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Earth III

Stephen Baxter

“Earth II” (Asimov’s, July 2009) and “Earth III,” two stories about human exploration and discovery in the far future, are separate pendants to Stephen Baxter’s novel Ark, which has just been published by Ace Books in the United States. About the time Stephen’s latest tale sees print, he’ll be “anticipating the UK launch of the next novel, Stone Spring (from Gollancz), the first of an alternate-prehistory saga.” He’ll also be “looking forward to attending major conferences on H.G. Wells and on the search for aliens!”

 

 

lightsidedarkside


At the foot of the ladder Vala paused, one slender hand on an iron rung, her face raised up to the tower’s curving wall and the hulk of the Star above their heads. “Oh, Brod—what are we doing? This is the Eye—the holiest place in all the world!” And she murmured a prayer to the Sim Controllers.
She had been hesitant all the way, as the two of them had climbed up from the Eighth Temple—hesitant, Brod knew, but excited too, thrilled on some deep level to be joining in this illicit adventure. She wouldn’t have been here if she hadn’t wanted to come—hadn’t wanted to be with him.
He dared to take her hand, touching her for the very first time, and she shuddered as if from the shock of it. “Oh, come on,” he said gently. “We’ve come this far. Let’s just climb to the top of this wall, and we’ll be closer than anybody else in the whole world to the Star—”
“Which is why it’s so holy! Which is why we mustn’t do this!”
“But if we’re quick, we can be back in the Colloquy sessions before anybody’s even missed us. Who would ever know?”
“Nobody keeps secrets from the Sim Controllers.”
“Well, I hope that’s not true—”
She seemed genuinely shocked. “Brod!”
He had strayed too far into heresy for her, and he murmured reassuring noises. Brod had grown up with the theology of the Designers and Controllers, those strange silent figures who had designed the world and created all the people in it, and who watched everything unfold from behind invisible glass walls in the sky. Brod supposed he believed. It made more sense to him than the competing idea you heard bandied about in the taverns sometimes, that people had come to this world from—somewhere else. But what was real was the woman before him, her soft scent, and the way the breeze off the ocean caught the pale, milky wrap she wore, and the loose strands of red hair. She cast virtually no shadow, for on this island called the Navel, uniquely on all of Earth III, the Star was directly overhead—always was, and always would be.

Vala was twenty Great Years old, a couple of Greats younger than Brod himself, and, as a daughter of the Speaker of Speakers and a Sapphire, he knew she was a hothouse flower. Yet he had lusted for her from the moment he set eyes on her, as he never had for the world-weary whores of Port Wilson, or any of the women he’d talked into bed during his raucous careering around the island nations of the Middle Ocean. The fact that as a Sapphire she was destined to spend her life celibate made her all the more achingly desirable.
And he knew, under all the dancing around and the meaningless words, that she felt the same about him.
He kept trying. “Just a little further and we’ll be there. Imagine the stories you can tell the other Sapphires—”
“Oh, them.” She pulled a face. And then her mood seemed to switch, abruptly. “I’ll do it!” And she grabbed the rungs and began to climb.
This was so sudden and impulsive she left him standing in surprise—and he wondered who was seducing who. But he scurried up the ladder after her, relishing the glimpses of a pert behind through the robe’s billowing folds.

They soon came to the top of the ladder, and climbed onto a walkway, of roughened wooden slats set in basalt blocks. Brod had never been to the Navel before this Colloquy; he knew nothing of its treasures. Now he saw that the top of this cylindrical tower enclosed a kind of shallow dish perhaps a hundred paces across, a bowl coated by what looked like a thin, black layer of Slime.
And they weren’t alone up here. Bulky animals were set out along one radius of the circular dish—he counted twenty of them, spaced a few paces apart. They were working their way around the bowl, the row of them sweeping around the dish like a clock hand—he saw that the outermost had to move faster than those nearer the center to keep the line straight. And they were scraping up the Slime layer as they went, exposing a surface that gleamed like the wing of a mirror-bird. Big brutes, each coated in thick brown-black hair, snuffling and snorting and their squat legs working—he recognized them as tractors, with their big gouging jaws and spade-like multiple tails, used in the fields around Port Wilson for plowing the fields and digging ditches. Whatever else he’d expected to find up here, it hadn’t been these mundane beasts! And it must have been quite a challenge, he thought, to get them up here in the first place.
“You can see the whole island from here,” Vala said, turning around, her gown billowing about her. “And the other islands beyond.”
Brod glanced around indifferently. The Navel was a scrap of land in a sea like a burnished shield, one of a chain that stretched off to the west. There was really nothing special about the Navel—save that it sat precisely at Substellar, making it the holiest point on the whole planet, and the reason why tens of thousands of pilgrims made their way here every Great Year. So, despite the Navel’s smallness, isolation, and poor harbors, the warehouses, hotels, restaurants, palaces, and churches that served an industry of holiness lapped right up to the walls of this central complex of temples and towers.

