An Imperial Light Cruiser
The Hittite Sector, beyond the edge of Imperial Space
Chu-sa Mitsuharu Hadeishi, captain of the Henry R. Cornuelle, was sitting in the ruins of the officer’s dining room when his personal comm chimed politely. The thin little Nisei gentleman set down his cup of tea on the rust-speckled surface of a utility table covered with departmental readiness reports and tapped his comm-band live.
“This is Hadeishi.”
“Bridge, kyo. We’ve picked up a Fleet message drone on long-range scan.” The ensign standing communications for third-watch didn’t bother to hide his anticipation. Cornuelle had been out in the wasteland of stars beyond the frontier for nearly nine months. The tachyon relay on the Méxica Astronomer-class light cruiser wasn’t quite good enough to punch through to the big emitters at Cteisphon Station or Tadmor. Unrepaired battle damage to ship’s systems had further degraded their ability to correspond in realtime with Fleet. The prospect of fresh news from home would be very welcome to everyone aboard. Though we’re not suffering cabin fever, not yet.
Hadeishi thought the crew had fallen into a good routine the last six or seven weeks. Everyone was still sharp – no one was making silly mistakes or starting fights – and there was a certain confidence in the crisp way they’d dealt with the last two ‘incidents.’ The Megair weren’t used to Imperial patrols ranging so far from the frontier.
“Is the drone intact?” Hadeishi reached to key up the main comm panel in the mess, but found his hand groping in an empty cavity in the wall. A Khaid penetrator had burrowed into his ship far enough to incinerate everything in the officer’s dining room and surrounding corridors. Some amenities had been restored by looting the port-side Marine ready-room, but there weren’t any spare comm panels to go around, not this far from a Fleet depot.
“Hai, kyo. We’re still negotiating security protocols, but we’ll have a download soon.”
“Route anything flagged Fleet or Priority directly to my office panel,” Hadeishi said, then drained his cup. The waxy black substance in the bottom would not count as ‘tea’ in the poorest inn on Anahuac, but out here beyond the frontier? A mild stimulant in solution, the chu-sa thought in amusement, and drinkable hot. Must be tea!
Bridge-comm signed off and Hadeishi walked carefully along a pathway of fire-proof blankets laid down on jagged metal. The thought of mail cheered him – not necessarily for the contents, as Fleet would be sure to deluge him with demands for reports and reams of fresh regulations, but for the prospect of some news from the inner worlds. Mess conversation below decks would improve, he thought. Fresh zenball and tlachco scores and standings – very important – the men will have something new to wager on. Down in enlisted country, thousands of quills of back-pay were riding on games played months ago. Only Fleet security codes and operational doctrine were more heavily encrypted on outgoing message drones than sports scores. Fleet orders weren’t configured to release only onto the public shipside net, either.
Hadeishi thumbed into his quarters and could not help but smile broadly to see his personal comm panel filled with a fat list of ‘new message received’ glyphs, all sorted and coded for his attention.
The chu-sa’s thin face twisted into a frown. Eyes narrowed in thought, he ran a hand pensively over his sharp black beard. A fat section of the messages on his pane reiterated a common theme – one which made his stomach churn. This is good news, he told himself, trying to be control his initial reaction of dismay. Good news. Time to break out the last of the sake and have Yejin try and cook a real meal. Time to reminisce about the things we’ve done and seen. Time to turn my ship towards home.
Imperial Fleet Office of Personnel, Ninteenth Fleet, Toroson System: Be advised that Thai-i Hayes, Patrick; weapons officer, IMN Cornuelle, has been promoted to Sho-sa in recognition of time in service and exemplary duty to the Empire. Sho-sa Hayes is directed to report at first opportunity to Toroson Fleet Base for reassignment to the heavy cruiser Taiko…
“Such good news! Gods of mountain and stream…” Hadeishi’s nostrils flared. “…they’re gutting my staff to the bone! Hayes, Smith, Isoroku… how will Susan and I—”
His thumb tapped the ‘down’ glyph for the next message and everything seemed to freeze. Two more personnel orders were in queue, each accompanied by a noted marked ‘Personal’ from Admiral Hotategai himself. Hadeishi’s hand moved away from the panel controls. The churning feeling in his stomach was gone, replaced by a cold, leaden sensation. One of the personnel reports was signed for him, and one for…
His thumb moved violently and the message queue flashed red. A confirmation pane opened and he pressed his hand against the plate. A verbal counter-sign followed and Hadeishi, speaking quickly, in short, clearly-enunciated phrases, confirmed dumping the whole slate of messages.
Then he sat back, beads of sweat on his forehead, eyes closed.
In the silence, in the darkness, Hadeishi could hear the ship all around him. Humming along, as it had for six faithful years. The faint gurgling sound of the recycler pipes running under the floorplates, the muted hum of the comm panels. A distant thunder – more felt than heard – of the maneuver drives and the reactors turning over. The sound of a well-tuned ship, lovingly tended by skilled men like Isoroku. Sounds and vibrations he’d lived with so long they’d faded into the seamless background fabric of reality, just as the sound of crickets and car-horns had been omnipresent in his youth.
After a long time, Hadeishi opened his eyes and tapped open a system control pane. Horribly weary – just sitting forward was exhausting – he summoned up a set of dorei in the comm system and set them to scrubbing all evidence of the mail packets from shipside records.
Mismatched security key failures, he keyed into the log, damaged a number of transmissions from Fleet. A retransmit request has been queued for next message drone intercept…
Hadeishi tapped the comm pane closed and slumped back in his chair. I am so tired.
Drowned Venice, six months later…
North Italian Military District, Anahuac (old Earth)
The air throbbed with violent sound, the heavy beat of a thousand drums making the floor jump under Tezozómoc’s feet. The prince pushed through a crowd of gaily-ornamented men and women. Feathered headdresses brushed against his face, brilliant paints and jewels flashed at his eyes. The sound grew louder, the basso droning of conch trumpets piercing the thunder of the dance-drums. An arched doorway appeared above the masked heads of the revelers, filled with a pulsating red light. The prince whooped, changing course, shoving aside writhing bare arms gleaming with sweat and scented oil. His bodyguards fell behind, trapped by the chattering mob.
Countless voices were singing, a hoarse, bellowing roar:
Only a subject,
Only a mortal was.
Tezozómoc’s long coat snagged on a woman’s emerald-crusted snake-bodice and he shrugged the heavy, armor-reinforced leather away. Heated air flushed against newly bared skin, and the prince felt a rush of relief. He was glad to be out of the chill winter air and into comfortable heat. Strobing lights blazed on his chest and shoulders, making vertical stripes of red and orange paint blaze. Turquoise bracelets shimmered at his wrists. He pressed through the arch, long-fingered hands trailing across the exposed bellies of two girls writhing to the all-encompassing sound.
For an instant, standing at the top of a tall staircase, vaulted roof booming overhead with the roar of the crowd, staring down at the surging mass of painted, feathered, jeweled humanity dancing below, the prince felt alive – transported, wrenched free from his miserable skin, elevated even beyond the humming buzz of the oliohuiqui coursing through his blood – and he threw back his head in a long, wailing howl.
The priests were singing:
A stirrer of strife,
A maker of war,
An arranger of battles,
A lord of battles;
The sound was lost in the throbbing beat, the countless flutes, braying horns, the shaking roar of rattles and gourds. On the floor of the ancient cathedral, a line of four hundred dancers began to circulate, horned masks bobbing, powdered feet stamping, stiff arms thrown up in the stylized motions of the ancient barbarians. Tezozómoc grasped the shoulders of two revelers – were they Italians? Beneath their feathered mantle-cloaks and elaborate masks, who could tell? – and leapt up onto the balustrade of the staircase. Ancient, pitted marble slipped under his bare feet, making the prince stagger and lurch for balance.
A flush of heat surged through him, morning-glory extract mixing with adrenaline, and the vast chamber spun queasily round. The prince laughed queasily, trim brown arms reaching out. Balance returned, helped by a forest of hands reaching up to grasp his legs. Countless gleaming eyes stared up at him in surprise, every face hidden behind fantastical masks.
“I run!” He screeched, swinging his head round. “I run!”
Against the antics of the four hundred dancers, the red-masked priests droned with one voice:
And of him it was said
That he hurled
His flaming serpent,
His fire stick;
Which means war,
Blood and burning;
Throwing his arms wide, Tezozómoc sprang down the marble banister, nimble feet light on the ancient, moss-corroded stone. Within a breath he lost control, unable to stop, and plunged headlong down into the close-packed crowd. At the same moment, a veritable forest of crusted-blood-red banners sprang up from the revelers. The drums rattled to a crescendo as the circle of dancers at the middle of the vast floor fell to hands and knees. A brawny man – nearly seven feet tall, dyed blue from head to toe, his shoulders and arms covered with a coat of glued iridescent feathers – sprang up, raising a curling, snapping banner bearing an azure hummingbird. Muscles flexing, he whirled the banner around his head with great speed. As he did, another man – no more than a youth – darted from the crowd, racing counter-clockwise around the ring of fallen dancers. Like the prince, he was painted with vertical red and orange stripes.
The blare of horns and conch trumpets faded away, and now only a single massive beat of the drums punctuated the chanting of the priests:
And when his festival was celebrated,
Captives were slain,
Washed slaves were slain,
The merchants washed them.
Tezozómoc crashed into one banner, tearing the cloth from the hands of a startled celebrant, then into another. His cry of pain, smashing into close packed bodies, was lost in a tumult of sound as the banner-men raised a mighty shout, shaking their flags violently. The prince scrabbled at the hard-muscled bodies tangled around him, kicking fruitlessly, narrow chest heaving with effort. He could see nothing but a forest of bare, dyed legs and the strobing flash of arc lights on the distant ceiling. Someone kicked him in the side and his own mask slipped sideways, blinding him.
“Ahh… curst peasants! Get off!”
The boom-boom of the drums began to pick up, and the voices of the priests melded into one thundering roar of sound:
And thus he was arrayed:
With head-dress of green feathers,
Holding his serpent torch,
Girded with a belt,
Bracelets upon his arms,
As a master of messengers.
A hand reached down, seizing his wrist, and Tezozómoc felt himself dragged to his feet by main strength.
“You’re strong…” The prince started to exclaim, stripping away the sweat-soaked mask. Then he stopped, surprised.
An oval-faced girl wearing little more than long glossy black hair smiled down at him. Her mouth was moving, but he couldn’t hear anything, only the crushing thunder of drums and horns and a thousand hoarse voices shouting their praises of Blue-Hummingbird-on-the-Left. Tezozómoc shook his head, grinning, and pulled her close. Her hip rubbed across his thigh, slippery with oil. To his delight, she pressed close, nails scraping his chest and back. He tried to kiss her, but she turned her head, lips pressed to his ear.
“Isn’t it bad luck to have two of the same god at the festival?” He heard; a strong, breathy voice with an indefinable accent. Not a Méxica girl, then. Tezozómoc felt a flash of disappointment, immediately lost in a surge of desire as her tongue flicked against his earlobe.
“There’s another Painal the Runner here?” He asked, confused, turning to put lips to her ear in turn.
“Of course,” she laughed, slim body undulating against his. Oddly, her skin felt almost glassy under the oil. “Doesn’t Raising-the-Banners celebrate his race around the Valley? Isn’t this his festival?”
“Yes…” Tezozómoc said, blushing. His face crumpled a little. “It is. I just thought…”
“A prince should be able to come in any costume he wants,” she breathed, caressing his face with one hand. Oil and paint smeared across his cheekbone. “Do you like girls?”
