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In the Time of the Sixth Sun
House of Reeds ~ Excerpted or Changed Chapters

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News! (04/20/2003)

  • Page updated with sections removed or rewritten in the final manuscript.


Editing House required trimming some length, so this entire chapter was removed as, well, it was just an excuse for me to write a combat sequence. 8-)

Highway Nineteen
Northwest of the Imperial excavations at Fehrupuré

            A combat bike raced past Tequihuah Kobushi, swinging wide from the road, out over a field planted with waist-high grain. The lime-green stalks flattened as the ground-effect pressure of the bike’s antigrav raced over them. Kobushi, riding atop third arrow’s Tonehūa-class armored personnel carrier, assault rifle resting against his thigh, clicked to the company frequency.

            “Chosin! Watch your altitude – you’re trampling the maize and we’re guests here, not locusts.”

            “Hai, sergeant.” The reconnaissance bike swerved back towards the road, avoiding a long strip of field planted with enormous purple artichokes. Kobushi felt the multi-ton APAC under him shiver as the Tonehūa glided over an irrigation pipe buried under the road. He checked the left-hand side of the road automatically; making sure the other recon bike was holding spacing – and avoiding damage to indigenous crops – and then swung his head back to keep an eye on the two privates running point.

            Both men were on foot, jogging steadily along the verge of the elevated provincial highway B-company had been following since separating from the main body of the battalion at the junction of highway ‘one’ – the surfaced six-lane divided road paralleling the Sobipuré-to-Fehrupuré railway – and provincial route ‘nineteen’. The latest recon-drone snaps showed highway ‘nineteen’ crossing the Akesinos River sixteen kilometers north of Fehrupuré itself on a secondary bridge. Regimental command had decided, in its infinite wisdom, to make sure battalion had an alternate crossing point if trouble developed at the main crossing into the city itself.

            Third arrow had drawn the short straw to lead off reconnaissance today.

            Kobushi wasn’t sure if sending two men ahead to ground-scout for the APAC was wise, operationally speaking – even in light combat armor, they couldn’t jog faster than the combat bikes or the Tonehūa could travel on antigrav – but he had no desire to run the armored personnel carrier into a ditch or culvert because they were going too fast on a road, which by Imperial standards, was no more than a cow-path. Captain Ixtiloch might be anxious to reach the Akesinos by noon, but the Tequihuah was more interested in getting there with his arrow in one piece. Just as likely to lose a bike or track or even a man to carelessness as a slick javelin or stabbing sword.

            An amusing video had been in circulation throughout the regiment, showing the kujen of Gandaris’ elite guard on drill – slicks in quilted armor faced with ceramic plating, long cavalry swords, flanged maces and four-meter lances on sleek riding lizards with sharpened horns – wheeling and charging in perfect precision, showing admirable skill with their restive beasts. Kobushi had a sneaking suspicion the locals were making a pretty show for the visiting Imperial dignitaries, though he wasn’t sure he cared to face a Jehanan hayin in hand-to-hand. He absently checked the safety and magazine indicator on his rifle. Can’t be too sure about these things…

            “Tequihuah!” Chosin’s voice broke in on the company comms. “A bridge over a transport canal and some buildings coming up.”

            The sergeant lifted his head, scanning the countryside ahead. Traveling on the elevated roads maintained by the native princes was quick and effortless. The highways were usually dry, being self-draining, and afforded an excellent view of miles of apparently flat, featureless terrain.

            The real barriers to movement weren’t hills or mountains though, they were canals – both local irrigation ditches and large, barge-wide transport waterways – and the local architecture tended to blend into the landscape, rarely being more than a story high. Kobushi’s combat visor flickered, then jumped to high-mag. In an enhanced view, he could now see Chosin’s combat bike swinging back towards him, silhouetted against the canted roofs of a slick village.

            “Gerhard, you’re lead, check structural on the bridge. Make sure it’s not under repair or blocked. Shumash, cover him. Remember the kids like their fun.”

            In the last sizeable town 2nd battalion had passed through, the local short-horns had amused themselves by trying to peg homemade firebombs through the open hatches of passing Imperial APACs. The methanol-and-soap-flake munitions burned pretty hot and at least two troopers had been badly burned, but a Tonehūa mounted an effective internal fire-suppression system. Chasing off the adolescents with smoke bombs and sleepygas had been mildly amusing. No one had been killed that time.

            “Let’s go slow,” he ordered the APAC driver. “Everyone else dismount.”

            The loading door at the rear of the Tonehūa unlocked with a clang and levered down. Two troopers hopped out and took up flanking positions to the rear of the APAC. Kobushi slung his rifle and climbed down into the commander’s cupola. A head’s up display appeared on his visor, showing him a hundred-and-eighty view from the track’s external sensors. Both combat bikes were now ranging up and down the canal. Sunlight gleamed from their wind screens.

            On the bridge, Telpocatl Gerhard raised an open hand. “Bridge is clear, kyo. Looks solid–” The private paused and Kobushi was surprised to hear the German chuckle. “This one’s actually been recently repaired!”

            “All right. Do you see anyone in the buildings?” Kobushi checked the v-feed from Gerhard’s armor. All of the buildings in line-of-sight seemed abandoned. A feed from the nearest regimental recon-drone showed him a fine view of the rooftops – they too were clear.

