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In the Courts of the Crimson Kingsby S M Stirling
Encyclopedia Britannica, 20th edition
University of Chicago Press, 1998
Orbit: 1.5237 AU
Orbital period: 668.6 Martian solar days
Rotation: 24 hrs. 34 min.
Mass: 0.1075 x Earth
Average density: 3.93 g/cc
Surface gravity: 0.377 x Earth
Diameter: 4,217 miles (equatorial; 53.3% that of Earth)
Surface: 75% land, 25% water (incl. pack ice)
Carbon dioxide 0.11%
Trace elements: Argon, neon, krypton
Atmospheric Pressure: 10.7 psi average at northern sea level
The third life-bearing world of the solar system, Mars is less Earthlike than Venus, although like Earth and unlike Venus its rotation is counterclockwise, and the length of the Martian day is nearly identical to that of Earths. The atmosphere is thinner than Earths, and is apparently growing thinner still; though it remains easily breathable for Terran humanity at the lower levels, uplands tolerable for Martians require oxygen masks of the type used by mountaineers on Earth. More significant is the fact that Mars has a thick, rigid crust that prevents the plate tectonics characteristic of the other two worlds.
Average temperatures on Mars are roughly 10 degrees Celsius lower than those on Earth, due to the lower solar energy input. This effect is moderated by the higher percentage of carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, a phenomenon puzzling to scientists because the planet lacks the plate tectonics needed to recirculate carbon compounds and, presumably, has less vulcanism. The year, twice the Terrestrial, and the greater eccentricity of the Martian orbit render seasonal contrasts greater than the Terran norm even at the equator.
Temperatures on Earth may have been in a similar range, however, at some periods of geologic time (see “Snowball Earth”). It is believed that the gradual thinning of the Martian atmosphere and hence its reduced ability to hold heat has been offset to some degree by the gradual increase in the Suns energy output over time.
The proportions of land and water on Mars are almost a precise reversal of those on Earth. Mars has seas surrounded by land, rather than land surrounded by oceans, and so the total land area is not dissimilar to that of Earth. The bulk of the water area is concentrated in the Great Northern Sea in the northern polar zone, with a smaller equivalent in the Antarctic Sea. Smaller bodies of water are present in parts of the main equator-girdling land mass . . .
Mars, City of Zar-tu-Kan
Tau-il-Zhi (Tower of Truth)
May 1, 2000 AD
“How can you work for the vaz-Terranan? Theyre rich and they have some curious and powerful tembst, but by the First Principle, theyre ugly!” Jelzhau said, considering the board.
He moved his Chief Coercive diagonally two squares and threatened her Despot.
The woman who called herself Teyud za-Zhalt sipped at her flask of essence through the glass straw, savoring the musky tartness of the liquid, and then moved her Flier Transport onto the same square.
The mild euphoric was doubly pleasurable since Jelzhau would be buying if she won the game, and he had never toppled her Despot in a bout of atanj yet, unless she lost deliberately.
I am glad to have found alternate employment, she thought, studying the board. He never grasped that I was occasionally throwing the game, either.
Guarding the life of someone youd rather see dead was a means of earning your water too heavily spiced with irony for inner peace. Besides that, he was a cheapskate. Occasionally his atanj play was good enough to be entertaining, but usually . . .
Ah, yes. Once again, excessive conservatism in his employment of the Coercives and Clandestines. He relies too much on his Blockade and Boycott pieces, as might be expected of a spice merchant.
If you didnt exercise your Coercives, you increased the odds of their defection.
“You deal with the vaz-Terranan, too,” she pointed out, as he threw the dice to determine whose piece would win the battle for the square. “Extensively.”
“That is a series of expeditious meetings. You have to associate with the hideous things. Ah, randomness falls out in your favor.”
The dice showed three threes; that gave the paratroops in her Flier Transport time to emerge and capture his Chief Coercive.
“Oh, not necessarily so very hideous,” she said, taking the dice. “Some are grotesque—like a squashed-down caricature of humanity—but some are just stocky and perhaps a bit irregular of feature and extremely muscular. The ones Ive met are all rather clever, too, if naïve.”
Jelzhau shuddered. “And they ooze. Theyre positively slick with water and mucus most of the time. You can feel it on their breath. An extra three on whether my Chief Coercive will defect?”
