Tue
Feb 19 2013 2:30pm
A Cactus Garden (Excerpt)
Jo Bannister

Take a look at A Cactus Garden by Jo Bannister, out now in ebook format from Tor UK:

There was more to the brooding forest world of Mithras than the great Hive rising from its clearing, and somewhere there was an intellect more ruthlessly domineering than even the Lady Amalthea’s. Shah could feel it but not find it, at least not in time, and Paul with a war to prosecute, had other matters on his mind. Deceit and treachery hung about the city like a shroud. Who were the Hive people? Who were the Drones, and where did they go through the high hedge that Amalthea’s warriors dared not follow?

When the answer started to come and Shah understood where the real authority on Mithras lay, it spelt danger for the Lady and for her Hive, but mostly for Paul, trapped between the monstrous ambitions of mad, magnificent Amalthea and the sheer power and implacable hatred of the silent enemy that had grown weary of waiting.

 

Chapter One

 

Alone in the jewelled darkness of her cell, high under the blind cone of the Hive, enthroned in unobserved majesty, the lady Amalthea sat and brooded.

A black cloak, gem-starred, shrouded her, even to her head, and her face was lost in the deep shade of its enveloping hood. Only a long narrow hand displayed on the leather arm of the black throne, almost but never quite still, twitching in fractional reflection of the mighty thoughts churning in her mind, the scant movement sending ruby and emerald glints up the secret walls from her heavy jewelled rings, betrayed the shadowy form as something living and aware. The long pale fingers ended in long black claws, ticking restlessly on the black hide.

Within the hood, within the shrouded head, Amalthea’s brain pounded with fifteen years’ frustration. Before that had been ages in the wilderness, so that her coming to Mithras had seemed a triumph. She had conquered utterly, none had stood against her – for the wilderness had made her strong and ruthless, and desperate, and also the natives were not warriors – and the richness of the taken place had dazzled and delighted her. While the Drones laboured to roll back the jungle and dig foundations for the great Hive, she herself had plucked from the rent earth the raw gems that now bore down her fingers. She wore them always. They stated louder than words, This world is mine.

But the concept of possession, of having and holding, was not unique to the people of the Hive. The conquered world exacted a cruel vengeance, subtle as smoke, bitter as a Judas kiss. If it was true that Amalthea brought little mercy to Mithras, it was equally so that none existed there before. All but hidden in the deep folds of the hood, amethyst eyes kindled darkly at the memory of the disaster, devastatingly apposite, humiliatingly complete, which had broken over the Hive in the very spring of its people’s flowering. Since then Amalthea’s task had been to hold together her stunned clan, to give them a unity in isolation and a purpose where there was no future, and to direct their despair outward where it might armour the Hive and not, as was the great danger, inward to consume its children. She had been their saviour – guide, general, queen and god. Without her ruthless determined leadership they could not have survived. Now, after fifteen years, their faith in her would be vindicated. Amalthea could smell salvation.

She was no longer alone. A man stood in the open door, back-lit by the glow from the hall, waiting silently to be recognised. Amalthea turned the black window of her hood slowly towards him. “Michal.”

The man said, in a young man’s voice, “Lady, the people from the ship are arrived.” His voice was brittle with repressed excitement.

Amalthea rose, the black shroud falling softly, weightlessly, from her. Michal averted his eyes reverently. In the dim high room she shone like a column of moonlight, her shift of silver mail rippling from throat to ankle. Short silver hair capped her narrow sculpted skull; eyes like black grapes smouldered in her pointed face. Her white arms were bare, and silver bangles clustered above her left elbow. Her purple eyes and her dark lips and the two jewels on her long hand were the only colour about her. She was small and all her youth was fled, but she was beautiful and awesome, and her people both adored and feared her greatly. They called her Morningstar.

Amalthea moved to the open doorway. The young man fell back to let her pass. She paused beside him. “The ship?”

“As you instructed, lady.”

