Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS

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


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 20th Edition

University of Chicago Press, 1998

 

MARS: Atanj

 

Atanj, or Martian chess, is like Terran chess in that it is a competitive game analogous to wargaming and strategy contests—although unlike chess, it encompasses economic and cultural weapons as well as direct confrontation; there is no Bishop, but there are Merchants, Savants, Boycotters and others. The standard mode is played from the viewpoint of the Despot, but variations involve using another piece as the principal, sometimes the Consort, more often a Savant or Merchant, or the Chief Coercive.

It can be played by up to eight individuals at one time, though two is most common for casual entertainment, and the board is octagonal with sixty-two squares on each side. Each piece has its own set of permitted moves, which, however, may vary according to the place the piece occupies on the board. When one piece is moved onto a square occupied by another, the result depends on the relative importance of the pieces, the course of action the moving player calls, and often by the use of three tetrahedral dice.

"Taking" pieces does not necessarily remove them from the board, as they may be turned against the original holder. In fact, perhaps the most notable feature of the Game of Life, as it is often called on Mars, is that any of a player's pieces may "defect" to another player at any time, and that certain strategies—allowing oneself to be "boycotted," for instance—increase the probability of defection sharply...

 

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The Deep Beyond, Mars

Southeast of Zar-tu-Kan

May 5th 2000 AD

 

The topnest of the Intrepid Traveler's mast swayed in long, looping ovals as the landship sped before a following wind. Teyud clipped her harness to a ring and raised the far-viewers to her eyes. The device was a rare and precious heirloom of Imperial tembst, one of the few inheritances she kept from her mother. It wrapped its tentacles around her face, and there was a slight sting at one temple as it tapped her blood supply, another sensation as it plugged its bundle of filaments into her nerves, as if tendrils inside her head had been stretched out and scraped with knives, fading to blackness.

Once in place the device supported itself, and adjusted for movement; light returned. A push of the will brought a flexing of the muscles that controlled the liquid-filled lenses, and the stretch of sea-bottom floor to the south sprang into focus. Her breath hissed between her teeth.

I cannot be certain, but...

"Strike sail!" she called without turning her head.

The order was unexpected, but it was obeyed promptly; two weeks in the Beyond had knit twenty dockside loafers desperate enough to take any berth into something of a crew. Below her, the translucent surface of the big sail scrolled down onto the spinning yard with a slapslapslapslap sound, and the balloon spinnaker billowing out between mast and jib was hauled in as well.

The landship's motion changed at once, swaying back upright as the pressure of the wind ceased to press through the mast and against the muscles of the suspension. The mast flexed and then steadied. Momentum kept the landship going for a few moments, until it halted on the crest of a low rise.

Teyud focused the binoculars again. Now she was sure; the tips of four masts showed over the ridge behind them for an instant, then disappeared as the two ships following them braked and let themselves slide backward. An estimate of the range insinuated itself into her mind, a scratchy ghost-thought from the instrument. She commanded, and the landscape turned into a mottled palimpsest of colors, in which the yellow heat-plumes from the two hidden vehicles were plain.

And... they are not closely spaced. Indeed, they are probably not visible from each other's positions.

"Yes," she said. Then downward, "Make sail, resume course!"

She peeled the binoculars off her face with a series of plock sounds and normal sight returned, along with a momentary fierce itch that reached into her brainstem and then faded to a dying tingle. The instrument crawled obediently down to her wrist and then into its container on her waist-belt. She unclipped from the mast, transferred to a stayline and slid downward towards the deck. Her feet swayed out over the rail and the ground starting to move below as the landship heeled again, and then she jumped lightly free.

"What's the problem?" Sally Yamashita asked sharply, looking up from the screen of her curious device for recording and manipulating information.

"We are being followed," Teyud replied. "By two other landships. I saw the tips of their masts; they are taking pains to be unobserved. Probably they are using an orok as a scout. They may be acting in concert, or in rivalry."

Sally looked upwards for an instant, trying to spot the flying observer. Jeremy came up, frowning. It made his face look a little contorted, like a drama-dancer's mask for concern at a popular comic burlesque.

I am coming to believe that their emotions are not much stronger than ours, Teyud thought. But their faces are more mobile, so that I assume that they are. This is a problem in communication and probably works in reverse as well. I must remember to exaggerate my expressions and discount theirs.

"Why would they be following us?" he asked.

Teyud looked at him in mild astonishment; Sally gave him something of the same stare. There were a very limited number of plausible reasons for two ships to track another well into the deserts.

"Since they have followed us into the Deep Beyond, and endeavor to conceal their presence, voluntary exchange of valuata, a game of atanj, or para-reproductive mutual pleasure are unlikely motives."

"What does that mean?" Sally asked, exasperated.

"My apologies. I should not attempt humor across linguistic boundaries. Let me rephrase my remarks: They are to a high degree of probability pirates and wish to rob and kill us."

Teyud frowned before she went on, calculating distances and sailing time. "Though this is barren hunting ground for pirates. We are far from the usual routes for either landship trade, or fliers. Only nomads pass through this area, and they make it unsafe for routine travel."

"Perhaps they followed us from Zar-tu-Kan?" Jeremy said. "Not wanting the illegal deed to be observed."

"It is possible. I cannot be certain, but they might be two ships I noticed anchored some distance from the docks there. If so, why have they not caught us? The Traveler is not exceptionally swift, and we have been making frequent stops to examine artifacts. One week would be ample to be beyond the Despotate's patrols, and prolonging the journey they must make to fence the plunder would cut into their profits."

"We can find out," Sally said.

She went below, then came up with their satellite hookup; it had a curved dish mounted on a tripod. As she snapped a headset into the open port she said, "We can get an aircraft diverted... one of the Despotate of Zar-tu-Kan's through the consulate there, if not one of ours from Kennedy Base..."

