They came upon the Earthling naked, somewhere in the Shifting Desert when Mars’ harsh sunlight beat through thinning atmosphere and the sand was raw glass cutting into bare feet. His skin hung like filthy rags from his bloody flesh. He was starved, unshaven, making noises like an animal. He was raving—empty of identity and will. What had the ghosts of those ancient Martians done to him? Had they traveled through time and space to take a foul and unlikely vengeance? A novella of alien mysteries—of a goddess who craved life—who lusted for the only man who had ever dared disobey her. A tale of Captain John MacShard, the Half-Martian, of old blood and older memories, of a restless quest for the prize of forgotten centuries….
WHISPERS OF AN ANCIENT MEMORY
“That’s Captain John MacShard, the tomb-thief.” Schomberg leaned his capacious belly on the bar, wiping around it with a filthy rag. “They say his mother was a Martian princess turned whore, and his father—”
Low City’s best-known antiquities fence, proprietor of the seedy Twenty Capstans, Schomberg murmured wetly through lips like fresh liver. “Well, Mercury was the only world would take them. Them and their filthy egg.” He flicked a look toward the door and became suddenly grave.
Outlined against the glare of the Martian noon a man appeared to hesitate and go on down the street. Then he turned and pushed through the entrance’s weak energy gate. Then he paused again.
He was a big, hard-muscled man, dressed in spare ocher and brown, with a queer, ancient weapon, all baroque unstable plastics and metals, prominent on his hip.
The Banning gun was immediately recognized and its owner identified by the hardened spacers and krik traders who used the place.
They said only four men in the solar system could ever handle that weapon. One was the legendary Northwest Smith; the second was Eric John Stark, now far off-system. The third was Dumarest of Terra, and the fourth was Captain John MacShard. Anyone else trying to fire a Banning died unpleasantly. Sometimes they just disappeared, as if every part of them had been sucked into the gun’s impossible energy cells. They said Smith had given his soul for a Banning. But MacShard’s soul was still apparent, behind that steady gray gaze, hungering for something like oblivion.
From long habit Captain John MacShard remained in the doorway until his sight had fully adjusted to the sputtering naphtha. His eyes glowed with a permanent feral fire. He was a lean-faced, slim-hipped wolf’s head whom no man could ever tame. Through all the alien and mysterious spheres of interplanetary space, many had tried to take the wild beast out of Captain John MacShard. He remained as fierce and free as in the days when, as a boy, he had scrabbled for survival over the unforgiving waste of rocky crags and slag slopes that was Mercury and from the disparate blood of two planets had built a body which could withstand the cruel climate of a third.
Captain John MacShard was in Schomberg’s for a reason. He never did anything without a reason. He couldn’t go to sleep until he had first considered the action. It was what he had learned on Mercury, orphaned, surviving in those terrible caverns, fighting fiercely for subsistence where nothing would grow and where you and the half-human tribe which had adopted you were the tastiest prey on the planet.
More than any Earthman, he had learned the old ways, the sweet, dangerous, old ways of the ancient Martians. Their descendants still haunted the worn and whispering hills which were the remains of Mars’ great mountain ranges in the ages of her might, when the Sea Kings ruled a planet as blue as turquoise, as glittering red as rubies, and as green as that Emerald Isle which had produced Captain John MacShard’s own Earth ancestors, as tough, as mystical and as filled with wanderlust as this stepson of the shrieking Mercurian wastelands, with the blood of Brian Borhu, Henry Tudor, and Charles Edward Stuart in his veins. Too, the blood of Martian Sea Kings called to him across the centuries and informed him with the deep wisdom of his Martian forebears. That long-dead kin had fought against the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, been cavaliers in the Stuart cause and marshals in Napoleon’s army. They had fought for and against the standard of Rhiannon, in both male and female guise, survived blasting sorcery and led the starving armies of Barrakesh into the final battle of the Martian pole. Their stories, their courage and their mad fearlessness in the face of inevitable death were legendary.
Captain John MacShard had known nothing of this ancestry of course and there were still many unsolved mysteries in his past, but he had little interest in them. He had the instincts of any intelligent wild animal, and left the past in the past. A catlike curiosity was what drove him and it made him the best archaeological hunter on five planets—some, like Schomberg, called him a grave-looter, though never to his face. There was scarcely a museum in the inhabited universe which didn’t proudly display a find of Captain John MacShard’s. They said some of the races which had made those artifacts had not been entirely extinct until the captain found them. There wasn’t a living enemy who didn’t fear him. And there wasn’t a woman in the system who had known him that didn’t remember him.
To call Captain John MacShard a loner was something of a tautology. Captain John MacShard was loneliness personified. He was like a spur of rock in the deep desert, resisting everything man and nature could send against it. He was endurance. He was integrity, and he was grit through and through. Only one who had tested himself against the entire fury of alien Mercury and survived could know what it meant to be MacShard, trusting only MacShard.
Captain John MacShard was very sparing in his affections but gave less to himself than he gave to an alley-brint, a wounded ray-rat, or the scrawny street kid begging in the hard sour Martian sun to whom he finally tossed a piece of old silver before striding into the bar and taking his usual, which Schomberg had ready for him.
The Dutchman began to babble something, but Captain John MacShard placed his lips to the shot glass of Vortex Water, turned his back on him, and surveyed his company.
His company was pretending they hadn’t seen him come in.
From a top pocket MacShard fished a twisted pencil of Venusian talk-talk wood and stuck it between his teeth, chewing on it thoughtfully. Eventually his steady gaze fell on a fat merchant in a fancy fake skow-skin jerkin and vivid blue tights who pretended an interest in his fancifully carved flagon.
“Your name Morricone?” Captain John MacShard’s voice was a whisper, cutting through the rhythmic sound of men who couldn’t help taking in sudden air and running tongues around drying mouths.
His thin lips opened wide enough for the others to see a glint of bright, pointed teeth before they shut tight again.
Morricone nodded. He made a halfhearted attempt to smile. He put his hands on either side of his cards and made funny shrugging movements.
From somewhere, softly, a shtrang string sounded.
“You wanted to see me,” said Captain John MacShard. And he jerked his head toward a corner where a filthy table was suddenly unoccupied.
The man called Morricone scuttled obediently toward the table and sat down, watching Captain John MacShard as he picked up his bottle and glass and walked slowly, his antique ghat-scale leggings chinking faintly.
Again the shtrang string began to sound, its deep note making peculiar harmonies in the thin Martian air. There was a cry like a human voice which echoed into nowhere, and when it was gone the silence was even more profound.
“You wanted to see me?” Captain John MacShard moved the unlit stogie from one side of his mouth to the other. His gray, jade-flecked eyes bore into Morricone’s shifting black pupils. The fat merchant was obviously hyped on some kind of Low City “head chowder.”
There wasn’t a drug you couldn’t buy at Schomberg’s where everything was for sale, including Schomberg.
The hophead began to giggle in a way that at once identified him as a cruffer, addicted to the fine, white powdered bark of the Venusian high tree cultures, who used the stuff to train their giant birds but had the sense not to use it themselves.