            “Negative, kyo. They’re hiding. Typical.”

            “Shumash, frog the bridge and both of you find advancing cover.” The sergeant tapped his driver on the shoulder. “Take her across. Chosin - close up and cover those rooftops.”

            By rights, the Tonehūa didn’t need to use the bridge. The APAC had a high enough grav-to-weight ratio to glide across the canal, but it would be faster for the rest of battalion to just roll down the road. Which means testing bridge displacement capacity, he thought sourly, with my track.

            The armored carrier shivered up and glided ahead onto the wooden bridge. Kobushi stood up and leaned out, checking clearance on both sides of the track. A Firtog light tank – company had six attached for this operation – was nearly a meter wider than the APAC, but it seemed this bridge would suffice. Kobushi toggled the all-arrow push. “Bridge looks good, let’s check the—”

            The lead edge of the Tonehūa’s repeller field rolled off the far end of the bridge and sixty kilos of nitrate explosive buried in the roadbed blew apart in a gout of mud, orange flame and flash-heated steam. The entire APAC lurched skyward, the forward anti-mine plate absorbing the brunt of the blast. Inside, Kobushi was thrown violently backwards, smashing his helmet into the hatch-ring.

            Still on grav, the entire vehicle skidded backwards into the freshly repaired bridge abutment. The driver, surprised at the jolt, jammed on the deflector brakes and the rear repeller slewed around, making the bridge supports groan. Mud, gravel and splintered wood sprayed back down the road. Both privates walking rearguard hurled themselves instinctively into the nearest ditch. The Tonehūa slewed sideways, tore through the railing and – before the driver could correct – pitched into the canal with an enormous splash.

            Inside, Kobushi bounced off one control pane, splintering the black glassite with the plexisteel shoulder pad of his armor, then flew back the other way. This time he had a fraction of a second to bring up his arm and elbow into the side of the cupola as a cushion. The APAC shuddered around him, the driver cursed luridly, and the one-eighty view on the head’s up was suddenly swallowed by a rushing wave of dark-brown water.

            “Suppressive fire!” Kobushi bawled into his comm, lunging towards the open hatchway. His gloved hand seized the handle and dragged the hatch closed just as muddy canal-water flooded over the opening. On the open comm channel, he could hear men shouting and the high-pitched tak-tak-tak of assault rifles opening fire.

            With the cupola tilted at an angle, the sergeant struggled into the commander’s seat and strapped in. A quarter of his displays were dead, though the head’s up was still showing a live feed of the canal bottom. “Vehicle status,” he growled into his comm thread. “How fast can we get out of here?”

            “Be a moment, sergeant.” The driver had shut down the repeller array, letting the Tonehūa settle to the bottom of the canal. Parts of his status board were winking amber and red. “We need a good footing before we elevate.”

            “Anything damaged?” Kobushi scanned his own panel, making sure the APAC had hull integrity. Then he cursed violently. Water was spilling in around the edges of the rear door. “Troop compartment’s flooding – we bent something hitting that abutment.”

            “Got it,” the driver rolled his grips forward, letting the repellers engage. The microcontrol comp displays flickered, adjusting to the density of the canal bottom, and then the Tonehūa burst upward, water sluicing away from the angled hull, water-lilies tangled into the comm antennas and grenade launchers.

            Kobushi released the combat locks on a pair of turret-mounted multi-barrel cannon on the forward roof of the APAC. For a moment, all he could see was the grassy side of the canal. Then the driver goosed the rear repellers and the Tonehūa lurched out and up over the embankment.

            Burning buildings and scattered Jehanan corpses greeted the sergeant. All four dismounted troopers registered on his displays – Gerhard and Shumash had gone to ground behind a long, low barn-like building to the left side of the road. Kobushi caught a glimpse of a grenade burst flash from their position and spatter across the second floor of the largest building in the hamlet. Violent explosions followed, tearing off the façade and scattering brick and burning wood across the road. Burning, flailing bodies plunged into the street. A secondary explosion followed, tearing a hole in the roof.

            Smoke boiled from the buildings. Automatic rifle fire stabbed across the canal and shredded the fired-brick walls of two houses off to the sergeant’s left. Slicks bolted from the low structures, scattering into the fields. The Imperial troopers firing from the cover of the bridge switched to single-shot and picked off half of the fleeing natives before the rest disappeared.

            “Status!” The sergeant roared, traversing the crosshairs of his Gatlings across the burning village. The APAC’s targeting comp failed to find any identifiable targets. Kobushi reversed the guns, wondering who exactly had attacked his arrow. Panicky local militia? Regular Principate troops spoiling for a fight?

            “They’ve got guns,” Chosin’s voice – tight with pain – replied. “I’m down.”

            The sergeant cursed and stabbed the locator glyph for the recon bikes. Chosin was down, the telemetry from his combat bike flashing red, and the trooper himself was in a ditch a kilometer away. “What hit you?”

            “Small arms,” Gerhard replied as he cycled a magazine free from his rifle. “Second floor, big building. Some kind of crew-served machinegun, I think. That last clutch of snap’n’pops took it out.”

