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In the Time of the Sixth Sun
Wasteland of Flint

Chapters One through Four

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News! (08/21/2002 )

  • Two more chapters (removed from the final version) posted.

The Great Eastern Basin, Ephesus III, in the Hittite Sector

           The Gagarin sped out of the east, engines running hot, heavy night air hissing under thirty-meter wings. Though the sky behind the little ultralight was still pitch-black, the dawn wind was already beginning to rise, stirring the air. It was very cold, worse for the wind whipping through the airframe. Russovsky’s goggles were rimmed with frost and her suit’s CO2 vent left a white smear of ice across the side of the plastic cargo bag behind the seat. Kilometers of sand blurred past beneath the Gagarin. Ahead, hidden in night but standing out sharp on her vid-eye, the Escarpment shut off the horizon. Tiny green glyphs bobbed at the corner of her vision as a micro-radar taped to the forward wing surface measured and re-measured the height of the cliffs. The mechanism was resetting every second, unable to resolve the summit.

           Down on the deck, where a vast soda-pipe field slept among night-shrouded dunes, a haze of fine dust was beginning to lift, stirred by the wind’s invisible fingers. Gagarin droned on, long silver wings gleaming softly in the darkness, engines chuckling as they ate hydrogen and spat out long elongated corkscrews of ice crystal. Russovsky’s vid-eye flashed, alerting her to a break in the mountains. An annotation flipped up, showing a snatch of video – flinty cliffs in harsh white sunlight. Blinking in annoyance, her face grim, Russovsky banished the note. Soft fingers drifted the stick left and the Gagarin heeled over. The ultralight banked, sweeping over a knife blade of red sand rising three hundred meters from the nominal floor of the Basin. As Gagarin rose over the dune, she goosed the engines, automatically correcting for a sudden drag of rising gravity.

           Now she could feel the enormous mass of the Escarpment, looming darkness against a sky riotous with stars. The mountain range rose up endlessly and sprinted left and right to the edge of sight. She could feel the ocean of air around the ultralight changing, the quiet stillness of deep night falling away, disturbed by currents, eddies and whirlpools tugging and pressing at the wings. The mouth of the slot loomed up, a hundred meters wide, an abrupt fissure cut into the mountain. Sweat beaded on her neck and along her spine, but the moisture wicked away into the skinsuit so quickly Russovsky did not chill. The radar threw back a confused jumble of images, trying to resolve the jagged cliffs and boulders at the mouth of the slot.

           She blinked twice and the radar image folded up and away. She clucked her tongue once, then twice. Her goggles gleamed and light-amp faded back for a second. She was flying blind, the Gagarin winging into the slot, soft hands keeping the ultralight centered between the cliffs. Another tongue cluck. Along the tips of the wings, phosphors woke to life, throwing a diffuse, soft white light over the flinty walls rushing past.

           The goggles adjusted automatically and Russovsky could see again. A rumpled floor of broken scree, cockeyed temple-sized boulders and blown sand whipped past below her boots. Walls hemmed her in on either side, kilometers high and relentless, all jagged surfaces and overhangs. The whine of the engines rose, reverberating in the thickening air. A low hissing sound began to grow behind her in the east.

           The planet’s air was thin, though a woman could still stand outside without a z-suit. A human needed a compressor and a filter to breath, but it was possible. This exacerbated the storms, huge corolis driven monsters, which could cover up to a quarter of the planetary surface. In some places, like against the world-girdling ring of the Escarpment, there was a storm at dawn, as the rising sun heated the atmosphere and pressed it against an impassible barrier.

           Slot canyons cut through the Escarpment, knifeblade thin in comparison of the bulk of the mountains. Gusts began to dart down the Slot, and Russovsky could feel the Gagarin twist and flex in the air. Her chrono said she had fifteen minutes before the sun actually peeked over the eastern horizon.

           By then a standing tornado would be howling in the canyon, spitting sand, rock and gravel westward like a cannon at three or four hundred k. The ultralight bucked, riding up on an eddy, and Russovsky’s fingers gentled the aircraft back, away from the looming cliff swerving towards her. Here, inside the mountain, the vast bulk of the Escarpment distorted gravity, dragging at the Gagarin with twisting fingers. The wingtip, still glowing white, danced away from an obsidian wall, barely brushing against the ancient stone. Even that touch rippled down the hexacarbon wing, making the ship suddenly sluggish.

           Russovsky corrected with unconscious grace. Ahead, a slab jutted nearly a third of the way across the canyon. Its eastern face was worn smooth, like glass, a sweeping ebon wing rising up from the rubble. Russovsky’s left hand brushed over the wing pressure control. Hydrogen hissed through fuel tubes running over her head. The left half of the wing stiffened, pressure rising. The right wing began to drag, the microcontrolled airfoil surface softening as the in-wing fuel tanks deflated. Gagarin swung up, left wing rising, right wing falling. Seconds after Russovsky had moved the control the ultralight was flying sideways.

           The ultralight swept past the slab, wing lights reflecting in inky depths. Beyond it, there was a curving bowl of sand and – the vid-eye flashed urgently. Russovsky glanced over and saw a sharp angle in the darkness, distinct against the irregular wall of the canyon. She equalized pressure in the wings, then airbraked and drifted the stick right. Gagarin spun out level, slowing quickly, then banked into a tight spin. Hissing softly through clenched teeth, Russovsky feathered the engines, then let the landing skids touch down. A bump, a queasy sliding moment and the Gagarin slid to a halt on hard-packed sand.

           Russovsky unfolded herself from the chair, thumbing loose her restraints, each motion quick and assured. Her left leg started to cramp, but she went stiff-legged for a moment, moving jerkily, letting the muscle relax. Working swiftly, acutely conscious of grains of mica and sand pattering down out of the dark sky above her, she triggered one sand-anchor with a tunk!, then leaned back into the cockpit frame and threw the ‘fold’ switch. The wings trembled in response, then began to deflate, hydrogen hissing back into the reserve tank behind and under the seat. The p-cell battery in the main wing joint woke up with a click and the controls dimmed.

           While Gagarin folded up, Russovsky dragged her pack from down from above the H tank and slung it onto her wiry shoulders. She was not a big woman – not and fly a Midge-class ultralight like the Gagarin! – but she had a lean strength and endless endurance. The pack conformed to her back, belt straps sliding around her flat waist with warm hands. A sharp tug freed the winch from the forward centerline strut. Monofil line whined out of the spool as she backed towards the right-angled darkness in the cliff-face.

           In the fading light of the wing phosphors, her goggles made the rock glow a pasty green. The angle stood out clear and sharp. Half of a trapezoidal opening, faced with cut stone – a door – yawned in the side of the cliff. Russovsky nodded to herself, unsurprised. Ephesus had been a dead shattered world for millennia, but something had lived here once. Dust was blowing past now, clouding the air. Hurrying, she climbed up into the opening, then flicked a glowbean inside. Pale blue light spilled out like milk from a fallen pail. There was a chamber, a big one, with a canted floor and more sand. It seemed big enough for the ultralight.

           Stepping carefully around the edge of the chamber, one hand on the smooth sloping wall, Russovsky slapped the winch-patch onto the wall opposite the door. Outside, the Gagarin was beginning to rock from side to side as wind began to stir in the sandy bowl. Russovsky counted to five, then ran back to the door. At the side of the ultralight, she ratcheted the sand-anchor back in, then stabbed the winch-control. The little motor woke up with a tinny sound and began to reel in the monofil. Sliding on its landing skids, the Gagarin bumped up into the door. Russovsky paced behind the aircraft, then put her shoulder against the rear cargo door, pushing. Windblown sand hissed against her back. Grunting, she shoved the Gagarin into the chamber. On the smoother sand inside, the winch continued to whine until the nose of the aircraft touched the opposite wall.

           Russovsky ducked in, her head turned away from the canyon. The wind was rising to a monstrous howl, and the lee of the jutting slab was filling with a swirling dance of dust, sand and fingertip-sized gravel. Working swiftly, she uncoiled a length of fil-tube from her belt, then tacked it along one side of the half-buried door. At the top of the tube was a thumb-tab. Snapping the tab down and away, across her body with a sharp motion, Russovsky unfurled the filament screen and dragged the gelatinous material against the opposing jamb. Pressing firmly, she ran the thumb-tab down the side of the door. The material sheened pearl for a moment, then stiffened. Dust and sand rattled against the polymer, skittering away from the charged filaments. Carefully, Russovsky used the thumb-tab to seal off all the edges and corners. By the time she was done, the rattle of sand was a constant drumming.

           Russovsky flicked another glowbean against the ceiling, where it spattered and stuck, making a spray of cold cobalt stars. Despite a sudden feeling of exhaustion, the woman moved around the ultralight, checking the exposed surfaces for cracks, wear or abrasions in the silvery composite. The local dust on Ephesus had incredibly corrosive properties. At the right-hand engine she paused, clicking her teeth together. Her goggles were dialed up high into the ultraviolet and a faint pitting glowed on the intake nacelle.

