Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

THE SKY PEOPLE

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


 

PROLOGUE:

 

Venus, June 14th, 1962:

 

The sun rose in the west.

Deera of the Cloud Mountain People ran as she had through the short hours of darkness, without hope and without much fear. The mild warm air of the midlands made the sweat on her face and flanks feel almost cool as it dried, and the tall grass beat against her thighs as her long legs scissored endlessly. The morning sun was still low, casting the seven runners' shadows before them and turning the clouds to the color of raw gold; they had trotted through the short bright summer night and would run on into the long span of daylight, until the great yellow globe of Sauweli sank in the east... if they lived that long, which was unlikely.

She would run until she could run no more; then the Wergu would catch them, and they would fight, and they would die. If they were fortunate, they would die quickly; her warriors had orders to make sure of that for her. There had been some slight chance that they would reach the foothills before the beastmen came up with them, being longer-limbed, but their foes had gained too quickly for that to seem likely. The Cloud Mountain party had been tired from a long journey when the ambush struck, and those who broke away had not had time to snatch up more than their weapons, nor had they been able to build enough of a lead to hide their trail. Now hunger gnawed at them as well as weariness, and they had had no time to do anything but scoop up water in their hands as they forded pool or creek. The Wergu were fresh, with gourds of water at their belts and dried meat in their pouches to eat as they pursued.

Then her mate Jaran broke the deep rhythm of his breath, sniffing deeply.

"What is it, my love?" Deera said. "What do you scent?"

Before he could answer, she smelled it herself, and spoke: "Fire!"

The land before the dozen-strong war party was gently rolling, covered in long green grass starred with flowers crimson and white, with copses of trees along the occasional small streams. They passed small herds of tharg and churr, but luckily nothing bigger, and most animals-of-fur avoided men. Not longtooths or greatwolves or crescent-horns, but there weren't any of those in sight either. Then they saw the thread of smoke rising skyward, and saw animals and flyers heading away. Men and beastmen used fire... or it might be wild-fire from a lightning strike, deadly in grassland country if it spread.

"We go there," Deera said, pointing; the sunlight broke off the bright bronze of her spearhead.

She alone of their party carried metal weapons, the spear and the knife at her belt; their trading mission to the coastal cities hadn't reached its goal before the Wergu found them.

"That is where the streak-of-light pointed," her mate said doubtfully. "A bad omen."

"It is a new thing. If we go on with no new thing, the beastmen will crack our bones for marrow before the sun sets. If it is not a new thing we can use, we cannot be killed any more surely."

Their bare callused feet splashed through the creek, and they eeled through the brush and trees on either side. Fliers exploded from the boughs, eeeking indignantly, and a hawk pounced from the sky to harvest them, its wings as broad as a man's spread arms.

Then the tribesmen stopped. A few moaned aloud in fear.

Deera's eyes went wide in wonder. For a long moment the thing in the broad meadow ahead was so strange that her eyes slid away from its shape, unable to comprehend.

Then there was a feeling like a click behind her brows, and she saw. It was twice the height of a tall man, and stood on three long spidery legs amid a circle of burnt grass; the fire beneath was still working its way outward, slow and sullen in the wet growth of spring. The body above was a cone in shape, the bottom blackened and with a smaller cone protruding from it; even at two hundred yards she could feel the heat. Holes like little caves or the windows of a hut opened in the upper body, and movement there brought a gasp from her people. The scent of burning was rank, and she coughed a little at the smoke. Slowly, mastering the fear that made her skin glisten with fresh sweat—was she not the heir to the Diadem of the Eye , initiate of the Mystery?—she approached and prodded the skin of the... thing with the tip of her spear. There was a hollow clunk.

"It is metal!" she said. "But not bronze or copper or tin or gold or silver!"

Suddenly her mate pushed her between the shoulder blades. She looked around in surprise.

