Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS

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


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 20th Edition

University of Chicago Press, 1998

 

MARS: Biology

 

Martian biology at first glimpse appears much more distinctive than that of Venus; hominids apart, there are few or no species with a close resemblance to extant or extinct Terrestrial forms. And although homo sapiens Martensis is unquestionably a close relation of homo sapiens sapiens, it is not a type historically attested on Earth. It is therefore not surprising that the "alien transplantation of Earthly forms" theory of the origins of life on Venus and Mars was first definitively proven on Venus.

Close examination of modern and fossil records and recent genetic analysis shows two reasons for the distinct developmental paths of Martian and Terrestrial life since their point of divergence some two hundred million years ago. The first is that the Martian environment is more non-Earthlike, and much harsher, than that of Venus. It is, on average, far harsher than that of Earth itself, with the most favored zones corresponding to Earth's high, dry deserts and much land comparable to the fringes of Antarctica or the Tibetan plateau. Other observers have called it "Australia in an icebox."

To simplify, one may say that the ecology of Venus is higher-energy than that of Earth and contains a greater scope for diversity. The ratio of ocean to land on Venus further amplifies the number of separate niches and species. Mars has less solar energy to drive the food chain, and a single world-girdling equatorial continent that has endured in roughly its present form from earliest times; hence the Martian land ecologies are more uniform, with a smaller number of more universally distributed species. The large number of migratory species and the high significance of fliers exaggerate this tendency.

Humanoid action seems to have at first further simplified matters. Fossil evidence shows that the first hominids were introduced by the still-mysterious "Lords of Creation" some two hundred thousand years ago; if earlier hominids had been planted, they died out before becoming common enough to enter the fossil record. These Old Stone Age archaic-sapiens were dropped into an ecology dominated by a stable post-dinosaurian fauna composed largely of rough analogues of birds, and like birds descended from Cretaceous therapods, and by the large and complex invertebrates of marine origin made possible by the lower gravity.

In this setting, repeated transplants of Terran mammals had had more failures than successes. The hominid strain flourished, however, and the extinction of most large land animals—never common on this life-sparse world—followed rapidly within the next twenty thousand years in a manner analogous to the late-Pleistocene extinctions on Earth. The Martian hominids became fully behaviorally modern long before our own ancestors, perhaps pushed rapidly into full sapience by the challenge of the alien environment...

... it was after the emergence of the third wave of Martian civilizations in the Mons Olympus area that the next burst of speciation occurred. Since this was simultaneous with the abrupt development of the modern Martian humanoid type and of the beginnings of the distinctive Martian biotechnology, conscious intervention is the most probable cause...

 

@@@

 

The Deep Beyond, Mars

Southeast of Zar-tu-Kan

May 3rd, 2000 AD

 

Jeremy Wainman could see the air smoking with his breath as the Traveler lay at anchor, creaking slightly when a gust of icy wind made the boxy hull sway on the outriggers. Both the moons were up, small and bright, and stars larger than any he had seen from Earth were like the contents of a jewel-box flung across the sky, but the Martian night was still very dark. And cold, but the robe and the clothes beneath were very good insulation.

They'd anchored in the lee of a hill half as high as the mast—or perhaps a stabilized sand dune was a better description—but in any case big enough to shelter the landship's hull a little. A faint mist of fine dust blew from it and gritted on the planks under Jeremy's feet as he walked; the taste of it on his lips was bitter and alkaline. There was nobody about, save the lookout in the crow's-nest atop the mast, and a tall figure leaning on the compass binnacle by the wheel on the forward deckhouse. He walked forward and saw her uncoil with leopard grace as he approached.

"I express amiable greetings, Jeremy Wainman," she said.

"I reciprocate, Teyud za-Zhalt," he replied. "What keeps you awake this diurnal cycle?"

He sat on a hatch combing. Teyud leaned back against the lashed-down wheel, looking upward again; despite the cold her face was bare, though her hands were tucked into the sleeves of her robe.

"I originally began a single-hand game," she said, indicating the atanj board and pieces set on the deck. "But that palled, and now I examine the stars and speculate," she said. "Look, there is... Earth."

He followed her nod, towards the bright white star. She continued, "I speculate as to the nature of life on a world that does not die."

Was that an ever-so-slight wistfulness? He answered, "All things die. In the end, hundreds of millions of years from now, the sun will expand to consume all the life-bearing worlds of this solar system, and then shrink itself to an ember. Or so our philosophical savants who study natural patterns deduce."

He thought she smiled slightly; it was difficult to say, with starlight and moonlight casting shadows across her aquiline face.