“What do you think?” The prince replied, chagrin washing away, and thrust himself against her. His heart was beating faster, almost as fast as the hands of the drummers on deer-hide. His skin felt hot, hotter than the bitter, smoky air.
“You do!” The girl laughed, drawing away, pulling him with her, hands clasped tight around his wrists. Again, Tezozómoc was surprised by the strength of her grip, but before he could follow the thought a cloud of other girls, all silvered hair and glossy, scale-painted skin, emerged from the surging, dancing crowd.
They swirled, flashing smiles and pert golden breasts, around him. All alike they were, shimmering with scales and sparkling indigo dust in their hair. “Come with us,” they cried, heads weaving and bobbing in a stamping, quick-footed spiral. Their hands were on him before the prince could react and he giggled, starting to feel alive again, as they swept him away towards the ancient, crumbling edifice of the altar of San Marco. A quartet of bronze horses reared above him, festooned with garlands of flowers and paper lanterns.
Amazingly, the crowd parted in front of them, as though the sea ebbed before his majesty.
“Wait!” The prince stared around in dismay, seeing nothing but a frenetic sea of heads, masks, feather headdresses and upraised arms. “Where did she go?”
The woman with long hair had disappeared.
“You’ll see her again,” chimed the ring of scaled girls holding him tight. “Soon!”
Mumbling a constant, unintelligible litany of curses, a tall, lean-faced man shoved his way through the crowd. Despite the rolling waves of heat rising from the frenetic dancers, he had not cast aside a long black leather coat. Immediately behind him, a shorter man with wild dark brown hair and a dyspeptic expression tried to follow. Both had a hand hidden in their coats.
“D’ ye see him?” Master Sergeant Lorne Colmuir spat out the wet, crushed remains of a tabac, his head in constant movement, trying to pick out one depressingly familiar brown visage among all the masks and painted faces bobbing on the dance floor. “Our wee-wee bairn?”
“I can’t see anything,” Sergeant Leslie Dawd answered, bulling his way to his companion’s side. He stood on tip-toe and was immediately crushed into the Skawtsman’s side. Furious, the Eagle Knight lashed out, knocking down a drunken man with an elephant-face mask. Culmuir lent a hand, dragging the shorter man to his feet.
“Circle roight,” Lorne growled, already moving left, leading with an elbow and pressing through the crowd.
“Ro-ight. Learn to speak properly…” Dawd grumbled, smoothing back his disordered, sweat-stiff hair. Leading with both hands, he jammed through a line of copper-skinned men, tall prongs of multi-colored feathers dancing against their backs. “Useless, useless waste of a prince…”
He stumbled out into a tiny void in the chaos of the crowd, nothing more than the counter-rotating calm generated by a stream coiling around a rock. Sergeant Dawd shook out his shoulders, letting the gun-rig under his coat settle, bracing to plunge into the mob again.
A girl – no, a woman – popped out of the wave of caroling dancers in front of him. He caught sight of piercing blue eyes between strands of heavy black hair and an impression of a lithe, muscular body, before she was in his arms.
“Hello.” Her voice was husky and hot, hot as the steaming air filling the cathedral. Her hand was around his neck, slippery on his skin and cold – something hard pressed against his spine –Dawd tried to jerk away, left arm slashing up to break contact.
Bzzzt! His entire body convulsed in a bone-wrenching spasm. The woman grinned, flashing brilliant white teeth, and was gone into the crowd. The sergeant staggered, body jerking with successive electric shocks. Despite overwhelming, teeth-grinding pain, his hands scrabbled to tear the jitterbug away from his neck.
The drums changed the beat, as the Runner completed his last circuit of the hall, and the Four Hundred dancers began to shout their war-cries in counter-beat to the roar of the Méxica drummers. Flames cavorted above the crowd, hurled up by men in wolf-cloaks, spinning wheels of sparks flashing against the dark roof.
The crowd surged again, the tiny space collapsed, and Dawd went down, wracked by electrical shocks and trampled by dozens of unwary revelers.
Colmuir sprang up onto the dais holding the drummers, left hand over his ear to keep the near-physical blast of the amplifiers rising in a black tower from crushing his eardrum. Ignoring the startled looks of the naked, sweating musicians he weaved quickly through them, eyes on the crowd below, looking for a too-familiar youth… there!
A crowd of girls in little more than silver and gold paint were disappearing through a low arch, a stumbling Painal-the-Runner among them. The Skawtsman cursed, vaulted a row of flute players, coat flying out behind him and plunged into the crowd beyond.
Two enormous brutes – faces unexpectedly bare, tight black shirts, masses of iron rings glittering on clenched fists – grabbed at him. Twisting sideways, Colmuir dove between them, hands diving beneath his coat and vest. The bouncers collided, bounced back shouting in rage and were gone behind a wall of spinning dancers in long white mantles. The Skawt bounded through the archway, hands filled with a pair of Nambu ‘double-rack’ automatics. A fresh contingent of celebrants – winter coats still draped over their costumes, snow dusting their hair – scattered away as he charged up the staircase.
At the top of the stairs, the Eagle Knight skidded to a halt, taking a measured glance down the corridors branching away. The flash of silver heels caught his eye and he was taking the next flight of steps three at a time. Laughter rang in openness and he was suddenly surrounded by pale watery light.
The half-dome of a boat bay rose before him, all green plexi and damp iron ribs. Beyond the man-high panels shining lights moved in the depths – submersibles and party barges cruising among the drowned towers and palaces of old Venice – searchlights briefly illuminating the empty windows and doorways of the dead city. Colmuir darted forward, thumbing off the safeties on both automatics. A sleek black Stilleto minisub was floating in the right-hand boat pool. One of the silver girls had keyed the hatch and was throwing back the glassite dome.
“Halt, in the name of the Empire!” The automatics bucked and a sharp crack-crack-crack bounced back from the plexi dome as the master sergeant opened fire. Tracers slashed through the prince-nappers and one of the girls staggered, a crimson stain splashed across her golden breasts.
The enemy broke ranks, and Colmuir threw himself to one side, crashing to the floor behind a valet station. The brief glimpse of their deft, coordinated movement filled him with a sharp burst of fear. Despite his sudden appearance, they’d separated left and right without the slightest hesitation.
The hammering roar of a submachine gun raked the valet-station, tearing gaping holes in the light wood. Lorne flattened, trying to scramble away. Twisting on the floor, he dropped behind the lip of the left-hand boat pool, one leg splashing into chill seawater.
Something metallic tumbled overhead and splashed into the dark water.
“Curst!” Colmuir vaulted back the other way, both automatics blazing in a wild figure-eight.
Whooomp! The grenade went off, blasting water in all directions. Drenched, the Eagle Knight scuttled back towards the entranceway. The dead girl sprawled on the dockside. The Stilleto was still rocking at anchor, a string of bullet-holes spider-webbing the cabin canopy with a fog of cracks.
A low groaning sound permeated the air. His wild spray of fire had cracked the heavy glassite panels holding back the chill waters of the Adriatic.
Without a pause, Colmuir darted towards the far exit tunnel, thumbing the magazine ejectors on his pistols. Strips of smoking plastic bounced away on the metal decking. He reached the corner, flattened himself against the wall, and jammed two new strips of bullets into the weapons.
There was a grinding noise as glassite and metal twisted around the hairline cracks in the clear panels.
Grimacing, Colmuir punched a locking code into the boat-bay panel on the wall, then ducked around the corner, pistols raised. The deck under his feet shuddered as the lock door began to descend, squealing in long-unused tracks.
The tunnel was empty, but against the thudding backbeat of the now-distant cathedral he could hear the clatter of running feet. Crouched, guns low, Lorne sprinted up the corridor. A steadily brightening light swelled ahead – another boat bay?A lift core?
Almost too late he heard a rush of air behind him and the mosquito-whine of an aeropack. The Skawt threw himself down, trying to roll round and bring his guns to bear. Something smashed into his left hand, wrenching the Nambu out of his grasp. The gun ricocheted from the wall of the tunnel with a clang. The other automatic blazed, lighting the corridor with a flare of venting propellant. Tracers stitched across the roof, then rebounded crazily. In the brief illumination, Lorne caught a glimpse of a sleek, seemingly-naked woman zipping past.
He rolled up onto his knees, steadying the automatic with both hands for a chase shot, but the flying woman hadn’t fled. His chin slammed back, caught by a spinning heel-kick, and he sprawled backwards, skidding across the wet, rusty floor. Gasping, face spattered with blood, Colmuir groped for the automatic.
The woman crossed her arms, grasped something with a metallic clicking sound, and lunged. Lorne blocked sharply, bared hands blurring into an X against her expected punch. A coiled-metal rod lashed against his forearm and the Eagle Knight choked out a gasp as a massive electrical shock flared across his leather-clad arms.
“Uuuuh!” He braced, letting the insulated layer in the armored coat bleed away the current.
In a blur, the shockrod slashed at his head, but by then Colmuir had recovered from the kick. He countered vigorously, smashing aside the blow, off-hand clenching to seize a twenty-centimeter combat knife slapped into his palm by the spring-loader strapped to his arm.
He slashed up, trying to catch the underside of her chin with the point, but she was fast – very fast – and sprang back. The aeropack whined again and she was gone, zipping off down the tunnel. “Dosvidanya,” she laughed, the sound rolling hollow in the metal corridor.
The master sergeant charged off in pursuit, leading with the knife, right-hand scrambling to draw a backup gun from the small of his back. Behind him, the pressure door made a squeaking sound as the boat-bay collapsed, sending hundreds of tons of water smashing against the metal.
Tezozómoc was still giddy, skin burning, member painfully stiff in his loincloth, when the silver-girls dragged him onto a lift-core platform. The drug paste smeared across his chest and face pierced him like needles. He collapsed to his knees, unable to catch himself. He heaved violently, both arms bound tight behind him. A stomach filled with ololiuhqui and too much octli-beer did not mix well with the tranquilizers and readysetgo seeping into his bloodstream.
The girls holding him cursed – a gutteral, barbarous language – and he felt a sharp blow to the side of his head.
“You dare … I’m a member of the Imperial… urk!” An elbow jammed into his stomach, making him heave again, and four sets of slim golden hands grasped him by arms and legs and pitched him unceremoniously into the basket of a balloon tethered to the lift-platform. The prince’s head struck the wicker wall on the far side, drawing another racking heave. He tried to sit up, but a petite foot, as bare as any of the silver-girls seemed to be, came down on his neck, driving his head into the basket floor. Cool plastic chilled his flesh.
“Get them out,” someone said, and Tezozómoc realized there were two slumped figures also in the basket with him. The foot lifted from his neck and the whole gondola shivered as the girl above him leapt lightly onto the platform. “We can’t spare the weight…”
Gunshots rang out. The prince felt the gondola shake and he twitched violently, thinking the balloon had been hit. A furious hiss answered his movement and he lay still, fearing another blow to the head or stomach.
“Ware!” Someone shouted – a woman, and angry as a cat to boot. The entire gondola shook again and Tezozómoc felt his stomach drop away. A sustained ripping sound roared not too far away and something hot smashed through the base of the basket, stinging the prince’s face.
Eyes screwed tight shut, Tezozómoc curled into a ball, knees against his forehead.
A whoomp! sound – right on top of him - startled the prince into an unacceptable fit of crying, and harsh metallic smoke stung his nostrils. Distantly, there was a violent crashing sound followed by screams.
