Theft of Fire
1. Sir Guy
All he wanted to do was stay dead.
Menelaus Montrose woke up while his body was still frozen solid. The bioimplants the battle surgeons of the Knights Hospitalier had woven into his brain stem were working well enough for him to send a signal to the surface of the coffin, activate the pinpoint camera cells dotting its outer armor, and see who was trying to wake him up.
The light in the crypt was dim. The walls were irregular brick, and in places were cemented with bones and skulls. Niches held both coffins for the dead and cryonic suspension coffins for the slumbering.
There was a figure like a metal ape near the vault door, which had moved on vast pistons and stood open. The light spilled in from here. Only things near the door were clear.
To one side of the larger metal statue was a marble sculpture of Saint Barbara, the patron of grave-diggers, holding a cup and a palm leaf in her stiff, stone hands; to the other was Saint Ubaldo, carrying a crosier, whose office was to ward off neural disorders and obsessions. Above the vault door was a relief showing the martyrdom of Saint Renatus Goupil under the tomahawks of Iroquois. He was the patron saint of anesthesiologists and cryonicists. Above all this, in an arch, were written the words TUITIO FIDEI ET OBSEQUIUM PAUPERUM.
From this, Menelaus knew he had been moved, at least once, from his previous interment site beneath Tiber Island in the Fatebenefratelli Hospital vault. That had been little over a quarter century ago: the calculations of Cliomancy did not predict any historical crisis sufficient to require him to be relocated in so short a space as thirty years. That meant Blackie was interfering with the progression of history again.
The larger metal statue moved, ducking its head and stepping farther into the vault. Menelaus could see the Maltese cross enameled in white on the red breastplate. There were four antennae and microwave horns on his back, folded down. The scabbard for his (ceremonial) broadsword was empty, and so was the holster for his (equally ceremonial) chemical-energy pistol. Between helmet and goggles and breather mask, the figure looked like a nightmarish bug.
Montrose turned on the microphones on the outside of the coffin, and special cells in his brain stem sent signals to receivers dotting the inner coffin lid, and also to implants lining his auditory nerve. It sounded like a strange, flat, echoless noise, not like something that actually came through his ear, but he could make it out.
Menelaus turned on the speaker vox. “Why do you disturb my slumber, Sir Knight?”
He heard the ticking hum of motors and actuators coming from the armored figure. Like a mountain sinking into the sea, the big armored figure knelt. Menelaus realized this was strength-amplification armor. He tried to work out the Cliometric constellation of a set of military circumstances where this type of gear would serve any purpose that a sniper with a powerful set of winged remotes could not serve better, and his imagination failed. Unless the man was wrestling giants, or facing enemies who could walk up to arm’s length and tear the flesh from his bones, he did not see the purpose.
“My apologies, sleeper. Ah. Our records are somewhat dark. Are you Menelaus Montrose? You don’t sound like him.”
“Why the poxy hell do you disturb my poxy slumber, Sir goddam Knight?”
“Ah! Montrose! Good to hear you again, Liege.”
“Guy? Sir Guy, is that you?”
“Pellucid thawed me out two days ago. As we agreed, I have a veto over anyone trying to disturb you, even your pet machine. And it is His Excellency Grandmaster Guiden von Hompesch zu Bolheim now. They promoted me when I slept.”
“Yeah, they do poxified pox like that to you when you ain’t up and about to fend it off.”
Another implanted circuit in his brain stem made contact with a library cloth stored in an airtight capsule inside the coffin armor. The self-diagnostic showed much more deterioration than he would have expected. Half the circuits were dead, and file after file was corrupt. But he brought up the calendar, and a fiber fed the pixy image directly into the same neural circuits he was using to peer through the cameras.
“Pox! Thirty-five years. Rania’s not back yet? Any signals?”
“I have not heard, Liege. There is something that may be a signal. I would have prevented them from thawing you, if it were not significant.”
“So tell me.”
“An astronomer has detected massive energy discharges erupting from the Diamond Star. So it looks like your Princess arrived there years ago, and we are seeing now the result of some sort of macro-scale engineering. The data are ambiguous, and the Order thought you would want, with your own eyes, to look the data over and draw your own conclusion. Was I right to wake you?”
“Damn right, and thank you for asking. Have the astronomer send his data into the coffin. I can tell you the input-output registers.”
“I’d rather you thawed out fully.”
“My brain is working. What else do I need?”
“There has been a lot of wire corruption since you slumbered, Liege, and the Order made laws saying certain messages have to be delivered in person, naked eye, naked ear. Nobody uses or trusts the kind of interface implants you and I have.”
Montrose was not just surprised; he was shocked. His Cliometric calculations had not anticipated such a radical change in the basic social and technological patterns. One more thing to look into before he slumbered again. He said wryly: “Relicts already, eh?”
“A quarter century is a long time. And they insist I wear clothing, like an unevolved.”
“You ain’t talking aloud, are you?”
“No, Liege. Nerve jack. My suit has a short-range emitter.”
It took a long while for the molecular machinery clustered in the major cell groups in his vital organs, bone marrow, and parasympathetic system to restore him to life. Even through the nerve-block, there was something like growing pains, and his limbs trembled and shuddered. The last thing to happen was that special artificial glands released adrenaline into his system, and implants made of his own jinxed flesh, like the Hunter’s organ and Sach’s organ of electric eels, flushed with positively charged sodium and jolted his heart into action. Automatic circuits performed a few tests, just as undignified and invasive as anything a doctor would do, but with no bedside manner. Menelaus just gritted his teeth.
Montrose came up out of the gel, dripping, a white glass caterpillar-drive pistol in either hand. These 8-megajoule Brownings were waterproof, slightly curved, streamlined tubes of a white glassy substance, made with no moving parts and powered by a radioactive pellet likely to last 4.47 billion years. And they fitted nicely into his hands. (But he still missed his six-pound hand cannon as long as his forearm that he had used for dueling. The old Krupp railgun had been a handsome piece of artillery.)
Sir Guiden was still on one knee. He had removed his bulky helm, slung his goggles, and the wire from his skull-jack lay across his neck.
Underneath, his hair was close cropped, and he wore a black leathery cap that buckled under his chin. His face was rounder and fleshier than Menelaus remembered from 2501. Was that a touch of gray at the temples?
His age was hard to tell, since Sir Guiden sported a full-face tattoo shaped like a double-headed eagle: Wings surrounded his eyes, crooked talons curled on his cheeks, and twin hawk heads bearing crowns tilted left and right over his eyebrows. Montrose thought it one of the ugliest and most absurd decorations imaginable.
Montrose said, “I was wondering why you stepped in here all in full kit.”
“Because you are known to sleep with guns in your hands, sir. That, and no one else could talk to you.”
“So no one else has implants? The whole idea was that I could thaw my brain up to dehibernation, while leaving the rest of me iced, and that would save on wear and tear. Hurts like the pestilential devil to shock the heart awake, you know. Why couldn’t they just use a hand mic? Clip it to the coffin?”
