Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS

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


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 20th Edition

University of Chicago Press, 1998

 

THE SPACE RACE:

The Second Phase 1988-

 

Knowledge that the Solar System contained two more life-bearing planets besides Earth, and that they had intelligent humanoid inhabitants, was enough to fuel the first two decades of the Space Race. Both the great blocs devoted enormous resources to establish bases on Mars and Venus, and to the huge infrastructure of space stations, orbital power and manufacturing plant, and lunar bases and mines necessary to support the expeditions to our sister planets.

However, by the 1980's it was becoming apparent that while Venus and Mars were treasure-houses of scientific knowledge, they were not economic frontiers. There would be no equivalent of the sugar and tobacco, the silk and gold and silver which had rewarded the pioneers of Earth's oceans in the Renaissance. Virtually nothing could bear the costs of interplanetary travel at a profit; the whole enterprise was dependent on vast and continuous subsidies. Voices were heard arguing that devoting a fifth of the gross national product to merely scientific ventures, despite the many valuable spin-offs of space-based enterprises, was a waste of resources which could be better used on earth.

However, research on Venus and Mars had already begun to raise disturbing questions as to the origins of life on those worlds. Paleontology and geology conducted at the US and EastBloc bases increasingly indicated that prior to approximately 200 mya, both globes had been sterile—Venus a hell of sulphuric acid and superdense atmosphere, Mars a cold frozen globe with only a whisp of carbon dioxide. Something had happened to turn both into passable analogues of Earth, and it had happened in a geological eyeblink of no more than a few million years, possibly as little as a few thousand. Only intelligent action could account for it—and action on a scale and level of technological prowess which made earth's vaunted sciences seem like tools of chipped flint.

Advances in the life sciences reinforced the conclusions of the planetologists. Naively, the first explorers had been unsurprised at the exceedingly Earthlike forms life on Venus and Mars took. That fitted in with generations of imaginative extrapolations (see science fiction). But detailed examination showed that many species on both planets were not just similar to their Terran counterparts, but similar in ways that made common origins almost certain. Molecular biology and DNA analysis, then entering their period of rapid growth and practical application, showed the same. The clinching proof was the discovery on Venus in the late 1980's of groups speaking an Indo-European language, and possessing an artifact—albeit nonfunctioning and extremely enigmatic—that they insisted had been given to their ancestors by 'gods' who brought them to their new home.

The shock of discovering that the Ancients—sometimes more colorfully called the Lords of Creation—had been modifying the Solar system, and continuing their actions into historic times, was fully as great as that of finding humanoid life on other planets. In the 1970's, the first large space telescopes had confirmed the existence of life-bearing planets with oxygen atmospheres orbiting other suns. Now humanity had conclusive proof that at least one alien species was vastly more advanced than ourselves, and that it had been intervening in our history for its own enigmatic purposes since the time of the dinosaurs.

As space-based telescopes and other sensors grew in power and refinement in the 1980's and 1990's, disturbing hints of engineering on a stellar scale were observed in the heavens, a scale which made the terraforming and seeding of two planets minor by comparison. These discoveries unleashed an ever-growing scientific, philosophical and religious turmoil. They also provided the impetus for maintaining and even expanding the scope of human activity in space. If the universe contained aliens of such inscrutable power, humanity had no choice but to expand its own knowledge and capacities as rapidly as possible...

 

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The Lost City of Rema-Dza

Mars, May 15th, 2000 AD

 

Outside, the windstorm had brought visibility down to nothing and was doing its best to rearrange the landscape; this time of year, it might be covering half the northern hemisphere. The Martians had rigged cables to connect the Traveler's hiding-place with the nearest buildings, and you had to slog through the sandy dust with an elbow around the line, blind as a bat.

Every time Jeremy Wainman did it, he remembered that the Zanta had headed this way and might well be lairing in the square miles of abandoned tower and building and tunnel around them. The memory of those saw-edged beaks was uncomfortably vivid. At least the wind would keep the aerial predators pinned to their rookeries.