Satisfaction ghosted across Amalthea’s face and her pointed chin rose. Her voice was light with pleasure. “Why then, Michal,” she said, “I am an empress again.” She passed into the golden hall.

Sharvarim-besh, who had been patiently waiting for the messenger to return, saw Amalthea make her entrance on the gallery above the long hall, a shaft of moongleam in the sun temple, and caught her breath in admiration. Paul, who resented waiting for anybody and was studiously looking the other way when the lady of Mithras appeared, avoided the impact of the moment and did not turn round until Shah nudged him and whispered, “Look.”

Paul turned without haste, to find himself held like a moth on a pinboard in a scrutiny whose fierce hostility he could fathom the length of the glowing chamber. “Ah, there you are,” he said pointedly.

Shah’s heart thumped painfully in her breast; keyed up tighter than a lute-string, she anticipated catastrophe with every beat. This was where the greatest danger lay – more than in battle, perhaps even more than in defeat. Paul had wanted to leave her on “Gyr”, but Shah refused; he asked for three good reasons, she provided them. She had not seen so many worlds that she was incurious about Mithras; left alone on “Gyr” while Paul negotiated his contract with the alien queen she would be butchered by anxiety; and if the worst happened she would be more capable of fending for herself on the surface than on a ship where the only instrumentation she understood was the clock.

So he acquiesced and took her to meet Amalthea, landing the shuttle on the broad swathe of bare earth which girdled the forest clearing whose hub was the swollen, gravid shape of the great Hive. Before the burners were out a motley crew of Mithraians had gathered and were anointing the little craft with oil. Paul locked it up and left them to it. Whether the ritual had religious or practical significance, whether it was ordained or just their own small tribute, he had no idea, but he was confident that nothing they could do to the outside of the shuttle would affect its ability to fly.

He had not exaggerated the risk inherent in initial meetings between mercenaries and potential employers. Each had much to lose and much to gain by cheating. In the essence of the business, the employer had something worth protecting and money to pay for its protection but not the technology to do the job himself: an unscrupulous mercenary could set his cap at the valuables happy in the knowledge that their owner had not the strength to oppose him. The distinction between mercenary and privateer grew often woolly at the edges.

No less common was the reciprocal situation, when an employer decided that rather than pay to have his war fought he should seize the mercenary’s equipment, dispose of the mercenary, fight the war and keep all the spoils himself. Not infrequently some chieftain in whom the spirit of free enterprise burnt particularly strongly would begin with the latter manoevre and proceed by way of the former. Paul considered that cowboys like that got professionals like him a bad name. Shah wondered privately how you could slander a man who killed other men for money.

There was another reason she wanted to be there when Paul met Amalthea. The mercenary was sharp and swift-witted, cunning and astute and familiar with all the sneakier devices, but if mischief were afoot Shah would know before he would. Shah could read minds.

Amalthea came down the stair from the gallery, a shimmering silver vision calculated to steal breath from the cynical and impress the worldly-wise. She gave, as she intended to give, an overwhelming first impression of female power – intellectual and carnal, sacred and profane. A hard bright sovereignty which democracy could not scratch surrounded her and spoke to people too far distant to discern her face. She walked as women walk, but the watchers detected in her liquid unforced movements the same enormity, the same latent explosiveness, as marks natural phenomena like tidal waves and lava flows and other irresistible consumptions. With her purple eyes and her taut, purposeful body brimming with sensual energy, like a whirlwind with the lid on, she had been compared with cruel creatures of the night. But in truth Amalthea was the personification of night itself, great and cold and incapable of being hindered, less cruel than unyielding, less savage than implacable. She was a woman halfway to becoming an element.

She advanced down the long hall like a sweeping twilight, without haste and without a pause. The travellers made no move towards her: Shah because she had no idea of the protocol of these occasions and Paul because he never met anyone halfway.

