Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

THE SKY PEOPLE

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


 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 16th Edition

University of Chicago Press, 1988

Venus: Biology:

 

The first detailed studies of Venusian ecosystems revealed features which seem to mimic the fossil record of Earth. However, while individual species are closely similar to extinct and extant terrestrial types, the interactions themselves were obviously different. The coexistence of dinosaurian and mammalian species, and of both with birds and pterodactyls...

 

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Venus—Gagarin Continent, far west

 

To sleep with the Diadem of the Eye on one's brows was to invite visions. Teesa had never done it herself, until tonight, but her people's need was strong.

Now she stood outside the Cave the Mystery itself, but in her dream it blurred. Not from any fault of her eyes, but as if the dark pit in the limestone cliff were many rather than one. One moment her own people passed by, then the beastmen, then strangers in odd costumes, all fading into each other as if one had become the other.

A voice spoke to her: her mother's, in memory. "The Diadem of the Eye can show you what has been, and what will be—and what might be."

Then one of the strangers turned to look at her. He was a tall man with short-cropped dark hair and an alien cast of features, but with a warrior's build. His eyes were dark and they looked at her with—

Fear, she thought. But he is not afraid for himself.

Light pulsed from the Cave of the Mysteries, as her mother's tales said it did in rare moments. And that light pulled...

With a cry she sat bolt upright on her pallet, tearing the diadem from her brows. Her sister stirred likewise, words of concern falling soundless. Gradually her breathing slowed to normal, and she wiped at the sweat on her face, staring out into the night.

I expected the visions, she thought. But I did not expect them to be so much like life.

Feelings still made her heart pound, the breath go quickly between her lips. Fear. Love. Hate. Yet the things that had caused them slipped away as her memory grasped at the contours of her dream, like clutching at a greased piglet, or the reflection of a light in water.

All that was left was a heavy sense of consequence.

"You died too soon, mother," she whispered again. "There is so much I do not know!"

 

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Venus—Gagarin Continent, Kartahown

 

"Kartahown!" Marc said grandly as they emerged from the palace, waving an arm.

Cynthia sighed quietly, a sound of awed satisfaction; Marc smiled to himself at the sound. It was quite a sight; the great sprawling mass of the palace behind them, and the Temple of Koru before—a mass shaped liked a stepped wedding-cake or a minor planetary Tower of Babel four hundred feet high, ten broad level steps with each joined to the next by the long processional staircase that ran from base to summit. Each of the ten levels was a different color—shades of black and brown, green and purple and crimson and silver-gilt. On the top the great sun-disk blazed in the hazy sunlight like a beacon; on each level below another great idol of a major god caught the light as well.

It took a while for the rest of the scene to register, in the face of that huge monument to an alien faith. The main square of the city wasn't—square, that is; more of an irregular rectangle covering twenty or thirty acres. It was paved by cobbles long since worn flat, and mostly covered in booths—light structures for selling a hundred hundred goods, from piled melons to smoked sausages to fine cloth to shoes and 'saur feathers.

Marc snapped a lead to Tahyo's collar before they ventured into the warren; he didn't think that anyone would try to steal a greatwolf—or that they'd come away with both hands, if they did—but it was best not to take chances. The structures were temporary, shamboo poles and reed matting taken down every evening, but the places were inherited—even the seasonal ones, so that for generations on end a summer booth for selling nurr-flour could give way to a winter one for comar-fruit...

"Speaking of which," he said, and tossed a bit of copper to a vendor.

Comar were sold on their stalks, and looked a bit like a vegetable edition of the German stick-grenades in old war movies; you peeled off the mottled greenish-brown rind with your thumb, and then pulled off circular sections of fruit from the top down, each like a small flat donut. The taste was something like a tangerine, something like pineapple with a hint of cherry, and something indescribable, with a strong spurt of juice when you bit down. He grinned as the other three Terrans exclaimed over it and they strolled through the narrow laneways between the raucous crowds of buyers and sellers and pack-oxen and churr and sheep and wandering pigs.

