Wasteland of Flint
(c) Thomas Harlan 2001
THE SIXTH SUN (Chicuacen Tonatiuh) is a SF/mystery novel set in a moderately high-tech future. It focuses on the adventures of Gretchen Andersson (a human xeno-archaeologist), Green-Hummingbird (an Imperial political officer) and Lieutenant Commander Mitsuharu Hadeishi (commander of the Imperial Mexica Navy light cruiser Christopher S. Cornuelle) as they attempt to rescue a stranded archaeological expedition on the planet Ephesus III.
The Sixth Sun opens with a locked-box mystery – the exploration ship Palenque is found abandoned in orbit over Ephesus III, her crew vanished - and segues into the larger scientific/ecological mystery of Ephesus III itself. At the same time the Cornuelle encounters and must destroy a wildcat mining ship as the secret inhabitants of Ephesus III begin to wake.
The background setting is an alternate history – the human polity is ruled by an Anahuac (Earth)-based Mexica (Aztec) Empire – in a dangerous universe filled with hidden powers. Humanity is only a minor spacefaring species on the fringe of a ferociously political arena where ancient and enormous empires are engaged in millennia-old struggles for supremacy.
Both Gretchen and Mitsuharu share deficiencies of class and birth in Mexica society. Gretchen comes from reviled Swedish stock; a nation destroyed by the Mexica in the last struggle for supremacy on Earth itself. Now the northern European populations are a servile scientist / technician class within the encompassing Empire. Mitsuharu is born to an ancient Japanese clan, but while his people are the “second” caste within the Empire, the Nisei are forever barred from spacefleet command and the admiralty. Mitsu will be a small-ship commander for his whole career.
Neither possesses superlative talents or secret psionic powers, but both are dedicated, stubborn and strong-willed. Trapped in a situation where they are outmatched by events, they refuse to surrender. Very Golden Age SF – the plucky humans survive and triumph by cunning and wit.
The Sixth Sun has a suitably catastrophic conclusion.
In a way, the approach I’m pursuing here is a Patrick O’Brien novel in space, with a goodly amount of ecology / chemistry / biology, as well as a vicious space ship-to-ship battle and a lot of action on the ground. Not exactly a standard hard SF book, but a good adventure story.
Parts of the sample chapters will be upgraded later, when I can track down some more information on the ship-board practices of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which will form the basis of the depiction of the Méxica navy, its customs and traditions.
In addition, to give the running around some underpinning, the action is carried by four main characters in two opposing pairs – Gretchen and Green Hummingbird, Commander Hadeishi and Captain Ketcham. This follows the Aztec creation myth (which is based around the number four) and each pair goes through some hair-raising adventures which echo the passage into the heart of the Aztec world, and the battle of the Sun, which falls into the underworld at dusk and rises, reborn, at dawn after battling in the tlachco (the ball court) through the night against the Four Hundred Monsters.
I’m not aiming at some treatise on Aztec mythology here, but all of this will be there, beneath the surface. The reader who is not familiar with the mythology won’t even notice, but those that do will get the big story… this is a lot like what I’m doing in OATH OF EMPIRE, with the Iliad, the Argonautica and Greek myth in the background. The point, though, is a rousing adventure.
There are four main characters, in two opposing pairs:
RimWorld Ventures xeno-archaelogist. Middling height, short blonde hair. Graduate student at the University on New Aberdeen. Specialist in forensic xeno-archaeology. Cheerful and pleasant to be around. Unexpectedly in command of the relief mission to Ephesus III.
Gretchen is the sun that rises in the East, bright and full of hope, inexperienced but seeking to learn of the world, her raiment fresh. Though this is a traditionally male role, here the depiction is reversed. For her, Hummingbird is emblematic of the whole Imperial system that holds down the subject races and stifles science, learning and exploration.
A wiry, bald old man – an Imperial race Náhuatl from the Heart of the World (the valley of Mexico, born in the priestly city of Texcoco). The descendant of a very famous Aztec judge. He is the political officer of the Cornuelle and a nauallis, or sorcerer. This is not to say that he can perform magic, but he is privy to knowledge about the universe that the Imperial government keeps from the common people and even from its own scientists.
Green Hummingbird (Huitziloxoctic) is the sun that sets in the West, world-weary but filled with knowledge, struggling to keep from falling into darkness, though the hostile stars tug at his tattered robe. Traditionally this role is female, but here (as for Gretchen) the depiction is reversed. For him, Gretchen is a truly dangerous youth that recklessly seeks to plunge headlong into matters and knowledge that might destroy her, him and the Empire itself. He knows too well how deadly the universe can be.
LCDR Mitsuhara Hadeishi
Commander of the Christopher S. Cornuelle, an Astronomer-class light cruiser assigned to anti-piracy patrols in the Hittite sector. A short, slightly built Nisei (Japanese born in North America) with stringy back hair and a neat beard and mustache. Family is from New Yedo (Seattle) on Anahuac (Earth). Cheerful and confident. Tasked with carrying Andersson and her relief mission to Ephesus III. Unlike many of his fellow officers, he is content with his honorable position and command.
Mitsu is the sun that reaches its zenith in the South, which is the domain of war (the god Huitzilopochtli) and the great enemy of the demons of darkness. Mitsu’s fight against the Turan is the contest of the ball court (the tlachco) as the sun descends into the underworld during the passage of night and – at last, rises victorious, restored and reborn.
CAPT Tristan Ketcham
Commander of the Apex Cartel mining and refinery ship Turan. A bitter antagonistic man with an abiding hatred for the State. An ex-Imperial Navy officer who left the service when he ran out of promotional opportunities. He comes from a heritage of German-Danish military officers – whose nation and history were destroyed by the Aztecs in their final victory.
Captain Ketcham is the absence of the Sun in the North, where there is only darkness, death and flinty wasteland. He represents the Four Hundred Monsters and their great champion, the planet Venus (Turan), which always challenges the Sun.