Her fingers touched the controls. Teyud watched in fascination; she found Terran technology as outré as Earthlings found the Martian variety.

Most are not interested in Terran tembst if it is not immediately profitable. This is a failure of imagination. For a beginning, they can consistently make more of their devices whenever they please. For another, some of it has capacities we lack. They are chaotic, yet perhaps they may be the means of restoring true Sh'u Maz.

Sally repeated the sequence, then went through it again.

"Nothing," she said quietly. "The pickup is fully functional as far as I can tell, but we're being jammed."

Jeremy sucked in his breath. Teyud looked keenly from one Terran to the other.

"Significance?" she said sharply, after a silence that stretched.

"That means that other Terrans are interfering," Jeremy explained.

"Ah, the EastBloc," the Martian said.

Now both of them stared at her. Martians who had any grasp on Earth's internal divisions were few and far between. Most were utterly uninterested.

"I... have had some contact with them," Teyud explained, then turned away. "It was not of an amiable nature."

I hope that this interference is aimed at you, my employers. Otherwise half a world was not far enough to run... and if I run further, I approach the source of peril once again.

 

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Near the Lost City of Rema-Dza

Mars, May 10th, 2000 AD

 

The dead plantations began to line the canal a day's sail out of the lost city of Rema-Dza. Crystal stumps showed through the red sands, some still jagged where they were recently uncovered, most worn to smooth nubs. Pieces of glassine pipe showed where distribution systems had curled around the low hillsides along the contour-lines to fruit trees in their individual pits. Eroded shards of wall stood out of the sand now and then, with thin scatterings of atmosphere plant on their leeward sides, protected for a while by their stabilizing effect on the moving dust. When the city itself came into sight, there was more of the green-red vegetation clustering around the bases of the towers still intact.

The pitiful hint of life was doubly welcome as the dryness of the cool air clawed at their mouths and sinuses. Both the Terrans had special masks with water-soaked linings they used every so often to stave off nosebleeds, and they were also using double portions of lotion on their hands and faces to keep the chapping and cracking down. Even the Martians found it uncomfortable here, except for the weird one with the odd tint to his skin who didn't seem to have a nose.

"Why's the growth concentrated around the towers?" Jeremy asked Sally. "Though that's pretty sparse to call concentrated. More of a 'very thin' as opposed to 'nothing'."

"The towers have—evidently did have even back when this place was built—systems that suck what water there is out of the air. It's a supplement to canals and reservoirs. That would keep some life going."

Winds hooted, cracking the sail taut and wailing mournfully through the thin lines of the rigging; beneath that was the hiss of sand like abrasive talc, and beneath that, the deeper, irregular sounds the air made as it wove through the ruins and hooted through their twisted passages. The quiet hum of the wheels faded as they slowed and the buildings loomed larger, turning from a model in the distance to immensities like a long-lost New York.

Teyud slid down from her perch high on the mast. Jeremy hid a slight shudder as she peeled the vision device from her face; it looked like she was being hugged at eye-level by a semi-transparent octopus with waxy skin and an unpleasant pinkish tinge spreading through its veins and capillaries.

The thing scuttled into its container at her belt, filling it like a viscous fluid, then darted a tentacle back out, grabbed a handle on the underside of the lid and slapped it shut with a snap.

Damned if I'll ever like equipment that drinks your blood, he thought. Even if that does make it... loyal. Give me plain old electronics and optics any day.

He was getting better at reading Martian expressions, though, or at least those of Teyud za-Zhalt. He'd spent thousands of hours looking at video, but there was a gestalt you could only pick up at first-hand.

She's not just a collection of traits, he told himself. I think I'm actually getting to know her a little as a human... well, sentient... being.

She was looking worried but not alarmed; evidently there was still no immediate sign of the possible pirates. Which he heartily approved of—pirates sounded much more romantic in a book about the Spanish Main than they seemed out here in the thoroughly modern Deep Beyond, and when Martians decided to be bad, they could be very bad indeed. This culture wasn't long on empathy at the best of times; he suspected that the emphasis on genetics tended to make them indifferent to individuals. Perhaps the fact that as far as anyone could tell they'd never had anything resembling a religion or a belief in an afterlife had something to do with it as well.

"There is no sign of pursuit," she said. "The weather will probably turn bad now. Possibly very bad; seasonal wind and sandstorms are common now in this location. However, this has positive features in our situation. We will have shelter and pursuers will not."

The dunes that surrounded and half-buried the lost city were higher than any which could stand under Earth's gravity even in the erg, the sand seas of the Sahara; so were the structures that towered out of them. Rema-Dza's buildings didn't have the candy-striped colors of Zar-tu-Kan as they jutted from the red-pink dunes. The towers still standing were reddish-brown from base to tip, and they looked more like tall spindly mushrooms with buttressed bases than asparagus stalks. Some were stumps; a few had been ground open to show the honeycomb of passages and halls within but hadn't fallen yet. Life showed there, wheeling dots that coasted between the great ruins. It wasn't until you realized how far away they were that they stopped looking small...

"Wild Dhwar and Paiteng," Teyud said.

Those were the Martian birds that held the top-predator niches wolves and tigers did on Earth. Dhwar had thirty-five foot wingspans, Paiteng more like fifty or fifty-five; and their claws and beaks were of uncomfortable size. Dhwar hunted in packs... or flocks... and had a nasty habit of squabbling over their prey in mid-air, letting bits and pieces drop as they did. Paiteng had smaller groups, usually parents and sub-adult offspring. Around here it helped to be able to patrol a hunting territory of a couple of thousand square miles.

She went on, "This would be a good nesting site and they do not need to feed locally, nor do they need liquid water. We must be cautious."