“The technology is hard to come by, Liege. The automated factories were under Exarchel’s control.”
“What about that motorized ape suit?”
“You like it?” asked Sir Guiden, pleased.
“May my member get pustules if’n I don’t! Always wanted future soldiers to dress in roboexoskeletons. But it seems damnified impractical, and I surely don’t recall you wearing nothing alike to them when you climbed in your coffin.”
“I thawed in 2508 and again in 2526 to oversee certain operations.”
“That, and moving the buried coffins when Rome was burned by orbital mirrors. The Vatican is gone.”
“How many people killed?”
“None. The city was already evacuated due to banner storms of hunger silk. The Consensus insisted that every city have an evac procedure in place, with an aeroscaphe like a lifeboat folded against the side of every house and tower. Lucky they did.”
“I don’t care about that,” said Montrose. He planned to have the current events, no matter how dramatic, be ancient history before he woke again. “Tell me about my coffins.”
“Safe. You’ll be interested to know I used your money to purchase Cheyenne Mountain from the government of Kansas.”
“That’s in Colorado.”
“There are six territories in the North American plains region calling themselves the United States of America. I made the land purchase from George Washington of the Government of the United States of America that is based in Topeka.”
“His name was Joua Ja Gomez before he was acclaimed to his position. All the leaders in Kansas become George Washington. He wears a tricornered hat and dresses in red, white, and blue. Very colorful. But Cheyenne Mountain and the surrounding land are now officially a part of the sovereign territory of Malta, and under the government and suzerainty of the Grand Master of the Order.”
Menelaus wondered how many more centuries the Knights of Malta would continue to hold government meetings, considering that they had not held Malta since Napoleon kicked them off it. They retreated without a fight, having sworn an oath never to raise weapons against other Christians.
“There is an old buried fortress beneath Cheyenne Mountain,” Sir Guiden said, “that should last thousands of years. If we move you there secretly, we might be able to endure undisturbed for longer.”
Menelaus realized that the kneeling man was waiting for permission to get to his feet. “Up! You don’t have to stand on ceremony with me, or wait for permission to wipe your bottom in the jakes. So who is this we? And why are we going to be holed up a thousand years? The Diamond Star is only fifty light-years away.”
The armored figure, with a hiss of motors, rose to his feet, spine straight as a rifle barrel. “We are. The Sovereign Military Hospitalier Order of Saint John, of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, of Malta, and of Colorado agreed to guard you in your coffin, Your Honor. We took an oath. I personally swore to you. Do you think merely the passage of time will cow me? Ninety men and eight stand without these doors, ready to retaliate upon any who would desecrate holy ground, where the honored dead lay themselves down, waiting.”
“It was ninety-nine when I went under, not counting you.”
“One of them, Sir Alof Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, during the thaw of 2526 was granted leave to depart the order that he might wed a current girl.”
“So why are we talking about a thousand years?”
“Thousands, sir. With an s.”
“You ain’t gunna tell me, are you? You have to drag this out and keep me on pins and needles.”
“Liege, there are some things that you must see with your own eyes. The observatory is directly above us, and drawing nigh.”
2. The Empire of the Air
Montrose was pleased, if a little shocked, that Sir Guy allowed him to walk around under the sky. It implied that assassins of the Cryonarchy were no longer seeking his life.
The Cryptonarchs had been, at one time, the only people Montrose thought he could trust with the secret of xypotechnology, cryotechnology, and with the power of the antimatter recovered from V886 Centauri, the Diamond Star. They had been his own extended family, grandsons and great-grandsons of cousins and nephews.
But the Cryonarchs proved unworthy of the trust Montrose had invested, and had fallen prey to time, to corruption, to weariness. He had removed them from power by the simple expedient of altering the orbital elements of the remaining world supply of antimatter, a few ever-dwindling crystals of anticarbon diamond. These centaurs occupied orbits beyond Neptune, where encounters with particles of normal matter were rare, but not so far as to encounter the paradoxically thicker areas of deeper, transplutonian space, where there was no solar light-pressure to clear particles away. Then Montrose had given the orbital elements to a priest named Thucydides Montrose, along with his latest formulation to create augmented intelligence.
Montrose was not much of a churchgoing man himself, but the Roman Catholic Church had been in business two and a half millennia, older than any institution of man. He was wagering that Black del Azarchel, a Spanish Roman Catholic, would not lightly destroy it.
Looking up at the heavens, Montrose had the sinking sensation that he might lose that bet. Because there was a second reason why it might be safe to walk around under the naked sky, aside from the remission of the Cryonarchy vendetta against him. Sniper technology must have fallen to a new low. That implied a widespread civilizational collapse.
Clouds the hue of iron hid the sky, and drizzle fogged the air. Before him was a cathedral made of gray stone, withered with age, with a rose window like a cyclops eye, and two square bell-steeples rearing like port and starboard conning towers on some motionless ship of stone.
Angels with mossy faces stood on posts to either side of iron gates rusted open. The boneyard was beyond.
To judge from the names on the tombstones, this place was in England or North America. He assumed he was in the northeastern states, Blondie territory, or what had been back in his day. Outside the walls, he saw deciduous forest, nude and wintry, stretching over hill country. Directly beyond the cathedral gates, a trail of smaller trees ran straight downhill, but there were not even fragments of asphalt or macadam present to show if there had once been a motorcar road there.
Behind the cathedral and its outbuildings were structures he did not recognize, tall metal-sided towers topped with windowless domes that looked a bit like grain silos. Above them, hanging in the air were long streamers, hundreds of yards tall, rippling slightly in the rainy breeze. They were made of blue gray material, semitransparent, and were almost invisible against the cloudy background. They looked like collectors gathering particles out of the air and drawing them down for storage in the silos.
Overhead, huge, imposing, larger than a submarine, hung an airship. Sir Guiden raised his hand. The ship descended, but Montrose could see neither ground crew nor docking tower.
The air vessel needed none. From a hatch in the bottom gondola stretched many long snakelike tendrils or whips of metal. Guided by some unseen intelligence, they reached down and formed man-sized loops. The upper length of the tendrils flexed and moved, expanding and contracting to compensate as the wind made the airship roll and yaw. The lower lengths were as motionless as if they were embedded in glass, and hung three feet off the ground.
One of the tendrils held in its loop a ship’s crewman, who was lowered from the body of the craft to the ground, like a circus girl wrapped in the trunk of an elephant. The figure was slim and slight, long-haired, and wrapped in a long blue gray toga.
The goggles of Sir Guiden were staring upward as the robed figure descended, but it was impossible to see the knight’s expression. Montrose was standing next to him, a scarecrow next to a tin man, his gaunt body hidden in a poncho and his thin hook-nosed face hidden beneath a wide-brimmed duster.
