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The Hermetic Millennia
By John C. Wright
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 John C. Wright
All rights reserved.
Theft of Fire
1. Sir Guy
All he wanted to do was stay dead.
Menelaus Montrose woke up while his body was still frozen solid. The bioimplants the battle surgeons of the Knights Hospitalier had woven into his brain stem were working well enough for him to send a signal to the surface of the coffin, activate the pinpoint camera cells dotting its outer armor, and see who was trying to wake him up.
The light in the crypt was dim. The walls were irregular brick, and in places were cemented with bones and skulls. Niches held both coffins for the dead and cryonic suspension coffins for the slumbering.
There was a figure like a metal ape near the vault door, which had moved on vast pistons and stood open. The light spilled in from here. Only things near the door were clear.
To one side of the larger metal statue was a marble sculpture of Saint Barbara, the patron of grave-diggers, holding a cup and a palm leaf in her stiff, stone hands; to the other was Saint Ubaldo, carrying a crosier, whose office was to ward off neural disorders and obsessions. Above the vault door was a relief showing the martyrdom of Saint Renatus Goupil under the tomahawks of Iroquois. He was the patron saint of anesthesiologists and cryonicists. Above all this, in an arch, were written the words TUITIO FIDEI ET OBSEQUIUM PAUPERUM.
From this, Menelaus knew he had been moved, at least once, from his previous interment site beneath Tiber Island in the Fatebenefratelli Hospital vault. That had been little over a quarter century ago: the calculations of Cliomancy did not predict any historical crisis sufficient to require him to be relocated in so short a space as thirty years. That meant Blackie was interfering with the progression of history again.
The larger metal statue moved, ducking its head and stepping farther into the vault. Menelaus could see the Maltese cross enameled in white on the red breastplate. There were four antennae and microwave horns on his back, folded down. The scabbard for his (ceremonial) broadsword was empty, and so was the holster for his (equally ceremonial) chemical-energy pistol. Between helmet and goggles and breather mask, the figure looked like a nightmarish bug.
Montrose turned on the microphones on the outside of the coffin, and special cells in his brain stem sent signals to receivers dotting the inner coffin lid, and also to implants lining his auditory nerve. It sounded like a strange, flat, echoless noise, not like something that actually came through his ear, but he could make it out.
Menelaus turned on the speaker vox. "Why do you disturb my slumber, Sir Knight?"
He heard the ticking hum of motors and actuators coming from the armored figure. Like a mountain sinking into the sea, the big armored figure knelt. Menelaus realized this was strength-amplification armor. He tried to work out the Cliometric constellation of a set of military circumstances where this type of gear would serve any purpose that a sniper with a powerful set of winged remotes could not serve better, and his imagination failed. Unless the man was wrestling giants, or facing enemies who could walk up to arm's length and tear the flesh from his bones, he did not see the purpose.
"My apologies, sleeper. Ah. Our records are somewhat dark. Are you Menelaus Montrose? You don't sound like him."
"Why the poxy hell do you disturb my poxy slumber, Sir goddam Knight?"
"Ah! Montrose! Good to hear you again, Liege."
"Guy? Sir Guy, is that you?"
"Pellucid thawed me out two days ago. As we agreed, I have a veto over anyone trying to disturb you, even your pet machine. And it is His Excellency Grandmaster Guiden von Hompesch zu Bolheim now. They promoted me when I slept."
"Yeah, they do poxified pox like that to you when you ain't up and about to fend it off."
Another implanted circuit in his brain stem made contact with a library cloth stored in an airtight capsule inside the coffin armor. The self-diagnostic showed much more deterioration than he would have expected. Half the circuits were dead, and file after file was corrupt. But he brought up the calendar, and a fiber fed the pixy image directly into the same neural circuits he was using to peer through the cameras.
"Pox! Thirty-five years. Rania's not back yet? Any signals?"
"I have not heard, Liege. There is something that may be a signal. I would have prevented them from thawing you, if it were not significant."
"So tell me."
"An astronomer has detected massive energy discharges erupting from the Diamond Star. So it looks like your Princess arrived there years ago, and we are seeing now the result of some sort of macro-scale engineering. The data are ambiguous, and the Order thought you would want, with your own eyes, to look the data over and draw your own conclusion. Was I right to wake you?"
"Damn right, and thank you for asking. Have the astronomer send his data into the coffin. I can tell you the input-output registers."
"I'd rather you thawed out fully."
"My brain is working. What else do I need?"
"There has been a lot of wire corruption since you slumbered, Liege, and the Order made laws saying certain messages have to be delivered in person, naked eye, naked ear. Nobody uses or trusts the kind of interface implants you and I have."
Montrose was not just surprised; he was shocked. His Cliometric calculations had not anticipated such a radical change in the basic social and technological patterns. One more thing to look into before he slumbered again. He said wryly: "Relicts already, eh?"
"A quarter century is a long time. And they insist I wear clothing, like an unevolved."