"I don't see why the hell they sent an archaeologist here," he said cheerfully to Yamashita as he rolled a door shut behind him and stamped and shook his robes to get as much of the dust out as possible. "I mean, you're a troubleshooter and you know more about the tech stuff... why didn't they just send you?"

"It's a ruined lost city, isn't it?" she replied sourly, looking up from her portable computer. "With a goddamned lost treasure in it somewhere. All that's lacking are pygmy natives with blowguns. Classic archaeological stuff, like those movies back in the 70's with the temples and the big rolling stone balls and giant snakes and the idols with emeralds in their eyes. We need you to find the stuff and me to keep you alive and working and possibly figure out what the stuff you find does."

"You're showing your age, and that series was set on Venus anyway. And real archaeologists don't do ruined cities and treasures. That's for tomb-robbers, not archaeologists. Archaeologists spend years excavating antique latrines and rubbish dumps with toothbrushes and whisk-brooms, like when I worked on Anasazi digs. And didn't you notice? I'm completely bullwhip-free."

She smiled, which was good to see again; she'd been a bit glum since they had their last little chat.

"You do have a sword and a pistol," she pointed out.

He cleared his throat. "Anyway, what have you got?"

The chamber they were in had been the entranceway to a block of living quarters once; the equivalent of an apartment building's vestibule—though it might just as easily have been a palace, or a block of offices, or something with no exact Terran equivalent. It had a knee-high bench all around the oval interior, and it was lined with polished hematite, green and blue and red. He sat down on the bench beside her; they'd padded it with silks and furs from the landship, spare bedding, glow-lanterns and boxes and sacks of supplies. The glow vanished in the smooth curves of the vaulting above; you didn't need much to imagine lost banners stirring in the drafts.

They'd put the porta-potty in another room. Even now it took a certain amount of willpower for Jeremy to use it. The damned thing was alive...

"Here's the latest on the tunnels," Sally said. "Teyud's been sending reports by runner as they find stuff."

A spiderweb sprang into existence on the screen, with sections color-coded in blue, red and gray.

"These are clear; those are filled; these are collapsed; and these are partially choked but clearable."

"Why on earth... well, you know what I mean... do Martians burrow like ants? Every time they've been around for a while, you get these warrens underneath."

"Storage and insulation. And they just seem to like it. At least they build tunnels big enough to get around in without knocking your head, mostly; and it's convenient during weather like this."

"Plus you're safe from flocks of giant flesh-eating birds."

"That too." Her voice lost its bantering tone. "You have any luck getting through to base, or Zar-tu-Kan?"

"None. But this crappy weather is bad enough that might be natural, now."

"Yeah," she said flatly. "It could be. But it isn't."

He shrugged uneasily and took a swig from his canteen; Sally reached out a hand, took a drink herself, poured a little into a mask, and clipped it across her face.

Being pursued by Boris and Natasha who want to steal the treasure of the lost city really isn't what an archaeologist is trained for, Jeremy thought.

Granted, he was an Olympic-level fencer and a rock-climber of note as well; you didn't get to go offplanet unless you had physical and academic qualifications. Intrigue and possible violence, though... not his style. He would have thought it had gone out of fashion even for the EastBlockers, now that they were raveningly successful capitalists. At least the eastern part of the Eastbloc were, and they ran the show nowadays.

Pardon me, now that they're employing "socialism with special characteristics." Which mostly means exporting areaphones and videoplayers and thinscreens and replacing beautiful old pagodas with the butt-ugliest skyscrapers outside Chicago—only twice as big—and building mansions outfitted with gold-plated bathtubs and squads of big-titted blond Russian housemaids in skimpy uniforms. But I guess when the stakes are high enough, atavistic instincts come to the fore.

