Lundin arranged himself into a facsimile of parade rest and put on a serious face.

“What news from the Petronaut detachment?” LaMontina asked, his voice quiet and firm.

“Sirs Kelley and Mathias are doing well, Your Grace. A wounded, uh, corporal from the detachment reported that the peasants have been completely routed in the west, and the lakeside homes are clear.”

“Did they find a pentacle?” A balding commander with beaded grey mustaches interjected.

“No sign of enemy wizardry yet.”

All the officers murmured at that. LaMontina’s face fell ever so slightly, behind the façade of command. He tapped a finger meditatively on the rolled-out map, drumming on the green island in the center of the lake. “As feared, then, their wizard must be here.”

“Preparations to storm the island will be redoubled,” an officer said, gesturing to a black-clad courier, who bowed curtly and slipped away.

“The corporal said they’d cross the lake in ninety minutes,” Lundin reported, eyes flicking from face to face. Everyone looked so concerned; you’d think he’d just reported that the Army been routed, not the peasants. So what that there was a single wizard still unaccounted for? Were these hardened military men and women as superstitious as all that?

LaMontina traced a finger around the island on his map. “A great deal can happen in ninety minutes,” he whispered. “If only there was a way to make landfall sooner.”

Lundin wracked his brain, eager to offer help to the young commander. An idea struck him. “Your Grace? The Petronauts, Sirs Kelley and Mathias, might be able to thrust across the water before the rafts, depending on the distance and their ‘tum reserves,” Lundin offered. “Lead the charge, you know?”

“A kilometer from shoreline to this promontory,” LaMontina said, touching the northeastern edge of the island.

Lundin did some quick calculations in his head, and nodded. “They’d have to return on the rafts, but could almost certainly make it across.”

As the implication of Lundin’s words sunk in, the murmuring silenced. The Viscount stood, his officers giving him space as his wide eyes searched the technician’s face. “A one-way trip into the teeth of the enemy’s defenses,” he said, “in advance of conventional support. Would your masters consent to such an endeavor?”

Lundin looked back at the young commander. “If you say it’s necessary, Your Grace, to neutralize that wizard in time,” he replied quietly, “I’m sure you only have to give the order.”

“Thrusting that far over the water? Damned magical themselves, these Petronauts,” one of the officers said, shaking her head in amazement.

“What I wouldn’t give for a hundred like them,” the balding man agreed.

LaMontina chose his words with measured authority. “I, for one, consider it a privilege to command these brave two, and their technicians.” he said, extending his ungloved hand across the table, a smile in his eyes.

He clasped Lundin’s hand firmly. Lundin basked in the glow of his leaderly approval.

“You told him what?” Samanthi hissed, minutes later, giving Lundin a shove.

Lundin folded his arms and leaned further back into the corner, away from the nearest black-and-gold officer. “The truth,” he whispered defensively. “Kelley and Mathias almost certainly have enough petrolatum to thrust across to the island.”

“‘Almost certainly?’’ So, you admit there’s a chance they run out of ‘tum halfway to the island and just plunge into the water in full combat gear. What about the chance archers take them out as they thrust? Or once they reach land with no fuel? Or once they reach the lake house? Or that they die at the hands of the deadly wizard? Any of these probabilities interest you, Horace? Why don’t we run ‘em through the Abacus?”

“You leave Abby out of this,” Lundin said, sulking.

“You leave me out of this,” she retorted, flicking his ear. He yelped. “You’re delivering the good news to Sir Kelley,” Samanthi said.

“I’d like to point out that you’re the senior tech.”

“Right. And as the senior tech, I’m officially letting you take the fall for your own flaming screw-up,” Samanthi Elena said, pulling her sandy hair back from her round face. She tied it back and turned to

the purring Abacus. “Consider it training. Put those there,” she said to a courier arriving with the latest supply figures from the quartermaster.

The courier saluted and set the shallow crate, overflowing with tan cards, on the carpeted floor of the pavilion. The tan cards were dotted with shorthand and symbols in regular patterns, quick reports from officers across the camp on everything from the quantity of blackpowder remaining to the current condition of all the horses. Lundin grabbed a stack of cards and fed them into the waiting slot of the Congregator, a hissing machine with ferocious metallic prongs jutting upwards and outwards, like tusks. A column of blank pink cards was affixed to the side of the machine, contained by thin glass walls. The tan cards Lundin fed with lazy familiarity into the top had symbols designed for human eyes. The Congregator would translate them into the language the Abacus understood best—sequences of open holes and closed spaces. The needle-thin punching teeth hidden inside the Congregator would punch out pink card after pink card and spit them along the horizontal prongs, where Lundin would retrieve them. The pink cards, brimming with the same data in a new, Abacus-friendly format, would be fed into the great machine. And the techs could perform any number of operations on the newly encoded dataset. Once the process was complete, Abby would tell the Army the state of their inventory faster than a team of clerks ever could.