           Shaking her head in disgust, Russovsky removed her helmet and the over-goggles, revealing high cheekbones and a seamed, weathered face. She was not young, and the hot sky of Ephesus had given her a steadily deepening tan. Clipping the helmet and goggles to the back of her belt, Russovsky adjusted her bugeyes – it was dangerous to leave the moist human eye exposed to the raw air of Ephesus – and took the big v-cam from a flat pouch on her left thigh.

           “Recor… cough!” Russovsky cleared her throat, tasting bitter alkali. She unclipped the suit drinking tube and took a swallow. “Recording inside a manufactured structure at the eastern end of slot canyon twelve.”

           She raised the v-cam and slowly panned around, pausing on the door. By now the sun would have risen in the east, but the canyon outside was still pitch black. The wind was still rising, making the monofil membrane in the doorway shudder. Completing her slow turn, she walked away from the Gagarin to the edge of the light thrown by the glowbeans. The chamber ended in a slick, glassy wall. There was another trapezoidal door cut into the rock.

           One-handed, she kept the v-cam up while she flicked a bean into the passage.

           More blue light filled the space – a corridor with slanted walls, matching the angle of the door. It ended no more than a dozen meters away, abruptly, in rough, uneven extrusion. Frowning, Russovsky advanced across a floor that looked like it had been cut with a plasma torch. The rock here, like that throughout the Escarpment was Ephesus’ particular trademark – a jumbled, compressed, mangled aggregate of sandstone, rhyolite, granite and flint. She paused below the irregular wall.

           “Ah… krasivaya devushka…” Russovsky’s faded blue eyes crinkled up in a broad smile. Her fingers were trembling a little as she set the v-cam down on the sandy floor, propping the camera up so it could record the wall in detail. Kneeling, she ran gloved fingers over the rumpled, irregular surface. There were whorls and lumps and patterns familiar in kind, if not in detail, to her experienced eyes. Here, a fluted shape, the outlines of stalk-like legs, a curled shell. There, the echo of flat-pressed reeds and tiny nut-like cysts.

           Limestone. The muddy floor of a primordial Ephesian sea. The wall rose up at a queer angle, obviously trapped in the greater matrix of the mountain. Russovsky rose, picked up the v-cam and panned it around, showing the way the passage ended at the shale. A gray eyebrow rose, seeing a set of cylindrical objects were scattered near the wall.

           Russovsky bent down, examining one. They seemed to be stone, or crusted with ancient fossilized earth. There were three of them, regular in length and width. Cautiously, she backed away, still recording with the v-cam, and then walked back to the ultralight.

           She was exhausted and hungry from the long night-flight. After choking down a threesquare bar Russovsky drank some more water and lay down on the sand under the Gagarin. The suit kept her body temperature within a survivable range and was far too much trouble to shed. The glowbeans were beginning to die, letting soft darkness steal back into the chamber. Russovsky tugged a folded woolen blanket from under the seat of the ultralight and tucked it under her head. Faded red, orange and black stripes made a repeating series of pyramids on the blanket. The wool was scratchy on her cheek and the woman closed her eyes and fell asleep.

           The storm beyond the door roared like a distant sea.

Ctesiphon Station, The Edge of Imperial Méxica Space

           “Porlumma… Flight sixty-two… squawk! … boarding for Porlumma…”

           Gretchen Andersson pushed through a heavy crowd, cursing her lack of height. The receiving bay of the station was hundreds of meters wide and at least sixty high, but the crowd of hot, sweaty, strange-smelling beings made her claustrophobic. The booming, distorted voice of a station controller announcing departing flights made the air tremble. Gretchen wiped her forehead, turning sideways to slide past two huge Kroomakh. Their scaly, pebbled skin smelled like juniper pine-rosin, but the sharp tang was not welcome, not in this heat.

           The crowd began to thin, though when she stepped out of a milling group of Incan tourists, all in plaid and tartan and bonny caps with white carnations, she saw a power fence separating the landing bays and their high-vaulted tunnels from the exit doors. The whole huge mob of passengers was funneling down into six gates, each labeled by caste or nation. Gretchen stopped, standing in the middle of the grimy floor, and put down her bags. A migraine was beginning to tick behind her left eye. Why is there always a line?

           Looking up, she frowned, seeing the first-class receiving bay above, half-visible through arching metal girders. There, in cool scented air, slidewalks were conveying parties of rich Imperials through station customs. Their glittering feather-capes flashed and shimmered with rainbow hues and shining jungle colors. Smiling dark-suited servants carried traveling bags, sleepy children, cold drinks for their masters. One of the nobles, glossy black hair trailing down below her waist, earrings flashing gold in the soft white light, looked down. Gretchen stared back at the Méxica woman, then grimaced politely when the Imperial lady waved.

           She looked down at her own hands, muscular, the left scarred by an accident with a ultrasonic cleaning tool on Old Mars, deeply tanned by too many hours exposed under alien suns. They were not smooth and soft. They were nicked and calloused and entirely inelegant. She had to work, with her hands, in poor conditions. She wondered, and not for the first time, what it would be like to be well-born, into one of the families of the Center. To be up there, above, in the cool air, gliding down a slidewalk, a beautiful feather-cape hanging from pale smooth shoulders, with jewels and gold around her neck.

           Her grandparent’s flight from the wars on Anahuac had crushed any hope of social status – not only were they refugees from a defeated nation, but they had given up the properties they once held in old Stockholm. On New Aberdeen, colony law prevented a newly emigrated family from owning land for at least six generations. Gretchen grimaced, thinking of how easy it would have been to get into university, or an Imperial calmecac school, if she could claimed the landowners right. A burden to be borne in good grace, whispered the voice of her mother. If you work and study hard, you can still succeed.

           “Enough.” Gretchen muttered and slung the duffel over her shoulder. It was almost as large as she was, but she was strong enough to carry the bag unaided – it was lighter than a hod of Ugaritic mud-brick! The equipment case in her left hand was heavy too, but much easier to carry. She trudged across the broad floor, heading for the customs gate labeled MACEUALLI. The line was longest there, with the ‘common’ people queued up, much longer than the gates for non-humans or landowners or those in military service. Suddenly anxious, she checked the inner pocket of her vest for the company papers and ID card. The thick heavy shape of the packet was comforting.

           “Miss Andersson? Andersson-tzin?”

           Gretchen looked up, taking a firm grip on her bags. A thin man with a short neat beard was waving at her from the other side of the power-fence. A flight jacket covered with patches covered narrow shoulders, and baggy combat pants hung on him like burlap sacks. He held up a hand-lettered sign marked with the Company’s circle and moon glyph. Gretchen’s eyebrows raised in surprise. The last message had not mentioned a guide or being met, just a kiosk number to pick up the ticket for the next leg of her journey. Ctesiphon station might be at the very edge of human space, but it was a convenient hub for travel along the frontier. Groaning to herself – leaving a line in the Empire was always a cause of dismay, since they never got shorter, only longer – she trudged over to the black warning stripe outlining the security fence.


           The man smiled, showing irregular smoke-stained teeth. “You’re Doctor Gretchen Andersson? The xenoarch?”

           “Yes,” she allowed, not putting down the bags. “That’s my name.”

           “Great! I’m Dave Parker, your new pilot. Come down to the Jaguar gate – they’ll let you through.”

           “Why?” Gretchen began to walk, matching Parker’s pace along the shimmering half-visible fence. “I don’t have a military pass.” Parker nodded, his head bent over a compressed tobacco stick. There was a hot spark and he took a drag.

           “No,” he said, blowing a fat ring of smoke, “but I do. Your mission’s been upgraded, but we should talk about that later.”

           There was no line at the Jaguar Gate, though there were two customs officers in pleated tunics and long white over-capes. Both men were copper-skinned, with slick dark hair. They were not Méxica – Gretchen guessed they were from the old Shawnee lands. She bowed politely to both men, then waited quietly while Parker talked with them in low tones. There were no soldiers within sight, but Gretchen could feel a slow crawling sensation on her arms and neck. The gate was traditional, with heavy stonework and a heavy, feathered Jaguar head jutting out of the apex. She was sure that if trouble occurred, the stone would answer with violence. The Imperials were very fond of traditional images that could move, speak or strike.

           “Come on,” Parker beckoned from beyond the gate. The two Iroquois watched with cold, disinterested eyes as she shuffled through. The pilot stuck out a hand, which Gretchen shook. His grip was dry and firm. “Take a bag?”

           “No. Thanks.” Gretchen had her whole life packed up in the duffel, equipment case and backpack. She wasn’t going to give either bag over to some balding, smirky, fly-by-night Company pilot. She didn’t trust her employers either. The Company might pay her to do the work she loved, but it had never gained her loyalty. Too many sites had been outright looted – ripped whole from the ground and packed up for shipment back to Anahuac – for her to believe anything they said. “I’ve got it. Where are we going?”

           “Downstation.” Parker said, cutting away from the crowd of people coming out of the customs area. He kept inside the pattern marked with interlocking Jaguar heads on the metal floor. “Like I said, things have changed.”