Then there are my usual raft of secondary characters…
(following on the events of the first three and a half chapters…)
Parker, Bandao and the marines enter the Palenque and find it stripped of all organic matter – no bed-sheets, no food (not even a saltine), no crew. Anything not sealed in metal or ceramic is gone. All long-chain organic molecules on the ship have been reduced to a white dust clogging the air filtration system. The agent of this destruction, however, is no longer present. While Bandao and the marines search the rest of the ship, Parker begins examining the engineering systems, which have automatically shut down.
The search, now aided by Magdalena and Gretchen, discovers two crewmen – Delores Flores and Carlos Fuentes – trapped in an atmospheric shuttle in the shuttle bay. They’ve been there for three weeks and are very happy to get out. The other shuttle is stranded on the planetary surface, it’s atmospheric drive removed for repair. The team also finds a stone cylinder in the main science lab, carefully cut in half. Another cylinder, this one intact and embedded in a chunk of limestone shale, is found in the lab storage vault.
While Parker, Magdalena and an engineering crew from the Cornuelle repair the ship’s systems, Gretchen examines the intact cylinder. Like it’s opened fellow, it is composed of three chambers. Two are filled with an unidentified substance, the center is vacuum. Investigation of the main lab examination chamber (presumably air-tight) finds that it had been equipped with sub-standard seals made of a long-chain polymer. Like the rest of the organic material on the ship the ‘agent’ destroyed this, then consumed Doctor Clarkson (who was conducting the experiment) and then the crew on-board. Gretchen and some crewmen from the Cornuelle repair the lab facility.
Magdalena, meanwhile, has turned the tachyon transmitter back on and restarted the main computer. In video from shipboard cams, they see the spread of the ‘agent’ from the lab throughout the ship. A gruesome sight. She also reopens communications with the expedition on the planet. The rest of the scientists are hungry, dirty and bored. From what they know, Dr’s Clarkson and McCue went up to the Palenque and then all communications were lost. Once scientist is unaccounted for, however. This is Dr. Russovsky, who had returned to the base camp with her ultralight the day before Clarkson took the deadly cylinder up to the Palenque. After communications were lost, she became disgusted with the bickering in the camp and (as usual when tiring of human company) flew off in her ultralight.
Parker, with the assistance of Delores and Carlos, examines the one working shuttle. They find that the turbine air intakes are suffering from a strange erosion. The damaged turbines from the other shuttle show the same kind of damage. However, the working shuttle is repaired and sent down to the surface, where the base camp at been established near the alien artifact known as “the observatory.”
While Parker ferries the scientists up, Gretchen and Magdalena have been reviewing the shipboard transmission and telemetry logs. They find that the tachyon unit, though it was refusing inbound communications requests, has been transmitting information outbound, to Ctesiphon station. Magdalena manages to decode the data-stream and discovers Dr. Russovsky’s field notes and data, including video and ground scan information. Apparently Russovsky had ‘hacked’ the comm system so that she could store her notes and observations on her home computer at Universitet Novgorod back on Anahuac (Earth). From her field notes, they find that she had recovered the deadly cylinders from what she calls the “house of dreams” in slot canyon 12, in the northern reaches of the Escarpment.
They also determine that she is still submitting information to the system, through a relay installed on one of the mountains that brushes the atmospheric ceiling. Currently, Russovsky is on the far side of the planet, continuing her survey. Gretchen decides to take Bandao and Parker with the working shuttle to retrieve her. All of the scientists at the base camp are sure that Russovsky, who did not get along well with Clarkson, gave him the cylinder, knowing that it would kill him.
Gretchen and her ground team depart. Magdalena, Carlos and Delores continued to work on repairing the ship. Most of the food stores have been destroyed and the Palenque now lacks many amenities. However, they persevere with the assistance of the Cornuelle. Green Hummingbird comes aboard, much to the disquiet of Magdalena, and begins reviewing the data from Doctor Smalls’ meteorology satellites. After a time, he finds that one of the satellites – tracking storms on the open desert – has caught a flash of metal in one frame. Some enhancement reveals a top-side shot of an atmospheric shuttle – and not one of the ones from the Palenque. It is the type of aircraft carried by a mining ship.
Hadeishi is quite pleased to get the news – the major part of his operational orders are to hunt down wildcat mining operations and illegal stations. He leaves Green Hummingbird with two marines (Fitzsimmons and Decker) and some engineer’s mates to hold the fort on the Palenque, then boosts the Cornuelle out of orbit to search for evidence of illegal asteroid mining. He does not think that the wildcatters are still in-system.
Gretchen and her team reach the radio relay on Mount Scopus (as they designate the location of Russovskys relay) and find it bolted onto a sheer mountainside. The shuttle is unable to land, but Gretchen and Bandao are able to abseil from the shuttle down to a narrow ledge. Parker then takes the shuttle away to find a place to set down. While Bandao examines the transmitter, Gretchen investigates a nearby cave. Inside the cave she is completely surprised to find Russovsky asleep amid a little camp –backpack, bags, a little folding table. Waiting for Bandao, she wakes Russovsky. Gretchen tries to convince Russovsky to come outside, but she retreats – saying nothing - into the recesses of the cave. Gretchen follows and the scientist has vanished. Bandao checks the camping gear and finds it has a strange glassy feel. Suspicious, Gretchen and Bandao leave the cave, radio Parker what they’ve seen, then go back in. Again, Russovsky is “sleeping” on the floor. After some experimentation, they find that the cave has a “memory” of Russovsky. A little weirded out, they explore the tunnel at the back of the cave. Gretchen, being smaller, takes the lead. The tunnel narrows swiftly, but she manages to crawl past some fallen stones. She sees a strange blue light flooding from crystals encrusting the walls and ceiling. Then she slips, falling in a great clatter of stones. Bandao, unable to crawl past the obstruction, curses and begins digging.
