Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

THE PESHAWAR LANCERS

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


Chapter Two

 

Miss Cassandra Mary Effingham King—Ph.D., F.R.S.—tilted her glasses down her long straight nose and looked over them. That gave her a view out the slanting windows that ran along the airship's side galleries, and at the ground a thousand feet below, distracting her from the knot of anxiety in her stomach.

It isn't the height that's bothersome. She had been born in Kashmir and had been an alpinist from her early teens, yet another of her eccentricities. Clinging to a cliff with a sheer drop beneath didn't worry her.

What disturbed her about flying was the knowledge that she was hanging under millions of cubic feet of hydrogen gas.

Illogical, she scolded herself, mentally reciting statistics. Air travel is safe. Safer than a railroad journey. Safer than a steamship. Considerably safer than a motorcar. Much safer than rock-climbing, for Durga's sake!

Logic seemed to have little to do with it. It never did, which was why she always took trains when she could. No matter how much she lectured herself, her stomach muscles still seemed to feel that they must strain to hold the airship up. The more so, given her responsibility for the precious cargo resting under guard in the baggage hold. Not just the cost of it—a lakh of rupees, on top of the crore for the project as a whole—but the endless niggling effort to make something on the very edge of her people's abilities.

She leaned closer to the railing and looked up at the solid-seeming bulk above her, thrown in shadow with the westering sun on the other side of the craft. The Diana was the newly launched pride of British Imperial Airways, an orca shape eight hundred fifty feet long sheathed in silver-gray doped cotton, more than two hundred feet around at the broadest point, a third of the way between blunt nose and cruciform tailfins.

Cassandra had always been given to analysis under stress; to a scientist, the firmness of numbers was soothing. Her trained memory reeled off details automatically; truss rings, laminated bamboo geodesic skin framework, radial steel wire bracing, gasbags like giant cylinders with a central hollow to pass the triangular keel; strengths, stresses, densities, useful lift.

One of the eight Stirling-cycle engines that drove the Diana was in a pod not far above the level of the gallery, humming away—more data, gas burners, heat exchanger and regenerator, triaxially opposed pistons and enclosed crankshaft in an oil bath, gases as working fluids, power-to-weight ratios. An elegant, quiet machine, with only the whirring of the four-bladed teak-laminate propellers to break the rushing wind, and beneath it a faint mechanical hum.

She took a long breath, remembered what she'd learned from yogis she'd met, made herself see. Control the breath. Slow and steady, steadying the heartbeat. Let perception flow through the senses without interruption.

They had left the rich bottomlands of the Ganges plain behind by noon. Below lay the dry sandstone ridges of the Shiwalak range, the southernmost ripple of the Himalayas, occupied by the client kingdoms of Basholi and Kangra. The Diana's shadow moved over them, across rolling cactus-speckled hills interrupted here and there by abrupt escarpments where the folded bones of the earth reared suddenly. Human habitations were the dried-blood color of the stone, huddled hamlets and tiny fields scratched from a bitter earth, with here and there the crude belligerence of a chieftain's fortlet.

Dogras dwelt here, Sikh and Hindu, men poor and proud and fierce—though their aristocrats sat in the House of Lords in Delhi, coequal with nobles whose lineage ran back through the centuries of lost Britain. The land's other export was fighting men, whose wages bought what their meager farms could not grow.

Feudal relics, she thought with a mental sniff; she was firmly on the Liberal wing of the Whig party. Backward.

The yogic technique worked, bringing her out of her funk. She became aware of the slight, pleasant chill of the air, so welcome after Delhi's heat and dust and endless crowds—four million people in one city! Nearly as many as dead London, at the height of the Old Empire. None of the other great cities of the Raj—Bombay, Calcutta, Cape Town, Singapore, Melbourne—was even half that size. No city whatsoever outside the Empire was a third as large, save perhaps Peking. It was a wonder anyone could draw breath in the capital, or think two coherent thoughts without interruption.

The Diana was working its way north into a head wind, rising gradually toward the high passes, and a slight subliminal quiver ran through its fabric. The air held a scent of glue and fresh wood from the laminations of the structure, the doping compound on the fabric, the smell of hot metal from the engines.