“Oozing would be unaesthetic,” Teyud admitted. “Three, agreed.”
She threw; three ones, a low-probability result. In the game, that meant her paratroopers had bribed or threatened his Chief Coercive to turn against his Despot. She moved the pieces, now both hers, into another square.
“Your Despot is now confronted,” she said formally. “He must restore Shu Maz, or abdicate.”
Jelzhau sighed and tipped over the tower-shaped piece. “He abdicates; your Despot proves superior fitness to perpetuate his lineage and establish Sustained Harmony. And as for the vaz-Terranan, they have a distinct and unpleasant odor, as well.”
Her nostrils flared in irony; Jelzhau was given to excessive use of odwa-scent, himself.
“I cant detect any untoward odor most of the time. In essential respects, they resemble us. For example, they have their own internal disputes and differences.”
“They all seem much alike to me.”
Privately she thought the spice-factor was being a little bigoted, even if there was some truth to the physical description. The travelers from the Wet World couldnt help their semblance, and the ones from Kennedy Base usually dressed in local garb, and tried to behave in seemly fashion. Which was more than you could say of some of her own race, such as that clutch of deep-chested highlander caravaneers who were singing—they probably thought it was song—over in one corner, and pawing at one of the Deming servitors.
If you couldnt integrate an essence without losing harmony, you shouldnt partake in public.
Mind you, the Blue-tinted Time Considered As A Regressing Series was that sort of canal-side dive. It had seen better days, but those had probably been when the Crimson Dynasty still ruled. Someone was neglecting the glow-globes set in the fluid-stone of the ceiling fifteen feet overhead; badly fed, they gave off less light than they should, and it had an unpleasant greenish cast that made the figures of scholars and warriors on the wall look decayed.
And there was a grease mark on the smooth pearl granite behind her head; the taverner claimed that it had been made by the famous unbound hair of Zowej-ar-Lakrid in the Conquerors student days, fifteen hundred years ago, when he was conspiring to overthrow the citys despot while playing atanj in this very spot, and that it would be sacrilege to remove it. Some deep layer of it might indeed be that old.
For the rest, the stopping-place looked depressingly like a thousand others shed seen, from one end of the Real World to another: a circular room on the ground floor of a tower more than half abandoned. In the more-traveled places near the exits the hard green stones of the floor were worn into troughs that menaced the balance of the patrons. Deepest of all were the spots before the entrance to the spiral staircase in the center of the room.
The floor was set with circular tables of tkem wood that had been polished blackness once and were nicked and dark grey now.
Hers held a tiny fretted-copper brazier with a stick of cheap incense burning, and a bowl of tart dipping sauce for the small platter that had held raw rooz meat cut into strips. She took the last strip between a mannerly thumb and forefinger, touched it to the sauce and ate.
Too hot, she thought. Cheap narwak badly ground, or steeped too long.
The meat at least was decently fresh, pleasant, lightly marbled, deep red, richly salted, and slightly moist; the animal had not lost its flaps in vain.
Just then the clock over the entrance to the staircase opened its mouth, gave a sad, piercing cry and sang:
Hours like sand
On the shores of a bitter sea
Flow on waves of time;
Seven hours have passed
Since last the Sun
Rose in blind majesty;
It shall yield heedless to night
In ten more.
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six . . . seven.
That meant the flier would be arriving soon. Teyud packed her board and set, folding them into a palm-sized rectangle and slipping it into its pouch at her belt as they rose; Jelzhau would have taken the lead if Teyud had not adopted a hipshot pose of astonished sorrow. He flushed darkly and made his bow excessive.
“True, you are no longer in my employ, Most Refined of Breeding,” he said.
“Indeed,” she replied tranquilly, neglecting to add an honorific.
I wonder what the Wet Worlders truly think of us she wondered idly, as they began to trot upward.
It was still hard to have a conversation with them beyond the obvious, and they were less than frank about some things. That was probably wise of them—everyone loved flattery, and criticism was rarely popular—but a pity nonetheless. They were the first new things to come into the Real World for a very long time.
Even as her fathers lineage reckoned such things. And they had ruled this world for twice ten thousand years.