           Five minutes later Gretchen was stuffed into an overcrowded tube-car. Parker was pressed into one side, his hand covering the back of her duffel so no one could cut it open, and two Catholic priests on the other. The monks smelled funny – dust and paper and incense – but Gretchen was used to the smell of ancient things. She was not used to the complete lack of space and air in the car or the incredible humidity. The insides of the plastic windows were already running with thin streams of water, even as the car rose up on the tracks. A queasy moment followed, and then everyone in the car leaned slightly as it accelerated into the long-axis tunnel of the station.

           “The Company has offices here,” Parker mumbled into her ear. Gretchen made a face as smoke tickled her nose. “The main man is named Per Rubio Gossi – he’s a Maltan.”

           “A Knight?” Gretchen refused to look at the pilot, though that meant she was staring down at three small dark-haired children, all alike, with their hair cut in sharp bangs. They stared back at her, eyes huge and dark in pale white faces. They were dressed in severe blue capes and tunics. Gretchen wondered where their mother was.

           “No,” Parker laughed. He made a deprecating gesture. His hands were thin and wiry, like brown sticks and they folded over, flat, almost like flippers, the fingers lying together seamlessly. “He’s fat and not very energetic. He’s the Company rep here – handles outfitting, transshipment, that sort of thing. Warehousing is his big gig. He has the mission plan, though. Have you seen it?”

           “No.” Gretchen stiffened, feeling the car shudder as it switched from high speed to low. They were approaching a station. “Do we get off here?”

           “Not yet,” Parker said, craning his head over the people crushed in between him and the door. “This is only the first stop, temples, the market, the upscale hotels. We’re going to the end of the line. Another twenty minutes, probably.”

           Gretchen felt mildly ill, but persevered. Twenty or thirty people crowded out and, thankfully, only two women with shopping bags got on. The three little children were gone. Parker sat down, brushing wrappers and bits of sweet roll off the seat. Gretchen also sat, ignoring the stains. The tube-car had once been painted a light orange, with a roof covered with a stenciled image of the Great City, the true Center, glorious Tenochtitlán. Most of the mural had peeled away, leaving bare rusting metal. Graffiti, most of it kanji, covered every flat surface.

           The car shimmied back up onto repulsion coils, then the outside – briefly visible with people hurrying back and forth, and neon, and huge v-screens showing a recorded tlachcho contest – was gone and there was darkness filled with streaked blurry lights. Gretchen checked the bags, leather jacket, the travel papers, everything she was wearing. Grimacing, she peeled a self-stick advert off her boot. It flickered to life at her touch. A naked woman, glossy black, writhed in her hand for a moment, surrounded by violently throbbing pink glyphs. She wadded up the paper and threw it away. Nothing seemed to be missing.

           “Worked for the Company long?” Parker ventured, hands behind his head, watching her with half-lidded eyes. Gretchen supposed it was his “cool” pose. She shook her head.

           “Three years, on Ugarit and Old Mars. Digging.”

           He nodded, making a wry half-smile. “I’m new, only six months. You said you didn’t get the new mission plan?”

           “No. Last I heard I was heading to Kolob Four to replace Dr. Fearing as xenoarch of the Singing Temple dig.”

           “Yeah. Well, you’re not going there anymore. I was on another assignment, too, but they pulled me in to fly shuttle for you and your team.”

           “Team?” Gretchen’s face screwed up like she’d taken a long gulp of bad coffee. “I don’t have a team.”

           “You do now.” Parker rubbed the side of his face. “You, me, Maggie Cat and a gunner named Bandao. They’re waiting at the office. You’ll met them in a minute.”

           The tube-car slid to a stop, then settled with a clang onto the station rails. Gretchen let Parker go first, then scuttled out of the car. The tube-stop was finished in more faux Texcoco-style murals, mostly destroyed by pasted advertisements and graffiti. Everyone on the tube-car walked very quickly, taking long shuffling steps, from the platform to a rank of escalators. Gretchen felt a little queasy, and her bags seemed lighter.

           “We’re in-core?”

           “Yeah.” Parker blew a smoke ring into the air. It began to twist into a helix as the escalators rattled and clanked up to the top level of the tube station. “Rents are cheaper here, right? Hard to keep your coffee in the cup, though.”

           At the top of the escalators there was a security gate and a kiosk selling grilled dogs, coffee and tobacco sticks. There was a line, though Gretchen found it interesting there were no non-humans to be seen. Most Imperial stations had a few Kroomakh or Hesht hulking about. The corridor outside was ill-lit and lined with small shops, showing signs in Norman or French or Imperial. Young men and women loitered around the entrance to a bar, smoking and watching people pass by. Like the young everywhere, they were wearing brilliant capes, though here the feathers were polychrome plastic over workaday tunics and rigger’s boots. A bad neighborhood, she thought, almost laughing aloud. Even in light g, trash collected in the corners and the walkway was covered with a moiré pattern of dried gum. And I feel safer.

           The Company offices were above a narrow shop crowded with different kinds of v-screens and senso-gear. Most of the screens were on, creating a booming discordance of newscasters and chant videos. A smell of ozone and faintly rotted meat hung in the hallway. Gretchen’s nose wrinkled at the smell, but then she ignored it. She had worked in worse. On Ugarit they had been excavating a city midden six hundred feet deep when four of her workers had been killed in a methane pocket explosion. The pilot thumbed the door lock and it hissed open. Pausing in the doorway, Gretchen raised an eyebrow at the list of companies residing at this address. There were six, and her erstwhile employer was listed fourth.

           “Greetings!” A very stocky man, not fat, but very round in features, limbs and body, rose from a chair. There was a table, too, surrounded by cheap office chairs. “I am Gossi. You would be Doctor Andersson.”

           “Yes.” Gretchen said, putting her bags by the nearest chair. There were two other people in the room. Parker was already pouring himself a cup of coffee from an ancient-looking silver pot on a side-table. “There has been a change of plans?”

           The Maltan nodded, his round face beaming. His hair was close-cut and flat across a high forehead, making him look like a doll. “Please sit. I will introduce you.”

           Gretchen sat, nodding to the man sitting on her right. He was short and muscular, in a non-descript patterned shirt and slacks. He had thick wrists and short, curly hair. He struck her as shy and withdrawn.

           “This is Dai Bandao, your gunner,” Gossi said, inclining his head towards the man. Bandao smiled faintly and nodded back. He did not offer his hand, as Parker had done. “And this is Magdalena, your communications tech.”

           Magdalena looked something like a woman, but more like a compact, sleek cat. Gretchen smiled, but did not show any teeth. The Hesht was curled up in the chair, her tail lapped around bare paws.

           “Hello,” Gretchen said, putting her fingertips to her forehead. The Hesht responded with the same gesture, her fingers covered with tightly-napped fur. Glittering claw tips peeked out of the soft black pelt. “I am Gretchen, daughter of Jean, daughter of Elizabeth.”

           “Well met,” purred the Hesht. “I am yyrroowwl-mrrrwerup. You should call me Magdalena, as these males do.”

           Gretchen lowered her hands. The Hesht smiled by showing the tip of a pink tongue. Her claws slid out of their muscle sheaths, digging into the nostain fabric of the chair. A sequence of cuts were already visible, revealing torn foam padding.

           “Well then,” Gossi said smoothly, sitting down, “let us to business. A situation involving valuable Company equipment has developed. I have been directed by the home office to see these materials are recovered in an efficient matter.”

           The round man pressed both thumbs against the sealing strip of a courier package. The packet unfolded, revealing a set of v-pads. “Here are briefing materials the Company has assembled for you. However, I will summarize.”

           Gossi smiled at all of them, a tight expression that did nothing to betray the essential smooth roundness of his face. Gretchen suddenly wondered if the man were human at all. There was a plastic quality to him – an android? Some species requiring a humanoid environment suit? Were all Maltans this slick?

           “Recently, the Company acquired a contract from the Imperial Government to explore and assess this planet, Ephesus Three.” His hand brushed across a panel inset in the tabletop. There was a slight hum and a holo image appeared in the air before them. A dusky tan globe appeared, rotating slowly. There were large polar ice caps and scattered whorls of cloud. There was a great deal of desert and low mountain, interspersed with glittering salt pans. Gretchen nodded to herself – thin atmosphere, brutal working conditions, no ozone layer; filters, day-suits and goggles required if you stepped out your shelter – then raised an eyebrow as the image continued to rotate, bringing a mountain range into view.

           “An Imperial scout-probe surveyed the system six years ago and eventually the data was processed and flagged for human review. This notable mountain range is called the Escarpment. It girdles the planet, running north to south at an angle. As you see, it has a sharper incline on the east than the west. Some of the peaks pierce the atmospheric envelope. The Escarpment divides the world.”

           “It’s not natural,” Gretchen said, her mind beginning to shake off the travel fatigue. Her migraine was coming back, too. She really needed to sleep or take a real bath rather than go through a mission briefing. “Unless crustal tectonics are completely awry on this world?”

           Gossi continued to smile, nodding. “You are correct. It is not natural. Initial analysis indicated a possibility the world had been shaped. An expedition was approved, of course, to take a closer look at the situation.”