Luckily, if there were EastBloc agents out there shadowing them, they'd have to use locals for transport, probably those ones Teyud had spotted. And this weather would ground local aircraft and send landships into button-down mode, bare poles and noses anchored into the wind and everyone waiting it out below-decks. Martians didn't try to fight a sandstorm. There weren't that many in a season—this planet had less active weather systems than Earth—but a bad one could strip the flesh off your bones and then grind your bones to meal. They were the cutting edge of the Deep Beyond, claiming a little more of the Real World each year.

"I'd better go have a look in person," he said.

He was smiling as he left. Teyud seemed to have caught some of his passion for ancient relics; or at least she was very enthusiastic about this set of them.

 

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He could see the glowsticks that illuminated the Thoughtful Grace's improvised command post long before he got there. The oval walls of the ancient tunnel were slick enough to reflect light, still held by the chemical saliva-mortar of the beast that had drilled them. Mica glittered in the glassy rock; at closer range, he could see the light shining in the Martians' great eyes, as luminous as those of cats.

Teyud looked up at him with a slight, enigmatic smile, made a gesture of greeting-acknowledgement and then went on to her second-in-command as she made a mark with her ink-stick on the wall of the junction. "Anything of significance?"

They were in a Y-fork of what had been the waste-recirculation system; that was linked to all the larger buildings, and lined with reconfigured rock. A foot-deep layer of surface dust had accumulated here; the problem was that in some places it had filled the tunnels completely, and in a few the fall of towers above had ruptured the passageways. Approaching their goal in the former centrum of power would not simply be a matter of following the airship's map. They would have to draw a map of their own, testing which ways were open.

"We have cleared a passage to the large chamber here," Baid said. "There are promising exits which may lead to that which we seek, as yet still blocked by accumulated sand. There are also many cockroaches and a large variety of small, burrowing insects in these areas, particularly the large chamber."

She indicated them with a finger. "Once or twice there is a brief glimpse of very fast mammalian vermin, possibly rodents of unusual size."

"Interesting," Teyud replied, and the engineer nodded. "Very interesting."

"Why is that interesting?" Jeremy asked as he came up. "It is what I would anticipate in such an environment."

Baid looked at him and took a pose of comically exaggerated surprise, which meant widening her eyes slightly and touching the fingers of one hand to her chin.

"Incredulous disbelief," she said.

Teyud realized the problem. "Life requires water," she explained. "We are in the Deep Beyond, and this city has been abandoned for a considerable period."

"Oh," he said.

Yeah, the Deep Beyond isn't a place, really, it's a condition. The deadest spots on a dying planet, where even evolution can't keep up with the freeze-drying anymore. This makes the Sahara look like the Everglades.

"The towers?" he said.

"They would provide a little moisture, but I think not enough for the observed activity, particularly of late. Even the Mountain does not reap as much water from the atmosphere as it once did. The flying predators would be a source of organics, but in the towers where they nest, not here. Something dwells here below. This may complicate our search and produce delay. Baid, relieve the watch on the Traveler. Jeremy, come, we should investigate."

She turned on her heel and led the way, which was perfectly polite in Martian terms, if a little imperious.

She's worried, he thought. Which means I should be worried. But I'm not. We're so close!

They went through the tunnels the crew of the Traveler had explored. The way was faintly lit by glow-globes—the original ones, cleaned out and given fresh cultures of algae and feeding sludge. But not very many. Granted, Martians see in the dark better than we do, but not that much better.

"Why so little light?" Jeremy said.

"Hibernation," Teyud said.

"Explicative-Interrogative?" Jeremy replied—actually an expressive sound that meant expand on your last statement. In Martian, even the equivalent of huh? was precise. You could do the same with an inclination of the shoulder and an ear-flick, but they weren't face-to-face.

"Carnivorous and parasitic organisms in hibernation will be stimulated to full activity by heat, light, the increased moisture brought by our exhalations, and the scent of our flesh," she said succinctly without turning around. "It is unwise to give them more stimulation than strictly necessary."

