sargon999 (sargon999) wrote,
sargon999
sargon999

Chapter One

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Chapter 1: Down to the Red World

Anya went to the bow on their final approach to Mars, desperate after weeks in the void to finally see their destination.  The forward observation dome was quiet and lit only by small lights.  She gathered her skirts and made her way between the benches to stand before the great curved window, and she looked out into the dark.  Against the endless field of stars, the red world of her birth loomed large, and the color was a deep, copper red, marked by a swirl of white frost at the pole.

It was smaller than Earth, the totality of the surface only equal to the land area of all the earthly continents.  A planet of dim light and cold air, thin and lacking in oxygen.  The journey here had been like an enforced holiday no one wanted, highlighted by inactivity and impatience.  On Earth there had been preparation and packing and urgency, and then came the long voyage when it seemed like everyone was trembling on the edge of something, forced to wait.  The trip gave her far too much time to worry about her future.

It had been almost the opposite of her passage to Earth as a child – struggling to breathe the heavy atmosphere, prostrate beneath what seemed a crushing weight of gravity.  She had been so frightened, and did not understand the speech of those with her.  She remembered crying out in Martian, hoping someone would answer.

“I see you had the same thought as I,” came the voice of Sir Henry as he entered the room.  He always moved so quietly, much moreso than other Earthmen, who always seemed to stomp as loudly as possible.

She half-turned as he came to stand beside her, far enough away to avoid any impropriety.  He was the diplomat assigned to their expedition, and nominally in command, though he was not the officer who would direct the troops they brought with them.  He was a well-knit man with a drooping mustache and intense eyes.  The way he looked at things reminded her of the one time she had been presented to Lord Salisbury.  They both had that same cold watchfulness.

“I wanted to see it before we land,” she said.  “It’s been so long since I was here.”  She wished he would go away.

“Ten years,” he said.  “Almost as long for me.  I left not long after you did, though my visit was shorter.  Those were difficult days.”

“An understatement,” she said stiffly.  It seemed a dismissive way to refer to the uprising that had slaughtered her family and stolen her throne.  She could not remember any of them very well.  They were still images in her mind, like old photographs.  Theirs had been a dynastic family, and she had been raised by servants and guards and tutors.  She remembered her mother, tall and proud on the throne, more a presence than a person.

Sir Henry half-bowed with a slight smile.  “No disrespect, my lady.”

She made a noncommittal noise.  She had decided some weeks ago that he had, in fact, no respect for anyone save himself.  She tried to ignore him and looked down on her homeworld.  The massive shape of the mountain the Earthmen called Olympus was plain to see on the red expanse.  A volcano the size of France, the slopes thick with strange vegetation, fed by cooling winds that flowed down the sides.  Rain fell on those slopes, one of the few places on Mars where that happened.  It was a sacred place to her ancestors, and she wondered if she would ever see it in person.

“You are worried,” he said, in that way he had of assuming and then not looking back.  “A regiment seems like a small force with which to reclaim an empire, but these are Queen’s Rifles, and the Martians have never had to face real riflery.  Once your cousin adds his native forces to ours, we will push to the capital and gather allies along the way.  It shall be like the Maghreb – we will find everywhere the enemies of our enemies.”

“My enemies,” she said.

He paused to take a small breath from his mask.  The Elizabeth was an Earth ship, but she was only operating at half normal air pressure to prepare the troops to the conditions they would face on the surface.  It had only taken Anya a few days to acclimate, and she continued to rather enjoy the discomfiture of the Earthmen.  The bare surface of Mars would be much worse.

“Yes,” he said.  “Your enemies, very much so.”

She had been taken from this world when she was just a child, the last survivor of the Vovikar dynasty that ruled the Empire.  The uprising had placed a usurper on the throne, and so the British had saved her life, taken her to Earth.  When she was young she had thought it a gesture of kindness, but now she knew they thought to someday use her to take back the Empire for their own purposes.  Now the usurper was dead, the empire divided, and that day had come.  Now she was returning to Mars at the head of a thousand British soldiers to try and retake her birthright.

“It shall be highly symbolic,” Sir Henry said.  “A great deal of prestige for the Crown.  It is already October back home.  By the time the year turns we shall have made you a queen again, and the year nineteen hundred shall open with the British Empire expanding to another world.”  He smiled.

There were many things she could have said, but she did not.  She had learned that differing with Sir Henry only brought frustration, and made no dent at all in his air of superiority.  He was what she found most frustrating about Earthmen, especially the British – the certainty that they were all that was best.  Some of them had more admirable qualities, but they were few.  She found her hand was knotted into a fist, and she hid it in a fold of her gown so he would not see.

She took a last look down at the planet below.  That this view of her home would be intruded upon offended her in a way she could not have expressed.  Instead she simply nodded to him.  “A good day to you, Sir Henry.”  She turned to go.

