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Chapter no 69 – Of Monsters

Empire of Silence

EVEN AS I HURRIED down the ramp, a shield-belt heavy at my waist, I could not believe it had worked. Vriell had gone with Elomas and the others—

even Valka had not objected to the retreat back to Springdeep—leaving me in the care of her adjutant and second-in-command, a coal-skinned optio

whom I did not know. The man led me and the decade of troopers in our flier across the primordial countryside of wort and moss to the place where the Cielcin ship lay smoldering like a finger fallen from a burning corpse, broken at the end of a great furrow in the landscape turned up by the grinding halt of its impact. I slowed as we approached, overcome by the realization that I had never before seen so great and terrible a vessel.

Unbroken, it might have been half a kilometer from end to end. Now it was a smoldering ruin of heat-blackened metal and what looked incredibly like stone. Not a castle of ice at all—what ice would survive a brush with Emesh’s atmosphere?

The flames still burned. Figures stood illuminated by the few Jaddian fliers still turning in the air, black against the night. Juddering repulsors

shone blue above us. A curious mix of Jaddian mamluks in blue and orange and Imperial legionnaires in ivory armor and red tabards crawled over the

scene, supported by the odd Mataro staffer in green and gold. Dead ahead, a man in form-fitting leathers stood, flowing robe and empty voluminous

sleeve billowing in the wind.

“Sir Olorin!” I called, passing by the optio, a hand raised in greeting.

The Maeskolos, apparently in command, turned from the helmeted legionnaire at his side to look at me. His pointed eyebrows rose, then lowered in suspicion. “Lord Marlowe, is it?”

“It is, domi.” I bowed, hands clasped before me.

The legionnaire beside Sir Olorin slammed a fist to his breastplate in parody of a salute, his visor and the helm with its pronounced neck flange collapsed, folded away like a paper sculpture, baring his face. “What are you doing here?”

“Lieutenant Lin!” I inclined my head less severely now. “Good to see you.”

Bassander Lin returned the gesture, running a hand through his ridiculous hair. The sides looked freshly shaved, but the top was a tangle the color of smoke. He tried unsuccessfully to tame it, looking a sight more harried than he had at the count’s feast. “Why are you here?”

“I can help,” I said, repeating the line I’d used with the centurion not ten minutes earlier. “I speak the Cielcin tongue. Not fluently, mind you, but

enough. If there are survivors, I thought I could help negotiate.”

“Negotiate?” Bassander repeated, face darkening. “With the xenobites?

Are you mad?”

Olorin smiled warmly, looking like a caricature of some friendly devil, his features all exaggerated points. The effect might have been disconcerting on a lesser man, but on the swordmaster it conferred a certain poised charm. “We are not knowing if any of the beasts survived yet. We must prioritize containment, I am thinking.” He tapped his nose.

“If we can avoid bloodshed,” I put in, aware of my delicate position, “I think we’ve an obligation to try.”

“Ben jidaan!” Olorin said. “You think you will be reasoning with them?”

I glanced at Bassander and swallowed. “I won’t know unless I try. I know the words.”

The Maeskolos crossed his arms, chin tucked like a pugilist’s. “Very good, then.”

“No, it isn’t!” Bassander interjected, rounding on me. “Are you their commander, then? If we find a survivor, what are you going to do? Say,

‘You, throw down your arms and surrender to these people?’” He snorted. “I am sorry, Lord Marlowe, but what makes you believe you can be of any assistance here? You’re not a soldier.”

“No, not really, but I . . .” Not sure where else to turn, I looked to Olorin for aid.

“Then you plan to, what? Talk them into submission? For your own sake, go back to your nobiles. This is soldiers’ work.” The lieutenant

actually smiled as he said that, shook his head, and looked briefly skyward as one of the Jaddians’ strangely organic fliers skirted overhead. He turned to the optio—now near at my heels—and to two of the chrome-masked mamluks. “Soldiers, take Lord Marlowe back to the shuttles and hold him there for his own safety. This is no place for a palatine.”