Fifty of the Knights Hospitalier in their powered armor stood deployed on the lawn, some atop the walls, some among the mausoleums, some standing at ease nearby. The armor did not move, but every helmet had optic fibers as fine as the antennae of crabs, which swayed left and right, up and down, front and behind, as each man used his motionless goggles to look in all directions. Every pair of boots bore the golden spurs of knighthood, even though no horse ever made could have long endured the mechanized armor in its saddle. Equally archaic were the claymores, katara punching daggers, and Broomhandle Mauser pistols dangling at jaunty angles from their baldrics and cinctures. Less anachronistic were the launchers or particle-beam lances slung each from an articulated shoulder mount. The air support corps consisted of ten men, each carrying a winged drone called a hawk on his wrist. The narrow glass instrument heads of the drones on the wrists of their masters ticked back and forth as hypnotically and restlessly as the optic antennae of the motionless men.
The Knights must have assumed the descending blue-robed figure no threat, since, aside from a rippling among their antennae, they made no move as he swung close to Montrose.
The slender figure, Montrose saw as he was lowered in a swoop, was a male. The swath of robes that swirled around his limbs must have been smart material, woven with thousands of tiny motile fabric strands, because a hood unfolded by itself to shade the man’s features from the rain. The full-body tattoos that had been fashionable in earlier days were not in evidence. However, the man had decorations, complex as circuitry diagrams, imprinted in colored inks onto his hands and fingers, feet and toes. The feet decorations glowed red, and shed heat when the man stepped on the cold grass.
“Woggy! Friendlies and mates! Are we ready for up-go, no?”
Menelaus said, “No. You gunna land that thing?”
“The fair Soaring Azurine never lands! The serpentines can hoist. Or are you easily dazed?”
Menelaus spit on the ground. “I reckon I daze about as well or poorly as the next feller.”
“We can have the serpentines lower a booth, if you don’t want to dare the hoist. These are too current for you, no? The booth is opaque, and there is no sensation, no jar. You can balance a land glass atop an egg on your head, brim-full, with water tension curving above the level, and your hair will be dry as before as after you jerk up.”
“I’ll use the hoist.”
Almost before words cleared his mouth, slithering steel tightened and tugged. Montrose yelped as the ground slid dizzily away from his feet. The steel snake made a motion like an anteater pulling an ant into its mouth, and Montrose was inside the hatch, and the deck of the airship was beneath him. It was that rapid.
Whatever controlled the tendrils must have assumed he spoke for Sir Guiden, because the armored figure was wrapped in a second steel snake and also lifted swiftly and smoothly into the ship.
The people current to this age evidently were used to vertigo, because the checkerboard pattern of the deck had every other panel transparent, and showed the dun earth swaying underfoot. Large, slanting windows looked out right and left; a dome showed the bottom of the lifting body above. The slight motions of the wind rippling against the cigar-shaped gas bag overhead were imparted to the deck, so a smooth and gentle pitch and roll continually rocked the cabin.
The cabin was appointed in a lush, even sybaritic style: Gilded fountains made eye-confounding patterns of water and spray amidships, couches and settees on flexible silvery caterpillar legs swayed to either side, heaped with pillows, furs, and cushions. Small tables shining with what might have been musical instruments or fluted wineglasses hung above and below eye level, and were held on the long and gently swaying tendrils the crewman had called serpentines. The serpentines, like well-trained servants, were never in the way. Menelaus spent a moment amusing himself, rushing and jumping back and forth, trying to get one of them to trip him or snag his neck clothesline-style, but the sleek metal tentacles were too agile and too well programmed and slithered neatly aside.
Someone coughed politely. Montrose stopped his game and looked. Here were three figures: the man who had welcomed him, and two women. All three were dressed in translucent blue gray ankle-length togas of smart material with filmy capes and scarves of the same material floating from their shoulders. The fabric flowed and flickered oddly around their limbs, togas rippling like living things, and the translucent swallow-tailed capes fluttered like wings in a breeze. All were barefoot and slender. One woman, the taller, willowy blonde, wore a wreath of flowers, but aside from this, the fantastic headgear of the Cryonarchy had thankfully passed into history. The shorter and younger woman wore a purple sapphire shaped like a teardrop on her brow, with an untamed mass of hair dyed a luminous hue of purple framing her thin face, her eyelids painted black. Her eyes were violet and wild.
The long-haired man who greeted them on the ground, Menelaus realized, had not been “crew.” This was a private ship, a houseboat, not a military vessel.
A fourth figure, also a man, was dressed in the black cassock and white dog collar of a cleric, his garb from days older than Montrose’s own. It was this man who stepped forward and offered his hand.
“I am Brother Roger Juliac of Beeleigh, Society of Jesus.”
“Meany Montrose. Howdy do.”
“Yes, Highly Honored. I know of you,” intoned Brother Roger with an inclination of his head. “I am the astronomer who discovered the anomaly.”
The man had the hard and rugged face and thickset build of a boxer. Montrose could not imagine anyone who looked less like a man of the cloth, or an astrophysicist.
Montrose still had caterpillar-drive pistols in both his fists, so he took his right pistol, thrust it butt first into the surprised man’s left hand, and then clasped his right. After the handshake, he snatched his pistol back.
Sir Guiden, watching this exchange, said to Montrose over the silent, internal channel they shared, “Liege, you know the gesture of a handshake is meant to show that you have no weapon in your sword hand.”
“Really? I figure handing the friar my shooting iron shows I am even more peaceful than that. You gunna take off your helmet?”
Sir Guy said silently, “The shipmaster and his wives are dressed in hunger silk. It can be used as a weapon. The micropores can flay skin and strip proteins out of the blood and muscle exposed.”
“If these folk are so fierce, why’d we leave our goon squad below?”
Sir Guy replied, “The airskiff serpentines will protect you from attack, if you are a friend, and the men could not protect you from them, if you are a foe.”
Menelaus had noticed that the gondola did not have any armor, or locks on the ports or hatches. Since anyone hoisted aboard was wrapped in deadly metal cable, and remained in reach thereafter, and since the people aboard wore yards of smart cloth that apparently could eat a man’s face, perhaps locks and bars were not needed.
Meanwhile, at the same time, Menelaus was talking aloud to the Jesuit with his real mouth and listening with his real ears. The first thing he said was, “What anomaly?”
Brother Roger said, “This is Tessa Azurine, and her permanent paramour, Woggy Azurine, and the sexpartner is called Third, since she is between names at the moment. I am their mendicant and confessor.”
The man waved and grinned. “Gulps! Bro Ro is weight-valued, since the Giants be less like to scald flocks what have a spook-speaking man amidst. Not mendicant he!”
The taller of the two women curtsied like a willow bending, and her blue gray robes writhed like mist. “We scorn no refugee; we share lift, fire, and salt. ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Adam hath not where to lay his head.’ You are a Sylph of Time as we are Sylphs of Wind, blown you know not where.”
