May 11 2010 9:30am
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.