            “Punched a hole in my air intake,” Chosin gasped. The sergeant could see the trooper’s medicals fluctuating – but the man’s armor was already flooding his system with painkillers, skinsealer and antibiotics. “Lost repeller and plowed into a tree. Think I’ve broken my arm and leg.”

            “Stay low,” Kobushi replied. “Sharak, swing round to stand-off-range and cover Chosin until we can pick him up.” The second combat bike was orbiting off to the north, a kilometer or more away, while Yaotequihuah Sharak fired ‘atomic pencils’ into the outlying buildings. Each tiny missile erupted with a sharp, bright flash, demolishing the molk-sheds – or whatever they were – and raining more burning debris into the surrounding fields.

            The Tonehūa crabbed over the lip of the embankment and down onto solid ground. The targeting comp for the gatling guns toned suddenly, snapping the sergeant’s head around in alarm. Both cross-hairs lit red – and then a low-lying building, really no more than a bunker, at the far end of the main street belched a long tongue of flame. A concussive boom followed, even as the forequarter glacis of the APAC blew apart in a violent explosion.

            This time the shock-webbing in the commander’s chair saved Kobushi from being pulped into the side of the cupola, but the blast was fierce enough to make him gray out. The Tonehūa lurched backwards, smoke boiling from a huge section of reactive armor, and every panel in the APAC winked out, then restarted with a complaining whine. The sergeant coughed – something had shorted, spilling acrid white smoke into the drivers’ compartment – before his visor slid down automatically and his armor air recyclers kicked in.

            “Gun!” Someone screamed, and there was a blistering roar of automatic rifle fire as the troopers started firing full-auto to suppress the enemy position. The sergeant punched the auto-targeting glyph for the gatlings, then screamed “free-fire! Everyone down!” into his comm.

            The flattened turret on the roof of the APAC swiveled, the six-barreled gatlings rotated out of their cowlings and then – with a shrieking roar – opened fire on the hidden bunker. Six hundred self-deploying, caseless munitions flashed across the half-kilometer distance with a supersonic crack-crack-crack! and fifty meters of sod, brick and reinforced concrete disintegrated in a rippling wall of flame.

            Four kilometers away, overshot rounds ripped through a stand of trees, obliterated a herd of three-horned molks and cut down five field-hands trying to drive the cantankerous ruminants into a milking shed. The wood and stone building blew apart, scattering debris across a field of red palines, starting innumerable tiny fires.

            Kobushi blinked his eyes clear as the gatlings shut themselves off. The targeting comp beeped in a self-satisfied way and both cross-hairs turned green. On the roof of the Tonehūa, the guns spun for a moment, shedding waste heat into steamy air, and then retracted into their housing.

            Coughing himself, the driver turned his control grips and the APAC crabbed sideways off the embankment and into the immediate shelter of one of the burning buildings. The sergeant checked status for his troopers, saw everyone was still alive, and then cleared his throat.

            “House to house – find out what the living devil that was – see if anyone’s alive.”


            Thirty minutes later, Kobushi closed his eyes in despair, and rubbed his bruised left arm. The armor had absorbed most of the blow, but his whole side was aching. The voice of arrow-captain Ixtiloch echoed nasally in his ears.

            “But, sir—No, sir I have not been drinking! I’m telling you, the slicks ambushed us--”

            The sergeant’s lips tightened into a thin, pale line at the blistering response.

            “Sir, they had an anti-tank gun. Yes, sir. I am telling you the truth, sir. No, I am not amped on oliohuiqui or some other psychoactive, sir.”

            Kobushi turned, caught sight of Gerhard poking among the debris of the bunker and waved him over. The private sidled up. The Tequihuah stabbed a finger at the wreckage they’d dug out of the ruins as he muted his comm. “Run your suit cam over that, Ger. The CO needs more convincing.”

            The German grunted, then detached the spyeye from his shoulder and held it up where the lens could capture the remains of the long barrel – now shattered in three places – the armored shield mounted around the body of the gun, the shredded tires and recoil mounts. Bits and pieces of the crew were mixed in with still-smoking brick and traumatized sod.

            “Sir? Sir, do you see this feed? This is what nearly punched straight through our APAC. Yes, sir, this is a real video. No, we are not in a bar somewhere, drunk as rabbits. Gerhard, pan around the village.”

            Kobushi waited patiently, listening to the arrow-captain convince himself the whole scene was real.

            “No, sir, I have no idea where they found an anti-tank gun.” The sergeant kicked the remains of an ammunition box over. There wasn’t much left, but there was some writing stenciled on the side. He shook his head – both in wonder and dismay. The script was not any human language he’d ever seen. “Sir – if you’d listen for just a moment – there’s some writing here, let me get my translator on it…”

            The Tequihuah turned his hand over and let the wrist-mounted interpreter scan the writing. After a moment, the translator beeped and displayed its best guess. Kobushi frowned, pressing his tongue against his incisors in thought. Ixtiloch continued to complain.

            “Well, captain, I’ve got a reading… No, sir, it is not Swedish. Comp says this is a Jehanan script – Arthavan, wherever that is – and it looks like the slicks made this gun.” He forwarded the scan onto the company data net.

            Kobushi waited, but there was complete silence from company headquarters. “Sir?”

