Empress of Eternity
By L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
6 Eightmonth 1351, Unity of Caelaarn
The man in a working singlesuit and a thermal jacket, both of aristocratic silver, stepped out of the door, letting it slide closed behind him, a wonder that he had become used to over the past many months. He paused and looked up into the early night sky, his breath a pale white fog in the bitter air, although it was but early autumn. Above and below the Selene Ring the handfuls of time-scattered stars glittered faintly. Farther to the north, less than a few score points of light were scattered across the darkness. The same, he knew, was true far to the south, if well below the horizon he observed.
He needed to hurry. That he felt, and he strode westward, his right arm and hand almost brushing the wall, toward the point overlooking both the ocean and the canal. Even with his long strides, his steps were careful, for patches of thin glazed ice were scattered along the smooth and unmarked blue-gray stone that stretched the entire length of the canal. The ice patches would melt, of course, but stepping on ice floating on the thinnest layer of cold water could cause a nasty fall. He didn't look to the south, which only held the pine barrens and the swamps of the Reserve. Instead, he glanced to his right out across the dark waters. There the line of white rising above the gray wall marked the north side of the midcontinent canal ... and the ice looming beyond.
At the end of the point was a dark redbrick structure, set in the angle between the coast wall and the canal wall, rising no more than five yards above the flat top of the two walls. While the seamless blue-gray stone of the canal walls looked pristine, the bricks were anything but, with the mortar needing repointing almost everywhere. From within the glassine dome above the last circle of bricks, the faceted fresnel lens focused the light from the electric arc into a beam that swept seaward, marking entrance to and the south side of the canal, not that there was nearly so much shipping since Edelburg had been abandoned to the ice two years earlier.
He stopped just short of the light house and waited, ignoring the bite of the bitter breeze on his face and ears, as well as faint whining of the wind turbines along the cliffs farther to the south. Shortly, a faint crack announced that the unnamed glacier that dominated the north side of the canal had calved another white-silvered iceberg. After watching the odd-shaped block of ice fragment and plunge over the canal wall and into the water, he waited until the silent tsunami raced across the four kays between its impact and where he stood. The mass of dark water surged up the gray eternal stone, if only ascending half the height of the canal wall, sending spray skyward. The waters crashed back downward, foaming in places. The ice-mist rose in turn, condensing into fine frozen droplets before settling on the stone that comprised everything from the protective chest-high wall to the canal itself and the ancient station structure, and adding more to the intermittent ice-melt patches. He could see the tiny points of ice settling on the silversheen fabric of his jacket, then sliding off.
Before long, he saw the water from the smaller rebound wave break on the north wall of the canal, loosening a few more fragments of overhanging ice.
He waited, wondering if he would sense more, but he was alone with the wind, the cold, and the arc-light reflected down on him and the blue-gray stone from the glassine dome. In time, he turned his careful steps back toward the ancient station structure he euphemistically called his manor house, not that it was his, or even anything close to a manor house or a house at all. In size, large as it was, it was nothing compared to what had been crushed by the advancing ice a generation earlier and three hundred kays to the northeast. He still held lands and rent-holds to the south, purchased cheaply enough when the ground had been marginal grasslands, if that, lands that now provided an adequate income, with the slight increase in rainfall that had come with the ice to the north of the canal, and his prudent investment in a range of fibre-worms, some of which had doubtless produced the threads of the silversheen jacket he wore.
Yet ... so little compared to what Great-Grandsire had enjoyed, but times and climates change. His lips curled. So must you.
When he reached the position of the door facing the canal, not that there was any sign of an opening, he reached out and barely touched the unmarked surface, neither warm nor cold to his fingertips, and the stone slid into itself to form the doorway. Tiny icy pellets followed him inside, clicking on the smooth stone of the floor and the Voharan carpet that covered most of the floor of the chamber they called the study, before the wall re-formed, leaving no sign that there had been an opening there.
"Maertyn ... why do you always go down to the light house when a berg breaks loose? It was a berg, wasn't it?" Maarlyna asked, looking up from the ancient armchair that had once graced the estate at Norlaak.
Before answering, Maertyn smiled fondly at his wife, taking in her clear skin, her amber hair and eyes, once more silently grateful that things with her had turned out so well as they had. So much could have gone wrong, so much of which she was unaware. "You know it was. You know more than you ever tell me."
She shook her head, the corners of her narrow lips turning up just fractionally in the expression of amusement he always enjoyed.