"Why don't we grow these?" Tom Kowalski said.

"Or at least import them," Mary added.

"The tree takes six years to start bearing, and the fruit don't travel well," Marc said.

Though they made a great fruit brandy, and seeds sent back to Earth were being nursed with care, to see if they could adapt to the thinner atmosphere and shorter day. He foresaw a major industry there if they could. He dropped a section into Tahyo's waiting mouth; the greatwolf crunched down, stopped to consider the unfamiliar taste, then wagged his tail. He didn't but his nose into Marc's palm for more, which meant he thought it was just so-so, but then, he was a carnivore.

"Where the hell is Blair, anyway?" Marc went on. "He was supposed to be paying a courtesy call on the High Priest of Koru, not getting into a research session."

"Koru?" Mary asked.

"The Sun God. Heap big chief deity," Marc said. "They tend to be a bit resentful of us, because they've been rivals of the Kings for a long time—centuries, probably—and we've been strengthening the monarchs and the priesthoods of Thunder Fist and Owl Eyes."

"Chris has been getting some wonderful stuff from their archives," Cynthia said. "All the history of Kartahown's there, dating back hundreds of years. Maybe thousands, it's hard to tell because their calendar is so screwed up. He's even getting a handle on the origins of their writing system. This is like time travel, no shit!"

Marc made himself nod. All of which they've never allowed us to look at before, he thought sourly. Must be that frat-boy charm of his. Sometimes you could forget that the purpose behind Jamestown was knowledge, and that all the other activities were here to support the research.

They had the same problem on Mars, from what he'd heard of the research station there, only more so, since more of the scientists spent long periods living among the natives, who had been building cities and doing calligraphy when the cutting edge of Earthly technology was the spear-thrower. Anthropologists there had to be handy with dueling-swords and needle-guns as well as getting used to being looked down on as monkeys from the wilds.

The Terran party managed to leave the main square without more than a little jostling, taking a good many souvenirs and even more pictures. The streets beyond were narrow and crowded and wound as if they'd originally been laid out by wandering livestock, but they didn't have quite the pulsing sweaty hive-swarming of the main marketplace. Mud-brick and shamboo-earth walls rose two stories on either side, topped by another of woven shamboo, often bulging out in balconies; some walls were whitewashed or painted, but most were left in the natural dark-brown color. The streets were dirt here too, sometimes with a winding strip of cobbles down the center.

"I don't know whether being able to see what you're stepping in is good or not," Cynthia grumbled, half-laughing, as they skirted a noxious shin-high heap black with insects.

Tahyo found the smells fascinating. A couple of skinny pigs closed in on the refuse when the Terrans went by, snapping at a local who kicked at one of them. Which was one more reason buying shish-kabob from the street vendors was a bad idea... unless the vendor had managed to kidnap one of the clean, pampered pet pigs the wealthy sometimes kept here. At least you didn't have to be afraid it was 'roof rabbit'; there weren't any domesticated cats on Venus, or at least hadn't been until the Kings got a basketful of kittens.

Marc grinned to himself. Space travel had solved a lot of ancient questions, among them the matter of how cats would react to Zero-G. It turned out that their basic response was to swim through the air towards the nearest human face, latch on with all four paws, claws out, and scream their heads off.

Only doors opened on the ground floor of houses; those might conceal anything from crowded tenements to the mansions of the wealthy centered around courtyards, since they didn't have anything corresponding to zoning here.

They passed peasants with loads of onions and herbs on their backs, water-sellers with hooked poles clattering with clay cups, skin containers on their backs and lying cries of Fresh! Clean! on their lips. And then a portly merchant in a striped robe and flared leather hat with a ring of little scent-filled metal balls dangling on strings from its brim; he went pacing along ahead of his train of pack-churr and hirelings, holding his long walking-staff as if it were a spear. Housewives with children clinging to their tunics fell silent and drew aside as the Terrans approached; a painted harlot in a gauzy garment slit up the side and eye-paint that made her look like a raccoon did the same, then muttered an automatic invitation...