On the other side of the Abacus, Samanthi grabbed a blank blue program card, several times larger than the tan data cards, and turned to the press. Lundin shifted his weight, not eager to make the call to Sir Kelley. “You know what?” he said instead. “I’d love to see what Abby has to say about the odds of Kelley and Mathias taking out some drug-addled wizard. What’s your wager? 98 percent success rate? 100 percent? Margin of error of a big fat zero?”

“Don’t underestimate magicians,” Samanthi said, shifting the miniscule type on the press.

“They are as far under as I can estimate them. I mean, Sam, look at the buffoon we’ve got here. What’s his name, Jellmik?”

They briefly looked across the pavilion. Through a cloud of incense, they could see the wizard hugging his dirty knees to his chest and rocking back and forth. One of his bracelets was in his mouth. The two technicians shook their heads.

“His name’s not Jellmik,” Samanthi said.

“What is it, then?”

“How should I know? It’s hard to strike up a conversation with a guy who’s eating his own jewelry.”

“I just think,” Lundin said, grabbing his own pile of figures from the crate, “that if this hypothetical enemy wizard is anything like our man here, LaMontina has less than nothing to worry about.”

“Not hypothetical. Field agents scouted this place out, and it’s documented that Verrure has a wizard, and she’s on the side of the rebellion. And with the extra something she’s got, Horace, if she’s any good at all, she’s a real threat to the Viscount.”

Lundin made a face. Yes, LaMontina had undergone a leech treatment before beginning the campaign. Yes, traitorous conscripts had attacked the orderly on his way to dispose of the leeches, and had taken the bloodsuckers prisoner. Yes, the traitors most likely fled to Verrure with the leeches. So the wizard had a quantity of LaMontina’s blood, and it was only a few days old. Even if you accepted conventional wisdom that magic was more likely to work if you had personal artifacts related to your subject, the chance some peasant wizard with a vial of half-digested blood could do any harm to Viscount LaMontina in his pavilion kilometers away was… miniscule? Laughable? Negligible? Which word says it best? Lundin considered.

“I don’t blame His Grace for taking it seriously,” he said, removing old tan cards from their slots on the other side of Abby, and replacing them from the crate of up-to-date cards. The used cards he tossed into a silver bucket full of liquid—the Pickle—where they hissed and bubbled gently. The cards would soften and disintegrate into pulp, ready to be reconstituted and pressed into blank, fresh cards as needed in the future. “He wants this campaign to go perfectly. But if Viscount LaMontina was really concerned for his safety? He wouldn’t be this close to the front line!”

“A commander staying twenty kilometers from the front, on his first independent campaign. That’d look great to the Regents,” Samanthi said evenly from the press, setting the last peg in place. She laid the

blue card onto its plate and swung the type down, to the soft sound of fiber being punctured. The press inscribed a series of operations on the punch card, notated in line after line of holes and closed spaces. Each blue card had eighty lines, of which Abby’s reader could process seventy-two. The last eight helped identify each card so the techs had a prayer of keeping them in order. A single misplaced card would throw off the entire program. For the techs, it was the stuff of nightmares to have to shuffle through an entire stack of cards to find out which one was out of place. So Samanthi was painstakingly careful as she swapped the new cards for the old ones. When she was done, Samanthi would get to pull a big, satisfying lever—the perks of being senior tech—and the program would execute. Nine short minutes later, the computing box would print a comprehensive, to-the-minute report on the state of supply in LaMontina’s camp.

‘Abacus’ was a deliberately ironic name. The Petronauts knew that this state-of-the-art machine was as far from an abacus as a six-pounder cannon was from a sharpened rock.

Samanthi looked at Lundin. “His Grace is taking a calculated risk. The danger here is real; small, but real; and he’s doing his job regardless, because he’s brave. And you, junior technician, are not doing your job right now because you’re a gutless squab. Now put the damn cards down, call Sir Kelley and tell him what a fun mission you volunteered us for.”

Lundin opened his mouth, then bit his lip. Samanthi was right, of course. He had to call Sir Kelley now, just as surely as he should have kept his mouth shut when the risky idea had struck him. It was just that LaMontina had needed help, and for once in this campaign he’d wanted to feel like he was really contributing a new idea, a new strategy to the discussion—

“Behold— the disks! The disks!”

All eyes in the pavilion turned. The wizard was on his feet, gnashing his teeth, with tears pouring from his eyes. His voice was booming with rage and fear. One long finger was stretched as straight as a pike, pointing above the Viscount’s table to the wizardly white disks hanging from the beams—

Lundin blinked. The white disks were turning black.

