Ventus – Day 98 of 135

Part Three: Resurrection Seed


Axel heard the ticking approach of Marya’s footsteps. He did not look away from the giant window that filled one wall of the ship’s lounge. Outside lay the disk of the Solar system–the original Archipelago.

The view was breathtaking. From here, beyond the orbit of Neptune, Axel could see the evidence of humanity’s presence in the form of a faint rainbowed disk of light around the tiny sun. Scattered throughout it were delicate sparkles, each some world-sized Dyson engine or fusion starlette. Earth was just one of a hundred thousand pinpricks of light in that disk. Starlettes lit the coldest regions of the system, and all the planets were ringed with habitats and the conscious, fanatical engines of the solarforming civilization. This was the seat of power for the human race, and for many gods as well. It was ancient, implacably powerful, and in its trillions of inhabitants habored more that was alien than the rest of the galaxy put together.

Axel hated the place.

He couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale of it, of course. He had spent months on Ventus, concerned with staying alive and finding his next meal, in the domain of flies and dumb rooting animals. Now he stood in warm carpet grass in the lounge of the navy hospital ship that had brought them from Ventus, surrounded by the scents and quiet thrum of a living spacecraft. If he shut his eyes he could open a link to the outer edge of the inscape, the near-infinite datanet that permeated the Archipelago. He chose not to do this.

It felt so strange to be here. He had so far refused to sleep in the ship’s freefall zone, where Marya had taken up residence. He wanted the feel of gravity, and of real sheets instead of aerogel. Maybe because of that, he had waked disoriented today, expecting to see his breath frosting the air, and had flung his hand out to meet neatly stacked, laundered clothing where he expected damp soil.

Axel had not said to Marya that Ventus felt more real to him than the Archipelago; he was afraid of what that might mean. Maybe there was an intimacy in connecting with cold, indifferent soil that no amount of intelligent, sympathetic machinery could match.

“Isn’t it marvellous?” she said as she came to stand next to him. “I have never been here! Not physically, I mean.” She was dressed in her illusions again, today in a tiny whirlwind of strategically timed leaves: Eve in some medieval painter’s fantasy.

“You haven’t missed much,” he said.

Marya blinked. “How can you say that?” She went to lean on the window, her fingers indenting its resilient surface. “It is everything!

“That’s what I hate about it.” He shrugged. “I don’t know how people can live here, permanently linked into inscape. All you can ever really learn is that everything you’ve ever done or thought has been done and thought before, only better. The richest billionaire has to realize that the gods next door take no more notice of him than he would a bug. And why go explore the galaxy when anything conceivable can be simulated inside your own head? You know what Mars is like–a hundred billion people stacked in pods like so much lumber, dreaming their own universe into being while the physical infrastructure of the planet crumbles around them. A friend of mine had a smuggler’s base there. I took a walk–only once in the six months I was there. Empty cracked streets, the terraforming failing, red dust freezing to the tiles. And a permanent orgy going on inside the computers. Creepy.”

“But Earth! We’re going to visit Earth. A world like Ventus.”

“Yeah. Beautiful place. Too bad it’s inhabited by Earthmen.” He sighed. “Sorry. I’m being the jaded traveller again.”

She glanced back at him, half-smiling. “We will rescue your Calandria. Earth will support us in this.”

“Not if we can’t make our case.” As refugees, they had been unable to get Turcaret’s DNA examined; extrapolating the growth patterns of a being from genes alone was expensive. Axel had access to the money he had been paid by the god Choronzon for tracking Armiger, but he didn’t dare tap it because the navy wanted to bill him for their rescue. If they knew about his secret accounts they would drain them just as they had his public one. So for now, he was officially broke and Turcaret’s head remained in a cryonic jar in his stateroom. He’d kept it hidden under the bed.

The navy was willing to drop them off anywhere they made regular stops. Marya had chosen Earth without consulting Axel.