 Second-story windows were narrow slits; only on the third floor were there broader ones. The buildings leaned inward slightly, so that those overhung the streets. People leaned out of many of them, mostly women chatting with their neighbors. Then a cry of Shumaaaaa! came from above.

"Look out!" Marc cried, and Cynthia on his heels—which was pretty much what shumaaaa meant, or possibly look out below! was closer.

Glad she was listening to the lecture! Marc thought, as he yanked Tom back by his belt. Cynthia did likewise for his wife, and the two rescuers grinned at each other as the power-plant techs swore at the way their boots had gotten splattered with the contents of the chamberpot.

"Worse if it landed on your head," Cynthia said unsympathetically. "It's a bit more disgusting than the pictures, though, isn't it?"

"My romantic heart, it says no. Mes pattes—" he tapped his boot against the wall to show which paws he meant "—they agree!"

The Kowalskis perked up as they came into a slightly wider street, one broad enough for three men to walk abreast, stretching in a long shallow S-curve before them. This time the houses had openings—long narrow chambers giving back into the depth of the buildings. A tink-tink-tink-tink of hammers sounded, for each of them held a smith—coppersmiths with trays beaten and engraved with scenes from myth or legend, enameled fancies and plain pots and pans, bronzesmiths offering knife and spearhead and beautiful leaf-shaped swords, and silversmiths and goldsmiths plying their trades. 'Saur-scutes glowed, and raw jewels were polished until they shone crimson and green and aquamarine against the flash of precious metals. The air was hot with the small forge-hearths many of the shops contained, kept red-hot with charcoal and draught blown by apprentices through shamboo tubes.

A crocodile of children on their way to school—and not only boys, either—paused to exchange mutually intrigued looks with Tahyo; then their pedagogue, a grave bearded man in a robe, got them going with a flick of his shamboo switch.

The Kowalskis plunged into bargaining; they had enough Kartahownian for the numerals, and satchels full of things to trade. The locals hadn't invented anything like coinage yet; there were brokers who specialized in elaborate multi-person swaps, but straight barter would do here. In the end they exchanged two nylon scarves and a tea-towel printed with the Golden Gate Bridge for a pendant of fretwork 'saur ivory set with turquoise.

"I'm happy just looking," Cynthia said.

"And that's Crashing Voice, the god of smiths," Marc said after a few minutes more wandering. "This is sort of a chapel, not the main temple."

The building was a U-shaped niche with the open end towards the street; there was no house attached to the shrine, nothing but the temenos, the sacred precinct, which meant the priest's job was probably held by local heads-of-household in rotation on a part-time basis. The floor was brick-paved and scrupulously clean; the image was on a stone block and a little more than life-sized, a bronze of a man sitting cross-legged, tapping with a hammer on some piece of work on a board across his lap. His head looked normal, until you realized that his hair and beard were made of hundreds of miniature knife-blades and spearheads. The altar before it was a low rectangular block; it held a stone dish with the ashes of an offering of incense, fruit, flowers, a bowl of boiled grain and the body of a bird with black-and-purple feathers. A couple of beggars squatted and waited; one of them had a black and a white thread side-by-side on his one good arm as he looked at the fly-swarming but not-too-rotten sacrifices.

"Why's he doing that?" Mary Kowalski said.

"Anything left on the altar after sunset is theirs," Marc explained. "And it's officially sunset when you can't tell a black thread from a white one. First come, first served. The bird may not even get cooked."

The two techs nodded wisely. "I read about that in the handbook," Tom said. "Say, that statue's a really nice piece of work—lost-wax method? It reminds me of some old Khmer stuff on Earth."

"You've lost me," Marc said.

Cynthia snorted. "You make the statue in wax and then cover it in clay," she said. "Then you heat it until the wax runs out and pour in the molten metal. And yes, Tom, they do use that. Chris tells me there's a vegetable wax they use instead of beeswax, and it's fairly common and cheap here, so they came up with the technique earlier than people on Earth did. It makes good candles too, better than beeswax."

