Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 20th Edition

University of Chicago Press, 1998

 

MARS: History of Observation

 

The lack of the consistent layer of high cloud which rendered earth-based telescopic investigation of Venus so difficult was partially offset by the small size of Mars and the rarity of close approaches. By the early nineteenth century, astronomers such as Herschel and Schroeter had determined the size, axial inclination, and seasons of the red planet. The presence of polar ice caps and the distinct yearly changes in their dimensions argued for a basically Earthlike world. However, the small size and poor definition of available refractors long delayed further definitive conclusions as to the surface features of Mars, although in the 1830's Beer and Mädler accurately located the Sinus Meridiani and determined a rotational period close to the true one.

Over the next two generations, several other features were discovered, among them the Hourglass Sea, and the seasonal fluctuations in ice cover on the North Polar Sea. The Jesuit scholar Angelo Secchi, director of the observatory of the Collegio Romano in Rome, conclusively proved the existence of continents and seas during the opposition of 1858, a result confirmed by the British astronomer William Rutter Davies in 1864. The investigations of Giovanni Schiaparelli in the next thirty years discovered and began the mapping of the Martian canals.

These were extended and refined by the American Percival Lowell, beginning with his Arizona expedition for the opposition of 1894, and confirmed by E.M. Antoniadi in the same period. Lowell also made the first relatively accurate calculation of the density of the Martian atmosphere; the first positive though still ambiguous and disputed evidence of oxygen and water vapor was discovered by Walter S. Adams and Theodore Dunham, who attached a spectroscope to the 100-inch reflector at Mt. Wilson Observatory in the 1930's.

Conclusive proof that Mars had an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere similar to Earth's, though somewhat less massive, was produced by Gerard Peter Kuiper at the McDonald Observatory in Texas in 1947. Since it was now widely appreciated that free oxygen can only be a by-product of biological action, this evidence removed the last serious objections to Lowell's theory that the canals were a product of intelligent design, and created intense worldwide interest...

 

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Mars, City of Zar-tu-Kan

May 1st, 2000 AD.

 

Jeremy Wainman grinned to himself as they followed the two Martians towards the Alliance consulate. Most people his age knew what a Martian city looked like, but...

Or they think they do. They haven't lived it. I hadn't, until now. They haven't felt it or smelled it.

He'd been born near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and raised there and points south before being selected for the Academy in Colorado Springs. Zar-tu-kan reminded him of Sedona, down in Arizona—if you could imagine the colored buttes and cliffs as made by hands and minds, rather than by eroding wind and sand. Those forces had smoothed and rounded here too, until every sharp edge had blurred; the streets of Zar-tu-kan felt like random alleyways laid out by the wanderings of ancient Martian burros through a maze of low cliffs stippled in a faded rainbow of colors.

They weren't; computer analysis had shown subtle planning, something like the deep patterns you got in a fractal... or it might be the result of constant minor adjustments over inconceivable lengths of time. The tall, blank walls of melted-looking stone on either side were mostly close, but they waved and curved like frozen water, usually giving you a place to step aside when a caravan of tall, spindly, hairy beasts laden with huge pack-saddles went by, or a rider mounted on a rakza, something that might have been a big ostrich, except for the thick neck and massive hooked beak.

The rakza screeched and shook its head as a wagon blocked its path for a moment, flicking up the crest of green-gold feathers on its long skull, until the rider gave a sharp tug on the reins. A pair of patrollers paused at the sound; they rode on self-propelled unicycles, with dart-rifles slung over their backs and helmets with eyes on stalks peering rearward, ready to warn their masters of attack. When they saw the incident would die of its own accord, they leaned forward and pedaled, swaying and turning to weave through the traffic.

Now and then they passed a doorway, which might be blank or elaborately carved wood with the sinuous glyphs the Crimson Dynasty had made the planet's standard script, or cast with designs in imperishable frosted crystal, sometimes in styles so old that the Martians themselves had forgotten what they meant. Zar-tu-kan had been a city before the Kings Beneath the Mountains began their rise half a world away. Fine lines showed against the sky, where anti-bird nets strung between the upper stories made sure no migrating predators would drop in for a snack.

Most of the passers-by were natives of the city or its dependent territories, with their hair in elaborate coils to denote occupation and status, and vertical stripes on their robes—farmer, smith, artisan, soldier, clerk, and occupations that had no precise Terran equivalent.

A scattering were from much further away: Highlanders even more eerily elongated than the standard Martians and barrel-chested, goggles over their eyes, Wai Zang mercenaries in glittering black armor and visors with the faceted eyes of insects, and students in carved masks abstract or whimsical or bestial, come to study at the Scholarium.

Sometimes the alleys opened out into an oblong space surrounded by shops and service-trades, their clear, glassine windows showing their wares. Atanj-players looked up from their boards and spheres of essence as the Terrans walked by—and it wasn't easy to pry a Martian loose from their equivalent of chess. Shoppers looked up too.

And I wouldn't mind shopping here, Jeremy thought. Usually he was bored stiff by it, but that was in the hypermarkets back home. Here...

Flaps of artfully arranged rooz meat looked a little like beef; red-purple canal shrimp swam in globular bowls and huddled back in tight knots when a storekeeper dipped a net in their tank; there were piles of mysterious vegetables and others of breads like fluffy pancakes... And there were other merchants with fabrics, weapons, tools, jewelry, animals of scores of specialized uses, the Martian books with their narrow pages bound at the tops...

Fliers passed by overhead; towers reared impossible heights into the pink-blue sky like skyscrapers in Manhattan, and above it all, the two small moons passed like rapid stars. It was nearly twenty years since the first Terrans had come out of the desert to the city, but they still attracted a fair bit of attention—though only the children showed it openly. They ranged from knee-high to almost grown, and the younger ones gaped and pointed and gave peals of shrill laughter.

"Cute little tykes," Jeremy said as they passed a knot of them where two of the narrow streets intersected.

They were playing a game much like atanj, but with themselves for pieces. When the commander of one team maneuvered two of his pieces onto a single one of the other side, they gleefully pummeled each other. Atanj was supposed to be an analogue of war, like chess, but they took that more literally here.

"Don't let the big eyes fool you," Sally said, and then shouted in Martian, "Don't even think about it!" as one of a slightly older group bent to pick up something unpleasant.

He—probably he, it was hard to tell when everyone was muffled up, and anyway Martians were less sexually dimorphic than Terrans—continued to bend for ammunition. Teyud wheeled to face him and flicked her right hand. Something like a small disk with curled spikes along its edge appeared between finger and thumb, and her hand cocked back with lazy grace. The atanj teams dove out of the way, squealing.

Woah! Jeremy thought. Let's not let things get out of hand!

