The doors of the Spire opened, and sent death out into the world.
I felt the jolt and the change in air pressure as the land-barge slid off its ramp and onto the rocky terrain. The xenoraptors penned in the land-barge’s lower level squealed. The recycled air already smelled of sweat and anxiety; now it smelled very faintly of animals, too, and the filters hissed as they worked double-time.
Everyone else on the land-barge was a soldier. I felt comically small, my shoulders so narrow they turned in on themselves in a shape like a protective letter C, my dangling legs not reaching the floor from the seat I was strapped into.
Then again, I was sitting next to him, and he was tall and broad enough to make the soldiers look scrawny. The restraint over his chest was stretched to the maximum, and it gave a tiny protesting rasp every time he breathed.
He looked down at me. “You’re all right?” he said.
I nodded. I didn’t think I could talk; my voice would come out in a sort of creak if I tried.
His hard brown face looked very high and very far away. “It’s your first time, isn’t it? Did m’lady tell you what to do?”
I nodded again and hunched myself back in my seat. It moulded itself around my body with a dissolving hiss. I could feel the nanes in it, distantly, like fumbling with a hand in a dark place. The controls of the land-barge were more immediate, a dark knotted star of controls ahead of me and a solid bulge of engines below, and a limbic system of tech linking them together. I wanted to sink into it and be the tech, and not think about what I had to do.
I wished he’d stop talking to me, but he carried on. “Not been outside the Spire before? You’ll find it strange. No ceiling.” His dark eyes crinkled: I thought he might be making a joke. “Don’t believe the stories that if you go outside the Spire the sun’s gravity will pick you up and whisk you up into the sky. I’ve never had it happen to a soldier of mine yet.”
“I don’t believe it,” I said huskily. “I mean… I was born out here.”
He gave a sort of assessing grunt. “Huh. That won’t make it any easier.”
“No,” I said.
An hour of bumping across the growback later, we all piled out of the land-barge. I was glad to have honest ground under my feet again, and above me honest sky. The soldiers went about their business, calming the xenoraptors and saddling them and dealing with a full-scale freakout on the part of one of the subordinate females.
The lead female had managed to slip halfway out of her traces and get the subordinate one pinned against the side of their pen so that her head scraped against the wall every time the land-barge bounced over the rocks, and now the filmy upper layers of the subordinate’s skin were all frayed off on that side. I could see fish-slick silver and green new skin underneath. Xenoraptors were like that; they were smart and they had their own social systems and they hated being packed in small spaces, and I was glad I didn’t have much to do with them.
Red-purple earth stretched away to the horizon and met the misty outline of the Horseshoe Falls connecting the ground to the sky. I didn’t know who Horse was, nor why anyone would think to name a waterfall after his shoes. Between here and there was a bend of the River, harbouring a lot of the pillowy things that we’d always called breathing-rocks and the Spire people called false-stromatolites.
I’d had to learn new words for everything when I went to the Spire. The thing that made all the dome-wall panels and plaz bowls and the other things we’d had to trade for wasn’t a zamobran, it was a Retort. The things that ran on two legs and carried a rider in a saddle weren’t vrykols, they were xenoraptors, and home wasn’t home any more, it was a tribute territory. No one had said anything about a Founder called Horse, though.
I looked in the direction of the false-stromatolites and tried to count them. It was better than looking in the other direction. There was a scruffy earthwork-wall that way, and a comms tower with a wind-turbine like the one at home, and the shining side of a dome. I didn’t want to look at any of that.
I was death now, come out of the Spire.
“Word before we move out,” he said to the soldiers. “You remember, every civilian dead today is fifty of yours dead when someone lets off a contamination-bomb when you’re on patrol six months down the line. Thousands dead if they get the bomb into Kashnagar’s air-shafts. Could be you. Could be your mother. You remember, and treat them like the tribute protectorate of Kashnagar Spire they’re going to be, even if they don’t know it yet.”
“Or you could not take their settlement away from them.” I said because I couldn’t help myself.
He looked down at me. “Got to have a barrier against the Malabranca.”
I remembered home, and how it had become a tribute territory. “You’re no better than the Malabranca,” I said.
I didn’t know what he would do. I braced myself in case he hit me.
Instead, he knelt down and scraped up a handful of dry, granular red earth. It slithered off the sides of his glove, leaving nothing in his palm but dust.
“Their crops will fail again this year,” he said. “They’re paying more to turn this berdak into soil that anything Founder-brought will grow in than they’re making from selling what they grow, and next year they’ll come asking us for Retort-made fertilisers again. Dukovy Prime needs this place for a wind-farm and a garrison to keep an eye on the Malabranca, and these people will have to make the best of it.”
“It’s not Dukovy Prime’s place. It’s their place. It’s been their place for a hundred and fifty years,” I said stubbornly.
“It’ll be the Malabranca’s place next year, if we do nothing.” He was still kneeling in the dust. Kneeling, he was as tall as I was standing. He took my hand in his. I could feel the hot dust in my palm. I could feel his vast strength, in waiting. “Maker, can you honestly tell me these people would be better under the Malabranca?”
I didn’t answer. The Malabranca were half demon, everyone knew that.
But then again, what was I? I could look at a piece of Founder-tech and feel the knowledge of what it was and how to mend it glistening in my head, poisoned like a secret.
Since I’d been training with Dukovy Prime’s Makers, I didn’t even need to hold the tech in my hands, not any more.
“Take out the comms tower, my lady,” he said in a brisk reassuring voice, as if talking to a child who could not even conceive of defying him.
I shook my head.
“There’s a choice to be made here,” he said, his voice low and almost caressing now, no longer a voice anyone would use to a child. “The world’s changed. It’s not these people’s fault that they haven’t changed with it, but now they’ve got to come into line. Dukovy or Malabranca. You have the grace to choose for them, Maker. You make the choice.”
Tears prickled hotly behind my eyes. “Us,” I whispered.
“That’s my lady.” He knelt and kissed my hand. A soldier had brought his vrykol… his xenoraptor, and saddled it; he boosted himself up into the saddle as easily as if his boots had a-grav in the soles, and lifted me up in front of him. The strength in his muscles was like a River-current. I could feel the warm pressure of him at my back, big as the Spire of Kashnagar. “Move out!” he shouted.
I blinked the tears out of my eyes and looked towards the comms tower.
He hadn’t asked me who I meant by us.
Copyright © 2010 Ankaret Wells