A bell chimed, marking the end of another eight-hour watch.
“We ought to be getting back,” Vala said nervously. “My brother will be looking for me.”
That was Khilli, a brute of a man and even more possessive than her holy father. “Oh, but we only just got here. I don’t even understand what I’m looking at. What is this place?”
“We call it the Eye of the Master Controller.” She pointed. “People built the outer wall, and this walkway. But the core of the tower and the great dish is Substrate.” A structure put in place before humans ever came here—or a piece of engineered reality underlying the ephemeral Sim forms, depending on your faith. “And at the end of every Great Year, when the tithe fleets call, we have the tractors peel off the Slime that encrusts the Eye, just as they’re doing now.”
“And then what?”
She squeezed his hand, playful. “You’ll have to wait until the end of the next watch to see! Although mucking about with the Eye is about as exciting as things get around here.”
“Don’t Sapphires have any fun? We have a good time in Wilson. If you came away with me you’d see.” Suddenly he wondered what he was saying—she was, after all, the daughter of Elios, Speaker of Speakers! Again he wondered who was really in control here—and yet there was something in her manner, a mixture of innocence and coquettishness, that led him on helplessly.
Now she said, “Fun? What kind of fun? Show me.”
“All right.” He looked around. “We have tractors back home. Sometimes we have a little fun with them.” He stripped off his jacket, revealing a muscled torso creased by the scars of a life of fighting. “Hold my coat—and watch!” He jumped down off the wall onto the surface of the Eye, and took an experimental step. On the bands of Slime the footing was good enough, though the Slime itself was unpleasantly slick and oily, but the mirrored surface beneath was as sheer as it looked. Hopping between the bands of Slime, he sprinted after the nearest tractor.

Vala called down, agitated. “Brod—oh, Brod! What are you doing? You’ll get us into terrible trouble!”
He just grinned back. As he reached the beast he jumped, slapping the tractor’s rump with both hands, did a back-flip, and landed with both feet on the animal’s double spine. The moment of landing was always the trickiest, and he flailed as he shed his momentum, but then he stood proud. The beast lumbered on, indifferent, and he could feel the complex motion imparted by its six limbs, and the ripple of the banks of muscles under its tough hide. He whooped, and looked back at Vala.
Her mouth was open with shock, and she clutched her cheeks, as if horrified. But then she squealed, and clapped and jumped like a child. He imagined her telling this story to the other Sapphires, pretty virgins like herself gathered like flowers in a breeze.
But then a voice like a volcano’s rumble came echoing up from below the walls. “Vala? Vala! You’re supposed to be at the tithe accounting. Vala, where are you? If I find out you’ve been fooling around with that idiot sailor again . . .”
It was Khilli, the evil brother. Vala looked down, anxious.
Brod back-flipped off the tractor and hurried back to her. “You should go,” he said.
“I know.” Yet she did not move.
And they kissed. Afterwards he was never sure who made the first move.

II
Vala! Vala. . . !
As she waited for the Polar woman, Tripp, to visit her, Maryam listened to the stentorian voice of Khilli echoing through the streets of the Navel’s crowded township. Son of the Speaker of Speakers, brother of the most beautiful of all the current crop of Sapphires, and a brute of a man in his own right, Khilli was capable of causing a great deal of trouble if you got in his way, Maryam suspected. And she hoped beyond hope that her son Brod had nothing to do with the strange absence of Vala.

In the meantime she awaited her visitor. For their private talks, Tripp the Polar would naturally come to Maryam’s suite, rather than the other way around. Maryam and Brod hailed from Port Wilson, one of the principal embarkation points on the south coast of Seba, the continent that dominated the northern hemisphere. From the point of view of the Speakers, Wilson was essential not just for the tithes it provided itself but as a conduit through which flowed much of the wealth of the scattered communities of the continent. So Maryam had been given an apartment of several rooms in an upper level of this Seventh Palace of the Sim Designers, laden with fine furniture and with banks of photomoss lighting every dark corner. From here she had a grand view of the Navel in all its crowded complexity, and the flat light of the Star beat down on the world from its eerie position directly above her.