The buildings and broken domes that clustered around the feet of the towers were a little different too, structured as if they'd been put together from lego blocks and blunt wedges, staring out with more windows than the exterior of a Martian building would have these days. Even the Deep Beyond hadn't been quite so hostile, when this place was built.

"A very long time since it was inhabited," Teyud said. "Since the days when it seemed Sh'u Maz would indeed endure."

"One of the last cities to be built in the Imperial era, but also one of the first to be abandoned," Jeremy said cheerfully.

He'd studied the chronicles from Earthside long enough to be sure of that, and he was feeling more than a little smug at having his... not guess, estimate... confirmed. There had been quite a few skeptics. Martians usually had a pretty blasé attitude towards history, since they had so much of it, and it was refreshing to have Teyud showing curiosity; most of the crew had given the place one glance and then gone back to work, except the lookouts watching for anything dangerous.

"Well, lookitthat," Sally murmured as they coasted closer.

The winds were backing and filling; the sail boomed and thuttered above them. Teyud made a gesture and it was brought down; at another, the engine gave a grunt and began working its cranks to turn the wheels of the stern axle. The motion of the Traveler became steadier as she swayed upright, more like the powered vehicles the Terrans were used to at home. A circular domed building at least as large as the central part of Zar-tu-Kan slid by, and on the other side of it—half draped across it—was the ruin of an airship. Teyud's brows went up slightly, the equivalent of whistling, swearing and slapping her knee.

"That is very large," she said. "And from its lines, a warcraft."

"Thousand feet, easy," Sally said. "Maybe fifteen hundred. They don't build them that large any more."

The skeleton reared four hundred feet into the air, the thin flexible covering gone except for scraps. That showed the geodesic mesh of the structure below, except for large patches that had fallen in, either burned when the craft fell or simply eroded away since. If it was similar to what the Martians used now, it was made of a composite, long fibers of single-molecule chains in a resin matrix. On Earth they'd call the material synthetic... though here it was secreted by animals rather than made in a high-pressure vat.

"To a high probability, this city was evacuated in haste," Teyud said, looking at it. "With some fighting."

Jeremy nodded. "The redaction I saw was a commentary on a list of abandonments, done rather later—over two thousand years later for the list, and another two thousand for the commentary. Two thousand of our years, one thousand of yours. The implication was that the canal was cut off upstream in some sort of disturbance—a violent agitation of resistant elements—and everyone had to get out fast when the water stopped flowing, and go somewhere where the resistants weren't waiting for them."

"Ahmm," Teyud said—that was a conversational placeholder in Demotic, rather like "well" or "so" or "um". "You hope that the ruins were not thoroughly stripped of Imperial tembst?"

Teyud went on, "The nomads will have been visiting for some time. Possibly beginning not long after the city fell. There were always some of them in the Beyond, if not so many or so dangerous as now. In any case, only the shells of the tembst would remain."

Jeremy looked at her and nodded. There were drawbacks to using organics, one of the most obvious being that they died if you didn't feed and water them.

"Yeah, it wouldn't be useable, but the remains will tell us things. We're hoping that the nomads won't have taken everything that civilized people would, if they'd had time to strip it during a gradual decline or a planned evacuation. Of course, that was a long time ago. There might have been an expedition afterwards that never got recorded. But we can hope, and even if there was, we'll learn."

The desire of it overwhelmed him. To know...

Teyud gave him an odd look, shrugged and turned to the helm. Sally smiled at him.

"Abstract curiosity isn't something this culture encourages," she said.

He was getting good at interpreting her expressions, too: being cooped up with someone did that. There was a hint of something she wasn't saying in the narrow dark eyes.

"They must have had it once, or they'd never have developed the... hey, let's call it tembst in the first place."

That look was there again. "The usual explanation is that modern Martian culture is decadent," she pointed out.

He snorted. "Yeah, but that's insufficient even if 'decadent' means anything besides 'I don't like your sex life'. You're a biologist, Sally. Hasn't it occurred to you that these people are awfully backward in things like physics to have gotten so far with the biological sciences? How did they get the equivalent of electron microscopes?"

"They've got things that will do the equivalent. Those tailored enzymes they still use to splice genes, for example. And they used to have more in the Imperial era," she said neutrally.

"But they're biological too. How did they get from here to there? Their physics is pre-Einsteinian, barely Newtonian, and their mathematics are early twentieth century equivalents, and largely an intellectual game to them anyway. They'd never thought about atomic structures or quantum mechanics before we arrived, so how the hell did they get molecular biology? And don't tell me they knew more once and forgot it all later. It's a long time since the Early Imperial era, yes, and their technology literally manufactures itself, yes, but they never lost literacy and there are some documents that old. They've never had better physics than they do now and they should have had something much better to develop the tembst they've got."

She hesitated. He saw it and went on, "Come clean. Does this have anything to do with my project getting approved?"

Another hesitation, and then a shrug before she spoke. "Okay, there's need-to-know now. We... the big brains back home, actually... think that there may have been an Ancient intervention here, way back when."

"Of course there was. Mars was a dead rock before the Lords of Creation—"

She winced slightly at the lurid name science fiction writers had placed on the aliens who'd terraformed Mars and Venus two hundred million years ago. Half the thud-and-blunder fiction on the market today involved them.

"-stuck their oar in."

"Not just the initial terraforming or the transplanting of Terran life-forms," she said. "We know they were active on Venus fairly recently, historically speaking."

Jeremy nodded. There were languages on Venus related to ones on Earth, to Proto-Indo-European specifically. That had been demonstrated back in the late 80's. Humans had been taken from Earth and dropped there recently... relatively recently. Plus, there was the Diadem of the Eye...

"But all we've got on Venus is one enigmatic artifact and a native legend about what it did before it became totally inactive," he said. "Yes, there's been a theory around ever since then that the Lords gave the early Martians a kick-start in biotech as part of their big experiment. But what's changed?"