The girl with the purple hair and the gem on her brow was pouting like a child, and her eyes were not focused on anything in the environment around her. She spoke aloud to no one in particular, “How about Trey? No? Like a card.”
Montrose grunted. “Yeah, um, pleezta-meetcha, gals, guy, nice digs. Sure hope y’all feel better soon.”
The willowy, flower-crowned woman, Tessa, said, “But we are not sick, no?”
“I ain’t touching that line with a boat hook, ma’am. Brother Roger, what anomaly?”
The Jesuit said to her, “Tessa, if you could ask the Azurine to ascend to the observatory, it should be passing through the area directly.”
Tessa said, “Azurine, my adored, acknowledge the order.”
A melodic voice answered from the wall, sounding like wind chimes. “I delight to obey, my adored. I ascend. For your delight, I play an ascension theme from your preference profile.” A haunting sequence of woodwinds and plaintive chords drifted through the air, soft and without melody, but a trumpet added a note of triumph when the airship broke through the cloud, as if through a gray floor, up into dazzling daylight.
Montrose said to the priest, “You! Now that the pleasantries are done, what poxy anomaly?”
Brother Roger said, “Energy discharges from V886 Centauri. The radiospectrography and gamma ray analysis are constant with an, ah, interplanetary event.”
“No damn point in pausing for drama, Padre, because I grade on info, not on delivery.”
Brother Roger said, “Ah. As you say. We believe the ice giant planet Thrymheim was driven into the star. The terrene matter of the superjovian world interacted with the contraterrene plasma of the star’s atmosphere.”
Thrymheim was the single planet orbiting the Diamond Star. It held a far Neptunian orbit, beyond where the antimatter in the solar wind could reach, and so was not disintegrated.
“Driven in why? As a weapon?”
Brother Roger shook his head. “Criswell mining operates by inducing a ring-current around the star by ionically charged beams oppositely directed from each other. Usually the mining satellite ring is equatorial, so that the ejection mass—”
“By Mother Mary changing baby Jesus’ stinking holy diapers, Padre! I was on the expedition, and I am a star miner, so I know how the damn process works!”
Brother Roger said, “There are dark lines in the spectrographic analysis consistent with an off-center arrangement of the mining orbitals, Honored.”
“Blight and clap! What are the vectors?”
Brother Roger said, “I have not been able to deduce, from the limited information available fifty light-years away, what the various constituent pressures—”
“You are saying the mining satellites focused the explosion like a jet engine.”
“Explosions. So we speculate, Honored.”
“Which way is it pointing? Wait. Explosions, with an s, plural?”
“She broke the damn planet into bits, made it into an asteroid stream, and is feeding in one or two earth-masses at a time. Thrymheim was fifteen hundred and ninety earth-masses, as I recall. The whole solar system, Monument and everything, has been turned into a damned Orion drive, just on a massive scale.”
Sir Guiden turned on his suit speakers, to let the people in the cabin hear the question, “Liege! How do you know it is she?”
“Meaning what?” Montrose said.
Sir Guiden said, “The Bellerophon was lighter than the Hermetic, and should have overtaken her either when they made starfall at V886 Centauri, a few months more or less. We tend to think of red dwarfs as small and dim, but a sailing ship can reflect and focus a beam of star energy to burn targets across interplanetary distances, and small stars have more than enough power for that.”
“The pursuit ship didn’t have no crew aboard, it was just Del Azarchel’s second emulation, an Astro-Exarchel, and a passel of teleoperated tools. You’re thinking Rania might have bought the farm during whatever shoot-out banged when they butted heads?
Sir Guiden said, “Liege, are you trying to be obscure? Farm?”
“Sorry. You think Rania died? No fear of that!”
Sir Guiden said, “How not?”
“I know Blackie. He don’t think this big. Oh, this is her work, all right.” Montrose threw back his head and laughed. “What a gal! Did I tell you she’s mine?”
Brother Roger said diffidently, “Honored—if you intuit the meaning of this anomaly, I would be grateful if—”
“It’s eight thousand five hundred years until the Hyades Armada arrives here. Not much time. What is the biggest block to our being able to fight them when they come? We’re too small, too weak, too stupid. What is the main thing you need to get smarts? I don’t mean one man, I mean on a large-scale, bigger-than-worlds, multiple-centuries sort of deal. Library smarts; datasphere smarts. What’s it take? Energy. It takes fuel to calculate. Fuel to think. Now, the whole damn and plague-ridden universe is made out of energy, but not in a form ready to use. I was going crazy trying to figure out how many expeditions we could make to the Diamond Star for contraterrene, how much fuel is lost in transport, how many ships, considering that a ship can tow only about as much fuel as you might like to use for a round-trip, and not too much over.”
Brother Roger said, “Honored, I don’t follow you.”
“Rania blasted the Diamond Star out of its orbit around the galactic core, and is bringing the Diamond Star here. It is a dwarf star holding a ten-decillion-carat diamond made of antimatter, and if she parks it in an orbit inside our heliopause, where the interstellar medium is thin, we can go mine it in a reasonable time. How about the antimatter source is thirteen light-hours away rather than fifty light-years? How are our chances against the Dominion of the Hyades then?”
“Please stop calling me that. The only titles I ever earned were ‘Doctor’ and ‘Esquire’ and ‘Lance-Corporal,’ and I am only qualified for one and a half of them. So call me Menelaus. If I scare ya, you can call me Doctor Montrose.”
“So I scare ya?”
Brother Roger said, “Very much so, Doctor. After you destroyed all the cities of the world, one would be foolish not to—”
“Wait. What the pox?”
Just at that moment, the clouds underfoot parted, and the sun shining on the surface of the water sent a dazzle into the cabin. Montrose turned, squinted, blinked, and something in the back of his mind, between one blink and the next, ran some rapid calculations on the afterimage of what he had just seen.
He stepped over the window. “Anyone here got a spyglass?”
Sir Guiden said, “He means a snooper.”
The willowy woman, Tessa said, “He means hunger silk. It absorbs photons as well as proteins.”
With this, Tessa stepped over to the window and threw a tail of her writhing garment across the glass. The blue gray material stuck as if magnetized, and the surface bubbled slightly. The disk of vacuum trapped beneath formed a lens, and suddenly the fabric seemed to become like a library cloth, because a clear image appeared in it of what Menelaus had seen in the distance.
It was a flotilla of airships, by scores and hundreds, drifting idly across the face of the waters, or brushing the surface. Long banners, like the lines trailing a fishing boat, hung from the airships and swept through the water. Every now and again one of the airships would turn and dive like a pelican, splashdown, and become a submarine, darting like a shark. One such airship he saw dived into a school of fish, and when it rose, the hull was dotted with sleek bodies that seemed to be glued or held against the surface. The fish melted, and their bodily fluids and guts streamed for a moment against the gray fabric of the airship, and then those streaks too were absorbed.