           “To muck about for First Sun artifacts, you mean.” Parker slumped in the chair next to Gretchen, hands cradling his cup. Steam drifted up in the moist air. “Poke about, looking for something portable, easy to carry, easy to sell…”

           Gossi raised a hand. “A full scientific expedition was sent, with the Temple-class support ship Palenque as transport and orbital base. All this has been officially approved and registered, Parker-tzin. The Company has never had a great presence in this sector, and it was decided that – given the nature of the planet – a substantial effort was warranted.”

           “What happened?” Gretchen felt her patience fray. An exploration ship like the Palenque carried a crew of fifteen and a full expedition would be at least twenty people. This grimy little office couldn’t provide the support a real dig needed. The Company was rushing things, as usual. If the initial expedition found something interesting, then Gossi would suddenly have a whole operation here on the station to run. More money, more status, someone to serve coffee for him – he had to like that prospect. He might be able to get rid of all those other name plaques on the door. “Parker here says he was rerouted from another mission. My last posting order said I was going to Kolob. Now I’m not… so, are they all dead?”

           Gossi’s round face crinkled up in disgust and Gretchen felt a spark of amusement. She was getting grumpy, which was not wise. “My pardon, Gossi-tzin, it’s been a long day.”

           “Well.” The Maltan visibly reboarded his train of thought. “Sixteen days ago a transmission was received from the Palenque with the usual weekly report. At that time, everything was fine. Unfortunately, we have not received any reports since then. When the second report failed to arrive, I informed the home office and efforts began to mount a relief effort.”

           Parker tilted his head to one side, thinking, then said: “How long does it take a courier drone to reach Ctesiphon from Ephesus? A week? You’re saying they’ve been out of contact for as much as three weeks?”

           “No…” Gossi tabbed through the briefing document, glancing sideways at Magdalena. “The Palenque is fitted with a new, experimental, tachyon transmitter. It allows immediate communication between the station main relay and the ship. So, as I have said, sixteen days have passed since our last, ah, active communication.”

           The Hesht’s ears flipped back and yellow eyes blinked as she came awake. “Why do you say active? Has there been some other message? A distress beacon?”

           “Not as such…” Gossi seemed to struggle with the words. Gretchen leaned forward, interested. “…I am told by the station technicians they have a t-lock on the Palenque, but the transmitter is not responding to requests for an open channel. I have been informed this means the transmitter is still nominally operating, but it is, ah, turned off.”

           “Turned off? And the crew haven’t noticed?” Parker made a face.

           “Something else must have happened,” Gretchen raised her voice slightly. “But the ship still has power or the transmitter is on battery of some kind... can we turn on the transmitter from here? Send a wake-up command?”

           Gossi spread his hands. “I am told… no.”

           Out of the corner of her eye, Gretchen saw Magdalena’s whiskers twitch, but the Hesht said nothing.

           Gretchen looked around at the others, then back at Gossi, her expression calculating. “You have another ship, to take us to the Ephesus system? I presume Magdalena knows how to fix the transmitter, and Parker can pilot the Palenque home if its not entirely disabled. Bandao will shoot anything dangerous. Why am I going?”

           “You’re the senior Company field employee in the sector.” Gossi’s round smile had returned. He was comfortable with this avenue of discussion. “You are also the only person we could find, quickly, with experience in a biosphere like Ephesus’, due to your time on Old Mars.”

           Gretchen nodded slowly. The polar excavations had been her first posting. Tedious work in a very hostile environment, picking bits of an unidentified spacecraft out of permafrost. “What else are we bringing back? Something from the surface?”

           “Perhaps nothing.” Gossi tabbed the briefing packet again. The holo image of the planet expanded, then shrank, focusing in on a section of the southern hemisphere. Long shadows cut across a desolate plain. Some of them made what seemed, in the low resolution of the orbital scan, to be a double-circle. “One of the field reports from the scientists in the initial team says structures – manufactured structures – have been observed from orbit. I wonder – I fear – the team found something and brought it up to the ship for examination. It’s an old story … everyone’s heard it before, yes? A dangerous artifact, an accident, the crew dead. Another sixty-five million quills of Company money wiped out…”

           Gossi stopped, shaking his head in dismay, and there was a moment of silence. It was an old story. The Company suffered a very high rate of attrition – in personnel, in spacecraft, in equipment – which made the recovery of saleable material critical. To the Company, anyway. Graduate students were far cheaper and more plentiful than Nanhuaque-drive starships. Gretchen didn’t think it was a good idea to trade her own life – of which she had only one at last report – for some broken indecipherable bit of ancient machinery. She looked around. Parker, Bandao and Magdalena were looking expectantly at her.

           It was an odd moment. Gretchen thought later that time didn’t stop, but it did stretch. She had never really been in charge before. Gangs of native workers in the pits on Ugarit didn’t count… the dig director had been breathing down her neck the whole time. These three strangers wanted her to make a decision, to tell them what to do, to be the leader.

           In that crisp moment, she saw blue smoke curling up past Parker’s head, the glow of the holo-cast shining on his forehead; the points of Magdalena’s teeth were showing, fine and white; Bandao was plucking at the sleeve of his plain cotton shirt, the subtle woven pattern almost obscuring the outline of a small flat pistol tucked into the back of his belt. A perfect full awareness filled her – this was not what she wanted to do – but it was what she was going to do. She looked down, breaking the moment.

           Gossi coughed, batting his hand at Parker’s smoke. Gretchen picked up her briefing pad and tabbed through the pages, a dizzying red-tan-blue-white glow flashing in her eyes.

           “The Palenque requires a crew of at least six to operate safely.” She looked up, raising an eyebrow at Gossi. “What kind of ship are we taking? Can we split her crew to cover both?”

           The Maltan raised both hands, then flared them slightly. He smiled. Gretchen’s nose crinkled up. “What kind of ship, Gossi-tzin? We do have a ship to take us there?”

           “Oh yes! The Company does not have any ships in this sector, oh no. They are expensive, you know, and the Company is spread thin… I have arranged for you to be taken to the Ephesus system and delivered to the Palenque. If she proves unfit to make transit back to the station, then you will be able to return with the … other ship. However, since the transmitter remains operating, if unreachable at this time, I expect the Palenque will be flyable and you can return in her.”

           “What ship?” Gretchen tabbed to the end of the briefing packet, watching budget figures and details of the original mission flip past. “A miner? Some tramp freighter working the Rim?”

           “It is an Imperial ship.” Gossi spread his hands even wider. “They were already going in that direction, you understand. It is… convenient.”

           “Imperial.” Gretchen rubbed her nose, sharing an arch look with the others. Parker seemed amused, Bandao’s face was a blank and Magdalena was puzzled. “No Imperial ship is going to truck some macehualli scientists…”

           “Or pilots,” Parker interjected in a soft voice.

           “…to the back of beyond, much less help them recover a derelict – possibly contaminated – spacecraft.”

           “The captain of the Cornuelle has kindly agreed to investigate the matter, and to take you there, and render you what assistance he can.” Gossi’s expression changed and Gretchen saw, to her wonder, that he did own a real smile. The corners of his eyes tilted up and his tiny round teeth became visible between rubbery lips. She wondered, briefly, how the Company man had pulled off Imperial ‘assistance’.

           “The Cornuelle.” Parker tapped the top of his briefing pad, clearing the active document. “That’s not a Náhuatl name. What class of ship is she?”

           “A warship.” Gossi cleared his own pad and keyed in a locator code. The holo image above the table flickered, was replaced by the station transmission screen for a moment, and then resolved into a view from an outside cam, showing an arc of star-filled sky, dominated by the twin primaries of Ctesiphon A and B, then the sleek black shape of an Imperial starship. “This is your conveyance,” he said, smug pride creeping into his voice. “The Henry R. Cornuelle is an Astronomer-class light cruiser commanded by the esteemed chu-sa Mitsuharu Hadieshi. She has been assigned to the Hittite sector on anti-piracy patrol. I understand from her executive officer, Miss sho-sa Hamasaki Ayumi, they will be able to spend several days in Ephesus orbit, assisting you in recovery operations.”

           He paused, running one finger along the side of his pad. The holo-image rotated, showing an elongated wedge shape with three heavy drive fairings at the back of the ship. Like most Imperial combat craft, she was matte black and the work-lights of the station gleamed on rounded weapons emplacements and recessed sensor arrays. “There have been some rumors, lately, of illegal mining in this area. Of solitary ships attacked by raiders. This is lawless space, so close to alien enclaves… your pardon, Magdalena-tzin, I have only the utmost respect for your people.”

           “Fine.” Gretchen looked at Parker, tilting her head in question. “Can you fly the Palenque?”

           Parker nodded, running a hand back through thinning brown hair. “Sure. Six crew could run everything – shuttles, powerplant, environmental, flight control – but if all we do is a jump back to the station, Maggie and I can handle that.” He looked down at his pad, brows furrowing. “This Temple class can run almost auto with an soft upgrade. Maggie, do you have this package in archive?”