Which was exactly what you wanted to hear when you were struggling through sand soft as talc, in a dimly-lit warren of tunnels in a lost city in the Deep Beyond, with a blasting sandstorm raging above and possible pirates, assassins and spies waiting for you. Most Martian land animals did hibernate, too—even the hominids could do it if they had to, by a sheer act of will, something that still had the biologists a bit puzzled. Hibernation was logical on a planet with winters longer and colder than anything Earth had ever seen.

"Screw logic," he muttered to himself in English, with his hand on his automatic.

They climbed up a sand-drift that half-filled the tunnel, then down a spiral staircase that had been shoveled open and from there upwards into a great chamber, circular and about a hundred yards across, with a floor covered in waist-high dunes; the walls were the native ironstone bedrock for fifteen feet, and the smooth synthetic—or digested—stone above that. The roof was intact, a low, seamless dome of the poured-stone material reinforced with organic glass fiber. That had been the staple of Martian buildings since early in the Imperial era. It was deep in shadow; pools of light were scattered here and there where the crew had set up globes on portable stands.

There was a faint odor, too. Nothing you could really call a smell; it was more of an absence of the utter lack of smells that most of the tunnels had.

"This was a manufacturing facility," Teyud said. "I think the repair shops for the warships were located here; possibly a hospital or budding-plant for engines."

Jeremy nodded, then gestured agreement. There were glassine pipes along the wall for distributing the noxious waste-sludge that engines ate. Places on the floor where the slow accumulation of sand had mixed with rust and odd eroded shapes marked the location of machinery.

The leathery-faced hybrid with the nose-slits came up to them; he had an arrow on the string of his bow, and he was glaring around.

"Too much," he said, in gutturally accented Demotic. "Bugs in the sand. All dark here."

It took a moment for that to register with Jeremy; how could you have a food-chain without light? The answer was straightforward; you had to have a rain of nutrients from someplace that did have light, the way life of the abyssal depths of Earth's oceans survived. Something had to be bringing organic matter to this lifeless place, even if that only meant crapping on the floor.

The thought seemed to strike Teyud, the noseless one and Jeremy at the same time. Their heads snapped upward, and Teyud shouted:

"Elevate the lights!"

You did that by using a reflective collar. One of the crew rose and used the thin flexible length of mirror to throw a beam upwards. At first Jeremy thought the ceiling was merely blotched. Then it began to move, rippling. Eyes blinked open, huge and crimson.

"Feral engines!" the hybrid shouted, and the string of his bow went snap on his bracer as he shot upward and snatched for another arrow.

A moment later the shout turned into a gargling scream. A tentacle lashed downward, growing thinner and thinner until it was like a wire loop, hooked around the man's body and reeled up upwards like a bungee cord recoiling. Only this one didn't stop, until it hit a mouth. The thing had no vocal cords, but the crunching noise the man made breaking as he was smashed in past the circle of horn plates that surrounded the orifice was loud enough. So was the moment of silence that followed the scream's sudden end.

And underneath that, you could hear the endless waxy puckapuckapuckapucka as the beasts' tentacles slapped their suckers on the polished stone and tore them loose while they moved; and the harsh panting as their lungs swelled like veined sacks on either side of their bodies.

Jeremy threw himself backward onto the sand with his pistol up. "Christ, how many—there must be hundreds of them!" he shouted.

"Forty-two," Teyud answered calmly, and opened fire with the dart-gun in her left hand, the sword ready in her right. "Doubtless they lair here and climb to the towers above to prey on the birds and their leavings." In a ringing shout like a brass trumpet: "We must kill them all expeditiously!"

Everyone started shooting, the sharp echoing brak-brak-brak of Jeremy's automatic overriding the slower phffft of the dart-pistols and rifles, the sharp upward stab of orange-white flame as he emptied the magazine, the smell of the cordite choking-strong in the cold dry air. A huge limp shape fell to the sand next to him with a thud he could feel along his whole body, ripped open and leaking blood that smelled like copper. Its tentacles raised a fog of dust as they thrashed the ground like whips of boiled leather.