            Gerhard looked at him expectantly. Kobushi shrugged. “I guess they’re thinking it over.”

            “So…” The Telpolcatl kicked the smoldering barrel. “I thought the locals didn’t have modern weapons. No guns, only swords and spears. Where did this come from?”

            Kobushi shook his head, trying to punch up any information on “Arthava” on his hand-comp. “No idea, private. Headquarters will let us know, I’m sure, when they get their heads out of their… ah, let’s mount up. Nothing more to see here.”

            He climbed across the rubble to the side of the road and waved the APAC forward. The rest of the company would be coming down the road within the next quarter-hour and he didn’t want to hold things up. Chosin was already aboard, armor locked around his damaged arm and leg, along with the remains of his combat bike. Kobushi stepped up onto the ladder, one arm wrapped around the stanchion, and let the Tonehūa carry him out of town, onto the highway again.

            “Sharak, you’re on point. Everyone else, switch to thermal – maybe we’ll pick up the next ambush that way.”

            The remaining combat bike whined past overhead, heading south, southeast.


            At B-company mobile headquarters, sixteen kilometers up the road from the burning village, Captain Ixtiloch packaged up the video he’d received, added some terse comments and kicked the whole ‘anti-tank gun’ issue back to battalion. As the report flashed across the regimental data-net, a roving xochiyaotinime sniffer picked up the odd report of a Jehanan-built artillery piece and snatched the entire report. The message packet was replaced by a dynamically generated action report, in which a ‘very large number of natives attacked third arrow as they passed through the town.’ Chosin’s injuries – simultaneously reported over the battalion locator system to medical archive – were explained as an accident which had nothing to do with the native ‘attack.’

            In turn, the xochiyaotinime sniffer passed on the peculiar report to an alert queue at the Flower Priest operations center, located aboard the chartered merchant vessel Tepoztecatl in orbit over Jagan. Once within the priestly database, the report was sorted, flagged and queued for review by a senior member of the order. Unfortunately for Ixtiloch’s report, that particular message-store was being steadily pilfered by a particularly lightweight snoopsoft employed by the agents of the Mirror-Which-Reveals-the-Truth, whose heuristic programming found the reference to an “Arthavan weapon” quite tasty.

            This particular soft had been written in a hurry by senior field agent Lachlan, who had hard-coded his own transfer node address into the routing interface and had then forgotten, in the press of events, to go back and change the reference before the snooper was released into the wild. As a result, the report was neatly excised from the xochiyaotinime network and forwarded to Mirror operations where it was placed into another queue, after being reflagged and reprioritized again.

            Once in Lachlan’s alert log, the report sat quietly, the nine-hundred-and-twelfth item for his attention, to be reviewed as soon as he could drag himself out of a cot in the back of the operations center and return to his display console.

            As a result, the rest of B-company roared past the ruined village sixty-five minutes later, ignoring the remains of the Kulizadhara 90mm anti-tank gun, which displayed a degree of technical sophistication and manufacture very nearly on a par with equivalent Imperial equipment.

In the course of revising House of Reeds for publication, a moderately critical middle chapter was split into two and the second half entirely re-written.

This is the original version:

            Malakar padded along a narrow hallway, tail lifted, long feet stepping daintily. Gretchen followed, glad her boots didn’t squeak on the dusty, unmarked floor. They had climbed to newer levels of the House, where the surfaces were no longer so smooth and the edges of doorways were irregular and marked by signs of chisels and picks and hammers. Even in passing, Anderssen could see the materials in use had changed as well. The tan ceramic composite had been replaced by gray limestone. Some of the doors retained the grooved edges and the incised recess on the floor, but she guessed they were only for show, reproduced out of tradition and not for true use.

            The starfarers must have buried the ship beneath a cap of limestone quarried from the nearest hills or mountains, she thought as Malakar slowed, long head lifting. For armor? For protection? Hard to tell at this late date – and now their descendants are burrowing in the soft shell around the useless hulk decaying in the depths, clinging to the skin of their patrimony.

            The Jehanan fitted her long claws into a crack in the wall and applied pressure. An opening appeared, two wooden plates sliding aside. Gretchen peered under its shoulder. There was a sizeable chamber through the opening, but she could see an even larger space beyond a circular floor. The hallway they were following seemed to curve around the inner chamber.

            A ring of gipu blazed near the ceiling, held in a wooden framework anchored to the stone dome. Beneath, bathed in a blue-white radiance, a slender black arc rose from a gleaming white marble floor. The simplicity of the ‘altar’ was a surprise, given the usually garish nature of the Jehanan shrines she’d seen in the south. A multitude of statuary garlanded with flowers and caked with the soot of countless scented candles was missing. Could be a regional difference…

            “See?” Malakar hissed softly in her ear. “The Master submits himself to the embrace of the tree-of-lies and claims holy visions are yielded up for his sight alone while the fools look on.”

            Beyond the column of light, Gretchen could see tiers of steps rising up into the gloom. An auditorium, she guessed, for the faithful.

            Though the area around the metal arc seemed empty, Anderssen could make out at least one Jehanan sweeping the steps in the outer chamber. Gretchen could hear him whistling a soft, happy-sounding tune to himself as he worked his way from one end of the row to the other.