           The Hesht uncurled from her chair, light shifting on her glossy fur. A harness of leather hung around her shoulders and upper body, holding tools and storage pockets. Each wrist was circled by the gleaming mirror of a comm unit. A claw extended from a long finger and tapped the surface of the briefing pad. “This ship,” she hissed in a grumbling voice, “has an older model brain, but it will take most of the newest control package. I might have it, or we can buy one here on station.”

           Gretchen eyed Gossi. “Do we have any money for this?”

           “Some.” Gossi put on a poor face. “So much was invested in the original expedition…”

           “How much?”

           The Maltan looked away and Gretchen sat back in her chair. All the exhaustion of a long flight from the Jupiter Yards came crowding in. The migraine, which had been distracted while she started to work the problem of this recovery mission, woke up and began rustling around behind her left eye, throwing clouds of white sparks across her vision.

           Without thinking, she thumbed her wristband, jetting a seratonin regulator into her bloodstream. It would hurt later, but she had to think clearly right now. All the bad things about being in charge started to come to mind.

           “So… no money to speak of. How many days do we have to prepare?”

           Gossi’s face assumed the shining round mask again. “The Cornuelle is already on a schedule – you will load your equipment tomorrow, then boost for Ephesus the day after.”

           “Two days?” Gretchen tasted something sour. “Well then. We’ll be busy employees, won’t we?”

Aboard the Cornuelle, Outbound from Ctesiphon Station

           “Talk to me about the transmitter.”

           Space aboard an Imperial warship was at a minimum, so Gretchen was doing sit-ups hanging from a bar set into the ceiling. Working in the field was good exercise, but sitting in a three by four meter cabin for weeks on end during transit did nothing for her girlish figure. Magdalena was perched on her bunk, surrounded by data pads and printouts on quick-cycle sheets. The Hesht looked up, yellow eyes narrowed to slits over the top of amped-up sunglasses. The cat had an earbug as well, letting her hear the soft invisible voices of the processors riding in the pads. Gretchen had used field goggles before, with v-feeds and a sound interface, but they had been big, bulky units. Maggie’s sunglasses were as sleek and dark as she was.

           “It’s an experimental unit, sister. A commercial version of the old military-grade Wayfarer ship-based transmitter. The Company is field-testing it for TeraWave – according to the logs, it’s a one-oh release. That means light encryption, no redundant power supplies or emitters, about a six to seven light year range.” Maggie made a chuckling sound like a hydrogen-powered chainsaw starting up. “Thirty or forty channels – very primitive.”

           “But… grunt… not hand mirrors and smoke… grunt… from the mountaintop.”

           “No.” Maggie clawed a pad and let some schematics drift past. “A little better than that. Each channel is identified by headers tacked onto the message packets, then thrown out in a single emitter stream. Sort of a faster-than-light telegraph… But it works and it’s as cheap as you can build a tachyon unit. I’ve tested the connection myself by patching through Ctesiphon comm – they have a big industrial emitter and router – the unit on the Palenque does respond to a ‘hello’, but refused to open a conversation. I think the unit is actually in maintenance mode, on stand-by, waiting for the shipboard operator to reset the system.” The Hesht paused, then held up a pad. Gretchen jerked her head and Maggie flipped the device upside down.

           “That … grunt… still makes no sense to me. Plain Náhuatl, sister.”

           Maggie laughed again, rolling on her back and lolling her head off the edge of the bunk. Now she seemed upright to Gretchen, though her ears were pointing off at a strange angle. “The Wayfarer has a manual mode, where the operator can pick and choose which channels are live. This is also used for maintenance, where you don’t have to shut down the whole system. Specific components can be turned on or off, even removed from the chassis. When I send a ‘hello’ across the t-link, the refused connection message comes back with an error code. Of course, the code isn’t documented yet, not on a test system, but it matches the older military code for ‘standby’.”

           “So… grunt… there was a problem, they turned it off. The problem got worse… grunt… no one came back to push the ‘on’ button.”

           “That’s what the momma cat said.”

           Gretchen finished her count of two hundred and eight, then swung down off of the bar. The Cornuelle was accelerating out from the station on normal-space drive, chewing up anti-matter pellets and spitting plasma, which gave them one g inside the habitat areas of the ship. A bigger ship, a commercial liner or an Imperial battlewagon, would have g-decking. The Cornuelle was not a big ship. Gretchen stepped carefully over the duffels and equipment boxes strapped to the floor. The Marine sergeants they had bumped back to hot-bunking with the enlisted men already had their cargo allotments aboard, so there was very little room for the Company people. A two-meter high polyfoam crate holding spare transmitter parts occupied the space where a little table and seats were usually pulled down.

           She frowned at the clothing spread out on her bunk. Playing in the dirt, as her father would say, did not require dress-up clothes. Unfortunately, this was an Imperial ship of war, which meant Commander Hadeishi would have a dress evening mess. Gretchen sighed, turning over her “good” shirt. It had stains. Ruin bugs had eaten a hole in one corner.

           “A citizen is humble, simply-dressed, respectful, pious…” she mumbled to herself, fingers twitching her trousers straight.

           Maggie laughed again, her tail twitching. “You’re the kit who always has dirt on her nose and looks so surprised! Will this clan-lord Hadeshee nip your ears for a dirty pelt?”

           “Yes. Miss sho-sa Hamasaki has been very polite and accommodating, but we need the commanders’ good will. He is Nisei, too, which means he will be very proper and traditional. He may have guests… I can’t embarrass him too much. Time for the ol’ enzymatic cleaner…”

           Gretchen squeezed into the end of her bunk, found a clean cloth, then picked up her boots. They were good boots – her mother had them fitted and built for her by hand, of realcow leather, with shock-soles and brass fittings – but the dust of Ugarit fouled everything it touched. She sighed, seeing the soles were beginning to separate from the uppers.

           “No matter…” She shoved them to the back of the bunk. Aboard ship they went in light disposable deck-shoes designed to adhere to the walking surfaces when they were in zero-g. She spat on the shirt stain, then began to gently rub it between her fingers.

           Two Imperial marines in sharp-creased black dress uniforms with crimson piping stiffened to attention as Gretchen approached a hatchway outlined in pale blue. Each marine had his hands behind his back, but heavy flat pistols were slung on their belts and they had visors as sharp and sleek as Maggie’s. The naval rating escorting her bowed politely and thumbed a comm pad set into the wall next to the door.

           “Doctor Gretchen Andersson, Commander.” He announced in a stiffly formal voice.

           The pad chimed and the door recessed with a slight chuff and then slid up into the bulkhead. Her mouth suddenly dry, Gretchen nodded to the young man, then stepped inside. The room was small, like everything on the Cornuelle, but managed to hold a low traditional table for six, dressed with crisp white linen and thin porcelain cups. A very short man, barely reaching Gretchen’s shoulder, bowed in greeting from the head of the table. The five other officers – ranging from the petite executive officer, sho-sa Hamasaki, down to a midshipman – or sho’e ko-hosei – with pale red hair, also bowed in place, their hands flat on the tatami mat floor. Their incline was slightly deeper than Hadeishi’s. Gretchen kept her face composed, hands together in front of her, and managed a bow half-way between those which had greeted her.

           “Welcome, Doctor Andersson,” Hadeishi said. Gretchen blinked in surprise – the Nisei’s Norman was flawless. “Please, join us.”

           Gretchen slipped off her deck-shoes before entering the room, turning the motion into a second bow.

           The midshipman scooted a little to one side. Gretchen knelt, smiling politely at the boy. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen. Like the other officers, he wore a perfectly white dress uniform, with the fire-snake emblem of the Imperial Navy worked in copper at his collar. Above his heart rode the sunburst symbol of the Cornuelle and a square glyph holding a running man.

           The other officers remained still, heads lowered. The captain smiled down the table at Gretchen, and raised a thin porcelain teacup in polite greeting.

           “Doctor Andersson, welcome to the Cornuelle. I am Mitsuharu Hadeishi, her captain.”

           “Konichiwa, Mitusharu-san. Thank you for making me so welcome.”

           “Your Japanese is excellent,” Hadeishi said, smiling, eyes crinkling up. Gretchen felt an odd sense of dislocation. She had worked with many Nisei; at the university, on Old Mars, even on Ugarit. They were unfailingly polite but she had never encountered a Japanese man, particularly one her social superior, that had genuinely smiled at her.

           “Thank you. Your Norman is perfect.”

           “No, please, I have a slight accent.” Hadeishi set down his cup. “You have already met Lieutenant Hamasaki, my executive officer and pilot. This fellow next to her is Lieutenant Second Hayes, our weapons officer.” Hayes nodded, somehow appearing deferential to Hamasaki, though the XO was a tiny woman, even slighter of build than the captain. Lieutenant Hayes was nearly six feet tall and powerfully built. Gretchen smiled politely.