Reluctantly, she went on, "The EastBloc base is at Dvor Il-Adazar; that's where the Kings Beneath the Mountain started from and it was the capital all through the Imperial period. If there's anywhere on Mars that's preserved the records of the very earliest era of the Tollamunes, it's there under Mons Olympus."

Jeremy's brows went up. "You think the rulers there are telling the truth when they claim to be the lineal descendants of the Crimson Dynasty?"

She nodded. "The EastBloc investigators think so. What's more, they're worried about what's happened to their mission there. They've stopped obeying all their orders... and our sources say that it's stranger than that, that it's as if they don't know that they're not obeying all their orders."

"And they haven't done anything about it?"
"At the end of a hundred-and-eighty day round trip, with a ship twice a year? Even laser messages take hours. And every new guy they send out starts doing the same shit. That thing on Venus, the Diadem of the Eye... it apparently could do things to your mind, or so Marc Vitrac always swore, and he had some evidence for it. It was working when he found it."

Jeremy felt his brows trying to climb up into his hairline, and his lips shaped a silent whistle.

"The Diadem of the Eye doesn't do anything these days but sit there and baffle analysis. They think there are functioning artifacts from two hundred million years ago at Dvor Il-Adazar?"

She shook her head. "From thirty or forty thousand years ago, at least. Jeremy, the Diadem of the Eye was something like what the natives and Vitrac said it was. And we've been studying it for twelve years and we still can't even tell definitely if it's made of matter or just looks like it does. But it was functional for a long time, and the Ancients showed the locals how to use it."

He nodded. "And the USASF—"

"The President and the NSC and the Commonwealth people and the OAS," she amplified grimly.

"The President and the National Security Council and our wonderful allies think that there may be Ancient artifacts here? That the Lords of Creation gave the Tollamunes... things... and showed them how?"

"Yup. And there's as good a chance of finding that stuff here as anywhere outside Dvor Il-Adazar, and if there are Ancient artifacts they won't be affected by the passage of time. That's what suddenly rang bells on your research grant proposal. It cross-checked with a lot of what our historical research people said. Something happened here, back towards the end of the Imperial period, just before the era of the Civil Wars."

"The Dissonance, the Martians call it. There's not much chance of functioning stuff," he warned.

Lay people keep forgetting that what archaeologists find is usually junk. Informative junk, but still junk.

"It's a chance we can't take. If the EastBloc were ever to get control of Ancient technology, we'd be... how shall I put it delicately... totally ass-fucked. Those people, or whatever the hell they were, could alter planets like playdough. If they weren't gods, they were close enough for government work. I wouldn't want our government to get that much power... and I work for them! The EastBloc..."

She shuddered, and Jeremy nodded thoughtfully. "But right now, it looks like the technology, if it's there, has control of them."

"There is that."

He went on, "And according to my specialty, the Crimson Dynasty's experts could do a lot of mind-tricks too, even more than modern Martian drugs can—and those are scary enough. Maybe the rulers of Dvor Il-Adazar have some of that... tembst... of their own still handy, and they've been using it on the EastBlockers. Just what they deserve, too."

"Which could be nearly as bad. Remember what the EastBloc base has on hand in the way of weapons systems."

"We do too."

"Right, but we—and they—just use it for deterrent purposes, like the subs and silos and orbital lasers back home. Imagine Martians getting their hands on it. We don't sell them weapons and being careful about that was a big reason we put our base here way out in the boonies."

"Then why did the EastBloc put theirs right next to Mons Olympus?"

"Hubris, we think. I told you back in Zar-tu-Kan we couldn't do the beads-booze-and-blank-treaty-form thing here. Our best bet is that the EastBlockers thought they could, and now it's biting them in the butt."

"That's a pretty unpalatable pair of alternatives you've got there, Captain Yamashita," Jeremy said. "Either the EastBlockers have found the powers of gods and are planning on using them..."

"...which means we have to discover the equivalent here. This is our best bet."

Jeremy nodded. "Or if we're lucky, the rulers of Dvor Il-Adazar have messed with the EastBlockers' heads enough to take control of their weaponry." He chuckled. "At least that wouldn't be my responsibility, no?"

"No, just the government's. And they would have to try and deter whoever's running Dvor Il-Adazar... or watch them nuke and burn their way back to a planetary empire... in which case they'd have a planetary government with access to our technologies including space travel. Or to stop that, we'd have to give equivalent weapons to their enemies."

"That's assuming they'd go right ahead and use what they took."

"Have you ever met a Martian who'd hesitate for a second?"

"Hey, that's a stereotype. Like the unemotional half-Martian Science Officer on the Federation Starship New Frontier..."

His peace-offering was ignored, even though they'd happily discussed favorite episodes over the winter at Kennedy Base. Sally went on doggedly:

"Stereotypes get to be stereotypical because they've usually got a big kernel of truth. The only reason Martians don't fight more wars between their city-states is that they've learned that it isn't likely to produce results."

"That wouldn't stop us, judging by Earth's history."

"Yes, they're more sensible than us."

He smiled. "Hell, they're so sensible sometimes they decide wars by having the leaders play a game of chess instead!"

"Atanj, not chess. And only when the force on both sides is about equal. Then the rulers or generals play with living pieces."

"Yeah, but the losing side actually accepts the result when they do that. And only a few die, instead of thousands. That's strength of character!"

"No, it's just being cold-bloodedly smart—it's a war game, after all, and the result probably would be the same if they actually fought the war. And the leaders accept the result because the followers are smart too."

Jeremy frowned in puzzlement. "How so?"

