Chapter no 63 – CALAGAH

Empire of Silence

IN BOROSEVO I’D FORGOTTEN what it was like to be anything but hot. The

sprawling capital sat a mere ten degrees north of Emesh’s equator, squatting across the island-shoals that dominated that vast and shallow sea, far from the planet’s remote and lonely continent in the south. There the forensic remains of long-quieted volcanism showed in the time-eaten upthrust of igneous rock, black and flinty. Thence the long-conquered Norman settlers had maintained their planetary freehold, centered on the captured city of Tolbaran, now the seat of Lord Perun Veisi.

During a brief sojourn to Veisi’s castle in Springdeep, I learned much of Emesh’s pre-Imperial history: about the fishing culture and the network of island towns that dominated the planet from cap to shrunken polar cap;

about the settlement and the first contacts with the Umandh; about the guerilla fighting and the peasant fishing junks wrecked at sea, dragged under by the coloni natives. I learned about the annexation, the decade of struggle between the freeholders and the three massed Imperial Legions under the direction of the first Count Mataro, Lord Armand, for whom the smaller moon was named.

And I learned about Calagah itself.

Valka was a good teacher, and where her information was lacking—

which was rare—Sir Elomas Redgrave filled the gaps with neat concision. That I was to wed Anaïs Mataro when she came of age became something of an open secret, and indeed something of a joke to my two close

companions. They called me “my lord” to my face, echoing Ghen’s mocking tendency to refer to me with the Imperial style.

Four local months to the day from my duel with Gilliam, I followed Valka and my new friends from the Springdeep research team out from

under the wing of our shuttle and onto the mossy stones of the rise above the cleft at Calagah. Seaweed trailed over the white plastic-and-acrylic

structures that sprouted like limpets from the black stone, lending the impression that we walked along the floor of the sea, that the gray-and-golden clouds were the dappled surface of the ocean above our heads. At this latitude the winds were fierce, scouring over the water and kicking up fine spray that rimed the world.

But at least I was cold again out under the open sky. Here Emesh felt a little more like Delos, like home. After so many years on this brave new

world of mine, I had ceased to note the gravity, the heavy air like gelatin in my lungs.

“Bel, Maros, you’re on kelp detail!” Sir Elomas shouted, crinkling the foil wrapper of his cheap candy bar as he waved an arm at the site. “I want it burning down on the beach within the hour.” The two techs hurried about their duties without complaint while the others set to unloading the shuttle. I joined Valka and the bald scholiast, Tor Ada—one of Archon Veisi’s people

—at the base of a spike of columnar basalt, the hexagonal columns skewed by time so that they cast unholy shadows over the mossy crag.

The wind was rising, and here on the continent of Anshar it bit, carrying the chill of the approaching winter. I popped the collar tabs on my short jacket, leaning into the sea breeze as I trudged closer. The ocean, which at the equator was a rich, almost putrescent green, glimmered a pale

aquamarine beneath gray clouds that glowed golden in the refracted

sunlight. The two women and the column in whose shelter they stood overlooked the cleft itself, a deep, nearly straight gash in the world. From Valka’s holographs I had deduced that we were standing above the Calagah site, that the black-glass facade of which I’d seen images in her chambers months and months before lay embedded in the stone wall over whose lip we peered. My heart sank a little at that realization, for I had wanted that moment of supreme revelation, mounting the crest to see that remnant of

another age lying unrolled like a map at my feet.

“It’ll be another hour or so before we get the camp back in working order,” said Tor Ada. She hunched her shoulders, tucking her arms into her voluminous green sleeves in an effort to shrink herself against the wind. “I should have stayed in the shuttle. The wind’s fearsome.”

Valka grinned. “I like it! Reminds me of home!” Home, I’d learned during our time together, was in the canyons of Edda, where the winds

scoured far more fiercely than this, driving the locals to dwell in cities along the walls of chasms much like this one.

