City Without End
|Series:||The Entire and the Rose: Book 3|
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Alternate/Parallel Universe|
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On this stage unfolds a mighty struggle for dominance between two universes. Titus Quinn has forged an unstable peace with the Tarig lords. The ruinous capability of the nanotech surge weapon he possesses ensures detente. But it is a sham. In what the godwoman Zhiya calls a fit of moral goodness, he's thrown the weapon into the space-folding waters of the Nigh. This clears the way for an enemy he could have never foreseen: the people of the Rose. A small cadre led by Helice Maki is determined to take the Entire for itself and leave the earth in ruins. The transform of earth will begin deep in a western desert and will sweep over the lives of ordinary people, entangling Quinn s sister-in-law Caitlin in a deepening and ultimate conspiracy.
In the Entire, Quinn stalks Helice to the fabled Rim City, encircling the heart of the Entire. Here he at last finds his daughter, now called Sen Ni, in the Chalin style. Outside of earth-based time, she has grown to adulthood. He hardly knows her, and finds her the mistress of a remarkable dream-time insurgency against the Tarig lords and more, a woman risen high in the Entire's meritocracy. Quinn needs his daughter's help against the woman who would destroy the earth. But Sen Ni has her own plans and allies, among them a boy-navitar unlike any other pilot of the River Nigh a navitar willing and supremely able to break his vows and bend the world.
Quinn casts his fate with the beautiful and resourceful Ji Anzi who sent on a journey to other realms holds the key to Quinn's heart and his overarching mission. But as he approaches the innermost sanctuary of the Tarig, he is alone. Waiting for him are powerful adversaries, including a lady who both hates and loves him, the high prefect of the dragon court, and Quinn's most implacable enemy, a warrior whose chaotic mind will soon be roused from an eternal slumber.
Part I: The Little God
Prologue: The Entire
Beside the storm wall, Ahnenhoon, Across the war plains, Ahnenhoon, Over the armies, Ahnenhoon, Around the Repel, Ahnenhoon, Under the grave flags, Ahnenhoon.
--a marching song
HE STILL HAD DIRT UNDER HIS FINGERNAILS FROM HIS GRAVE. His massive hands with their knobby joints sported thick fingers, now grimed with soil. He had hoped for burial in a cloth sack. When he came to consciousness in a box with the sounds of shovels and light welling through the slats, he knew he'd have to work quickly. As dirt started hitting the lid, he blessed Wei who had given him a knife for ripping the planks. And rip them he did, enough to get a shoulder free, covering his mouth to protect a pocket of air. With the burial detail eager for their warm beds in the barracks of Ahnenhoon, they'd dug the grave hastily and mercifully shallow. Next to the looming outer walls of the fortress, Mo Ti quickly refilled his grave. In the distance he heard the sounds of the army's defensive guns. The Paion must be hitting hard, their zeppelins budding out of the sky to rain ichors on the army of the Entire. Good. Death was a fine distraction on a night like this; it might be just the advantage that would save him. Though it was Deep Ebb, the darkest phase of all, the slumbering sky still burned lavender, throwing a bruised light on him. He must seek the hiding places of the hills. With his massive girth and height, he had never been one easily overlooked, nor, with his face like a tree bole, easily forgotten. Even weak from blood loss, Mo Ti could dispatch a soldier or two, but he had little chance against the terrible lords, thin and vicious, or the Paion, lurching through the grass inside their foul machines. Do not look upon me, Miserable God, he silently prayed. King of Woe, I am beneath your notice, a beetle in dung.
Before loping away, he spared a moment to read his grave flag. Monster of the Repel. Mo Ti smiled. Yes, I am a monster to you, high Tarig lords. He bowed his misshapen body in mock obeisance to the Repel, the lords' inner keep, where it bulked above the concentric defenses of the fortress. You will see me again, gracious lords.
He held much against them, but not burying him alive. That he had arranged himself. Once in the lords' custody, Mo Ti needed, above all, to escape Tarig questioning. In his cell he had removed the bindings on his wounds from the sword fight. Blood welled up, spilling onto the floor. Then he mixed waters and dyes to create a scene of death. Finding him an obvious suicide in their dungeon, the Chalin servants had given him a proper burial, it not being a custom of the gracious lords to appear unnecessarily cruel.
He drank deep from the water bladder that had been taped to his leg. Wei had done what she could to help him. But she was a stupid girl not to give him food, too.