Captain John MacShard turned away. He wasn’t going to waste his time on a druggy, no matter how expensive his tastes.
Morricone lost his terror of Captain John MacShard then. He needed help more than he needed dope. Captain John MacShard was faintly impressed. He knew the kind of hold cruff had on its victims.
But he kept on walking.
Until Morricone scuttled in front of him and almost fell to his knees, his hands reaching out toward Captain John MacShard, too afraid to touch him.
His voice was small, desperate, and it held some kind of pain Captain John MacShard recognized. “Please…”
Captain John MacShard made to move past, back into the glaring street.
“Please, Captain MacShard. Please help me…” His shoulders slumped, and he said dully: “They’ve taken my daughter. The Thennet have taken my daughter.”
Captain John MacShard hesitated, still looking into the street. From the corner of his mouth he gave the name of one of the cheapest hotels in the quarter. Nobody in their right mind would stay there if they valued life or limb. Only the crazy or desperate would even enter the street it was in.
“I’m there in an hour.” Captain John MacShard went out of the bar. The boy he’d given the silver coin to was still standing in the swirling Martian dust, the ever-moving red tide which ran like a bizarre river down the time-destroyed street. The boy grinned up at him. Old eyes, young skin. A slender snizzer lizard crawled on his shoulder and curled its strange, prehensile tail around his left ear. The boy touched the creature tenderly, automatically.
“You good man, Mister Captain John MacShard.”
For the first time in months, Captain John MacShard allowed himself a thin, self-mocking grin.
TAKEN BY THE THENNET!
Captain John MacShard left the main drag almost at once. He needed some advice and knew where he was most likely to find it. There was an old man he had to visit. Though not of their race, Fra Energen had authority over the last of the Memiget Priests whose Order had discovered how rich the planet was in man-made treasure. They had also been experts on the Thennet as well as the ancient Martian pantheon.
His business over with, Captain John MacShard walked back to his hotel. His route took him through the filthiest, most wretched slums ever seen across all the ports of the spaceways. He displayed neither weakness nor desire. His pace was the steady, relentless lope of the wolf. His eyes seemed unmoving, yet took in everything.
All around him the high tottering tenement towers of the Low City swayed gently in the glittering light, their rusted metal and red terra cotta merging into the landscape as if they were natural. As if they had always been there.
Not quite as old as Time, some of the buildings were older than the human race. They had been added to and stripped and added to again, but once those towers had sheltered and proclaimed the power of Mars’ mightiest sea lords.
Now they were slums, a rat warren for the scum of the spaceways, for half-Martians like Captain John MacShard, for stranger genetic mixes than even Brueghel imagined.
In that thin atmosphere you could smell the Low City for miles and beyond that, in the series of small craters known as Diana’s Field, was Old Mars Station, the first spaceport the Earthlings had ever built, long before they had begun to discover the strange, retiring races which had remained near their cities, haunting them like barely living ghosts, more creatures of their own mental powers than of any natural creation—ancient memories made physical by act of will alone.
Millennia before, the sea lords and their ladies and children died in those towers, sensing the end of their race as the last of the waters evaporated and red winds scoured the streets of all ornament and grace. Some chose to kill themselves as their fine ships became so many useless monuments. Some had marshaled their families and set off across the new-formed deserts in search of a mythical ocean which welled up from the planet’s core.
It had taken less than a generation, Captain John MacShard knew, for a small but navigable ocean to evaporate rapidly until it was no more than a haze in the morning sunlight. Where it had been were slowly collapsing hulls, the remains of wharfs and jetties, endless dunes and rippling deserts, abandoned cities of poignant dignity and unbelievable beauty. The great dust tides rose and fell across the dead sea bottoms of a planet which had run out of resources. Even its water had come from Venus, until the Venusians had raised the price so only Earth could afford it.
Earth was scarcely any better now, with water wars turning the Blue Planet into a background of endless skirmishes between nations and tribes for the precious streams, rivers, and lakes they had used so dissolutely and let dissipate into space, turning God’s paradise into Satan’s wasteland.
And now Earth couldn’t afford Venusian water either. So Venus fought a bloody civil war for control of what was left of her trade. For a while MacShard had run bootleg water out of New Malvern. The kind of money the rich were prepared to pay for a tiny bottle was phenomenal. But he’d become sickened with it when he’d walked through London’s notorious Westminster district and seen degenerates spending an artisan’s wages on jars of gray reconstitute while mothers held the corpses of dehydrated babies in their arms and begged for the money to bury them.
“Mr. Captain John MacShard.”
Captain John MacShard knew the boy had followed him all the way to the hotel. Without turning, he said: “You’d better introduce yourself, sonny.”
The boy seemed ashamed, as if he had never been detected before. He hung his head. “My dad called me Milton,” he said.
Captain John MacShard smiled then. Once. He stopped when he saw the boy’s face. The child had been laughed at too often and to him it meant danger, distrust, pain. “So your dad was Mr. Eliot, right?”
The boy forgot any imagined insult, “You knew him?”
“How long did your mother know him?”
“Well, he was on one of those long-haul ion sailors. He was a great guitarist. Singer. Wrote all his own material. He was going to see a producer when he came back from Earth with enough money to marry. Well, you know that story.” The boy lowered his eyes. “Never came back.”
“I’m not your pa,” said Captain John MacShard and went inside. He closed his door. He marveled at the tricks the street kids used these days. But that stuff couldn’t work on him. He’d seen six-year-old masters pulling the last Uranian bakh from a tight-fisted New Nantucket blubber-chaser who had just finished a speech about a need for more workhouses.
A few moments later, Morricone arrived. Captain John MacShard knew it was him by the quick, almost hesitant rap.
“It’s open,” he said. There was never any point in locking doors in this place. It advertised you had something worth stealing. Maybe just your body.
Morricone was terrified. He was terrified of the neighborhood and he was terrified of Captain John MacShard. But he was even more terrified of something else. Of whatever the Thennet might have done to his daughter.
Captain John MacShard had no love for the Thennet, and he didn’t need a big excuse to put a few more of their number in hell.
The gaudily dressed old man shuffled into the room, and his terror didn’t go away. Captain John MacShard closed the door behind him. “Don’t tell me about the Then-net,” he said. “I know about them and what they do. Tell me when they took your daughter and whatever else you know about where they took her.”
“Out past the old tombs. A good fifty or sixty versts from here. Beyond the Yellow Canal. I paid a breed to follow them. That’s as far as he got. He said the trail went on, but he wasn’t going any farther. I got the same from all of them. They won’t follow the Thennet into the Aghroniagh Hills. Then I heard you had just come down from Earth.” He made some effort at ordinary social conversation. His eyes remained crazed. “What’s it like back there now?”
“This is better,” said Captain John MacShard. “So they went into the Aghroniagh Hills? When?”
“Some two days ago…”
Captain John MacShard turned away with a shrug.