He tensed his leg muscles and jumped. The results sent the little almost-mob of nearly-adolescents scattering, as he soared through the air as if launched by a hydraulic catapult. Twisting, he landed in front of the fleeing would-be dung-thrower, forcing him to backpedal furiously and nearly drop on his butt to stop. The boy's eyes were bulging with surprise through the slit in his headdress. Jeremy didn't give him any time to recover, or to go for the various unpleasant devices undoubtedly concealed under his ragged robe. One hand gripped the back of his neck, the other at his belt, and the Terran pivoted and threw.

He'd had six months practice with Martian gravity. The boy flew ten yards, arms and legs kicking, to land neatly in a two-wheeled cart filled with the droppings of various draught-beasts. Those were a lot drier and fluffier than their Earthly equivalents; a big cloud of pungent brownish dust shot skyward. The boy tumbled out of it a few moments later, coughing and retching and beating at his garments. He stopped a moment to make three comprehensively obscene gestures at Jeremy, then took to his heels.

"Sub-optimal random breeding," Teyud said, insulting the fleeing boy more than an avalanche of scatology could have done. "It would be public-spirited to cull him before he reproduces."

"Please do not kill anyone unless it is necessary to protect us," Sally said. "That is a categorical instruction."

"Reluctant agreement," Teyud said, then shrugged and slid the spiked throwing disk back to its place in her sleeve.

For the rest, the crowds' reaction was sidelong glances and low murmurs—and they were low indeed, pitched for the more efficient ears evolved in this thin air.

You know, Jeremy thought, watching as Teyud za-Zhalt swayed along ahead of them, She really moves beautifully. Different from most Martians—she doesn't give you that sense she'd fly away in a high breeze, even though shedoes look like someone took her by the neck and ankles and stretched her by about twenty percent.

They came to a larger open space. One side of it was semicircular, a smooth olive-green wall twenty feet high that vanished behind buildings on either side and that he knew made a circle over a mile around. Above that rose a glassine dome, and through it, he could see the tops of trees. A central tower reared gigantic in its center, but the fliers clustered around its thousand-foot peak were all warcraft in the red and black markings of the Despotate, the local government. Traffic was brisk over the russet-colored pavement, save where they swerved around a crew at work repairing a worn section.

Several De'ming shoveled crushed rock from a wagon into the maws of creatures like twelve-foot furry bricks with stubby legs and flat paddle-like scaly tails. A third of their length was mouth, studded with dozens of thick square black teeth around a muscular purple tongue. They caught the gravel and began to crunch it down with every sign of enjoyment; the sound was like a man eating celery, but a thousand times louder and with a metallic overtone.

Some had already been fed, and lay on their bellies with an occasional contented belch. A circle of children crouched to watch and giggled with disgusted delight as the animals turned and projectile-vomited into the hole in the pavement in unison. A thick, vile, sour-smelling yellow sludge filled the hole, and the beasts turned at the foreman's urging and smoothed it flat with their tails. By the time the Terrans and their guides walked by, the surface was already hardening and turning a slightly lighter shade of reddish-brown than the rest as the crew moved on to the next gap.

"Did you ever hear the expression tough enough to eat iron and shit nails? Sally said.

"Yeah," Jeremy began. Then he looked at her. "You don't mean..."

"Near enough," she said. "Near enough."

Ahead of them, gold-robed warriors with masks like the faces of mantises and long ceremonial spears of translucent crystal stood before the huge circular gate of the fastness, graven with the solar disk. Above it was a symbol that looked like a figure eight laid on its side, surrounded by a glyph in the High Speech of ancient times. Sh'u Maz: Sustained Harmony, from time out of mind the motto of anyone who wished to claim the status of Acknowledged Ruler.

A much smaller portal accommodated the real traffic. The guards beside it carried swords and dart-pistols, and one of them held a beast on a leash. It looked a little like a dog, perhaps a starved, elongated greyhound with teeth like a shark and a high forehead and disturbingly versatile paws. All four of the party stood while it approached and sniffed them over.

"Ssssstrannnngeee, master," it whined to its handler, growling a little. "Ssmmmeelll sssstrannngee."

"Are they on the list?" the bored trooper asked, giving the leash a jerk and waving a collection of strips of cloth bearing the scents of those authorized to enter the central dome.

"Yesss."

"Pass, then."

The door rolled aside as the beast went and flattened itself on the ground beside the guard, watching them walk by with slitted eyes. Sally and Jeremy turned and shook hands.

"Tomorrow at the docks," Sally said. "Tomorrow," Teyud said. "I anticipate our joint labors."

 

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Mars, City of Dvor Il-Adazar (Olympus Mons)

Palace of Restful Contemplation

February 1st, 2000 AD.

 

Genomic Prince Heltaw sa-Veynau watched the children running silently through the gardens beneath the dome, weaving in among tall, slender trees whose trunks bore masses of flowering vines, their blooms trumpets of orange and crimson and purple-striped white. The thick, dense mat of vegetation beneath their feet was soft ochre fibers, a strain that had once been nearly as common as atmosphere plant, but which in these times was rare far from the Mountain. The mountainside bowl that cupped the palace gardens rose beyond and all around, parts left rough in the native reddish tufa veined with black and gold, others carved in the fanciful elongated animal style common in the Orchid Consort Period, eight thousand years ago.

A small fountain burbled within a column of glassine, and birds like flying jewels trilled the songs for which his remote ancestors had designed them. He had followed his customary program before making important decisions: a light breakfast, a bout of sword practice with his trainer, para-reproductive coitus with his partner, and a period of nonreflective contemplation.

Now it was very restful to lie here as the recliner gently massaged his back and smell the wadar incense and watch the children at play under the careful eye of their nannydog; they were his sister's offspring, and he had none of his own... not yet... despite being well into middle age, sixty years this spring.

Or a hundred and twenty, as the Wet Worlders reckon it, he thought; they had been much on his mind of late. Reproduction, in my position, would have been evidence of unseemly presumption, or, to phrase the matter more bluntly, suicidal.

The captain of his guards waited, taking knee as court slang had it—on his right knee, with the scabbard of his sword in his gloved left hand, and the right on his left thigh. His personal Coercives wore black robe and hood, and unmarked harness; he believed it conveyed a sense of disciplined seriousness, in contrast to the ironic detachment or frivolous archaism so common here in the City That Was A Mountain.

"Competitive patience is a trying form of contest in this regressive era," he remarked.

"Query, Prince Heltaw?" the soldier said.

"I characterize my contest with the Supremacy. The Emperor is among the most skillful practitioners of waiting the Crimson Dynasty has ever produced. So skillful that it is never entirely certain that he is, in fact, waiting and not merely mired in sloth and resignation."

"Prince, I would not care to wager anything with which I would grieve to part on the latter hypothesis."

"Neither would I," Heltaw said dryly. "Especially not after the little display with the Terrans earlier this year."

"The pumps, Prince?"