Moving swiftly away from the fortress, he took what cover he could in the long grasses. In the distance, the storm walls swayed, sending their dark shadows across the field of contest. Three Paion dirigibles hovered over the killing grounds, their sides pulsing with the weird light of their alien homeland. Before disappearing into sphincters in the sky, they would throw down their poisonous gouts on the ranks of soldiers. Mo Ti hoped the sentries would be inattentive to the Repel's close vicinity. Soldiers often watched the wrong things.
As did the Tarig. For one thing, they were insensible to the dreams. Even if they could not dream, they were insensible to other sentients' dreams-- dreams that might be spoken of if the Tarig cared whose sleep was troubled. The Inyx mounts spoke heart to heart and now turned the Entire's dreams to excellent propaganda. How delicious that the young girl the Tarig blinded-- his beloved Sydney, for whom he would give his life--had been the first one to see their fatal weakness. How fitting she would be the one to sweep the mantis lords from their sky city.
But now that carefully wrought future was in doubt. Because of the newcomer. The spider. A small, fierce human without a shred of pity for the worlds she would set to the torch. Titus Quinn must stop her, though he didn't know it yet.
The Rose spider, Hel Ese, came to ally with Sydney. To Mo Ti's alarm, she had succeeded, displacing him with powers and persuasion. Sewn into her clothes and brought from her world was a small god that Mo Ti did not understand and therefore feared. But the spider had made a strategic mistake. She had allowed Mo Ti to overhear her plans. Impressively cruel plans for a woman. For any sentient being.
He bent over in pain from the wound in his side. It was still two days' walk to the River Nigh where he would seek passage from the navitar. Rising, he looked into the waxing silver sky, the fiery river that warmed the Entire and his bones. The bright give me strength, Mo Ti thought. The bright bring me home.
He drove his body through the crumpled hills edging the plains of Ahnenhoon. He must find this man, Titus Quinn, the man for whom he had sacrificed himself yesterday during the fight. There had been no time then to tell him of the Rose spider who stalked them all. During that brief skirmish Mo Ti and Titus Quinn had fought off the guards who came in the first wave of defenders. When Mo Ti saw that he could fight three at once, he urged Titus Quinn to flee. He granted the man his life for one reason: instead of destroying the Repel and the land around it, Titus Quinn had repudiated his terrible weapon, sparing the land. And therefore Mo Ti spared him. Then the lords arrived, striking Mo Ti senseless. It was his good fortune the high lord's human captive, Johanna, was suffering a beating from the Tarig, an undertaking that distracted them from his immediate interrogation.
Thus had Titus Quinn escaped. Wei informed Mo Ti of this fact as he lay in his cell deep in the fortress. Wei was a common servant sent by Johanna to help Mo Ti. It was a fine gesture from a dying woman--a woman who, it was rumored, loved her Tarig lord.
He spit in the dust, thinking of it. Far better dead, Mo Ti thought, than in such an embrace.
A shadow fell over him. From nowhere, a zeppelin scudded above the hill, moving breathtakingly close to Mo Ti's position. He fell into a deep crouch, nearly blacking out from the pain in his gut. The fatbellied conveyance motored over the next ridge.
Mo Ti stayed low, listening. Silence. The sounds of the airship motor had bled away. From the plains came distant reports of guns. He was just rising to an upright position when he saw it: silhouetted against the sky, a figure on the near ridge. Standing on two short legs, a Paion mechanical, its two multi-weaponed arms cocked at the elbow and ready. The machine almost looked like a man, but it was headless, giving it the nightmare look all children feared. In the hump on its back rode the passenger that drove it. A Paion.
He froze in place. But it was too late. The Paion turned to face him. Mo Ti had no cover; he was exposed to the alien's view.
Mo Ti ran down the length of the gully. Had the airship disgorged its battalions in the next basin behind the hill? If so, he was a dead man. Reaching the near slope, he forced himself to climb, putting distance between himself and the Paion ranks. Looking back, he saw that the Paion was following. It raised a carapaced arm.
Mo Ti flattened himself against the hill, and the beam went high but near. He admired such accuracy from a running soldier.
Another singular fact stood out. The creature was alone. The Paion always fought in masses, their glowing white shells forming tight knots of offense. But so far, this one was alone. It stalked forward, aiming again. Mo Ti twisted away, rolling sideways on the hillside, escaping the blasts even as he groaned from the exertion.