Magdalena calls Parker, finds that he is out of contact with Gretchen and Bandao. Green Hummingbird orders Parker to retrieve them, then return to the Palenque. Delores and Carlos, on the ground at the Observatory, have repaired the other shuttle. Hummingbird orders them to begin packing up the camp. Everyone – despite the vigorous protests of Dr’s Lennox and Sinclair – will be evacuated to the Palenque until the issue of the strange erosion of the shuttle engines is resolved.
The Cornuelle boosts outbound, heading for the asteroid belt. Hadeishi decides to go powered into the belt, rather than running silent, figuring that he can scare away or flush the wildcatters by making a lot of noise. LT Hamasaki politely disagrees, but Hadeishi is the captain. They go in hot, with all sensors active.
Parker hovers the shuttle over the ledge, ascender cables dangling. There is no sign of Bandao. Parker waits until he’s running low on fuel, then bolts for orbit. By the time he gets to the Palenque, Bandao has called in, using Russovsky’s transmitter relay to contact Magdalena with his suit radio. He’s managed to dig through the obstruction and retrieved Gretchen, who is banged up. Parker tells him that he’ll refuel, then come back to pick them up with more help. Bandao wraps Gretchen up in a survival blanket and they crouch in the entrance to the cave. Night is falling.
Meanwhile, in the belt, the Turan drifts silently, paused in her operations. Ketcham is listening to the fragments of comm traffic between the Cornuelle, the Palenque and the ground. One of his mining shuttles has been lost on Ephesus III already, along with a crew. He discusses the matter of the Cornuelle with his command staff. The Turan is a huge spacecraft – seven or eight times larger than an Astronomer-class light cruiser – armed with heavy point defense (to ward off meteors and small asteroids) and a mammoth cutting laser. His XO urges him to attack the Cornuelle and destroy it, then seize the Palenque and scram the system. Ketcham hates the Empire, too, but refuses. His concern is that the shuttle is not destroyed, but stranded, and his crewmen will be picked up. So he waits, running quiet, listening.
Gretchen is brought aboard the Palenque and checked over. A bad bruise, some lacerations. The matter of the mystery shuttle is discussed. An attempt is made to open a comm channel to Russovsky’s ultralight. She refuses to answer. Green Hummingbird orders Parker to prep his shuttle to retrieve Russovsky in the morning, backed by Bandao and Fitzsimmons. Gretchen does not dispute this. Exhausted, she goes to her cabin to sleep. They are essentially camping out on the Palenque, using the gear from the base camp. The ship is now filled with a mish-mash of grumpy scientists, crew and sailors.
In the morning, Carlos and Delores are still unloading gear from the base camp. Victor Smalls, the meteorologist, is drafted by Hummingbird to find Russovsky with his orbital array of weather tracking satellites. After some image analysis, and some help from Magdalena, they find her on the far side of the planet, humming along in her ultralight.
The Cornuelle reaches the fringe of the asteroid belt and begins moving through it, searching.
Hummingbird, with Parker as pilot, and Bandao, Fitzsimmons and Decker in tow, departs the ship and swings around the planet to intercept Russovsky. Magdalena is left with orders to find the location of the “mining shuttle” sighting and see what, if anything, is there now. She and Smalls begin running through all of his satellite’s back data, trying to find the shuttle’s path from the one single starting frame they have.
Hummingbird’s shuttle passes over the rim of the world, past the Escarpment and into the Great Eastern Basin. After an hour or so, their radar picks up Russovsky, still flying east in a long-armed zig-zag pattern. They sweep in on her position, roaring over hundreds of miles of soda-pipe field. On the ground, the tall silica wands bend, following the bright plasma exhaust of the shuttle.
Maggie and Smalls, meanwhile, have managed to extract fragmentary images of not one, but several, flights by the Turan’s shuttle. In the last one, they see it pass over a strange ground shadow pattern like a herringbone, then a brilliant flash, then the shuttle breaking up in the air. Maggie punches up Parker.
Parker asks her to wait a moment. His shuttle orbits Russovsky’s ultra-light and lands on a flat area amid some heavy dunes. The spines of an ancient mountain range are not far away. Parker sets down in a huge cloud of dust. Fitzsimmons and Decker leave the shuttle and gather up Russovsky and her ultralight. The scientist is puzzled by their hostility, but comes along quietly, more peeved than anything else. Parker, meanwhile, has gotten the word about the destruction of the mining shuttle. Hummingbird asks where it is – not so far away, a quick sub-orbital hop – and tells Parker to take them there.
Maggie, disgusted that Parker is ignoring her warning, comms Gretchen. She is the boss, after all. But Gretchen isn’t interested and is just sitting in her cabin, using the v-screen. Maggie, curious, checks to see what she’s reading. The system log shows that Gretchen has been reading randomly, jumping from subject to subject, all night long. Maggie leaves Smalls to handle the comm and goes down into the habitat ring to find Gretchen.
Parker’s shuttle lifts off hard from the dunes and makes a near vertical jump to start its sub-orbital hop. As it does, the nearest soda-pipe field, over-charged by radiation flooding from the shuttle’s engines, goes into electron cascade, spitting out a storm of super-charged particles. The shuttle shudders, hit by hundreds of low-power particle beams, and then darts away. Parker wipes his forehead. Too close! Hummingbird aborts their run to the shuttle crash site and they return to the Palenque.
Maggie talks to Gretchen in her cabin and almost immediately notices an odd lack of smell about her. Suspicious and alarmed, Maggie leaves, then overrides the door lock to seal Gretchen in the cabin. Hummingbird’s shuttle returns and Maggie is waiting for them to debark. Both Russovsky and Gretchen are immediately taken to the med-lab and scanned. Unfortunately most of the good equipment was damaged or disabled in the ‘event’, but they do find that both women are in perfect health. Indeed, the scars on Gretchen’s hands are gone. Hummingbird has them both placed in isolation cells.
Aboard the Turan, Ketcham continues to listen. The Cornuelle is approaching, but still quite far away. He is relieved that the lost shuttle seems to have been destroyed. He orders his crew to lock down the cargo pods carrying the core, in preparation for jumping to hyperspace. (description of the mining ship) His XO continues to press him to take action. Ketcham refuses. He intends to disappear like a ghost from the Ephesus system.