But they do so no longer; now they hide in ruins and brood, she reminded herself. Do not waste life span in reverie on things past, as your father did . . . does. For each being, the time from birth to death is as that of the universe itself. You are not in the Tollamune Emperors court at Dvor Il-Adazar now . . . and if you were within sight of the Tower of Harmonic Unity, you would die slowly.
“This trip is the first time Ive seen this many Martian faces uncovered,” Jeremy Wainman said as the Zhoming Dael slowed on its approach to the tall slimness of the tower. “Here on Zhoda, that is, not in videos back Earthside.”
Martians called their planet Zhoda; that meant “The Real World,” or possibly “The Only Significant Place.” It was all a matter of perspective, he supposed.
“It makes sense to muffle up outside on this planet,” said Captain Sally Yamashita of the United States Aerospace Force Astronaut Corps. “Dry, cold, windy, lots of acrid dust. Plus—”
The Martian airship had made several stops on its way from Kennedy Base, but those had been at caravanserais and isolated trading posts. He and his superior were the only Earthlings—vaz-Terranan in demotic Martian—in the curved forward lounge with its transparent outward-sloping wall. The dozen or so locals mostly remained seated in their nests of cushions and traveling silks and furs, many with a board between them and the eternal Martian atanj game under way; it was routine for them. Jeremy leaned eagerly over the railing, looking as the long bright line of the canal opened out into the glittering shapes of the half-ruined city ahead.
“Plus, its the custom,” he said, grinning and quoting the most common phrase in the orientation lectures that had started back on Earth right after the summons hed dreamed of but not seriously expected, and had continued at short intervals while the Brackett made its long passage out and then at Kennedy Base too.
“I am an anthropologist, you know,” Jeremy added. “With a secondary degree in archaeology, to boot, and one in Martian history.”
Sally nodded. She was tall by Terran standards—everyone assigned to Mars was, though like her, most were below the Martian average. But even at five-eleven, she gave an impression of close-coupled energy, and her slanted hazel eyes were very keen. Her father had been California-Japanese, richer than God and a marine biologist with a hobby in martial arts; her mother was from a long line of Napa Valley winemakers but had broken the mold by going into modern dance. Sallys own specialty was the study of Martian technology; she had degrees in molecular biology and paleontology. But she was also a general fixer and contact person, helping Kennedy Base interface with the Martians. And, at thirty, she was several years older than Jeremy, with the weathered skin of an Old Mars Hand.
And . . . I think shes a spook. Not all the time, were all multitasking here, but I think thats what she is if you dig down through all the layers. Why are they sending a spook on an archaeological scouting mission? Granted, this can be a very hairy planet, and she looks like she can clip hair with the best of them, but . . .
“Youre an anthropologist . . . a very inexperienced anthropologist,” she said.
It was his first trip outside Kennedy Base. Hed seen pictures of the these towers with their time-faded colors and the lacy crystalline bridges that joined them, the transparent domes below full of an astonishing flowering lushness, the narrow serpentine streets between blank-faced buildings of rose-red stone . . . but now he could see them for himself. They reminded him a little of Indian Mughal architecture done by someone on opium and freed from the limits of stone and the constraints of gravity, but there was a soft-edged quality to them unlike anything his world had ever bred, as if they had grown here.
In the distance loomed jagged heights that had been the edge of a continent when the site of this city was below the waves of a vanished sea . . .
Sally snorted; he had a sudden uncomfortable feeling she knew just what sort of greenhorn romantic twaddle he was thinking. Her words confirmed it.
“Even the experienced are just scratching the surface here. Venus may be full of hunter-gatherers or Bronze Age types like the Kartahownians, but this isnt Venus—the Martians were doing calligraphy and building cities forty thousand years ago. The Crimson Dynasty ruled before the Cro-Magnons painted mammoths on those caves in France, and it fell about the time we invented writing.”
“We came to them, not vice versa,” Jeremy pointed out. And Im teasing you. Do you have to be so solemn about everything?
Apparently she did. Even her nod was grave as she went on.
“We have a technological edge. Sort of, or so we like to think. But Earths a long way away and there arent many of us here. We cant push these people around and we dont impress them much, either. I repeat: This isnt Venus. We cant play Gods-from-the-sky here. Were on sufferance. And never forget we dont know dick about this place, really.”