            “When will that one leave?” She asked in a whisper, unsealing the pocket holding her big comp.

            “Not for hours,” Malakar said, lips peeling back from blackened teeth. “He is as old as I – and more sure of his sinecure. Doltish fool…” The Jehanan spread her claws, letting the shaft of cold white light play on the ivory-yellow nails. “A good scare might wake his blood, prick his slow thoughts to lively flight.”

            Gretchen laid a hand on the gardener’s forearm, shaking her head. “Just distract him, if you can. I’ll wait here until he’s gone. Don’t do anything foolish – you’ll still be here when I’m gone.”

            “Huuu…” Malakar stepped back out of the light, making a bubbling hiss of a sound. “Should I remain? There is little – no, nothing – here for me. No sprouts to tend, no stories to tell. I begin to wonder at the dry, dusty years I’ve sloughed away in this place… wait patiently, asuchau, this will not take too long.”

            Anderssen watched the Jehanan pad off into the darkness, then thumbed the comp awake and settled down on her heels to consider the object in the fane. She began to remove spyeyes and ‘scopes from her vest and jacket, wishing once more for an antigrav equipped remote. Or for Magdalena and her pouch of tricks to be here… oh, Mother Mary! Gretchen covered her mouth with a hand, horrified. She stared at her chrono and was stunned to see nearly a day had passed while she and Malakar wandered in the lightless depths. No wonder I feel half-dead with fatigue. My medband must have been seeping me stayawake and giddyup this whole time.

            She began to worry about the Hesht and about Parker, but her wristcomm still couldn’t find a relay node in range. They’d better sit tight. If they try and come in here to get me out… we’ll all be lost for decades, trying to find each other. Just wait for me, silly kits! I’ll just be one more minute…

            Gretchen turned on each of the instruments in turn, synchronized them to the comp and then sat back on her heels and scarfed down a threesquare while she waited for the old Jehanan to return. Or for the janitor to leave. The hunched figure was still moving along its row, broom of twigs in hand, scratching away at the dust.

            The janitor suddenly paused and looked up. A muted, distorted trilling and hooting reached Gretchen, and then the figure of another Jehanan appeared. The janitor put down his broom and squatted down with the other. Some kinds of bottles appeared and there was more trilling and warbling – all unidentifiable to the translator in Gretchen’s earbug – but she could feel the janitor becoming less present. Drunk, I’ll bet. Silly rabbit.

            A little eager, Gretchen wedged her foot and shoulder into the opening and pushed. The wooden panels – each a hand thick and showing the close-grained honeycomb pattern unique to the lohaja – groaned a little and slipped along their ancient tracks. Anderssen squeezed through, then reached back to gather up her tools.

            The black arc rose above her head by a meter or more, but once she’d come within arms’ reach the structure seemed much larger. The single curve seen from behind became a spray of delicate black fronds, each lined with jadeite green threads. The root sank into the floor, apparently swallowed by the marble. Even a moment’s glance told her the entire structure was perfectly balanced. She could feel an ineffable, indefinable sense of rightness about the object before her.

            “Doesn’t much look like a tree,” Gretchen muttered to herself, trying to keep from grinning like a fool. There was nothing in the line of the object which bespoke to her of Jehanan manufacture. Even the cool grandeur of the Haraphan artifacts was absent. Blessed Mother of Tepeyac, she chortled to herself, maybe Petrel and her informants were right, maybe this is a Valkar artifact! God, I hope it’s not a weapon like the last time. Let it be something useful – a communications device or a home entertainment system!

            Her hands were trembling as she ducked under one frond, tacking magnetic sensors to the floor with her thumb. She glanced over her shoulder, saw the janitor sound asleep in a corner of the auditorium, and crouched down over her comp. All three equally-spaced spyeyes were in 3v mode, making a micrometer-level photographic scan of the artifact. Her comp was already humming away, processing ambient data and tickling the magnetic sensors awake.

            Gretchen kept moving, her entire attention perfectly focused on each task as it came to hand. She could feel time slipping past, each tick of her chrono stealing precious observation time. There was no way Malakar could ward off every passersby, or keep the mandire from entering their holy of holies. Not for more than a few minutes. She uncapped a specimen container, held it up behind one of the fronds and used her compressed air wand to blow what she hoped were surface flakes of the black material into the container.

            Without waiting, she sealed, labeled and stowed the cup. A quick check of her comp showed the magnetic sensors completing the second part of their scan. Time for sonosound, she decided, and slid a resonator out of a long, stitched pocket on the side of her pant leg. The resonator was flexible, holding both a vibratory generator and the pickup sensors. Gretchen realized she was sweating and the space under the brilliant lights felt hot.

            Phew! What a lovely planet. And to think Maggie complained about being cold the whole time we were on Shimanjin!

            Wiping her brow, she twisted the resonator into a hook shape and gingerly curled it around the basal section of the black arc. “Ok-kē… Ok-kē… just let the sensor do its work… perfectly safe, I’m sure…” Anderssen touched the activating switch. The resonator tightened slightly, made contact with the root of the kalpataru and started to hum gently. She began to snatch her hand back—

            There was a soft flash – a muted, yellow-white light flooded the chamber – and Gretchen’s eyes blinked wide.