“I’m not a child!” Apparently under orders to obey the Legion officer, the first mamluk placed gentle hands on my arm and shoulder, turning me. The carbon weave of the wiry, too-thin fingers was hard, but I shook free. “I can speak to them! Please.” The creature closed its hands on my arm again, more forcibly this time.

“Speak to them?” Olorin repeated. “What makes you think you can get them to talk?” A deep frown creased his angular face as if the question troubled him deeply.

“I can speak to them,” I repeated, tried to torque my arm free, but the mamluk held it fast. So I jerked my arm up, elbow taking the creature in the soft place just under its chin. Its head jerked back sharply, and it bent back like a child’s punching toy, bent at the knees until it almost paralleled the ground. It made no noise, did not so much as grunt, then folded back upward in equal silence. I half sidestepped, half leaped away as the creature came to. “Just give me a chance.”

Olorin raised a hand to call off his servant. “That is not an answer.” His frown deepened, carving shadows on either side of his pointed mouth.

I looked imploringly to Bassander, who said, “We’re arguing over a non-issue right now. We can’t spare the personnel to watch Lord Marlowe. We need him secured. Lock him in a shuttle if you must.”

The mamluks had both frozen. The one I’d upset just stood there, fingers flexing as if in search of a throat. Its hood had fallen off in the scramble, revealing a coif of black nanocarbon that covered its scalp and neck and

ears, anchoring the mask to the suit. The black lenses of its eyes watched me, dead as the eyes of a doll. I shuddered. Bassander’s lips quirked in

sympathy. The mamluks were cold things, unreal, as if instead of a man I might loose a colony of twitching spiders from behind the mask.

I straightened, attempted to muster what dignity I could. “We can do

better.” I kept my eyes on the hoodless mamluk, ready for it to try . . .

something. “Wars aren’t won with soldiers, sir. Not unless you’re willing to kill every single enemy in the galaxy. Wars are fought with soldiers, but they’re won with words.” I would rue that pronouncement—the naivety of

it—and as I write it here, my heart blackens with the irony and the bitter knowledge that I was wrong. “We have to start talking to them someday.”

Both Olorin and Bassander had slightly dumb looks on their tailored faces. Earth and Emperor, they were so . . . narrow. At last the Imperial lieutenant said, “That is dangerously close to heresy, lord.”

“It is heresy,” I spat. “Are you going to report me, eh?” I rounded on Olorin. “Are you?” In my moment’s distraction the mamluk gained half a step on me, and I raised my hands in readiness. “Order the homunculus to stand down, damn it! Enough!”

Olorin hissed something in Jaddian, and his soldier froze. My face still screwed up in determination, I kept my eyes on the foreign swordmaster.

His caricature of a devil’s face glowed, touched with a wry amusement that was as unexpected as the lightning. “Better? We have to do better?”

Before I could answer, a Jaddian officer in the familiar brass armor and striped silk robes ran up. She might have been a mamluk by the styling of her uniform and the slimness of her body. But the curves of hip and breast beneath the uniform betrayed that this was no androgyn but a human

woman. In Jaddian she said, “Dom Olorin, domi,” then began speaking so quickly that I couldn’t follow.

Olorin raised a hand and in his native tongue said, “Please take your helmet off when you are speaking to me, Jinan.”

At a gesture, her chromed mask and cowl broke apart and stowed themselves, baring her head and revealing a breathless, oval-faced woman with the dark curls and olive complexion of Jadd. She glanced over at

Bassander and myself, smiled uncertainly at me, then continued her Jaddian patter, her accent so thick that I had trouble keeping up. She kept looking at me and at one point clearly asked what I was doing there. Olorin dismissed her question. There was a blue silk ribbon wound through her hair, which

was wrapped in a braid that circled her head like a crown. Though I knew it not then, her name was Jinan Azhar, and she was Sir Olorin’s second-in-

command. I waited beside Bassander, watching her speak and admiring the tallness of her.