"Ah," Marc said wisely, suppressing an impulse to kick something.

"Next birthday, I'll buy you a soul, Marc," Cynthia said.

"This'll make a great picture for our niece and nephew back home," Tom said. "We can send it back as a data packet and have it developed there. Mary, why don't you set up the tripod?"

Marc opened his mouth and then closed it again. There was no reason they shouldn't. True, a crowd was beginning to gather, but it seemed mostly curious.

"We seek to do honor to Crashing Voice, patron of makers," he said aloud to the bystanders. "Since we of the Sky People are also makers and craftsfolk."

A few of the metalworkers had stopped to watch, and some of their families had followed suit, and passers-by were slowed by the knot of people in the narrow way. The soldiers of the escort were lounging easily among them, mostly trying to strike up conversations with women. Mary and Tom got out their shamboo tripod; they'd been carrying it broken-down and slung in a leather tube over Tom's back. The mounting had been made in the Jamestown machine-shop, and it held the digital camera in a firm clamp.

"Here," Mary said.

She pulled something else out of her backpack, a thin plasma-screen display device, slotted it into the framework and plugged an extension cord into the side of the camera. The screen lit with a sharp image of the altar and the statue of the god. A man in the robes of a priest of Koru pushed through the crowd and stood staring as she programmed the camera and then trotted over to join her husband. They stood on either side of the cult-image, smiling and waving at the lens as the automatic flash lit the dimness of the temenos three times.

"Look!" the priest suddenly screeched, pointing at the screen. "It is true what the other one said! The imiAmerican steal away the image of your God!"

"Oh, you couyon!" Marc swore, as he saw a knot gathering, jabbering and pointing at the screen. His pistol came out, and his left hand drew the bowie-style ratchet knife slung at the small of his back. "Tom, Mary, get back here now," he shouted.

Tahyo crouched and growled between his feet, his thin juvenile's mane standing up around his neck and shoulders. The two technicians looked bewildered, staring around as the crowd grew with the eerie speed of crystals in a saturated solution, and the noise turned hostile. Out of the corner of his eye Marc saw Cynthia draw her pistol and jack the slide to chamber a round, holding it down in a two-handed grip. Beyond her a royal soldier who'd been chatting with a housewife staggered forward as someone thumped him between the shoulders... and then fell forward on his face, with a knife-hilt standing in the back of his neck and blood spilling red in the afternoon sun.

"Tau'wan hubimi!" someone screamed. "Kill the witch-folk!"

"Merde," Marc said comprehensively.

Time to flip the switch to us-or-them mode, ran through him grimly. I usually like these Texians, but when it's us or them, I don't need to think very long, me.

Then he barked: "Take my back!"

The camera went over with a crash and tinkle and pop of components shattering under feet and sticks. The Kowalskis hadn't drawn their pistols in time, and a dozen rioters from the crowd-turned-mob were trying to drag Mary away from her husband, while as many more belabored the man with fists and sticks and feet. If it hadn't been for their assailants getting in each other's way, they'd have died before Marc and Cynthia could cover the twenty feet to them. Time separated into stuttering instants, strobing flashes that some part of his mind knew even then would come back to him later, mostly when he really didn't want them.

Crack. Recoil slammed the 10mm pistol back in his hand. A round blue hole appeared in the back of a head, and blood and bones shot out through a fist-sized gap between the man's eyes. Crack, and he fired with the muzzle inches from a man's ear.

A curved bronze knife slashed at him. He caught it on his own blade; an instant later the man folded over with an oooff and fell, a patch of his tunic on fire from the muzzle-blast of Cynthia's pistol. He ignored that direction as a ripple of crack-crack-crack sounded and then a second's pause as she ejected a magazine, slapped in another and let the slide run forward to chamber a fresh round. Evidently she hadn't wasted her time in the self-defense course.