"Go!" Jaran said with fierce hope in his eyes. "The Wergu will fear this thing of magic. We will fight them here. If we kill many, they will not pursue beyond it. Go! Run for the mountains!"

Agony spiked through her despair as he grounded the butt of his spear and took his blowgun from the sling across his back, reaching for a dart from his belt.

"I cannot leave you!"

"You are our people's hope, and there is no time for talk. Go. Go now!"

Weeping, Deera obeyed.

 

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Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, USSR

June 14th, 1962

 

"Bozhemoi!" the technician whispered.

The grainy image flickered on the video monitors; it was in color, for no expense had been spared. The smoke of landing had cleared, and the scientists behind him exclaimed sharply as the camera deployed and panned across a meadow scarred by fire. The audio pickups were functioning as well; there was a crackling of burning grass, the hiss of the wind, unintelligible cheeps and croaks.

"That is grass," one of the biologists said, slurping at a glass of hot sweet tea from the samovar in the corner; the scent of it was strong in the room, along with the scorched-insulation-and-metal smell of tube-driven electronics. "And I would swear some sort of field-poppy."

"Parallel development under environmental influence," another, older academician said, as the recording reels whirred. "Perhaps Comrade Lysenko was right after all!"

Both fell silent as something flicked by the video pickup. The technician kept his hands off the controls; the long feedback cycle to the probe's robot mothercraft orbiting around Venus and from there to the surface and back made it impossible to track moving objects. A beaked head filled the pickup, a beak with fangs, blurred by the close-up; a tongue flicked within as the whatever-it-was gnawed at the lens and then fluttered off. It had teeth and feathered wings with claws on the forward edge... Then sky showed again, white with only a tint of blue, and full of flying creatures too distant to identify. The technician looked at some trees for reference, and his eyes widened again as he realized how large some of the fliers must be.

"Are the Yanki getting any of this?" a KGB bigwig asked unhappily.

"I'm afraid so, Comrade General," the chief academician said. "There's no way to narrowcast a beam over interplanetary distances. Just as we will intercept their Martian probe's broadcasts when it lands next month. That is why it was decided to rebroadcast internally as well."

The security officer opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again. This time he whispered a curse: Chto za chert? Even the most ideologically vigilant could be forgiven a What the devil! at what they saw next, as a half-dozen figures pushed through the brush and stood staring at the probe.

They were men—human males, tall and fair. The one who approached and tentatively prodded at the lander with the point of her spear was a woman, as well. Oh, it was no race that Earth had ever born; that combination of umber skin, white-blond hair, tilted light eyes, snub nose and full lips... perhaps somewhere in the Urals you might find a similar mix, but the overall impression was exotic. So was the garb; a loincloth and halter of scaly leather, jewelry of raw gold nuggets and carved fangs. The head of the spear looked like bronze; those of her five male companions were obsidian, pressure-flaked to an almost metallic finish. All were tall and rangy, moving with a loose economy of motion like hunting wolves.

Utter silence fell. It lasted through the woman's flight, and the brief savage battle with a larger band of newcomers that followed, brutish thickset figures who seemed almost a different species. When that was over one of the victors approached the camera, his squat, massive naked body painted in crude patterns and splashed with blood, some of it his own; more blood and brains dripped from the knobkerrie he carried in one hand.

At last the face filled the pickup. It was covered in what was either hair or a thin sparse beard, the prognathous thin-lipped mouth thrusting forward underneath a huge blobby nose, the forehead slanting back from brow-ridges like a shelf of bone, the long skull ending in a bun at the rear. Feathers stood in a topknot of reddish-brown hair. Suddenly the brutish figure screamed, a long snarling wail that showed a gaping mouth full of square tombstone teeth. The ball-headed club swung and the video signal vanished in static; the microphones picked up crashing and rending sounds for an instant more.

"A Neanderthal," one of the scientists said. "Nu ni huy sebe! What the fuck?"

 

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


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