“Look at this place,” he said. “Nobody here gives a damn about Ventus. The navy’s convinced Armiger is a resurrection seed. If they decide to burn Ventus down to bedrock just to make sure they’ve eliminated every last vestige of 3340, nobody in the Archipelago is going lift a finger to stop them.”

He crossed his arms and glowered at the delicate rainbow light shining from the homes of seventy trillion people.

“Maybe we can change their minds,” said Marya, smiling again. “If we find the secret of the Flaw.”

He grunted his doubt.

Marya shrugged. “I came to tell you the patient’s awake,” she said.

Axel wheeled and ran from the lounge. “Why didn’t you say so?” he shouted back. He heard Marya laughing as she followed.

He made his way through the softly glowing halls with their fragrant grass and flowering music vines. Sleepy-eyed crew members blinked in surprise as he passed; their unblemished, fashion-sculpted faces seemed alien to him after the variety and chaos of Ventus. His own face was like leather now, with crow’s feet around his eyes and scars everywhere, one splitting his left eyebrow. They had offered to remove those scars. He had refused.

The patient was the only other person who had escaped the Diadem swans’ sweep of the Ventus system–and she wasn’t even human. The swans had been efficient and brutal in rounding up the Galactics and Archipelagic watchers. Most of Marya’s compatriots were unaccounted for; only those in the main institute habitat had escaped, because the habitat orbited Ventus’ sun far from the planetary system.

The thing they called ‘the patient’ had erupted up from the surface of Diadem the day after Axel and Marya were rescued. In examining the images with the major, Axel had his first glimpse of the surface of Ventus’ moon and was shocked to realize that the entire thing was a warren of the Winds. The moon’s surface had been made into a city–or perhaps something more akin to a giant machine. Domes and spires covered the craters and mountain ranges, but they were all camouflaged, painted the colors of the landscape they had overwhelmed. From Ventus, Diadem remained a tiny mottled white disk; had the Winds left their aluminum and titanium structures unpainted, the disk would have shone like the sun, or like the jeweled tiara for which it was named.

The sphere of incandescence on the telescope images obliterated several square kilometers of moon-city. It had also flung something completely out of Diadem’s gravity well. This appeared as a dopplered radar image, just a tiny smear. The ship had not even bothered to report its existence to the crew until it changed heading under its own power.

Fourteen hours later they had drawn next to the limp figure of a woman hanging like an abandoned doll in the velvet black of space. The swans were rising from Diadem, their music strange and threatening. The woman was gently brought on board, and bundled straight to the operating theatre, for what everyone expected would be a routine post-mortem. In the course of the operation, which Axel attended, several things came to light:

The woman bore an astonishing resemblance to Calandria May.

The ship’s instruments could not penetrate her skin. Indeed, nothing could.

She was still alive.

Axel rode a lift shaft up to the ship’s axis and, now in freefall, grabbed a tow line that soon deposited him at the little-used gods’ infirmary. He knew Marya was trying to catch up to him, but he ignored her.

The patient hung like a crucified angel at the focus of a bank of deity-class equipment. Most of the equipment was dark; the patient was not a god after all. She was a robot, merely masked by sophisticated but commonly known screens. She was not, it seemed, a product of Wind technology.

Her eyes were open. Seeing this, Axel stopped dead at the entrance. The two attending technicians noted his presence; one came over. “We’re just waiting for the commander,” she said. “Then we can start getting its deposition, if it wants to talk.”

The thing looked at him. It had pale grey eyes. The impact of its gaze made his skin crawl.

“Axel, my friend,” it said in a familiar voice. “So good to see you again.”

He knew that voice. Its tone was measured, musical, as though the speaker were savoring every syllable spoken. So like Calandria May’s voice, he had always felt, but different in its underlying serenity.

Marya bounced to a stop next to him. “Is it talking?” she asked loudly.

Axel let himself drift into the center of the high chamber, nearer the patient. “Are you who I think you are?” he asked.

It arched a brow just as Calandria would have. “You know me, Axel,” it said. “I am the Desert Voice.”

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