Forcing himself to his feet, he switched directions, loping toward the war plains. There, in the confusion of the larger conflict, he might divert this lone Paion to other targets. He topped the ridge, his inhalations coming hard and fast, each breath a slice of pain. On the grasslands in front of him, cannon smoke drifted, forming a curtain over hot spots from flaming equipment and bodies. Behind him, the foul creature lurched after him.
Mo Ti ran toward the mayhem, toward the flash of war engines spouting fire, toward the rallies and sorties of battle. He had no weapon to meet the Paion in arms, no chance against the streaming fire of its hand armament. Mo Ti cursed the Paion and cursed Titus Quinn, too, for whose sake he was fleeing for his life. It was good to curse, to keep one's strength up, to fend off the pain each footfall brought him.
Looking behind him, he saw the Paion closing on him.
There was no time to run. Mo Ti turned to fight.
Staggering closer, the Paion raised its arm again. By the creature's gait, Mo Ti thought it was damaged. He saw the weapon corkscrew out of the carapace, bypassing the robotic hand. Fire spurted. Mo Ti lunged to the side, falling heavily and driving the breath from his lungs. The pain nearly knocked him senseless. He lost precious intervals forcing himself to his knees. He was untouched. Trying to stand, Mo Ti saw that the Paion's hand armament was smoking, hanging useless. It had backfired along the creature's arm, which now slapped at its side as the Paion advanced.
Encouraged, Mo Ti rose to his feet.
In its milky white casing, the Paion advanced, wobbling on its jointed legs. In height it came to Mo Ti's chest. It raised its other arm.
No ichors streamed out. The creature's hand was a blade. So, it would be a knife fight. That was good news for Mo Ti. He advanced, drawing his blade, a short but infinitely sharp knife. He blessed Wei for the supplies of his coffin.
They fell at each other, striking. Mo Ti parried the Paion's first jab, but the second slashed his belt, scoring the braided leather instead of Mo Ti's gut. Having overreached, the Paion staggered forward, giving Mo Ti time to come at the creature from the back. Raising his arm in a last-ditch blow, he struck at the hump, sending the Paion staggering. Moving in, Mo Ti knew his knife would have little effect against armor. Instead of striking, Mo Ti used his one undoubted advantage: his size. He fell on the Paion. In the force of his sheer weight, he split the mechanical's carapace in a grinding tear. He brought his fist up and hammered at the bulge again and again as the creature lay face down.
When he could raise his arm no more, Mo Ti collapsed, still lying on top of the mechanical. Fumes of the body inside came to his nostrils. The Paion could not endure exposure to Entire air. The biological entity within was disintegrating, leaking out of the rents in the armor.
Mo Ti rolled off the Paion. He lay panting on his back, fighting to remain conscious. At last he dragged himself to a sitting position. One hand of the mechanical was spinning round the wrist as though trying to sort out which weapon to bring up next.
"It is over," Mo Ti whispered. "Go to your gods." He had seen dead Paion mechanicals before, in his soldiering days. Even dead, they were ugly and unnatural. It was said the headless things took their vision from senses spread over the full carapace. And that no one could win against them one on one.
The hand produced another blade, this one long and thin. Then, satisfied it had done its best, the machine let its forearm clink to the ground.
Mo Ti rose to his feet and looked down at his adversary. Yellow blood seeped out of the hump where the Paion had ridden. Mo Ti looked to the ridge to check for further pursuit. The hills were quiet, feeding halfhearted echoes from the battlefield.
He stepped on the Paion's wrist and hacked his blade at the offered weapon. You never knew when an extra would be needed. He was, he reminded himself, still a long way from the Nigh. The blade separated from the wrist, and Mo Ti slid it into his belt.
He began his painful march once again. Rest was impossible. Once he lay down, he would sleep for days. Somehow, as the hours passed, he managed to keep his purpose before him: The River Nigh. Titus Quinn. Must tell him, and soon. Hel Ese, the spider, coming in for the kill.
Although Titus Quinn was a lifetime journey away from Ahnenhoon, Mo Ti did not despair. By the River Nigh, all places were near.