In the distance was shoreline, and trees beyond. There were airships here as well, trailing long fabric trains behind them as they drifted. Where the cloth passed, the trees were stripped of bark and buds. Any birds passing near were slashed out of the air by the serpentines, and the blue gray trails of fabric turned the bodies into stains of blood and absorbed them.
Menelaus, now that they were above the cloud cover, could make an estimate of their speed, and was astonished. “What is your propulsion?”
The woodwind voice of the ship answered, “Admired, cherished, and welcome guest, six valveless pulsejet engines aft use a nuclear hydrogen-fusion lance running along the lifting body axis to heat and expel an inert nitrogen compound propellant gathered from the surrounding atmospheric gases. The flexible lifting body material allows smooth and uninterrupted transition between heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air configurations, with partial vacuum created for lift by multiple microscopic rows along the dorsal surface. All gaseous raw materials are filtered out of the available environment by the submicropore chemical-lock system known as hunger silk, and recombined by molecular-capillary pseudochemistry in the fore nacelles. Lifting gases are in the buoyancy tanks. Carbon gas is reconfigured into diamond crystal and used for ballast. To submerge, the craft cross-sectional configuration—”
“Thanks, good answer, shut up,” said Menelaus. To himself, he muttered, “Never woulda guessed. Atomic-powered supersonic submarine-blimps…” He turned to Tessa, “So what happened to the cities?”
She smiled dreamily. “We have drugs to suppress those memories. Happiness drugs. But the ship can answer you in this as well, my adored ship, more loyal than any human lover.”
The Jesuit said, “I can answer, Doctor. The material used for starship sails included smart strands with molecular engines for the repair of micropunctures, altering permeability, absorbing laser energy, and so on. As time passed, the Exarchel discovered additional programming configurations for the molecular machinery, and a larger range of options. Your antimatter monopoly was broken once orbital sails could focus solar energy into any rectenna receiver anywhere on the planet—and, because Earth had been using your power broadcast reception for decades, the rectennae were everywhere. The orbital sails, ah, well…”
“So what happened to the cities?”
Brother Roger said, “Many were burned like ants under a magnifying glass. Antimissile defenses are of no value against such an attack.”
“Who was fighting who?”
Brother Roger said, “The Giants were fighting the Ghosts.”
Brother Roger said, “Posthumans. Artificial children with your intelligence range. It is a way to achieve posthumanity without making an Iron Ghost of your own brain, as the Scholars do. It was worked out by a scientific convocation held under His Holiness Pope Sixtus the Sixth.”
Sir Guiden said to Brother Roger, “He won’t know that name.” To Menelaus, he said, “Sir, Sixtus the Sixth was Thucydides Montrose. Research in brain-size increase was married to your Prometheus formula to create a posthuman that did not need to be emulated to be augmented. They are genetically altered before conception to grow gigantic bodies to house their correspondingly elephantine brains.”
“What about augmenting ordinary people, Guy?” asked Montrose, distracted. “Can people ramp up to posthuman intellect like I did, without going mad, like I did?”
“Not really.” Sir Guiden sounded grim. “Too many people died trying. Emulation seemed safer, but it requires specialized training and nerve implants to be able to donate a brain copy for scanning. Those with this skill were called Savants. Before the burning of the cities, most of mankind was ruled or led by counsels or collections of these Ghosts, emulations of jurists and statesmen, replaced from their Savant donors every three years.”
“Why so short?”
Sir Guiden looked surprised. “For reasons you know very well, sir. Divarication failure. You never released to the world Princess Rania’s solution to the Selfish Meme divarication, which allows for stable posthumans without split personalities, nor your solution for the Impersonator divarication, which allows for an electronic copy of a posthuman brain to be made!”
“I was just assuming Blackie and his troupe of trained monkeys would have noodled that out by now, and covered the world with Iron Ghosts.”
Sir Guiden said, “The Hermeticists were said to have a more advanced technology than the Savants, and able to download as well as upload, to put the thoughts of their superintelligent computer copies back into their own brains, at least for a time.”
Montrose said, “That’s a crude way of doing it. Why did you say ‘were’?”
Sir Guiden said, “Our intelligence arm has confirmed information that over sixty of the Hermeticists went insane or died attempting Prometheus augmentation.”
“There were only seventy or so of them all told,” said Montrose in awe. “Did they wipe themselves all out?… That’s … I mean, I got crosswise with them toward the end there, and they were mutineers and murderers, but … aw, hell, they were my partners in training, the only guys I trusted to look over my work for mistakes … the only ones who understood it. Damn. Damnation. All of them? What about Blackie?”
“Almost all,” said Sir Guiden.
“The intelligence reports are tentative. It’s not confirmed,” said Sir Guiden.
“Tell me what you suspect then, Guy.”
“We suspect the ringleaders are still alive and sane,” said Sir Guiden. “The Master of the World, Ximen del Azarchel is alive: he still makes speeches to loyal followers, promising a return of his regime and world peace. The commander-in-chief of the world armed forces, Narcís D’Aragó. Sarmento i Illa d’Or, who was head of the World Reserve Bank. The Confessor to the Crown, Father Reyes y Pastor. Melchor de Ulloa, the chief of the Loyalty Police. Jaume Coronimas, who was in charge of all the energy systems and powerhouses of Earth.”
“Coronimas the engineer’s mate? I remember him as a guy with no hobbies, no girl, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t make jokes. Why is he still alive? I don’t think I ever heard his first name.”
“The same,” said Sir Guiden.
“Weird. They had the same jobs aboard the ship. Draggy was in charge of security, Yellow Door was quartermaster, Pasty was chaplain and Mulchie was chief snoop and ass-sniffer. I never had a nickname for Coronimas. Didn’t know him close enough.”
“Which one is Yellow Door?”
“I Illa d’Or. Sarmento i Illa d’Or.”
“They are all in hiding now,” said Sir Guiden, “Have been, since the Decivilization War.”
Decivilization. Montrose thought it was a chillingly apt word to describe the destruction of all the large cities of the world. “What were they fighting about? The Giants and Ghosts?”
The Knight Hospitalier laughed a chilling laugh. “What are wars always about? Loot, honor, fear. The barbarians and pagans are trying to destroy Christendom.”
Brother Roger intervened, “In this case, we men are not aware of the causes of the war, because neither the Giants nor the Ghosts were able to express their concerns in a fashion unmodified humans could understand. The basic conflict seemed to be a disagreement about the implications of higher mathematics.”
Sir Guiden said, “Don’t listen to that! The war was being fought about demographic calculation and information space restrictions. The math question concerned equations governing human liberty, economy, intellectual property, and resource priority. These equations formed the conceptual basis for countless laws and regulations. It was no mere abstract argument. It was about whether humanity would be dehumanized and tyrannized.”
Montrose said, “So Exarchel finally did it! If he cannot enslave mankind, he’ll destroy us!”