Like a fire nibbling at the edges of a sheet of paper, blackness was spreading from the outside in on each of the four disks. LaMontina looked up at the dangling circles, his eyes darting from one to the next. “Wizard! What does this mean?” he snapped.

“Peril, oh Graceful One!” the sorcerer wailed. “A spell approaches. Close your mind and make the Sign of Warding!”

After a brief hesitation, LaMontina curled his second and middle fingers into his palm and raised his hand to his chest in the half-remembered gesture everyone learned in childhood. One of his officers took him by the arm.

”Your Grace, we must remove you to safety now!”

“A courier horse has been waiting for this moment. Ride fifteen kilometers distant and no magic can touch you.”

“No!” bellowed the wizard, falling heavily to the ground as if his legs had been swept from under him. He looked up, his face stained with the purple sand from his design, and raised two claw-like hands towards the Viscount. Everyone stepped away from the man involuntarily. “No time! Graceful One, Man-Child, He of the Rearing Bull, your life now rests in my hands. Room! Room!”

In response to the wizard’s frantic gestures, and LaMontina’s confirmation, the officers stepped away. Under the copper light of the whale-oil lamp, the Viscount stood alone behind his desk. The four disks ringing him were no longer white, but halfway obscured by crawling threads of black. Lundin stared at the transforming disks, mesmerized. What’s the trick? How’s the wizard controlling his little decorations?

A rough hand on his shoulder shook him back to reality. The balding commander in black-and-gold was pointing a finger in his face. “Technician! Are your masters in position?”

Two other officers were towering over him, with the urgent menace of strong men who feel helpless. “I—” he stumbled over his own tongue. “I haven’t transmitted His Grace’s order yet.”

The officers swore. “Get the Petronauts to that island this instant. We need to find and kill this flaming wizard before the spell finishes.”

Lundin threw a salute so sharply he almost brained himself. He staggered to the cluttered heap of Petronaut equipment and, with a mighty heave, lifted the Communicator out of its case. Lundin set the boxy device roughly onto the crate of paperwork. Two fluted tin speech trumpets stood up straight from the box like daffodils, and a curled crank near the base rose up like a squirrel’s tail. Lundin grabbed the crank with both hands. He began turning it as fast as he could, seeing the dial spark with power. “Thirty seconds, at least, until you can make a transmission,” Samanthi said, snapping her fingers as her mind whirled. “I’ll get the booster antenna; this message needs to reach Kelley.”

Lundin just nodded as she began assembling the antenna, trying to concentrate on each turn of the crank. But his eyes went back to the disks. What was that blackness?

Across the room, the wizard screamed, and kicked his bare feet through each line of his diamond design. Sand went flying in showers of black, crimson and purple. He grabbed the sticks of burning incense and snapped them in two, and then in two again, seemingly unconscious of the smoldering fire pressing against his hands. He flung the wooden shards to the ground and stripped off his vest. Nearly naked now, he lay down on his back atop the splinters of incense and screeched, “Stay strong, Graceful One!”

Lundin glanced down at the dial as he cranked. Ten more seconds. He raised his head, and caught sight of Viscount LaMontina looking back at him. Standing still with his hand raised awkwardly to his chest in the Sign of Warding, and his ornate black-and-crimson armor undented by battle, he looked like a statue. His youthful face, though, was alive with emotion; confusion, regret, concern, and at this point, a trace of fear. But then that sheepish smile Lundin had only seen once or twice before crept onto his face, almost as if to say he couldn’t believe himself to be the center of so much fuss.

“Mister Lundin,” the Viscount said, his voice quiet and calm. Lundin swallowed and nodded. “Have you called the Petronauts?”

The dial was glowing dully; a passably full charge, at last. He flicked the switch, snatched the telescoping stalk of the thinner trumpet and drew it upwards to his lips. “Transmitting now, Your Grace,” he said. Samanthi stabbed the base of the antenna into its socket on the side of the Communicator, and handed the conical, corded earpiece to Lundin. He raised it to his ear, hearing only the grey, fuzzy sound of an incomplete connection. Who knew how much time would pass before Sir Kelley would respond to the signal.

He took a deep breath, and looked back into LaMontina’s eyes. Time stretched out. “Don’t worry, Your Grace. Help is on the way,” Lundin said in a quavering voice, his emotions surprising him.

The young nobleman shifted his shoulders and stood to his full, proud height, his eyes clear. “I’m not worried,” he said in a soft voice that filled the entire pavilion.

And then, as four black disks came fluttering down from the ceiling, Viscount LaMontina burst into flames.

    ……………………………….. chapter 2 continues next week