Marc kicked, a short snap that hammered the toe of his boot into the side of a man's knee. It broke with a wet crackling snap like green shamboo, an ugly sensation that shivered up his foot. The man let go of Mary Kowalski and dropped to the ground, shrieking—the insect-thin sound lost in the white noise roar that echoed from the high hard walls all around them. The Cajun thrust with the knife and jammed it up under the short ribs of another man, firing over his shoulder at one who was about to brain Tom with a knobby oak bludgeon set with sharp obsidian flakes. Tahyo's fangs clamped on the face of another who'd come crawling with a knife clenched between his teeth; he dropped that, flailing at the young greatwolf with hands that weakened rapidly...

The pistol clicked empty; he dropped it and pulled out the one Mary hadn't used and wheeled.

Suddenly they were in the middle of a bubble of empty space. Tom Kowalski reeled backward and sat down, hands to his bloodied face. Mary wasted an instant crossing her arms over her bare scratched breasts, then picked up the oak club and held it like a baseball bat, glaring. Cynthia snapped a fresh magazine into her pistol, standing beside him with the weapon in the precise range grip, raised to eye level, left hand supporting right. Dead men lay sprawled with the wide-eyed look of surprise they always had, and wounded ones twitched or whimpered for their mothers or tried to crawl away like broken-backed snakes. Tahyo growled and bristled and licked the blood off his chops at Marc's feet, making little two-step rushes whenever he saw movement. The crowd filled the exit from the U of the shrine, glaring back; there was a heaving stir and a couple of the royal soldiers rammed their way through to join the Terrans.

The soldiers looked bloodied and battered too, but their tough 'saur-hide armor had protected them, and from the look of their spearpoints and swords they'd quickly switched from crowd-control bashing with the flat and the butt to nice, deep, soul-satisfying thrusts and jabs.

"Kill them all, these alley scum, lord!" the senior survivor snarled to Marc, sounding quite like the greatwolf for a moment. "Smite them with your wizardry!"

"Don't get in front of us or it'll smite you!" he snapped to them. To Mary: "Drop the club and get my pistol there, and Tom's ammo." And at last to Cynthia: "You all right?"

"Apart from being about to die at the hands of a mob of screaming savages?" she said. "Yeah, doin' just fine, bro'."

Her eyes went up to the flat roofs around them. He glanced that way himself without moving his head; flickers of robed figures ducking behind the parapets. Pretty soon they'd start throwing things, or the mob would realize that there were a lot more of them than the Terrans could shoot before they were overrun; already there was a ripple along the front as those safely behind pushed those in front. That was the problem with superstitious awe about firearms. It wore off too quickly.

Then a trumpet blared. Marc let out a long whoosh of relief at the sound of stout staffs thwacking on heads and shoulders from further down the street, to the accompaniment of deep uniform shouts. The mob wavered and then began to run, flowing out of the narrow entrance to the shrine like a film of water running downhill, only played backwards. The heads bobbing about half-seen on the rooftops around them vanished, and windows were shuttered with quick decisive slamming sounds.

For a moment his stomach twisted as he became aware of how close death had come, and a sheen of cold sweat broke out over his skin. He took another deep breath, mostly through his mouth to ignore the fresh smells of death, and holstered his pistol—without, he noted with a slight flush of pride, letting his hands shake. A squad of burly Sun Temple guardsmen trotted up to the entrance to the shrine; they were armored much like soldiers, but bore quarterstaffs rather than spears and shields. The bronze-capped ends of the six-foot staffs were mostly splashed red; now and then one would jab down to make sure a rioter was dead, with nasty thock-crunch sounds.

At their head walked a tall blond man, twirling a staff in effortless figure-eights with one hand, whistling, ignoring the trickle of blood from a pressure-cut on his forehead.

"I say, you chappies look as if you could use a bit of a hand," Christopher Blair said cheerfully.

"Merde," Marc muttered again. It's better to be rescued by him than not be rescued. I suppose.

 

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Copyright © 2005-2007 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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