sargon999 (sargon999) wrote,
sargon999
sargon999

Chapter Two

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Chapter 2: Under the Crimson Sky

Princess Anastasia remained at the rail to observe, but William could not.  They would be landing soon, and he had business to see to.  He sketched a small bow and then made his leave, he didn’t think she even noticed.  She was a strange girl, with that deep red skin – redder than most Martians – and those little horns on her forehead.  Supposedly only her family line had those, and he’d never seen them on another.  The almost demonic look of her contrasted with her reserve and her poise.  She acted like someone born to rule, that was no mistake.

He went back across the deck and shouted a few commands just to keep the men sharp.  They were mostly doing what needed to be done.  A month of inactivity aboard the ship had them eager for something to do with themselves.  He paused to press the mask to his face and took a long breath of sweet air.  The one thing he really hated about Mars was how fast a man got out of breath here – the other thing was there were no horses, but that was another matter.

The troops were busy unpacking their rifles and ammunition cases, and he left Sergeant Bell in charge of the work and headed below.  Now they were in the Delve they were in potential danger, and he had to start thinking of the security of his men as well as the princess.  That meant he had to look to his artillery.

The light gravity made descending the stairs a white-knuckled enterprise of gripping and handrail and stepping carefully so he didn’t end up flat on his face.  He hadn’t been to Mars in almost seven years, and he was out of practice moving around.  He hoped it came back to him quickly.  Only about a third of the men had ever been off-planet before, and that could be a problem.  Under fire men forgot training and reacted, and that could mean troops stumbling and throwing themselves all over the place.

On top of that, riflery on Mars was complicated.  The kick of a Martini-Henry .577 would knock a man on his backside here if he was not braced for it.  It was one of the reasons they didn’t worry much about the Martians getting hold of Earth guns.  A Martian firing a rifle would probably dislocate his damned arm.  Here, shooters had to brace, and range was longer because of the gravity, but the stability of the bullet was worse because of the thin air, so accuracy at longer ranges went right to hell.

He emerged into the lower deck and followed the left-hand corridor to the armory.  The men on guard duty stiffened and saluted, and he returned it easily.  This was a new command for him, and these men didn’t know his history except perhaps by rumor.  That was part of the reason he had fought for this command.  It was almost funny that he’d managed to cock up so badly he had to get away from Earth entirely.  Or it would be funny, if it were not simply painful.

He came into the huge, open space of the armory hold and saw the artillerymen here already, cataloging, marking, and prioritizing.  The big guns were their real advantage, as the Martians did not have anything like them.  Gunnery would be very different here, but explosive shells would make hash of the delicate Martian architecture if it came to that.  He hoped it didn’t.  He rather liked the Martians, as much as it was possible to like such a strange people.  They were mercurial, reserved and then emotional, easy to anger but quick to forgive.

He returned salutes, then headed to the rearmost chamber, closed off from the rest of the hold.  He was not really surprised to find Sir Henry Wallingstone here already, and he was not really pleased either.  The man was a diplomat of that particularly shifty variety the foreign service seemed to produce by accident – like mold on bathhouse walls.  He was glad to see, at least, that his guards were not letting the man into the secure room.

Sir Henry saw him and his expression brightened.  “Sir William, just as well you are here.  Your men are -”

“Obeying their orders,” William said.  He smiled and the two guards drew themselves up stiffly and saluted.

“Colonel James, sir!” one of them said.  He gave Sir Henry a look and William almost chuckled.  The men didn’t much like him either.  Ah well, politicians.

“Stand easy,” he said.  “Open the door.”

“Sir!” the man said and opened the hatch, stepped aside and stood straight with extra snap.

William gestured to Sir Henry.  “After you, sir.”  It was a bit of a question as to who outranked whom here.  They were both peers, and while Wallingstone was nominally in command of the expedition, William thought the man would wilt at the first sign of danger.  He certainly had no illusions as to who the men would listen to.

Sir Henry smiled and preceded him through the hatch, and William followed.  The room inside had been walled off from the main hold before launch, and the long crate in here was lashed down and protected by wooden forms that affixed it to the deck.  There was a smell, something acrid and not like ordinary gunpowder.

“We’ll unload it last,” William said.  “It’s delicate – or moreso than a cannon.  I’m still hoping we don’t need it.”

Sir Henry went to the crate and stood beside it.  It was almost as tall as he was, and longer than two carts laid end to end.  He touched the wood.  “A real heat ray,” he said, as if ruminating.  “Have you ever seen one fired?”

“I have,” William said.  “I was in the capital when they did the annual firing, once.”

“Of the only one that still works,” Sir Henry said.  “The Martians have declined much from their supposed former state of greatness.”