            Everything in her perception slid to a gelatinous stop. The fronds of the tree twisted, uncurled, revealing millions of tiny sparkling green cilia. A sound issued forth from the heart of the tree, bending the air, filling every cavity and crevice in the fane, in the auditorium, singing down every tunnel and passageway, spilling into every room and hall, washing across countless unwary Jehanan priests and acolytes going about their business.

            Gretchen beheld the air unfolding, molecules twisting, unraveling, shedding atoms in brilliant cascade. Shimmering waves of solid light belled up from her equipment, from the sensors, swirled around her reaching hand. A single golden tone – a deep, encompassing note – sustained, held captured in the shape of the curving fronds, in the arc of the tree.

            The heart of the black arc split, revealing a green void filled with boiling, half-seen movement. Anderssen felt herself recoil from a sensation of emptiness, a moment of annihilation, an unfolding which would leave her exposed, her self – her mind – her thoughts – her core – inverted and extended into…

            Something sighed and the resonator popped loudly. Smoke spilled out of its seams.

            Gretchen jerked her hand back, dizzy, and fell onto her back. The room was spinning. Her fingers were numb. A strange, half-familiar sensation fled as she tried to grasp what had happened. For a moment – just the time between two breaths – she thought she was surrounded by Jehanan in ragged, carbon-scored metallic armor. They seemed grimly pleased, as though they’d won through to a desperate victory. The ring of gipu were absent, replaced by huge rectangular floodlights hanging from cranes. Power saws roared, cutting away the sides of an enormous obsidian box. The sides toppled, crashing to a limestone floor. The rough shape of the fane was present, but unfinished, lacking wooden facings. Inside the box a shape was revealed, heavily padded with shockfoam. A Jehanan technician stepped forward, spraying dissolver from a pressurized canister. The pinkish-white encasement dissolved, sluicing away to spill across the rough floor. A black curved shape was revealed, fronds folded back to make a twisted, ropy arc…

            The ring of brilliant gipu-lights was shining in her eyes. A shadow obscured them. Anderssen blinked away tears and tried to sit up. Her limbs were trembling as if she’d run clear to the postal station at Dumfries and back again without stopping.

            “Hoooo…” Malakar whistled softly, nostrils wide, drinking in an acrid stink hanging in the air. “One of your machines has loosed a tasty smell! Is it good to eat?”

            “No,” Gretchen said, grasping an extended claw and climbing to her feet. Her head felt as if it were caught in a tuning fork. “The sonosound resonator shorted out.” She looked down – the device had stiffened straight in death – and picked it up between finger and thumb. “No sensor data to be had from this! How much time to do we have?”

            Malakar shrugged, a single claw scratching the end of her snout. “The liars will come to abase themselves in … an hour? In two? Your division of the day makes little sense to me, asuchau. Did you race once have six claws on each hand, rather than five?”

            Laughing quietly, Gretchen checked her comp and saw the magnetic scan was complete. “With sonosound out of the picture, our next test would be to take a surface sample or begin microscanning with a variety of more powerful sensors. But all of those things will take hours or days. So we’d best leave before your friend wakes up.”

            “Him? Satap will sleep until someone kicks him awake.” Malakar made a sharp snorting sound. “Even a dram of somis is too much for such a feeble old brittle-scale.”

            Anderssen nodded absently, picking up her sensors and packing everything away. She was careful to put the resonator back in its pocket, even though the device had shorted out. Odd memories clogged her mind, making everything feel alternately slow and fast, but – and this struck Gretchen as particularly, wryly, funny – she was getting used to feeling that way. As if most of my mind has flown off somewhere on a cheap excursion ticket and then come back again, stinking of gin and smelling of peppermint cologne. A hypnagogic cavalcade to disassociation land.

            When everything was stowed, she checked again, just to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind. Sure enough, one lone magnetic sensor was still adhered to the floor. Gretchen prized the self-sticking button up and tucked it in with the others.

            “Malakar – is there anything under this floor? Another room or chamber? Someplace where the… the root goes?”

            “Hrrr… no, I have no memory of such a place.” The gardener stomped her feet on the floor. There was no echo, only the hard, sharp slap of leathery hide against marble. “Solid as the House can get. Can your machines tell the age of this…” Malakar slapped her hand against the black arc. Gretchen flinched, but no pervading light blazed forth. “…old stick?”

            “As soon as we can get somewhere I can run analysis.” She paused, biting her lip, staring at his hand resting on the curving fronds. “Did… did you see a light coming from the kalpataru when I was lying on the floor?”

            “Hur! No… only the gipu.” The gardener raised her snout, staring balefully at the ring of lights above. “These are the last sharp ones in the house. When they wear out, only dim little flickers will be left. A waste, I have always said, a waste.”

            Out in the auditorium, old Satap made a bubbling, snoring sound and rolled over. Malakar growled again, shaking her head. “Now he starts to wake up – long years I shared a mat with that one and would he wake? Never, should the moons fall on his head, snorking away all night long, making my ears ache.”

            Gretchen raised an eyebrow at the gardener, then smiled to herself and tucked her comp away. “Quickly, then, before he wakes and takes fright to see an asuchau demon in the holy place.”