Whereas Tripp was just a Polar, a woman hailing from the edge of the endless shadow of Darkside. So she was stuck in some room deep inside the carcass of the Palace, a windowless, airless, lightless cell with a bathroom you had to share.
And, as the woman arrived and bustled into the room, there was something dark about Tripp herself, Maryam thought.
After a formal greeting the Polar unbuttoned her heavy coat, slumped in a chair, and accepted a glass of wine. Tripp was short, compact, muscular—it was said that it was better to be short and round if you had to withstand the insidious cold of the Pole—and she wore a heavy coat of tractor-fur lined with sheep’s wool. Aged about forty, maybe ten Great Years younger than Maryam herself, she had a round, weather-beaten face, grey-black hair pulled back from a high forehead, and a customarily stern expression. Maryam didn’t actually know much about her personally—she’d heard hints of husbands back home, of children. Tripp was too serious a person to make small talk with.

She had a leather packet that she opened, and spread documents of some kind over a small table expensively carved from solid basalt. She had to move a bowl of apples out of the way to make room. Maryam glanced at the papers, not very interested; they were clearly old—or looked old—torn, fragmented, yellowed, and stained with various fluids. Some were covered with close-printed text in an archaic language, and others bore enigmatic diagrams.
“You look as if you’re having a bad watch,” Maryam essayed, as they sat together.
“Aren’t you? The negotiations over the tithe levels get worse every Great Year . . .”
A Great Year was twenty-four small-years, each of which lasted for forty-five watches—the time it took Earth III to circle its Star. And as Maryam grew older, the interval between these Colloquies, at which tithe levels were set and reset, seemed to get shorter every time.
Tripp was evidently distracted by Khilli’s continued bellowing. “Vala! Vala!”“And the aggressive attitude of the Speakerhood is increasingly dismaying,” Tripp said. “The young man you hear in the streets below, calling for his sister, is himself a son of the Speaker of Speakers.”
“I know—”
“Khilli to me symbolizes the increasing dominance the Speakers are asserting, and not too subtly—the Speakers and their craven allies, who scuttle to obey in return for the waiving of a few tithes.”
“Wealth breeds power, which accrues more wealth.”
“Yes. And I suspect if we knew more about humanity’s history, we’d recognize that as an old, old story.” Tripp grinned fiercely, showing browned teeth. “At least you in Wilson are now finding out what it’s like to be at the mercy of the Speakers, as we at the Pole have been for generations. We rely for our very survival on the trade the Speakers control. The metals and other minerals we mine pay for our tithes, and for the food imports we need to survive—”
Maryam nodded curtly, and glanced around. “My staff relayed something of your proposals to me.” The Polars had been floating a suggestion to cut out the Speakerhood by negotiating a covert but direct trading deal between Wilson and the Pole. Aside from the direct benefit to the Polars, they argued that such openness would lead to a rapid growth in the planetary economy, after its strangling by the Speakers’ control. Maryam said softly, “I’m never sure who’s listening, here in this palace. It’s best not to go into details here. Plenty of my companions are fearful of the wrath of the Speakers, and of the Controllers.”
Tripp snorted. “More fool them. By indulging in such superstitions they are doing the Speakers’ work for them. As if they are forging the bars of their own cages.”
Maryam was irritated, as she often was, by the smug, strange Polars with their arrogance and certitude. “It may be a mere set of ‘beliefs’ to you, that we live in a Simulated reality. The fact is, it is the foundation of a religion of global reach and power. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting in this Palace dedicated to the Controllers’ worship, would we?” She riffled through the pages on the table between them. “And are these more pages of the Venus document you’ve been trying to buy up?”
“Those that aren’t forgeries, good enough to fool me.”
“Aren’t you being contradictory? It seems to me that by seeking out these things you’re tacitly admitting the historical existence of Helen Gray, whose life story is a key part of the entire legend.”
Tripp looked irritated in her turn. “We don’t deny all of the standard account of the past. You have to consider our myths and legends as source material, to be handled skeptically.

“We do believe that Helen Gray, and Wilson Argent, and Jeb Holden all existed. It’s just that we don’t believe they were created out of thin air, along with the Thirty-Seven Children, by any Sim Designers. They all came here in some kind of ship, from another world—from Earth I, maybe, or Earth II. A ship of space. Helen, Wilson, and Jeb were the only adults. We believe they fought—and my opinion is Wilson and Jeb fought over Helen, the only woman, as simple as that, and never mind more fanciful theories—and killed each other off a mere three Great Years after landing, and left the Thirty-Seven to grow up unsupervised, and fend for themselves as best they could. And we are all their children, a thousand Great Years later. That in itself is a remarkable story.”
“But if that’s so, where does the legend of the Sim Controllers come from?”