           “The young ensign is Smith-tzin, who runs our communications deck, and this last is Lieutenant Second Isoruku, master of our engineers.” Smith managed to nod politely and Isoruku, a bull-headed bald Nisei, had no reaction at all. Obscurely, Gretchen found this cold behavior comforting – his reaction was what she had expected, not the genial, almost cheerful tone expressed by the commander. Hadieshi stood and straightened his dress jacket. His uniform was very simple, expressing the best attributes of the Empire – humility, modest dress, quiet unassuming power – though his collar tabs were gold and the eagle glyph of an Imperial war-commander sat next to the sunburst. An elderly man in a simple dark grey kimono appeared with a tiny green jade cup and a slim sake flask. Hadeishi bowed to him, taking the cup and turned, facing his right.

           There, on a bulkhead covered with inset wooden screens painted with mountains in cloud, were two portraits. They were not holo-images, but traditional paintings on cream-colored rice paper, in a delicate ink-brush with faint washes of color. On the left, looking very young, was the Lord of the World, Ahuizotl, the sixth of that name, huey tlatoani of the Méxica and all other peoples under the domain of the Empire. The artist had captured his pensive nature well, looking off to one side, slim hand pressed against his chest.

           Hadeishi bowed deeply to the image of the Emperor, then raised the jade cup.

           “So, meditate on this, eagles and jaguars,” he began, his Náhuatl slow and measured, as flawless as his Norman. “Although you may be jade, although you may be gold, you too will journey to the fleshless land. We all must disappear, no one will remain.”

           The room became very still, each man and woman at the table looking down. The servants had disappeared. Gretchen saw the captain’s face was composed and calm. She recognized the words, written nearly a thousand years before by a man who had opposed the policies of the Empire when it was still young. Her eyes drifted to one side, watching the faces of the other officers. The poetry of Nezahualcóyotl, the doomed prince of Texcoco, was banned throughout the Empire. The poet’s philosophy did not express the ascetic martial spirit deemed fitting by the great powers of the Méxica.

           Hadeishi lowered the jade cup, pressing it against his lips, then raised it again, to the second portrait. This was a grumpy old man, his face pinched in a scowl, his hair bound up the traditional samurai knot at the back of his head. He frowned, irritation alive in the smooth brushstrokes. He was Juntoku, the one-hundred and thirty-sixth Tenno no Nihon, Emperor of Japan and all the Nisei people. Hadeishi smiled faintly, saying; “Mere green herbs they are, grown in the mountain soil; yet if I pluck them with grace, how joyful is the toil!”

           Then he placed the jade cup into the hands of the little old man and turned to face the table again. The welcoming ritual complete, two ratings slipped out of the tiny galley behind the officer’s mess and began serving the first course. Gretchen felt her stomach grumble, smelling sweet onions and broth. For a moment, she was frozen, watching everyone else pick up their spoons.

           Then the captain somberly tasted the miso and nodded to the two cooks. They grinned and everyone was eating. Gretchen forgot about her worries for a moment, listening to the quiet cheerful banter among the officers and enjoying the excellent meal.

           “You were worried by my poetry.” Hadeishi was sitting in his office, a tiny cluttered room dominated by a wall of old books and a great deal of quick-cycle paper in stacks on an inset metal desk. He cradled a heavy Jomon-style sake cup in his hands. The liquor was hot, steaming up in the slightly chill air of the ship. Gretchen was sitting opposite him, in a real chair, still uncomfortable, holding a similar cup. She cradled it gently, having determined as the captain was pouring that it was an artifact and possibly two thousand years old. Her training urged her to pack it in shockfoam and label it, not sip smooth, old sake from the broad-mouthed bowl.

           “Yes. Is it treason for you to speak those words?”

           “No.” Hadeishi shook his head, a grin hiding in his dark eyes. His hair was long and a little stringy, though he kept it tied back. Here, in this softly lit room, filled with the familiar odor of old books and ink, he seemed elfin with delicate features and sharp little mustache. “It is traditional, among the Nisei and Náhuatl both, to offer songs to the great. It is not disrespectful to offer a small portion of a masterpiece – particularly those composed by royalty. But I understand your situation. From your mouth, Nezahualcóyotl is treason. Where were you born?”

           “On New Aberdeen,” she said quietly, taking a small, careful sip.

           “But you are not a Scot? Surely not with a family name like Anderssen.”

           Gretchen shook her head. Her poor family situation had weighed against her in school, at university, in getting employment, even under the burning suns of Ugarit. As a child, her ancestry had been a fierce burden, but she had struggled, and survived, and she felt no need to hide or dissemble.

           “No, we are Swedish. Refugees.”

           Hadeishi smiled over his cup, then put the bowl aside on the desk. “Your people fought well and accepted defeat honorably. It pains me you should suffer for this, but I suppose not everyone can be blessed like the Scots, the Irish and the Nisei, with the favor of the Lord of Men. Someone, after all, needed to stand fast in the face of the Empire. Glory is impossible without a mighty opponent.”

           “I suppose.” A little over a hundred years had passed since the Méxica had crushed the last independent nations on Anahuac. The Swedes and Russians, fighting in the ruins of their great cities, had surrendered only when all else had fallen to the Jaguar and Eagle Legions. Many of the survivors had scattered to the trans-solar colonies, or even beyond the embrace of Sol. Gretchen’s grandparents had managed to settle on New Aberdeen, one of the lusher, Earth-like planets the Empire had apportioned to those races of men who were ‘Third From the Center.’ Her grandparents and parents had never spoken of The War, but the colonial government’s nationalistic propaganda had filled in the blanks. “That is past history.”

           “Perhaps.” Hadeishi leaned forward, his face suddenly serious. “You are uncomfortable with me and my crew – we are not what you expected. You are even surprised I speak passable Norman.”

           “Yes.” Gretchen set aside a stack of age-yellowed magazines and put down her cup. “I am surprised, though I have never been on an Imperial warship before. All of the Imperial officials I have ever met have been very forbidding men and women, ascetic and distant. I have never heard an official use any language save Náhuatl. Isn’t that the recommended style?”

           “In many places, yes. You’ve stumbled into an odd corner of the Empire with us, I fear. The Imperial Navy is a strange creature, one head on two distinct bodies. I know you have found your place in society restricted by your birth – our Navy suffers the same fate. Certain kinds of ship commands – really, anything large and impressive – are reserved for commanders and senior crew drawn from those ‘close to the Center.’ This leaves the smaller ships – destroyers, cruisers, light cruisers – to those ‘further away’. And among those who are not of the Great Clans, you will find the Nisei are the most trusted.” Hadeishi paused, a twinkle in his eye. “If you were to go down into ship’s enlisted country, you would find crewmen and women of many races, even some with hair the color of beaten gold, like yours. Nearly a quarter of light ship crews are of macehualli descent. Despite the nepotism of the Imperial Clans, crew rosters must be filled and the Navy is not picky about lineage and birth – for crewmen at least! Haven’t you noticed everything is labeled in Norman? Our manuals, our computer systems, everything is in Norman. Every Imperial officer must be proficient if they are to speak with their crews.” He paused.

           “Of course, they have reliable officers to guide them, like myself.”

           Gretchen stifled a laugh. She was suddenly aware there had been sake with dinner too, and most of the Jomon bowl was empty. The air seemed chillier than it had been.

           “I am still surprised,” she said, fingertips brushing the medband on her wrist. It could dispense more than seratonin inhibitors. A cool sensation followed, rushing up her arm. Objects in the room began to assume a preternatural clarity. “Are you judged so reliable you lack a political officer? Someone to help you guide these clan-less, land-less crewmen?”

           She stopped, aware of the bitter tone in her words. Hadeishi raised an eyebrow, shaking his head gently. He put a thin finger to his lips in warning. “Careful, Doctor. In this world, we must keep in our places, at least with open words. My crew and I have been together for six years – first on the destroyer Ceatl and now here. We are very comfortable together – a family. You’ve seen in the door of our house tonight, watching us laugh at dinner. Perhaps we should have been more circumspect.”

           He smiled gently, putting both forefingers to his temples. “Keep your true life here, inside, and you will be safe. Now listen, Doctor, for there are things I must tell you.”

           Gretchen straightened up, her mind now crystal clear. Something about Hadeishi had changed as well, the captain-ness of him coming forward. Now that she knew him a little better, she could see him change, his openness fading away, though he was still genial and polite.

           “The sector admiral agreed to let you and your team ship with us to Ephesus because this benefits the Empire, not as a favor to your Company. The ruins on Ephesus Three, and the marks of shaping the planet bears, make it important to the Navy. Our own scientists have reviewed the data from the probe. At some time in the distant past, at least a million years ago, the world was violently transformed by the First Sun People. It may be an abandoned project – we have found those before – or may have been completed.

           “Regardless of what happened to the Palenque, the investigation must continue. I have been entrusted with seeing you safely there and then making sure your work is a success. Whatever you need – transport shuttles, men, equipment, repair parts – I will provide.”

           Gretchen sighed, weariness hidden behind the booster. “I understand, Commander. If we find anything interesting we will turn it over to you.” She pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes. “I’ve worked under military supervision before.”

           “I know.” Hadeishi did not smile, but there was a trace of humor sparkling in his eyes. “On Old Mars – the Polaris excavation – under Director Huicton. You are young, Doctor, but you were chosen for this mission because of your experience and skill. Listen to me, I am here to help you, not to stumble around in your investigation, shooting people or being heavy-handed. I cannot imagine there is a great deal of trust between us, but I hope to gain yours.”