Green Hummingbird and Magdalena are watching Gretchen and Russovsky sit in their isolation cells. The two women have not moved, though they will answer questions put to them. Magdalena is running a series of scans with the newly repaired lab equipment. After a bit, they find that both women are emitting a low-level electromagnetic field. Hummingbird orders the isolation cells configured to block this EM field. When this happens, both women disintegrate into a dull blue crystal.
On the Cornuelle, Hamasaki and Hayes, scanning the asteroid field, find evidence of various asteroids that have been “cracked” and ores extracted. Plotting from radiation decay rates, they plot the motion of the mining ship through the belt. Hadeishi orders the Cornuelle to “quiet” mode and they slip forward through the field, hunting. Hadeishi receives a transmission from the Palenque. The faux Andersson and Russovsky are dead.
Unaffected by the loss of the two scientists, Hummingbird faces down a distraught Parker, then takes the working shuttle (with the marines and Bandao in tow) down to the crash site. Parker manages to land without being damaged by the nearby soda-pipe field, though the shuttle picks up a few more scars. The marines investigate the crash and find it empty – both of bodies and much else. They do find the mother ship ID code and yank the computer and navigational system from the shuttle. Searching a nearby range of rocky hills, they find evidence that two men escaped, one died and the other vanished. Puzzled, they lift off again and return to the ship.
Gretchen wakes in darkness, encased in gelatin-like fluid. After a struggle, she manages to break out of the cocoon holding her. She finds herself in a flower-like chamber filled with other cocoons. With only her bare, scarred, hands she breaks open the nearest one – finding a sturdily built blond man with a crewcut and tattoos. He wakes up, confused – “…the shuttle was burning.” Another cocoon yields Doctor Russovsky. There seems to be no exit from the chamber until Larssen points at the ceiling – there, half-hidden among pistil-like fronds, is an opening.
On the Cornuelle Hamasaki has narrowed her plot – she’s sure that the mining ship is still in the debris field. There are no gravitational anomalies on her sensor track since the Cornuelle has entered the system and the latest “hot” debris is only days old. Hadeishi orders weapons release and the ship under strict emissions control. Two “eyeball” drones are launched, running ahead of the cruiser.
After an argument with Larssen; Gretchen and the shuttle pilot hoist Russovsky up so that she can climb through the opening. Together they manage to crawl out of the chamber and make their way out of the structure, through a series of odd-shaped tunnels. Outside, they are standing among a cluster of tubular buildings, all veined and striated, with roofs of enormous, triangular black leaves. Through the canopy, they see the dim outline of a small red sun. Larssen has to sit down. Russovsky begins prowling around, but quickly finds that she must step carefully, for the ground is covered with sharp-edged violet grass. Gretchen looks through the buildings, finding them empty. Returning to where Larssen is sitting, she finds him frozen with fear, staring at a spindly ‘thing’ best described as a small leafless tree. As Gretchen approaches, it moves, metallic needles chiming softly in the still air.
Hummingbird has Magdalena scan the satellite data for any kind of “built” object. One of the images, shot near dawn, reveals an octagonal structure, hidden under the sand, not far from the entrance to slot canyon 12. The nauallis tells his marines to “load up”, and he himself begins unpacking his combat gear. Parker, Delores and Magdalena hurry to repair the damage to the shuttle. Smalls, on the command deck, suddenly notices that one of the satellites is showing a sudden outgassing near the northern pole of the planet. He vectors two more of the “peapods” to overfly the location.
On the Turan, Ketcham curses his luck. The crashed shuttle has been found. Now he rues his earlier assumption that “no one could find it, a single crashed vehicle on an entire planet.” The Cornuelle has vanished from his sensor-plot, too. Still resisting his XO’s urging to attack, and with the Turan now rigged for hyperspace flight, he begins creeping out of the asteroid belt on minimal power.
Russovsky returns, noting the little tree, and tells Gretchen and Larssen that there are more cocoons in one of the buildings – and these contain “monsters”. When Gretchen and Russovsky try and return to the building, the little tree interposes itself, moving swiftly over the metallic grass. Taking the hint, they back off. More “trees” appear, and these are larger. They form a barrier between the humans and the “monster” building. Gretchen, Russovsky and Larssen begin walking the other way. The little tree follows, though the larger trees remain. At the edge of the tree-buildings, Gretchen looks out upon an endless rolling plain covered with the violet grass. The horizon tilts up, confusing the eye. There is a dark line at the edge of sight. Gretchen tries to go back into the tree-buildings to search for water or some kind of carrying bag. The strange trees prevent her. Naked and alone, without any tools, the three humans begin walking towards the smudge on the horizon.
Smalls catches Hummingbird as the marines are loading onto the shuttle. With a handheld, he shows the nauallis the outgassing plume at the northern pole. Hummingbird nods, then boards the shuttle. With Parker at the controls, it roars across the curve of the planet. Hummingbird changes the flight plan, ordering Parker to investigate the outgassing instead of the buried structure. They drop down across the polar ice, then see that a huge vent has opened, the ice cap boiling away, revealing a tunnel of brobidinagian size. “Descend,” snaps Hummingbird, his face a cold mask. Parker, sweating, flies the shuttle into the tunnel.
“Got him!” Hamasaki grins. Her sensors have picked up the faint flare of the Turan’s engines. Hadeishi puts on more speed, slipping between the flying mountains, angling for a shot into the mining ship’s engines.
The shuttle zips down a massive passage, obviously constructed, hundreds of feet across, ribbed like the heart of some enormous plant. They come to a closed valve, patterned with intertwining stems (or tentacles). Hummingbird considers firing a rocket into the door, but decides that the alien metal is probably proof against the explosives he has brought along. Instead, Parker hovers the shuttle (he’s getting a lot of experience with that…) and Hummingbird, Bandao, Fitz and Decker drop onto a platform jutting from the side of the tunnel. There is a door, faceted into eight segments, which they break through by main force. Hummingbird seems to know what he is looking for, but the other three men are awed and confused by the enormous structures.