"They don't have more geniuses than we do, because they don't deviate from the mean as much, but their average IQ is about 125, which means they've got a hell of a lot fewer hopeless sub-100 chuckleheads. If they ever get a really scientific worldview and a technology that isn't limited to biological sources of energy..."

"We might have some very useful friends," Jeremy said. "There's something to be said for Sh'u Maz, you know. It gave them peace for a long time—

Sally laughed. "Oh, you are a round-eye, aren't you?"

"What's that got to do with it?" he asked, baffled. "And hell, you're half roundeye yourself."

"Over half, but I'm East Asian enough to know that what Sustained Harmony actually means is everyone doing what they're told, and filling out the forms and standing in line and then doing it all over again... over and over and over... with Grandfather as official Tin God... which is the sort of Confucian claptrap my ancestors left Hiroshima Prefecture to get away from. And we didn't have it as bad as the Chinese, and even the Chinese didn't have as bad a case as the Martians."

Jeremy went on, "They're smart enough not to fight much, anyway. That sort of Sustained Harmony doen't sound so bad."

"No, they're smart enough not to fight if it doesn't look like a good idea. If they had weapons that gave an overwhelming advantage, they'd—sensibly and intelligently—use 'em. These are the people who think infecting criminals with parasitic grubs is model penology and funny as hell to watch, too, and who use the same word for cop and bandit and soldier. And the same words for ruler and despot. And the closest you can come to saying liberty in Demotic is not subject to official sanction."

Jeremy winced. "Well, Teyud's a good sort; I like her. Quite a bit, in fact."

"Teyud's an honest mercenary. She stays bought. And she's got more of a sense of humor than any other Martian I've met, and she's interested in things. That doesn't mean she'd be safe with a hundred-megawatt orbital laser or a thermonuke. Hell, we're not safe with that stuff and Terrans average a lot higher on the milk-of-human-kindness quotient than Martians do; we just got too obsessed with space travel to kill each other off. So far. If the Ancients hadn't given us an interesting couple of planets to explore and squabble over—"

"-and the Ancients themselves to worry about," he put in.

"-and that, odds are we'd have destroyed Earth by now."

Jeremy looked back towards the ruins. Suddenly his abstract love of knowledge looked as if it had unpleasantly practical applications.

 

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The Lost City of Rema-Dza

Mars, May 11th, 2000 AD

 

Teyud watched as the winch groaned, hauling the Traveler stern-first through the gap in the great russet wall. It had taken some searching to find a suitable building with a break big enough to take the landship without being enlarged, but this was perfect; the interior was large enough that they didn't have to dismount the mast, and the street outside was broad and aligned with the prevailing east-west winds, so they could scoot away quickly at need. The intact roof made it easy to exclude predators.

At a guess it had been a gas-storage tank; the simple building was similar to those used for that purpose even today, a square exterior with a hollow cylinder inside, topped by a moveable dome, and the interior was utterly bare except for a layer of drifted sand. Probably an explosion after it was abandoned had broken a wall—one was usually left a little weaker than the others, to focus the effects of any such accident.

And there was an intact thousand-foot tower nearby, one that didn't have a dhwar rookery; that would do for a lookout. She wished for a moment that she could hand her viewer over for the scouts she planned to keep on duty up there every hour of the night and day, but it would take far too long to familiarize it with a new user of a distinct genetic pattern, and be too stressful for the recipient.

Possibly fatal, in fact, and they had already had annoying losses crew losses; more would depress morale. This was similar to an atanj game, where you had to reach the Victory Conditions without driving your pieces to defection... but then, it was known as the Game of Life. They would have to make do with the cheaper, less capable commercial systems.

When the landship was well within, the crew trotted back out, carrying a heavy cable over their shoulders. Baid tu-Or oversaw its anchoring to a thick stub of solid wall across the abandoned boulevard, and its covering with sand. With that in place they could use the engine-driven winch to pull the ship out into the street in a matter of moments.

That done, Teyud personally supervised those assigned to mask the tracks of the Traveler's wheels, easy enough with sand as fine and friable as that of the Deep Beyond. It would be impossible to conceal that the landship had headed into the ruined city, but they could mask which streets and turns it had taken.

I do not believe those two ships abandoned the chase. Not unless they destroyed each other over the prospect of our possessions, and randomness seldom falls out so conveniently.

Jeremy came up to her, still sweating from the effort he'd put into helping, even though the temperature was mild—quite close to the freezing point of water. He sank down on a piece of wall, and she squatted on her haunches; that put their heads near enough on a level for easy conversation.

Her nostrils twitched. His scent was strong, yes, but also oddly mild in a musky sort of way—less salty than a Real Worlder. He swigged thirstily from a vessel, and offered it to her. She accepted and sipped politely though the water was bland, of low mineral content as Terrans preferred. But water was, after all, water; to despise it was to despise life, and that was to welcome death. When she returned the flask, she looked at his face and blinked; they had seldom approached this closely.

"Permission for contact?" she said.

Granted, he replied with a side-flick of his gaze; it was flawless, save for the twitch which his small immobile ears could not perform.

Teyud reached out and touched the side of his cheek briefly; there was a bristly sensation, not quite like anything she'd felt before. Not exactly unpleasant, but... strange.

"Fascinating," she said. "I had heard that this was so, but never observed it. There is hair growing on your face. Hair of easily perceptible size, nearly equivalent to your scalp."

He nodded. "It's common to Terrans." He gave a wry grimace that she couldn't quite place. "And similar hair grows on other parts of our bodies, as well."

"Fascinating," she repeated for emphasis.

And slightly grotesque, she thought: her own people had only the finest down anywhere but the head. Grotesque but interesting. So is his manner of speech. His Demotic is fluent, but this English influences his usage, as the High Tongue does mine.

She went on, "But why has it not been noticeable before on you or Sally Yamashita?" She peered more closely. "The individual hairs are of considerable diameter but they were not nearly so apparent yesterday."