“My lord?” Someone touched his shoulder. Tezozómoc opened his eyes. The fuzzy image of his shorter bodyguard –what was his name? – slowly came into view, ringed by a shimmering halo of white light. “Are you able to speak?”
“Do…” The prince struggled with swollen lips. His throat was terribly dry and tasted awful. He peered desperately at the man. “Do you have anything to drink? Champagne? Beer? Even water will do in a pinch!”
Running flat out, his entire attention focused solely on the speeding back of the Russian woman, Lorne burst out onto the lift platform too late to realize there was no railing, no gondola and only a yawning shaft twenty meters wide before him.
“Ayyyy!” He tried to slide to a stop, but a messy pool of blood and water mixed with the omnipresent rust betrayed the noskid on his boots. The Eagle Knight realized – in an instant of unremitting clarity – there was no possible way to stop and flung himself forward, the combat knife flashing away into the darkness, fingers grasping for the woman’s feet as she soared heavenward.
By nothing less than a miracle his right hand seized hold of her ankle, slipping a little on her strangely stiff skin before they both plunged into the shaft. The aeropack whined in protest, trying to counter the unexpected weight. Another lighted lift-platform flashed past and Lorne’s coat billowed up in rushing wind.
The woman twisted, kicking at his head as they fell, and the Eagle Knight wrenched his shoulder, trying to get his other hand around her ankle.
“Chudak!” Eyes flashing in the lights blurring past, hair now unbound in a flying cloud around her head, she sharply clenched her left fist twice. The skinsuit gelled to her lithe frame flared with a ripple of lightning and Lorne screamed, nerves savaged, and his grip flew loose.
The aeropack squealed and the woman flashed away and up into the darkness overhead. Lorne plunged, tumbling wildly, already half-dead from shock. He tried to scream, but his throat had contorted – like every other muscle in his body – into an agonizing cramp.
“Status!” Van Belane hissed into the comm thread pasted beside her plush lips. “Where is the prince?”
“Gone,” came the furious answer. “We had him in the backup vehicle, but the other Eagle cut the mooring ropes and they escaped.”
“My father’s beard… like a cockroach that one!” The Russian craned her neck upwards and thumbed the aeropack on full boost. Far above she could make out the half-moon shape of a lift rising up the shaft. Strings of colored lights hung along the sides of the ancient atmosphere vent cast a rippling gleam on the balloon. “I see them – scatter to the tertiary rendezvous. I will take care of this business myself.”
Arching her back, Van Belane reached behind her, slim fingers searching through the combat pack clinging to her back under the huge mane of black hair. Fingertips found the casing for a Norsk-make Mistletoe ATGM and slid the rocket from its holder. Strands of hair tangled, and – cursing again – she ripped off the wig and left it fluttering behind her.
She closed swiftly with the balloon as the gondola bumped past another platform. Van Belane swung wide, trying to see past the shape, and realized she’d run out of time. The mouth of the shaft was only a hundred meters away, shining darkness speckled with stars and thin clouds gleaming with the lights of the city ringing the wide bowl of the Lagoon.
Sighing, feeling a melancholy tide rising in her heart, the Russian woman sighted the rocket, waited for the aiming tone, thumbed the activation switch and cast the rod-shaped weapon free. The aeropack whined again, forced into a tight maneuver and she curled up her legs, zipping into the mouth of a side airway. Behind her, the ATGM spiraled away in free-fall, then the engine ignited with a flash, the tracking mechanism locked onto the gondola and the rocket blazed up the shaft.
A concussive whoomp! followed and a wave of superheated air rushed past. In the mouth of the airway, hands braced against the sides, Van Belane turned her head as flaming debris plunged past. Two bodies wrapped in flame careened by and then the whole body of the burning balloon obscured the opening for a moment as it fell.
Popping a stick of cinnamon-flavored chicle into her mouth, Van Belane turned and loped off down the airway, letting her skinsuit turn opaque and flicking nightsight lenses down over sullen ice-blue eyes. “Cursed Skawts… lapdogs of the Empire…”
Smoke billowed in the shaft, but the constant pressure of air from below began to clear away the fumes. In the airway shaft opposite where Van Belane had disappeared, sergeant Dawd raised his head from the floor of the tube, gray-green eyes filled with a grim light. He waited another hundred heartbeats, saw the last of the smoke was gone and no slinky, black-haired shape had reappeared in the other tunnel, and lifted himself to his knees.
“Safe, my lord. For the moment at least.”
Tezozómoc sighed and the Skawt helped him sit up. A twist of the wrist released a combat knife to cut the tiemeups holding the prince’s arms behind his back.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the prince said, in an unconvincingly contrite voice, “but… what is your name again?”
“Leslie Dawd, my lord.” The Eagle Knight avoided meeting his master’s eyes, concentrating on sawing through the plastic composite. The serrated back edge of the knife made it tricky work. “Eagle Knight in your service, ex-Fleet Marine Sergeant.”
“A Tequihuah… well done, master Dawd.” Tezozómoc drew out the words, trying to affect a fashionable languor. Leslie could feel the youth – more than a boy, he thought rather morosely, and less than a man – trembling under his hands. “Now wait a moment… aren’t there supposed to be two of you accompanying me at all times?”
“Yes, my lord.” Dawd’s tone became rather more clipped than before, though he was a man who prided himself on a clear, cultured voice. “Master Sergeant Lorne Colmuir is also in your service.”
“And where is he?” If anything, the prince was now sounding almost aggrieved.
“I believe, my lord,” The sergeant’s jaw clenched. “That Cuauhhuehueh Colmuir has… has plunged to his death while attempting to apprehend the terrorists who attempted to kidnap you.”
“Kidnap?” Tezozómoc drew back a little in surprise. “Those joygirls… they were terrorists?”
“Yes,” Dawd managed to get out. “They were. My Lord. A Danish or Russian kommando, I would venture. Very… dangerous.”
“Kidnapped. I was kidnapped.” The prince’s face slowly lit with delight, perfectly even teeth white in the darkness of the tunnel. “By the Mother of God, I was kidnapped!”
Sergeant Dawd did not react, though he could feel the ulcers in his long-suffering stomach begin to pucker with acid.
“This…” Tezozómoc clapped a friendly hand on the Skawt’s shoulder. “Is the best news I’ve had… oh, in ages! Wait until my father hears this!” The prince suddenly paused, staring at Leslie’s stony expression. “Master Dawd? Why such a long face? This is good news! Someone – dire enemies of the Empire – the Danes! For the love of Christ, they thought I was worth doing away with!”
Sergeant Dawd turned, frowning, raising a hand for silence. Lights were beginning to flicker on the roof of the tunnel and a booming, chattering noise filling the air. He could hear people laughing, their voices raised in drunken, inharmonious song.
“Lie flat, my lord,” he said, struggling to keep from just jamming the boy’s head down onto the corrugated metal. He checked to make sure the magazine was full, then thumbed back the safety on the Nambu 10mm. “We’re not safe yet.”
The vast, round shape of a party-barge drifted past. The balloon was festooned with glittering lights, including a broad glowing videopatch showing drunken rabbits dancing under a smiling room. “Drink Mayahuel beer,” boomed a recorded voice, “and be more fertile!”
The gondola swayed into view, crammed with masked people laughing and singing, then rose majestically past. Dawd lowered the automatic slowly.
A black figure swung into the opening of the tube, boots clanking on metal.
Tezozómoc leapt up, shouting in fear, and cracked his head against the curving roof. Groaning in pain, the prince fell back down, clutching his scalp, fingers stained crimson. Leslie breathed out a long sigh of relief and flipped the automatic back into the holster on his gun-rig.
“Not dead, I see,” he said, nodding to Colmuir.
“Nawt yet,” grinned the Aberdeen-man. “But close, very close… wot about ‘im?”
Dawd turned, staring in disgust at Tezozómoc, who was curled up and whimpering. “Take him home, I suppose. Clean him up. Nothing else to do with him.”
As an aside, he leaned close to Colmuir. “Master Sergeant, why did we ally ourselves with these … savages?”
“Oh, lad,” Colmuir nodded sagely, “’twas them or the Anglish. And compared to the Anglish… well, we’ve still the better of the deal wit’ these heathens.”
The Edge of Imperial Méxica Space
The murmur of four thousand impatient travelers filled the transit hall, making it difficult for Gretchen Anderssen, field xenoarchaeologist for the Honorable Chartered Company, to hear the politely soft voice of the Albanian Spaceways ticket agent in front of her.
“I am sorry, Anderssen-tzin, but your ticket to New Aberdeen has been changed.”
“Changed?” Gretchen scowled uneasily at the little Nisei woman. “By who?”
“By the issuing authority. There is a note.” The ticket agent tapped her pad and a metal plate slid aside on the countertop, revealing a comm panel. Anderssen pressed her thumb onto the receptor pane and crossed her arms, steeling herself for bad news. A Company memo header appeared, accompanied by a terse message and her field supervisor’s chop.
Go to Jagan. Apply for a survey permit. There is a device which must be examined.
“This is the entire note? The only message?” Gretchen wiped the pane clear with a flick of her hand. “Have all our tickets been changed? All three of us?”
The ticket agent bowed in response, providing Anderssen with a travel chit. “David Parker – Imperial citizen, Magdalena – naturalized Hesht female. Yes, all three tickets have been re-routed to the Bharat system, planet Jagan. Stay is open-ended, with a return voyage via Coriolanis to Old Mars.”
“What?” Parker was standing in line behind Anderssen and now he plucked a half-burned tabac from his mouth to stare at her in horror. “Where the hell is Bharat? What happened to our vacation time? My mom is expecting me for dinner next week!”
Magdalena showed her incisors, a dull yellow-white gleam against grape-colored lips and night-black fur. “More work? The yrrrchowl-ssshama is playing with us.”
Gretchen turned the chit over in her hands. The dull roar of fellow travelers arguing, crying, pleading lapped around her. “A drop-in,” she mused aloud, feeling intensely irritated. “I haven’t gotten a drop-in for… years.” She looked up to find the others staring at her. “What it means is someone has reported something unusual somewhere in this system. Probably some farmer turned over his field and thought he found a First Sun library. The Company heard about it and—”
“Next, please.” The ticket agent waved them aside, beckoning for the line to advance.
“Do we get duress pay?” Parker relit his tabac. “A bonus? Working-on-vacation time?”
Magdalena’s ears pricked up. “Fresh killed meat, still hot, dripping with juice?”
Gretchen ignored them, raising her head to search the massive v-pane filling one entire wall of the cavernous hall. Thousands of ships passed through Tadmor every week. One of them would carry them to Bharat. Hope it’s a real liner, she grumbled to herself, not a tramp with berths over the reactor.
Then she thought about how long it would be until she saw her children, her mother, walked in the realspruce forest behind their house breathing cool, fresh air, and had to fight not to cry. Fucking company. I am so tired of this.
Gretchen forced herself to focus on the chit. “Yes, Parker, there is a bonus. And overtime.”
“Rrrr…” Magdalena’s ears flicked back, showing what she thought of that.
fourth planet of the Bharat System
A brisk chime disturbed the meditations of a tiny old woman sitting crosslegged on a rumpled, unmade bed. The room was dark, lit solely by a green glow from dozens of v-pane screens. Bundles of heavily insulated cable snaked everywhere, disappearing through holes cut into glossy teak floorboards. She was breathing steadily, first through one nostril, then through the other.
The chiming became insistent – drowning out the muted sound of car horns and passing trolleys – and beetle-black eyes flickered opened.