Ketcham feels uneasy – the Cornuelle has gone silent – and orders increased vigilance on the sensors. He suddenly cuts engines, coasting behind a particularly large asteroid. The Turan goes doggo behind a chunk of nickel-iron the size of Mount Everest. Two remote drones are dropped behind, watching. Within the hour, the drones pick up the soft flare of the Cornuelle maneuvering between two asteroids. Ketcham orders the Turan rolled, and the main cutting laser powered up. His weapons officer invokes a targeting program.
Beyond the eight-segment door is a tunnel, then a chamber with some kind of a transport car sitting in a bay on the opposite side. A raised platform draws Hummingbirds’ attention. He brushes ancient dust from the mechanism, then recoils, seeing the glyphs and spiky writing on the panel. The other three men turn, hearing his exclamation. Something boils out of one of the side tunnels, incredibly fast, huge, writhing with limbs. Fitz is frozen, staring at it, incapable of comprehending the horror that it represents. He dies. Decker fires, gaining an instant of life, then he too is dead, speared through the heart. Hummingbird, leaps away, keeping the heavy stone panel between him and the thing. The tube car doors slide closed around him. Bandao empties his gun, then sprints back towards the platform in the tunnel.
The Cornuelle swings around the asteroid. At the same moment, Hayes picks up the laser aperture of the Turan dilating to fire. He shouts a warning, keying the battle-shield activation control. The Cornuelle surges to one side, going to full thrust. The Turan’s cutting laser slashes across the flank of the light cruiser, overloading the shields and hacking a huge gouge out of her aft section. Hadeishi rolls and pivots, bringing live shields to bear, launching his hot tubes. Turan powers forward, its immense bulk keeping it from matching the Cornuelle’s deft maneuver. The main weapon recycles. Cornuelle’s missiles slam into the forward cargo bays, vomiting fire. The massive ship staggers, but Ketcham is unfazed. He’s carrying six million metric tons of ore – it can suck up missile hits all day… The Cornuelle, one engine down, speeds away, spewing proximity mines behind it.
Gretchen and Russovsky are walking, talking about what to do. They discuss whether to use Larssen as a source of food, tools and leather, but he gets upset, so they stop. The distant line on the horizon does not seem to be growing any closer. Suddenly they come to the edge of a cliff. A sheer face plunges down hundreds of feet to what seems to be a lake. A stiff blanket of reeds surrounds the water, each reed a dark maroon with a fringe of shining petals pointed at the immobile, cold red sun. They are hunting along the edge of the cliff for a way down, terribly thirsty, when the earth suddenly shakes violently. Slabs of rock topple from the cliff and all three are thrown to the ground. Wind rushes past for a moment, then dies down. Gretchen stands up, dazed and bleeding from dozens of cuts. The grass is sharp. The air seems different and she realizes that the quality of the sun has changed.
Parker is still hovering the shuttle, watching his fuel gauges spiral downward. Sudden shouting and screams on the local comm channel make him look up. Bandao runs out of the passage onto the platform, firing backwards. Parker swerves the shuttle towards the platform and punches the cargo bay door open control. The doors whine back. Bandao empties his other gun, bright red flashes spattering across the onrushing face of the thing. He leaps for the cargo hatch, misses, catches the edge of the door. Parker spins the shuttle away from the platform. Bandao’s grip slips. He is flung away, shouting in fear. The thing spilling out, enormous, onto the platform flings out a blindingly fast tentacle/stem and catches the shuttle wingtip just as Parker punches the engines on high. The wing, stressed, deforms, cracking along the airfoil and tearing. The tentacle/stem rips free, spewing black gunk across the platform. The thing wails, filling the air with hideous noise. The shuttle, out of control, cartwheels into the side of the tunnel and blows apart in a violent series of explosions.
The lake below the cliff begins to boil and hiss. The movement of the ground has opened fissures in the earth and the water is draining away. Larssen – desperate to get water - scrambles down a rockslide, disregarding the pain, and splashes out into the lake. He begins screaming, then flounders back to shore – the lake is acid and his legs are badly burned. Gretchen and Russovsky climb down, gathering up long shards of flint broken free from the rocks. They stand over Larssen, then look appraisingly at each other, then at him.
Ketcham pursues the Cornuelle, his damage control teams working feverishly to dump the damaged ore pods. They hit some of the mines, suffering more damage, then slow, with active sensors probing ahead, following the corkscrew trail of vented atmosphere and debris from the Cornuelle. The officer that had been in command of the firing solution for the cutting laser is removed from his post. He had loaded a mining target routine, with angled the laser in a cutting arc, rather than full-on focus. Ketcham’s XO takes over the station. Their sensors are also damaged, at thirty percent or less, due to EM flux damage from the missile hits.
Trapped in the tube-car, Hummingbird watches the station disappear and then is forced to his knees as the car accelerates away. A long time passes as the car speeds through darkness. Hummingbird inventories his suit supplies and gear, turning on a small shoulder-light to illuminate the car. At one point, he feels queasy and disoriented. At last, the car slides to a stop and the doors open.
Hadeishi cuts the burn of his remaining engine, then bleeds velocity and drifts, “dark.” His damage control teams scramble through the wreckage of the aft sections. Shield generators are burned out and dumped to space, sections that vented are closed off, patches applied. The last of the mines are deployed, along with the remaining “eyeball” drones. One of the two main fusion generators is offline, leaving the Cornuelle with reduced maneuvering power and only one working particle beam weapon. Maneuvering with docking thrusters, Hadeishi edges the Cornuelle into the radar shadow of another asteroid.