"Correct," he said. To himself, You are perceptive. Perhaps troublingly so? No, merely competent.

"No other of the Tollamunes has actually increased the available water resources for a very long time indeed," he went on. "And to do so with the tembst of the vaz-Terranan, which is accessible only through him... and to exhibit the anomalous Terran who did not arrive as the others... yes, that was quite skillful. It will give those who might otherwise hasten the succession pause for thought, and give credence to his claim to restore Sustained Harmony."

"Yet in a contest of patience, you possess the matchless advantage of comparative youth, Prince," the guardsman pointed out. "Since neither you nor the Supremacy have close and immediate heirs, this would appear to be a balance which can only tilt in your favor. Sh'u Maz is impossible where succession is not clear."

"Unless one of us were to have an heir," Heltaw said. "If I had done so prior to this date, my demise would have been unfortunate, widely received with grief, accidental... and entirely certain."

The guardsman's hand moved in a spare ironic gesture, an acknowledgement of the humor. "Given the length of time in which the demise of the Supremacy has been anticipated, the same might be said of him. Leaving aside capacity, surely he would not be in a position to socialize an heir to maturity."

"I have obtained news from my sources in Zar-tu-Kan," Heltaw said quietly. "A Thoughtful Grace mercenary by the name of Teyud za-Zhalt has been engaged to command the landship and escort of two vaz-Terranan savants seeking the lost city of Rema-Dza. This person is not at all as she appears."

In the narrow slit of the headdress, the Coercive's eyes widened slightly. Heltaw approved; the man would be useless if he required long explanations.

"Kill, capture or incapacitate?" he said.

"Capture, if possible. Kill only if essential to prevent escape. Keep a full sustainment kit ready to prolong the life of a reproductive sump of the body if killing is necessary, or at the very least to preserve viable ova. This is a formidable individual; take all precautions. Also, at least two other groups will be seeking to preempt you."

"I will begin the necessary research immediately, Prince," the guardsman said.

"A unit of Paiteng will be made available," Heltaw said. "You will, to a high degree of probability, have a very narrow window of opportunity. When you strike, strike swiftly. You are, of course, not the only resource tasked with this mission."

An eyebrow went up. "You have made an open offer, Superior, rather than entrusting the task solely to your permanently affiliated Coercives?"

"There are several offers concerning this individual, at least one other of which I know simply for delivery of the detached head. It is the reproductive organs that are my optimum target, preferably attached to a living body. Hence, I have let it be known that a larger reward is available for a capture in order to present disincentives for entrepreneurial activity contrary to my interests. I cannot, of course, prevent freelance individuals and groups from contesting the matter."

"This is a straightforward and sensible course, Superior."

"I will, of course, pay a substantial bonus above the stated open reward if the personnel you lead accomplish this task to my satisfaction," Heltaw said. "My personally affiliated Coercives justly anticipate treatment more favorable than temporary employees."

"As always, you optimize incentives, Superior. As you order, we will endeavor most earnestly to accomplish—subject to event and randomness."

When the Coercive had left, Heltaw reached out and took a biscuit from the table with the incense burner, warming and scenting it briefly over the flame before nibbling at it. The time for patience would soon end, but until then...

The Prince smiled slightly to himself as one of his nieces stood, laughing at the half-dozen birds that perched on her slender arms and sang counterpoint to each other.

Until then I must be patient. Or my lineage will die to the seventh degree.

That was as far as the Expeditors could push a purge; he was in the eighth degree from the Ruby Throne himself. Officially, there was none closer.

 

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Mars, City of Zar-tu-Kan

May 1st, 2000 AD.

 

"Do you know anyone who wishes to inflict harm on the Terrans?" Teyud asked as she and the spice merchant turned away from the portal to the inner city.

"No," Jelzhau said.

His ears cocked forward as he turned his head towards her. "Do you suspect malicious conspiracy?"

She frowned slightly, scanning the crowd in the plaza. It could be compulsive suspicion... but then, compulsive suspicion was a survival characteristic in the greater world as well as in Dvor Il-Adazar.

"I suspect that we were followed. By relays of very skilled operatives."

Zelzhau pursed his lips. "I will have enquiries made. Losing the profits of their trade would grieve me to the point of melancholy."

Or perhaps they are on my trail again, Teyud thought.

It was an unpleasant and surprising speculation, but not one that could be disregarded.

Randomness has a fortunate configuration in that case; I will be voyaging to the Deep Beyond with the vaz-Terranan. One can see a menace more clearly away from a city's crowds.

"Though," he went on, "I anticipate with gladness the end of close association with the hideous things."

Teyud absently adopted a pose that acknowledged the remark without commenting on it. Sally Yamashita was indeed very strange-looking, at one moment like a dwarf, at another like an aged child. Jeremy Wainman, on the other hand...

One could very nearly call him handsome. And he has a pleasantly effervescent personality.

 

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The US Consulate had once been a local notable's city palace. It did duty for the Commonwealth and OAS countries and Japan as well; their flags flew over its front entrance. It wasn't particularly large, about the size of the White House, and like most buildings under the dome it was built in a light, airy style in total contrast to the blank massiveness of most of Zar-Tu-Kan outside, all tall slender columns and translucent window-doors and balconies.

Robert Holmegard and his wife Dolores, who was also his assistant and a biologist of note, gave dinner for the explorers on a balcony of clear crystal supported by two curving braces of the same material shaped like slender snakes, nerve-wrackingly fragile-seeming if you didn't know the strength of the stuff.

To the stomach it was still nerve-wracking, particularly since it was sixty feet to the tough reddish-green sward that made up the roadway below. Even in one-third gravity that was a long way.

"God, it's good to see some Terran faces," Holmgard said.

"Yeah," Dolores said. "I knew I'd been here too long when I read the latest Newsweek and wondered which candidate for President was going to establish the most Sh'u Maz."

Her husband chuckled and shuddered at the same time. "It's been months! I know there were storms, but..."

Jeremy shuddered a little in turn. Storms didn't begin to describe what the Martian polar winter was like—and seasons lasted twice as long on this planet. Sometimes more, if you were unlucky enough to be in the hemisphere that got the downside of the eccentric orbit that time 'round. It gave you a lot of time to brush up on your research and perfect your game of atanj—though no Terran had yet become more than mediocre at it.

"Bob, we came as soon as we could," Sally said soothingly. "And we've got that disk from Susie and Joyce."

The Holmgards both brightened and stuck the disk into the reader on the table; it was a bit of incongruously homey Texas Instruments bluntness amid the stretched elegance of Martian glassware. The screen came alive and showed two children of twelve and ten, their looks halfway between Robert Holmgard's hulking blond Minnesota-Swede and his wife's dark Peruvian-Spanish delicacy.