“And to you, if it is day.”  He laughed a little, then made a bow that was almost sincere.  “Princess Anastasia.”
o0o

She returned to her quarters through the dim corridors of the ship, glad that the thin air kept the troops in their barracks.  It was so lovely and quiet here in space.  One of the things she had first learned to dislike about Earth was how loud and how bright everything was.  Thicker air carried more sound, and it was something she had been forced to get used to.

The gravity was lower on the ship, and she was working to grow used to that as well.  Once they landed, the Martian gravity would be lesser still – about a third of what she had faced on Earth.  She remembered lying in her bed as a girl, the air so thick it felt like sand in her lungs and the gravity like a hand pressing her downward.  She had slowly, painfully become accustomed to it, but she knew it had changed her.  She was tall for an Earth woman, but short for a Martian.  Her bones would be denser and heavier than other Martians, and she would be strong.  Already, she could move more easily, had to learn to walk carefully so she would not stumble or trip.  Once they were on the surface, she would be three times as strong as any Martian.

She was a little dizzy when she got back to her quarters, paused to take a breath of oxygen from the little tube that led to the small tank on her shoulder.  The thin air was affecting her as well, though she had adjusted better than the Earthmen.  She had lived most of the last decade at a private chalet in Switzerland, high in the mountains where the thin air made visitors ill.  It was dense compared to the surface of Mars, but the best that could be managed on her adopted world – if she could be said to have adopted it at all.

For the last ten years she had spent a great deal of time alone.  They sent girls to be her companions, but they feared her and none of them became what she might call a friend.  They rotated the girls out as well, presumably so none of them would become confused in their loyalties.  Anya had had servants and guards and tutors, but no one else.  She found this journey and enterprise far more frightening than she wanted them to be.

Her rooms here were small, but well-appointed.  She always had the sense the British wanted her to project an image of royalty without developing appetites for luxury.  It made for a strange mixture.  It felt confined here, after the mountainous vistas of Switzerland, the terrible, bright sun and the cold winds.  She sat on the bed and reached into her drawer, took out the folded photo case and opened it.  Here she had a picture of her mother, taken the year before she had been assassinated.

Queen Omavarvisha, Shrad of Vul and Bringer of Fire, looked out from the photograph, the black and white image not conveying her deep red skin.  She had the small horns above her eyes that Anya had – three in a row on each side, the largest the length of a fingertip, the other two smaller as they receded toward her hairline – the mark of their family line.

The queen did not wear a British dress with corset and gloves and a high collar.  She wore the rich, heavy robes of a Martian queen over a body covered with little more than ornaments and jewels.  Her hair was bound in many long braids decorated with gold bands and looped in elaborate patterns.  Compared to a human’s, her face was elongated and her eyes were large.  Her ears were set slightly high and had long points.  Her gaze was direct and fearless, and she had a bared sword laid across her knees.

This was the only picture of her mother ever taken, and though it had been reproduced a hundred times – the original was in the British Museum – when she looked at it she felt her mother was looking right at her.  Anya sat up and looked in the small mirror, touched her own horns, her ears.  She wondered what she saw, and what she would think.  Her mother had not been a warrior queen, though she looked fierce.  She had been a daughter of a regal line, bred to command.

She folded the picture away, put it back in her drawer, and she thought of what was to come and she could not encompass it.  The prospect of an invasion contained far too many elements that were simply out of her experience.  It was hard enough to imagine returning to Mars – the world that was more like a dream to her now.  And if she seized her throne, what then?  The idea of having to be a queen was terrifying.

On Earth, when she felt alone and afraid, she thought of Mars, and took comfort in it.  Mars was her home, and there she could imagine she would return someday.  Now she was almost there, and it seemed a dread rather than a refuge.  She longed for it, and she shied from it, all at once.  She clenched her fists and pressed her arms against herself, feeling hard and tight and brittle.  She knew she was a pawn, of sorts, in this great game, and pawns were spent and traded and lost.  If she wanted to survive, she had to become a queen.

The Earthmen called her Anastasia, because Deep Martian sounded Slavic to their ears.  They gave her a name that sounded like her own, but was easier for them to pronounce.  But she had not forgotten her real name, and if she took the throne, it would not be under any name they gave her.  She would be a queen like her mother had been: she would be Anavasavsta.
o0o

Landing was much smoother than leaving Earth, and she barely noticed the passage through the frail atmosphere.  She felt the lurch when the ship shut off her planetary drives and shifted to the lift engines used by airships.  Ships could not fly very high on Mars; with the air so thin, they could not generate enough lift to rise more than a few hundred feet above the ground.  The normal drives would not push the ship either, as Mars had no magnetic field to push against.  Ships had to deploy sails and drift on the  Martian winds.