She sighed and pushed the glasses back up to reading position. Papers lay scattered across the rosewood-topped wicker table before her. She picked one up:

... impact of a small comet—600 yd. diameter icy body striking the Earth's surface at the velocity... mass M = 4x10 to the ninth pounds... kinetic energy E = 1.2 GT...

No, I'm too distracted to do two plus two, much less equations. The drawings of the Observatory project were as familiar as her own face in the mirror, even though construction wasn't her specialty. It would be more efficient to have specialists to handle each aspect of it, but even the Empire's scientific establishment wasn't quite that large yet. Everyone had to turn a hand to the needful; and besides, generalism was traditional.

I'm not going to get any serious work done today, she decided, and tapped the sheets back into their folders, and the folders back into the black leather carrying case. Nor have any worthwhile conversation to pass the time; or even a mild flirtation.

At the predinner hour the airship's starboard lounge held a third of those aboard, twoscore sitting or strolling or leaning on the rail to watch the landscape go by. She sighed inaudibly, looking at her fellow passengers. A good many were affluent older couples playing tourist on a trip to the Garden of the Empire; air travel was beyond the reach of all but the very well-to-do. The younger set included officials, men of business, military officers, MPs and their families returning now that Parliament was in recess. One handsome young Rajput looked like a maharaja's son from the rubies and emeralds on the hilt of his saber, and might be a student or a pilgrim or both. More than a few were scholars like herself, heading for Oxford; from all over India, and the Viceroyalties of Australia and the Cape, even a scattering from the farther colonies like Britain or North America.

Most were men, and she flattered herself that she was reasonably pleasant to the eye. Tall certainly, five-foot-eight. A trifle athletic, but shapely with it, eyes pale gray in a regular straight-nosed, bow-lipped face. Quite satisfactory, especially in the outfit she was wearing, the height of daring Delhi fashion and calculated to set off her long-limbed build. The women's-style shaltvar qamiz had a black silk tunic embroidered with gold rosettes along the edges of its knee-length skirts, gold buckled belt, billowing sequined pantaloons, and tooled kidskin shoes with upturned toes; a transparent shawl was fastened with emerald-headed gold pins to her piled chestnut hair, and fell past it to her waist.

Plenty of men here, and every one of them convinced Tm a bluestocking freak of nature, a man-hating Sapphist, or both, and terrified of me. Another sigh; the freak of nature was debatable, but a dismally unexciting experiment had convinced her she wasn't a Sapphist. The man-hating I might manage, if this nonsense continues. Her own close colleagues were mostly more accepting; the problem was that they were also mostly decades older, married, or both. Usually both.

A white-jacketed steward came through, tapping at a xylophone. "Sahibs, memsahibs, dinner. Dinner is served."

"At last," she murmured sarcastically, and finished the glass of white wine that sat before her.

 

@@@

 

Count Vladimir Obromovich Ignatieff wore a patch over one eye—the blue one. Here in the Imperial territories he was passing as a trader in raw lapis from the Wakan highlands, come to sell to Oxford's numerous jewelers, with papers that included a meticulously forged border-crossing stamp and customs payment. The Wakan Tadjiks were fair enough that his Slavic complexion—much weathered by the Asian sun—was unremarkable. Blue eyes were uncommon but not outlandishly rare there, too—some said it was a legacy of Alexander's Macedonians passing through.

But the combination of light and dark would be too likely to attract attention. The patch would not; one-eyed men were many.

The persona was one that had served him a score of times and more among the teeming millions of the Raj; the Empire's sheer size could be a boon to its enemies. The loose trousers, hairy sheepskin jacket, dirty pugaree-turban, and truculent walk with one hand on his knife hilt were similarly nondescript.

As with any mission beyond the Czar's domains, before he left a priest had given him dispensation to remove his sigil of initiation at need and bear the defilement of eating with Deniers. Okhrana secret-police funds covered the necessary gold and gifts and sacrifices, and the rites of purification always made a pleasant homecoming. Long training altered his stance, the way he held his shoulders, the movements of his hands, and the manner of clearing his throat... so many things that it was easy not to spit when he saw a fain of the Traitor Christ. Or even not to lash out when some underling jostled him.