"Truly? That is interesting; but the Real World will perish far sooner than that. The Tollamune savants deduced long ago that in as little as twenty-five thousand years from the present—"

Fifty thousand, he translated to himself. Roughly.

"-this globe will no longer be capable of supporting higher forms of life. Long before then, civilization and its arts will die. In the end, not even the microbes far beneath the surface will survive. And this despite all the efforts of the Crimson Dynasty and its servants to promote Sh'u Maz."

She did smile then. "But tell me something of Earth. What is your natal area like?"

He chuckled, keeping it quiet—Martians underplayed expression.

"Oddly enough, it is not so very different from parts of Mars—apart from the biota, fauna, and the gravity, of course. I come from Northern New Mexico—" he put that in English "—and it is an elevated plateau with many mountains, low air pressure, and by Terran standards it is quite dry and in the winter, cool. Hence, its winter has similarities to the lower, warmer, and more humid parts of Mars in summer."

"An amusing expression of randomness," she said. "Your lineage are savants?"

"My father studied atomic interactions. My mother managed machines which process information."

He didn't know if that translated systems analyst accurately, but Martians didn't have computers... or at least, they weren't supposed to. Some of the documents he'd studied had suggested otherwise.

"I have four siblings."

"So many!" Teyud exclaimed. "Your lineage must command enormous resources."

"Well... it's a little more than most, yes."

This is a dying world. Fewer people every generation, and of course they can control conception by thinking about it. And they space their kids out over a long, long lifespan.

Being able to plan your births was a survival trait on this world of steadily dwindling resources. And even if something did slip up, they could also shed a fetus by willing it. It was a major reason for the more-or-less equal status the sexes had always had here, as far back as records stretched.

"You mentioned this place, Los Alamos. It is a Scholarium of sorts?"

"A place for investigations, many sponsored by our government."

She looked at him for a moment. "What was the subjective experience of socialization in the company of so many siblings? I had none. It would be rare here to have more than one preadult, in any case."

Well, I was the youngest and they pushed me around a lot, he thought.

"Hmmm. Well, we were at the beach once, and my sisters started to bury me in the sand... upside down... "

For once a joke came across well, and she gave a silent, breathy Martian laugh.

"You mentioned that you were an only child," he said.

"Yes; neither my sire nor my mother reproduced otherwise... there were complications. I was socialized as a Coercive by maternal relatives; I learned atanj, tactics, dance, the history and nature of tembst, logistics, calligraphy, intrigue, weapons skills..."

"I fence myself," Jeremy told her. What he actually said was, "I have studied formalized long-blade methods."

"Ahmm!" she said approvingly. "We must engage in a trial of skills. This would be instructive."

Then she stretched and yawned, catlike. "Regenerative slumber becomes appealing. I profess amiable temporary farewells, Jeremy Wainman."

 

@@@

 

Faran sa-Yaji nodded as he examined the tracks of the landship they pursued, clear in the chill night's starlight. You could tell how recently a craft had passed by how much sand had drifted into the mesh patterns its wheels left, and these showed the target maintaining a steady speed. The problem here was unusual; he did not want to overtake the Intrepid Traveler as fast as possible, but he did want to follow as closely as he could without alerting the prey.

Chinta sa-Rokis had presented him with an intriguing task when he took her contract, and his own intentions added an enjoyably complex additional set of factors. Stretching one's skills was as exhilarating as assimilating much fine essence, without the subsequent pain of dehydration and toxicity.

"Excellent," he said. "The Intrepid Traveler maintains exactly the lead I wish, given the terrain ahead. I assume that they will rest at anchor in the darkness, since they have no reason for haste."

The captains of the Robbery With Armed Violence and the Insensately Vicious Plunderer looked at him with bewilderment. One was male, the other female; one favored a dull-gold robe obviously seized from a wealthy merchant, and the other a plain robe of double-thickness gray; the female had a missing eye covered by a patch, and the male scars just short of that. One smelled of odwa and dried blood soaked into cloth; the other of neglected personal sanitation. Apart of that they might have been siblings from the same ova.

The female with the eyepatch glanced back at the low-slung black hulls of the two pirate landships.

"My overhead and running expenses increase with each passing day of delayed pursuit, eroding my ultimate margin of profit," she rasped—the legacy of some throat injury, judging by the puncture scar over her larynx. "My Robbery has more sail area relative to its mass and greater speed than that lumbering freight hauler. Even the Plunderer does, despite an inefficient rig and suboptimal maintenance. We could have caught them long before this."

The other captain adopted a posture of indignant-refutation slanted towards his colleague, but nodded and continued, "We might already be reveling in our seizure of a valuable ship and cargo, celebrating by absorbing costly essences and engaging in brutally nonconsensual erotic entertainments of a type I find deeply gratifying but which are difficult to arrange on a commercial basis. Why this delay?"