The young man Michal watchful at her heels as a hound, Amalthea – neither her composure nor the metre of her stride disturbed by apprehension – walked towards Paul until she was within handstrike of him. Then she stopped and stared him in the eye and said silkily, “If you have any thought of cheating me, Paul, forget it now.”

Shah blinked. She had expected ceremony, careful elaborate fencing to establish positions and strengths, perhaps a subtle trial of wills. She had not expected a woman of uncertain but advanced years, so diminutive she looked small even beside Paul, who would march up to the mercenary and fix him with her feline gaze and spell out the ground rules, while all the time his gunship circled over her head.

Paul too was impressed, though he would have died rather than admit it. He returned her gaze with frank interest. His eyes were as strange as hers, with dark irises flecked with gold. “Lady,” he said, “I think you and I feel the same way about business, so I’ll be honest with you. I have no intention of cheating you. If we can agree terms I will prosecute this war for you, and win it, and take my money and leave. If you try to seize my ship, or withhold my fee, or sell me to your enemies as the price of peace, or attempt any of the other friendly deceits that give rise to such complications in this line of work, I will blow your little conical city off the face of this globe.”

Amalthea’s red lip curled. “You talk boldly for a man a hundred miles below his power-base and well inside mine.”

“Automation is a prime feature of a battle-cruiser that can be flown in combat by one man. ‘Gyr’passes overhead every eighty-five minutes. When she does so I signal her. When I signal her, she doesn’t open fire.”

The lady of Mithras eyed him warily, more inclined to believe him than not, the implications of acceptance chattering up in her brain like a computer display. “How do you signal?”

Paul grinned, a wolfish grin that split his narrow weathered face with a sudden ferocity that still made Shah startle. “If I were foolish enough to tell you that, you wouldn’t want to hire me.”

Amalthea also smiled. Her smile had a quality like cracking ice. “If you were foolish enough to tell me that,” she purred, “I would not have to hire you.”

Shah, wondering how a contract could be executed against a backdrop of deep mutual distrust, failing to appreciate that mutuality provided a working substitute for stability, found herself the focus of imperious eyes the colour of grape-bloom. Amalthea said nothing: she looked from Shah to Paul and raised one fine upswept brow clear of her amethyst lid. Shah could not be sure if her lids were stained or their skin so palely translucent that the colour of her eyes bled through.

Paul caught the look and interpreted it. “Sharvarim-besh. My associate.”

Shah had wondered how he would introduce her. Associate. Well, that was non-committal enough even for him.

Patently Amalthea would have preferred to negotiate on a one-to-one basis. Equally obviously, if lieutenants he had to bring, she would have preferred them male. Her sex gave her an advantage that she was loathe to see devalued by inflation. “If your ship can be flown in combat by one man,” she said coldly, “what does she do?”

Shah smiled her sweetest smile. Her long coltish body and dramatically dark colouring did not sit with sweetness but she did her best. “Oh, make the beds, wash the pots, tell him who to work for – little things like that.”

Paul chuckled, rather enjoying the sensation of being quarrelled over, and did not contradict. Amalthea flicked them the briefest of smiles, and walked past them and through the door behind. “Accommodation has been prepared. Michal will conduct you there. We will talk again later.”

“We’ll look forward to that,” Paul assured her departing back.

Following the steward along blind corbelled passages he remarked to Shah, “As an interplanetary diplomat you may well be in my class. Your first professional engagement, your first alien head of state, your first words – and you make an enemy.”

Left alone to explore their apartment, Shah looked for clues to the nature of the Hive people and Paul looked for listening devices. The apartment consisted of seven interlocking hexagonal cells: a living-room surrounded by – working clockwise – the entrance lobby, dining-room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and second bedroom. The rooms were furnished with that opulent simplicity typical of sophisticated societies, with the larger items in plastics and the details in precious metals.

Paul returned from the lobby where he had been running his fingers around the door-frame. “Well, if there’s a bug it’s built-in and I can’t do anything about it.”