Jeremy paid attention to the entertainment while they listened to the message: Not far away a bird the size of a six-year-old sat on a perch and sang a song with a haunting minor-key melody, now and then making sounds like wind-chimes to accompany itself, and moving wings like living Tiffany glass in time to the music it made.

"Dammit, we should have a fiber-optic cable between here and the base by now," Holmgard said, turning off the message and sighing. "Given what the weather does to radio."

Jeremy nodded. That had been tried once, and had failed at hideous expense—there were limits to what the USASF budget could bear, especially now that the first flush of wonder had worn off and the voters weren't quite so enchanted with pouring tens of billions yearly into space. And the peculiarities of the Martian atmosphere limited wireless bandwidth.

The Holmgards tore themselves away from their children's disk with commendable speed and devoted themselves to their hostly duties. Jeremy speared a strip of grilled rooz and nibbled it; despite the fact that it came from a bird—more or less—it didn't taste at all like chicken. A bit like beef, a bit like pork with a soupcon of shrimp, meltingly tender and spiced with something that tasted like a cross between garlic and chili with a hint of flowers. There was a heat to it that hit you after a moment of hesitation, like slow-motion napalm.

Although it's better not to remember it's cooked over dung fires, he thought, taking a drink of water that had a slightly metallic taste.

Granted, the animal in question essentially shat thumb-sized pieces of pure charcoal, but the thought was still a bit off-putting if you dwelt on it.

"Okay, let's go over your mission," Bob Holmgard said.

He touched the screen with fingers that were thick, muscular and nimble. A map of Mars sprang up, then narrowed down to the section around Zar-tu-Kan; it was the product of satellite photography combined with local knowledge.

"If your interpretation of the chronicles is right, there's not much doubt that the lost city of Rema-Dza is around here," he said. "Out where the dead canal runs. But that's bad country—dust storms, nomads, God-knows-what. Keep in close touch. Even the atmosphere plant dies out there sometimes."

Jeremy and Sally nodded soberly. That low-growing, waxy-leaved plant was the Martian equivalent of grass... and also, ecologically, of oceanic plankton; it kept the oxygen content of the air up. It had a fantastically efficient version of photosynthesis, grew nearly everywhere, and stood at the bottom of nearly every food chain. An area too hostile for it was likely to be bleak indeed, even by this dying planet's standards.

Holmgard poured essence into their cups. The purple liquid glowed faintly as it made a graceful low-gravity arc, with motes moving within it. Stars shone many and very bright through the dome above, making the mild springlike temperature—tropical warmth to Martians—seem like the small bubble of life it was, in a universe coldly inimical. The gasbags of floatlights shone as well, a light cooler than electrics and tinged with red, circling the building as they sculled themselves along with feathered limbs. Things rustled and clicked in the dense groves and gardens that separated the mansions and palaces of Zar-tu-Kan's inner zone.

"And on that cheerful note—"

 

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Teyud za-Zhalt finished her last inspection of the Intrepid Traveler as the sun rose eastward behind the highlands. The air was slightly cool, just enough to leave a rime of frost on exposed stone, and the din and clatter of the port sounded sharp through it.

The landship was a sixty-footer with a central hold and two internal decks fore and aft; a hundred and fifty tons burden, which made her medium-sized. Old but sound, with a single hundred-foot mast and an auxiliary engine that could supply enough hydraulic pressure to the rear axle motors to move the craft at better than walking pace in a pinch. The layout was standard for a vessel of her size, with one fixed axle at the rear, another amidships and a longer pivoting one forward. Axles, mast and spars were single-crystal growths; unfortunately there was no way of telling how old they were—the slight yellowish tinge to the clear flexible material simply meant that they weren't new.

They could be a hundred years from the plantations and good for another thousand, or a thousand and likely to go to dust at any moment. Bearings, cables and sails all looked reliable, and there was a good ring-mounted darter on the quarterdeck.

The crew...

She grimaced very slightly at the score of them: a collection of scar-faced toughs, tokmar addicts with a faint quiver to their hands, and obvious lowbreeds. One was nearly noseless, with nasal slits that closed and opened nervously, and he had a russet-brown hue to his skin, some sort of hybrid from the deep deserts. They stood waiting, a few working on their personal gear or playing atanj, while De'ming trotted from the stone wharf across the boarding rams to stow bundles of dried meat and asu-fruit, ceramic casks of pickled eggs, ammunition and gun-food, spare cable and stores of a dozen kinds down to glow-rods and blood-builders. Half a dozen of the little sub-sapient laborers went and squatted on the foredeck when the loading was finished; she'd bought those for the usual tasks. Ordinary workers attached a hose to fill the tanks; this district had a water tower and pressure in the mains.

Several of the crew came more erect as they felt her gaze. She knew that a yellow-eyed stare was disconcerting. Old legends spoke of it. Others remained dully indifferent, and one kept chewing on a kevaut on a stick he'd bought from a vendor with a portable grill, spitting out bits of carapace as he sucked out the last shreds of flesh.

"What do you think of the engine?" she said to the hireling who had an engineer's hairdo.

"Middle-aged, and the temperature is just a little higher than I'd like, so I would advise not straining it," the hatchet-faced woman said. She was short as well, a full foot shorter than Teyud's seven-foot-two. Shaking her head, she went on, "But it's of a good local budding strain, it doesn't cough or have the runs, the tentacles are well-bonded to the cranks, and it's been adequately fed and the sludge-tanks are full. As long as we eat and our bowels function, it won't starve. I'd rather replace the drive-train gearing and put new bearing-races on all axles before starting a long trip, but all should function for the next few months."

Exactly my own analysis. Zelzhau didn't try to cheat us. Extraordinary. Even more extraordinary, this Baid tu-Or seems to know her work. I wonder why she wants to get out of Zar-tu-Kan badly enough to sign with us. At least she will probably play an acceptable game; I have yet to meet one of the vaz-Terranan worth setting up the board for.

A little reassured, she checked that all six of the addicts had sufficient tokmar to last out the trip; of all the fates available, being trapped in the wilds with a tokmar sniffer deprived of his or her daily dose was one of the least attractive.

One didn't have enough, and asked for an advance to buy; she simply let her hand fall to the hilt of her dart pistol and looked at him until he shuffled off. That one didn't have much longer to live. The tremor was turning into jerks, and the mental effects of his habit had obviously gotten beyond the point of mere recklessness—nobody but the reckless would have signed up for this cruise—to outright loss of survival instinct.

"Now listen to me, you fodder for the recycling vats," she said, pitching her voice to carry and using the Imperative-Condescentative tense. "I have no interest in how you feel about the vaz-Terranan, as long as you fear me as you do personal extinction. Do you?"

"We fear you exceedingly, even to the relaxation of sphincters!" they chorused, in the convictive-metaphorical tense; honestly, she thought, except possibly for the hybrid with the nostril slits and the long bow over his shoulder. "You are pain and death in sapient form!"