“Probably from half-memories of a space mission the Children grew up barely remembering, and never understood! There are pages in the Venus document that hint at a kind of madness among the crew of that ship—locked up for decades, whole generations living and dying in a metal prison. Some of them came to believe that it was all a hoax and they were being watched, the way you might watch a mirror-bird in a cage.” She waved a hand. “And so this tremendous layered theology, this edifice of power and wealth—all of it came out of a child’s bad dream! We’re lucky that before she died Helen Gray managed to set down a kind of story of her world, and the trip she’d taken. She called it the Venus Legacy—we think Venus was a companion on the ship. The document was seen as heretical from the age of the first Speakers. It was locked away, copied, broken up so its imagery could be used as fine art, burned, forged . . . We suspect only fragments remain. But those fragments, when sifted, are enough to prove—”
“To the satisfaction of you Polars, at least—”
“—that this world is real. It’s no Simulation. And that humans came here, somehow, from somewhere else.”
“I thought you Polars were rationalists.”
“Well, we have to be. We think the fact that we have to mine for a living has made us deeper natural philosophers than you farmers. We’re favored for astronomy, too; from here you rarely even see the lesser stars beyond the Star. We like to believe we rediscovered science.”
“Yet you accept the authority of a long-dead and semi-mythical figure like Helen Gray!”

Tripp pushed away the pages crossly. “Not just that, woman! Anybody who looks around at this world we live in—really looks—will see that humans don’t belong here. There are whole layers of life here, Maryam, one laid atop another, as immiscible as oil and water! We humans and our trees and grass and cows and sheep are latecomers. Before we came you had the tractors and the tunnel-moles and the mirror-birds, animals that seem to have been engineered to do specific jobs, engineered and then abandoned. The Slime seems to be a bacterial life form that may be a true native of this planet. And under all that you have the Substrate, as it’s called, relics that may be older than life itself, or anyhow the kinds of life we see now. The tractors and even the Slime are like our kind of life, relying on carbon and water and nitrogen—if we hadn’t forgotten everything Helen knew, we could probably say how alike. But we can’t eat the tractors, and the tractors can’t eat the Slime—that fact alone proves we’re different!—even if we’re from the same wider family, and we have some interesting ideas about that.”

Maryam tried to provoke her. “The Speakers say the Substrate buildings are elements of the vast Sim chamber that generates the world.”
“Phooey. They are clearly relics of some culture that was here long before we humans arrived. And yet they were drawn to the same pivotal locations we were, for surely the geometry of the planet hasn’t changed. This, in fact, is what I came to talk to you about. We’ve another proposal for you to consider.”
Maryam felt faintly uneasy, wondering what was coming.
Tripp picked an apple out of the bowl on the table. “Earth III orbits close to its Star, which is small and cool—according to Helen—compared to most stars in the sky.” She made the apple orbit her fist, turning it steadily. “The world is locked, and turns so that a single hemisphere always faces the Star.”

“That’s elementary—”
“Yes. But because of that elementary fact, our world is blessed with a certain number of unique locations. The Substellar point—right here. The Poles, for our world does have an axis about which it turns, even if the rotation is locked—or at least our north Pole, for there is only ocean at the south Pole. The Equator—especially those points on the Terminator, east and west, standing between dark and light. All these places the builders of the Substrate visited, for surely they were as attracted by their geometric significance as we are. There are hints in Helen’s document of structures the ship’s crew observed at geometric points off the planet as well as on it—places of orbital stability . . . And they built all this a long, long time ago. You can tell that by the rock layers that have formed over some of the structures. As much as a billion Great Years ago, perhaps.”

In an effort to regain control of the conversation, Maryam took the apple from her and bit into it. “Fascinating. So what is your proposal?”
Tripp smiled. “From my list of significant points, here in this static little system of ours, I omitted one.”
“Where?”
The Antistellar. The point that is precisely opposite the Navel, the Substellar, on the other side of the world—the point at the heart of Darkside.”
“There’s nothing there but ice.”
“Maybe. We know nothing about it save mentions in Helen’s record—a record whose authenticy many dispute.” She leaned forward. “But what is surely true is that the Substrate builders must have gone there. And surely they built something there. Perhaps we Polars, we burrowing miners, will be able to understand it. Perhaps we’ll be able to use it. And there’s the matter of scientific curiosity, which Helen Gray counsels us to cultivate. Who knows what we might learn, about the world and ourselves? And anyhow it’s surely better we get to it before the Speakers—”
Maryam sat back. “So this is what you’re planning? Some kind of trek to the Antistellar? Surely it’s impossible. The bitter cold of Darkside—”
“There has been a significant volcanic eruption this Great Year, far to the south.”
“We know. We heard it! Half the dust and ash on the planet seemed to wash out on top of Port Wilson.”
“That will have helped heat the air, globally . . . It may be that an expedition soon would have the best chance of succeeding in many Great Years.”