His tone rankled, but William didn’t say anything.  The Martians had once held a much higher state of technological advancement than they did presently.  At their height they had created the great weapons known as heat rays – devices that projected terrible beams of annihilating energy.  They had long since lost the secrets of making them, but the royal palace was still equipped with great mounted examples that had once defended the emperors.  Only one of them now functioned, but the Martians fired it every year with great ceremony to maintain the ruler’s title as the Bringer of Fire.

“I’ve only seen them fired on Earth, the once,” Sir Henry said.  “Made a dreadful racket.  Easy to see how a more primitive people would worship such a device.”

William chewed on his tongue.  “Can hardly be that primitive, since they built the thing in the first place.”

“Not this one,” Sir Henry said.  He patted the wooden crate fondly.  “The Martians haven’t built a heat ray in over a thousand years, so they tell me.  This one was engineered by our boys in just a few years.”

“From the one we stole from them and took apart,” William said.

“Still, says something, don’t you think?  I have read the theories of Mister Charles Debakey, who theorizes that the present Martians are not the people who built this civilization, but rather the remnants of a servant race dwelling in the ruins of their masters.”  Sir Henry had a way of speaking that made him sound almost insufferably sure of himself.  Perhaps it served him well in statecraft.

“We’re not here to overawe primitives,” William said, his tone going colder.  “This is a dangerous, and delicate situation.  We may have an easy time, but I would not wager on it.”

Sir Henry waved a hand.  “We have a regiment of rifles and real artillery.  The Martians will have never seen anything like it before.  And we have the rightful and legal heir to their throne.  This is not a usurpation, it’s a completely legal action on our part.”

“Henry, the great tragedy of humanity is that there is no law that applies between governments, or between different peoples.  Sometimes men can agree, but when they cannot, there is war.”  He looked at the crated-up heat ray.  “This contraption is only here so we can impress upon them that Anastasia is the Bringer of Fire – that carries a lot of weight with them.  I pray we don’t have to use it on anyone.”

Sir Henry sniffed, looking at him with obvious disapproval.  “I had not expected a military man to be so hesitant to engage in violent action.  You don’t have a reputation for such reluctance.”  He gave William a sidelong look that said he knew exactly what William did have a reputation for.

Instead of showing anger, he laughed.  “It’s not reluctance at all,” he said.  “It’s the simple fact that if we are in the position of firing this infernal machine at someone, well, then things have already gone very, very wrong.”
o0o

Anya stayed at the bow of the ship and watched as they descended into the Delve.  They were so high, and yet the distances were deceptive.  The thin air made everything seem stark and near, and she imagined she could reach down and touch the ground below, when she knew it was miles distant.  There was not much wind, only layers of thin mist as they descended along the ancient cliffs.  The red earth contrasted sharply with the colors of the forests, and it was so vivid it brought a lump to her throat.

The sides of the Delve, even this high, were thick with the enormous mushrooms and more exotic fungi that grew everywhere in the canyons and river valleys.  They spread wide hoods in mottled reds and blues, blazoned with patterns that looked like water dropped into inks and swirled by a painter’s hand.  The ladder fungi grew everywhere the sides were steep, and they spread their fans of gold and azure, glinted with threads of silver.  The fungi of Mars were believed to have been bred in the lost age of greatness, and they drew up minerals from the hard soil and wove fibers in their flesh that made it hard as stone when dried and treated.

The Elizabeth descended through the air, slowed by the thickening atmosphere, steered with care to keep it from the ridges and outcrops of red stone.  Swarms of long-winged attla veered off to avoid the heavy craft, the bright colors on their webbed wings flashing as they flew past.  Their calls sounded the ticking of marbles on a hard floor.

She began to see the shapes of farms, the fields sown with green shoots of grain or the wide leaves of cycads harvested for their fruit.  The glint of waterways shimmered like a web through the haze of the low-lying mist.  Irrigation spread outward from the meandering channels of the river, taking life with it where it went.  She saw other airships moving here and there, but none so immense as the Elizabeth.  Among the slim Martian flyers she was an armored behemoth.

When they reached the lowlands, the ground all but vanished below in a welter of fog, and all she saw were the wide umbrellas of the mushroom forests and the occasional tower.  The legacy of tens of thousands of years of history was a world covered with ruins – places empty and forgotten, but still standing.  Some were still in use, but many stood vacant, a testament to how much of their history had been lost in the scramble to save themselves from a dying world.

Here at the bottom of the Delve, the mist was thicker, and made it hard to see the cliffsides, and the sun did not reach here for very long.  They sailed into twilight, and with the coming night the fungi below revealed their nocturnal phosphorescence, the mist shining with red and violet and golden light.