"You ain't talking aloud, are you?"
"No, Liege. Nerve jack. My suit has a short-range emitter."
It took a long while for the molecular machinery clustered in the major cell groups in his vital organs, bone marrow, and parasympathetic system to restore him to life. Even through the nerve-block, there was something like growing pains, and his limbs trembled and shuddered. The last thing to happen was that special artificial glands released adrenaline into his system, and implants made of his own jinxed flesh, like the Hunter's organ and Sach's organ of electric eels, flushed with positively charged sodium and jolted his heart into action. Automatic circuits performed a few tests, just as undignified and invasive as anything a doctor would do, but with no bedside manner. Menelaus just gritted his teeth.
Montrose came up out of the gel, dripping, a white glass caterpillar-drive pistol in either hand. These 8-megajoule Brownings were waterproof, slightly curved, streamlined tubes of a white glassy substance, made with no moving parts and powered by a radioactive pellet likely to last 4.47 billion years. And they fitted nicely into his hands. (But he still missed his six-pound hand cannon as long as his forearm that he had used for dueling. The old Krupp railgun had been a handsome piece of artillery.)
Sir Guiden was still on one knee. He had removed his bulky helm, slung his goggles, and the wire from his skull-jack lay across his neck.
Underneath, his hair was close cropped, and he wore a black leathery cap that buckled under his chin. His face was rounder and fleshier than Menelaus remembered from 2501. Was that a touch of gray at the temples?
His age was hard to tell, since Sir Guiden sported a full-face tattoo shaped like a double-headed eagle: Wings surrounded his eyes, crooked talons curled on his cheeks, and twin hawk heads bearing crowns tilted left and right over his eyebrows. Montrose thought it one of the ugliest and most absurd decorations imaginable.
Montrose said, "I was wondering why you stepped in here all in full kit."
"Because you are known to sleep with guns in your hands, sir. That, and no one else could talk to you."
"So no one else has implants? The whole idea was that I could thaw my brain up to dehibernation, while leaving the rest of me iced, and that would save on wear and tear. Hurts like the pestilential devil to shock the heart awake, you know. Why couldn't they just use a hand mic? Clip it to the coffin?"
"The technology is hard to come by, Liege. The automated factories were under Exarchel's control."
"What about that motorized ape suit?"
"You like it?" asked Sir Guiden, pleased.
"May my member get pustules if'n I don't! Always wanted future soldiers to dress in roboexoskeletons. But it seems damnified impractical, and I surely don't recall you wearing nothing alike to them when you climbed in your coffin."
"I thawed in 2508 and again in 2526 to oversee certain operations."
"That, and moving the buried coffins when Rome was burned by orbital mirrors. The Vatican is gone."
"How many people killed?"
"None. The city was already evacuated due to banner storms of hunger silk. The Consensus insisted that every city have an evac procedure in place, with an aeroscaphe like a lifeboat folded against the side of every house and tower. Lucky they did."
"I don't care about that," said Montrose. He planned to have the current events, no matter how dramatic, be ancient history before he woke again. "Tell me about my coffins."
"Safe. You'll be interested to know I used your money to purchase Cheyenne Mountain from the government of Kansas."
"That's in Colorado."
"There are six territories in the North American plains region calling themselves the United States of America. I made the land purchase from George Washington of the Government of the United States of America that is based in Topeka."
"His name was Joua Ja Gomez before he was acclaimed to his position. All the leaders in Kansas become George Washington. He wears a tricornered hat and dresses in red, white, and blue. Very colorful. But Cheyenne Mountain and the surrounding land are now officially a part of the sovereign territory of Malta, and under the government and suzerainty of the Grand Master of the Order."
Menelaus wondered how many more centuries the Knights of Malta would continue to hold government meetings, considering that they had not held Malta since Napoleon kicked them off it. They retreated without a fight, having sworn an oath never to raise weapons against other Christians.
"There is an old buried fortress beneath Cheyenne Mountain," Sir Guiden said, "that should last thousands of years. If we move you there secretly, we might be able to endure undisturbed for longer."
Menelaus realized that the kneeling man was waiting for permission to get to his feet. "Up! You don't have to stand on ceremony with me, or wait for permission to wipe your bottom in the jakes. So who is this we? And why are we going to be holed up a thousand years? The Diamond Star is only fifty light-years away."
The armored figure, with a hiss of motors, rose to his feet, spine straight as a rifle barrel. "We are. The Sovereign Military Hospitalier Order of Saint John, of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, of Malta, and of Colorado agreed to guard you in your coffin, Your Honor. We took an oath. I personally swore to you. Do you think merely the passage of time will cow me? Ninety men and eight stand without these doors, ready to retaliate upon any who would desecrate holy ground, where the honored dead lay themselves down, waiting."
"It was ninety-nine when I went under, not counting you."
"One of them, Sir Alof Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, during the thaw of 2526 was granted leave to depart the order that he might wed a current girl."