Shah returned from the kitchen. “These people cook in the weirdest way!”

“Microwaves.”

“Everything’s made of pot. There aren’t any pans.”

“You can’t use metal with microwaves.”

“But everything’s made of pot. I can’t find anything in ordinary metal – just silver and gold. The cutlery’s all silver, even the tin-opener and the corkscrew.”

“That is odd,” admitted Paul. He prowled round, touching things – hefting the table-lamps, prodding the taps; he pulled the linen off one of the beds to see how it was constructed. “There’s no hard metal here,” he said finally. “Copper in the lamps and in the oven, tin cans in the cupboard, gold where hardness isn’t at a premium, silver where it is. I think silver is the hardest metal they have.”

“What does that mean – no iron ore?”

“Possibly. But there are other hard metals, and they haven’t used any of them. They have tin and copper but no bronze. They use silver instead of steel and gold instead of aluminium. They have a base metal famine.” He went on prowling. “That could be because there’s no suitable ore available; or it could be that something happens to hard metals here. That might explain the guard of honour who met us with oil-cans when we landed. Do you want to know what I think?”

“You think that Mithras has a peculiarly corrosive atmosphere that destroys all the harder metals, and that is why the Hive – despite an advanced theoretical technology – is unable to get into space and thus defend itself against those who can.”

Paul glared at her. “I’ve told you to stay out of my head,” he said in his teeth.

“You flatter yourself,” retorted Shah. “Your head isn’t the only place around here that deductions can be made.”

“You thought that?”

“I thought that.”

“I’m glad,” said Paul after a moment, slumping into the bosom of a great semi-circular settee, one of a pair that bracketed the living-room. “I should hate to be responsible for anything that sloppy.”

Shah snorted with unladylike derision.

“Theoretical technology doesn’t take you from copper smelting to microwaves. If you can’t make bronze you settle for taking the kinks out of the arrowheads and putting them back in the fish-hooks after every hunt. You don’t set about designing sophisticated substitutes for simple non-availables. In short, you don’t build a computer because the fur on your fingers makes you clumsy with an abacus.”

“Paul – what do you think?” Though he eyed her suspiciously Shah maintained a straight face, folding her strong hands in her lap demurely as she took the opposite settee.

“I think they’re aliens here themselves. This isn’t their planet: they evolved somewhere else, somewhere that normal metallurgy was possible so that their development to the space exploration stage was unhindered. Perhaps they came here precisely because of the copious deposits of precious metals. But the vessel which brought them down onto the surface was affected. They couldn’t leave. Depending on when all this was, the Hive people were on that ship or are descended from those who were. They are heirs of a civilisation that could never have evolved on Mithras.”

“So now they have gold taps and silver corkscrews, and hire mercenaries to fight their battles for them,” mused Shah. “Are they content?”

“I should think so,” Paul supposed idly. “If they didn’t want to stay they could have called up a liner instead of a battle-cruiser and left the place to the pirates.”

“Perhaps that’s why they don’t use wood,” volunteered Shah. “There’s none of that either, despite ninety per cent of the land masses of Mithras being covered with forests. Perhaps where these people came from there were no trees. Perhaps they’re actually frightened of trees, and that’s why there are no windows in the Hive. Perhaps –”

“Perhaps it’s time you stopped speculating on matters you know nothing about and gave me the benefit of that small talent you do possess.”

Laughter sparkled in Shah’s great almond-shaped eyes, and she leaned forward conspiratorially. “You know, if these walls do have ears and if Amalthea is listening, she’ll take quite the wrong inference from that!”

Paul grinned. “Speaking of which, I see that cohabitation is discouraged. Two bedrooms, and two very definitely single beds. Even the couches are curved!”

“I think the lady is a prude.”

Paul leaned back, looking at her, heavy lids drooping over his eyes. Another man might have seemed sleepy: this one had the hooded, predatory look of a leopard mentally tucking in its napkin. “What else do you think of the lady?”