He'd tried to explain when he'd first become aware of the feelings, the sense that the eternal seamless stone of the canal talked to him somewhere in the recesses of his mind. Maarlyna had smiled indulgently then, nodded, and said, "You must be hearing ultrasonics or the like."
He'd just shrugged. Letting her think that was better than having her think he was not quite right in his mind. And yet ... she hadn't been exactly skeptical ... more likely amused in some strange way, as she was now, but he was still wary about questioning her in any way that might spur unnecessary introspection. Perhaps ... in time.
"How long will they keep you here?" she asked, as if she did not already know.
"You don't mind the isolation that much, do you?" He smiled at the game.
"No. You know that. I'm not looking forward to leaving."
"I told the Ministry that a complete study would take three years."
"At least, that will give us another year and a half."
"A year and five months," he said with a light laugh, "unless we wish to remain and devote ourselves completely to maintaining the light house."
"They really don't need a lighthouse-keeper, either. There's not that much shipping anymore."
"There are enough long-haul freighters running between Saenblaed and Xantippe that they won't close the light house in my time."
"They could mechanize it completely."
"When you consider the overall costs, people are cheaper, and that even includes deputy assistant ministers who are impoverished lords. Mechanization and microthinking devices are saved for places where putting people is infeasible or impossible."
"Like deep current monitoring?"
Maertyn nodded. "Besides, the Ministry finds my observations about the building and the canal wall useful ... or perhaps amusing."
"They find your absence from the capital even more valuable."
"Speaking of which, I will need to return next month to make another periodic report to the Ministry."
"Around the twentieth. I'll take the canal-runner to Daelmar and the tube-train from there to Caelaarn."
"Isn't that when they rotate the Reserve guards?"
"It is, but that's not why I'm picking that time. It was stipulated by Minister Hlaansk some time back. There's also the possibility that I may need the Ministry to approve a request for the additional equipment."
"How long will you be gone? Two weeks?"
"Ten days to three weeks, depending on whatever difficulties arise, and they will ... and other matters."
"Are the advocates still sparring over the bones of your grandmother's estate? Trying to revalue the Martian antiquities to demand more taxes? Or is it some other endless legality?"
"They may be, but I haven't heard any more about that, not recently." Unlike a few other complications I can't exactly share with you, dearest.
"What is it, Maertyn? You looked so sad for a moment, there."
"Call it melancholy. There are times when it would have been nice to retreat to Norlaak. I can't help thinking about it, sometimes."
Maarlyna raised her eyebrows.
"I know. I know. It was gone beneath the glaciers before I was born, but I've seen the representations and the paintings. They're real enough, and I can still think about it."
"Representations aren't the same," she pointed out reasonably.
He smiled gently. "It would depend on the representation, I would think. In some ways, aren't we all representations of a mere biologic plan?" And with all the ages of humanity stretching behind them, who knew how much of that plan was evolutionary and how much genetically planned far in the distant past?
"That makes us sound more like pieces in a game of life, created and played according to this or that formula. We're more than that ... aren't we?"
He stepped toward the armchair, stopping before it, reaching down, and taking her hands. He guided her to her feet and embraced her, murmuring in her ear, "So much more, especially you, dearest." Closing his eyes, holding her tight to him, he was more alive than ever.
Her arms went around his waist.
5 Quad 2471 R.E.
Tick, tick, patter, patter ...
The grains of sand swept westward over the midcontinent canal and its walls like microlocusts, their silicon edges nipping futilely against the stone of the meteorological station. Sharpnesses blunted by the surface that had been designed to outlive eternity itself, each grain sighed and sleighed downward, creating miniature dunes against the land-side walls of the canal and the ancient structure.
Inside the first-level instrumentality and environmentality center that occupied the ancient station, Eltyn pulse-linked to the geosats. Before his eyes—virtie eyes rather than bio-orbs—appeared an amorphous not-quite-wedge-shape of orangish brown, a fantasy color whose wavelengths averaged somewhere around 630 nanometers, an approximation of a triangle that stretched back southward to the foothills of the Second South Range.
2SSR, confirmed the link.
MetStation sole unit structure inhabitable south side MCC west of desert research station. Interrogative estimated habitation/equipment viability duration? The query came from the geosat continent monitor chief, Laembah.
Drama excessive, Eltyn return-pulsed. Greater probability of solar flare instant-now than silicon inundation in 10 cycles.