“And you want us to help? How? With funding, manpower, ships?”
“All of those things. And you understand why we want to cut the Speakers out of this? If we do find something at the Antistellar—”
“You would possess a sacred site—grounds to challenge their hegemony.” She glanced around, uneasily remembering that they might be overheard.
“There you have it. It’s only the bare bones of a scheme for now, but . . . you Wilsonians are adventurers.”
“We’re often called worse than that.”
“You often behave worse than that. If anybody can do this, you could—with us.”
“Flattery won’t help.”
“Then what will?”
“Time.” Maryam dropped her apple core on the table, and stood. “Time to think.”
“Very well.” Tripp stood, brushing down her cloak. “I’ll take my leave. I will see you at the Opening of the Eye at the end of the Colloquy. Perhaps we can talk further . . .”
“We’ll see.”

As her visitor left, Maryam turned away and looked out on the city. The light had closed in a little; the clouds were thickening, and there was a grey haze of volcanic dust in the air. Yet the Star hung as still as ever, directly over her head. Looking up at its mighty face, glimpsed through the clouds, she saw how it was pocked with spots like disease scars, and its flesh crawled with electrical storms, like lightning.
Tripp’s ideas swirled in her head. The thought of crossing the Terminator and traveling all the way through the dark to the precise antipode of this place was an intriguing one—yet scary, for how would it be to have the whole thickness of the planet between her and this sole source of warmth and light?
But from the city there rose up distant shouting, a pealing bell, and the crack of what sounded like a gunshot—fuelled, no doubt, by powder from the Pole. Her thoughts returned to the grubbier plane of politics, trade, power, and influence. There was another watch of talks to get through before the Opening of the Eye, the ceremony that would end the formal part of this Tithe Colloquy.
And Brod was still missing, she reminded herself, her son and the Sapphire girl. She hoped beyond hope that was just a coincidence.
She shook herself, turned, and went to wash and change and ready herself for the final sessions.

III
The watch bells sounded. The Tithe Colloquy was over for another Great Year.
Elios, Speaker of Speakers, led his attendants and the Colloquy’s senior delegates out of the Tenth Temple where they had been meeting and up wide ceremonial staircases, every step carved laboriously out of pink basalt, toward the roof of this building where, like most of the island’s grander structures, it abutted the great Substrate pillar that contained the Eye. The rest followed in silence, or speaking only quietly.

Maryam, with growing unease, walking with the others, hoped that none of them had spotted, as she had, the bright red handkerchief dropped beside the stair, for it belonged to her son Brod, who had now been missing for more than a whole watch—as had the Speaker’s daughter Vala.
They emerged onto the roof, and crossed a carved platform toward the central tower—a structure several times a person’s height, a human-built shell of basalt blocks that cradled the enigmatic Substrate tower known as the Eye. Smoke curled above it, evidently coming from several fires.

At the tower, the dignitaries in their cloaks and robes and other finery had to line up to climb the ladders of rungs set into the wall. Few had any difficulty with the climb.
“Good strong Polar steel,” Tripp murmured to Maryam. “And good strong folk too. We’re a robust breed, you know, Maryam. Helen Gray says we all weigh more here than we would where she came from, and so over the generations we’ve all grown stocky as a result . . .”
Maryam found this sort of talk irritating. “How can a person weigh more or less, in one place or another? I sometimes wonder if you really can discriminate children’s stories from any semblance of reality.”
Tripp just laughed.

When it was her turn Maryam climbed easily up the ladder, and followed dignitaries from halfway across the world along the walkway at the top of the wall. It turned out that the smoke came from fires burning in pots of oil, attended by black-robed acolytes, and it hung over the Eye like a cloud, shading it from the Star above.
And the Eye itself was now revealed to her for the first time. Cleaned of greasy Slime, it gleamed, a curved bowl of a mirror, shining and perfect—and, if Tripp was right, perhaps of tremendous age.
Elios, tall, his head clean-shaven, climbed a podium to a small stage set up at one point of the circular wall. His aides stood along the wall at intervals beside him, acolytes and lay servants of the Speakerhood. Among these stood the Sapphires, the dedicated virgins of the temple—beautiful, almost shining in their white robes, and each standing beside a cage filled with birds whose wings glistened as they stirred.