"Good. Maintain an attitude of terrified submission and harmony will be sustained. Suddri, Xax, Taldus, crew the darter. The rest of you, on board and to your stations, make ready to depart. Show speed!"

She turned to survey the docks as the De'ming finished their load and trooped back towards the warehouses under the touch of the supervisor's rod. The Traveler was at the last of the docks that still saw regular use; beyond to the south was a tumble of wharfs half-buried in drifted soil with a sparse cover of atmosphere plant, and a wilderness of broken-roofed buildings eroded to snags by wind and abraiding sand. The tops of actual trees showed there—the ruins would concentrate stray moisture.

Northward, every second slip was occupied, and a big three-master was in the graving dock, with the planking off its hull and artificers crawling about within. A crane extended a tentacle as she watched, hoisting some massive fabrication out of the structure and onto a repair platform.

She kept an ear cocked backward; the sounds indicated the scratch crew had some idea of what they were doing. Her eyes narrowed at two craft that had stayed at anchor out on the plain. They were long and low, a bit bigger than the Traveler, and lay quietly with furled sails. The hulls had few openings and no walkways or balconies, and all the hatches were closed.

Not local, by the lines, she thought, then shrugged. Trade from all around the planet found its way here.

The vaz-Terranan arrived, with their surprisingly scanty baggage.

This voyage will be both profitable and an interlude of respite from boredom, she told herself. The life of an exile is irritatingly lacking in long-term goals.

She had dreams enough: what she would do if she sat the Ruby Throne, for example. That was about as likely as a trip to the Wet World. Though with her broader experience of how the Real World fared...

The taller Terran smiled. His face was rough, as if hewn from rock by a not-very-skilled sculptor who used a percussive method, but oddly engaging, even intriguing in its open mobility.

Teyud allowed her lips to turn up very slightly.

 

@@@

 

Mars, City of Dvor Il-Adazar (Olympus Mons)

Ministry of Hydraulic Management

February 1st, 2000 AD.

 

High Minister Chinta sa-Rokis sighed in exasperation.

"No," she said. "I do not consider the reactivation of that reservoir by the Supremacy's Terran tembst a positive development."

She waited patiently while her three carefully-selected listeners blinked at the blunt contradiction of the Tollamune will.

The listeners were all members of the High Council. They sat in recliners around a black-jade table, their postures of informal-communication, as one did with social equals. If you looked very closely, you realized that the seemingly solid block had been carved until it was as insubstantial as lace in a pattern of repeating fractals that could hypnotize the unwary. The essence in the globes each held was of an antique pungency and swam with a living culture that guaranteed vividly entertaining—or terrifying—dreams to the user. The floor was a slab of living honey-colored wood whose rippling grain responded to body warmth by exuding a pleasant scent. Rugs crawled to envelop the feet of the four officials, warming and gently caressing.

By contrast, the heroic murals on seven of the eight walls were boringly antique, depicting the semi-legendary construction of the Grand Canal in the early years of the Dynasty. Their very age guaranteed that the Minster must endure them, however, and since they celebrated a notable Imperial accomplishment, modification might be taken as a gesture of disrespect. Nobody else was present, except for a brace of her personal De'ming... and they were of a special sub-species with no sense of hearing. The glassine eighth wall looked over nothing but empty courts until the farmlands at the city's foot, and her personal Coercives manned the towers between.

The silence stretched. All of the other High Councilors she had invited for private consultation were, in Chinta's opinion, nitwits, though not in any technical sense. Their minds had rotted from disuse. One was obsessed with collating an encyclopedia of the poetry of the Terminal Lilly Period; another spent nearly every waking hour on the records of atanj tournaments without being more than a mediocre player herself; the third provided an essential source of valuata for the city's more expert commercial specialists in para-reproductive entertainment.

I despise them all, she thought. Ironic, that this makes them the most suitable to my purposes. I may take consolation that I also further Prince Heltaw's purposes... at least to a certain degree... and he is a man to respect. And hence to fear.

The three High Ministers' accumulated resources and the influence of their lineages, however, were far from contemptible. And besides that, they all shared genetic linkages with her, common among the bloodlines of the upper bureaucracy. Competitive examination for office had been the rule since earliest Imperial times, but you could breed for success in that no less than for any other quality. If you did so and hoarded your genome strictly, you could expect a practical monopoly.

"It seems to be of long-term benefit that our water resources be increased," one said cautiously, sipping at his essence. "Water is life."

"Benefit is a relational term, not an absolute," Chinta said, wincing slightly at the ancient cliché about the fluid. "The question is, how do we benefit... or the reverse."

"How do you benefit, or the reverse," another pointed out, which, if obvious, was at least not sententious.

"We will all suffer losses," Chinta said forcefully. "A ten-percent addition to the flow will profoundly disrupt the productive patterns of this area—patterns from which we derive our incomes. True, there will be benefits—but the benefits will accrue to individuals either not yet born or to those presented with new opportunities. The costs will be immediate and to established interests—which is to say, to us and our client lineages. First and foremost, the value of the water allocations to our properties will be depressed at once as prices decline."

"While painful, a decline of ten percent—"

It is a crime against your lineage and what remains to us of Sh'u Maz that you have been allowed to reproduce, Chinta thought. Aloud:

"Since the water will be available now, and the added plantations, manufacturing facilities, biomass and population will take some time to appear, the fall in prices will be extreme. Perhaps as much as a third; at least one quarter within ten years of this date. Since we are not likely to command all the eventual increase in production—it will accrue to the Ruby Throne's chosen clients, of course—the ripple effects will be similar even when the price of allocations stabilizes with higher net use. Overall equilibrium will not be reestablished for generations and when it is, we and our offspring will be at a relatively lower position in the economic hierarchy."

Their faces fell as she presented the figures and graphs. Chinta went on, "And you all heard the Tollamune's will: We must begin a program to copy the tembst of the Wet Worlders."

She pointed at a chart. "Which means increased activity for the Ministry of Savantiere," her finger moved, "The Ministry of Tembst Refinement," and a third move, "and the Ministry of Mineral Supervision."

All three adopted postures of concern, the response as involuntary as willed; she had just pointed out that they would have to finance and oversee the very changes that would threaten their steady incomes and relative status.

"Surely... you are not proposing a Dynastic Intervention?" one said, a slight quaver in his voice.

Chinta spread her arms out to either side with fingers spread, and widened her gaze for a moment as she stared upward: horrified negation.

"No. It is the tragedy of our age that there is no heir to the King Beneath the Mountain..."

Which meant, without any offence that could call for an Apology or the services of the Expediter, The Emperor will die soon and then all options are open.

"...save Genomic Prince Heltaw..."

Who was known to be notably conservative, save in the matter of his relative status.