           “Why?” The side of Gretchen’s mouth twisted and she had to quell the urge to chew on the inside of her lip. “You certainly don’t need my trust. You can order me to do whatever you want. What you are trying to say, politely, is that we are consultants to the Navy.”

           Hadeishi nodded in agreement. “This is true. But this is not a military mission.”

           Gretchen’s eyebrows raised in question. “I don’t understand.”

           Hadeishi ran his finger around the top of his drinking bowl. He seemed pensive, uneasy. After a long moment he said, “this has become a Smoking Mirror mission. We are both under the direct jurisdiction of an Imperial nauallis – a Judge.”

           Swallowing, her throat tight and dry, Gretchen managed speak. “Is this brujo aboard ship?”

           Hadeishi nodded, his face a tight mask. “Yes, you will speak to him soon. His name is Huitziloxoctic.”

           Green Hummingbird, she thought. A powerful name.

           Gretchen thumbed open the hatch to her quarters, and stopped in the doorway, finding Parker and Bandao sitting on the floor surrounded by bits and pieces of metal, plastic flasks and wads of cloth. The pilot was in a t-shirt and ragged work-pants lined with pockets. Bandao, as ever, was in sharply pressed slacks and a dress shirt. Maggie was still on her bunk; though she had squeezed down to make room for the equipment cases that had been sitting on the deck.

           “Hello. Why are you cluttering up my floor?”

           Parker looked up, pale brown eyes twinkling. “Sorry, boss, but we don’t have any room in our cabin.” His hands were spotted with light oil. Gretchen could smell it hanging in the air, a bitter thick tickling in her nose and throat. The pilot had an automatic pistol in his hand, mostly disassembled, with the gas venting mechanism sticking out.

           “They weren’t clean already?” One of her eyebrows inched up. She stepped inside, letting the hatch slide closed, then stepped over the two men and swung up into her bunk. “What makes you think a pistol will be useful on Ephesus?”

           “A gun is always useful,” Parker grinned, sliding the top of his automatic back together with a sharp click. He nodded at Bandao, “isn’t that so?”

           Bandao nodded, his face as calm and composed as ever. A heavy cloth, almost a rug, lay over his knees holding a long barrel and a dizzying array of smaller parts, as well as a stock formed of honeycombed plastic. His hands, which seemed small on a solid, muscular body, held a rag and a shining metal component.

           “Well,” Gretchen smiled across at Magdalena. “If it makes you happy.”

           “How did the yrrrchuu-owl, go?” Maggie was lying on her back, a heavy flat comp on her furry stomach, a v-screen flipped up. “I mean, the hunting feast.”

           “It went.” Gretchen rummaged in her bag, frowning at the mess her bunk had already become. She glowered sideways at Maggie – her bunk was carefully ordered, with everything in place. Damn cat… “It was even pleasant. I had a talk with Captain Hadeishi afterwards, in his office. He says that there is an Imperial nauallis on board.”

           Parker looked up, quizzical. Bandao continue to work on cleaning the assault rifle, but Gretchen thought the smooth, methodical motion of his hands paused for a moment.

           “A what?” Parker put down his pistol and scratched his chin, leaving a glistening smear of oil along the line of his jaw.

           “An Imperial Judge.” Gretchen said, pulling a holocard out of her bag. The side of her mouth twisted unconsciously. She ran a fingernail along the back of the card, then jammed the holo against the wall. It adhered to the painted metal, then flickered on. The image was set to ‘still’, extending its life from days to years. Three young children, a boy and two girls no more than six years old, were smiling up at the holocam. They were in a swimming pool, all blue water and glittering sunlight. In the high definition of the holocam the green tint of too many summer days spent in the water was very clear. “An agent of the Mirror. A spy. Both Hadeishi and I are under his jurisdiction. This is a government mission now, not the Company’s.”

           Bandao looked up, forehead creased by a single frown line. Parker stared at Gretchen, grimacing. “The secret police? God, this sucks!”

           Gretchen nodded, turning away from the holocard. “Listen, we have to be careful with this. We still work for the Company and will be held responsible for getting back the Palenque and any material, objects, artifacts, data – everything the first expedition collected. Gossi’s ‘great deal’ was forced on him by the Navy and he didn’t have much choice about shipping us out with them. This Judge will keep out of the way, but anything that we find he wants, he gets. Poof.”

           Parker shrugged. He didn’t care. Bandao slid the barrel of the rifle back into the firing block and locked it in place with a twist and a sharp chink.

           “Let’s talk about the Palenque.” Gretchen pinched the bridge of her nose. “The captain has offered us a marine boarding team to secure her. However, an agent of the Company has to be the first on board, to reassert claim to the ship. Otherwise, it will be a derelict and the Navy will have possession. Now, the Company could get the ship back, eventually, but not without putting a case to the Naval court of adjudication. Parker – you have z-g experience, right?”

           The pilot nodded, fingering one of the patches on his jacket. “You bet, boss. My suit is in storage, but I’ll pull it out and checklist it tomorrow. Who else goes? Or is it just little ole me with the big mean marines?”

           Gretchen pointed at Bandao with her chin. “Mister Bandao, are you qualified in a suit? Can you use that cannon of yours in z-g?”

           The gunner nodded, looking up. He had very pale blue eyes.

           “Do you ever say anything?”

           “Occasionally.” Bandao snapped the stock and the body of the rifle together. “Parker talks enough for both of us.”

           The officers’ mess seemed colder as Gretchen entered and sat down. The lights were dimmed and the door to the galley was closed. A man was sitting cross-legged on the mat at the head of the table, watching her. He seemed to be of medium height, thin and wiry, with a nut-brown face and deep-set eyes. Gretchen sat quietly, her face impassive. She felt on edge, but not nervous. The man was wearing a plain white shirt, cut to resemble a traditional mantle with long sleeves. His hands were hidden under the edge of the table.

           After a long period of silence, he said “do you understand how dangerous you are?”

           Gretchen blinked, then shook her head. “I don’t follow your meaning.”

           The man continued to sit. The nearest ceiling light illuminated the crisp white cotton of his shirt, but not his face. “You are a scientist, a thinking being. Tell me why you are dangerous.”

           “I am not dangerous.” Gretchen replied, her voice acquiring an edge. “I am a loyal citizen of the Empire, a dutiful employee, a careful scientist. My work may place me in physical danger, but I am not, of myself, dangerous. I have never hurt anyone.”

           The man continued to sit quietly, watching her. More time passed.

           At last, nervous, Gretchen said “is this interview complete?”

           The man shook his head, no.

           “You have not given me enough information to form a hypothesis,” she said, after another long pause. Then she stopped before saying anything more. She realized that he had provided her with three – no, four – data points. Enough for a three dimensional structure… Unconsciously, her head bent down a little, and she frowned, her lips pursing.

           “You say that I am dangerous. I am a scientist. I think. If my work is successful, something unknown to our science becomes known. That would be something new. Newness is change, which may inflict pain, or suffering, or death. Do you think there is something on Ephesus I might find, where others have not? Something dangerous?”

           The man leaned forward a little, and the overhead light caught in his eyes. They were a smoky, jadite green. “There is a man in your cabin. His name is David Parker. He carries a weapon. Is he dangerous?”

           “I don’t think so,” Gretchen said, turning her head a little sideways, eyes narrowing. “I know him, he is a companion. He is not dangerous to me. But, yes, I understand. He is, of himself, dangerous. He could kill or hurt another.”

           The man leaned backwards, the smoky green light fading. “Is he very dangerous?”

           Gretchen bristled at the new tone in the man’s voice. Where before it had been calm and level, now it took on a patronizing tone, as if she were a small child having trouble with her maths. “No, not very. Not in a large context. He might kill one other, then be slain himself. The duration of his dangerousness is limited.”

           “Is yours?”

           “Limited? It must be, for I am only one person. What could I do? I could be easily killed or imprisoned if I prove dangerous. Is that what you do? Do you watch for ‘dangerous’ persons and remove them from society? Is this what it means to be a Judge?”

           The man placed a small blue pyramid of what seemed to be leaded glass on the table. In the brief moment when his hand was visible, Gretchen saw that it was gnarled and twisted, muscular, a farmer’s hand. Like her grandfather’s hands, roughened and seamed by the elements. Fine puckered scars ran across the palm and the wrist. The stiff white shirt-cuff hid the forearm, but Gretchen was suddenly sure his whole body was marked in this same way, like etched glass.

           “The tlamantinime, the wise men, have a sacred duty. It is to sustain the world.” The man turned the pyramid a bit, so the light fell upon it squarely. “They are ceaselessly vigilant, watching over each of us while we go about our daily business. Do you see this book?”

           Gretchen raised an eyebrow in surprise. The blue pyramid did not look like a book at all, though she supposed it might contain a holostore or memory lattice. “Yes.”

           The green-eyed man smiled faintly, holding up the pyramid. “It is very dangerous. A world might be destroyed by it. But it is not as dangerous as you are, right now.”