“I know,” said the merchant. “But this was different. They weren’t going to eat her or—or—play with her . . .” His skin crawled visibly. “They were careful not to mark her. It was as if she was for someone else. Maybe a big slaver? They wouldn’t let any of their saliva drip on her. They got me, though.” He extended the twisted branch of burned flesh that had been his forearm.
Captain John MacShard drew a deep breath and began to take off his boots.
“You’ll owe me a million hard deens if I bring her back alive. I won’t guarantee her sanity.”
“You’ll have the money. I promise. Her name’s Mercedes. She’s sweet and decent—the only good thing I ever helped create. She was staying with me…the vacation… her mother and I…”
Captain John MacShard moved toward his board bed. “Half in the morning. Give me a little time to put the money in a safe place. Then I’ll leave. But not before.”
After Morricone had shuffled away, his footsteps growing softer and softer until they faded into the general music of the rowdy street outside, Captain John MacShard began to laugh.
It wasn’t a laugh you ever wanted to hear again.
THE UNPROMISED LAND
The Aghroniagh Hills had been formed by a huge asteroid crashing into the area a few million years earlier, but the wide sweep of meadowland and streams surrounding them had never been successfully settled by Captain John MacShard’s people. They were far from what they seemed.
Many settlers had come in the early days, attracted by the water and the grass. Few lasted a month, let alone a season. That water and grass existed on Mars because of Blake, the terraplaner. He had made it his life’s work, crossing and recrossing one set of disparate genes with another until he had something which was like grass and like water and which could survive, maybe even thrive and proliferate, in Mars’ barren climate. A sort of liquid algae and a kind of lichen, at root, but with so many genetic modifications that its mathematical pedigree filled a book.
Blake’s great atmosphere pumping stations had transformed the Martian air and made it rich enough for Earthlings to breathe. He had meant to turn the whole of Mars into the same lush farmland he had seen turn to dust on Earth. Some believed he had grown too ambitious, that instead of doing God’s work, he was beginning to believe he, himself, was God. He had planned a city called New Jerusalem and had designed its buildings, its parks, streams, and ornamental lakes. He had planted his experimental fields and brought his first pioneer volunteers and given them seed he had made and fertilizer he had designed, and something had happened under the unshielded Martian sunlight which had not happened in his laboratories.
Blake’s Eden became worse than Purgatory.
His green shoots and laughing fountains developed a kind of intelligence, a taste for specific nutrients, a means of finding them and processing them to make them edible. Those nutrients were most commonly found in Earthlings. The food could be enticed the way an anemone entices an insect. The prey saw sweet water, green grass and it was only too glad to fling itself deep into the greedy shoots, the thirsty liquid, which was only too glad to digest it.
And so fathers had watched their children die before their eyes, killed and absorbed in moments. Women had seen hard-working husbands die before becoming food themselves.
Blake’s seven pioneer families lasted a year and there had been others since who brought certain means of defeating the so-called Paradise virus, who challenged the hungry grass and liquid, who planned to tame it. One by one, they went to feed what had been intended to feed them.
There were ways of surviving the Paradise. Captain John MacShard had tried them and tested them. For a while he had specialized in finding artifacts which the settlers had left behind, letters, deeds, cherished jewelry.
He had learned how to live, for short periods at least, in the Paradise. He had kept raising his price until it got too high for anybody.
Then he quit. It was the way he put an end to his own boredom. What he did with all his money nobody knew, but he didn’t spend it on himself.
The only money Captain John MacShard was known to exchange in large quantities was for modifications and repairs to that ship of his, as alien as his sidearm, which he’d picked up in the Rings and claimed by right of salvage. Even the scrap merchants hadn’t wanted the ship. The metal it was made of could become poisonous to the touch. Like the weapon, the ship didn’t allow everyone to handle her.
Captain John MacShard paid a halfling phunt-renter to drive him to the edge of the Paradise, and he promised the sweating driver the price of his phunt if he’d wait for news of his reappearance and come take him back to the city. “And any other passenger I might have with me,” he had added.
The phunter was almost beside himself with anxiety. He knew exactly what that green sentient weed could do, and he had heard tales of how the streams had chased a man halfway back to the Low City and consumed him on the spot. Drank him, they said. No sane creature, Earthling or Martian, would risk the dangers of the Paradise.
Not only was the very landscape dangerous, there were also the Thennet.
The Thennet, whose life-stuff was unpalatable to the Paradise, came and went comfortably all year round, emerging only occasionally to make raids on the human settlements, certain that no posse would ever dare follow them back to their city of tunnels, Kong Gresh, deep at the center of the Aghroniagh Crater, which lay at the center of the Aghroniagh Hills, where the weed did not grow and the streams did not flow.
They raided for pleasure, the Thennet. Mostly, when they craved a delicacy. Human flesh was almost an addiction to them, they desired it so much. They were a cruel people and took pleasure in their captives, keeping them alive for many weeks sometimes, especially if they were young women. But they savored this killing. Schomberg had put it graphically enough once: The longer the torment, the sweeter the meat. His customers wondered how he understood such minds.
Captain John MacShard knew Mercedes Morricone had a chance at life. He hoped, when he found her, that she would still want that chance.
What had Morricone said about the Thennet not wishing to mark her? That they were capturing her for someone else?
Captain John MacShard wanted to find out for himself. No one had needed to pay the Thennet for young girls in years. The wars among the planets had given the streets plenty of good-looking women to choose from. Nobody ever noticed a few missing from time to time.
If the Thennet were planning to sell her for the food they would need for the coming Long Winter, they would be careful to keep their goods in top quality, and Mercedes could well be a specific target. The odds were she was still alive and safe. That was why Captain John MacShard did not think he was wasting his time.
And it was the only reason he would go this far into the Aghroniaghs, where the Thennet weren’t the greatest danger.
HELL UNDER THE HILL
It was hard to believe the Thennet had ever been human, but there was no doubt they spoke a crude form of English. They were said to be degenerated descendants of a crashed Earth ship which had left Houston a couple of centuries before, carrying a political investigative committee looking into reports that Earth mining interests were using local labor as slaves. The reports had been right. The mining interests had made sure the distinguished senators never got to see the evidence.
Captain John MacShard was wearing his own power armor. It buzzed on his body from soles to crown. The silky energy, soft as a child’s hand, rippled around him like an atmosphere. He flickered and buzzed with complex circuitry outlining his veins and arteries, following the course of his blood. This medley of soft sounds was given a crazy rhythm by the ticking of his antigrav’s notoriously dangerous regulators as he flew an inch above the hungry, whispering grass, the lush and luring streams of Paradise.
Only once did he come down, in the ruins of what was to have been the city of New Jerusalem and where the grass did not grow.
Here he ran at a loping pace which moved him faster over the landscape and at the same time recharged the antigrav’s short-lived power units.