Amusement glinted in his eyes. "The facial hair is limited largely to males. We use... males in my culture often use... a blade or depilatory cream to remove facial hair; otherwise it would grow nearly as long as that on our heads. I didn't have time to depilate this morning."

"Is the hair for insulation?" she asked. "There seems to be too little for that purpose, and it is said that... Earth... is on average considerably warmer than the Real World. Or is it some sort of secondary sexual characteristic, like a nokor male's ruff?"

She used Earth instead of the Wet World, which could also be translated as the Big Muddy Bog or the Swamp-Planet. Terrans seemed very sensitive to slights.

"Ah... we're not sure. It's called a beard."

She nodded thoughtfully. "Your people are so intriguingly... rough-hewn."

He laughed at that. "Our favored hypothesis is that your ancestors employed tembst to suit yourselves to this environment... or to make yourselves more aesthetically pleasing according to the canons then prevalent. To us you look neotenous and... very refined."

Teyud nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I have heard your theory that we are descended from... Earth... life. Certainly your world seems, by all reports, to be more suited to life in general. And there have always been puzzling inconsistencies in the records of pre-sapient life here on the Real World."

He shook his head and threw up his hands in an unfamiliar gesture; she judged it to be one of exasperation.

"That is what educated Martians usually say."

She frowned. "It is the reasonable response."

"But you don't seem very concerned by it."

"Why should we be? Origins one hundred million years ago... two hundred million of your years... do not affect our lives today directly, after all. For each sapient, as the proverb runs, its own existence spans the life of the universe."

He laughed aloud. "Now, on Earth it caused... is still causing no end of trouble!"

Killing trouble, sometimes, he didn't add aloud.

She cocked her ears forward. "Intriguing. Well, to judge from the Terrans I have encountered, scholarship seems very important to you. It is surprising that with your brief history, you have theorized on the origins of life so deeply."

"Fossils... mineralized remains... are much more common on Earth, and there's a very complete sequence. I suppose that's why our theory of evolution appeared so early and why everyone... nearly everyone... has accepted it."

"Ahmm," she said thoughtfully. "Although of course you have no evidence that your planet also was not seeded with life rather than developing it."

"Well, we do have fossil records back long before life was present on either Mars or Venus," he said. "And both planets were definitely altered to be habitable and seeded with Earth life. A hundred million of your years ago."

She nodded, emphatically to imitate the Terran version of the gesture.

"Yes, but that says nothing of how life originally arrived on your Earth. It merely demonstrates that it was not at an advanced level when introduced."

She concentrated, calling up lectures from her clandestine tutors; those had included information from Terra, as well as geology and Imperial tembst-lore and investigations-of-non-directed-development... what Terrans called evolution.

"Your savants say that Earth had a thick reducing atmosphere at an early period? Then very primitive forms could have been dropped there at a remote time, multiplied explosively, and then evolved into the present species. Including those later introduced to the Real World."

He started to speak, stopped, and gave her an odd look. "That is... I don't think I could refute it."

"The hypothesis is inherently non-falsifiable, unless one had access to artifacts or records from the aliens of your hypothesis," she said. "Still, an interesting thought-construct."

She reached out again and touched the beard, then pushed gently sideways. There was an immense solidity to the feel, more so than even a Thoughtful Grace, a feeling of huge strength. It contrasted so oddly with his scholar's enthusiasm for details—

A shout interrupted her train of thought.

 

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The ruins of the airship loomed above Jeremy as they followed the messenger, fading into the hazy air at the extremities.

It takes a lot of getting used to, how tall things can be here, he thought. Looking back, Earth seems... squisheddown somehow.

When they clambered up a dune and slid down inside, it was a little like being in the decaying carcass of a whale millennia dead. The wind had risen, flicking red dust everywhere that even smelled dry, and though it felt as soft as talc when you rubbed your fingers lightly together, it was actually like an industrial abrasive under pressure. That made it maddening in the underwear and worse beneath an eyelid. He was beginning to appreciate why Martians kept their faces covered... and to envy them that nicating membrane, and the natural oils in their skins that slowed chapping and cracking, and a whole bunch of other things.

"The control cabin must have been plated in flame-retardant armor," Jeremy said as they climbed down a drift half-disassembled by shovel work.

Teyud nodded beside him. The hard and supernally strong stringers of the hull couldn't burn. They had melted and slumped in grayish dribbles and pools against the black of the cabin armor as the blazing hydrogen overcame the fireproofing anticatalyst and blazed like a blast furnace; there had been better than twelve million square feet of it, after all. It must have been like a blast furnace. The lines of the cabin were still clean and sharp—though they had the smooth curved edges of most Martian artifacts, where right angles were rare. The control cabin was about twenty-five feet by fifteen, judging from the section that had been cleared. In the middle of the roof was a two-foot circle marked by a thin white line.

Jeremy shaped a soundless whistle as a thought struck him. The structure of the airship had not only survived that fire, it had lain here since before men built the Great Pyramid.

Objectively he knew that these compounds simply didn't oxidize or decay—they made glassine look about as lasting as potato peelings by contrast—but it still made his archaeologist's reflexes boggle. When you considered what most digs on Earth looked like after a few centuries...

Of course, Earth wears harder on things, he thought. Hotter, and it's heat that drives weather; more gravity, more water, more oxygen. And this was under sand for almost all that time.

"The cabin was armored and the stringers and ribs are of reinforced dimensions," Teyud said. "This was an Imperial warcraft; I would postulate that it is... was... of the Rampant Intimidator class. The tembst of making that armor has been lost, except perhaps in Dvor Il-Adazar... a place of which I know little."

Her voice always had more modulation than that of most Martians, who commonly had a rather flat low-affect tone. He thought he might be hearing something a little strained in that last phrase.