"...and only in this age of declension would one who shares so slightly in the Tollamune Genome be considered at all. Even if he were to use one of the stored ova..."

They all nodded. Considering Heltaw's own age—which promised a reign of at least a century, given the probable maximum lifespan of the current Emperor—and then the likely disposition of an heir socialized under that very conservative Genomic Prince's supervision... and there was doubt about the viability of the stored ova. Subtle sabotage had been one of the weapons in the last Dynastic Intervention, and they had been in storage for over two hundred years of the Real World in any case. Entropy could not be defeated forever. The sperm were viable, yes: the more complex ova, very probably not.

This made Heltaw's gender a factor, unless he was prepared to merely keep the Ruby Throne warm for his siblings' potential grandchildren.

Chinta was pleased to see the calculation behind the three pairs of eyes that met hers. She relaxed into an informal Communicative posture. At least they had that much survival instinct left intact.

"But why have you called us for this consultation, if all we need do to avoid the unpleasant alternatives you have sketched is to exercise patience?"

And drag our feet in implementing inconvenient decrees, went unspoken. The bureaucracies they headed had a great deal of practice at that. In fact, all they would have to would be nothing; inertia would take care of the rest.

"Because the current Tollamune may not be as bereft of offspring as we have assumed," she said grimly. "And sustained pressure from the Ruby Throne by a young, energetic, and potentially very long-lived Emperor is—metaphorical mode—another kettle of to'a altogether."

That brought them all sitting erect, hands flashing to press palms to either side of their faces: aghast concentration.

When Chinta had finished, she stroked her symbiont. It raised its head and whistled; the ears of the intercom system opened their tympani. "Let the Professional Practitioner of Coercive Violence Faran sa-Yaji enter," she said.

The door dilated. The other three High Ministers bristled a little when the mercenary adopted an insolently undeferential posture, each hand clasping the opposite elbow and golden eyes level. That he was obviously of pure or nearly pure Thoughtful Grace strain made the hostility stronger, not less; the rivalry between them and the Imperial Administrator lineages was as ancient as the Mountain.

Chinta ignored it. "We have a contract for you," she said.

The Thoughtful Grace raised one eyebrow. "One attractive relative to that offered by Genomic Prince Heltaw, Superiors?" he said smoothly.

Chinta restrained herself from grinding her teeth. She had hoped that the news hadn't spread that far. Still...

"One comparable, and easier of accomplishment," she said. "You have contacts in Zar-tu-Kan?"

"Disreputable ones," Faran said whimsically.

"Excellent. One does not engage a savant of Sh'u Maz for illegal lethality. Then—"

 

@@@

 

Approaching the Deep Beyond, Mars

Southeast of Zar-tu-Kan

May 2nd, 2000 AD

 

"Ahoy, matey! Avast the cross-forgainsails and clew up the lower buttock shrouds!" Jeremy said, holding onto a line of the standing rigging with a foot on the leeward rail.

"Oh, stop being cheerful!" Sally snarled, still looking slightly green.

The Traveler was heading out into what the Martians called the Deep Beyond now, spanking along at nearly twenty miles an hour before a following breeze, with each low rise in the undulating plain making the hull heel and then roll back slowly against the suspension system's muscles. The result wasn't much like a watercraft's motion, but it could produce the equivalent of carsickness. The Martians had watched in horrified fascination as Sally gave back breakfast to the ground cover; they didn't throw up unless they'd swallowed poison or were very ill indeed.

"You're the one who's traveled all over on these things," Jeremy pointed out.

"Retching most of the time," she answered grimly. "There, I think the pill's finally working, thank the Buddha."

The Traveler had passed the end of the active part of the canal last evening. The mountains that marked the edge of the old continental shelf had gradually fallen out of sight to the left as they headed northeast. Gritty reddish soil showed through the thinning mat of atmosphere plant, individual specimens growing too far apart for their leaves to overlap, and the air had a haze of fine dark-pink dust. It smelled intensely dry, with less of the sharp medicinal scent of the crushed leaf. Sand of the same reddish color had piled up against the abandoned wall of the canal in a series of long drifts on the western side, sending tendrils out across the glassine of the covering and burying it in places.

They hadn't seen anything much bigger than the ubiquitous little kangaroo-rat-like things for hours, though just after dawn they'd passed a herd—or flock—of four-foot flightless hump-backed birds that scampered off with black-and-white tails spread, caroling fright with a sound like a mob of terrified bassoons.

"What are those?" he'd asked.

"Wild zharba," Sally had said. "They live off atmosphere plant and anything else that comes along and they manufacture their own water from their food—in fact, they store a couple of gallons in that sack on their backs, and you can tap it without hurting them if you know how and don't mind the taste: Sort of a cross between cold, salty chicken soup and bird pee; it's actually a fairly complete diet. The tame variety of zharba is what the nomads live off, mainly."

"Tembst?" Jeremy had asked.

"Tembst," she'd replied. "Very, very old tembst."

Tembst meant something like technology, but not quite. Perhaps "matter shaped by intent for utility," Jeremy thought. They use the word for a knife or for something living like these... well, you expect another planet to be alien.

The Intrepid Traveler was following the line of the abandoned waterway. The section beyond Zar-tu-Kan was lined with fortified farmhouses and an occasional small town built around a tower for airships, but those had long since dwindled to ruins.

I need to examine the dead canal here as a base for comparison, Jeremy thought. It probably wasn't abandoned all the way to Rema-Dza at the same time.

"Let's take a look at it," he said aloud.

"Okay, might as well. It's not like we're in a hurry," Sally said.

She walked forward to where Teyud stood near the wheel—a landship was steered from on top of the forecastle. The Martian was standing motionless except for an automatic flexing that kept her upright despite the motion of the Traveler. Unlike most of the crew she had the headdress of her robe back. She nodded at Yamashita's order and called in a voice that cut through the soughing blur of wind in the rigging and the creaking and groaning of the ship's fabric:

"Strike sail, full rolling stop!"

The huge lugsail came down with a rush and a whine of gearing as the lower yard rolled it up like a sliding blind; the wheel-crews tapped at controls built into the base of each outrigger and great skeins of muscle flexed to close the brake-drums in a gradual surge of power.

Jeremy grabbed a line against the forward pressure as the landship glided to a halt with a whine and pant of brakes. It bobbed back and forth with a rolling motion sideways for a moment, and the top of the yard and mast flexed like bows. Sally swallowed again, then sighed with relief as the motion steadied. There was still a little, from the wind and from the crew shifting position, but not nearly as much as before.

Like most landships, Traveler had a ramp that let down at the bows, leading from the interior of the hull to the surface. Jeremy didn't bother; he sprang from the deck and landed with flexed knees on the ground below. To his surprise, Teyud vaulted over the rail and landed likewise; it was an athletic feat equivalent to a Terran jumping out of a second-story window but she didn't even grunt as her feet struck the soil of Mars.