“At least it’s better than the bloody heat in the capital,” I put in,

conscious of my dark hair snapping about my face. “Is there time to go down into the site while we wait?”

Ada shuffled her feet. “I believe so.”

We descended by a rattling metal stair bolted into the face of the cleft

wall. Valka’s boots and mine rang loudly on the netted metal structure while Ada’s slippered feet were nearly silent, drowned out by the blowing wind.

As we descended the clouds broke, and ruby sunlight fell in dripping lines across the gray basalt. I felt an absurd longing for the old coat I had worn at home, for the feel of the tails snapping about my legs and the shadow it

would cast against the basalt wall to our left.

And then there was the site, blacker than the stones among which it was built, a seamless part of the landscape as if melted into place. A thousand times I’ve tried to sketch that facade, to depict the columns and arches and angled buttresses, and a thousand times I’ve failed. My old journals show the scars of those torn pages, mute testaments to the inadequacy of my

artistic powers.

My breath left me, leeched out with the very sunlight, for the stones of Calagah were darker than any color I had ever seen—darker than my hair, darker than the blacker-than-black uniforms of the Legion. The entrance was perhaps three hundred feet across, dominating the western wall of the cleft where it was at its widest. The cleft itself ran down below sea level, protected by a lip of stone that held back the sea for most of the year.

What strange powers or peoples had contrived so grand a structure in so isolated a location? That vast aperture began as a tangle of angled columns, of arched supports and buttresses—some wide as a man, some thin as

whispers—that processed inward by degrees, layer upon layer, all the while narrowing from three hundred feet to the width of a door. The eye rebelled at this complexity, wandered until it was lost in it as in a deep wood.

“It’s . . .” There was nothing to say. Why was I even trying? “It’s . . .” Valka touched my arm. “I know.”

Wrong. The word came to me as if from outside, pushed into my head from some higher space. “It’s wrong,” I said.

Tor Ada hurried across the sandy base of the crag, feet squishing around pools not yet dried. The world stank of dead fish, and indeed here and there

were carcasses, picked clean by birds or left to rot. I pressed a hand to my face, remembering Gilliam and his damned kerchief. I hurried after the

scholiast, seized by the undeniable impulse to see this strange and fabulous ruin.

“Wrong?” Valka asked, confused, moving to join me. We stopped at the foot of the stairs, Tor Ada having vanished inside. From the base of the cleft I could no longer hear the sounds of the team working to prep our campsite atop the cliff. Indeed, all the world had dropped away, the entire galaxy and universe deleted save for the contents of that ravine.

In the holographs Valka had shown me, every line and angle had seemed perfect, rectilinear, square. No longer. Every arc, every bend, every pillar in that place of darkest stone was skewed, bent as the column of basalt on the cliff by our camp. “The geometry, it . . . Nothing’s parallel.”

“You noticed that?” Valka’s eyes widened, and she straightened her red leather coat.

I pointed with two fingers, picked out the details that had clued me in. “That spar’s shorter than the ones at the base, and they’re canted upward. See? They should be parallel, but they fan up. It’s subtle, but they diverge


“—by 0.374 degrees.”

It was my turn to blink. “How did you memorize—”

She tapped her head, then paused a moment as a gust sent wet sand

scouring up the ravine. “You wanted to be a scholiast, and you have to ask? I’m old enough to be your mother, remember? I’ve had time to practice.”

“My mother is three times your age,” I snapped. A scholar and a

scholiast . . . Not that they had scholiasts in the Demarchy. That distant land had never suffered under the Mericanii, had never learned to fear them or their daimon machines, so they had no need for scholiasts. “The whole ruin is like this? All . . .” I mimed two things not being parallel.

“You’ll have to tell me how you picked up on that sometime.”