This was his first time in Oxford—even the natives did not call it Srinagar anymore—and he had to admit that it was a pleasant-looking town, worthy of its setting in the mile-high valley, surrounded by white-tipped peaks rearing into heaven. Less beastly hot than the cities of the lowland plains to the south, for a beginning; less crowded, too, and not so foul with the effluent of smokestacks and factories. The air was cool in early October; the smells were mostly of woodsmoke, humans, horses, often of the flowers that the Anglichani so loved.

Most of what he saw had been built in the last century or so. According to the Okhrana background files it had been very bad here in the dark years, three freezing-cold summers one after another. All who could walk had joined the desperate attempt to mass-migrate into the warmer low country, where some crops ripened even in the worst seasons right after the Fall; that had been part of what the histories of the Raj called the Second Mutiny, along with the Afghan invasion and general revolt. Here in Kashmir reprisals by the equally desperate sahib-log mostly finished what little the famine left.

Even the Anglichani were hard then, Ignatieff thought. But they refused the Truth, and so their souls grew infected once more.

Resettlement by the Raj had brought in a new population, but a few landmarks remained. Beside Nagin Lake reared the gleaming white marble dome and spires that had been the Hazratbal mosque and were now St. Kelvin's Cathedral; a rise bore the fortress of Hari Parbat, built four centuries ago by the Mughal Padishah Akbar; and atop the hill called the Throne of Solomon the great Shiva temple of Sankaracharya brooded over the valley as it had for a millennium and more, while the empires and rulers came and went.

Most of modern Oxford, however, was built in New Empire styles along a gridwork of streets, two- and three-story houses of reddish stone with carved wooden balconies and steep-pitched tile roofs. Crisp yellow leaves fell from the trees that arched overhead, to scritch under his boots on the brick sidewalk, and stone troughs full of nasturtiums separated the walkway from the street like a barrier of cool fire. Folk in the streets lacked some of the raucous intensity he remembered from other Imperial cities, street vendors and beggars were few, and beyond the end of the avenue he could see a park that gave onto the blue waters of Dal Lake and floating houseboats.

He turned past a Christian church, past a shrine with a statue of Shiva dancing creation and destruction, and into an eating house thick with cooking smells and tobacco smoke. It had amused him to set the meeting here, where wine and meat were served—the men he awaited were fiercely orthodox high-caste Hindus, Brahmins who would feel defiled even to see another touch the forbidden. His sense of humor stopped short of using a place that the sahib-log were likely to frequent. This catered to craftsmen, shopkeepers, upper servants; mostly Christians, and English was the commonest tongue you heard. He ordered barra kebabs on saffron rice—saffron was a cash crop here, less of a luxury than in most places, and Kashmiri rice was famous—and a squat flask of indifferent local red wine.

The two who came to join him were slight, fine-boned brown men, clean-shaven, dressed in fawn jackets and dhotis and sandals, and little boat-shaped caps on close-cut black hair; they hid their distaste for their surroundings well, even when he waved at his plate and glass:

"Plenty for you, brothers," he said, in coarse lower-caste Hindi with a strong Tadjik-Persian accent. "Bahut acha! Bahut achal Very good! Very good!"

He smacked his lips over a mouthful of the garlic-laden grilled meat and rolled rice into a ball with his fingers, offering it to the others.

"No—no—" The older of the two Bengali Brahmins swallowed and visibly restrained himself from leaning backward. "Dhanyavad, many thanks, but it is against our religion."

"Against my religion, too!" Ignatieff said, swilling wine noisily. Fortunately, pretending to be a Muslim didn't require that you pretend to be a pious Muslim. "But Allah will forgive me, if I strike a blow in the Holy War."

The younger man whispered to his companion in Bengali: "How can we trust this cow-murdering wine-bibber, my teacher? Even for a Muslim and outcaste, he is vile."

The older man nicked a look at Ignatieff's face to make sure he hadn't understood—Bengali and Hindi were closely related—and the Okhrana agent beamed uncomprehending friendship.

He spoke both languages perfectly, of course.

"Peace," the older Bengali said. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Damascus has suffered from the aggressions of the sahib-log, too."