Sally and the four crewfolk followed more sedately, down ropes; it wasn't necessary for the Terran, but she'd told Jeremy she'd never been able to make her gut believe it was safe to drop distances like that.

"Maintain vigilance for dharz," Teyud said to her crew.

The word meant predators and usually referred to the huge hunting birds that stood at the top of the food chain here; some of them were flightless, half the size of a cow, and bad.

The flying ones ranged up to twice that size and were much worse.

Several of the Martians set up a watch, standing in a triangle with their backs to each other and their rifles cradled in their arms, scanning the skies. That left the Terrans free to focus on their work; Jeremy's minicam whirred as they approached the ancient canal.

Ancient even by Martian standards, he thought.

The glyphs were slightly different from those on the sections nearer Zar-tu-Kan, less sinuous and more blocky. And worn, worn until sections were smoothed to blank obscurity and he had to use the thermal imaging to trace where they'd been.

His lips moved as he translated the stiff archaic dialect of the repeated message:

"Tollamune Shel-tor-vu, 'am Zho'da nekka mar ha, tol—"

Another voice spoke, reading the glyphs more fluently than he could despite his years of study. Teyud's voice. "The Emperor Shel-Tor-vu, fifty-second of the Tollamune line and the eighth of that name to sit the Ruby Throne, ordered the reconstruction of this canal in the four thousandth year of the Crimson Dynasty. Look upon my works, all ye who pass by, and know that the Kings Beneath the Mountain shall hold the Real World fast while the Mountain stands. Sh'u Maz—Sustained Harmony!"

Astonished, Jeremy looked at Teyud. Her face had the usual hieratic Martian calm, but something flickered in the lion-yellow eyes as she read. The accent he'd noted in her voice grew stronger as well, staccato and clipped, with a harsh tone that made the little hairs along his neck stir a little and a sound-shift that turned the usual Demotic z into an s.

"But they did not sustain Harmony," she went on, almost in a whisper, her voice soft once more. "Though for long and long it seemed to be so. Cycle upon cycle of years passed, and with each, the Deep Beyond grew more and water and life grew less, little by little but steady and very sure. Sibling fought sibling for the Ruby Throne, and canals died, and cities fell, and generals rebelled, and the nomads pressed inward from the deserts and down from the heights, until nothing was left but the shards of a broken world. A world where winter comes, and will not yield again to spring."

She shook herself very slightly, and resumed that tiger alertness; the nicating membranes swept sideways across her lion eyes for an instant.

"You wished to examine?" she asked calmly.

Jeremy looked at Sally. She looked surprised as well, and the crewfolk were exchanging glances too. He cleared his throat.

"Yes," he said.

It would be easy to jump up onto the top of the canal's covering, only twenty feet from the surface; easy and dangerous, since glassine was as near frictionless as no matter. Instead, he walked until there was a drift of sand up the side, and then went up that with infinite caution.

"Or is it frictionless?" he said aloud, kneeling and touching the surface of the glassine.

Normally it would be so clear you could only see it by the way it refracted light a little more than air did. This was like very fine glass instead, and the surface...

He stripped off a glove and felt it. Cold and... very, very slightly granular.

"I've never seen glassine do that," Sally said when she'd joined him. "Show abrasion like this. What could have done it?"

"Time," Teyud said.

This time they both looked up, startled. They'd been speaking English.

I suspected she understood more of it than she let on, Jeremy thought. Very bright lady.

"Enough time," she amplified. "A very, very long time. The—"

She used a couple of Martian words he didn't know. Sally whispered: "That means molecular bonds. I think."

"-cannot resist the entropy embodied in sand and wind forever if they are not renewed. When this happens, be cautious. Loss of structural strength follows, to degrees unpredictable and which can be ascertained only by experiment."

She drew her pistol and fired northward; the sound was a sharp fffftht as methane mixed with air and exploded. Fifty yards in that direction, a spot of canal covering gave a musical ting with a shattering undertone, and then a ragged section fell into the emptiness below. Sand poured downward for a while.

"I express enthusiastic appreciation," Sally said. "The information is of substantial use."

She was making notes with a little pod recorder hitched to her belt. Then she bent and flipped up a big hemispherical shell, like a perfectly symmetrical turtle the size of a small car. The underside was empty, save for parts of a skeleton attached to the inside; the foot that had secreted fresh glassine was long gone.

"Canal roof repair bug," she said to Jeremy. "It's a variant of the standard construction type. Must have died when this section was abandoned."

He nodded. The bottom of the canal lay about twenty feet below his perch. This section had only a foot or so of sand on the floor, and he could see the skeletons of endless rows of canal shrimp—the human-sized adult phase, when they attached themselves to the bottom like barnacles and waved their tails in unison to create a current and drive the water where the builders wanted it. The canals had their own ecology, and he was looking at the ruins of it.

There was something scratched on the opposite wall of the canal, on the inside just above where the old water-level would have been. He knelt, feeling the gritty sand moving beneath his knees through the robe and pants, and aimed the minicam, his thumb dialing up more magnification. The glyphs were a bit irregular, as if someone had scratched them into the hard quasi-organic concrete in a hurry. Jeremy spoke into the microphone as he read:

"I told the fools this section couldn't maintain flow if they didn't extend the catchments!" He almost laughed. But the laughter died. That was a cry of despair across millennia, and one that presaged the death of cities, migration and flight and death.

He seemed to hear the keening. Then he did hear something, and whirled awkwardly at Teyud's shout of warning.

That saved his life. His feet shot out from beneath him as the sand moved on the glassine, and talons flashed through the space he'd toppled through rather than into his throat. A fluting scream followed, bloodlust and frustration set to music but loud enough to nearly deafen him, and there was a dry carrion stink.

The hilt of the still unfamiliar sword thumped him under the ribs as he fell, leaving him wheezing with pain. A snake-slim figure poised over him; he had a confused impression of gaping jaws edged with saw-like points, a long, whipping tail and a flaring mane of red-bronze feathers—and long arms tipped with claws reaching for him.

Then there was a sharp wet smack and one of the slit-pupil eyes gouted out in a miniature volcano of matter and blood. The creature pitched backward, convulsing as the neurotoxin in the needle sent every muscle into spasm, head arching back to its heels with a crackle of snapping spine.

Jeremy forced himself to breathe, and his mind to function. Back on his feet, he saw a wave of the things swarming around the Traveler's crew in a maelstrom of flashing blades, warbling jaws where purple tongues showed, and snapping dart-pistols. One Martian had gone down and three of the things savaged the body. Some of the attackers had sticks or crudely formed stone hand-axes in their clawed hands. Their motions had the darting quickness of snakes, or great predatory birds, which they resembled even more.