One struck him across the upper thighs with paralyzing force; Jeremy screamed, but forced himself to keep shooting with an effort of will that left his face gray and running with sweat. His eyes stung in the darkness, half-blinded by the muzzle-flashes, and he wasn't sure if he hit anything. Then the slide locked back as the last cartridge flicked out, and he fumbled at his waist-belt for the spare magazine, ejected the spent one, fumbled a little again as he strove to click home the next. It finally snicked into place and he started shooting again.

Another robed figure rose sprattling towards the ceiling, with a shriek that ended in that grisly crunch. Chewing and sucking sounds followed, and bits and pieces rained down. More of the beasts fell dead as the neurotoxin in the Martian dart-guns struck; unfortunately one of them fell directly on top of a glow-globe, cutting the light in half. Now there was only one island of visibility in the middle of the great room, and all around it shadows where monsters walked.

"They are coming down the walls!" a voice shouted.

"Twenty remain," Teyud said; somehow her voice cut cleanly through the brabble of shouts and screams. "To the light, but do not look closely at it. Back to back, stand!"

The pain in his groin had subsided a bit; the tentacle hadn't struck squarely—he'd be dead or puking and screaming if it had—and the adrenaline washed a bit of the agony out. Harder was standing up when one of those organic whips might crack down out of the darkness above and carry him towards the waiting maw.

Christ, what a place for an archaeologist to end up! he thought, sweat sending raw pain through his chapped lips. And I asked for it! God-damn Mars and God-damn me, too!

For an instant he felt a paralyzing longing for the sight of green grass and trees and the smell of BBQ cooking.

It didn't stop him moving. The seven remaining Martians and Jeremy stood in a circle around the glow-globe, blades and guns pointing outward. Ripping and crushing sounds came from the night-blackness as the bodies of the dead beasts were eaten by their packmates. Hibernation didn't shut the metabolism down completely, just immensely slowed it, and they were probably very hungry indeed. He could hear their wheezing breath, not much different from the engine that ran Traveler's auxiliary. But louder, quite a bit louder.

"Report the status of your ammunition," Teyud said again, in that living-bell voice.

They did; most were low, and he was nearly dry.

"Blades in hand, then," she said. "Be ready."

He tossed his pistol into his left hand and drew his sword. It would be more awkward for him than for the Martians; they were all fully ambidextrous from birth, and he'd just practiced at it. He heard Teyud mutter something under her breath:

"This situation is of excessive difficulty. Exasperation, frustration, annoyance!"

That gave him time for just one snort of incredulous laughter before the darkness came alive with waving tentacles, and behind them, scuttling forms the size of lions. Plate-sized crimson eyes shone like lamps, with pupils like S-shaped slits. A crash of shots, the automatic bucking in his hand and knocking a half-seen shape backward, a wild swipe that took the tip off a reaching limb and jarred him from wrist to shoulder. The muzzle flashes were like strobes of lightning, giving him a flicker of nightmare shapes and then plunging his dazzled eyes into a worse darkness.

Outside the circle of light, feral engines reared, beating at the circle of humans like a storm of whips, the plates of their mouths clacking eagerly as the dust cloud cut visibility to arm's length. The tentacle that struck the side of his head came out of nowhere. There was a flash of light inside his head, and then something was around his ankles, dragging him over the sand. Huge unwinking eyes stared at him, growing larger and larger as the robe bunched up around his waist and he slid towards the snapping mouth—

Teyud leapt, moving with a long-striding grace that made her blurring speed seem deliberate. The blade of her sword punched into one of the scarlet eyes, and the circle around his ankles tightened to just short of bone-crushing pressure and then relaxed. He kicked frantically at the twitching thing and staggered backward onto his feet, wheezing thanks, then collapsed again into a squat, gripping his sword convulsively and panting as the hunting engines had.