           Gretchen felt a chill steal over her. She could not see the man’s other hand, and she suddenly imagined the scarred fingers holding a gun, a weapon, a small flat gray pistol with a round black muzzle. The gun, she was sure, was pointed at the pit of her stomach. It would fire a shock pellet, striking her flesh, ripping through her shirt, then bursting violently, shattering her pelvis, gouging a huge gaping red hole out of her back. She would die slowly, as blood leaked away from her brain and the wrinkled gray organ asphyxiated.

           “Why am I dangerous?” Her voice sounded very faint.

           The man put the blue pyramid away. “Telling you why would serve no purpose. It is enough, for you, for now, to know you are dangerous. In you, the life of every living human being is at risk.” His gaze sharpened and Gretchen felt his scrutiny like a physical pressure against her face. “Are you are afraid of me?”


           “That is good. Are you afraid of death?”



           Then he was silent. Gretchen waited, sitting, her palms damp with sweat. She wondered what the blue pyramid contained. A dangerous book? Books had always been friendly to her, offering her succor, sanctuary, and advantage. Friends who didn’t mind if you only called once a year. But it might contain plans for a weapon – a virus, a bomb, something truly deadly. With that, she thought she understood his question. What if I find something like that on Ephesus? Some First Sun weapon that could shatter a star, or burn a planet to a cinder?

           Green Hummingbird stood up, moving stiffly. Gretchen realized he was very old, far older than his voice suggested. He looked down at her, his face grim, then limped to the door. It chuffed open and he went out into the passage. Gretchen let out a long, slow breath, feeling suddenly awake and relieved of a great weight, which had lain upon her.

Geosync Orbit over Ephesus III

           “We have orbital match in… three… two… one… Orbit match locked.”

           Shu-sa Hamasaki’s cool voice echoed in Gretchen’s earbug. She and Magdalena were crowded into the secondary weapons’ station on the command deck of the Cornuelle, sharing a combat chair. The flat black display in front of them was configured into three v-panes, one showing an orbital plot of the planet with the Palenque and the Cornuelle in their velocity dance, another the view from the warships’ forward cameras and in the third a skittish, jerky image culled from the v-monitor on Parker’s suit as he stood in an airlock.

           “Main engines at zero thrust. Steering at zero thrust.”

           Around them, the officers of the Cornuelle began to go through a checklist in soft voices. Gretchen bit her lip, watching the image of the Palenque. The ship seemed intact, without visible hull damage or scoring. It was an ungainly monster in comparison to the rakish profile of the Cornuelle. The Temple-class were workhorse ships, with a big rotating habitat and lab ring sitting forward, squeezed around a command and sensor array platform. Behind the habitat ring was an enclosed shuttle dock assembly, surrounded by mushroom shaped cargo modules, then a flare-shield and the bulk of the engines. The Company logo, white on maroon, stood twenty meters high on the thruster fairings.

           “Maggie, do you have anything on ship-to-ship comm?”

           Maggie shook her head, long ears angled back. “Quiet as high grass, sister.” Her claws made a tic-tic-tic sound as they worked the console. The view of the Palenque tightened, zooming in on an airlock beneath the command deck. The hatch was hexagon shaped, with a clear window. Gretchen could see something through the opening.

           “What’s this?”

           Maggie worked the panel and the image cropped, then zoomed again. There was a brief ripple across the v-screen as the console kicked in to interpolate the image. Gretchen leaned in a little, squinting through her com-glasses. There was an amber light shining above a control panel on the inner door of the lock. She tapped her finger on the v-screen. “Do we have a pattern match for this?”

           “Yes,” rumbled Magdalena in her I’m-working-on-it-already voice. A v-pane unfolded on the console display. It contained a schematic of the airlock control panel, with highlights indicating the meaning and use of each control, light and display. “There is interior pressure, but the airlock is in manual mode – no power for the automatic mechanism.”

           Gretchen nodded, pressing a fingertip against her cheekbone. “Parker, did you hear that?”

           “You bet, boss.” The pilot’s v-feed shifted as he looked around the Cornuelle’s lock. There were two marines with him and Bandao. Both civilians were wearing dark gray z-suits, with bright Company logos on their chests, white-lettered nametags on each shoulder and over the heart. The marines were in slick matte black suits far slimmer than the Company rigs. Both had nametags, but they could not be read in the ambient light. Gretchen frowned, but Maggie was already working. Text materialized on the v-feed, showing Fitzsimmons and Decker above the two marines. “We’ll have to crank the lock ourselves.”

           “One kilometer,” Hamasaki announced. The Cornuelle was approaching on the last dying bit of her insertion velocity, coasting in not only to match orbital paths with the Palenque, but to come within shouting distance of the abandoned ship. “Three minutes.”

           “Maggie, are there any other lights? Radio emissions? Any EM at all?” Gretchen leaned back in the chair. The shock-cushion adjusted, cradling her back. The Hesht tapped up an ambient light gradient over a ship schematic on her main control window. The derelict showed heat and light loss at the personnel airlocks and around the big shuttle bay doors.

           “She’s cold. Just waste heat from standby systems,” Magdalena said, “but there seems to be atmosphere inside from end to end. The hull shielding is blocking everything else, but when Parker gets the telemetry relay in place, we’ll know more. Still no response from the commo system or the tachyon relay.”

           “Two minutes.” Hamasaki announced. “Correcting roll with braking thrust.”

           Gretchen felt a very faint shudder through the decking under her feet. The feed from Parker’s suit suddenly showed the planet rolling past in the window of the airlock, huge and ruddy tan. Then the Palenque slid into view. Gretchen touched her cheek again.

           “Parker, we’re almost ready. Start your checklist.”

           “Copy that.” The pilot replied and the feed-image bent towards Bandao. Each man would double-check his z-suit, his equipment, the telemetry relay, their weapons before the lock opened. The marines were already checking each other’s suits. All four men were wearing propulsion packs. Gretchen’s request for a wire-tether fired from the Cornuelle to the derelict had been refused. Hadeishi had no intention of establishing a physical connection between his ship and the Palenque.

           Gretchen turned, looking up across the control station behind her. Hadeishi was ensconced in a command chair, half enveloped in shock-foam and control consoles. Faint lights from his panel displays mottled his face and combat suit. Hamasaki sat slightly below him, on his left, and Hayes down and to the right. Andersson and the Hesht were at a station in the third ring of the bridge, matching the position of the ensign, Smith, on the opposite side of the U-shaped deck. The Imperial commander raised his head slightly and smiled, meeting her eyes.

           Hadeishi toggled on his voice channel. “Near space scan, Smith-tzin?”

           “Clear, Hadeishi-san. Two trailing asteroids, a number of low-orbit Company peapod satellites, no other ships, shuttles or unidentified objects. No radio or t-wave transmissions except the telemetry from the satellites. Everything’s quiet.”

           “Engines, Isoroku-tzin?”

           “Hot, kyo, idling at zero thrust. Power plant is at twenty percent. Spin time to hyper is six zero minutes. Repeat, six zero minutes.” The engineers voice echoed in Gretchen’s earbug, coming from the downship channel.

           “Weapons, Mister Hayes?”

           “Weapons are hot, Captain. One flash bird rigged and solution locked. Point defense system is on-line and tracking.”

           “One minute,” Hamasaki said softly.

           Hadeishi nodded to her. “Full stop.”

           Hamasaki ran her finger down a control bar on her console. There was another slight shudder. In Gretchen’s displays, a counter indicating meters-to-target slowed and then stopped. “Six hundred meters,” announced the pilot. “We have velocity match.”

           “Are you ready?” Hadeishi’s voice was soft in Gretchen’s ear and she started. A blinking glyph in the bottom right corner of her glasses indicated they were on a private channel.

           “Ready,” she said, swallowing. This was it. She changed back to the open channel. “Mister Parker, have you completed your checklist?”

           “Copy that, boss. We are ready to take a walk.”

           Gretchen looked sideways at Magdalena. “Cameras ready? Suit telemetry on-line?”

           The Hesht grinned, showing double rows of white teeth like tiny knives. “Cameras live. Recorders are rolling. Suit telemetry is clean. All bio readings are in the green.” The cat flicked a claw at a newer, smaller, window on the console. Gretchen saw it held an orbit track representation of a string of bead-like lights circling the planet. The peapod survey satellites Hayes had picked up. Excellent.

           “Mister Parker, you are free to take a walk.”

           Unconsciously, she bit her lip, eyes fixed on the v-feed of the Cornuelle’s airlock. One of the marines, Fitzsimmons, punched a code into the airlock control panel. The hatch opened swiftly and raw sunlight flooded into the chamber, picking out every detail with brilliant clarity.

           The lead marine, Decker, stepped out into the void. He was briefly silhouetted against the monstrous glowing disk of the planet. Bandao followed, white jets of vapor trailing behind him. Parker followed and Gretchen felt a moment of vertigo as he stepped out over an infinite distance. Then the suit cam focused on the distant, surprisingly tiny image of the Palenque.

           “Five minute count to contact.” Parker’s voice was calm, even cheerful.

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