The old woman turned her attention to the flashing glyph on the panel, a wizened thumb mashing the winking shape of a running man. A v-pane unfolded, revealing the shaved head of a Flower War priest, forehead marked by broad stripes of soot and ash.
“My lady Itzpalicue,” the man inclined his head nervously. In the near-perfect fidelity of the display, she could see sweat beading beneath the white paint anointing his brow. “There is news of Battlegroup Eighty-Eight Tecaltan. They are inbound now from the forward fleet base at Toroson.”
“When will they arrive?” Her voice was creaky and dry, dead branches rubbing against stone, but the sharp expression on her face betrayed a keen intelligence. Her high, classically Méxica cheekbones were marked with lines of red-stained pinprick scars. “Who commands the Flingers-of-Stone?”
“Villeneuve, my lady.” The Flower priest’s expression changed subtly, shading from barely hidden fear to nearly-open glee. As often in the past, Itzpalicue suppressed a surge of irritation with the slowness of the man’s thought processes. “We have already dispatched the officer rosters and ship manifests to your network.”
“Duke Alexis has his frontier command at last.” The old woman’s crumpled lips twitched up slightly, black eyes glittering with delight. “I am pleased the Admiralty saw fit to grant your request. I am sure he is delighted as well.”
“How could the Frenchman fail to be pleased?” The Flower priest made an expansive gesture, mostly lost in the narrow focus of the v-pane pickup. “Four Mitla-class fast dreadnaughts, a dozen Kasei-class heavy cruisers and a veritable armada of smaller ships. Two Marine regiments, thousands of support personnel… everything an ambitious junior admiral could want.”
“Everything he needs to fight a minor war, on some forgotten planet on the edge of the Empire.” Itzpalicue turned a portion of her attention to the officer rosters flipping past in her secondary data-feed. The documents opened, paged and closed with blurring speed. An unexpected sense of relief glowed for a moment as she digested the information. “Have your analysts examined the commander’s list for the battlegroup?”
“Yes, my lady. Entirely acceptable to the xochiyaotinime. Almost entirely barbarians… or at least not citizens borne of the Four Hundred Houses.”
“Well, your enterprise should go well, then.” Itzpalicue inclined her head and almost laughed to see the last traces of fear ebb from the Flower Priest’s expression. “Did you expect the presence of the prince Tezozómoc?”
“Yes!” The priest’s face swelled fat with self-congratulation. “A lucky stroke! The Light of Heaven recently spoke with the master of our order about his youngest son. Of course we were happy to oblige his desires… as they run alongside our own. The boy will be thrust into the forge-fire…”
Itzpalicue snorted delicately – another dry, whispery sound – and did not bother to disguise her amusement. “Forge fire? In this flowery war you’re arranging? More like the flame of a candle, I think.”
“Not so!” The priest had forgotten his earlier trepidation and now soot-blackened eyebrows converged over a sharp nose. “The Xochiyaoyotl is not play-acting, my lady! The divine fluid will be spilled in full measure, pleasing both the Holy Mother and her Son. The boy may die gloriously, as befits a Méxica prince on the field of battle, or he may triumph as Imperial arms will surely prove victorious over the barbarians. Either outcome will suit our purpose – and the Light of Heaven! – well enough.”
I would not call the Jehanan ‘barbarians’, the old woman thought, as their civilization predates even the simians of Anahuac who gave birth to our noble race… and his thrice-blest Light of Heaven. She considered the Fleet rosters on the secondary displays. “Have you chosen the ship to play Elder Warrior?”
“No…” The Flower Priest sniffed, annoyed at having his contemplation of victory disturbed by necessary details. “My acolytes are reviewing the Fleet records now.” He paused, peering at her with a tinge of apprehension. “Do… do you have a recommendation?”
Itzpalicue made a show of pausing to consider, though she had already grasped sufficient detail from the data-stream to know that while there were commanders on the list who could play the traditional role, none of them were just right. “The Mirror bows to the experience of the xochiyaotinime in this matter.” She favored him with a tight, wintry smile. “Should circumstances change, however, do not fear but I will render any advice deemed necessary.”
“Of course.” The Flower Priest managed to nod genially.
The old woman could see his mind whirling, wondering if there were any good choices among the battlegroup commanders. Ah, she thought in disgust, best to have said nothing… now he’ll second-guess himself into a twist.
Flower War exercises were not usually the domain of the Mirror-Which-Reveals-The-Truth – the mere presence of Itzpalicue on Jagan had already thrown the priests’ usual planning into confusion – and awareness of the Mirror’s interest in this particular War-of-Flowers was causing more lost sleep than the presence of one junior, ill-regarded and eminently expendable Imperial Prince.
The Flower Priests usually operated on the fringe of Imperial space, allowing themselves a generous margin of anonymity and distance in case of some unforeseen disaster. While they took some care in picking a suitable ‘honorable enemy,’ past events had taught them even the most placid-seeming world could unleash untold devastation on the Imperial combat forces sent in harm’s way. Not every alien civilization was pleased to have the Méxica engage them in unexpected warfare, just for the purpose of blooding freshly-raised regiments and newly-promoted fleet commanders. Still, Itzpalicue thought, with a rather amused air, the xochiyaotinime and their games do serve a purpose, both for the people, the military and for the Emperor. Even, sometimes, for the Smoking Mirror.
The modern implementation of the Flower War was a far cry from the ritualized combats between the ancient Méxica and their neighbors in the Heart of the World. Long gone the glorious mantles, feathered cloaks and elaborate head-dresses for the favored combatants. No more the cleared fields of honor scattered along the frontiers of the early Empire. No year of pampered luxury leading to the altar of divine sacrifice awaited those honorably overcome in combat. Only simple death, spilling precious fluid in some forgotten ruin.
Itzpalicue sighed aloud, wondering if the reality of those lost times was as clean and elegant as the official histories related. Not likely! Blood and shit smell much the same, regardless of the age.
Jagan was a remote world, but introducing the Light of Heaven’s personal interest, even if through the disreputable person of Tezozómoc, raised the stakes enough to make everyone sweat. And with a high-ranking Mirror agent in residence… well, Itzpalicue knew for a fact they were suffering sleepless nights trying to second-guess her intent.
“Any advice you might deem fit to relate,” the priest continued, swallowing, trying to keep his head above water. “Would be as jade and turquoise to us. You have our priority channel, of course.”
“I do.” Itzpalicue quashed her smile. “Please let me know when the horns and flutes sound. I have decided to remove myself from Parus for the duration of the… contest.”
“Oh, there’s no danger…” The priest stopped himself. A trail of sweat trickled down the side of his head and disappeared into a starched white collar. “Your pardon, my lady. There will be some danger. We are not fighting with macauhuil wrapped in cotton, oh no! The barbarians have modest arms – a variety of armored fighting vehicles, gas-propellant small arms, jet-turbine aircraft – but no atomics. No, no… I would be remiss to tell you there was no danger once our own troops are engaged by the rebellious elements among the Jehanan.”
He tried to show a controlled smile, but the pasty color of his flesh beneath the ceremonial paint made him look much like a defleshed skull in Tizoc’s garments. “I fear the substance of most buildings in Parus – grand a city though it is – will not be able to stop even the small-caliber railgun rounds fired by our Fleet shuttles or Oni-class combat tracks. You should take care.”
“I will.” Itzpalicue made a sitting bow, indicating the conversation was over. “Good day.”
The channel folded closed on the v-pane even before the Flower Priest could respond.
Sighing, Itzpalicue shook her head in dismay at the man’s lack of control. Even the most dim-witted of the Flower Priests probably guessed the Mirror agent in residence had full access to all Imperial communications in Jaganite near-space and on the surface of the ancient world. Yet he still tried to keep her informed of developments, even though her own communications network was superior to his own. The Mirror’s reputation for infallible omniscience was not vigorously reinforced by all the power available to the Imperial government for nothing.
If the tlachiolani – the Eye Which Reveals While Undiscovered – could not see into the minds of every citizen, much less the secret councils of the European governments fulminating in exile among the Rim colonies, they could ensure full access to Imperial communications, secure public networks and voice traffic. Nearly all civilian data was exposed to the Mirror of Black Glass, either through backdoors in mass-produced communications equipment or revealed by Imperial ‘mice’ scanning and analyzing broadcast data streams in realtime.
In the hands of an experienced nauallis like Itzpalicue, the wealth of data surging around Jagan was a clear ocean from which she could pluck almost anything she desired.
Everything inconsequential is revealed to me, she thought, sourly, save that which I desire.
Careful to avoid dislodging the display panes and comps piled on the edges of her bed, the old woman rose up and stepped carefully across a nest of cables to reach the bathroom. Her hand, unerring in the dimness, found the pull-cord of an archaic looking light fixture. The bulb flared white, a stark, piercing light in comparison to the soft phosphor glow of her screens. Itzpalicue grimaced, eyes narrowed to slits, and turned the tap. A rattling gurgle followed and, eventually, water gushed into a pale green basin. She took time to wash her face. Curlicues of reddish stain swirled in the water and vanished down the tap. The pricking which focused her concentration had its own cost.
Everything in the washroom was gorgeously made; from hand-forged faucets and taps, colored tiles deftly arranged in an elegant pattern on the floor, to a gleaming porcelain bathing-bowl sitting on massive iron feet. Lips pursed in appreciation, the Méxica woman ran a thin-boned hand along a filigreed wooden border surrounding the stall. Unidentifiable Jehanan creatures – flying snakes? serpents with myriad legs? – interwove in a delicate pattern. The heavy wood showed faint honeycomb striations beneath a dozen layers of varnish. She rapped her knuckles against the screen and was rewarded with a low, rippling hum. The ‘trees’ of Jagan did not lay down familiar rings.
“Barbarians indeed…” The old woman shook her head and turned out the light. The heedless racism of the Flower Priests was only part of the puzzle confronting her. Given her purpose, other matters were more pressing than trying to teach them manners.
Settling back into her nest, Itzpalicue stripped a comm thread against her cheek and tapped open a fresh channel pane. Radiance from a room filled with bright lights lit up her wrinkled old face. Behind her, a pale yellow flush climbed across tapestries made from hundreds of thousands of tiny, carefully placed feathers stitched to a cotton backing. Turquoise hummingbird, green quetzal, yellow parrot, red spoonbill, raven, glossy crow and blue cotinga shone brilliantly in the darkness. Scenes of Méxica soldiers with golden breastplates and sweeping, Nisei-style helmets wading through the surf onto a green shore emerged. Pigeon-down made the white sails of the mighty fleet behind them. The sky was bruised gray in owl and sparrow, heralding an impending storm. Bearded men – pale skinned, with sharp red mustaches – were waiting, hands raised in greeting. Their tartans and breeks were wild with vivid, clashing color.
On the opposite wall, the carnage of Badon Hill was vividly displayed. The faces of the Anglish soldiers, fleeing in defeat, were stark. Far in the background, the skyline of London was aflame. Amid clouds of gunsmoke, the Skawtish king Stuart advanced on a white horse with fetlocks stained red with blood. He, at least, was properly dressed in a russet mantle with bracelets of turquoise and gold.
“Have you finished deploying the secondary hi-band array?” Itzpalicue grimaced, watching the disorderly chaos of men and women moving boxes in the background of the image on the v-pane. There were no locals among the workers. Every one was an Imperial, imported at considerable cost from the nearest loyal colony. The old woman did not intend to lose her quarry for want of a few quills or horseshoes.