Teyud tossed her dart-pistol to her left hand to let it recover and drew her sword, lunging with blurring swiftness; a narrow body tried to dance aside and instead took the point through its torso, collapsing limply as she withdrew the blade. Without pause, she reversed her grip and thrust backward into another that was raising a rock over her head. Then the pistol gave the pip sound that meant there was enough methane for another shot.

Baid tu-Or was holding off a pair, their heads lunging out in snaps that ended in clomp sounds as she swept her sword back and forth; Teyud shot one of them in the base of the skull, and the engineer cut the other's legs out from under it as it turned. Sally was backed up against the canal's wall, her Terran automatic in her hand, trying to get a clear sight at one of the darting, quicksilver shapes without shooting a Martian by mistake.

Time to get involved, Jeremy thought.

He jumped. A dozen saw-beaked faces and twelve pairs of crimson eyes pivoted upward as he soared and then fell, his robe billowing against the restraint of his harness. His pistol was in his hand as he touched down on the sparsely vegetated surface—and his was no Martian dart-gun, but a good alloy-steel .40 Colt Magnum shipped from Earth by solar-sail cargo pod.

One of the things had a fire-hardened spear, and it ran past him at Teyud's flank. He fired at point-blank range and the thing's head broke apart in a spray of bone fragments, feathers and blood. Sally shot a moment later. The bullet punched into a snaky torso and knocked the beast down; it beat its head and tail on the ground in blind agony, screaming like a laserdisc of a Wagnerian soprano turned to maximum volume, then went limp.

Then Teyud's pistol was pointing straight at him. He threw himself down and rolled as it snapped, just in time to see an attacker behind him spasm backwards with a dart in the paler short fuzz of its throat. He shot the one following it from the ground, holding the pistol two-handed.

The smashing roars of the Terran weapons broke the attack where more familiar dangers hadn't. Suddenly all the creatures were fleeing in a mob, scattering northeastward, crying out in oddly melodious fluting voices that sounded like short, sad tunes played on a saxophone. Teyud called sharply to one of her subordinates, and the man tossed her a dart rifle. She went down on one knee, brought the long slim barrel up and aimed carefully, firing as quickly as the chamber could regenerate and the beasts were in range.

Phhttt. Phhttt. Phhttt. Phhttt.

Four of the... mob or pack or flock... went down. Then she handed the weapon back to the crewman.

"Everyone feed your guns!" she called. "Zanta are prone to unanticipated actions and they may return."

Feeding the gun meant pushing a syringe of sludge into a port on the weapon's top, as well as reloading the ammunition.

At least my Colt doesn't wheeze or smack its lips, Jeremy thought as he snapped in a new magazine.

And it didn't depend on igniting organic methane to push its projectiles out. The sharp scent of nitro powder mingled with the faint sulfurous burnt swamp-gas reek of the Martian weapons in the thin, cold dry air; beneath it ran the smell of Martian blood, saltier and more metallic than that of the creatures Earth bred. Teyud watched Jeremy's hands as he reloaded and holstered the automatic.

"Interesting," she said. "How does it operate?"

"Explosive combustion of nitrogenous compounds driving a heavy-metal slug through spiral stabilizing grooves on the inside of the barrel," he said, which took five words in Demotic.

Her brows went up. "Extravagant, but effective. Could I use one?"

He shook his head. "The recoil would break your wrists, I'm afraid," he said.

Which was true enough, at least for standard-breed Martians, although he didn't know about Thoughtful Grace, who were a lot stronger. But it was also policy not to let the locals have Terran weapons.

Though theirs are nearly as effective, he thought. Unless the gas generator part dies of old age or gets indigestion. And they're difficult to replace.

"What are these creatures?" he asked, turning one over with his toe.

It still looked like an eight-foot feathered snake with long legs and arms. The head had a scaly flesh-covered beak that came to a point, but formed interlocking saw-edged blades behind. The skulls were narrow too, but long, and must hold a fair-sized brain. His toe moved on and forced a hand-axe out of a grip that clenched in death.

"Zanta," Teyud said. "In origin, small, social carnivores of the Deep Beyond, tembst-modified for the hunt in ancient times."

"Modified for the hunt? It was far too much as if they were hunting us."

"Feral now." Her mouth quirked very slightly. "Perhaps my... our ancestors... should not have made them so clever, or so large, or so indiscriminate in their search for edible protein."

A slight inclination of the head and a spare gesture of one blood-spattered hand; it meant, more or less, insincere apologies are tendered for the sake of form, and in this context it was an ironic joke.

Another Martian came up, the ship's engineer; she had a bleeding wound down one cheek, clotting with an alien swiftness as he watched.

"They were not so many, or so bold, in the Conqueror's day," she said. "Nor did they come so far out of the Deep Beyond. We have one dead, Expeditionary Supervisor Teyud; and three wounded, one seriously. All will recover but the worst will not be fit for duty for a twentieth-of-a-year."

"The Beyond is dangerous," Teyud said, as she carefully wiped her sword clean and sheathed it. "And the casualty was a tokmar sniffer. That is a seriously self-destructive habit."

As she spoke, the crew bandaged injuries, carried the wounded—which by local notions included only those too badly hurt to walk or work—back to the Traveler. Several returned with a rack of poles that they erected, snapping the members together; the rest had gathered the bodies of the Zanta and were preparing what looked unpleasantly like butchering tools. Sally Yamashita had gathered the crudely shaped weapons the beasts had used and was examining them thoughtfully.

"Ah... those things are a bit too intelligent for me to feel comfortable eating them," Jeremy said, as the blood was drained into containers.

Teyud and the engineer looked at him in puzzlement; their nicating membranes swept over their eyes and they blinked, a disconcerting double sideways-and-vertical gesture.

"Zanta are not humans," the engineer—he remembered her name was Baid tu-Or—said.

The phrase she used meant specifically not of the lineages of those present and implied capacity to interbreed.

As far as he knew, Terrans and Martians couldn't, being nearly as different from each other genetically as humans and chimps, but evidently Baid was being generous.

"And we are preparing them to feed to the engine," Teyud reassured him. "Higher quality feed will increase its range and intensity of effort. Our own supplies are ample at present and Zanta are reputed to be very rank in taste. Note that we intend to dedicate the remains of our dead fellow-employee to the same function."

"Oh," he said. Then, "Thank you for saving my life."

She quirked a small smile and said gravely, "It would be detrimental to my reputation if my employers were eaten by wild Zanta only ten days from Zar-tu-Kan. In any case, you have performed the same with respect to me, so the balance of debit and credit is neutral."

"Well... let's get going, then," he said. "The Lost City awaits!"

That made him feel better for a moment, until Teyud gave one of her disturbing not-quite-smiles.

"The Zanta are heading in the same direction," she pointed out. "They evidently feel it will be safe for them. This is not a favorable indicator."

 

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Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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