He was totally enclosed in the battlesuit of his own design, his visible skin a strange arsenical green behind the overlapping energy shields, his artificial gills processing the atmosphere to purify maximum oxygen. Around him as he moved was an unstable aura buzzing with gold and misty greens skipping and sizzling as elements in his armor mixed and reacted with particles of semi-artificial Martian air, fusing them into toxic fumes which would kill a man if taken straight. Which is why Captain John MacShard wore his helmet. It most closely resembled the head of an ornamental dolphin, all sweeping flukes and baroque symmetry, the complicated, delicate wiring visible through the thin plasdex skin, while the macro-engineered plant curving from between his shoulder blades looked almost like wings. He could have been one of the forgotten beasts of the Eldren which they had ridden against Bast-Na-Gir when the first mythologies of Mars were being made. The transparent steel visor plate added to this alien appearance, enlarging and giving exaggerated curve to his eyes. He had become an unlikely creature whose outline would momentarily baffle any casual observer. There were things out here which fed off Thennet and human alike. Captain John MacShard only needed a second’s edge to survive. But that second was crucial.
He was in the air again, his batteries at maximum charge. He was now a shimmering copper angel speeding over the thirsty grass and the hungry rivers of Paradise until he was at last standing on the shale slopes of the Aghroniagh Mountains.
The range was essentially the rim of a huge steep-sided crater. At the crater’s center were peculiar pockets of gases which were the by-product of certain rock dust interacting with sunlight. These gases formed a breeding and sleeping environment for the Thennet, who could only survive so long away from what the first Earth explorers had called their “clouds.” Most of the gas, which had a narcotic effect on humans, was drawn down into their burrows by an ingenious system of vents and manually operated fans. It was the only machinery they used. Otherwise they were primitive enough, though inventive murderers who delighted in the slow, perverse death of anything that lived, including their own sick and wounded. Suicide was the commonest cause of death.
As Captain John MacShard raced through the crags and eventually came to the crater walls, he knew he might have a few hours left in which to save the girl. The Thennet had a way of letting the gases work on their human victims so that they became light-headed and cheerful. The Thennet knew how to amuse humans.
Sometimes they would let the human feel this way for days, until they began to get too sluggish.
Then they would do something which produced a sudden rush of adrenaline in their victim. And thereafter it was unimaginable nightmare. Unimaginable because no human mind could conceive of such tortures and hold the memory or its sanity.
No mind, that is, except Captain John MacShard’s. And it was questionable now that Captain John MacShard’s mind was still in most senses human.
Here’s where I was too late. There’s her bone and necklace again. That’s the burrow into middle chamber. Gas goes low there. All these thoughts passed through his head as he retraced steps over razor rocks and unstable shale. He had been paid four times to venture into Thennet territory. Twice he had successfully brought out living victims, both still relatively sane. Once he had brought out a corpse. Once he had left a corpse where he found it. Seven times before that, curiosity had taken him there. The time they captured him, his chances of escape had been minimal. He was determined not to be captured again.
Now, however, there was something different about the sinister, smoking landscape of craters and spikes. There was a kind of silence Captain John MacShard couldn’t explain. A sense of waiting. A sense of watching.
Unable to do anything but ignore the instinct, he dropped down into the fissures and began to feel his way into the first flinty corridors. He had killed five Thennet guards almost without thought by the time he had begun to descend the great main passage into the Thennet underworld. He always killed Thennet at a distance, if he could. Their venom could sear into delicate circuitry and destroy his armor and his lifelines.
Three more Thennet fell without knowing they were dead. Captain John MacShard felt no hesitation about killing them wherever he came across one. He killed them on principle, the way they killed by habit. The less of the Thennet there were, the better for everyone. And each corpse offered something useful to him as he crept on downward into the subsidiary tunnels, following still familiar routes.
The walls of the caverns were thick with flaking blood and ordure, which the Thennet used for building materials. Mostly it had hardened, but every so often it became soft and slippery. Captain John MacShard had to adjust his step, glad of his gills as well as his armor, which meant he did not have to smell or touch any of the glistening stuff, though every so often his air system overloaded and he got just a hint of the disgusting stench.
But something was wrong. His armor began to pop and tremble. It was a warning. Captain John MacShard paused in the slippery passage and considered withdrawing. There would normally be more Thennet, males and females, shuffling through the passages, going about their business, tending their eggs, tormenting their food.
He had a depressing feeling that he couldn’t easily get back, that he was already in a trap. Was it a trap which had been set for him specifically? Or could anyone be the prey? This wasn’t the Thennet. Could it be the Thennet had new leadership and wider goals? Captain John MacShard could smell intelligence. This was intelligence. And it wasn’t a kind he’d smelled before. Not in Thennet territory. Mostly what you smelled was terror and ghastly glee.
There was something else down here. Something which had a personality. Something which had ambitions. Something which was even now gathering power.
Captain John MacShard had learned to trust his instincts and his instincts told him he would have to fight to return to the surface. What was more, he had an unpleasant feeling about what he might have to fight….
His best chance was to pretend he had noticed nothing, but keep his attention on that intelligence, even as he sought out the merchant’s daughter. What was her name? Mercedes?
The narrow, fetid tunnels of the Thennet city were familiar, but now they were opening up, growing wider and taller, as if the Thennet had been working on them. But why?
And then, suddenly, a wave of thought struck against his own mind—a wave which boomed with the force of a tidal wave. It almost stopped him moving forward. It was a moment before the sense of the thoughts began to filter in to him.
No longer. No longer. I am the one. And I am more than one. I am Shienna Sha Shanakana of the Yellow Price, and I shall again become the goddess I once was when Mars was young. I have paid the Yellow Price. I claim this star system as my own. And then I shall claim the universe….
The girl? Captain John MacShard could not stop the question.
All he received was a wave of mockery which again struck, with an almost physical weight.
ANCIENT AND MODERN
A voice began to whisper through the serpentine tunnels. It was cold as space, hard and sharp as Mercurian steel.
The female Mercedes is gone. She is gone, Earther. There is nothing of her, save this flesh, and I am already changing the flesh so that it is more to my taste. She’ll produce the egg. First the body, then the entire planet. Then the system. Then the stars. We shall thrive again. We shall feast at will among the Galaxies.
So that was it! Yet another of Mars’ ancient ghosts trying to regain its former power. These creatures had been killed, banished, imprisoned long ago, during the last of Mars’ terrible wars.
They had reached an enormous level of intellectual power, ruling the planet and influencing the whole system as they became capable of flinging their mental energy through interplanetary space, to control distant intelligences and rule through them.
They considered themselves to be gods, though they were mortal enough in many respects. It had been their arrogance which had brought them low.
So abstract and strange had become their ambitions that they had forgotten the ordinary humans, those who had chosen not to follow their bizarre path, whose lives became wretched as the Eldren used all the planet’s resources to increase their powers. They had grown obsessed with immortality, recording themselves onto extraordinary pieces of jewelry containing everything needed to reconstitute the entire individual. Everything but ordinary humans to place the jewels in their special settings and begin the process, which required considerable human resources, ultimately taking the lives of all involved. For most of the ordinary humans had died of starvation and dehydration as those powers plundered their planet of all resources, melting the poles so that first there was an abundance of water, the time of the beginnings of the Sea Kings’ power, but then, as quickly, the evaporation had begun, dissipating into empty space, no longer contained by the protective layers of ozone and oxygen.