“No trick. I just saw it.” I shrugged, but I still did not mount the first of the glassy black steps up into the ruin for the deepening chill in my blood. That place was like something out of a dream, for surely only the unconscious mind could birth so black a stone. “What’s it made of?” All these months and I’d never thought to ask. Well, there was never a

substitute for field experience.

A fey light lit Valka’s burning eyes, and she crouched beside me on the stairs, caressing the glassy stone. The strong wind blew her hair over her face, partially concealing her smile. Not the cruel, cutting one she so often wielded, nor the warm one I had seen by chance the night of my duel, but one of genuine delight, a child’s abandon glowing in that austere and hard-edged face. “I’ve no idea.”

Crouched beside her on the sandy floor of the ravine, I said, “You’re serious?”

“It doesn’t scan.” She traced a line over the surface, scraping caked sand from the step, leaving a deep black line. “We can’t break a sample off for testing, and the field units . . . nothing. Nothing at all. ’Tis just black.”

“What do you mean, ’tis just black?” She blinked, her joyous smile tamped to a subtle frown. Realizing my error, I tried again, “It’s just black?”

Brief amusement flickered across her face. “We can’t get a fix on its molecular structure. It doesn’t seem to have one.” I ran a hand over the face of one of the steps leading into the darkness beneath those canted pillars.

Though the stone lay in direct sunlight, its surface was cool and smooth as wine, but it seemed no different from ordinary stone. There was nothing in the glassy texture of it that spoke of some bone-deep mystery. I pressed my palm flat to the surface as if my hand were some cunning instrument and by its ministrations I might divine the truth of that place. The stone seemed

colder in places, and I frowned, moving my hand about the surface of the step, transfixed. Suddenly I gasped, yelped as if someone had staked my hand to the stair with a spike of ice. Cold. The kind of cold that crawls,

shooting up my arm to my heart, circulating through every part and pore. I cried out, clutched the hand to my chest. Alarmed, Valka grabbed my wrist. “What is it?”

A gust of wind blew up, delaying my response as I clamped my mouth shut against the sand, tucked my head. Valka was still holding my wrist.

Cold ached in my fingers, terrible and biting. Bitter. I laid my other hand on Valka’s, gently removed it from my arm. When the wind died down I said, “It’s nothing. Colder than I expected. It . . . startled me.”

A frown line formed between the woman’s winged eyebrows. She pressed a hand to the black glass-stone. Her frown deepened, and she withdrew her hand. “Feels warm to me.” She hauled me to my feet and

started up the stairs, hips swaying with each step. I confess I watched her

for a good five seconds, then looked away as she turned back. “Are you coming?”

Flustered both by her and the strangeness of that alien place, I looked once more at my hand. It ached with remembered cold. I hadn’t imagined it. I touched the step again and felt only the warmth of the high and distant sun radiating from the black stone. My eyes darted up to Valka, standing some ten feet above me on the dark stair. Looking up into the opening of those ruins, the black walls glittering all around, I experienced a crippling sense of vertigo, as if the door were the mouth of an incalculable well and I were poised on its brink. I saw a figure in green standing in the archway, and for a fleeting moment I believed it was Gibson, but it was only Ada. “What’s taking you all so long?”

“Our boy here was admiring the architecture,” Valka said, covering my advance up the stairs.

“He can do that inside!” Ada made a snapping come on gesture with her right arm, pale eyes alight.

I followed Valka beneath the shadow of the pillars, past ranks of stone pilings and buttressed supports—it was like walking into a spiderweb. The walls around us grew closer as we ascended the short flight of steps. The door at the end was slightly narrower at its base than at its top, so subtle that only my artist’s eye might have noticed and been driven mad. “There are other chambers all along the cleft,” Valka said, “most well above ground level. They’re all empty, but this is the main complex. There are other

entrances farther back in the highlands. Air shafts and the like.” “But this is the only door?”

“’Tis the only door.”

We were inside then, lost in the salty dark. Not a month past these darkened halls had been underwater, and the stamp of the sea still lingered.