“Mirror-birds,” Tripp murmured to Maryam. “Another gift from the Pole . . .”
But Maryam was busy counting the Sapphires. There were eleven of them—and there should have been twelve, and she saw an unattended birdcage, and uneasy-looking officials glancing nervously around. Well they might have been nervous, for the missing girl was Vala, and gone as long as her own son had been gone, and Maryam was starting to feel very worried indeed.
Elios spoke now, his voice carrying across the Eye’s gleaming surface. “I, Elios son of Elios, Speaker of Speakers and forty-first occupant of the Left Hand Seat, welcome you all to this place. As you know, we hold our Tithe Colloquy every Great Year, which is twenty-four of the years of Earth III as measured by the astronomers, and which matches the Duty Cycles of the Controllers who watch over the Simulation which envelops and sustains us all. And now, with another Great Year of Simulated life having been granted to us all, let us give thanks—and let the Controllers’ Eye open!” He brought his hand down with a sharp chop.
The acolytes doused their fires with buckets of water, and the smoke began to clear. The Sapphire girls, the eleven who were present, opened their cages, and mirror-birds rattled into the air, their wings gleaming; confused by the smoke, they wheeled and darted, cawing softly.

But there was a murmur, and a disturbance worked its way along the circular wall. “Out of my way—out of my way, you cretin!”
“Khilli,” murmured Tripp. “And he doesn’t look happy.”
Maryam saw Elios’s son approach his father. He turned, a broad, powerful man dressed entirely in black, with his massive fists bunched, his face clenched in a glare. “Gone! She’s gone! Vala—he took her away on that ship of his, the Wilsonian tub, back across the sea. He took her! Wilsonians! Maryam mother of Brod! Where are you? You have some explaining to do.”
Tripp tugged Maryam back into the crowd. “It may be better to be discreet for a while . . .”
The smoke cleared, and the pale pink-white light of the Star fell on the Eye in beams, dead vertical and shining in the smoky air. Where they struck the mirror they were reflected to a perfect focus, high above their heads.
“It must be a parabola,” Tripp murmured. “This is my fourth Colloquy, but the first time I’ve been invited up here . . . What a display.” She leaned back and lifted her head, and gasped. “And—oh, look! Up in the sky!”
Maryam, squinting up, saw a kind of shadow form on the broad face of the Star, grey and translucent, and rippling with obviously artificial patterns, like waves.

“More Substrate!” said Tripp. “I told you Helen and the others saw orbital structures. Perhaps whatever is up there is somehow controlled by this ‘Eye.’ But what can it have been for. . . ?”
The mirror-birds, fluttering and cawing, were drawn up along the reflected beams by their natural affinity for light. One by one, as they reached the focus, they flew into brilliance and were extinguished in a crisping of flame.

IV
Tripp found Brod outside Port Wilson, plowing a hilltop. It was nearly half a Great Year after the debacle of the last Tithe Colloquy on the Navel—and nearly as long since the allies of the Speakers had laid siege to Port Wilson, in the war spat that had flared up after Brod’s abduction of Vala the Sapphire.

“But it was no abduction,” Brod said. He straightened up, sweating hard despite what felt like a cool watch to Tripp. He was one of dozens of men and women laboring with hand-held hoes and ploughs in this roughly marked out field. Coated with mud like the others, he’d been difficult to find. “She wanted it as much as me. More, maybe. No matter what the Speaker of Speakers says, or his tractor-spawned son Khilli. Sometimes I think . . .”
“What?” Tripp was closer in age to Brod’s mother than to him. It was wickedly funny to see this big strutting soldier boy put to work in a field, and so evidently confused. “Tell me, Brod. What do you think?”
“Sometimes I think she was in control the whole time.” His handsome face, streaked with dirt, twisted as he forced out the admission. “Sometimes I think she played me to get what she wanted.”
“Which was what?”

“Not to be a Sapphire, of course. Not to be a living religious token totally dominated by her father and brother. You know, not only are they supposed to stay celibate, those girls aren’t even allowed to speak for whole Great Years at a time. Wouldn’t you want to get away?”
“I suppose so. So she got what she wanted?”
“Yes. And I got this.” He waved a hand at the field.

They were standing on a hillside high over Port Wilson, and the view, south toward the sea and north inland, was rather magnificent, Tripp thought. This part of the coast was craggy and folded, a relic of ancient tectonic events; the hills crowded close, giving way to a sheer cliff face that fell away to the sea. Here the river Wilson forced its way to the sea, and the port had been established in its estuary, where a deep natural harbor had been enhanced by a long, enclosing sea wall. To east and west the land quickly rose up to become cliff faces, but even here people lived, in houses built on terraces. To the south lay the sea, with the Navel somewhere far over the horizon. The huge Star hung over this mid-latitude location, with the faintest tinge of pink in its light.

And Tripp could see the ships of the holy armada gathered in a loose multiple arc around the harbor, effectively blockading the trade on which Port Wilson had made its fortune—and putting a stop to the raids and petty wars indulged in by headstrong young men like Brod. Meanwhile, to the north, Tripp could see the rising smoke of the fires of Khilli’s besieging army.