The water could not come back. It was a momentary shimmer in the vastness of space as it was drawn inevitably toward the sun.
Captain John MacShard knew all this because his mother had known all this. He had not know his mother, had not known he had emerged, a brawling, bawling independent creature from the egg she had saved, even as she and her husband died, victims of the planet’s unforgiving climate. He had not known how he had come to live among the aboriginal ape people. The fiercely tribal Mercurians had been fascinated by his tanned, pale hide, so unlike their own dark green skins. They had never thought him anything but one of themselves. They had come to value him. He had been elected a kind of leader. He had taken them to food and guarded them against the giant rock snakes. He had taught them to kill the snakes, to preserve their meat. They named him Tan-Arz or Brown-Skin.
Tan-Arz was his name until the Earthlings found him at last. His father’s brother had paid for the search, paid to bring him back to Earth during that brief Golden Age before the planet again descended into civil war. Back to the Old Country. Back to Ireland. Back to Dublin and Trinity College. Then to South London University.
Dublin and London had not civilized Captain John MacShard, but they had taught him the manners and ways of a gentleman. They had not educated Captain
John MacShard, but they had informed his experience. Now he understood his enemies as well as his friends. And he understood that the law of the giant corporations was identical to the law he had learned on Mercury.
Kill or be killed. Trust nothing and no one. Power is survival. He smelled them. He was contemptuous of most of them, though they commanded millions. They were his kind. They were his kind gone soft, obscenely greedy, decadent to the marrow.
His instinct was to wipe them out, but they had trained him to serve them. And he had served them. At first, when the wars had begun, he had volunteered. He had served well and honorably, but as the wars got dirtier and the issues less clear, he found himself withdrawing.
He realized that he had more sympathy, most of the time, with the desperate men he was fighting than with the great patricians of Republican Earth.
His refusal to take part in a particularly bloody operation had caused him to be branded a traitor.
It was as an outlaw he had arrived on Mars. They had hunted him into the red wastelands and known he could not have lived.
But Mars was a rest cure compared to Mercury. Captain John MacShard had survived. And Captain John MacShard had prospered.
Now he captained his own ship, the gloriously alien Duchess of Malfi, murmuring and baroque in her perpetually shifting darkness. Now he could pick and choose whom he killed and whom he didn’t kill.
He had no financial need to continue this dangerous life, no particular security to be derived, even the security of familiarity. Nothing to escape from. Nothing within him he could not confront. He did it because he was who he was.
He was Captain John MacShard and Captain John MacShard was a creature of action, a creature which only came fully alive when its own life was in the balance. A wild creature that longed for the harsh, savage places of the universe, their beauties and their dangers.
But Captain John MacShard had no wish to die here in the slimey burrows of the unhuman Thennet. He had no desire to serve the insane ends of the old Martian godlings who saw their immortality slowly fading and longed for all their power again.
You, Captain John MacShard, will help me. And I will reward you. Before you die, I will make you the sire of the supernatural. Already the blood of my Martians mingles with your own. It is why you are so perfect for my plans.
John MacShard: You are no longer the Earthboy who grew up wild with the submen of Mercury. You are of our own blood, for your mother drew her descent directly from the greatest of the Sea Kings and the Sea Kings were our own children—so much of our blood has mingled with yours that you are now almost one of us.
Let your blood bring you home, John MacShard.
“My blood is my own! It belongs to nobody but me! Every atom has been fought for and won.”
It is the blood of gods and goddesses, John MacShard. Of kings and queens.
“Then it’s still mine. By right of inheritance!” John MacShard was all aggression now, though the voices speaking to him were patient, reasonable. He had heard similar voices before. As he lay writhing in his own filthy juices on one of the Old Ones’ examining slabs.
It is your Earth blood, however, which will give us our glory back. That vital, sturdy, undiluted stuff will bring us back our power and make Mars know her old fear of the unhumans who ruled her before the Sea Kings ruled.
Welcome home, Captain John MacShard, last of the Sea Kings. Welcome home to the Palace of Queen Shienna Sha Shanakana, Seventh of the Seven Sisters who guard the Shrine of the Star Pool, Seventh of the Seven Snakes, Sorceress of the Citadel of Silence where she has slept for too many centuries.
The little mortal did its job well, though unconsciously. I needed its daughter’s womb and I needed you, John MacShard. And now I have both. I will reemerge from the great egg fully restored to my power and position.
Behold, Captain John MacShard! The Secrets of the Silent Citadel!
QUEEN OF THE CHRYSTAL CITADEL
All at once the half-Martian was surrounded by crystal. Crystal colored like rainbows, flashing and murmuring in a cold wind that blew from all directions toward the center where a golden woman sat, smiling at him, beckoning to him, and driving all thought momentarily from his mind as he began to stumble forward. He wanted nothing else in the world but to mate with her. He would die, if necessary, to perform that function.
It took Captain John MacShard a few long seconds to bring himself back under control. Faces formed within the crystal towers. Familiar faces. The faces of friends and enemies who welcomed Captain John MacShard and bid him join them, in their good company, for eternity. These were the siren voices which had tempted Ulysses and his men across the void of space. Powerful intelligences trapped within indestructible crystal. Intelligences which, legend had it, could be freed by the stroke of a sacred sword held in the hand of one man.
Captain John MacShard shuddered. He had no such sword. Only his jittering Banning cannon in its heavy webbing. He laid his hand on the gun and seemed to draw reassurance from it.
His white wolf’s teeth were clenched in his lean jaw. “No. I’m not your dupe and I’m not Earth’s dupe. I’m my own man. I’m Captain John MacShard. There is no living individual more free than me in the universe and no one more ready to fight to keep that freedom.”
Yes, murmured the voice in his head. It was a seductive voice. Think of the power and therefore the freedom you have when we are combined…Power to do whatever you desire, to possess whatever you desire, to achieve whatever you desire. You will be reborn as Master of the Universe. The whole of existence will be yours, to satisfy your rarest appetites….
The voice was full of everything feminine. He could almost smell it. He could see the figure outlined at the center of the crystal palace. The lithe young body with its waves of golden hair, clad in gold, with golden threads cascading down her perfect thighs, with golden cups supporting her perfect breasts and golden sandals on her perfect feet. He could see her quite clearly, yet she seemed the length of a football field away. She was beckoning to him.
“All I want is the power to be free,” said Captain John MacShard. “And I already have that. I got it long ago. Nobody gave it to me. I took it. I took it on Mercury. I took it on Earth. I took it on Mars, and I took it on Venus. Not a year goes by when I do not take that freedom again, because that is the only way you preserve the kind of freedom I value. My very marrow is freedom. Everything in me fights to maintain that freedom. It is unconscious and as enduring as the universe itself. I am not the only one to possess it or to know how to fight to keep it. It is the power of all the human heroes who overcame impossible odds that I carry in my blood. You cannot defeat that. Whatever you do, Shienna Sha Shanankana, you cannot defeat that.”