Prologue: The Rose
IN THE MIRROR, LAMAR GELDE LOOKED AT HIMSELF in swimming trunks. At seventy-seven, a wreck of a man. His white skin hung on a six-foot frame, muscles trim but stringy, chest thin and leathery despite daily workouts. His belly button sagged a good two inches from where it should be, and his toenails looked like ancient ivory. Grabbing his pool robe, he pulled it over his body, lashing it at the waist. The face, at least the face, bore a semblance of dignity. The latest maxillofacial outcomes took thirty years off him, beginning with the nasolobial folds (receded) and the platysma bands wattling his neck (gone.) He peered closer: a few hairline cracks around his eyes argued for the next procedure, corrigator muscle update. He reminded himself that there was nothing ghoulish about being good-looking at his age. Everyone did it. Well, maybe seventy-seven was pushing it, but if he was going to live a long time, now was no time to start slipping. Caitlin Quinn hailed him with a raise of her poolside drink. He made his way to her, noting that her thirty-five-year-old body still looked fit, though she had the bad taste to complain of it. "What'll you have?" she asked, pointing her data ring at the house.
"Seltzer and lime." She stranded the order at the smart wall, her smile wobbling. She'd called him here to talk about something. Anything she needed, he was the man. As Caitlin made her way to the wet bar to retrieve their drinks, Lamar watched Rob and his son horsing around in the pool. He sighed. A nice little family scene on the surface. Underneath, nothing of the sort. Caitlin and Rob were on the outs. No doubt Caitlin was half in love with Titus Quinn, her brother-in-law, and Rob was clueless. Since they were living off Titus's millions, Rob no longer had to worry about being fired for being forty and hopelessly out of date with savant AIs. Nope. He'd had the money to quit outright before they fired him, and now he and Caitlin had their own little middie startup company. They should take their happiness while there was still time.
Thirteen-year-old Mateo stood on the diving board, waving at Lamar. "Back dive, uncle Lamar, watch!" He danced on the board, then launched his body, folding in a way only a cat or youngster could manage, smoothing out in time to make a decent plunge.
Lamar clapped, impressed. Mateo waved like crazy and swam the length of the pool. Despite no little envy, Lamar was proud of the kid. Handsome, motivated, respectful. Liked his "uncle." Well, Lamar had promised to take good care of the family. Rob and Caitlin were Quinn's only family now--they and their children, Mateo and Emily. Lamar had grown closer to them in the interval of Quinn's absence. Nice kid, Mateo. It made Lamar wish he'd had a few of his own. But Caitlin, seated again next to him, looked unhappy. She had no idea how unhappy she had a right to be. It made him feel like shit.
She wouldn't be in on it. How could she be? She was a middie, smart enough to tend lower-level AI's, the savants. Same as Rob. But she'd never be a savvy, testing over 160. It wasn't her fault, but she wasn't up to dealing with the new world.
Mateo did a flying back somersault, landing on his butt. Rob roared with laughter, and Mateo hauled himself out of the pool, breathless but laughing anyway.
"Good kid," Lamar said.
"I know." Caitlin cut him a glance. "Not good enough, maybe."
He frowned, and the conversation sagged into the waiting silence.
"We got the results. He didn't ace the test."
Lamar gaped at her. Didn't ace the test? The Standard Test. Christ, the kid was the grandson of Donnel Quinn and the nephew of Titus Quinn, and he didn't slam the Standard? He hung his head, not looking at her. Genetics.
It was genetics. Mateo got his brains from Caitlin and Rob--no shame in that--but he was no savvy. Not like Lamar, or Titus. Christ almighty. A blow.
Caitlin pushed on, falsely cheerful. "He's bright. IQ 139. He'll be fine."
Fine. Yes, depending on your definition. Didn't Mateo have some big ambitions, though? Something about being a virtual enviro designer . .. well, not likely. Stanford wouldn't take him, or Cornell. Lamar could pull some strings. But the boy didn't have the right stuff to make it far; couldn't do calculus in his head or understand advanced quantum theory. Time was when even the average-smart could do real science, but that time was gone. The easy stuff had all been done, and now, talking to a middie--much less a dred--was like explaining sunrise to a pigmy.
"I'm sorry, Caitlin."
"Of course you are." Her voice didn't cloak her bitterness. Lamar was a savvy.
He shifted uneasily in the pool chair. He should have been prepared for this. Mateo was thirteen, the age they gave the Standard. What was he supposed to say: Brains aren't everything? Oh, but they were.
Mateo grabbed his towel and made his way to the adults while Rob did his pool laps.
"He doesn't know yet," Caitlin whispered.
"Ho, unc," Mateo chirped.
"Ho, young man." Lamar pasted on a smile, more rigid these days after his rhinoplasty.
Mateo took a sip of a half-finished soda, and Lamar watched him with dismay. The boy squinted against the July sun, making him look confused and wary. The spark in his eyes, that look of broad perspective, was missing.