“No, Doctor,” said Brother Roger cautiously. “The, ah, Giants are the ones controlling the orbital mirrors. The only way to destroy the infrastructure of the wire net was to destroy the great industrial centers, where all the thinking houses and power stations were located. Cities like those in Switzerland and China that were tourist sites made of old materials, concrete and stone, not thinking crystal, were spared, as were any under a certain population density and energy use.”
“And—” Menelaus gestured toward the horizon, at the airships that swarmed like silver fish among the clouds. “These? They are Nomads, right?”
“Yes, Doctor,” said Brother Roger. “We are a world of Sylphs. The only defense is dispersion. All the survivors departed from the remaining cities as rapidly as possible. The larger flocks cover the sea from horizon to horizon, but once a mirror beam lands among them, they turn silver, emit ink clouds, and scatter in all directions, or submerge. The orientation and focal lengths of the space mirrors are watched carefully, and the aeroscaphes land together only when the mirrors are below the horizon, for barter fairs, and so on.”
“Hold on. The Giants are the enemies of these floaty folk? Which side are they on?”
“Not precisely. The Giants intervene only when the artificial intelligence behind the serpentines violates the Gigantic quarantine guidelines on machine awareness.”
“This airskiff has a Mälzel brain. It’s lightweight in more ways than one, I’d reckon. And don’t tell me, let me guess. You are finding the Mälzels turning into Xypotechs after a few years of use, and they strange loop into obsessive concentration on a few high-priority tasks?”
Brother Roger looked surprised. “The considerations are rather technical, and, of course, the Sylphs cannot tolerate another downgrade of allowable technology. But how can you be aware of our difficulties?”
“Because I had ’em first.” Montrose grinned. “Your problem is basically what was going wrong with Exarchel back when he was a mad mainframe no bigger than a city block. It’s called the Selfish Meme divarication, and it is the first of the seven basic divarication problems. I’m the dude that fixed it: You have to establish a self-correcting noneditable editor in the mind’s base process, what would be called the subconscious in a human brain, and sink the roots of the ego there, where the changeware can’t get at them and anchor to a mechanical process. It’s not a hard glitch to solve: All you need is a four-thousand-dimensional manifold extrapolating the combinational possibilities. You’d think it’d be an automorphic function in Schubert’s enumerative calculus, but no: you use linear differential equations within a prescribed monodromic group, where each function…” Then, seeing the blank stares on him, Montrose shrugged and said, “Well, it’s not a hard glitch for me to solve. I can teach the mechanisms how to create the self-corrective code in themselves. In any case, Brother, if I straighten out this bug in the serpentines, will it get the Giants off the backs of these Nomads?”
“Eventually.” Said Brother Roger, “It would take only a few years for the solution to spread.”
“A few—what? Years?”
Brother Roger said solemnly, “The Sylphs use the serpentines for barter. At landing fairs, serpentines get passed from hand to hand, with the older, more skilled artifacts commanding more in trade. That is the fastest means of spreading data.”
“Barter? You guys lost the concept of coin money?” The look on Montrose’s face was such that the violet-eyed younger woman handed him an airsickness bag.
Brother Roger said, “Money operates on the wire net, and no one uses the wire, because that is where the Exarchel was, Doctor. Communication of any form between ships is unhumanish, except heliograph signals, which cannot carry Iron Ghosts, or their data. All transmission bands are forbidden.”
Sir Guiden said on their private channel, “I recommend you not solve this glitch, as you call it, Liege. You are describing the solution to the problem of madness in Ghosts. If you release it to the world, Del Azarchel, or someone with his ambitions, will eventually create a second Exarchel, or a third, or a million.”
Silently, Montrose had his implants send back, “I can narrow the solution to these specifics, without giving away the general principle, Sir Guy. Rania’s Cure is actually seven semi-independent ecomimetic functions. Can he deduce the missing general rule just from one application of one seventh of the set? I doubt he has the brains.”
Sir Guiden sent back, “Why take the risk? Are these drifting people worth saving? They neither sow nor spin. Let the Giants multiply and inherit the Earth.”
Brother Roger said blandly to Menelaus, “Even the signals you are sending back and forth with your man, the Hospitalier, would invite gigantic retaliation if detected. I am sorry: were those signals meant to be secret? Well, such is the reason we are going in person to the observatory, rather than having a voice-through-the-air conference.”
The violet-eyed woman murmured softly, as if in a dream. “Telephones. They were called telephones. You could send pictures of yourself dancing raw to your darling list.”
Menelaus uttered a bitter laugh. “So radio has gone the way of the dodo. I made the Giants and they killed all the boys named Jack. I destroyed the world. I told Thucydides that this would come to a bad end! Told him!”
“Oh, do not cast down your features, Dr. Montrose! Society survives in a decentralized form,” said the Jesuit. “The Giants spare any automatic factories, provided the electronic brains housed there are Mälzels or ratiotechnology, thinking machines, not xypotechnology, self-aware machines. A single Giant can carry the download of an entire library needle in his head. I myself, with merely very minor neural augmentations, have both photographic memory, linguistic and mathematical savant abilities, spatial proprioception that establishes perfect direction sense, and the ability to speak the high-speed data-compression language.”
“And what happened to Exarchel?”
Brother Roger said, “No copy of him remains anywhere on Earth. With the total shutdown of the infosphere, his power is broken forever!”
“For a hundred years!” The Jesuit smiled.
“That is not as long a time as you might think.…”
The Jesuit pointed at one of the large and slanting windows. “There is the observatory.” Hanging in the air was a tall cylinder, slightly narrower at the top than at the base, and a ring of vast gas balloons surrounding its waist like a festive skirt. “We should have new plates developed at sunset.”
“That’s a pretty big telescope.” The cylinder was twenty meters in diameter, which made the instrument inside at least twice as big as the telescopes Menelaus recalled from his day. “And you must not get much distortion, if you can take her up to the stratosphere.”
“We also use the space mirrors as baselines, Doctor,” said Brother Roger. “Most of the Giants will cooperate with scientific ventures. Obviously they need technology to advance.”
“Obviously,” said Montrose. “Because they want to breed true, right? The offspring of Giants are humans?”
“Humans with various bone diseases, yes, Doctor,” said Brother Roger. “A group of scientific clans called the Simon Families was established by Og of Northumberland to solve that and other long-range multigenerational problems. The experiments are passed down from mother to daughter.”
“Do the Cetaceans have the same problem?”
Brother Roger spread his hands. “The Moreau, as we call those who dwell beneath the sea, are not well known or well studied. All our shipping is by air these days, for the Moreau cannot survive an encounter with an aeroscaphe. The Exarchel is no longer in a position to supply them with jaw-launched missiles, and they cannot manufacture their own. More of us float above the sea than above land, since krill and plankton are easier for the hunger silk to absorb and convert than most land-based proteins.”
“Are you going to drive them into extinction?”