She was laughing somewhere in his mind. That laughter coursed along his spine, over his buttocks, down his legs. It was directed. She was displaying the powers of her own incredible mentality.
Captain John MacShard examined the body of the girl he had come to rescue. Of course the Martian sorceress possessed her, probably totally. But was there anything of the girl left? It was crucial that he know.
He forced himself to push forward and thought he saw something like astonishment in the girl’s eyes. Then another intelligence took control of her face and the eyes blazed with eager fury, as if the goddess had found a worthy match. There was an ancient knowledge in those eyes which, when they met Captain John MacShard’s, saw its equal in experience.
But all Captain John MacShard cared about was that he had glimpsed human eyes, a human face. Somewhere, Mercedes Morricone still existed. That body which pulsed with strange, stolen life and glaring intelligence, still contained the girl’s soul. That was what he had needed to know.
“Give the human its body back,” said Captain John MacShard, switching to servos so that his arm whined up, automatically bringing the Banning cannon to bear on the golden goddess who now smiled at him with impossible promises. “Or I will destroy it and in so doing destroy you. I am Captain John MacShard, and you must know I have never made a threat I was not prepared to follow through.”
You cannot destroy me with that, with a mere weapon. I draw my strength from all this—all these—from all my companions still imprisoned in the crystal. Ultimately, of course, I may release them. As they come to acknowledge that I am Mistress of the Silver Machine.
And now Captain John MacShard looked up. It was as if someone had tilted him by the chin. And above him stretched the vibrating wires and twisting ribbons of silver that told him the terrible truth. Inadvertently he had stepped into the core of one of the ancient Martian machines.
The sorceress had set a trap. And it had been a subtle trap, a trap which showed the mettle of his enemy.
The trap had used his own stupid pride against him.
He cursed himself for an idiot, but already he was inspecting the peculiar twists and loops of the machine, which seemed to come from nowhere and disappear into nothing. A funnel of silver energy was at the apex, high above.
Yet, perhaps most impressively, this silver citadel of science was absolutely silent.
Silent, save for the faintest whisper, like the hiss of a human voice, far away, the sweet, persuasive suggestions of this seductive sorceress slipping into his synapses, soothing his ever-wary soul, preparing him for the big sleep, the long good-bye….
Everything that was savage. Everything that had made him fight to survive in the wastelands of Mercury. Everything that he had learned in the cold depths of space and the steamy seas of Venus. Everything he had been taught in the seminaries of Dublin and the academies of London. Everything came to Captain John MacShard’s aid then. And there was a possibility that everything would not be enough.
The silent crystals around him began to vibrate, almost in triumph. And there, below the pulsing silver fire, the goddess danced.
He knew why Shienna Sha Shanakana danced and he tried desperately to take his eyes off her. He had never seen anything quite so beautiful. He had never desired a woman more. He felt something close to love.
With a strangled curse which peeled his lips back from his teeth, he took the Banning in both hands, his fingers playing across the weird lines and configurations of the casing as if he drew music from an instrument.
The goddess smiled but did not stop dancing. Neither did the crystals of her citadel stop dancing. Everything moved in delicate, subtle silence. Everything seduced him. If there had been music, he might have resisted more easily. But the music was somewhere in his head. There was a tune. It was taking charge of his arms and legs. Taking over his mind. Was he also dancing? Dancing with her in those strange, sinuous movements so reminiscent of the snakes which had pursued them on Mercury until he had become the hunter and turned them into food for himself and his tribe?
Oh, you are strong and resourceful and mighty and everything a hero should be. A true demigod to mate with a demigoddess and create a mighty god, a god who in turn will create entire new universes, an infinity of power. Look how beautiful you are, Captain John MacShard, what a perfect specimen of your kind.
A silver mirror appeared before him and he saw not what she described but the wild beast which had survived the deadly wastes of Mercury, the demonic creature who had slain the Green Emperor of Venus and wrested a planet from the grip of Grodon Worbn, the pious and vicious Robot Chancellor of Ganymede.
But the sweetness of her perfume, the sound of those golden, silky threads brushing against her skin, the rise and fall of her breasts, the promise in her eyes…
All this Captain John MacShard shook off, and he thought he saw a look of some astonishment, almost of admiration, in those alien orbs. His fingers would scarcely obey him, but they moved without thought, from pure habit, flicking across the Banning, touching it here, adjusting something there. An instrument made for aliens.
No human hand had ever been meant to operate the Banning, which was named not for its maker but for the first man who had died trying to find out how it worked. General Banning had prided himself on his expertise with alien artifacts. He had not died immediately, but from the poisons which had eaten into his skin and slowly digested his flesh. Captain John MacShard had never bothered to find out how the Banning worked. He simply knew how to work it. The way so many Spanish boys simply know how to coax the most beautiful music from the guitar.
The same intelligences, who Captain John MacShard believed to have perished out beyond Pluto, had also made his ship. There was a philosophy inherent to his ship, which rejected most who tried to board her vast, echoing interior, whose very emptiness was essential to her function, to her existence, and the weapon, and somehow Captain John MacShard understood the philosophy and loved the purity of the minds which had created it.
His respect was what had almost certainly saved his life more than once as he learned the properties and sublime beauty of the Banning and the ship.
He was panting. What had he been doing? Dancing? Before a mirror? The mirror was gone now. The goddess had stopped dancing. Indeed, she was leaning forward, fixing Captain John MacShard with strange eyes in which flecks of rainbow colors flashed and flared. The red lips parted to show white, even teeth. The young flesh glowed with inner desires, impossible promises…
Come, John MacShard. Come to me and fulfill your noble destiny.
Then Captain John MacShard was sweeping the Banning around him in an arc.
He aimed at the crystals while the gun’s impossible circuits and surfaces plated and replated in a blur of changes, from gold to copper to jade to silver to gold as the great gun seemed to expand under Captain John MacShard’s urgent caresses. Yet nothing dramatic happened to the crystals. They darkened, but they did not break. The light went from glaring day to misty night.
A terrifying silence fell.
He swept the gun again. Still the crystal held. And whatever was within the crystal held, too. It was harder to see movement, perhaps because the inhabitants were protecting themselves. But the gun had done nothing.
The silence continued.
Then the golden girl laughed. Her laughter was the sweetest music in the universe.
Did you think, Captain John MacShard, your famous gun could conquer Shienna Sha Shanakana, Priestess of the Silent Citadel, Sorceress of the Seven Dials? The stupid Knights of the Balance who came against us from far Cygnus met their match. They planned to conquer us, but we killed them all, even before they reached the inner planets….
He looked up. She was so much closer now. Her wonderful beauty loomed over him. He gasped. He refused to take a step back.