The air was cold, though not so bitterly as the stone had been. I had

expected a vast hall such as we might build, high-ceilinged and pillared as outside. But the space within was low and dim, lit only by lines of phosphorescent tape plastered to the walls on either side. Valka pulled a pocket glowsphere from her jacket as we walked, heads nearly scraping the ceiling, shook it, then twisted the power circuit before she released it into the air. The thing must have been Tavrosi-made, possessed of some of their technological heresy, for it assumed a position close to Valka’s shoulder and

followed her as she advanced, casting red-gold highlights on the black walls.

The alien stone—was it stone?—threw the light back in rainbow

coruscations; the highlights rippling across the umbral surface made the hall seem brighter than it was. “Is it all tunnels?”

Tor Ada turned in a rustle of green linens. “There are chambers, branchings, but it goes on like this for quite a ways.”

“Isn’t that . . . strange?” I asked, frowning. “What was it for? Not a city, surely.” We’d gone perhaps a thousand feet, and the hall showed no signs of widening.

The scholiast replied, “We think it was some sort of temple, maybe. A sacred site.”

“Don’t archaeologists always assume something has religious significance when they have no idea what it is?”

Valka laughed. “Just so.” The scholiast did not appreciate my joke, for she walked on in silence. “But Tor Ada’s guess is a good one. You’ll see.”

We came at last to a round chamber like the hub of a wheel with several passages continuing on down, deeper into Calagah. Here we stopped, determined to go no farther in what little time we had. With a gesture, Valka ordered her glowsphere to take up a position near the domed ceiling, and there it illuminated a constellation of round glyphs. They looked exactly like the knot patterns the Umandh used in their artwork. They covered the

ceiling, interlocking, superimposed over one another until the eyes grew as lost in them as in the confusion of pillars outside.

I stared up openmouthed, for the first time comprehending why no one had yet deciphered the alien symbols. The Quiet had spoken, but the words were lost to time. Nothing about the hieroglyphs—if they were hieroglyphs

—was linear or logical. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Minds had

conceived them, intelligences strange and incomprehensible. “This has been here for nearly a million years?” I shook my head, choking back

wonderment. “It looks new.”

As the great soaring temples of the Chantry invite the eye to elevate the onlooker toward heaven, the weight of that dome, so near at hand, pressed me downward. Tor Ada was rattling off a catalog of details about the site. “The lower levels are still flooded; we’ll have to get the pumps running

again over the next week . . .” I barely heard her. In that instant I was remade from hesitant skeptic to true believer.

“There’s no way the Umandh could have built this,” I breathed.

The pronouncement cut Tor Ada’s monologue off at its roots, and Valka said, “No.”

“It’s unbelievable.” I shook my head, tried in vain to find something to do with my hands. Starved for options, they rattled at my sides, infected with implication. “Small wonder you keep this so low-profile.” There

should have been cordons, security around the site. A Chantry warden force. Something, anything. Perhaps Emesh had been adjudged too small a concern since foot traffic to this remote corner of the Anshar stone lands was rare. Perhaps the Chantry underestimated the effect such ruins might have on a man’s soul. Perhaps they did not know. I tried to imagine Grand

Prior Vas standing in the mud amongst the dead fish at the base of the cleft.

I felt an echo of the feeling I’d had sitting in Valka’s apartments in

Borosevo. Human, Cielcin . . . Quiet. We had never been the only ascendant force in the galaxy. Small and strange as that tunnel was, it humbled me, made me recall that for all my breeding, all my family history, I was but one man. One man alone in a cosmos strange and great and terrible.

“Yes?” Valka was speaking into her wrist terminal, head ducked and turned away. I looked round at her, eyebrows raised. The scholiast did likewise. Valka pressed a finger just below her ear, listened through the bone conduction tab clipped just under her ear. “We’ll be right there, sir.” Ending the call, she turned back and said, “That was Elomas. The camp’s cleared.”

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