A flash of superheated air washed over Eltyn, then diffused as the door closed as quickly as it had opened to let Faelyna enter. The sand granules picked up by her softboots clicked on the stone floor before they were absorbed into the soles, but others cascaded off her coverall as she peeled back the face shield and detached the hood to reveal short and curly brown hair, hazel eyes, and a slightly pointed chin too strong to be considered elf-like. Then she stripped off the coverall to reveal a dark gray formfitting single-suit.
Stet, he returned to the geosat.
Dubious humor, Faelyna pulsed through private-link, the unmonitored local freq.
Dubious probabilities for serious and officious chief.
Both Eltyn and Faelyna laughed.
He lives for weather ops, added Eltyn.
He's a Ruchocrat, scheduler, and grid-locker. Faelyna projected a head-shake. Bureaucracy ill serves the Ruche.
Ill serves any efficient society.
They both knew that TechOversight's covert placement of their project under Meteorology had been the only way to hide its implications from RucheControl. That cover would not last the triad, Eltyn had calcjected—unless no one from The Fifty or the upper Ruche bureaucracy had looked beyond the project title: "Meteorological Endothermic Implications of the MCC."
Routine summer met status-reps ready for Ruche-Centre? she asked.
Sixday. 1000. Eltyn opened the link and let her riffle through the past week's observations. Analysis incomplete.
Too many hotspots exceeding baseline projections. Met correlation will compare to reconstructed Searing data.
Probability of comparison exceeds point seven-three, he agreed. Reconstructed data more conjecture than solid.
Irrelevant. Fear factors associated with Searing and post-Caelaarnan period over-rebound have excessive impact. Her words held the over-hued crimson-green of cynicism.
Illogical ... but likely. Even The Fifty—the Administrative Council of the Ruche—veered toward emotion if the councilors perceived any possibility of Seared Earth or Iceberg Earth, remote as the second possibility might be in the near future.
Query. Structure survey probe status? Cool urgency underlined her question.
Red. Electron probe negative. Fermion beam feedback fused focal assembly. Negative on all laser applications. He follow-frequed his comments with a hint of frustration.
Submitted. Approval pending, likely.
Account subcategory deficiency?
Negative this triad. Next triad ...???
Novel approach possible?
Approach(7) already attempted. Working on approach(8). Eltyn snorted, knowing Faelyna was nanoneedling him. The equipment scheduled for arrival in six days had a special configuration. If it didn't work ...
Approach(9) ... my shadow retrogression? she pulsed.
More like retro-nonexistent imaginary future tech. He shrugged. She could certainly try if his next discernment attempt failed. He'd have to re-tech radically and take another tack.
You have a better alternative?
He didn't. Not yet. Not if his next effort failed. Yours?
Shadow polariton retrogression [deep image] one ready to commence setup by five day next.
He projected a nod as she made her way to the antique ramp leading to the upper level and her laboratory and equipment. He watched her, admiring her walk, and her assurance. To have said more, or pulsed more ... that would have been improper ... most unRuchelike.
Tick, tick ... patter ... patter. ...
Outside the all-too-ancient structure, the sand flailed futilely at the smooth unblemished surface of the gray stone, and to the north other granules drifted across the waters of the canal before sinking, their surfaces wetted, into the unchanging depths.
9 Siebmonat 3123, Vaniran Hegemony
Kavn Duhyle glanced northward across the canal. His eyes studied the thin line of silvery white that marked the ice less than twenty kays to the north, beyond the swampy green and scattered trees. Nearer, but on the far side of the canal, he noted that the icy runoff from the all-too-brief summer had dwindled to three narrow waterfalls over the blue-gray stone canal wall. The canal was a massive engineering work that stretched two thousand kays, almost precisely. It predated the Old Ones of legend who had survived the second time of Iceberg Earth by close to half a million years. The precision of the canal's engineering never failed to impress him, day after day. Its permanence emphasized, in his mind, their greatness far more than their scattered records that referenced civilizations yet even older—and much more than the fragmentary and decayed ruins of more recent civilizations.
At times, strange artifacts washed up on the sandy shores of the Jainoran Ocean south of the canal along the coast, fragments of fossilized animals wearing equally fragmented and fossilized collars. More intriguing were the strangely designed artifacts that appeared to be replacement parts. Most appeared unchanged by age. Some had what passed for circuits on the nanetic level. Some even channeled energy flows, but for what function and at what levels of current and amperage it was impossible to determine without larger assemblies. (Continues...)
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