"So why are we talking about a thousand years?"
"Thousands, sir. With an s."
"You ain't gunna tell me, are you? You have to drag this out and keep me on pins and needles."
"Liege, there are some things that you must see with your own eyes. The observatory is directly above us, and drawing nigh."
2. The Empire of the Air
Montrose was pleased, if a little shocked, that Sir Guy allowed him to walk around under the sky. It implied that assassins of the Cryonarchy were no longer seeking his life.
The Cryptonarchs had been, at one time, the only people Montrose thought he could trust with the secret of xypotechnology, cryotechnology, and with the power of the antimatter recovered from V886 Centauri, the Diamond Star. They had been his own extended family, grandsons and great-grandsons of cousins and nephews.
But the Cryonarchs proved unworthy of the trust Montrose had invested, and had fallen prey to time, to corruption, to weariness. He had removed them from power by the simple expedient of altering the orbital elements of the remaining world supply of antimatter, a few ever-dwindling crystals of anticarbon diamond. These centaurs occupied orbits beyond Neptune, where encounters with particles of normal matter were rare, but not so far as to encounter the paradoxically thicker areas of deeper, transplutonian space, where there was no solar light-pressure to clear particles away. Then Montrose had given the orbital elements to a priest named Thucydides Montrose, along with his latest formulation to create augmented intelligence.
Montrose was not much of a churchgoing man himself, but the Roman Catholic Church had been in business two and a half millennia, older than any institution of man. He was wagering that Black del Azarchel, a Spanish Roman Catholic, would not lightly destroy it.
Looking up at the heavens, Montrose had the sinking sensation that he might lose that bet. Because there was a second reason why it might be safe to walk around under the naked sky, aside from the remission of the Cryonarchy vendetta against him. Sniper technology must have fallen to a new low. That implied a widespread civilizational collapse.
Clouds the hue of iron hid the sky, and drizzle fogged the air. Before him was a cathedral made of gray stone, withered with age, with a rose window like a cyclops eye, and two square bell-steeples rearing like port and starboard conning towers on some motionless ship of stone.
Angels with mossy faces stood on posts to either side of iron gates rusted open. The boneyard was beyond.
To judge from the names on the tombstones, this place was in England or North America. He assumed he was in the northeastern states, Blondie territory, or what had been back in his day. Outside the walls, he saw deciduous forest, nude and wintry, stretching over hill country. Directly beyond the cathedral gates, a trail of smaller trees ran straight downhill, but there were not even fragments of asphalt or macadam present to show if there had once been a motorcar road there.
Behind the cathedral and its outbuildings were structures he did not recognize, tall metal-sided towers topped with windowless domes that looked a bit like grain silos. Above them, hanging in the air were long streamers, hundreds of yards tall, rippling slightly in the rainy breeze. They were made of blue gray material, semitransparent, and were almost invisible against the cloudy background. They looked like collectors gathering particles out of the air and drawing them down for storage in the silos.
Overhead, huge, imposing, larger than a submarine, hung an airship. Sir Guiden raised his hand. The ship descended, but Montrose could see neither ground crew nor docking tower.
The air vessel needed none. From a hatch in the bottom gondola stretched many long snakelike tendrils or whips of metal. Guided by some unseen intelligence, they reached down and formed man-sized loops. The upper length of the tendrils flexed and moved, expanding and contracting to compensate as the wind made the airship roll and yaw. The lower lengths were as motionless as if they were embedded in glass, and hung three feet off the ground.
One of the tendrils held in its loop a ship's crewman, who was lowered from the body of the craft to the ground, like a circus girl wrapped in the trunk of an elephant. The figure was slim and slight, long-haired, and wrapped in a long blue gray toga.
The goggles of Sir Guiden were staring upward as the robed figure descended, but it was impossible to see the knight's expression. Montrose was standing next to him, a scarecrow next to a tin man, his gaunt body hidden in a poncho and his thin hook-nosed face hidden beneath a wide-brimmed duster.
Fifty of the Knights Hospitalier in their powered armor stood deployed on the lawn, some atop the walls, some among the mausoleums, some standing at ease nearby. The armor did not move, but every helmet had optic fibers as fine as the antennae of crabs, which swayed left and right, up and down, front and behind, as each man used his motionless goggles to look in all directions. Every pair of boots bore the golden spurs of knighthood, even though no horse ever made could have long endured the mechanized armor in its saddle. Equally archaic were the claymores, katara punching daggers, and Broomhandle Mauser pistols dangling at jaunty angles from their baldrics and cinctures. Less anachronistic were the launchers or particle-beam lances slung each from an articulated shoulder mount. The air support corps consisted of ten men, each carrying a winged drone called a hawk on his wrist. The narrow glass instrument heads of the drones on the wrists of their masters ticked back and forth as hypnotically and restlessly as the optic antennae of the motionless men.
Excerpted from The Hermetic Millennia by John C. Wright. Copyright © 2012 John C. Wright. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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