My captain.

It is strange to think that those dear to us were at one time strangers.

Another person in a sea of faces. It is stranger still to think that we would meet them again gladly, even knowing all the pain our meeting would bring.

“What is it?” Bassander asked the instant the Jaddian officer was done. “What’s going on?” He hooked his hand over the hilt of the ceramic arming sword he wore on his left hip. “Is it the Cielcin? A report from your”—he looked over at the two mamluks standing nearby—“creatures?”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Azhar,” Olorin said. He adjusted the drape of his crimson mandyas, reached up and drew up the folds of his winged collar to better cover his slender neck. “The mamluks do not make reports,” he

corrected. “Not to me. They are haqiph.” Vile, I translated, not understanding. He said the word with no malice. “My cutting teams got into the ship. Apparently none of the xenobites are aboard.” He flashed me a pointed look as he said it.

“No Cielcin?” the optio asked, speaking for the first time. “On a ship that size?”

“There must be room for hundreds,” Bassander breathed. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would they lob an empty ship at the planet?”

I was shaking my head. “It was shot down, wasn’t it?” When no one answered, I changed tack. “Were there still Cielcin in fugue?”

“Dead,” said Lieutenant Azhar. “All dead.”

“They ejected on entry,” I said with utter certainty. “I saw blue flashes. I thought they were course corrections, but they must have been escape pods.”

“There’s no such thing as an escape pod!” Bassander exclaimed, voice high with exasperation. “There’s nowhere to escape to most of the time.”

“Shuttles, then!” I snapped back.

Olorin shook his head. “We would have detected them, surely.”

“Are you so sure? The first Cielcin incursion in-system was destroyed out in the heliopause. This second one made it all the way here, and no one noticed. Don’t you have a fleet parked up there alongside the Obdurate?” Sir Olorin shifted his weight from foot to foot, unbalanced. I snapped my fingers, pointed at him. “It’s possible, then?” I knew next to nothing of

astrogation or orbital military tactics, but it was only logical.

Bassander scratched vigorously at his wild scrub of hair. “Blue flashes, you say?” I answered in the affirmative, and the lieutenant chewed the inside of his cheek. Then he swore furiously. Olorin and I exchanged glances as Bassander whirled around. It took the young lieutenant a moment to compose himself, and when he turned back his normally

pleasant expression had reasserted itself, though tinged with something like pain. “Where would they go?”

I smiled, knowing I was about to have my way. “There’s only one place they could go.”

 

 

It took the better part of an hour to find the Cielcin shuttle, a dark, scarab-like thing large as a city bus. It gave off no thermals, nor could it be found by radar. Some sort of cloaking field. I let Bassander’s explanation roll off me. That wasn’t why I was there.

The tunnel opening in the earth was one of the ventilation shafts that pierced the stonelands, half staved in by the passing of nigh on a million years, reaching down by feet and fathoms to join the labyrinthine complex of Calagah below. The Quiet, apparently, had needed to breathe, or else the shafts served some other function. They were few, some deep enough that falling into them would kill a man, others safe enough to jump down. This one was of the former variety, and so we lost time belaying four decades of soldiers down into the tunnels. I might have argued against such a tactic,

citing the close quarters and how difficult it was to move in the Quiet’s narrow tunnels, but Olorin had seen the labyrinth before and would not hear a word of it.

I was among the last down, unarmed and unarmored—save my shield. With a deliberate click I activated the energy curtain of that shield, felt the static tingle as my hairs all stood on end. Briefly the light bent through the Royse field as it established, twisting the faintly trapezoidal hall in my vision.

“Which way, Marlowe?” asked Lieutenant Lin, omitting my title.