            Once more Malakar led her down abandoned tunnels and up stairs and ramps coated with dust. As they traveled, often in dim recesses unlit by even a single gipu, Gretchen began to wonder at the enormous size of the warren cut into the stone above the ancient ship. Her silent comm nagged at her as well, making her worry about Parker and Magdalena. They passed long hallways filled with doorways, each opening into small rooms, sometimes with further doors, sometimes not.

            “Do your people – the priests, I mean – do they ever make new halls, cut new passages?”

            “Is there need?” Malakar shook her head, scales rippling. “Even I can become lost – once a Master ordered maps and charts made – but after a hand of years, the project was abandoned. I saw the room of books so made, when I was a short-horn, they were rotting. Paper is treacherous with its promises. No, all the priests do now is close up the places they fear to tread.”

            They turned into a long narrow hall, spaced with graven pillars reaching overhead to form a roof of carved triangular leaves. Malakar picked up her pace, forcing Gretchen to jog along behind. Here the floor was cleared of dust and ahead a gipu gleamed in the darkness.

            “Quietly now,” the gardener whispered, “we will reach the first level of terraces soon, and there will be others about. The closest outer door known to me is some distance away, but that one is watched and guarded. We must reach one of the forgotten ones…”

            They reached the end of the pillared hall, found themselves in an intersection of three other passages – all of them lit – and Malakar turned down the one to the right, then immediately stepped between two of the pillars – into a shadowed alcove – and began climbing a very narrow set of stairs. Once they had ascended beyond the lights, the gardener brought out the gipu and held the egg aloft. Picking her way along in the faint light, Gretchen ventured to speak again.

            “Do you call this place the ‘Garden’ because of the terraces?”

            Malakar shook her head, still climbing. “They are new – or as new as such things can be in this old cave. Once they were broad platforms edged with rounded walls on each level above the entrance tier. One of the Masters – six of them ago now? – decided they should be filled with earth and planted. Some fragments still surviving from those times speak of a dispute with the kujen over the provision of tribute to the House.”

            “They provide all your food now?” Gretchen was thinking of the countless rooms and dozens of levels and the failure of her comm to penetrate the walls of the massif. “How many priests live within the House?”

            “Two hundred and nineteen in these failing days,” Malakar said, coming to the end of the stairs. “We no longer use the ‘hall of abating hunger’ – too many echoes and shadows for so few. But there I wager over a thousand could comfortably squat and stanch their hunger with freshly grilled zizunaga.” Her long head poked out into a new passage and sniffed the air. “We are very near the terrace where I hid the pushta in the soil.”

            “I can find my way back to the entrance I used from there.” Gretchen checked her comp. The mapping soft was still running, showing her path as an irregular, looping line of red through half-filled in rooms, chambers and halls. The cross-corridors fanned out like spines from the back of a broken snake. “Was I wrong before, when I said this was one of the spacecraft which brought your people to Jagan? Was this a fortress, a citadel raised at the heart of their landing, to secure the new conquest? And all these upper halls and tunnels and rooms – they’re not so old as they seem – only hundreds of years old, from the time of the Fire.”

            Malakar waved her forward and they hurried down another curving passage. A faint radiance began to gleam on the walls ahead, a slowly building light, promising a smoggy sky and clouds pregnant with rain.

            The Jehanan remained silent, head moving warily from one side to the other, until they reached a junction where – suddenly and without warning – Gretchen’s goggles picked up an UV-marker arrow pointing down a side passage.

            “There!” She exclaimed, enormously relieved. “That’s the way I came.”


            “Hooo…” Malakar squatted down in the passageway with the pierced stone screen, claws ticking against the floor. The bright light of afternoon filtered through the trees and picked out shining scales on her head. The gipu was tucked away. “I know this path. A steep stair with many broken steps leads to a laundry and a bakery selling patu biscuits. I had not thought the entrance still open, but… memories fade and fail. Hoooo… I am weary now.”

            “Both the inner and outer doors are frozen open.” Gretchen knelt as well, thumbing her comp to the display showing the analysis results from the scan of the kalpataru. “Are there stories of the House during the time of the Fire? Could the entire population of the city fit inside? Is it that vast? Are there – were there – other citadels like this one?”

            The Jehanan opened her jaws, trilling musically. Anderssen guessed she was laughing heartily.

            “So hungry, so hungry… with your claws full, you reach for more! Does this hunger ever abate or fade?”

            “No, not often.” Gretchen shook her head sadly. “Sometimes, when I am at home, with my children – I have a hatchling, as you would say, and two short-horns – I forget for a little while. But then I rise one morning and my heart wonders when the liner lifts from port, what quixotic vista is waiting for me, what dusty tomb will reveal the lives of the dead and the lost to me. Then I am happy for a little while, until I miss my children again.”

            “Hur-hur! One day you will catch your own tail and eat yourself up before you’ve noticed!”

            Anderssen grimaced at the image, then held up the comp. “There is a preliminary analysis, if you still want to know if the kalpataru is real or not.”

            Malakar raised her snout, flexed her nostrils and hooted mournfully. “Will this taste as bitter as the other fruit I’ve plucked from your tree?”