Ignoring Larssen’s moaning, Gretchen squats down and knapps her chunk of flint into a crude knife – blessing the time spent at the University of Colorado field school of Point-of-Pines on Anahuac. With the knives, she and Russovsky cut some of the reeds, which are metallic, jointed and very strong, to make a litter for Larssen. The pilot cannot walk, but they manage to drag him away from the deadly lake (though now it has been reduced to little more than a pond). His blood spills on the violet grass, which greedily soaks it up. Russovsky, going back to get more reeds, is intrigued to see that the grass stems have tripled in size in only moments. Bending down and watching closely, she can see the grass growing. Together, the two women manage to hoist Larssen up on their litter, and begin trudging towards the smudge on the horizon.
Hummingbird steps out into a vast chamber, illuminated by a strange reddish light coming through enormous doors. He smells ozone and his suit environmental controls report a thick oxygen atmosphere, almost entirely lacking in CO2 or the waste products of organic life. Cautious, he continues to breath through his suit filter and compressor (now, actually, a decompressor). He crosses a mile-wide floor of black glass, past monoliths of shining flint, filled with dim hurrying lights. He comes to the door and stops, staring out upon a sweeping vista.
The Turan clears the mines and the debris trail trickles off to nothing. Ketcham hunts in the dark, his own EM signature dialed down. The cutting laser trembles on standby, point defense is awake and put on computer control, in hopes it will give them enough reaction time against the Imperial missiles. Ketcham considers dumping his ore pods, but though that will get him a nimbler ship, he’ll forgo the heavy armor protection they represent. The Turan glides through a relatively thick cluster of asteroids.
The horizon bends up and away, into a misty white sky. A small red sun burns overhead, sending down a cold light. Hummingbird steps out onto a plain of deep violet grass. The stems crack and splinter under his feet. He kneels, examining the damage. The grass is metallic in nature. A spark jumps from his fingertip, waking him from a daze induced by the vast scale of the hidden world. He turns around and looks up upon a pyramid-shaped building at least a mile at the base and as much high. Unconsciously, his fingers tighten around the tiny blue pyramid in his field jacket pocket. This pyramid, however, is of black glass, lined with long rows of inscriptions. Hummingbird steps towards the nearest block of stone, then feels something change in the air around him. He turns, staring out across the plain. The violet grass is shifting, as if blown by some unseen wind, flattening down to make a solid sheet along the ground.
On the Cornuelle, Hadeishi watches the Turan sweep past from the quiet, tiny vantage of an eyeball. The massive mining ship goes past, huge engines burning red. Hadeishi orders maneuvering thrusters again – the Cornuelle drifts out from behind the asteroid, swinging into firing position.
Hummingbird scans the horizon with a pair of binocs. Far in the distance, up the curving wall of the hidden world, he sees a line of hills and some kind of vegetation. But that is almost a hundred miles away. The strange wind has died down again, but the light of the dim sun has changed again. A sharp sound cracks in the air and he ducks back inside the pyramid. After a moment, he goes back outside. He blinks, confused. The light is now very strange. He looks up. The sun has splint into two, one a pale rose, one dark, almost black. A great booming sound rolls across the plain of grass. The earth begins to tremble again.
One of the Turan’s drones, trailing along behind, catches the faint EM signature of the Cornuelle in maneuver, flashes an alert to the Turan. Ketcham reacts instantly, blowing the rear ore pods, throwing the Turan into a violent, tumbling motion. The Cornuelle has already launched four missiles, which are still boosting to combat speed when they slam into the cloud of ore. One is destroyed by the kinetic impact, two trigger in a mammoth flash, one slips through, streaking into the rear vantage of the Turan. The mining ships’ point defense ripples with light as lasers flare, but the missiles own counter-measures defeat the poor-quality targeting computer. The missile slams into the right-rear-lower exhaust fairing and detonates.
Gretchen picks herself up again, more blood spilling from fresh cuts. A series of long deep booms like thunder in the mountains ripple across the plain. As she watches, wind roars across the grass. The leaves quiver, then flatten. She rises to her knees, seeing distorted shadows dance across the cliffs a mile behind them. The sun is splitting in two. Gulping, she checks Larssen, he is unconscious. Russovsky is stunned, but can rise. More fissures have opened in the ground. Mist is rising from them. The two women drag Larssen away, fearing that the mist is poisonous. Russovsky begins to giggle. Gretchen feels the same light-headedness. Motion on the plain catches her eye and she turns staring back towards the cliffs. A great host of the tree creatures are flowing down across the cliffs, striding on long root stalks. The ground shakes with their passing. They are heading towards the dark smudge on the horizon.
The Turan staggers from bow to stern, bulkheads buckling, pressure doors shattering. On the command deck, Ketcham’s shock-chair is half torn from its moorings. Despite a concussion, bleeding, his ribs broken in two places, Ketcham manages to stay awake and in command. He goes to full emergency thrust, firing three mammoth jets of super-hot plasma backwards. At the same time, he jettisons all the ore pods. Only half of them separate, spewing an enormous amount of crushed rock into the immediate volume of space. The rest are a mass of twisted metal.
Hummingbird picks himself up from the floor of the vast room. Sparkling black dust fills the air. He runs for the tube-car platform. When he reaches it, panting, exhausted, he finds that the tube-car is gone and the entranceway has closed up like a metallic clam. He casts about and finds something that must be a control panel. It is thick with dust, but portions of it are lit up with a faint glow. Looking over the spiky rows of symbols, he shudders with dread. Against his wishes, but forced by extremity, he takes the blue pyramid out of his jacket pocket. Clearing his mind, he presses the corners of the device. It deforms into a shining trapezohedron. He chants a command word and an image appears in the air, the page of a book. Flipping through it with blinding speed, he finds the pages he needs, then compares them to the symbols on the panel.