Silence fell. The Martians danced in to stab at the nerve-ganglions of the dead or dying beasts, making sure on general principles. Teyud looked around keenly, greenish blood dripping from the long blade of her sword, looking almost dark enough to be black in the dim dust-ridden air. A smell like metal and acid filled the air.

"Forty-one," she said. "Furthermore—"
The shhhsshsh of cloven air as the tentacle came down in long looping swing was the only warning; Jeremy could feel his own throat tightening to shout, but the cry didn't have time to begin. Teyud had already begun to leap backward and twist before it struck; the air went out of her lungs in a single agonized whoosh as it slammed across her stomach. Then she disappeared upward, the sword dropping from her hand as the thigh-thick length of muscle twisted around her torso, locking her right arm to her side.

Jeremy acted before his conscious mind had recovered from the shock. He came up out of his crouch with all the power of his long legs and of well-trained muscles bred in a gravity three times this. The ceiling where the feral engine hung was thirty feet above his head. He was more than three-quarters of the way there when he passed Teyud and threw his left arm around the tentacle above the point where it gripped her. It felt like hugging a thigh-thick length of living cable wrapped in suede; the muscle surged with daunting power as it jerked them both towards the ceiling, and he barely had time to extend the blade in a...

Flying flèche, some remote fencer's corner of his mind insisted.

The great eyes were his target, or rather the patch of darkness between them. If the others had been the size of lions, this was a grizzly bear, and it stank with a hard dry scent that was still stunningly intense. The impact as they struck was like being thrown into a stone wall by a catapult with a large de-boned ox for padding. Pain shot up his arm at the slamming impact of the point in thick muscle and cartilage, and then a harder one as the point struck stone, forcing his fingers open in reflex. The glowing eyes vanished, and suddenly he was falling with the dreamy slowness of low gravity.

Even so he barely had time to get his feet beneath him before he landed again, staggering with an ooff as his feet sank ankle-deep in the soft sandy dust on the floor. His head craned upwards. Two seconds later Teyud fell downward towards him; he snatched at her and caught her, with another uff as her solid weight came into his arms—the equivalent of catching fifty pounds on Earth.

Her arm had gone around his shoulder as they nearly collapsed to the ground. One of his stayed around her torso as she came to her feet again. She didn't have the birdlike fragile lightness of most Martians, instead feeling slim but supple-strong inside the curve of his arm. Their faces were close; before he was aware of what he intended, he brought their lips together.

Teyud's eyes went wide in surprise for an instant. Then she put a hand behind his head and pressed it firmly closer. Her tongue flicked at his lips...

Whomp!

They both sprang backward in reflex at the flash of motion and the heavy impact on the floor not a yard's distance from him. Teyud landed crouching, her long curved dagger in her hand. Jeremy shot ten feet into the air, fell and hit the sand with his buttocks and one hand, bounded erect and staggered backward, his other hand clawing at the empty pistol holster at his belt.

They both straightened, looking at the dead creature that lay twitching on the floor of the chamber with the hilt of Jeremy's sword jammed between its eyes. Its remote ancestor had been a sea creature, a distant relation of ammonites and squid. This looked more like a naked bluish cuttlefish flanked by two purple-red-blue sacks, flaccid now that it wasn't breathing, but with a body that came to a blunt point and then flared out into a single large sucker.

"Excessive excitement," Teyud said. "I feel a strong desire for uneventful days, even unto tedium."

"Amen!" Jeremy said, conscious of how his body wanted to shake and overcoming it with an effort of will.

In Demotic he went on, "Agreement!" with a posture that added emphatic mode, and an inflection that said the same thing—that wasn't good grammar, but it got across what he felt.

They looked at each for a long moment and began to laugh; Jeremy stopped because some of the surviving crew of the Traveler were wounded, and Teyud went forward to nudge the dead creature.