Those human lips were filled with the stored energy of ancient Mars as they smiled down at him. Oh, yes, Captain John MacShard. You are not here by accident. I did not send the Thennet to take the girl until I knew you were about to land at Old Mars Station. And it was I who let the father know you were the only creature alive that could find his daughter. And you did find her, didn’t you? You found me. You found Shienna Sha Shanakana who has been dust, who has not known this desire for uncountable millennia, who has not felt such need, such joyous lust….
Now Captain John MacShard took that backward step, the great Banning cannon loose on its webbing, swinging as his hands sought something in his clothing. Now his fists were clenched at his sides.
The goddess licked her sublime lips.
Is that sweat I see on your manly brow, Captain John MacShard? A hand reached out and whisked lightly across his forehead. He felt as if a flaming knife had been drawn through his flesh. Yet he would have given his whole life to experience that touch again.
He tasted a tongue that was not a human tongue. It licked at his flesh. It reveled in his smell, the feel of his hard, muscular body, the racing blood, the pounding heart, the sight of his perfect manhood. He was everything humans or Martians could be; everything the female might desire in a male.
Her touch yielded to him, offered him a power he knew she would never really give up. He had enjoyed the most expert seductresses, but this creature brought the experience of centuries, the instincts of her stolen body, the cravings of a female which had not known any kind of feeling, only a burning ambition, for longer than most of Earth’s greatest civilizations had come and gone. And those cravings were centered on Captain John MacShard.
You will sire the new Martian race, she promised, as she moved her golden breastplates against his naked chest. You will die knowing that you have fulfilled your greatest possible destiny.
And Captain John MacShard believed her. He believed her to the depths of his being. He wanted nothing else. Nothing but to serve her in any way she demanded.
The gun hung forgotten at his side. He reached out his arms to receive from her whatever she desired to give, to give to her whatever she needed to take. It was true. He was hers. Hers to use and then to bind so that later his own son might feed upon his holy flesh and become him. That was his destiny. The eternal life which lay before him.
But first, she whispered, you must entertain me.
Then he suddenly knew the son must be sired, the remains of the humans driven from the bodies and the blood mingled in the painful and protracted mating rituals of those first Martians.
She moved to enfold him in that final, lethal embrace.
THE POISONED CHALICE
They came upon the Earthling naked, somewhere in the Shifting Desert, almost a hundred versts from the Aghroniagh Hills. He had no armor, no weapons. His skin hung like filthy rags on his bloody, blistered flesh. Both his legs had long, deep red lines running from thigh to heel, as if a white-hot sword blade had been placed on the limbs. He could see, but his eyes were turned inward. He was mumbling to himself. There was foam on his mangled lips. He was raving, seemingly empty of identity and will, and the noises that came occasionally from deep in his chest were the sounds a wild beast might make. At other times, he seemed amused.
The patrol which found him had been looking for Venusian chuff runners and couldn’t believe anything lived in his condition. They were superstitious fellows. They thought at first he was a ghost. Then they decided he had fallen among ghosts, within the influence of those mythical Martians frozen in jewels and dreaming deep within the planet. Some of the customs people had seen Earthling explorers who had returned from expeditions in a state not much better than this.
But then one of the patrol recognized Captain John MacShard and they knew that whatever enemy he had met out here, it must have been a powerful one. They identified the long scars down his legs and on his hands as burns from Thennet venom. But how had they gotten there? The marks did not look typical of Thennet torture.
They began to take him back to Old Mars Station where there was a doctor, but he roused himself, gathered his senses and pointed urgently toward the Aghroniaghs. It seemed he had a companion.
They had gone seventy versts before their instruments detected a human figure lying in the shade of a rock, a small bottle nearby. Indications were that the figure was barely alive.
Captain John MacShard sank back into the craft as soon as he saw Mercedes Morricone. He let go. He allowed oblivion at last to overcome him.
He would never deliberately recall and would never tell anyone what Shienna Sha Shanakana, Sorceress of the Silent Citadel, had made him do, as she took hold of his mind. He would never admit what he had allowed her to do in order to ensure the success of a desperate, maybe suicidal, plan.
She knew she could not fully control him and it had whetted her curiosity, made her test her powers in ways she had never expected to test them. She fed off him. She tasted at his brain the way a wealthy woman might take a delicate bite of a chocolate to see if it suited her. Some of what she took from him she discarded as so much waste. Memories. Affections. Pride.
But then she had become puzzled. Her own power seemed to ebb and flow. He was naked, and he had torn his own flesh for her amusement, had capered and drooled for her amusement. John MacShard was no longer a thinking being. She had sucked him dry of everything she herself lacked. Dry of everything human.
Or so it had seemed…
For Captain John MacShard had learned all he had needed to learn from the veteran priest he had talked to in Old City before he left. He had kept some of his wits by tapping the venom from the Thennet he had killed, keeping it in crushable vials until the moment came when he needed that level of pain to keep his mind from the likes of Shienna Sha Shananaka’s seductions. It had been her embrace that had seared them both. But he intended to reverse her spell. He had reversed the path of most of the energy she had been drawing from her compatriots in their crystal prisons. He had absorbed it in the gun.
For the gun didn’t merely expel energy, it also attracted energy. It processed its own power from the planet’s energy, wherever that energy was to be found. The blood and soul she had sucked from him was still under his control. He had let her draw him in, let her take his very soul, somehow keeping his own consciousness as he was absorbed into her, somehow linking with that other terrified fragment of soul-mind that was the girl to whom he was able to give strength, a chance at life.
Somewhere in that ruined, apparently lunatic skull, there was a battle still taking place, through the twists and turns of an alien space and time—a battle for control of a human creature that had perished so that a goddess might survive. It was not only Captain John MacShard’s vigorous blood she had sucked, nor his diamond-hard mind, but his will. A will which, ironically, she could not control. A will strong enough to take possession of a demigoddess.
Captain John MacShard was still there. Actually inside her. Actually working to destroy her. There had never been an individual more ruggedly determined to maintain its identity against all odds. He had summoned everything he possessed as she embraced him and had broken the vials containing the venom he had gathered from the Thennet. The venom burned his body as well as hers. The girl’s body became useless to her. She began to remove herself from it. And Captain John MacShard, the skin of his hands and legs bubbling as the venom ate into them, kept his will directed to his goal.
She had been astonished to discover a mind as powerful as her own—as thoroughly trained as her own in the Martian forms of mental control and counter-control which Earthers had nicknamed “brain-brawling” and which more subtle observers knew as a combination of mental fencing and mental chess whose outcome could annihilate the defeated.
But the searing venom kept his mind free enough from her dominance and ultimately allowed him to break from her embrace. She had advanced on him, a roaring, shouting thing of raw energy, the ruined human body abandoned.
Then Captain John MacShard forced himself toward his fallen Banning cannon. The gun lay in a heap of clothing and circuitry which he had stripped from his own body before beginning to strip the flesh as she had demanded.
But all the while his iron will had kept the crucial parts of himself free. Now he had the gun in his hands and the golden whirlwind that was the true form of Shienna Sha Shanakana, Sorceress of the Silent Citadel, was advancing toward him, triumphant in the knowledge that the gun had already failed to break the crystal coffins in which her kinfolk were still imprisoned.