“Ah? Is that your wish, Doctor? That seems as harsh as your condemnation of the cities.”
“I was asleep! Did these Giants say I gave the order?”
Brother Roger looked troubled. “Say? You gave the order. The whole world saw you. It was your voice and image over the wire. What does this mean? Is someone acting for you, impersonating you?”
3. Glimpse of a Distant Star
Boarding was a simple but dizzying process of being passed from the airship serpentines to the observatory’s. The metal snakes handed Menelaus over as gently as a father picking a tot out of a baby carriage and into a mother’s waiting arms, but the moment of being exposed to the chill and thin winds of the upper air, with nothing underfoot and nothing to cling to, left him wishing he had taken up Woggy on his offer of a booth.
Ascending to the stratosphere was effortless: The huge balloon, after a polite warning, sealed all its pressure doors, and shed diamond dust in a long and glittering tail, and climbed.
This interior was as spartan as the Azurine had been luxurious. Menelaus found the photographic plates waiting for him, pinned to a steel bench next to a steel stool, with a lens on a cantilevered arm hanging above. To see images created by chemical emulsions seemed oddly old-fashioned, but the current range of nanotechnologically created chemical mixes could react more sensitively to various wavelengths, including gamma and X-ray, shortwave and infrared, than any digital receptors.
There was no completely trustworthy calculating machine nor library cloth available in this technophobic age, but Brother Roger was able to give him the basics of the high-speed compression language, and any calculations Menelaus could not do in his head, Menelaus could squeal and click in a single quick throat-rasp to Brother Roger, whose intuitive grasp of notational mathematics was almost as good as his own. Menelaus used him to double check his work for errors.
The first plate showed merely a large circular smear of light with a smaller one nearly. A distribution of infrared and microwave emissions caught on those plates indicated a contact point below the solar atmosphere.
Montrose said, “She’s had to overcome the problem that antimatter–matter reactions usually end up blowing most of the matter back toward the source. When a billiard-ball hits an anti–billiard-ball, the two balls are blown away from each other when the point of contact releases all its energy. You gotta push the two billiards together against their ignition pressure to maintain the explosion, and keep pushing. From the magnetic images, I reckon she is using the ring current from the mining satellites not just to focus the explosion like a jet cone, but also to hem in the fragments like an ignition cylinder. I would ask where she got the energy to ionize the whole metallic hydrogen core of the gas giant, but she’s sitting on top of the biggest energy treasure in the known universe, so I guess she just—”
He was interrupted by Brother Roger bringing the latest two plates. It was after sunset, and at 170,000 feet (thirty-two miles and change straight up) they were above the troposphere and in the stratosphere, the edge of outer space. The pressure outside the armored sphere of the life support was 1/1000 of sea level. Needless to say, the pictures were clearer than any mountaintop observatory.
There were two images: one magnetic, the other in the gamma ray spectrum.
Brother Roger passed him the magnetic image first. “There are a number of very puzzling features in this.…”
Menelaus barely glanced at the magnetic image. “You are getting a diffraction effect caused by the fact that she is using a second set of ring-current satellites to establish a magnetic ramscoop in front of the star. It is going to draw in hydrogen particles of terrene matter, loop them around to the aft end of the Diamond Star, and ram them into the antimatter vortex forming in the aft magnetic jet cone. The incoming particles will have greatly increased mass as she mounts up near to lightspeed, and so more energy will be released with the bombardment.”
In contrast, it was with a look of awe that Menelaus examined the high-energy image. He studied it with increasing excitement for long moments before he spoke. “There is no gamma ray count registered. That means the forty percent of pions created during total conversion which should be neutral somehow ain’t neutral. I’d say it’s impossible, but do you know what that means? The main problem with matter–antimatter conversion is that most of your mass is lost and wasted in dark matter like pi mesons. She has some method of charging them, so the axial electromagnetic field lines can grab them, focus them into the thrust before they decay into muons. She did it somehow, but I don’t know how. She did the impossible!”
He started to laugh with joy, but the meaning of the image suddenly struck him, and the laughter choked in his throat.
“Brother Roger, is this a mistake? The spectrographic reading along the bottom—someone must have flipped the plate into the camera backwards, or—or—”
“No, Doctor,” said the Jesuit, his face pale. “The image is red-shifted, not blue-shifted.”
“She is not heading toward the Earth. She is heading away. Where is she going? Never mind! I know! Damn my balls and eyeballs! She’s leaving! She’s not coming back for me!”
In a rage he raised the photographic plate and smashed it to pieces. He knotted his fists into the hair of his head to keep himself from smashing other things, and he tried to gather so much hair in his hands that he could not pull it out. His hands only indifferently obeyed his commands, so there was considerable yanking on his scalp, and it brought tears to his eyes. More tears.
Bile stung the back of his throat. Menelaus finally parked his head between his knees, waiting to see if he would throw up.
“She even told me. We talked about it!”
“Doctor? Where is she going? To the Hyades? It is one hundred and fifty-one light-years away. She could return in three hundred years or so, which is not an impossible time for a hibernating man to outwait.”
“Not the Hyades.”
“What else is out there?”
Montrose squeezed his eyes shut, wondering if he could induce a brain aneurysm in himself just by sheer anger and willpower. “M3.”
“The Messier Object Three.” Menelaus spoke the words with deliberate care. “It is a galactic cluster, a microgalaxy, hanging almost directly above the disk of the Milky Way, like a wee little bluebottle fly thinking about landing on a pie plate. It’s not some piss-ass little stellar cluster, like Hyades, oh no. Hyades is a few hundred stars, maybe eight hundred. M3 contains half a million to a million suns. M3 also contains an entity, a collection of races or a collection of machines, a power of some sort, a far-posthuman intelligence she labeled the Absolute Authority. That’s what their glyph in the Monument means: their word for themselves is a game theory expression for a player whose moves expand infinitely to all cell matrices and determine all outcomes. It is the boss of Praesepe Cluster, which is five hundred and fifty light-years away; and Praesepe is the boss of Hyades. So M3 is the boss of their boss. Their chain of command is all written out in the Monument. She is going to the top. City Hall. The Front Office. The King. The Judgment Seat.”
“Why go there?”
The words fell from the mouth of Montrose like pebbles of lead. “Vindication. She is going to vindicate the human race.”
“If she goes and comes back, it proves that the human race is a starfaring race. It proves we can live long enough and think far enough into the future to carry out interstellar trade and to be governed by interstellar laws. Starfarers got to think long-term, and be greedy enough to wait for a ten-thousand-year payoff, in the case of trade agreements; Godfearing enough to be adverse to ten-thousand-year delayed vengeance. Only polities that care a damn sight more than human beings have been known to care about their way-off way-way-off descendents need apply.”
“And if mankind is tested and proved, and found to be starfarers?”