"This is a breeder," she said. "There are immature buds. At least one must have been abandoned while not bonded to a crankshaft. The others would have been its offspring. They are parthenogenic and enter the reproductive stage if fed high-quality protein. Very strong, and adaptable—the original form was a small, semi-sessile predator of caves and cliffs. Fortunately they are not very intelligent."

"Why not?" Jeremy said, unable to keep a slight edge of sarcasm out of his voice. "Everything else you people make seems to be."

Teyud frowned for a moment, then smiled slightly, more a droop of the eyelids than anything else. Her cool voice went on, "That was found to be counterproductive. There is little environmental stimulation in the existence of an engine with its tentacles bonded to a crankshaft."

"So?"

"They would attempt to escape. Boredom causes engine failure."

 

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Sally Yamashita had given him the hairy eyeball and looked like she could barely stop herself from quoting regulations when Teyud matter-of-factly took him by the hand and led him to the captain's cabin of the Traveler, under the prow. He'd given her the finger and a big shit-eating grin as he passed.

Damn regulations, and damn Sally too—she can go find her own fun, he thought several hours later.

He stretched contentedly, pulling one of the furs up around his neck and watching Teyud as she bent and twisted just an arm's length away. It was a little cold to be naked, now that things were cooling down in both senses of the word.

Besides, I like Teyud. A lot.

Teyud wasn't bothered by the mid-fifties temperature of the room. She was still cleaning herself—with handfuls of a soft, absorbent dust that collected liquid, and then something like a damp sponge; not, thank God, a living sponge, which he'd been afraid of before he used it himself. Things were evidently messier with a Terran, but she didn't seem to mind that either.

He admired the sight of her. Naked she looked a bit less like h. sapiens sapiens than she did with her robes on; the differences in proportion were more apparent, the longer limbs and deeper chest, and the near-total absence of body hair. What little there was showed like fine bronze down against the natural pale olive of her skin, and the muscle moved beneath it like skeins of steel wire. There were interesting marks on the insides of her forearms, too—he'd thought they were tattoos, but apparently Thoughtful Grace had natural birthmarks there, like elongated swirling red-and-black signs.

Martian women didn't really have much breast, either, just a slight curve like the base of a turned goblet, which made the nipple stand out more.

Odd, he thought. You'd expect them to look like Eskimos, short and stocky and padded, with the cold here, in spite of the lower gravity. But they just stay warm by other means than subcutaneous fat. And I like slim. Yeah.

He'd noticed the coolness of her body, one more point of intriguing difference. He grinned; there were other intra-species distinctions, some of which had been fun to work around.

She grinned back at him for an instant; not precisely a natural expression, but not forced either—it seemed more as if she was trying it on for size.

"Aesthetic-sexual appreciation," he said in Demotic.

"Desire for further intromission?" she said, raising one eyebrow. "If so, I express a favorable response."

The posture that went with that was a rather graphic movement of the hips.

"Regretful inability!" he said.

"Ahmm. Who knows the powers of the vaz-Terranan?"

She chuckled soundlessly as she walked back to the oval bed and raised the sleeping fur and gave him a frank examination. Then she slid back under it herself.

"Pleasant warmth," she said, sliding into contact and resting her head on his shoulder. "Feelings: repletion, exhaustion, very slight soreness, a surprising degree of affection."

"Me too."

She touched his ribs and thigh. "Your pleasantly agreeable personality contrasts in an intriguing manner with the brutish power of your appearance."

"Ah... thanks," he said.

His mental gears shifted as he made himself hear the real meaning: You look macho but you're really sweet and gentle.

She went on, "You are as strong and resistant to damage as a Thoughtful Grace; stronger, in fact. This is novel to me but agreeable."

"Agreement—apprehension of inflicting involuntary injury during para-reproductive exchange minimizes anticipatory stimulation."