She went out as soon as she could, stepping from the heavy hatch and onto the open upper deck.  Her first breath of free Martian air was not convivial, as it was cold and breathlessly thin, tasting of blood or metal on her tongue.  She went to the rail and leaned there, fighting the urge to use her breathing tube.

The land spread out around her, endless rolling lands of stone and sand, the sky overhead hazy and dim with dust.  She took another breath and then relented, took the tube and clipped it into her nose so she could breathe a steady supply of oxygen to supplement the thin air.  She shrugged her shawl over her shoulders and wished she had a proper Martian cloak.  She decided she would obtain one as soon as she could.  A red robe fit for an empress.

The soldiers were on deck, carrying the stowed gear up from the hold and arranging it for easier access.  They were on the planet now, and she watched them unpack crates of rifles and distribute them.  It was funny watching the men easily hoist enormous crates in the lighter gravity, and then almost immediately collapse, gasping for breath through their masks.  Their bright red uniforms were quickly covered in a fine layer of red dust, as were their conical white pith helmets.  The fighting qualities of the British soldiers were not in question, but she had never thought they looked much like warriors.

Colonel James saw her and smiled.  He came closer and bowed to her with a sincerity she always appreciated.  “My lady.  This must be a momentous moment for you.”

“Indeed,” she said.  “It is actually my first time in the High Plains.”  Her people did not live in the uplands.  These dry, desolate plains were home to the High Martians, pale-skinned and savage of temperament, barbarians and raiders.  They were the wellspring of mercenary armies that fought the wars for their red masters.

“Can’t come down in the Delve,” he said.  “The jets would cause too much damage, and the pressure changes would make it hard to maneuver properly.”  He smiled again, put his mask to his face and breathed deep.  Sir William James, Colonel of the 1st Martian Rifles, was only a little older than Sir Henry, but at forty he looked older than that.  His beard was going gray on the sides, and there were lines in his face from wind and sun.  He was an old hand campaigner, and she gathered he was here to avoid some kind of scandal back home, though she had not heard details.

She liked him, smiled back as wide as she ever did, which was not very.  He was a big man, and she had to look up at him.  She knew he had been to Mars before, and though he didn’t seem to care for it, he remained rather cheerful.  She had heard rumors that he drank to excess, but she had never seen it.

The soldiers were unpacking artillery, and she felt a pang at the sight of the guns.  Sir Henry made it sound easy, but she knew retaking her throne would probably mean fighting, and she didn’t want to see Earth weapons used against Martians.  The whole expedition had seemed theoretical back on Earth, but now they were actually here and she was confronted with the stark reality, and she didn’t like it.

William followed her glance, and his smile faded a bit.  “We’ll hope this doesn’t turn into some kind of fracas,” he said.  “Seems damned rude to come to another planet just to start trouble.”  He winced.  “Your pardon, my lady.”

She almost laughed.  “Pardon granted, Sir James,” she said.  She breathed fresh air through her nose.  “I am not eager to see blood shed on my behalf.”

“Well, but you’re the rightful heir,” he said.  “Don’t forget that.  We are restoring you to your throne.”

“Well, and I suppose that’s all there is to it,” she said, somewhat sarcastic.

He laughed at that.  “Well, also bulling our way into a political situation on another world that could blow up at any moment.  We’re doing that as well.”  He took another breath and then nodded, pointed ahead of them.  “The Delve.”
o0o

She turned to look, and then clutched at the rail of the ship as the emotion overwhelmed her.  She had not thought she would remember it so well, but she did.  Ahead of them, the ground dropped away, and a layer of mist floated there like a sea lapping at the cliffs.  It was the edge of what the Martians called the Tarivinan Delve.  It was a network of canyons for which the word was entirely inadequate.  The American Grand Canyon would vanish within it.  The Delve was almost two thousand miles long, and on Earth would stretch from California to Maine and beyond.  It was over five miles deep, in some places closer to eight, and hundreds of miles wide.

In the Delve, the air pressure gathered and built to a more habitable atmosphere, moisture was trapped and rain fell, watering the farmlands below.  Thicker air made it warmer, and she felt it even as the first light mist settled on her face.  She smelled it, and the scent conjured memory so strongly she felt faint.  She remembered the mushroom gardens, the flowers on the vines that grew everywhere, hoppers bounding away too fast to catch with their red fins flicking.

The Elizabeth glided majestically over the edge and the mist rose up around them.  She felt the ship settle, and then it began to sink slowly through the gradually thickening air.  They dropped through layers of cloud and shadow, and then emerged into the open sky above the homeland of the ancient Martian civilization.  She saw the cliffsides covered with the multicolored fungi, the red ridges leading downward to the shining silver ribbon of the river hedged in by the orderly patterns of the cultivated fields.  The dim sun shone through only as a gentle glow, filtered through the mist to make a golden haze.  Just the sight of it all stilled her breath.

Colonel James leaned on the rail and took a breath from his mask.  “Welcome home, my lady.”



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