“Yes, teacher,” he said good-humoredly. “Ill try to make us a little less abysmally ignorant, hmm? We do need to start learning more about Martian history. Besides what their chronicles tell us. They dont always ask the same questions we want answered and its always a good idea to check words against the stones and bones anyway.”
“Yeah, so you talked them into sending us to do a dig at Rema-Dza. Which may or may not actually exist.”
“The satellite photos show something large is there. And according to the chronicles, it could only be the city of Rema-Dza.”
“Now whos relying on words? Those are chronicles after fifteen thousand years of recopying, sometimes by people who thought it was a good idea to goof on their descendants, as interpreted by contemporary Martians who sometimes like to play see-what-the-Terran-barbarians-will-swallow. Im still not sure it was a cost-effective decision.”
It was hard not to be good-humored. Hed finally made it here. Hed dreamed about it since he was old enough to distinguish the stuff on the news from the fairy tales his mother had read him. Hed worked and planned and sweated and competed, but tens or hundreds of millions had shared that dream. Now hed done it, while they went on dreaming and reading bad novels about people like him, and watching even worse movies and video shows and breathless documentaries on the National Geographic channel.
“Why are you along, then?” he asked. “Were all supposed to be able to handle stuff on our own. We have to, with only a hundred-odd people to study an entire world.”
Three years of lobbying, and suddenly they found the funds for me and for a survey of the lost cities of the Imperial era. God, I thought it would stay tied up in the USASF bureaucracy forever.
She snorted again. “Were not supposed to be self-sufficient on our first time out! And youre a civilian.”
“Yes, maam,” he said tolerantly, with a good-natured mock salute.
If it werent for the planetary exploration program, the Pentagon would be an afterthought these days—there hadnt been a significant international conflict since the Laotian incident in the 60s, unless you counted occasional scuffles in backwaters like the Near East and Africa, which nobody in the real centers of civilization had spare time or energy to get involved with. The competition with the Eastbloc and Eurobloc was real enough, but on a more rarefied level—civilization seemed to have outgrown direct confrontations. Most people of his university-and-sciences background thought that was an inevitable product of technological and economic progress.
“Mars and Venus are probably the reasons things are peaceful back home,” Sally pointed out dryly. “But out here, things get a bit more hairy.”
He nodded, not exactly in agreement but unwillingness to argue with someone senior over a minor point. He was the one in a traveling robe woven from the exudation of jeweled moths—cloth that was Kevlar-like armor as well as clothing—with a sword by his side and a minicam and blank data chips in the haversack slung over his back. When he got back to base, the chips would have enough on them to keep Earths scholars working for a generation. Plus, there was the sense of bouncy, dreamlike enjoyment that you felt under one-third gravity; he still had to remind himself now and then not to go bounding everywhere like a slow-mo grasshopper.
The Tower of Truth rose eight hundred feet above the glassine roof of the Canal Named Liquid Abundance, growing from a tiny, asparagus-stalk shape to its full immensity as the airship approached. Most of that height was a fluted smoothness of stone striated in dusky green and dark rose, broken only by tall narrow windows. The top flared out into a shape like an elongated teardrop set on its base, ringed about with circular doors large enough to take the pointed nose of an airship; the wall between each door was transparent.
One of the doors irised open as the Zhoming Dael drifted to a near stop three thousand yards away, hanging as weightless as did the dandelionlike seeds for which it was named. From above the passenger deck one of the crew sent an orok out a hatchway, a sort of domesticated eagle with a body the size of a big dog, a crest of bronze-gold feathers on its cruel raptor head and a twenty-foot wingspan. It beat its great pinions twice and then glided to the open portal with a cable in its claws, folding its wings as it stooped through the entranceway and hopped toward the ground crew.
“You might say birds do well on Mars,” Sally said.
That surprised him into a chuckle at the understatement. The lower gravity more than made up for the thinner air, and being able to migrate was a big plus here.
The long fabric of the Drifting Frozen-white Thistle Seeds jerked as hands within took the line and reeved it through geared windlasses. The ships engines stopped; Jeremy could hear them panting for breath in the propeller pods above and behind him as the whirring hum died away. In utter silence, the huge craft slid forward until the smooth hull mated with the collar of the portal. Before him, the front of the gondola folded down to make a ramp, and the yellow-red light of Martian glow-globes shone brightly through.