“Yes, my lady.” The Mirror engineer in charge of the operations center was a hair too young for comfort, but he had come highly recommended. “We’ll be finished here tomorrow. Everyone’s moved in, all of the landlines are active, the satellite gear is coming on-line now…”
“Are your generators shielded? How deep are you?”
The boy – could he be more than twenty? – nodded sharply. “Yes, mi’lady. This set of rooms is twenty meters beneath the city groundline.” He grinned. “Six hundred years ago, we’d have had a nice view of the street. Right now we’re still on city trunk power, but by tonight we’ll switch over to a rack of fuel cells in an even lower basement.”
“Good.” Itzpalicue was pleased. The xochiyaotinime did not intend their War to erupt for another two weeks, but the old woman believed in being well prepared. Experience suggested that the arrival of the Fleet battlegroup – and the prince, once his presence was known – might incite the natives to violence long before the troublemaking priests had finished clearing and grading the field of battle. “Security?”
“Well…” The lead engineer’s face twisted sour. “Are… are these creatures trustworthy?”
“The Arachosians?” Itzpalicue laughed breathily. “Don’t they seem trustworthy with their wicked kalang knives and long muskets? With such peaceful faces and polite ways?”
“My lady!” The engineer did not spit on the floor, but she knew he wanted to. “The Arachs are thieves and murderers, brigands with chains of fore-teeth around their necks, scales pitted and scarred from a hundred brawls… muskets? You’ve provided them with some odd-looking muskets! Muskets don’t take clips of Imperial Standard 6mm ‘firecrackers’, do they? No, I don’t trust them at all.”
“They’ve not set aside their long knives for our new toys have they?” The old woman sat up a little straighter, concerned.
“No.” The engineer shook his head. “Most of them are carrying muskets, axes, stabbing swords, bandoliers of grenades…”
“Good. Very good.” Itzpalicue was relieved. “Lachlan-tzin, you can trust the Arachs while they are waiting for the other half of their payment. After that… well, we will be far from here. The Jehanan princes can clean up the mess. So, while no one offers them a more generous array of toys, you can trust them to keep you and your technicians safe.”
The Skawtsman shrugged, nervous, but wanting to believe.
“What about surveillance in the cities?” Itzpalicue had begun to key up screen after screen of surveillance channels on her displays, each sub-pane no more than a palm wide. Most of them were still dark and inactive.
“Tomorrow,” Lachlan replied, squaring his shoulders. “We’re waiting for the nymast to fly up at dusk before we launch the spyeyes. I have three crews – protected by your trusty Arachs – laying out the hives on appropriate rooftops tonight.”
The old woman raised an eyebrow, fixing him with a piercing glare.
“The nymast,” the engineer said, a little stiffly, “are a night-flying avian which feeds on the insect cloud which rises over the city at sundown. I thought… I thought we should be careful in releasing the spyeyes… it is possible someone might mark the launch and…”
“Wise.” Itzpalicue dismissed the rest of his explanation with a sharp twitch of her fingers. “The Jehanan are neither savages nor fools. They have their own surveillance equipment, though none of it is as adept as ours. What about asset tracking? Do we have a trace on all of the Flower Priests active on Jagan?”
Lachlan nodded, shoulders settling. “Sixteen ground-side controllers, all running under Imperial merchant passports from a variety of authorized pochetcan based at the Sobipuré spaceport or in Parus itself. We tagged them with a day of arrival. There are another seven operating under double-cover in the hinterlands… four are locked, and we’re running down the other three.”
The old woman nodded, considering. The numbers matched those provided by the Flower Priests. “These seven are presenting themselves as agents of the ‘Royal Swedish Intelligence Service’?”
“Yes. We’ve tentative pheromone and skinflake idents on them; but given the relatively few number of Imperials working on Jagan … we should be able to keep track of them fairly easily.”
“I assume they are already hard at work?”
Lachlan nodded, sandy hair falling into his eyes. “Sowing mischief, mi’lady. Selling arms and ammunition, filling the hearing pores of local revolutionaries with wild tales… blackening the Emperor’s name with a will. Within three weeks, I would guess, every local potentate will be sweating black tears in his sleep, wondering when the sky will open and the invasion fleet will descend. The usual Swedish line of propaganda.”
“Good.” Itzpalicue swept her eyes across the feeds. “And every marginal sect leader, patriot, malcontent and outlaw will be hyping himself into a frenzy. Someone must save civilization from the invaders, of course. Have you identified the princes who will step forward?”
“The darmanarga moktar -- those-who-restore-the-right-path?” Lachlan’s forehead creased. “No. Not yet. The ‘Swedish’ agents are still sounding out possible allies among the kujen. Do you want me to anticipate them?”
The old woman shook her head slowly, eyes fixed on one of the v-panes. The motion of her retinas caused the pane to unfold, filling the display with vibrant color and motion:
Hundreds of brightly painted kites were dancing above the rooftops – somewhere in the city where an Imperial spyeye was already aloft – weaving and ducking in grayish air. As she watched, one of the kites, diamond-shaped with a stubby tail, controlled from the ground by what seemed to be an adolescent Jaganite, swerved across the path of another. For a moment, their controlling strings tangled and Itzpalicue blinked – was that a spark? Then one cord parted and a black-and-white striped kite tumbled out of the sky, string cut.
The old woman’s eyes unfocused as she took in dozens of screens. “Let them do their work. No wasted effort, child. And Lachlan-tzin, you’re prudent to wait until dark to launch the other hives – the natives are fond of aerial sports. We must be able to see everything before we can begin our own operation.”
And then, wrenching her attention away from the fluttering sky, perhaps I can find our… guest. Her hands splayed across the displays. An odd, tight feeling was growing in her chest. A tightness of breath, an irritation plucking beneath her breastbone. Cold… almost metallic. That is how you feel, my enemy. Not like a Swede or a Dane or any of the scattered nations defeated by the Empire. Slowly, she licked her lips, considering. I doubt there is a Högkvarteret operative within thirty light-years… but within the week, every Imperial and Jaganite on this tired old world will think the shadows are crawling with HKV agents.
Itzpalicue closed both eyes, letting her mind settle. Will all this be enough? She wondered, trying to let her impression of the enemy come into focus. For the moment, there was only a confused sense of wrongness, of emptiness. I have nothing but a feeling – a half-felt disturbance in the pattern of this civilization– to incite this conflagration. Can I catch him – her – it this time?
The old Méxica wondered if the Flower Priests realized this world had been chosen for their War of Flowers at her insistence. That the arrival of Villeneuve and the prince had never been in doubt, not from the moment the Mirror began to act. I doubt it! Hmmm… I wonder…
She opened her eyes, fixing Lachlan – waiting patiently – with a piercing look. “I need your researchers to find me something. A shrine or temple or great work of art. Something every Jehanan citizen knows by name… something beloved, an example of the glory of ancient Jagan. The closer to a city, the better.”
“Does the size of the specific object matter?” The Skawtsman’s hands were already busy on his control panel. “Jehanan artifacts, or something from a previous period?”
“Size and source are inconsequential – name recognition and response is more important.”
Lachlan nodded, looking up. She could see he had already guessed her desire. “I offer you two possibilities, mi’lady: two Arthavan-period shrines - the ‘Wind King Temple’ at Fehrupuré and the great statues of ‘Kharna and the Hundred Princes’ at Jihnuma. Both are within city bounds.”
Pictures of the edifices appeared on Itzpalicue’s display. She pursed her lips in appreciation. “Exquisite.” A finger drifted across the pictures. “This sky… the air is filled with pollution?”
“Every city within the valley of the Phison is plagued with smog, acidic rain and almost toxic levels of industrial vapor waste.” Lachlan glanced sideways at one of his secondary displays. “Do you wish to see rates of decay and damage? We don’t have them on file, but I’m sure…”
“The fact of the matter is inconsequential. How quickly can a xenoarchaeological team be routed to Jagan?”
“No need.” Lachlan tapped up a series of citizen profiles. “Civilization on Jagan is of sufficient age that the University of Tetzcoco already has a dig underway outside Fehrupuré. Apparently the remains of an Arthavan-period planetary capital are located there. Hmm… sixty University staff, about four thousand diggers… we can pull profiles on all the Imperials if need be.”
“Not now.” Itzpalicue brushed away the spyeye feeds open on her displays. “Only a thought. Now, how extensive is our infiltration of the rural, township-level communications networks?”
Landing Field Six
The Méxica Mandate at Sobipuré, Jagan; end of the northern hemisphere rainy season
Waves of heat rippled up from the tarmac of a primitive shuttlefield. Gretchen tipped back her field hat enough to wipe a sweat-drenched forehead. Her other hand was waving a Shimanjai-made fan over the supine form of her communications technician, Magdalena, who was sprawled on the ragged earth border of the landing field. The black-pelted Hesht was panting furiously, purple-red tongue lolling from the side of her long mouth. The alien female’s eyes were bare slits against the copper glare of the Jaganite sky.
“Can she die from overheating?” Parker shuffled his boots on the pavement, a smouldering tabac hanging from the corner of his mouth. The Company pilot’s shirt clung damply to a thin body. He was standing between Magdalena and the swollen red disk of the sun, though he cast very little shade at all.
“I don’t know,” Gretchen said, black sunglasses turned up towards the man. “But she’s suffering. I wish we had our heavy equipment here – at least we could put up a shade.”
Parker shrugged, plucking the dying tabac from his mouth and flicking the butt through a nearby wire fence. Beyond the hexagonal barrier, ten meters of dusty red earth choked with waste paper, discarded glass bottles, scraps of shuttle tire and tangles of glittering cotton string separated them from a row of houses. The shacks were little more than sections of cargo container – most of them bearing the faded, cracking labels of Imperial shipping concerns – turned on their sides and stitched together with rope or extruded foam glue.
The city sprawling away from the edge of the spaceport did not impress the Company pilot. There were no skyscraping towers, no gravity-defying buildings of alien hue. Nothing over a story in height. Only a mass of tiny, squalid-looking buildings reaching off into a choking brown haze.
“Wouldn’t do anything about the thickness of this air, boss.” The pilot looked left and right, mirrored glasses catching the heat-haze boiling up from the tarmac. “At least out here, if there’s a breeze, we might catch a little of it. In there…” He pointed at the teeming city crouched just beyond the barrier. “…you can’t even breathe.”
The smell from the city was already overpowering; a thick soup of hydrocarbon exhaust, smoke from cooking fires, a harsh, unexpected smell like cinnamon and the sharp tang of solvents and heated metal.
Ahead of them, some of the other passengers moved up, sending a slow, jerky ripple down the line. Parker was quick to snatch up their bags – one huge duffel each – and drag them forward before the Taborite missionaries behind them could dodge into the gap. Gretchen reached down, took hold of Maggie’s upper arms and grunted, hauling the Hesht to her feet.
“Yrrrrowwl-urch.” Magdalena groaned in near-delirium, long tongue disappearing behind rows of serrated, triangular teeth. One paw batted listlessly at the air. “Sister… just put the gun to my head and trigger-pull. Then… then take my pelt and make a sun-shade for your cubs… remember me, when you sing at the hunting-fire…”
“Oh, be quiet.” Gretchen shook her head in dismay, helping the Hesht forward. The line had moved two, perhaps three meters towards the Customs House at the end of the runway. “We’ll be in the shade soon, and then, eventually, we can get to our hotel.”