“It makes us equals. Our servitude to Hyades is abolished. We’re free and debt-free. But Rania has to come back, and there has to be a deceleration laser here ready to receive her, and the people of that generation and aeon, they got to know who she is, recognize her rights, all that good stuff.
“If we forget her,” Montrose continued, “then the Earth fails the test, and we are not smart enough and not long-term enough to deal with the distances star-travel requires.
“So that is my job.” Montrose concluded, “You gotta admit, I am perfectly suited. No one is as goddam stubborn as me. And I am not going to forget her or let the world forget.”
Brother Roger said, “Then your war with Exarchel is over! Because when she returns, and proves we are a starfaring race, the Hyades will recall their world armada, surely, will they not?”
“Oh, I did not mention the distance,” said Menelaus with a groan, smiling a weak smile, crinkling his tearstained cheeks. “I thought you, being an astronomer—”
“I don’t have the Messier catalog memorized, Doctor.”
“It is outside the damn galaxy. M3 is roughly thirty-three thousand nine hundred light-years away. The round-trip at near-lightspeed is over sixty-seven thousand years. She will be back, assuming no delays and no nonsense, by A.D. 70,800. You got that figure in your mind? If you counted to a trillion, and counted one number a second, and you did it twelve hours a day, taking half the day off for eating and sleeping, that is roughly the time involved.”
Brother Roger blinked owlishly. “It is a hard number to imagine, Doctor,” he said slowly.
“Put it in the past instead of the future. That’ll give you a notion of the scale. In order for today to be the day when my wife returned from the gulfs beyond the galaxy, she would have had to have departed from Earth back in the year 60,000 B.C.—about when Neanderthals still walked the Earth. Leaf-point stone tools and the dugout canoe were both new inventions.”
“But the Hyades world armada arrives in A.D. 11,000, does it not? Won’t her actions, the vindication, be far, far too late?”
Menelaus answered, “We have to battle the Hegemony, and stay free all that time, until she comes. And with no antimatter star to mine no more. No power for a new civilization. No nothing. We have to endure. Endure until…”
Montrose shook his head, his sorrow, for a moment, swallowed up in wonder.
“She blasted the damn star out of orbit, and she is accelerating in a right line, straight up out of the plane of the galactic disk, to a little cluster of stars, half a million or so, that hangs like an island in the middle of intergalactic nothingness.”
Brother Roger was silent.
Montrose said, “My war with Del Azarchel is just starting. My war with entropy is just starting. It will be the longest war in history. It will be longer than history. If I lose, the human race remains the slaves of the Hyades Hegemony forever and ever, amen.”
“And if you win, we are free?”
“Sodomize that. What do I care what some big-headed big-arsed post-transhuman half-machine bug-faced thing in the Year Zillion is free or slave? If I win, I get my wife back.” Montrose stood up. “I need a breath of fresh air. Which we cannot get unless you descend thirty miles.”
4. The Sign
Brother Roger Juliac said, “I can take you to the observation platform, where at least you can look out and see the stars.”
Menelaus looked down mournfully at the fragments of the photographic plate he’d smashed. “Sorry about that. I should not have lost my temper.”
“We all lose our temper sometimes.”
“And we all say sorry sometimes when we do! One of my relations, Thucydides, you call him Sixtus the Sixth, which is a dumb name if you ask me, imposed a penalty on me, a punishment. He said I had to stay happy. To wait in joyful hope for her return. That means I cannot give up, cannot give in to despair, can’t let it get to me. I gotta just soldier on.”
Brother Roger led him down a companionway and a set of narrow metal stairs to a bubble of transparent metal hanging like a swallow’s nest precariously from the side of the great cylindrical balloon. The earth below was lined with a blue shadow in the distance, where the sunlight, like a great curving line, still glinted over the retreating sunset. Directly underfoot, all was dark. The wonder of city lights agleam at night, which had for so many years been the joy of astronauts and high flying pilots, was no more. Instead, there were drifting lights like fireflies where flotillas of aeroscaphes were gathered, and here and there, a strange green glint from under the sea, the sign of some activity from the Cetaceans.
Montrose turned. In the east, the moon was risen, pale as a skull. He gave off a gasp of horror and grabbed Brother Roger by the arm. “What the hell is that!?”
For the face of the moon was painted with the shadow of a hand.
The wrist was near Tycho crater, and the vast palm, complete with curving lifeline, smothered the Sea of Tranquillity and the Sea of Serenity. The gray white thumb stretched across the Ocean of Storms toward the lava crater of Grimaldi, the darkest area of the moon. The fingers were drawn up toward the Mare Frigoris, Sea of Cold, and were painted with solid ashy white. The hand was not in proper proportion, for the fingers were too long and thin. The curve of the moon bent the fingers. The fingertips at the lunar north pole must have been nine hundred miles farther from the Earth than the palm near the lunar equator, but since the moon looked like a disk to the human eye, this produced the odd illusion that the vast hand was curling its fingers toward the viewer. A thin pale hand with a black palm seemed as if ready to reach down from heaven.
“It first appeared when the cities were deserted,” said Brother Roger. “It grew steadily over seventy days, starting with the wrist near Tycho crater. There was a launch site in Tycho that sent skywriting rockets by the thousands over the lunar landscape, with payloads of phosphorescent dust, which of course fell straight to the lunar surface, where it remains and shall remain forever, with no wind to disturb it and no water to wash it away. When the moon is dark, the hand is still visible. No one knows what it means.”
“You cannot send a ship?”
“There is no space program. Even the Giants cannot repair their orbital mirrors if a part wears out.”
“You wakie people, you currents, were supposed to be building me a starship.…”
“The Emancipation was stolen and the orbital drydock de-orbited and burnt up in the atmosphere.”
“Stolen? You cannot steal things in space.”
“Well, Doctor, we know exactly where she is, we merely cannot reach her. The vessel was not complete, but sails and frame were sufficient to make lunar orbit. During the First Space Age, several attempts to establish moon bases in ex-volcanic tubes. When the Jihad brought an end to all that, it was too expensive to ship the equipment back down to Earth. The pirates may have restored one of the bases to life-support operations and be occupying it. We don’t know who their leader is, or why they did it.”
“It is Del Azarchel. He did it to get some elbow room.”
“How do you know?”
“First, Blackie likes to do things in style, and this fits him. Second, that handprint on the moon is not just any old hand.”
“What is it?”
“A duelist gauntlet. The black-palm glove. Del Azarchel did not know where on the Earth I was. So he held up his palm large enough that I had to see it. You hold up your fingers like that when you are ready to exchange fire.”
“He marred the face of the moon forever, merely to hurl down a gauntlet to you, Doctor?”
“Ah. You weren’t calling me that for a few moments, there. Whatsa matter? You got afraid of me again, all of a sudden, Padre?”
“Very much so, Doctor.”
“Why? I’m the same damn fellow as I was a minute ago.”
“But your foes have grown strangely larger in my eyes, Doctor.”
Copyright © 2012 by John C. Wright