It was remarkable that, though this tremendous force on land and sea was entirely under the control of Elios and Khilli, the Speakers had not had to pay a fraction of a credit toward its assembly and provisioning. This was a war being fought by the allies of the Speakers on the promise of rewards from the Sim Controllers, the reduction of tithes, and perhaps a little plunder, and in the longer term permanent commercial advantage.

And in the middle of it all was Brod, the cause of all the trouble, leaning on a hoe.
“The siege is evidently working, then,” Tripp essayed.
“Well, you can see that. We always imported most of our food. The Speakers cut that off. So here we are trying to grow potatoes on this cruddy hill. We haven’t even got enough tractors to do the work, and the army took all the horses—”
“Which is why you’re breaking your back up here.”
“I spend more time chasing off the rabbits than farming. Whichever Designer came up with those little bastards needs a good kicking.” Miserably he wiped muddy sweat from his brow. “The top families have got to ‘show an example,’ my mother says.”
Tripp glanced around theatrically. “No sign of Vala, however.”
Brod raised an eyebrow, and looked away.

Tripp said, “Well, maybe enough blood has been spilled. And the disruption this fight is causing is harmful, even for neutrals. All over the continent people are going short. Most of our trade comes through Wilson, you know. There are other ports, other trade routes, but—”
“Which is why my mother asked you to come to try and broker some kind of truce.”
“And why I just spent a fortune bribing my way through Khilli’s cordon. Look, I’ll go down into town and see what your mother has to say.” She gathered her cloak around her. “But, Brod—the deal might involve you giving up Vala. That’s what this is all about, after all.”
“I won’t give her up,” he said sternly. But his face softened. “And besides, she probably wouldn’t go.” He turned back to his work.

V
“Oh, Tripp, of course she was in control all along.”
Maryam had a fine apartment set on a ledge cut into the cliffside, connected by a scary-looking rock staircase to galleries and other apartments. Picture windows let in the light of the Star and overlooked the harbor, but the apartment was far enough out that even when the windows were thrown open any noise was only a remote murmur. Not that the harbor was bustling now, Tripp saw as she gazed out. Ships were crowded within the sea wall, but many of them had evidently been stuck there for a long time; all were empty of crews and cargo, and some had been stripped for resources for the starving port, their sails for their cloth, their crude steam engines perhaps for some agricultural or military use, even their wooden decks and hulls for timber.

Overlooking all this, Maryam patiently watered flowers in a window box, and spoke about Vala the Sapphire.
“She was always in charge. I could tell from the moment I met her—which wasn’t until after, as you will recall, Brod had ‘abducted’ her and we were already in this terrible mess, with Elios spitting fire and Khilli rampaging like a rogue bull. Brod was obviously besotted with her, and he still is—and I think she’s attracted to him, maybe even loves him.” She smiled wistfully, and ran a hand over her short-cropped, grey-blond hair, and for a moment she looked like a mother, rather than an elder of a city under siege. “You’ve seen Brod. What’s not to love? But Vala has been playing him for half a Great Year already. Vala is scheming, manipulative, sharp as a nail, and she was obviously ready to grasp the first opportunity that came along to escape the doom of becoming a Sapphire.”
“She is her father’s daughter,” Tripp said. “At the Pole we say that Elios is the toughest occupant of the Left Hand Seat in living memory. It would be surprising if she didn’t share some of his qualities.”

“So she escaped, into the protection of one of the strongest states on Seba—us. She probably foresaw her father’s rage, and her brother’s. But I don’t think she imagined she’d provoke a war, an invasion of Seba under the Shuttle Banner, a siege that’s already lasted half a Great Year nearly—and hundreds dead. All because of her. But it isn’t about her, of course.”
“Isn’t it?”
Maryam set down her watering can. “Why don’t you take a seat, Tripp ? Some tea?” She clapped her hands. “And won’t you take your coat off?”
“I already did,” Tripp said, somewhat chagrined, as she sat a little awkwardly on an overstuffed sofa. “We Polars wear a lot of layers.”
“Of course.” A boy appeared, listened to Maryam’s request for tea, and scooted off. “It will just be nettle tea, I’m afraid; the rationing has put an end to so many of the finer things . . .”
“We were speaking of the causes of the war.”

Maryam sighed. “So we were. Look—the Speakers have clearly used the ‘abduction’ of Vala as a pretext for launching this assault, on land and sea. Quite disproportionate to any offense—and quite unnecessary, incidentally. A little diplomatic and theological pressure would have been quite enough to make most of our citizens hand the girl over.” The boy returned with a jug of tea and two cups. He set his tray on a small table and poured.