Parker snorted, tapping another tabac out of the pack in his shirt pocket. “I’d guess anything called a hotel on this planet will be a sore disappointment.” He sighed, shifting to put himself between sweltering glare of the red giant filling the western sky and the panting Hesht. “After Shimanjin… ah, maybe we should have stayed. Taken some vacation time.”
Gretchen shook her head, squatting, feeling asphalt give queasily under her boots. The tarmac burned against the soles of her feet and beat against her face; the landing strip was an oven a thousand meters long and fifty wide. “There will be places like Hofukai on this world, too. Clean, cool, nearpine swaying in a shore breeze, crisp white linens on immaculately made beds… but not down here in this… hole. Besides, if we want a paycheck…”
“The Company gives,” Parker said, thin lips twisted into a scowl. “And the Company…”
An accelerating blast of sound drowned out his voice and everyone in the customs line jerked in surprise. As one, the six hundred passengers recently disembarked from the Imperial passenger liner Star of Naxos turned, staring in alarm to the northern sky.
There, beyond a kilometer of open ground – high springy grass poking up between scattered rusting vehicles, some kind of horned ruminant grazing on low-lying furze – lay four more shuttle runways – all empty. Beyond them, in turn, a line of gleaming, modern buildings marked the ‘main terminal’ of the Sobipuré space-port.
The thundering roar resolved into the shriek of shuttle engines, not just one, but dozens. The northern sky split open, smoky clouds peeling aside as four enormous slate-gray shuttles dropped down through the haze over the sprawling city. Still glowing cherry-red with atmospheric friction, the first shuttle tilted back, landing thrusters howling, and a hot, metallic-tasting wind swept across the field.
Gretchen put up an arm, turning her head as overpressure whipped around her, tugging long blonde hair lose from her field-hat, filling her nose with the bitter smell of engine exhaust. A sharp clattering rose from the rows of shacks beyond the fence. The ground trembled as the first Fleet assault shuttle cracked down, enormous wheels spitting sparks.
“What’s all this?” Anderssen’s switched instinctively to her local comm as she crouched against the fence, one hand holding tight to her duffle, the other still shielding her face from a whirlwind of grit, rocks and bits and pieces of broken glass.
“It’s the Fleet,” Parker shouted in reply. He had not turned away, dialing the magnification on his lenses up as high as it would go. “It’s not a combat drop… unit markings are still visible under the cockpit windows. A rampart lined with skulls… I think that’s the Tarascan Rifles. An Arrow Knight Regiment.”
Another flight of four shuttles cut through the clouds, increasing the deafening blast of noise, wind and fumes battering at them. The first set had already rolled to a halt near the main terminal and fore and aft cargo doors were opening.
Parker watched silently as armored combat tracks rolled down into the hot Jaganite afternoon, squads of men clinging to the sides or jogging out of the cavernous holds in long, professional-looking lines. After a moment, he looked up, ignoring the next wave of shuttles coming in. Sure enough, high in the sky, glinting between the streamers of cloud, there were stars burning in the daylight sky.
“Boss…” His voice was a little hushed on the comm circuit. “Did you know Fleet was about to put the hammer down? Here, I mean, on this piss-poor world…” The pilot turned, staring down at Gretchen with a sickly look on his face.
“Parker,” Anderssen started to chew on her lower lip, then forced herself to stop. “The Company decided we should come here. End of story. Get your bag, the line’s moving.”
A noisy, restless crowd pressed against Gretchen on all sides. The cinnamon smell choked the air, making her gasp for breath. Outside the Custom House – a suffocatingly warm hall without chairs and a dirt floor – was some kind of a public transit station. Enormous metallic conveyances, smooth curves covered by thick, irregular layers of pasted-on advertisements, sat huffing exhaust beneath corrugated metal awnings. A huge mob of Jehanans – scaled heads adorned with eye-shields in violent greens and blues, slender arms filled with packages bound in twine – were jostling to climb aboard.
“Which one do we need?” Gretchen had both arms wrapped around her package – the duffel with her gear, clothes, tools, books and papers – and was squeezed in between a nervous Parker and an awake, furious, agitated Magdalena. None of the busses had Imperial lettering, only the flowing, curlicue native script. “Can we get a taxi?”
“I don’t think so,” Maggie growled as the motion of the crowd pushed them between two wooden pillars supporting the nearest sun-shade. The bus idling in the bay was easily seven meters high with a bulging glass forward window. The original color of the metal seemed to be a pale, cool green, hidden under layers of grime, glue and paper scraps. Gretchen couldn’t swear to her guess about the color. There was more of a sense of flowing water in the smooth outline of the vehicle.
“See?” The Hesht snarled at the sky, where the bloated sun was suddenly obscured by the whining shapes of aerotaxis flitting past, heading northwest. Parker cursed, spitting out the crumpled remains of a tabac. Human faces were staring down out of the open windows of the jetcars. One of the Imperial officers – their black uniforms were clear to see, even from below – waved jauntily at the vast crowd below. “We’re on the wrong side of the river for anything to be quick…”
“Yes…” Gretchen slowed to a halt, staring up at the muddy gray sky, watching a veritable armada of aerocars speeding past. For an instant, just the time a drop of water took to plunge from the mouth of a faucet into a sink, everything seemed to slow to a halt. The chattering, rustling shapes of the reptilian Jehanan ceased to move. The hot, humid air held suspended, each droplet of moisture falling from the underside of the metal awnings caught in mid-motion.
I’ve seen this before. A woman in a feather mantle was smiling down at me. What does…
Then everything was moving again and they were swept past the green bus towards another rank of smaller, harder-angled conveyances.
“There!” Parker started pushing through the crowd. “That one has a sign in Imperial! Mother of God, it’s a hotel shuttle bus!”
Gretchen breathed a sigh of relief and followed, leading with her duffel.
High above the flock of aerotaxis, an Imperial troop carrier roared north along the line of the Sobipuré-Parus highway. In the cargo bay, Sergeant Dawd clung to a strap, boots braced against an enormous pile of luggage – the prince’s ‘personal effects’ – buried in green-and-tan cargo webbing. The carrier jerked and shuddered as it swept through pillars of white cloud. The sergeant swayed against the strap, wondering how the prince was doing – the boy had managed to sneak a flask of something smelling like industrial solvent aboard. He’ll be sorr-y, Dawd mused as he kept watch over the very-important baggage.
The hatch to the forward seating compartment cycled open and Master Sergeant Colmuir swung through, shaking his head in dismay. The older man’s watch uniform was liberally stained with yellow-green bile.
“Bit bumpy,” Dawd commented, staring at the overhead. “Have a bit of a problem with lunch, master ser-geant?”
“I did nawt.” Colmuir tugged at the webbing over the luggage. He grimaced, stolidly ignoring the long streak of vomit drying on his chest, torso and leg. “Not all Army officers have the steady stomach Gawd gave me.” The master sergeant gave Dawd a flinty stare. “An’ you’ll not repeat such words in any other company, Dawd, not if you value your time in service.”
“I do!” The younger man bowed in apology. “Just… never mind, master ser-geant. I’ll keep my thoughts to myself.”
“Good.” Colmuir held Dawd’s gaze for a moment, then looked down at his jacket and shirt and sighed. “Ah, the lad is a stoody of extremes, isn’t he? Has the constitution of a mule for a week’s carouse with old man pulque and sister mescal – then can’t even keep oatmeal down on a bit of bouncy-bouncy in th’ air. I am derelict in me dooty, I am, hidin’ back here wit’ you and the hat-boxes.”
Dawd grinned, and then smothered the expression. Who knew what surveillance bugs were clinging to the bulkheads? “I’ll not put you on report, master sergeant.” He paused, looking forward towards the troop compartment where a good thirty Imperial officers of the 416th were packed in like Avalonian salt herring. “He is an odd one, isn’t he? Not what I expected…”
“No…” Colmuir removed his ruined jacket and shirt, revealing a rangy frame matted with bristly black-and-white hair. A faint patchwork of quickheal scars described a lifetime in the Emperor’s service. “I’ve not been working his guard much longer than you, sergeant. Only a few weeks. I am given t’ understand his previous detail was sacked under acrimonious circumstances.”
“That’s very surprising,” Dawd said with a straight face. “Were you briefed?”
“Nawt a word. Just my assignment papers and a new billet.” Colmuir dug around in his pack and found a fresh shirt. “Th’ prince hisself has provided m’ education. And he is a right educational lad isn’t he? Rarely have I seen such a bitter, despondent fellow – particularly so young. Makes one wonder what made him tha’ way, doesn’t it?”
Dawd nodded, his mind fairly boggling at the thought of a young, handsome man – an Imperial prince of the ruling house, no less – grown angry as some crippled old soldier from the bayside pubs. A frown gathered, drawing bushy black eyebrows together. “Master ser-geant, have you met his brothers, his father or mother?”
Colmuir snorted with laughter. “Yuir trying to balance his oopbringing against his bloodstock, are you? I’ve the same thought, from time to time. I can tell you this – rumor in the guard-service has the boy has never even spoken to the Empress, nor she to him. If you read your guard protocol manual again, lad, you’ll see there is an exclusion for her and her people. If you look closer – an’ I have – you’ll see the orders came down from ‘er side.”
The master sergeant shrugged in response to Dawd’s quizzical look.
“Rarely does he see his brothers either – and they are a braw lot, breathing fire every one of them – not a bit like him, d’you see? I have, to balance the scales, seen ‘is father. The Emperor is a proper gentleman, if a bit pinch-faced, an’ you can see he loves the boy.” Colmuir sealed up the collar of his shirt and began rummaging for a pressed jacket. “But respects him? Tha’ I do not know.”
Dawd’s next question was interrupted by a chiming sound. Colmuir threw on the jacket, checked his comm-band, grimaced, and scrambled back through the hatch. The younger man turned his attention back to peering out the window at passing clouds. The edges of a city were now visible, appearing through breaks in the thunderstorms, covering the valley floor with a rumpled quilt of flat roofs and isolated skyscrapers.
Rain drummed against a cracked window beside Anderssen’s head. Outside, the afternoon downpour was so fierce she could barely make out the shapes of other groundcars rushing past on what seemed to be an eight-lane, raised, highway. Inside the bus, she, Parker and Maggie were crammed into a long bench at the very rear of the vehicle. The leather upholstery under her thighs was cracked, discolored and burning hot to the touch. Some kind of multicylinder hydrocarbon engine rattled and wheezed beneath her feet.
“How long until we get into Parus?” Gretchen turned to look over the pile of duffels between her and Magdalena. The Hesht was folded up, chin resting on her knees, eyes still slits though with the storm covering the sky and the lack of lights inside the bus meant they were racing along in semi-darkness.
“Rrrrr…” Maggie’s nose wrinkled up in disgust. The bus smelled old to Gretchen – dry papery sweat, rotting onions, newly washed linoleum – and she was afraid to ask the Hesht what she thought of the odor. “Too long!”
“Is there a bonus in this for us?” Parker was jammed in on the other side of the Hesht, his legs sticking out into the central aisle. An enormous Jaganite filled the rest of the bench. The creature seemed to be asleep, eye-shields lidded down over milky lenses, clawed hands clasped over an ornamented leather vest covered with hundreds of ceramic disks. Supple skin around the long nostrils fluttered with regular breaths, though the pattern sounded dissonant to Anderssen’s ear. “Can we leave here really soon?”
“Not as soon as we’d like, pilot.” Gretchen considered rubbing away some of the condensation on the window. “All the Company note said,” she said, leaning closer to the other two and lowering her voice, “was to get here and apply for a survey permit. After we get to the hotel, and get something to eat, and get some sleep – then we’ll worry about getting papers.”