He repeated the last part in Hindi, and Ignatieff nodded sagely. Perfectly true; a friend until the time of the knives, he thought. In the last generation or two the Angrezi Raj had taken Zanzibar from the Caliph's Omani vassal-sultans, sunk and burned Arab slave-dhows in the Red Sea, and it was extending naval patrols into the Red and Arabian Seas. Against pirates and slavers, Delhi claimed... but where the Empire's foot trod, there it stayed.

"Here," he said, shoving a scrap of paper and a large brass key across the table under the cover of a napkin. "As we agreed; here is the address of the godown with the weapons—and the gold."

Coined in those beautifully calligraphic dinars minted in Baghdad. The Indians took both and left. Ignatieff smiled broadly and waved for a dish of the peach ice cream that was also a Kashmiri specialty.

We can discuss the details when we meet again in Hell, he thought. Which they would—everyone left in the Fallen world would, sooner or later—but he wouldn't be surprised to arrive there.

 

@@@

 

I might as well get something out of this damned chivalry nonsense, Cassandra King thought.

A gentleman gave place to an unaccompanied gentlewoman as a matter of course. Normally it annoyed her no end; a pedestal was a very bad starting place in the race of life. Today she took ruthless advantage, cutting in near the head of the line filing out of the lounge into the airship's dining room. That let her pick a single table with a window; better honest silence than strained chitchat and glances.

The decor of the dining section was light and airy in the modern style—teak and ebony tiles on the floor, sandalwood chairs carved into fanciful lacework and cushioned in white cotton, chiseled brass tables with inlay and enamel, murals of colorful jungle birds on the exterior walls between windows. It soothed her slightly as she considered the menu. The Diana's kitchen had a rather Central Provinces bent, which was a pleasant change from the Mughal cuisine of Delhi: She ordered baffla wheat cakes rich with ghee and ate them with pungent lentil dal soup and sweet laddoos dumplings, followed by spicy rogan josh, shami-kebab, and sheermal bread. Waiters brought bowls of rosewater to clean the hands, and crisp fluffy towels to dry them.

Squares of iced mango and watermelon on skewers and Assamese tea came after the main courses. She nibbled, sipped, and wondered the while who had had the bad taste and sheer gall to ruin the dining room's effect by picking a reproduction of Lord Leighton's Martyrdom of St. Disraeli as the mural for the interior wall.

She'd seen the original at her coming-out, when she was Presented at court in Delhi twelve years ago; that one was twenty feet high and done in gold, coral, ivory, faience, and semiprecious stones. It was the backdrop to the Lion Throne, after all, staring each generation of young gentlewomen in the face as they were led up and made their curtsey to the King-Emperor and Queen-Empress.

This was an excellent rendering in oils, on the canvas partitions that made up the interior structure of the Diana. Leighton had taken his inspiration from the Exodus Cantos of Kipling's epic Lament for the Lost Homeland; the burning dome of St. Paul's looming behind, "stark flame against a sleet-filled August sky," as the poet had put it and generations of schoolchildren had memorized ever since; the red-coated Foot Guards struggling with the snarling cannibal mob in the foreground and being butchered and devoured even as they fought; Disraeli himself standing alone, draped in a fur cloak as the ice fell about him, looking southward to where the last ship of the Exodus would wait in vain. The great Martyr, dying like Moses without setting foot in the new homeland which he'd prepared for his people.

Heroic. Inspiring. Great art, no doubt. But for a dining room} Whatever could they have been thinking of?

Her generation was less obsessed with the Fall and the Exodus than those before it, in any case. It was ancient history, though she remembered how shocking it had been to hear her grandmother talking of actually meeting Kipling when she was a young girl, a man born before the Fall.

There was a slight hissing sound as the airship's heating system came on, and a rumble as water ballast valved out from the tanks along the keel. Attendants stood by discreetly with oxygen cylinders and masks, in case some lowlander was overcome. They were rising above dense pine forests now, two-hundred-foot Himalayan firs below, then over naked rock above the tree line and the saddle of the Banihar Pass. Below, the railway looked like a child's toy, a puffing locomotive disappearing into the Jawahar Tunnel—she could remember the celebrations when that was finished, not long after her sixth birthday. Snow peaks shimmered ahead and all about, floating in infinite blue and trailing banners of glittering windborne frost as the great airship went sailing silently along the roof of the world.