The passengers stood, slung their bundles over their backs, and walked forward to pay the entry toll. Zar-tu-Kans officialdom was represented by a robed figure standing by the exit next to a pillar with a slot in the top. He had a small animallike a dark furry cylinder clutched in his right hand; there was a little red rosebud mouth—or anus or, possibly, both—at one end, but no eyes or limbs. The customs agent held it out from his side so that the six feet of thin, pink, slowly curling naked tail was well away from his body.
You didnt want to make accidental contact with a shockwhip, even if the wielder wasnt squeezing it to turn on the current. Everyone was allergic to the proteins on its surface.
Each passenger reached into the slot and dropped something as they went by; Sally Yamashita added two inch-long pieces of silver wire.
“One tenth shem,” a voice in accented Martian said, through a grill on the side of the stone post.
“Correct weight for two foreigners and up to fifteen zka-kem of noncommercial baggage,” the functionary added. “You may pass.”
“Doesnt anyone ever try to stiff the tax man?” he murmured to her. “Slipping in copper for silver?”
“Theres a mouth with teeth below that slot,” she said. “It can taste the purity of metals with its tongue. And if the weight or compositions wrong, it bites down and holds you for Mr. Revenue Service to beat on with his Amazingly Itchy Electro-Rat.”
Ouch, Jeremy thought. There are times when Martian technology is just plain . . . icky. And they could use a Martian Civil Liberties Union. Admittedly they dont have really bad tyrants, but they have far too many fair-to-middling ones.
A crowd was waiting to greet the airship. Quietly animated bargaining started as soon as the passengers disembarked, with raised eyebrows and the occasional spare gesture doing service for shouts, insults, and windmilling arms. Ground crew brought hoses forward to clip to sockets in the Floating Thistles nose and pump sludge aboard to feed the engines and the bacterial solution that produced hydrogen for the lifting cells. Fine sand ballast vented from the keel to compensate.
The interior of the tower here was a huge circular room with a groin-vaulted ceiling; bales and sacks and containers of cargo stood about in it, but not enough of them to prevent a feeling of dusty emptiness. The faded, half abstract, half pictorial frescos above the entry portals showed a traffic far thicker and more bustling . . . but they might be older than Western civilization, beneath their coating of impenetrable glassine. There was a faint smell in the air of things like burnt cinnamon and something halfway between hibiscus and clove, of acrid smoke, of sweat that was harsher and more concentrated than that of his breed because it wasted less water.
And somehow the scent of time, like faded memories piled in an infinite attic, layer upon layer until the present seemed no more than an image seen in a dream.
“Our contact?” he said.
“Jelzhau Zhau-nor. Hes a big wheel in the Zhau-na, the spice merchants guild.”
“Its not really a—” Jeremy began automatically.
“Guild. Or clan. Kin group, corporation, thingie, whatever—”
“‘Thingie wont do for the Journal of Martian Cultural Studies.”
“Dont the younger generation have any respect for their elders these days?”
“Did you, mother dear?”
“No, but I had an excuse—I was rebelling against my Japanese heritage. Anyway, we buy from him.”
Jeremy nodded. Martian spices and drugs—they didnt distinguish the concepts in Demotic—did things to the taste buds, metabolism, and nerves that Terrestrial science was having problems understanding. They were the only things besides information that could really show a profit after interplanetary shipping costs; gold and gems didnt even come close.
One of them was a genuine anti-agathic, slowing down aging for Martians and probably for Terrans too, though that would take time to prove. Particularly since Martians had about twice the Terran life span anyway, and the metabolisms of the two species were similar but not identical.
“And hes got contacts everywhere. Hes the one who hires our guides for us.”
Two Martians came forward and took greeting stances ten yards away—which meant, between those of roughly equal status, something that looked like shaking hands with yourself. Martians certainly didnt shake hands with each other; this culture put a premium on social distance.
And the gesture was the local equivalent of waving, whistling between your teeth, and shouting, Hey, Mac!