The air below the surface was still, contrasting with the surface winds. We had descended into one of the round intersection chambers and stood at the center of five diverging paths. I was not sure where we were. One tunnel looked much like another, and these interstices were but subtly different. At last I shrugged. “We’re high up, well above the main chambers. I say we head down.” I pointed at two of the passages, each bending visibly downward into the dark.

“Which one?” Bassander asked. In the dimness his ivory-white armor nearly glowed, the red double stripe of his rank the color of dried blood

where it ran down his arm.

“Have we got the men for both? There can’t have been more than a dozen Cielcin on that shuttle.”

Sir Olorin nodded. “We shall be taking the one on the right, Lieutenant.” “Very well.” Bassander relayed the instructions with a series of curt

overhead gestures. His soldiers immediately pulled apart from the Jaddian mamluks and their few officers, forming into a column and filing into the hall. Each man held a phase disruptor handgun, the vertical slits at one end glowing red to indicate they were set to kill. They moved off quietly as they could toward the mouth of the tunnel as Bassander said, “I’ll take

Marlowe.”

Olorin shook his head. “No need. I shall keep watch on the amralino, my friend.” I clamped my jaw shut, suppressing the desire to object. I’d dug myself into this mess, after all, so I allowed myself to be led off.

The mamluks moved more quietly than the legionnaires, and they did so entirely without the suit lights the Imperial soldiers used to see. Olorin himself seemed untroubled by the darkness, so I half stumbled my way into the depths, following the tunnel in an arcing spiral down and to the left.

When I stumbled a third time, someone seized me by the forearm and frog-marched me deeper. At first I believed it was one of the homunculus

soldiers, but the breathing sound in my ears was ever so slightly ragged.

Human, then—proper human. One of the lieutenants, I decided. Perhaps the woman I had seen earlier, Lieutenant Azhar. I felt exposed in that armored company. Raw. Like a nerve. Earth and Emperor, what had I gotten myself into?

The air opened up around us. We’d entered some chamber, and the faint sounds of footfalls vanished now instead of rebounding upon us. We

stopped, or at least my guide stopped. “Light,” I whispered. “We need light.”

A female voice sounded in my ear, muffled and close, thickly accented. “We can see.”

“They can see better.”

“If they’re here,” Olorin replied in a stage whisper. “Be silent.”

Something heavy slammed the stone behind me, and I whirled just in time to see a flash of golden light in the darkness, reflected by my guide’s shield. One of the mamluks had been flattened, and something massive

squatted atop it, dark against the glittering blackness of the stone floor. That

image clung to my brain, sharper than the sound of the mamluk’s neck snapping.

The shouts of stunner fire illuminated the beast like lightning. Its armor repelled the stunner blasts effortlessly, and it whirled, nine feet of pale muscle in flanged polycarbon, face like the white skull of Death, eyes like rotted sockets, teeth like a bank of glass knives. Was that blood on its mouth? I stumbled back, and Lieutenant Azhar threw herself between me and the creature. Flashes came from my right, and turning I saw two more Cielcin sprinting through the darkness, growing closer with each flash. I needed a blade, a gun. Anything. My kingdom for a horse, I thought, and my addled brain cackled with the absurdity. Keep it together. Keep it together.

I scrambled back, heard Olorin cry out in Jaddian, “Stun them! Stun them!”

A stun bolt took the bloody-mouthed creature in the face, and it

staggered, losing stride, but did not fall. In the phosphorescent afterglow of so many stun pulses, the Cielcin’s hair shone: a thick, white braid like Ligeia Vas’s. For a moment it was all I could see. A second stunner pulse took it in the face. A third. It went to one knee, groaning in pain. It tried to rise.

Someone screamed. A human voice—one of the lieutenants. He did not stop screaming. It rebounded off the walls and canted pillars in that echoing space until it filled the universe, high and shrill and ceaseless. If he was

saying words, I did not know them.