Cassandra smiled as they crested the heights, and gasps broke out from others at the sight of the Vale of Kashmir below. Garden of the Empire indeed, she thought. And the province of her own birth.

It was supposed to be like the lost Homeland—although from what she'd read, she doubted that terraced vineyards and rice fields had been all that common in pre-Fall England. Certainly this was green and lovely enough in the glowing long-shadow light of sunset; thickly forested mountain slopes surrounding a mile-high patchwork quilt of plowed land, pasture, prosperous farmsteads, the regular lines of apple and peach orchards, almonds and apricots, roads lined with great poplars and chinars and oaks. Parkland and garden surrounded the country seats of landowners and the boarding schools that were almost as numerous—the climate was famous for healthfulness. Some of those schools bore names like Eton and Winchester, United Services and Cheltenham, and they drew children from all over the Empire.

Rexin was there, the King estate near Avantipur. Not really home anymore, she thought, with a trace of sadness, although she was always welcome on visits. Athelstane's, really. I’m an Oxford girl now. The eldest son inherited, and the siblings had to make their own way in the world, by marriage or career.

The city brought further murmurs from the other passengers; Cassandra ignored the ancient monuments, the famous racecourse, polo fields, botanic gardens, and Lord's cricket grounds, even the lakes and the Jehelum River where Cambridge came to row against Oxford and usually be soundly thrashed, which was a high point of the Empire's social year. Her eyes were on the mellow stone of the university's quadrangles, glimpsed among the trees and ivy. The ships of the Exodus had borne books and instruments and scholars, as well as weapons and machinery and hungry refugees crammed into every nook and cranny—more of St. Disraeli's foresight. Work had begun on the university in the fourth year after the Fall, and continued even during the terrible years when survival hung by a hair. The workaday city had grown up around it in the generations that followed.

Now there was a considerable airship port on the lakeside as well, with great arched sheds and another huge silvery shape curving up from the water even as she watched, off south to Delhi and Madras, perhaps even to Singapore and Perth. Sunlight remained on the mountain peaks, tingeing the snow with crimson, but night was falling on the lake and city below. Lights appeared and twinkled, the blue-white of the airship port's electric arcs, the softer yellow and yellow-white of lamp flame and gaslight in the streets and houses beyond.

The Goan steward with the xylophone came through again. "Prepare for landing, memsahibs and sahibs. Prepare for landing, please."

Part of Cassandra King's stomach unclenched. Fairly soon her feet would be on the ground, away from this flying bomb. Another part of her nerves thrummed yet more tautly. That meant she'd have to oversee the priceless cargo that was in her trust, as well.

 

@@@

 

Yasmini lay still on the narrow bed, for the moment simply enjoying the sensation of space around her. Most people would have considered the little attic room of the Kashmiri inn to be strait quarters. But it was all hers; even the Master had to knock to gain entrance, for appearance sake. None watched or spoke or shouted; there was only the low murmur of sound from below, smells of curry and garlic from the kitchens, wheels and feet from the street outside. Compared to the pens at home, it was a palace. Space and quiet and...

Her mind shied away from freedom with an automatic reflex, as mindless as the flinch before a Master's upraised hand. The time lines where she failed to do that were—How are they worse than what I see? she thought suddenly.

True, they mostly ended in death. Often death by torture. But she was twenty-four years old; she had been Active for nearly ten years. Soon it would be her daughters the Master would want, not her visions.

Unbidden, a face from the dreams. An Anglichani face; a man, young—only a few years older than herself. Dark brown hair, brown eyes, a square jaw, and a thin scar along one cheek. The vision had a sharp outline; only a few paths led to it, then. An overtone that meant the vision was close and personal, something that might happen to her, yet with overtones of weight—enormous, crushing weight.

Her breath came faster, and her hands felt clammy with fear. That meant that whatever it was concerned both her and a huge number of other world lines; instinctively, she strained to see more. The lines twisted. There were glimpses of fire, of a floating sensation unlike anything she had ever known. The clash of sabers, and a body falling into infinite blue space—

No. That way lay death. A wash of no-thought went through her; she controlled her breathing, concentrating instead on an unvarying hum at the back of her mind.

 

@@@

Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6

Copyright © 2000 - 2001 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com