The Cornuelle jinks sideways, under three-quarter power, barely avoiding the backwash of the mining ship’s engines. She is momentarily blinded, then clatters through a cloud of ore. Hadeishi has his dander up. He swings high, cutting away from the direct track of the mining ship. He’s working for a shot on the main body of the ship with his particle beam weapon. The Turan, however, has dived, burrowing deeper into the asteroid drift. Hadeishi orders the Cornuelle ahead full, trying to pace the bright flare of the Turan. Hayes thinks he can plot a clear shot, even through the cloud of asteroids (which is not a solid obstruction by any means) if the miner just holds her course and acceleration…
Gretchen runs across the flattened grass, shouting. At the edge of the tree-herd, still thundering past, one of the trees pauses, leaning towards her, needles quivering. By signs, she guides it back to Larssen and Russovsky. It leans over the pilot, who is slowly bleeding to death, his legs still ruined. Abruptly, the tree drives a spike-like frond through his left eye. It feeds noisily. Gretchen is stunned, but then runs like hell, Russovsky right on her heels. Moments later, the tree -- now grown substantially -- lopes along and snatches them up. It does not kill them, but scoops them up, it’s long metallic needles curling around them like steel bands. It sets off in a long loping stride after its fellows.
Ketcham, his ship crippled, his crew savaged by losses, unable to repair the damage, orders his engineering and damage control crew to get everyone left alive into the main section of the Turan. Explosive charges are placed on the “cage” of the cargo pods and prepared for detonation. He shuts down the main engines. His XO scrambles back through the hatchway into the command module, grinning. The fusion bottles in the main engine assembly are rigged to blow.
The big tree reaches the pyramid of black glass and enters. Gretchen and Russovsky stare around in awe, both at the enormous size of the edifice, and at the numbers of trees – and other creatures – that have gathered there. Outside, the two suns continue to dim and the ground has shaken twice more. Powerful winds are beginning to roar over the plain. The tree dumps them on the floor, then joins a group of other trees in conclave. Gretchen drags Russovsky away, towards the nearest wall. As they stagger across the glassy black floor, they cross a set of footprints – marked by the zigzag soles of a spacesuit. Sprinting, they follow the prints to the tubecar station. The eight-segmented doors are closed, but they can see where someone has walked around in the time between earth-shocks. They find the panel and some of the signs on it are smudged. Russovsky points out that the trees are “talking” and waving from side to side. Another earth shock rumbles through the building, sending down more dust. Gretchen leans close, examining the smudges. She presses the same symbols in quick succession. Outside the pyramid, the roar of the wind is deafening. Both suns have faded to pale coronas. The whole hidden world becomes dark.
Hayes announces a targeting lock, despite the cutoff of the Turan’s engines. The Cornuelle rotates into firing position, then a bright flare ignites from her particle beam mount. Seconds later, there is a huge explosion among the asteroids as the Turan blows apart. Hadeishi orders his ship, still leaking a little atmosphere and battle-scarred, into the debris to recover survivors.
There is a sharp noise from behind the eight-segmented door and the waving forest of tree-creatures turn towards Gretchen and Russovsky. The nearest tree strides towards them. Gretchen and Russovsky back away, then the eight-section door spins open. Without waiting, they jump inside as the tree springs up onto the platform. Tube-stalks flash after them, spindly fingers darting between the closing segments of the door. One pierces Russovsky’s shoulder, dragging her back like a hook. Hummingbird empties his revolver into the tree and the stalk, shattering it. The tub-car doors snap shut, and the car is whisked away. Russovsky slumps to the floor, bleeding freely from her mangled shoulder. Hummingbird snaps a fresh clip into his combat pistol, then gives Gretchen a med-pack for the geologist.
Smalls is on the comm from the Cornuelle, freaking out. Magdalena thumps him on the head. Hadeishi had trouble understanding the meteorologist, but something is happening on Ephesus III. He abandons the search for survivors in the asteroid belt and boosts back towards the planet at full power. As the Cornuelle approaches, long range scans show the planet wrapped in an enormous storm and suffering from massive gravity fluctuations. The Palenque’s orbit is already degrading dangerously. Hummingbirds’ shuttle vanished into the north polar cap and has not been heard from… Hadeishi puts one of the engineers’ mates in charge and orders him to get the engines working.
The tube-car continues its swift journey, while Russovsky comes around, helped by some meds from Hummingbird’s suit. Gretchen and Hummingbird are discussing what they’ve seen when the car suddenly jolts to a halt, piling them into a tangle at one end, bruised – again. The lights go out. Everything seems to be shaking and there is a huge grinding sound all around them. When it stops, the sides of the car have been crushed in, but they are alive. Hummingbird cuts his way out of the end of the car and they find themselves in a tunnel flickering with blue-white aurora. They press forward, walking cautiously along a narrow strip at the bottom of the tunnel. After a time, they see a flickering light ahead.
With the Cornuelle gone, the main module of the Turan creeps out of the asteroid belt, reduced to a sub-ship with the hyperdrive engines and one sublight thruster. Ketcham and his crew are packed in like sardines, but they are alive… They poke along, glad to be going home (if slowly).
Hummingbird, Gretchen and Russovsky clamber out of the ruined tunnel into the platform/station where the thing killed Fitzsimmons and Decker. Crusts of dried blood are still on the floor. They move cautiously. Russovsky finds one of the ship-suits in the corner, filled with a withered husk. Swallowing, she dumps the remains of Decker out on the floor and pulls the suit on. There is a gaping hole in the chest, but she slaps a patch over it. Gretchen looks for Fitzsimmons, but there is no sign of him or his suit. The air is turning bitterly cold as they creep to the platform and look out onto the huge tunnel. The wrecked shuttle has slid back down to the circular door, though the fires are now dead. Above, they can see a distant black circle. Atmosphere rushes past them, escaping out into the void. Gretchen’s teeth chatter as she turns blue.
On the Palenque, the engineers mate is preparing to fire up the main engine and make an orbit correction. The ship is already groaning and shuddering as it skips clumsily along the outer envelope of the planet’s atmosphere. Lieutenant Isoruku is calmly talking the young man through the startup sequence when a blast of static knocks out all communications. Magdalena, on the command deck, stares at the planet below in horror. The surface of Ephesus is rippling, like a sea in storm, mountains shattering, deserts buckling. Huge storms disguise much of the violence, but the atmosphere begins to balloon outward. The Palenque slews, caught in a tide of wild gravity and atmosphere being expelled from the planet. The southern half of Ephesus shatters, the planet cracking along the line of the Escarpment. The Palenque begins to glow, then plunges inward. Magdalena has time to say a prayer before the ship begins to break apart.