"My additional payments more than compensate for your costs," Faran drawled. "If you wish to satisfy your curiosity and repellently deviant urges as well as your larcenous greed, a reduction in the commission could be arranged."

The captain of the Robbery With Armed Violence shook her head, and the silver-and-turquoise tassels attached to the tips of her ears chimed softly.

"By no means!" she said, and glared at her counterpart with her single eye. "Larcenous greed wholly typifies my interests and those of my crew! I am earnestly businesslike in my lack of conventional ethics; my concern is solely with efficient implementation of our predatory intentions, not with frivolous amusements."

"Anticipation adds spice to depravity," the other captain said grudgingly. "And I am second to none in this profession where insatiable and ruthless greed is concerned. Otherwise I would have continued in my initial parentally-sponsored choice of career as a pediatric physician."

"Then return to your vessels," he said. "We will resume pursuit in no more than three hours."

They did, bickering as they went. Faran's partner snorted softly, but only once they were out of earshot; pirate captains were notorious for lapses into whimsical and impulsive excess.

"I would not try their patience excessively, comrade," he said.

"They must suffer the agonies of frustration for some time," Faran said. "Also they are aware that we have the fungus-grenade launcher. And that all six of us are Thoughtful Grace."

"And that their bonus waits in a banker's safe-deposit vault and can be opened only by our living genetic signature," the other Thoughtful Grace replied. "Yet the Intrepid Traveler is now beyond the Despotate of Zar-tu-Kan's patrols, and a financial instrument a thousand miles away may not unduly restrain individuals so lacking in patience."

Faran shook his head. "There is still a chance that Teyud za-Zhalt might turn the landship and evade us in broken ground. We pursue one of us... one of at least half Thoughtful Grace genome... and of a most select lineage at that. Also, consider the other half of her inheritance. It is best to eliminate all possible extraneous factors she might use against us. A flat plain of twom will maximize the numbers we can bring to bear and minimize possible ingenious countermeasures."

"Her formidable talents are why we agreed to simply kill her, rather than attempt the more lucrative live capture," his partner grumbled; he had argued in the lineage council for an attempt at capture and the startlingly generous offer from Prince Heltaw. "You need not recapitulate incessantly."

"There is still a chance of harvesting her ova, collecting Chinta sa-Rokis' fee for her death, and then selling the contents of the victim's uterus to Prince Heltaw," Faran said. "But that also requires the privacy of the Deep Beyond—to eliminate all the pirates will take some time. Space and time are interchangeable; this is a profound truth."

"And the data known to the dead are lost to entropy. But I admit apprehension at the prospect of then attempting to defraud the High Minister by selling the Tollamune genome to Prince Heltaw."

"Once we have the Prince's patronage—and he stands to gain the Ruby Throne—her annoyance will be a negligible factor. And of course there is the possibility that the vaz-Terranan will find the treasures they are reputed to seek in the lost city. In that case we may kill them and rob them of the hypothetical treasures, then kill the pirates and so remove the necessity of sharing with or paying them," Faran said consolingly.

"That might even be construed as furthering Sh'u Maz, since we would then be wealthy enough to become law-abiding, while the pirates never would."

"That is one construction of our intent, and one which I intend to contemplate at length in my future prosperous, peaceful years. In the course of plundering the Intrepid Traveler and killing Teyud za-Zhalt she and her followers will doubtless kill many of the pirates, sparing us the effort; we can sell her head to Chinta sa-Rokis, and then her ova to the Prince. This is an elegant optimization of an admittedly brutal and unscrupulous course of action. Still, we are impoverished freelance contractors and cannot afford extreme scrupulosity."

"Four payments for one violent attack... that is an elegant least-effort path, thus one deeply satisfying to professional vanity as well as gratifying the lineage's need for assets. I admit this, Faran, yet in principle I depreciate your tendency to make overly complex plans. And even without suffering fatalities of our own in the course of killing all the others, the six of us are not enough to crew even a small landship. Walking across the Deep Beyond does is not... practical... even assuming randomness brings no nomads across our vector."

Faran chuckled softly. "I have made other arrangements for our subsequent transport, and at modest cost."

"Made arrangements on a need-to-know basis?"

"Of course; some of our younger lineage-mates are deplorably given to boasting after assimilating essence. All three craft will vanish... and we six will be speedily transported to Dvor Il-Adazar in an inconspicuous manner, possibly with valuata of immense worth."

His partner bowed in a posture of ironic exaggeration. "You are more attached to your own cleverness than to me."