“You mean, can we trust her? I don’t know, Paul, it’s too early. That wasn’t much of a meeting. I never really got into her at all. She was – elated; maybe more than was reasonable. Despite what she said, she isn’t afraid of being cheated. She isn’t afraid of you.” Shah frowned, the beginnings of concern in the backs of her eyes. “I’m not sure, in all the circumstances, she should be that confident.”

Paul smiled lazily. “She just has more faith in me than you have. I find that perceptive rather than suspicious. Anything more?”

“No – only that she doesn’t like me, and I imagine even you –” Shah stopped abruptly, pain twisting up her face. “Oh Paul, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean –”

“Will you stop being so sensitive on my behalf?” he said gruffly. “You’re right, it didn’t take a telepath to see that, which is lucky enough because I’m not a telepath any longer. I know it, you know it: there’s nothing to walk shy of. Don’t bleed for me, Shah. If I’m hurt I can do it for myself, but that particular wound is healing nicely – it doesn’t need to be handled through a glove-box.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” She leaned forward and took his hand in both of hers. In her smile was the deep friendship that was his only valued possession which he did not count his by right, hard-earned by blood, sweat, toil and – though usually other people’s– tears. He did not know why Shah stayed with him. Most of the time he did not wonder, but when he did the fact that he could find no logical explanation of her loyalty, and therefore no explicit reason for its enduring, was a cold spot in his heart that all his conditioning prevented him from recognising as fear.

“But Paul, you and I are closer than you care to admit. When you are hurt I cannot but feel it; if I cry out when you keep silent it is because I am less strong than you. I know you’d be happier if I too could be calm and pragmatic and unemotional, but I’m not made that way; and you are dear to me.”

Paul stared into her face intently for a long minute. Then he rose, his hand pulling free of hers, and went into the kitchen. Shah straightened up with a sigh, disappointed with herself and with Paul, despairing of progress in her self-appointed task of humanising him. His voice reached her through the open door, muffled – as if he had his head in the strange oven. “Anyway, you’re wrong. I don’t want you to change. Not now I’ve gone to all the trouble of getting used to you.”

Shah said nothing. She smiled to herself. She looked around the hypocritically Spartan room and thought, We could always push the couches together.

Late into the night – though the passing of the light meant little in the Hive – Amalthea presided over a meeting of the Council.

The Council of Mithras was not a democratic body. It did as Amalthea instructed it. Its function was primarily to relieve the lady of the tedium of disseminating her wishes personally: she told the Council what she wanted and the Councillors worked out how best to satisfy her. That was in matters of routine. In this matter Amalthea was settling all the details herself.

The Council met in a dark hexagonal chamber in the secret heart of the Hive. Like the lady’s own cell, its surfaces were faced with a matt black that stole perspective and any sense of time or place. Unlike Amalthea’s room, the blackness was unrelieved by the fire of jewels or the glint of gold. The chamber’s only feature was its great table, echoing the shape of the room, hollow-hearted. The table and the chairs drawn up two to a side were made of clear perspex. Framed by the table was a raised dais from which, suitably elevated above her Council, Amalthea ruled Mithras from a revolving chair. The fact that the Council numbered thirteen had no particular significance for the Mithraians, but nor was it wildly inappropriate.

Amalthea was speaking. She sprawled gracefully in her elegant, eminent chair, an idly sculling slipper turning her slowly round the faces of her Councillors, and her voice was also slow, but there was nothing idle or inconsequential in either her words or her delivery.

“These people are to feel at home here. They are to be treated with friendship and kindness, to be facilitated and humoured, to be put at their ease. And if anyone, by word or deed, well-meant or unintentional, gives rise to the least suspicion on their part regarding my motives, I will give him to the planet on the same day that I give it them.”

 

A Cactus Garden © Jo Bannister 2013

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