Hummingbird punches the hatch close-code while Russovsky hurries Gretchen, wrapped in a survival blanket, back into the tube-car station. She’s freezing and asphyxiating at the same time. The nauallis turns away from the door, then back again. His radio sputters – someone is shouting on the local frequency. He cycles the door back open in time to see Parker climb up onto the platform, a bundle of gear on his back. The pilot’s suit is scorched and burned, but seems intact. Hummingbird helps him inside, then closes the hatch. Together they hurry to the tube-car station. Parker, Russovsky and Hummingbird shove Gretchen into Bandao’s suit (the gunner’s neck was broken by his fall from the shuttle), then trigger its med-pack. They are crouched around her, watching Hummingbird tap into his suit monitor, when everything goes dark and there is the mother of all earthquakes.
On the Cornuelle, Hadeishi watches in horror as his instruments go wild. Vast gravity spikes ripple across local space, affecting even the light cruiser at its great distance. On screen, he and his crew watch as the planet breaks apart, spewing gouts of energy and debris. Something emerges from the ruins, a ship the size of a large moon, barely visible through the maelstrom of its birth. Hadeishi orders a complete power-down, save for minimal life support. Buffeted by the shockwave of the planet’s death, the Cornuelle rides out the storm. The vast ship speeds off into the depths of space, still indistinct and unidentified.
Epilogue: a Board of Inquiry in the Imperial Space Navy base on the moon is questioning Commander Hadeishi. He explains that only four survivors were rescued from the wreck of Ephesus – found clinging to life in a fragment of the broken planet, kept alive only by sheer will and their own ingenuity. There has been no further sign of the mysterious planet-sized ship, and all the Company research records were destroyed with the Palenque. At least, he says, the wildcat mining ship was defeated and the Cornuelle returned home safely. The Náhuatl admiral in charge of the inquiry does not find his report satisfactory and a black mark goes on Hadeishi’s record. The Commander is removed from command of the Cornuelle during her refit and “beached”, pending a suitable assignment.
Epilogue Two: Gretchen steps out of a Company shuttle and into the humid hot air of the planet Cascade. She has her duffel, her equipment case, and a bundled spacesuit. She walks across the landing strip, staring up at huge ruins rising out of the jungle. Her expression is distant, thinking of friends lost or far away. Two holocards ride in her jacket pocket – one of three children in a swimming pool, another of a smiling cat-girl looking up from a maze of computer equipment. Moisture beads on her cheek.
Ephesus III -- The Sleeping Planet
III is a world of questions. Its size is too small for the mass it exhibits. It has no organic life upon its surface, yet there is free oxygen. There are features, like the Escarpment, that are too regular to be caused by tectonic forces, yet show no sign of construction. There are relics and edifices, like the Observatories, that are obviously constructed, yet show no signs of tools or workers. There is no chlorophyll or other organic compounds, yet there is a rich microbiota upon its surface.
The answers lie at the core of III, under miles of rock and sand. Millennia ago, a great race strode between the stars creating vast works; ringworlds, sculpted planets, jumpgates, the beginnings of Dyson spheres, a thousand wonders, all now in ruin. Other races rose against them and that struggle devastated worlds, wiped out whole clusters of suns. At the core of III lies one of the creator race, the Va'en, surrounded by a vast hive of machines, undying attendants, power plants and sensor apparatus. To flee its enemies, the Va'en hid itself in the smashed rubble of a world, and folded that wreckage back around itself as a disguise. III is a world driven by energies drawn from deep within, with a carelessly constructed surface of inorganic forms. The Va'en sleeps, it's mind drawn down the most quiescent levels. Without its guidance, the machines that drawn upon its will trundle along, following ancient programming and strictures.
While the Va'en sleeps, its creations are groping towards their own life. The surface is close to blossoming into an entire, self-sustaining, ecosystem of nanotech machines and non-organic life. Into this fragile universe, the Delos expedition comes, all unknowing. Somewhere in the deeps of space, the hunters still lie in wait; the war-machines of Siluria and the Hive, the ancient enemies of the Va'en, endlessly listening...
III's surface is a horrible jumble of landforms, mismatched rock types and strata. Though no sign of current tectonic or geological activity has been noted, the formation ages of exposed rocks vary from a million years ago to three hundred million years. Weathering patterns are equally varied. In some exposed faces of the slot canyons of the Escarpment, tiny marine fossils can be found, dating to five million years ago. These are the remains of the nascent ecosystem that was evolving when the Va'en came and smashed III to rubble. The Va'en machines then reconstructed the shell of the planet around the enormous ship core. The exposed surface has weathered since then, but all of the previous planetary water and atmosphere was lost. A new, different, atmosphere has regenerated and new sediment has been laid down.
The Escarpment and the Slot Canyons
A high mountain range, lifted from the sunrise side, that circles the globe of III at an angle. Geological dating of the Escarpment shows that it is quite recent in development - only 1-2 million years old. Two hundred and forty-three slot canyons bisect the range, scattered around the planet. Each canyon is from fifteen to one hundred and twelve miles long. As the planet rotates, there is a tremendous air pressure build-up on the sunward side due to atmospheric heating. The Escarpment regulates the flow of air from one side of the planet to the other. Tremendous winds howl down the slot canyons as the edge of the pressure dome hits the edge of the escarpment.
A number of artificial constructions dot the surface of III. These have been termed the Observatories by team staff. They are composed of patterned obelisks set in circular arrangements. Seen from the air, they are obviously built artifacts. Close examination, however, has shown that there are no marks of tools and the stones themselves seem to have sprung up from the bedrock.
The main Delos expedition camp is near the largest of the Observatories.