            Gretchen read over the findings, shrugged and looked the gardener in the eye. The matter of the dead resonator weighed heavily on her mind. She suppressed an urge to take the power cell out of the device and see if anything remained but half-melted slag. “Neither sweet nor sour, I venture. Not, perhaps, what you expected.”

            “Tell me then, meddling asuchau. Dare I ever sleep again? May I feel just, righteous anger at the fools who run squeaking in empty halls, pretending to be the kujenai of old?”

            Gretchen ran a hand through her hair and grimaced. She desperately needed a shower. “The stone floor holding the root of the tree is a particularly pure, seamless marble. These readings show it is all of one piece. Marble, you should be aware, does not conduct heat, vibration or electricity particularly well. The domed chamber around the tree also serves to dampen electromagnetic waves or currents. I think – yes, there are some irregularities around the opening into the auditorium – the chamber was originally complete and enclosed.”

            The Jehanan hooted questioningly. “Why would they hide the—”

            “Because they thought the tree was dangerous.” Gretchen stared at her grimy hand. Her fingers were trembling. Are there scorch marks? Is this how Hummingbird feels every day of his life? Merciful Mary, please keep my thoughts from sin, drown my curiosity, still my reaching hand. “Because they knew it was dangerous. So they built a prison in their strongest fortress, and they set a particularly devout order – the mandire – to guard the cell and keep it safe.”

            Malakar’s eye-shields rattled. “Safe? Safe from what?”

            “From other Jehanan? From the last of the Haraphans?” Anderssen clenched her hands together. “Whoever they captured it from… though… perhaps they brought the tree from Mokuil – or it was sent from Mokuil to Jagan, for safekeeping…”

            The gardener hissed, confused. “You are filled with riddles. My snout is cold from all these twisty thoughts. The only matter to claw is – does any life remain in the cold metal? Is aught revealed to the Master when he embraces the kalpataru?”

            Taking a deep breath, Gretchen set down her comp and removed the dead resonator from its pocket. Her fingers were still shivering, but she managed to grip the nubby black metal hard enough to unscrew the power cell receptacle. “Here is your answer,” she said in a ragged voice, tipping the burnt, glassily-melted cell out into Malakar’s palm. “As your ancestors intended, without power the tree sleeps. I believe the machine is very, very old. Older than the arrival of the Jehanan, older than the Haraphans.”

            “It ate this?” Malakar peered at the dead cell, turning her long head from side to side, letting each eye gaze upon the broken object. “You say it ate this and woke to life?”

            “For an instant – Mother Mary bless and protect me! – for less than the blink of an eye.” She smiled grimly. “Don’t worry about the Master of the Garden. If he truly beheld the visions of the device, his mind would have been destroyed long ago.”

            “No loss!” Hooted the Jehanan, picking at the cell with the tip of old, yellowed claws. “He might gain some wit thereby!”

            Gretchen shook her head sharply, feeling a curdling, acid sensation stir in her stomach. “He might gain more than wit – if something filled his broken mind with new thoughts. You would not like what happened then—” She stopped, wondering if Hummingbird would tell the gardener of the cruel powers which had shattered lost Mokuil and still lay in dreaming sleep on desolate worlds like Ephesus. “—you are right to mistrust the kalpataru and feel its worship is unwholesome.”

            “But,” Malakar said, handing her the dead power cell, “without rain and sun, it must lie fallow.”

            “Yes,” Anderssen allowed, “but not dead, only dormant.”

            “Hoooo….” The Jehanan rose up from its haunches. “Then it must be watched, and carefully too, and wise guardians set ‘round the Garden to keep the soft-skinned from the thorns. But now… can this thing be torn out by the roots?”

            Gretchen stood up as well. She shrugged. “I can take this data and do a deeper analysis – my companion Magdalena has more powerful comps than mine. We can see what can be done.”

            “Hrrr…” Malakar fell silent, watching the human with an intent expression. Anderssen grew nervous, wondering if the Jehanan would attack her again. After a long time, the gardener stirred. “This slow old walnut suddenly realizes even rich asuchau humans must spend shatamanu to buy tasty food, to travel the iron road, to stay in tall khus where the wind is always cool in the windows – but the rich never get their claws soiled with dirt, or split by toil. Never.”

            Malakar’s fore-claw extended, gently touching the scars on Gretchen’s hand. “These are not the claws of a rich woman,” the gardener said softly. “Yet you are here… Who paid to send you so far? Someone who heard of a divine tree standing in an ancient Garden, this old walnut thinks. Do they desire the kalpataru? Will they fall down and worship it? Will they feed it?”

            Anderssen squared her shoulders and forced herself to not bite her lip. “They – the Honorable Chartered Company – sent me to Jagan to look upon the kalpataru, to take the readings I have in my comp now, and to bring them back. No more.”

            “Hoooo! Well, you’ve twisted my tail, sure enough.” Malakar’s jaws gaped. She hissed angrily. “Everything you wished, I’ve done, haven’t I? What a good servant this old one proves! The Master of the Garden would be stricken dumb to see me bow and scrape!”

            “Here.” Gretchen held out the comp. “Everything is in here. If you take this, then I will return home with empty hands. The secrets of the kalpataru will be safe. No one will ever return to disturb the Garden. Go on, take it.”

            Malakar stared suspiciously at the comp and hesitated, just for an instant.

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