“And transport,” the Hesht rumbled deep in her throat. “I’m not walking in this heat.”
“My job, I guess.” Parker started tapping his tabac case against his knee, then realized the pack was empty. “Not much to fly down here. I’ll bet the Fleet grounds all air traffic as a ‘precaution’, even if we had the money for an aerocar. The brief didn’t say anything about a military exercise? Maybe an invasion?”
Gretchen shook her head. As was usually the case with the Company, there was little or no briefing material. Costs money to make a proper survey! Can’t have that kind of waste…
“No, but all of this happened so suddenly I wouldn’t be surprised if some genius at the home office heard something from someone and decided to take advantage.”
“Of what?” Maggie’s eyes slid sideways to glare suspiciously at Anderssen.
“Of us being done with the project on Shimanjin.” Gretchen leaned back against the hot, trembling seat, feeling exhausted. There was a medband around her wrist – no Imperial citizen traveled without one – but it was already winking amber and red with warnings about local bacteria and microfauna assaulting her system with each breath she took. No wakemeup for me today! “And nearby – as things go, in stellar distances – and the Fleet arriving for whatever reason. I mean, I’d guess if we have to get a survey permit then they need us to do a survey of some Mother-foresaken wilderness, looking for ‘anomalous readings’ or something equally helpful.”
Parker frowned, peering over Maggie’s furry, night-black shoulder. “Wait, you mean – for you to just wander around we need a permit? Do we really need that? I mean, Mags here is pretty sly with her surveillance equipment. We could just get an aircar or ultralight and see the sights....”
Anderssen did not reply, giving the pilot a stony look.
“Oh, ok.” Parker slumped back down behind the Hesht. Maggie snorted, twitching her long nose in amusement. “Be all legal then…”
“We will follow the Company directive and get a permit.” Gretchen let out a long, slow hiss. Outside the rain-streaked window, traffic was slowing and she could just make out lights – long strings of glowing neon – rising in the murk. Buildings. We’re finally in the city. Oh, I hope there aren’t a hundred k of suburbs or something… I suppose its rush hour, too.
Horns stared to blare outside, traffic slowing, and the bus shuddered to a near-halt. Delightful, Anderssen thought, five hundred light years from home... and stuck in traffic.
Magdalena stared around the hotel room with a particularly tight-lipped, tips-of-her-fangs-bared way far too familiar to Anderssen. They were on the fiftieth floor of a crumbling concrete tower in south-central Parus, not too far from some kind of public park. Gretchen had been struck, as they walked down the hall leading to their chambers, by the wear pattern on the floor. A shallow basin nearly four centimeters deep described the middle of the passage. The room was low ceilinged, dark and very musty.
“Well,” Gretchen said brightly, “this is nice.” She was looking for somewhere to put her duffel. Jaganite budget hotel rooms seemed to have been designed by Russian efficiency experts. There were no chairs, only high beds on heavy wooden frames and medium-height tables reminding her of spindly armoires. Given the tripodal, tail-heavy stance of the natives, Anderssen realized traditional human chairs might not serve them so well.
That’s odd, she was suddenly struck by the seating arrangements on the bus they’d taken from the shuttle-port. Was that a human-built vehicle? Do they even use chairs? Hmmm…
“Hhhhhrrrrr!” Maggie’s tail twitched sharply from side to side. “Parker is happy – I think his whole clan have laired here with their nose-biting smoke.”
The pilot ignored her, peering curiously at a mechanism controlling a set of louvered blinds over the windows. Gretchen dumped her bag on the foot of the smallest bed – both Maggie and Parker were taller. The pilot tried one of the buttons on the face of the device and was rewarded with a whining groan from some kind of pulley system.
“This won’t blow up, will it?” He poked another button and the blinds shivered into motion, rotating out to reveal a view of the rain-soaked city below. At the same time, a gust of damp, chilly air blew into the room. The pilot grimaced, then started to cough. “Urgh. Smells like a benzene cracking facility. How long are we staying here? ”
“Maybe only one night.” Gretchen had opened the door into the ‘bathroom’ and was staring at the uneven tiled floor, rusty drain and complete lack of a bathtub with horror. How would some giant lizard-thing with a tail like a third leg take a bath, o child? Her eyes swung unerringly to a bin along the wall. Swallowing, she craned her neck to look inside. Sand. They abrade their thick, scaly skin with sand. What a nice scraper made of stone. Oh blessed Mother of Our Savior, deliver me from working off-world.
“Definitely only one night, Parker-tzin. Tomorrow we’re going to find someplace catering to human tastes. I promise. Well, you two will find a better place to stay while I visit the Imperial Legation and see what the situation is with permits.”
“These beds are not soft.” Magdalena declared, having stripped away a coarse blanket – wool? – to reveal a metal frame holding a suspended net of stout-looking ropes. “I do not like hummocks. No. Not at all.”
Parker started to say something, caught Gretchen making an ‘are-you-stupid’ face and turned back to staring out at the rain. Parus at sundown was a forest of tall, round towers with softly glowing windows. The local ceramacrete tended to dusty red. Coupled with the setting sun, the city was being swallowed by a foreboding, sanguine night. The pilot squinted through the murk – individual storm cells were visible, pelting the crowded, twisting streets below with rain so thick it made patches of early darkness.
Rubbing his stubbly chin, Parker was puzzled for a moment before he realized the odd layout of the buildings was caused by the presence of broad, curved boulevards looping across the city. Hundreds of tiny, straight streets intersected them at unnatural angles. Weird. Why did they build everything all higgle-piggle like that? Crazy aliens.
Gretchen sat down on the end of her ‘hummock’ and began digging in her duffel. All of their heavy dig equipment – tents, analysis sensors, environment suits, hand-tools – was in storage at the port, in the dubious care of the Albanian Spaceways Corporation factotum in residence on Jagan. Thankfully, she’d thought to stow a clutch of threesquares in her personal effects. Just the effort of finding them exhausting her. Too big a day for us. Oh yeah.
“Here,” she said, pitching a bright blue and orange food bar to the pilot. “I really don’t think we should risk room-service. Though, Maggie, they might have something live for you to eat…”
“Not hungry.” Magdalena had curled up in a corner on the wool blanket, plush tail over her nose, as far as she could get from the hummocks.
“Right.” Gretchen began chewing on the molé-flavored ration bar. It sure didn’t taste like chocolate. They never did, no matter what the advertisements said.
The office of the Imperial Attaché for Antiquities had tall, fluted windows looking out into a garden filled with riotous color. Something which looked suspiciously like a rhododendron tree shaded the windows, letting heavy boughs of pinkish red flowers hang down against the open shutters. Gretchen was sweating mildly, sitting in a wide-backed chair covered with leopard skin. She was very, very glad she’d sent Magdalena off with Parker to find better lodgings.
While the rest of the Legation was air conditioned and dim, this room was bright, sunny and warm. Around the garden, three stories of windows set into whitewashed brick reached up to a pale yellow sky. Despite thunderstorms growling and muttering through the night, the pollution hanging over the sky had not been washed away. The walls facing onto the garden-filled inner courtyard of the Legation were covered with bright green ivy.
“Hmmm.” The attaché made a non-committal noise, his head bent over Gretchen’s identity papers and transit visa. She guessed the windows in this room were flung wide to embrace the hot, tropical smell of the flowers outside because the slim young man sitting across from her was a Mixtec. A climate like this would remind him very much of home. She had never seen the great cities of Timbuktu or Ax Idah or Brass herself, but articles in the travel magazines endemic to starliner waiting lounges indicated gorgeous architecture, sprawling gardens and a lively social life.
He looked up, fine-boned features sharp under a dark cocoa skin. The young man’s face held such a look of seriousness Anderssen was struck by unexpected sadness. Such a handsome man should be letting himself live a little more. Just a tiny bit. Does he remember how to smile?
“I am sorry, Anderssen-tzin, but I cannot give you a survey permit for any region on Jagan.” He gathered her papers together and put them into a folder. “I understand you’ve wound up here by accident, more or less, but an exclusionary planetary excavation, analysis and recovery grant has already been made to the University of Tetzcoco department of Extrasolar Anthropology.”
Gretchen grimaced. Tetzcoco EXA had quite a reputation. She tried to hide her reaction, but the young man’s eyebrows rose in surprise.
“Have you worked with Professor Der Sú before?”
“Not directly, Soumake-tzin. But I spent two years on Old Mars working for one of his ex-graduate students. He has a towering reputation among my peers.”
“Does he?” The attaché rose from his chair and moved to the window, long-fingered hands resting on the sill. “Well, I have only met with him once or twice since my arrival.” Soumake turned, still dreadfully serious. “He is – in my personal opinion – an ass of a man, with half the sense. I do not know what kind of agreement my predecessor struck with the local princes, but Sú is running his own fiefdom up at Fehrupuré and I doubt the local kujen would care if a hundred tons of material were being shipped out every month. He’d be using his cut of the proceeds to buy guns.”
Anderssen settled a little in her chair, realizing the attaché was giving her a particularly searching look. “You’re… um… worried about smuggling restricted artifacts offworld?”
“I am.” Soumake leaned against the window. Like most of the officials and staff Gretchen had seen while wending her way through the halls of the Legation he was dressed in a long, narrow-cut cotton mantle over a light shirt and dark pants. With his arms crossed, she sighed inwardly to see he carried off the look very well. Most people looked like they were wearing a tent…
“Jagan is an ancient world, Anderssen-tzin. Some estimates place the first remnants of civilization here at over a million years old. That verges on First Sun times. Rare to find such a world continuously inhabited over such a vast span of years. One wonders what might lie buried beneath the cities in the hinterland. Sú is hoping for wonders, I’m sure.”
He looked down at her papers again, now packed up in a dark olive folder. “I am also aware of the reputation enjoyed by your employers. Not one which shouts ‘academic integrity’ or ‘law-abiding’, is it?”
Gretchen tried not to squirm and regretted taking a stab at a legal professional presence on this world. But I’m supposed to inform the authorities! I’m supposed to get a permit! Parker was right, we should have just gone straight up-country. Why bother with the truth at all?
“I’m not… I’m not here on official Company business, Soumake-tzin. We finished a project on Shimanjin and had some free time. The Company doesn’t care how I get back home, as long as I pay any difference in the ticket. I missed my connection at Tadmor Station and the next ship out was the Star of Naxos and it was coming here. Reading about the worlds on the liner-run piqued my interest in Jagan, so I thought I’d spend some time sightseeing before the next liner comes through.”
The attaché’s expression did not change. “You picked a bad time to arrive.”
Gretchen nodded, striving for a suitably morose expression. It came easily. “We saw the Fleet landing at the spaceport while we were waiting at Customs. Is there trouble brewing?”
A rich, melodious laugh burst from the Mixtec and he shook his head, the flash of a grin lighting his face. The moment passed as quickly as it had come. “Brewing? My dear lady, the valley of the Five Rivers is well past brewing… on the edge of explosion I think.” He sat down.
“Between Capsia in the north and Patala on the southern coast there are sixty kujenates – principalities – and a dozen feudatory tribes. You may not have noticed yet, but the reptilian Jehanan are not on the only race resident on Jagan. There are at least three others in residence. Little love lost between any of them. There are hundreds of religious sects, all quarreling with one another. There are entire armies of brigands in the countryside in some districts.
