supposed to have been from the
city of Victoria, Province of Virginia, in the British North American
Colonies, sometimes known collectively as New England. The men under me,
colonials themselves, believed it, but that wasn't surprising since
the Kriths had given me a damned good schooling in what Virginia was
like in this Timeline, or at least the area of North America that they
call Virginia here, which isn't exactly the same geographical area as
your Virginia. I spoke and acted like any other good Virginian, a loyal
subject of George X and the British Empire.
The truth was somewhat different. I had never been in their Virginia
in my life. I was simply a mercenary soldier in the pay of the Kriths,
but that made me no less a good soldier for King George. The interests
of King Geoege and the Kriths happened to coincide, which was damned
fortunate for George and his empire. So it seemed at the time, at least.
But then I was pretty ignorant in those days.
2
Change of Command
On the morning when all this began to change I was late rising. I didn't
do that very often -- sleep late -- but a group of us had consumed a
great quantity of gin the night before and my head ached like hell and
I was halfway sick to my stomach and, as they say, RHIP -- Rank Hath Its
Privileges. I was exercising those privileges, what there were of them,
when Tracy came stumbling into the dugout, urging me to get the hell
out of bed and into my uniform.
I waved him away sleepily, but threw back the cover and gingerly put my
feet on the burlap-covered earthen floor, carefully testing the ability
of my legs to support me.
"Blast it all, Eric," said Lieutenant Hillary Tracy -- whose real name
was Darc HonGlazz, but that was in another world. "Get your arse out of
that bloody bed. The muckin' colonel's coming round."
Yes, Tracy really talked that way. Well, of course, it was customary,
almost necessary for us to mimic the speech of the British we served
under, but I thought Tracy was carrying it a little too far.
"Cheerio, old son," I mumbled, mimicking Tracy more than the British,
and discovered to my surprise that I could stand up.
I glanced once around the dugout, saw nothing that was new, wished vainly
for a hot bath, and then reached for my pants, which hung on a peg driven
into the earthen wall beside my bunk.
The dugout that had been the home of Tracy, myself, and two other officers
for the past four and a half months was small and dark and damp, a cave
hacked out of the French soil a year or two earlier by another band of
British soldiers when they had held this area before. When the Imperial
Germans had taken the trenches from us the previous spring, I supposed
some of their officers had lived here, though it didn't look as if they
had done much to improve it. They had just existed here until fall,
when we had come in and driven them back out again. I wondered whether
Germans or British would be living here after the next big offensive or
counteroffensive or countercounteroffensive or whatever the hell the next
battle would be called at headquarters. That's the kind of war it was.
There were four bunks, little more than field cots; a table; three folding
chairs; a box that served as the fourth chair; a rickety wooden table
that the Germans had built the spring before; an old, battered, cracked
potbelly stove of prehistoric British origin; three carbide lanterns;
innumerable sandbags; and four footlockers. The dugout's single entrance
was covered by a moldy, moth-eaten old blanket that still, somehow,
carried the Imperial German insignia. The ceiling was supported by
rotten boards, beer-barrel staves, a hodgepodge of bits and pieces of
wood placed there to support the soggy earth above. Below, the cold,
damp, half-muddy floor was covered with burlap sacking, some British,
some Imperial, and even some that might have been of native French
origin. Come to think of it, that might have been the only thing in the
dugout, save for the earth itself, that was French. But then, there was
very little of France left anywhere after thirty-two years of war.
But the dugout was home. All the home that Tracy and I had anywhere.
We were both Timeliners.
"Hurry it up, Eric," Tracy said. "The colonel's aide just rang up to say
that the colonel is coming round with our replacements."
"Replacements?" I asked, coming awake at last, activating certain
artificial, circuits of my body that would bring me to a level of
awareness known to few men.
"Bloody well right," Tracy said in all seriousness.
"Oh, cut it out," I said. My head was still aching.
"Cut out what, old boy?"
"That bloody damned accent."
"We've got to stay in character."
"You're overdoing it."
Tracy snorted through his broad nose but didn't reply.
"Now what's this about replacements?" I asked, finally pulling on my
trousers, British issue, heavy woolen winter uniform, a dull, sick olive
that was as unpleasant a color as I could think of that morning.
"That's all I know, old boy," Tracy said. "The aide just said that the
colonel was coming round with our replacements first thing."
"Then where are we going?"
"Haven't the foggiest."
I found a poplin shirt that was relatively clean, though perhaps not neat
enough to suit the colonel, but since it was the best I had, it would
have to do. I pulled it on, stuffed it into my pants and said to Tracy,
"I can't say that I'm too surprised."
BOOK: At the Narrow Passage
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