The sky had vanished in a pink haze since the morning, swallowing the tops of the towers, and everyone had his or her head-dresses on; the two Terrans wore goggles, and the Martians' nicating membranes flicked constantly back and forth sideways across their eyes, getting the grit out. The six De'ming who'd done the actual digging squatted and leaned on their shovels with their backs to the main force of the wind, one of them nibbling on a cake of asu-flour, the others swaying and humming in some sort of collective passing-the-time ritual that might be religious or social or their equivalent of flatlining.

Baid tu-or slid down beside the two Terrans and the Thoughtful Grace, to stand atop the long black rectangle where it emerged from the sand. A trickle of the pinkish stuff ran around her feet as she did; digging it was only a little more permanent than shoveling water. In a day it would be ten feet deep here again, unless they did a lot more work.

"The chitin along the seams is still smoothly fused," she said. "Even after so long. This is impressive work. Still, let us begin around this circular line, which I think is probably a hatchway."

She had a tank on her back, and a long hose and nozzle connected to it in her hands. Everyone scrambled back a little on the loose, shifting sands as she sprayed a thin clear liquid. The cutter enzyme and its carrier had a sharp smell, something like wintergreen and mint; the jet settled on the area around the inner edge of the hatchway and immediately began to form a thin ring of bubbling white foam. When that turned green and began emitting tendrils of vapor even more livid, everyone scrambled back more than a little, a few coughing at the acid-chemical-and-decay reek, and one of the crew motioned the De'ming to retreat as well. They didn't have much sense of self-preservation about anything but the most obvious threats.

They waited; most of the Martians with their slightly disturbing patience, Teyud with the relaxed alertness of a tiger in the brush beside a water-hole, and the two Terrans with tense eagerness.

Jeremy looked aside at Yamashita. I wonder why she's quite that eager, he thought. I know why I am. If there's really untouched material from the Imperial period in there, my name's made and I'll have a lifetime's work ahead of me. But she's a biotech specialist, not an archaeologist, and anything biological in there is going to be very tough jerky, if that. Or maybe she knows more about that Ancient stuff than she was telling...

The hatchway sagged, and then dropped in. Teyud drew a narrow rod from her harness and tapped it sharply against a buckle. There was a click as barriers broke and the internal ingredients mingled, and then it began to glow with a bright bluish light. She dropped it in through the hatchway and fell prone beside the hole, peering through with her pistol in her hand.

"No immediate danger," she said. "But the glow-rod has developed a yellow tinge; we should wait for breathable air to penetrate." Then she turned to Baid to-Or. "Secure the ground against inward collapse, and erect an air-scoop to ventilate this. We may need to cover it and then dig again, if the storm is as bad as probability and evidence indicate."

The engineer nodded and turned to the crew. "You two, frames and sailcloth for wind-screens, in a wedge pointing so. You, get the De'ming working on shoveling the crest-lines along there—" her finger traveled three-quarters of a circle around them "-down on the exterior side. And the crew will shovel as well, in relays by watches. Six De'ming are not enough to move the necessary cubic footage without imposing undue wear."

There was a rising grumble from the standard-Martian crewfolk present; Baid tu-Or glanced at Teyud and she twitched an ear in Sally Yamashita's direction. The Eurasian woman nodded.

"Double payment for the duration of such work," Teyud added... but she put it in the Imperative-Condescentative tense, which was a blunt threat as well.

The grumbling died down and the Martians scattered to their tasks. Teyud swung through the hole and down an accommodation-way ladder below. The two Terrans followed suit; the twelve-foot drop to the floor was nothing, but it was dim within and they didn't know what the surface below would be. While they climbed down, the Martian picked up her glow-rod and peeled a cap off one end, using the sticky surface below to attach it to the roof; when you were as tall as she, and long-limbed, that was easy enough. The minicam whirred as Jeremy scanned the interior methodically. It was reassuring to look through the sight and see the interior slightly grainy, more like a training video.

The decking turned out to be some substance that looked like dark reddish-brown linoleum but felt like concrete beneath their boots, giving excellent footing despite the thin scatter of dust that had drained in when the hatchway failed. The control chamber was like a box with the floor smaller than the ceiling, connected by inward-sloping walls. In the light of the glow-rod they could just see that there were portholes in the walls, shut with circles of the same black armor. A horseshoe of control positions stood around the forward end of the chamber, with chairs fixed to the floor and with the infinity-symbol of Sh'u Maz over the central station.

Each control position had instruments before it—though most of them were simply holes in the curved panels before them. They would have been mostly organic...

And nothing organic could survive this long, not even in a hermetically sealed chamber, he thought. Nothing that could rot or rust.

The battle armor the crew had been wearing had endured, a matt-black, chitinous stuff much like the fabric of the control cabin itself, though the weird-looking helmets had slumped forward as the spines disintegrated over the eons. The suits were eerily elongated, made for slender forms easily matching Teyud's seven-foot-plus.

One set was crimson, not black. Teyud started at the sight of it, visibly surprised for a moment.

"That is Imperial armor!" she said. "Only a member of the Tollamune line could wear it!"

The breastplate bore a device like two spirals interlinked, crimson on black, and encircled by an ancient ideographic glyph that seemed to be inscribed in sinuous strokes of flame.

It was the sigil of the Tollamune emperors of Dvor Il-Adazar, the Kings Beneath the Mountain.

The glyphs were a script used only to write the High Tongue, the ancient court language of the Crimson Dynasty and the distant ancestor of modern Demotic. Jeremy's lips moved as he silently translated it to himself, reading the elements one by one:

Knowledge-completeness-returning-recurrence-rebirth.

"A Designated Successor's badge," Teyud said, shaken.