He and Sally returned the signal. One of the Martians was a man who looked middle-aged—which probably meant he was pushing a hundred, in Earth years—and whose height equaled Jeremys own six-six. That was average for standard Martians, though they varied less than humans in that way. His smooth, beardless skin was pale olive, and the oiled hair dressed in elaborate curls was raven black, also common. His robe was striped white and dark green, and the leather of his belt and curl-toed boots nearly shimmered with enameled inlay work.
The woman beside him made Jeremys eyes go a little wider. She was over seven feet tall, with even more of the big-eyed aquiline delicacy of features than most Martians, but looking more solid, somehow.
Less as if shed blow away in a stiff wind, he thought.
The color of those huge eyes was distinctly odd, yellow as fire, and so was the almost bronze sheen of hair caught back in a fine metallic net. There was an eerie loveliness to the alien face . . .
“Hey,” he whispered in English. “You didnt tell me our guide was—”
“Of the old Thoughtful Grace caste. They were—”
“The Crimson Dynastys military elite, yes,” Jeremy said. “The caste just below the top.”
For Gods sake! he thought. Im not an ignoramus because I arrived on the Brackett six months ago and this is my first off-base field trip. Ive been studying Mars since I was twelve!
But he didnt say it. There were too few Terrans on Mars to start quarrels, even with the selection for stable types. And you were stuck with the same people for the rest of your life; only two people had returned to Earth from Mars in nearly twenty years. Tiny Kennedy Base, off on the shores of the Bitter Sea, wasnt a real frontier settlement like growing Jamestown on Venus, but it would be his home for a very long time to come. Hed made that decision when hed walked through the suddenly open door.
Sally shrugged apologetically for the same reasons. “I didnt know it would be her this time; there are a couple who we use regularly. Mostly hunters and caravan guards.”
“I didnt know there were any purebred Thoughtful Grace left, at least not outside the Wai Zang towns,” he said, professional interest growing in his face. “And thats a long way away.”
“Hell, my specialty is Martian technology.”
“Just that,” Jeremy said dryly.
Biotech from this planet was revolutionizing a dozen industries on Earth, from waste disposal to fuel production. The powers-that-were viewed archaeology and cultural studies mainly as a means to get the Martians to cough up their knowledge, and to figure out ways of keeping them from lynching or poisoning or infecting the irritatingly inquisitive Wet Worlders.
“I know just enough of the cultural ins and outs not to get killed—yet,” Sally said with a wry twist to her mouth. “At least theyre more likely to listen to you on short acquaintance, you Goddamned beanpole.”
The labor gang squatting on the many-footed cargo pallets trotting forward to the fliers freight ramp were the reason for her complaint. They were Deming, bred for menial labor by the geneticists—or possibly wizards—of the Crimson Dynasty era. They didnt exactly look like Earth-humans—they were thick-bodied and short by this planets standards—but enough so that they were well within the Terran bell-curve. That was enough to get anyone below six feet perceived as inherently stupid and servile here.
And I dont like their eyes. Theres nobody “at home” there.
Their kind had been working with that same placid, witless docility for the last thirty thousand earth-years or so, just smart enough to take simple directions . . .
Icky. Really, really icky.
Jelzhau Zhau-Nor tucked his hands into the sleeves of his robe and came to about twice the conversational distance a North American considered comfortable, and cocked his ears forward; they were a bit larger and a bit more elongated than a Terrans, and a whole lot more mobile. That was a lets-get-down-to-business signal.
“I profess amiable greetings, Respectably Wealthy Jelzhau Zhau-Nor,” Sally said politely in Demotic. “Intent and event produced timely arrival. Mutual delight and profit will probably follow.”
“Hello, my friend Jawen Yama-shita!” he replied, in English.
With only a few hundred personnel on the planet, the U.S.-Commonwealth Organization of American States base could afford to be very selective, but it was still difficult to find people who met all the other qualifications and were that tall. Not only was Jeremy Wainman six-six, he had a fencers physique, long limbed and with a wiry muscularity; his face was handsome in a beak-nosed fashion that would last well after he passed his thirtieth year next April. His blue eyes and close-cropped dark brown hair would be accepted as merely exotic.
Make that sort of in English, Jeremy thought.
Copyright © 2008 by S. M. Stirling. All rights reserved.
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