“Labor unions have begun to spring up in the cities as industry catalyzes around new Imperial technologies. The factory owners negotiate with clubs, poison gas and murder. The mountains to the west are filled with semi-nomadic tribes whose only livelihood is raiding, rapine and slaughter. East of the Phison, thankfully, is a harsh desert, because beyond that is the expansionist, fiercely xenophobic empire of the Golden King.
“Into this you thrust the Empire, the pochteca companies, our own missionary orders and the whole mixture begins to cook far too fast.”
“We’re not welcome here?” Gretchen indicated the luxurious room and the sprawling compound of the Legation beyond the betel-wood doors. None of the buildings within an ancient, red-brick rampart showed the first sign of a hostile populace. There were no guard-posts, no machine-guns, no waspwire.
“On the contrary,” Sumake said, running a hand across a carefully shaven pate. “Every single one of those factions, parties, sects, unions, gangs and princes wants our friendship desperately. Consider this – you are a scientist, you will understand – Jagan is old. Ancient. Worn down by thousands of generations of inhabitants. In all that long time entire civilizations have risen and then fallen again. Nuclear wars have smashed them back to savagery and they have clawed their way back up again. Twice the Jehanan have reached into space, only to tumble back at the last moment.”
The attaché sighed, pointing at a heavy glass case on one wall. “Consider this metal fragment in an isolation case. Not sealed to protect the artifact, no, but to protect us from the radiation still permeating the metal casing inside. One of the metallurgists with the Tetzcoco expedition examined the item and confirmed what I had already surmised. Go ahead, take a good look.”
Gretchen stepped to the case and frowned. Inside was a stout looking hexagonal rod, marked by two parallel indents. Faded, indecipherable lettering ran around the top in a band two fingers high. The metal shone silver, without any sign of age or decay.
“This looks like the fuel cylinder for a powerplant of some kind.”
Soumake nodded, spreading his hands. “An antimatter container, to be precise. Empty now. The antiparticles inside decayed long ago, suffusing the steel sheath with byproduct radiation. After the AM evaporated, the magnetic containment system inside shut down.”
“How old is it?” Gretchen measured the device with her hand, taking care not to touch the glass. “Where did it come from?”
The attaché rubbed his chin. “I purchased the ‘holy relic’ from a scrap metal dealer in Capsia last year. A trader from out of the cold waste beyond the mountains had brought it to him. I fear both of them are now dead, laid low by cancerous growths. A tentative estimate weighs in order of several hundred thousand years. But here is what interests me… the lettering is a very, very early form of Jehanan. Much like you will see on the porticoes of their temples today.”
Gretchen turned around, one pale blonde eyebrow rising. “You said the Jehanan civilizations had been destroyed before they could reach into space. Antimatter production facilities are nearly always built in orbit, outside a gravity well.”
Soumake nodded. “The physical xenoarchaeologists disagree with me, Anderssen-tzin. They say proof is lacking, but the biologists concur. The Jehanan are not native to this world. They came from space, as we have done, and conquered Jagan. What conflagration tore down their starfaring civilization I do not know…” He grimaced, making a motion which included the city outside the walls of the Legation. “…but the native princes are eager reach the stars again. As I said, Jagan is an old, old world.”
A steadily deepening frown on Gretchen’s face suddenly cleared and she indicated the casing. “Iron.”
Soumake nodded. “Iron. Steel. Guns. Ammunition. Armored vehicles. Petrochemical products. Fuel cells. Advanced atmospheric aircraft. Computer networks built from rare metals, or with processing cores which can only be fabricated in zero-g. Before our arrival, the local armies were armed with bows and arrows, spears tipped with metal scavenged from the ruins of the ancients, quilted armor, precious swords made of stainless steel handed down through a hundred generations… does this sound familiar?”
Anderssen felt cold and sat down, crossing her arms. The Mixtec regarded her steadily.
“Now we are the Japanese merchants,” he said softly. “Making landfall on a strange and fabulous shore. Finding an ancient, wealthy civilization lacking iron. Not the knowledge of iron, no… but the mines are played out, or so far distant from Parus as to be on the little moon. They remember the old civilization, these descendants of the ancient kings. There are still books, drawings, carvings, oral traditions of a Golden Age when the Jehanan ruled the sky, the waves and the land. They are very, very eager to regain the tools which once made them masters of the world.
“I will tell you, the factors from New Kiruna paid a heavy price for the monopoly to trade scrap metal on this world. But they are making a handsome profit, unloading the detritus of a hundred years of war in the Inner Worlds. Bargeloads of recycled aluminum from Svartheim and Korgul and New Stockholm arrive every week. And the Fleet won’t be interrupting that traffic, oh no.”
“But wait… what do they have to trade? Not gold, surely.”
Soumake’s serious expression remained, but there was a twinkle in his eyes. “Did the Japanese who fled the Mongol invasion of holy Nippon want gold from the Toltecs? No, they needed food, clothing, slaves to clear the forests of Chemakum and Chehalis. So they traded what they had – horses, double-season rice, wheeled mechanisms, metalsmithing – for what they did not.
“And here, on Jagan, aside from artifacts by the ton, there are certain plants which only grow in the Arachosian highlands, or in certain valleys around Takshila and Gandaris. The bitter neem is a mild psychotropic for the local people, but once the labs on Anahuac have processed the seeds and the milky white sap, well… it becomes much more. Very popular, or so I understand.”
“How much profit can there be in biochemicals?” Disbelief was plain in Gretchen’s voice.
Soumake snapped his fingers. “Enough, considering they’re trading something worth less than a ming for something with a six hundred percent rate of return by volume. And there are other sources of revenue… glorious textiles, rugs, fine porcelains and ceramics, excellent liquors, certain kinds of wood. Many, many luxury items in demand in the core worlds because they are new and unique.
“But all of this involves you only peripherally: I will not grant you a permit for survey in the land of the Five Rivers.”
“I see.” Gretchen thought she did understand and was oddly touched. “You think it’s too dangerous for me to be wandering over hill and dale. You think the local princes have accumulated enough firepower to see about settling all their old scores. Is that why the Fleet has arrived?”
Soumake rose from his chair abruptly, face clouded. “I wish every Imperial citizen on Jagan were aboard a Fleet lighter and bound for Tadmor Station today. I suggest… you should find an out-of-the-way place to stay, Anderssen-tzin. And you should remain there and not go out until the next liner comes through. Good day.”
Gretchen returned his polite bow, retrieved her papers and made a quick exit. Walking into the cool dry air of the hallway was a welcome shock, wiping away a gathering sense of foreboding. For a moment, though, she turned and looked back at the closed door. He must be truly worried, she mused, I’ve never seen such a talkative Imperial official before.
The heart of the Consulate was a staircase of native stone dropping two stories from the main business floor to an entry foyer large enough to hold an entire zenball field. Gretchen was making her way down the steps, distracted by the carved reliefs lining the balustrade, when she nearly ran into a woman coming up the steps with a quick, assured walk.
“Pardon,” Anderssen said, coming to an abrupt halt before they collided. The woman looked up, fixed her with a cornflower blue gaze and such a brilliant smile lit her face that Gretchen was nearly paralyzed.
“My dear! Terribly sorry – I haven’t been paying attention all day! You must be freshly arrived? Come about some official business? Of course, no other reason to be in this drafty old place is there?”
Gretchen found herself turned about and escorted briskly up the stairs and into a sitting room filled with overstuffed chairs, side tables groaning under stone ewers filled with fresh flowers.
“Let me look at you.” The woman’s good humor did not abate and the glorious blue eyes turned sharp, considering Gretchen from head to toe. “Dear, have you found someplace nice to stay? Your current residence just will not do, not for a woman of repute like yourself. There are some beautiful little hotels near the Court of Yellow Flagstones. You will like the White Lily best, if I am not mistaken and I rarely am. Ask any of the taxi drivers, they’ll know the way. Yes, very nice, with breakfast – human breakfast – and real beds and, dare I say? Proper bathtubs with hot water. Oh yes.”
Anderssen felt a little shocked, as if a bison had crashed out of the nearpine and run right over her, but she mustered her self and managed to squeak out: “Doctor Gretchen Anderssen, University of New Aberdeen, very-pleased-to-meet-you.”
“A Doctor?” The woman’s smile changed, dimming in one way, but filling with a welcoming warmth as her public persona slipped aside. Gretchen relaxed minutely. “Well done, my girl. Very politely done – reminding me to introduce myself as well.” A strong hand – surprisingly calloused, given the exceptionally elegant gray-and-black suit the lady was wearing – clasped Anderssen’s. “I am Greta Petrel. No, don’t laugh, my hair just comes this way, not an affectation at all. All the Army wives don’t believe me, of course, but I think you might. Yes, I think you do.”
Gretchen managed to tear her attention away from following the crisp flood of words coming out of the woman’s mouth and saw Mrs. Petrel’s hair was raven-black with two white streaks, one falling from either temple. The woman dimpled, a round finger brushing across small emerald pins in her ears and flicking away from the snow-white hair.
“Fabulously jealous, all of them. But what can they say? Nothing but nice things to my face, oh yes. Now, behind my back… well, I really could care less about their twittering. Now, dear, tell me how you’ve fared today in my so-grand house. Did you get good service from whomever you saw? Did they serve you tea? Doctor of what, exactly?”
“Xeno… xenoarchaeology, ma’am.” Gretchen was suddenly sure the woman wasn’t exaggerating when she said my house. “I’d come to see the attaché of Antiquities about a permit…”
“Ah, Soumake is a dear, isn’t he? Such a serious young man, though. I’m sure he told you no quite firmly, even with such beautiful golden hair and sweet features. No matter, he’s terribly married and you’ve children of your own to see after – no sense in gallivanting around after a career officer like him, oh no. Well, he was right to send you on your way, though I’m sure you’re just disheartened by the whole sordid business.”
Mrs. Petrel shook her head very minutely and Gretchen felt suddenly chastised, as if she’d forgotten her sums in front of the entire class.
“There is only one sure cure for such things, my dear.” Mrs. Petrel tucked a stray tendril of Gretchen’s hair back behind into place and pressed a handwritten card – shimmering green ink on creamy realpaper – into her hand. “I’m having the smallest gathering possible at the summer house in a few days. You come and sit with me and we’ll have a bite to eat and some tea. Perhaps I can see if that wretched Professor Sú can find a scrap of decency in his black, black heart and let you work under his permit. But no promises!”
Mrs. Petrel swept out of the sitting room, head high, the two white streaks merging to make a V-shape in the heavy fan of hair across her shoulders. Gretchen stared in surprise at the hand-written card in her hand. The front read: “Mrs. Gretchen Anderssen is invited to my party. \P/” while the back had an address, also in green ink and the same crisp hand, a date and time.
“How…?” Anderssen stepped out into the hallway and caught sight of Mrs. Petrel sailing past a quartet of armed guards; the tall, thin shape of a manservant following quietly behind. Seeing him, Gretchen realized he’d been in the background the whole time, silent and as much a part of the paneled walls as the wood itself. “Well.”
She laughed, feeling tension ebb from her chest. “I should say, I never. I think I’d better sit down for a minute and get my breath back. What a bracing person.”
The chairs were far more comfortable than they looked and Gretchen took a moment to key ‘court of the yellow flagstones’ into her comp. Good lodgings – and she was certain the White Lily was excellent and probably reasonably priced – were worth more than a woman’s weight in quills in this business. She couldn’t help but smile.
I hope Maggie and Parker are doing all right. Oh, bother! I should call them about the hotel.
(end of excerpt)