Jeremy mentally translated what the Martian had said: The Crown Prince's regalia... or the Crown Princess, same thing with Martians. Oooooh, something important did happen here.

The black breastplates bore the same symbol, but enclosed in a white circle; it was the livery badge, worn only by the Ruby Throne's closest servitors. Teyud made a slow complex gesture with her pistol and holstered it.

"These were of the Thoughtful Grace," she said, in that bronze-bell voice. "They died at their posts, attempting with complete commitment to accomplish their assigned mission. Since dissolution is ultimately inescapable, there are far worse manners in which to complete the track of one's world-line."

She placed two more glow-rods on the roof, which gave a good reading-level light. That made the long-lost compartment a bit more strange, not less. He was uneasily conscious of the odd smell, a neutrality with only the faintest memory of must, and the way he had to breathe deeply to get enough air, and of how the distant hooting of the wind was muffled by the thick chitin armor and the sand piled against the walls. It had been a long, quiet wait.

And Teyud is the only Martian in here. The others are avoiding the place. That could be lack of curiosity... or something else. A superstition? Rare, then. Martians generally don't have 'em.

A scattering of objects lay about each of the chairs, where they'd fallen when the crew's leather harness disintegrated. Some were merely rust-smears on the floor, where the steel of weapons and tools had disintegrated. Others remained.

Sally bent to touch a pile of blood-red sheets beside the central chair; a faint discoloration around them was probably the remains of a box.

"Careful!" Jeremy said hastily. "That looks like writing and they could disintegrate."

He had his minicam going as he stooped closer. "It is writing!"

Teyud knelt on the other side of the documents, drew her dagger and pointed, then used the tip to delicately tease apart the stack. The individual pieces were about the size of legal sheet paper back on Earth, and were made of something that had the consistency of slightly stiff parchment stained a reddish color, overprinted in black and gold and blood-crimson. It couldn't be paper of any sort, of course, not after the span of years.

The Thoughtful Grace said, "It is a Vermillion Rescript, swaying the Real World. Instructions from the Emperor of the day... yes, there is his name: Timrud sa-Rogol, who reigned in the beginnings of the Age of Dissonance. A Vermillion Rescript was... is... always written on imperishable material for future storage and reference. This will not disintegrate; the conditions here have been as stable as the Vaults of Remembrance beneath the Mountain. It could have lain here waiting until the Real World died and the sun swallowed it."

They carefully moved the sheets until they lay side by side; Jeremy recorded every step of the process. Fortunately, they were only inscribed on one side. He began to decipher them and then shrugged and looked at Teyud. "Got any idea what they say?"

She frowned slightly; he could see the little crease between her eyes in the slit of her headdress, and then she pulled it back suddenly for better vision.

"Yes, but the glyphs are in the High Speech, and a somewhat strange form at that, when it was a spoken language, before it became sharply distinguished from the ancestral form of Demotic. This is the Rescript proper, the original instruction."

She looked at it for a long moment. "It is an order to the Designated Successor to seek out this city and remove the Imperial tembst to Dvor Il-Adazar. Over a dozen devices are listed; that is more than in most cities, even in the High Imperial period. But..."

"But?"

He thought he saw what she meant; the devices were listed, and then an entirely separate glyph was touched by the modifier maximum importance... or something like it.

Teyud added slowly, "And one in particular is encircled by numinous-significance, qualified with treacherous-departure. We speak here of secrets which were always very closely held. Evidently this city was founded to be a center for—"

She used a word neither of the Terrans knew; it was an archaic term, she explained,meaning something like research.

"—yes, research into the Deep Beyond and possible ways of controlling its spread. See, here is the glyph-element Tollamune beginning, with the paired helix symbol encased in a constellation. That is the original Imperial designator, which fell out of use a few thousand years thereafter. According to this, several bearers of the Tollamune genome—"

The Imperial family, Jeremy translated to himself.

"—including the reigning Emperor and his Successor visited here regularly. Then... it gives no specifics. It refers to the unfortunate event or failure to Sustain Harmony. That might be any event, including a usurpation or assassination, or other failure of propriety."

Sally stiffened slightly; Teyud flicked an ear at her and went on, "These surrounds modify the central glyph; the helix interrupted by wedges is tembst-origin—'source', which is the Ruby Throne. And this qualifier is returning-to-beginnings... return to the Mountain, combined with commanded-required; that is equivalent to the imperative tense of the modern tongue."

She looked at the other sheets. "This is simpler: It is the authority of the bearer to commandeer and command in pursuit of the Rescript. Here is a list of the equipment and personnel."

Teyud frowned. "This last is the Successor's Statement of Apology, written even as the warcraft was destroyed by those attempting to commandeer it for evacuation."

"You read the High Speech very well," Sally said neutrally.

Teyud shrugged. "I am Thoughtful Grace. For ten thousand years and more we were bred to guard the Ruby Throne. Even scattered among the caravan towns and the Wai Zang cities, even today, we remember."

"So they didn't get the materials they came for," Jeremy said. "Especially the numinously significant whatever. Wait—this is a map, is it not?"

He pointed the minicam towards the last page. It had schematic drawings as well as glyphs; not precisely the style of modern Martian maps, but something of their look, more like a circuit diagram than the bird's-eye-view style of their Terran equivalents. Or perhaps more like a flow-diagram, of the sort you got as guides in the London Underground. It had the advantage of giving relationships precisely, but you needed to know the key, and the distances weren't proportional.

"It is a map. Of the underground ways between the principle buildings... and these mark the locations of the Imperial tembst."

She picked it up; his cautious archaeologist's soul cried out in protest, but the tough flexible material seemed to take no harm.

"The key would be the location of this—" she pointed to an elongated symbol. "That would represent the centrum of Imperial power in this city. I estimate that the most efficient approach would be—"

 

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