There was a weird sexiness to talking Demotic in bed, he found. You couldn't talk dirty in it, really. Cursing involved scatology or comments on someone's inadequate genome—saying "unequal to the environment" was seriously insulting. But talking about the body parts and their functions had the same vocabulary whether you were calling out in the middle of things or writing a medical textbook; I request more energetic intromission, emphatic tense! was the sort of passionate murmur you could expect.

"Tell me more of your reproductive in-group," she said.

"Only if you tell me about your family," he replied.

Wish I had a cigarette, he thought dreamily; the habit had come back since they learned how to deactivate the carcinogens, but nobody was shipping it to Mars.

She remained silent for a while. The Traveler was intensely quiet, with only a deck watch—the rest of the crew were in the building they'd picked as base. But he could hear the faint screech of the wind as it scoured around the building that held the landship, and even fainter creaks and metallic noises as it shifted slightly on its axles.

"I was born... in a remote city," she said, very softly; he could feel the slight flutter of her breath against the skin where his shoulder met his neck.

"Long ago and far away?" he said, stroking the hard, resilient curve of her back.

"Very far away and thirty years ago," she said; he mentally translated it as sixty.

Which gave him pause for a moment, but actually, given their respective potential lifespans, they were about the same age.

"Near the Mountain?" he said.

That was the only place she was likely to have met EastBlockers.

She nodded, and continued, "My mother was of the Thoughtful Grace. An... officer of some rank and of excellent lineage."

"Your father wasn't Thoughtful Grace?" he said, surprised.

She certainly had all the canons of the breed, as far as he could tell... and he'd just had a chance for a very close examination.

"No, he was her employer; a male of very high caste and rank in the city-state where she was employed; of... the pure Imperial Administrator genome. They had an erotic and emotional bond of some duration and intense commitment, and would have formally contracted for reproductive partnership if that had been practical—"

Were in love as well as lovers, he mentally translated. There were some things which Demotic did not express compactly. And would have married if it were allowed.

"—but her fertilization was unauthorized."

Jeremy's brows went up again. That was rare. Martian women didn't get pregnant unless they wanted to; in fact, they usually had to concentrate for a while to start the menstrual cycle and become receptive.

"Accidental?"

"Not on her part," she said. "On the insistence of my father's kin-group and political associates, she was punished by infestation for theft of his genome. Questions of access to power were involved. And the vaz-Terranan, the EastBlock, were involved in the intrigues."

Ouch, he thought, with a wash of sympathy.

Infestation was a memorably gruesome way to die, being put in a glass bottle and eaten alive from the inside out, like a digger wasp's prey, and it could last years; watching a couple of stills of an advanced case had made him think twice—three times—about wanting to go Mars, back when he was a teenager.

"My father had wished to meld genomes, but not at that time, and could not protect her," she went on. "But he was able to conceal my birth and have me socialized and... taught by other of his Thoughtful Grace retainers, until it became apparent that I was of mixed origin."

He nodded. Genetic testing was trivially easy here, and had been for untold millennia. Who your father was wasn't a matter of opinion on Mars, and never had been.

"That was eleven years ago. One of my tutors, who had a para-parental bond with me and a close genetic link with my mother, accompanied me for a time, but was killed when Coercives in the pay of my father's enemies discovered us."

She fell silent again with a sigh, then added, "My father still lives but, to a high degree of probability, I can never return. I wander, seek employment for my talents, and the avoidance of ennui until dissolution."

"That's too bad," he said.

Tragic, in fact. This is one hell of a woman. She could do anything, but she's stuck as a low-level mercenary.

Teyud shrugged. "This mission has been an interruption in a long period of low-level discomfort and tedium. As for the trajectory of my world-line, it is an analogue of that of the Real World in this age without even the illusion of Sh'u Maz," she said. "A declension from imagined security towards the maximization of entropy."

Her hand moved, touching feather-soft and then rhythmically. She rolled over and grinned down at him.

"The vaz-Terranan do have powers!"

 

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