"You indulge in an implausible rhetorical flourish. Let us return to our cabin and demonstrate its falsity."

 

@@@

 

The Deep Beyond, Mars

Southeast of Zar-tu-Kan

May 4th 2000 AD

 

"Again," Teyud said as they disengaged.

Jeremy puffed out his cheeks and stepped back into the ready position, bringing his sword up to put himself en garde.

"Here's where I get my ass kicked again," he said cheerfully.

He was about used to working with the slow roll and pitch of the landship now, and to ignoring the landscape of low ochre hills and endless plain as it sped by in a long plume of dust. And the thin air didn't bother him; he'd grown up at around seven thousand feet in the Jemez mountains, which was pretty similar to the density at Martian sea-level. Pressure dropped off more slowly with height here, too.

Teyud's relentless perfectionism with the blade and the fact that she seemed to be constructed out of monofilament cables, that bothered him a little. And the fact that he'd lost six for six so far.

Be a good sport, Jeremy, he told himself. There are Neanderthals on Venus but you helped get the ERA passed. This is your recreation but it's her job. And the Thoughtful Grace were bred for it.

"Your speed of reflex is acceptable if not outstanding and you are very strong," Teyud said. "And you have been taught with some skill."

The clear glassine face-mask of her practice helmet showed a slight frown of disapproval. She took up the Martian version of the en guard position, slightly more face-forward than he was used to, front knee bent sharply and free hand tucked into the small of the back.

"But you are treating this exercise as an entertainment," she went on. "That is... not a survival trait."

That translated as "deplorable," more or less. "Entertainment" could also mean "game." Or "pseudo-conflict under constrained parameters." Atanj was a game, although it was also called the "Game of Life."

"The sword is for death, and nothing else," she finished. "As there is no constraint in combat, so there should be as little as possible in training in preparation for it. Now."

He let the part of his mind that controlled his body slip in to the ready state, empty of thought and ready to react from pure reflex, eye and nerve, balance and hand and limbs all as one. The practice sword flickered at him, a synthetic without point or edge but exactly the same weight and aerodynamics as the real thing—about a yard long, and enough mass that it would have weighed a bit over two pounds on Earth. No knitting-needle Olympic brands here. To muscles bred under three times the gravity, the weapon was still feather-light, but you had to remember that the inertia didn't go away with the weight...

And I'm not used to fencing with someone taller than I am, either.

He beat her blade out of line with a simple parry and then cut at her neck from the wrist, forehand and backhand, the blade a blur of motion. Martian longswords were more like saber-fencing than anything else; perhaps a combination of saber and epée styles came closest.

She parried in prime and turned it into a circular cut, a moulinade, likewise minimally and from the wrist, then thrust with beautiful extension; when he parried in turn she came in foot and hand with hard insistence.

The sound of the practice blades meeting was a sharp clack... clack, more like hard plastic than steel. Their feet shuffled back and forth on the gritty-surfaced boards of the deck; his breath showed in quick puffs in the cold air, unlike her drier, cooler exhalations.

He kept his focus on a spot halfway between the point of her blade and her eyes, seeing everything without narrowing in on any one spot. So easy to move, when you could flick yourself back with just a flexing of the ankle; he needed the advantage to break contact and recover.

Christ, she's fast, he thought, as a high-line thrust came at his eyes.

He parried in tierce, blade moving up and to the outside with the point higher than the hand, then around in a circle to control her blade, parry counter-six.

Gotta remember every part of the body's valid on Mars. And she's got damned long arms.

The blades slid along each other in a glide, maintaining constant contact as he turned his wrist, scraping until the guards locked. He sprang in to punch at her hilt, the bully-swordsman's trick, trying to use weight and the greater strength of his grip and arm to tear the weapon out of her hand. The instructors who'd tried to turn a fencer into a real sword-fighter recommended it, and it would have worked on most Martians...

Her arm resisted his for a moment; they were corps-corps. Then he was doubled over as her knee smacked into the light cup he was wearing, backing away frantically in a crippled attempt at a passé arrier as the her sword came for him again.

He could call it off. He didn't; instead he let himself collapse and dove under the point, down on his left hand with his body parallel to the deck and his sword flung out, the showy Italian Passata-sotto. That surprised her, and the parry was a little slow; she would have taken a nasty wound to the thigh if it had been for real... before she pinned him to the deck through the lungs.

This time her smile curled up both sides of her mouth, the equivalent of a wide grin, as she tapped her blade on his back to signal the lethal hit. Martian fencing bouts didn't stop until someone "died."

"Excellent!" she said. "Commendable motivation! And that was a move not in our repertoire. This time you wounded me before I killed you. Let us try again."

 

@@@

Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

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


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com