Lamar should have seen it before. The boy was a middie, poor son of a bitch.
"Want to see a double twist?" Mateo asked, jumping up. Assured that every adult within two blocks would want to see Mateo Quinn perform dive platform feats, he raced off, heedless of Caitlin's call not to run on the cement.
His departure left a vacuum in Lamar's heart. What a miserable mess. Mateo wasn't in the club. Bad enough to leave Caitlin and Rob behind, but now Mateo? Quinn would be unhappy. Quinn would carve Lamar a new asshole.
Lamar sank into a dark place, thinking of how his little revolutionary cabal was screwing over his adopted family. Thinking of how he'd have to face Quinn for leaving Mateo behind when the world change came about.
The fact was, even Lamar didn't want to leave him behind. He liked the boy, liked Caitlin and little Emily. For God's sake, how could he abandon them?
The topic didn't bear close scrutiny. It was a monstrous scheme. But if the world had to be abandoned, Lamar and his people couldn't be blamed. That responsibility fell upon the Tarig. They were intent on using the Rose universe as fuel and had been beta testing the concept for fully two years, if not longer. Lately the tally of vanished stars included Alpha Carinae, a rare yellow-white super giant, which people who bothered to learn their stars knew as Canopus. Few bothered. The astronomers were in a lather, of course. Particularly since over the last three months Alpha Carinae had been preceded in death by Procyon, the lovely marquee star of Canis Minor, and 40 Eridani-B, a DA-class white dwarf. People paying attention, like Lamar and his friends, saw these vanishings as yet another hint the end was near. The stars had simply winked out. Impossible, of course. But not for the Tarig.
Nothing, really, could stop them, not for long. Lamar and company's little plan--with the very apt name of renaissance--would hasten that act of cannibalism, after first saving a few gifted people who the Tarig might tolerate in their closed kingdom. We'll help you burn it. Let a few of us emigrate, and we'll show you how.
Grotesque, yes. But who else could fight the monstrous Tarig, if not equally ferocious humans? These were Lamar's usual ruminations, forestalling the guilt that threatened to inundate his days.
But a new thought was forming. Perhaps--just perhaps--he didn't have to leave the boy behind. Lamar Gelde might, for example, bend the rules a bit. Given his exemplary service to the new renaissance, hadn't he earned some privileges?
Of course he'd have to face Helice, and she was fierce on the topic. But the hell with Helice, the little rat-bitch. He'd never liked her, and she wasn't in charge from across the universe. Furthermore, Quinn would appreciate the out-of-the-box thinking. Quinn would goddamn well owe him big time.
Lamar watched Caitlin as he sipped his drink. By damn, I'm poised to do something good and decent. By damn.
Mateo was going to get his numbers changed. Caitlin was going to retest, too. Her numbers would come up strong, as well. Rob--well, no one would miss him. He was out of the equation. Lamar would have to pull off a bit of backroom manipulation, and normally such a switch could never escape the scrutiny of the mSap... but the thing was, he didn't need to fool the machine sapient that ran the Standard Test. He only needed to confuse the bureaucrats for a few days. By then, it would be too late.
Lamar murmured into his drink, hardly believing what he was saying to Caitlin: "I can get you in on something. You and your family." Now that he had said it, it filled him with a vast relief. In the midst of the coming storm, amid the colossal suffering to come, someone would have a reprieve.
Caitlin looked at him, waiting.
"I can't tell you what it is. Something's coming. Not a word to Rob or anybody, not even Mateo." He noted Caitlin's growing confusion. "It won't matter about the test. Very soon, it won't matter at all."
"What are you talking about? Are they coming up with a new test?"
"No, no tests. That's behind us now."
She scrunched her lips in thought. "It might be behind you, Lamar, but it's not behind us."
He fixed her with a pointed look as Rob, draped in a towel, ambled over from his swim. "I can't say more. Don't push right now. We'll talk, but privately."
She started to protest, but he shook his head as Rob joined them.
Poor Rob. He was a dead man. It made him feel like hell to know so much, while simple people enjoyed their barbeques and swims. But he couldn't let himself worry about Rob. He's holding the race back. Propagating, watering down the neurons. Rob wouldn't have a place in the future. Not like Lamar. Not like Titus Quinn. Men with the requisite IQ.
It was all based on merit.
And in the case of Mateo and Caitlin, on who you knew.
Copyright © 2009 by Kay Kenyon
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