She smelled it before they saw it.  The heavy scent of water and life was almost enough to make her drunk on it.  Water was such a precious thing on this world, and that was something she had never become accustomed to on Earth.  Her first sight of the ocean there had stunned her, left her with a feeling that was not fear or awe but almost a kind of anger that one world should be so abundantly blessed.  She had seen the Earthmen waste water, bathe in it, foul it, piss in it.  They did not understand the riches they were given, and squandered them.  She wondered if her own people had ever been like that.

The mist parted and she saw the lake, and she let out a long, slow breath.  Lake Ona, the greatest body of open water that remained upon Mars.  It spread out before them dark and seemingly endless.  By day she would be able to see the far shores, but for now it was mysterious and boundless.  Fed by the canals that brought meltwater down from the poles, it was the wellspring of the power of the Empire, the very reason for it.  To guard it and tend it and see that it was not wasted was the purpose of civilization itself, for without it there would be nothing.

To her left in the west, she saw the glow of lights and the sprawling, radiant shape of the city that was their destination.  Shal was one of the three great cities of the Ona basin, spread out along the wide, shallow shore and the hub of trade and agriculture for the western end of the lake.  It had been the nursery of her family’s power in the Empire, where they had grown strong before they took the throne.  Her first ancestor had become Emperor before the first written word had been set down on Earth, and the line of her family stretched far beyond that.

The lord of the city was a Shrad named Umvara, and he was the nearest thing to a living relative she possessed.  He had inherited lordship of the city after the fall of her family, for his house was a cadet branch that had diverged before the fall of Rome.  She knew the British had been in contact with him, and that he was in some way expected to assist with the coup they were planning to execute.  She had not been included in the planning stages of the expedition and now she felt that as a distinct lack.  Everything was suddenly before her, and she felt unprepared for it.  Was she to just stand and look regal?  Was she merely a figurehead?  She was sure the British expected her to act as a kind of subordinate queen under their rule.  Once, alone on a foreign world, that had seemed worth it to return home.  Now it began to seem more and more distasteful.

Lights came alive on the deck of the Elizabeth, illuminating her in their glow, and she squinted against the sudden glare.  Bright beams stabbed down, splashing across the lake and the watery fields beside it.  She saw people down there, gathering to look up at them, wondering what they saw.  She realized these were the first people of her kind she had seen in almost ten years, and she closed her eyes for a moment.  Martians did not shed tears, but in that moment she almost wished for the release.

They swept in over the city, the bright-lit towers all around them.  The houses of noble Martians were always built high in defended places, to guard against the assassins that were simply a part of life in the constant wars between one family and another.  The streets below were wide and thronged with people even in the night.  Martians saw well in darkness, and so their world did not stop for sunset.  In a Martian city something was always happening, no matter the hour.

The demesne of the Shrad was close to the water, and she saw the beautiful spires and the glittering domes as they drew closer.  The Elizabeth could set down over the water itself, anchor and allow them to unload their men and cargo directly on the grounds of the palace.  She wondered if Umvara knew quite what he was getting himself into, if he was really as eager to join an armed insurrection as they seemed to think he was.  Lights blazed up to meet them, and the ship slowed and then turned majestically in place.  She heard the anchors splash down, and then the ship settled lower.

She held still for a moment, looking at the palace there so close, like a spun-glass ornament hung in the night.  She found she did not want to look away from it, for fear it would simply vanish, like a dream.  All of this seemed like a dream, and she clenched her fists as she fought the fear that it would turn like a knife and become a nightmare.  This was not the home of her hazy memories, it was a real and dangerous world, and she had best remember that.

o0o

They put down the long, clanking ramp from the middle deck to the shore, and Colonel James sent men down to form an honor guard.  The men in their red uniforms and white helmets looked out of place here, but they moved with parade-ground neatness, stepping lightly so as not to overbalance.  Twenty men to each side, they flanked the base of the ramp and made an aisle between them, standing stiff at attention.  They carried their rifles at port with bayonets fixed and glittering.

Anya held herself stiffly as the Colonel sent two more men down ahead of her, one bearing the flag of Britain, one of the regiment.  They marched to the end and stood to attention with the banners held up.  She wished they could carry a banner of her own house, but they had none.  Martians did not use flags to symbolize their nations.  She, herself, would have to be the symbol of the hour.

Colonel James nodded to her, drew his sword, and held it straight against his shoulder as he preceded her down the long gangpank.  She walked stiffly, with measured steps, careful not to stumble or reel in the light gravity.  Sir James reached the bottom and turned to let her pass, staring straight ahead as though he were alone.  “My lady,” he said formally.  “You are returned to the land of your birth, and of your forefathers.”

She wanted to say something, but the words did not come.  She was all but overwhelmed with emotion.  This swampy patch of land beside the lake was, in that moment, indescribably beautiful.  She only nodded to him, gathered a breath, and then stepped forward and set her feet at last upon her native soil.




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