But Captain John MacShard knew more about the people who had made the Banning than she did. Her folk had merely killed them. Captain John MacShard had examined the culture they had left behind in their great, empty ship. Captain John MacShard had a human quality which the ancient Martians, for all their powers, always lacked and which would always undo them. They had no curiosity about those they fed upon. Captain John MacShard had the curiosity of the Venusian saber-tooth whose reactions matched his own. He had learned so much from The Duchess of Malfi.
He had never meant to destroy the crystal tombs with his gun. That would have released even more of the greedy immortals from their already fragile captivity. Instead he had used the gun’s powering devices, the cells which sucked in energy of cosmic proportions, which in turn powered the gun when it was needed. The instrument in his hands could contain the raw power of an entire universe—and expel that same power wherever it was directed.
The gun hadn’t failed to break the crystals, but it had absorbed their enormous energy.
It had gathered the power of the silent crystals into the gun so that the Sorceress could no longer call upon it. Her energy, uncontained, began to dissipate. She began to return to the body of the girl. But she had reckoned without the power of the Banning cannon.
She was held in balance between her own desperate lust for flesh and the relentless draw of the Banning.
MacShard’s last act had been to take the girl’s apparently lifeless body and carry it through the winding, filthy tunnels of the Thennet, who had all long since fled, and somehow get her up to the surface as a goddess shrilled and boomed in the crystal chamber. The whole planet seemed to shake with her frustrated attempts to draw more strength from her imprisoned brothers and sisters.
She was outraged. Not because she knew she might actually die, but because a puny little halfling threatened to best her. She could not bear the humiliation.
He saw an intense ball of light pursue him for a few moments and then become a face. Not the face he had seen before but a face at once hideous and obscenely beautiful. She was being dragged down to him, down to where the alien gun sucked at her very soul. Then she stopped resisting it. She might have lived on, as she had lived for millennia, but she chose oblivion. She let go of her consciousness. Only her energy remained in the gun’s energy cells. But Captain John MacShard would never be sure.
Nothing but natural hazards blocked his progress to the top. At last he was stretched, gasping on the thin, sour air, staring upward.
Suddenly a sad wind began to stretch a curtain of dark blue across the sky. It seemed for a moment that Mars lived again, lived when the seas washed her wealthy, mysterious beaches.
At the surface, Captain John MacShard realized he would have to leave the Banning behind if he was to get the girl to safety. He must risk it. It had enough charge to do extraordinary damage. If mishandled, it would not only destroy any living thing within a hundred yards, it would probably destroy a good-sized portion of the planet or worse. He suspected that it was as safe from the Thennet as it was from the Sorceress of the Silent Citadel. He hoped to cross the Paradise before he smelled human again.
It had not been until the following night that he had stopped. The girl was just conscious, a shoulder and leg raw from Thennet venom, though her face, by a miracle, had not been touched. He had left her what little water he had brought and had stumbled on. He had been walking toward the Old City when the customs patrol found him.
The port doctors shook their heads. They could see no hope of saving him. But then Morricone stepped in. He flew Captain John MacShard to Phobos and the famous Clinique AI Rhabia, where his daughter was already recovering. They had worked on him. A billion deen had been spent on him, and they had saved him.
And in saving Captain John MacShard they instilled the germ of a new kind of anger, a profound understanding of the injustice which could let crippled boys beg in the Martian dust but fly the privileged to Phobos and the finest new medicine science could create.
He wasn’t ungrateful to Morricone. Morricone had kept his bargain, paid the price and better. He didn’t blame Morricone for his failure to understand, for not having the imagination to see that for every hero’s life he saved, there were millions of ordinary people who would never be given the chance to be heroes.
They found his gun for him. Nobody dared handle it, but they picked it out of a dune with their waldos and brought it to him in a sealed canister.
Captain John MacShard saw Mercedes Morricone a couple of times after he left the Clinique and was waiting for his ship to be recircuited according to his new instructions. Plastic surgery had rid her of most of the scars. She was more than grateful to him. She knew him in a way no woman had ever known him before. And she loved him. She couldn’t help herself. She understood Captain John MacShard had nothing to offer her now that he had given her back her life.
Yet maybe there was something. A clear feeling of affection, almost a father’s love for a daughter. He realized, to his own surprise, that he cared about her. He even let her come along when he took the kid aboard The Duchess of Malfi and showed him the wild, semistable gases and gemstones which were her controls. He wanted the boy to remember that the ship could be understood and handled. And Mercedes had fallen in love all over again, for the ship had a beauty that was unique.
Pretending to joke, she said they could be a hardy little pioneer family, the three of them, setting off for the worlds beyond the stars. How marvelous it would be to stand at his side as he took the alien ship into the echoing corridors of the multiverse, following fault lines created in the impossibly remote past through the infinitely layered realities of intraspatial matter. How marvelous it would be to see the sights that he would see.
He was loading the heavy canister down into a cradle he’d made for it and which fitted beside his compression bed. He had commissioned himself a new power suit. It rippled against his body, outlining muscles and sinews as he moved gracefully to his familiar tasks, checking screens and globes, columns of glittering force.
The boy was content to look, wide-eyed. And maybe he understood. Maybe he just pretended.
And maybe Captain John MacShard pretended not to understand her when she spoke of that impossible future. He didn’t tell her what you had to become to steer The Duchess through time and space. What you must cease to be. What you must learn never to desire, never to think about.
He was gentle when he escorted her home from the spaceport, took her and the boy to her father’s big front door, kissed her cheek, and bade her good-bye for the last time.
She held the boy’s hand tight. He was her link to her dream. He might even become her best dream. She was going to get him educated, she said, as best you could these days.
The girl and the boy watched Captain John MacShard leave.
His perfect body was suddenly outlined against the huge, scarlet sun as it settled on the Martian horizon. Ribbons of red dust danced around his feet as he strode back up the drive of her father’s mansion, between the artificial cedars and the holograph fountains. He walked to the gates, seemed about to turn, changed his mind, and was gone.
The girl and the boy were standing there again in the morning at Old Mars Station as The Duchess blasted off en route for the new worlds beyond Pluto where Captain John MacShard thought he might find what he was looking for.
He had gained something more than the cosmic power which resided in his gun. He now knew what love—ordinary, decent, celebratory human love—was. He had felt it. He still felt it.
The ship was cruising smoothly, her own intelligence taking over. He turned away from his instruments and poured himself a much-needed shot of Vortex Water.
Staring up at the great tapestry of stars, thinking about all the worlds and races which must inhabit them, Captain John MacShard turned away from his instruments.
Like the wild creature that he was, he shook off the dust and the horror and the memory of love.
By the time his alien ship was passing Jupiter, Captain John MacShard was his old self again. He patted the gun in its special case; his Banning was now powered by the life-stuff of the gods.
Soon he could start hunting the really big game.
The interstellar game.
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Moorcock and Linda Moorcock