“But of course the Speakers have other goals. They have always acted against any power they believed had even the slightest chance of becoming a threat to their hegemony. We Wilsonians have worked hard the last few generations, and have gotten to the point where we control much of the trade along the south coast of Seba, and between Seba and the Navel. The Speakers benefit, but we skim off a fair share. So we’re a challenge to the Speakers, and they’ve probably been looking for some way to slap us down for a long time. And by long, I mean perhaps centuries—you don’t get to be a theocracy that’s already survived a thousand Great Years without thinking in the long term. But the way they’ve done it is ingenious.”
“By forging an alliance of your enemies.”
“Enemies—trading partners—it’s hard to tell the difference at times! We’re a vigorous young nation, Tripp, and we can play rough with our neighbors. It’s all in pursuit of trade, of course, but I suppose if you’ve been on the receiving end of one of our sieges or raids you’ll probably bear a grudge.

“And into this seething arena of power politics and revenge walks my Brod! What an opportunity he, aided and abetted by the fair Vala, has offered those wizened old men around the Left Hand Seat. So you have a romantic war of rescue and revenge. But the irony is, it isn’t really Brod’s fault. As we’ve said, Vala was never a helpless abductee.”
Tripp nodded, sipping her tea. “Which is why you sent for me.”
“Yes—and thank you for coming all this way. I suspect we have a common interest. Obviously we want some kind of settlement of this conflict, without further cost in lives and trade. And you have your own trading targets to meet—”
“And, if we miss them,” Tripp reminded her, “the ultimate result is we starve. For we rely on food imports from the lower latitudes.”
Maryam studied her, an uncomfortable scrutiny. “And you especially, Tripp, have a motive for seeing this sorry business settled.”
“I do?”
“I haven’t forgotten your talk of an expedition to the Antistellar. All postponed because of the war, I imagine? Look—if you help us resolve this conflict we of Port Wilson will help you achieve your goal. Materials, supplies, tractors, crew—whatever you need.”
Tripp rubbed her cheek. “I should tell you that most of my people, the elders, aren’t interested in the Antistellar. It is half a world away even from us—”
“But you’re interested,” Maryam said bluntly. “And it’s you who’s sitting here. You’re a good negotiator. I’ve seen that.” She sat back. “Offer them a deal, concerned specifically with the reason they went to war: Brod and Vala. You can offer a punishment for Brod, to return Vala—whatever. If we can resolve the immediate issue there’s a good chance this whole conflict will just dissolve.”
Tripp nodded. “It might work.”

“It’s certainly worth a try, for all our sakes—”
There were footsteps, and Vala came bustling in. “Good mid-watch, Maryam.” She turned to Tripp, who rose.
Maryam smiled. “Vala, this is Tripp, from the Pole station. I’m sure you met her at the Colloquy last Great Year.”
Vala wore a short skirt, shirt and sweater, sensible-looking shoes, and she carried a racquet. She smiled prettily at Tripp. “Forgive me if I can’t remember your face, madam Tripp. There was rather a lot going on at the time!”
Tripp bowed her head, forgiving. But she hadn’t forgotten Vala’s face. Who could? Her delicate features—that long nose, the high cheeks—the bright red hair and startling blue eyes seemed, if anything, accentuated by the subtler, slanting light of this mid-latitude location. She was thin, as most of Wilson’s citizens seemed to be after the long siege, but Vala had always been slender, Tripp seemed to remember, and she had always worn it well. Most inhabitants of Earth III were stocky, but humans who had a deeper sense of aesthetics seemed to prefer a slender build.

Tripp found herself staring at this girl whose very understandable desire to take hold of her own destiny had caused so much trouble—and who was coming close to breaking the heart of a young man who at this moment was scraping at a hillside trying to grow potatoes. Vala smiled, evidently used to stares, and Tripp looked away, embarrassed.
Vala turned to Maryam. “I thought I’d play some racquets with Roco.”
“Her racquets coach,” Maryam murmured to Tripp. “Brod will be back for his supper—”
“Oh, I’ll be home long before then. Bye—and nice to meet you, Tripp from the Pole!” She skipped out, swinging her racquet.
Maryam sighed. “Poor Brod! I don’t think she has feelings for Roco. But young men seem attracted to her like mirror-birds to the light.”
Tripp murmured, “She is beautiful—no wonder she causes so much trouble—it’s not just her physical beauty but the friendliness in her face, the openness—I could barely take my eyes off her myself !”
“I noticed,” Maryam said sternly. “Funny lot, you Polars. Well—I suppose you’d like a bed for the sleep watch? It will be another tricky journey, I imagine, back out through the line of the siege, if you’re to meet Elios . . .”

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Copyright

"Earth III" by
Stephen Baxter copyright © 2010 with permission of the author.

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