“Light!” I screamed, leaning on all the force and air left in me, leaning on my passable Jaddian. “Fos! Fos! Light!”

Lieutenant Azhar echoed me, and white beads blazed from the breastplates and gauntlets of all the Jaddian soldiers, mamluk and lieutenant alike. Lights blazed even on the bodies of the three dead mamluks. Four

Cielcin—for four there were—all howled and staggered, struck blind. They cast hands across their faces and fell back, fingers too long and too many, hissing like an ocean going up in steam. For a moment it was all I could do not to smile. It had worked. They had stopped.

And so I had a horrible moment to contemplate the writhing form of the screaming lieutenant, his limbs flailing, scrabbling at his chest and the ground around him, fingers finding no purchase. His shrieking was

amplified by speakers in his suit, and it filled the air and rattled the very

pillars that held up the roof of that alien place. Blood gushed from his neck through a hole chewed in the nanocarbon weave of his underlayment,

staining the orange-and-blue-striped robe he wore nearly black. Then his screaming stilled, and beneath it a wet whirring filled the air, mixed with

the groaning and hissing of the Cielcin struggling in their blindness and the cough of stunner fire.

Something emerged from the hole in the lieutenant’s neck, something wet and churning, an angry white snake with a drill bit where its mouth should be, still turning in the air. Someone swore in Jaddian as the thing

drew itself out, rising like the smoke of sacrifice into the suit-lit gloom. It drifted into the air, long as my forearm and half as wide, and flew toward the next nearest target—and fell to the ground in two smoking pieces.

Sir Olorin held his highmatter sword casually in one gloved hand, his left arm still slung though his mandyas. The blade of faintly glowing matter rippled and shifted in the air: blue as crystal, as seawater, as moonlight.

Never once fixed, the strange atoms of that blade flowed one over the other, its cutting edge fine as hydrogen.

Two of the Cielcin were down, stunned. A third crouched over the body of another mamluk, slamming its head to the ground, indifferent to the

stunner bursts. The fourth threw itself at Olorin. The Maeskolos flowed like water, like the metal of his blade, stepping in a graceful arc around the

alien, pivoting his wrist to slice neatly with his sword. He exerted so little effort, he might have been sidestepping a troublesome patron in a shop. He did not even move his left arm from its casual place in his belted robe. I

swear he shrugged as the creature ran across his blade. It stood frozen a moment, a shocked, almost confused look on its vaguely familiar face. Then its torso slid diagonally apart and spattered to the ground. The legs buckled a moment later.

“Don’t kill them all!” I shouted, taking hesitant steps toward where four of the silent mamluks struggled to restrain the Cielcin whom stunners

would not fell. “We need to talk!”

“Talk?” Olorin repeated, flicking his wrist. The bluish molecules of the rippling blade vanished, leaving a faintly bitter stink of ozone where they’d ionized the air around them.

I ignored him, walking in a wide circle round the Cielcin where it wrestled with the mamluks. I shouted, “Iukatta!” It was a word I was absolutely confident in, and so I spoke it with authority. Stop!

The shock of hearing its own language stunned the Cielcin to stillness as surely as a proper stunner would a human being. It blinked, turned its helmeted head to look my way. It cocked its head to one side, a curiously human gesture. Still in its language, I said, “Why are you here?” I repeated the question more loudly. “Tuka’ta detu ti-saem gi ne?”

No answer.

“Where are the others? How many are you?” I came to a stop just out of lunging distance of the helmeted xenobite, confident in the masked soldiers’ ability to hold it in place, though even kneeling it was taller than they were.

They held its arms pinioned, bent back in readiness to break the shoulders

should it resist. When it still did not speak, I said, “My friends here will kill you, understand?” Nothing. The helmet’s face plate was an arc of mirrored gray, utterly devoid of expression or detail. “Answer my questions, and I

swear you’ll be treated fairly.”

“Fairly!” The inhuman made a high rasping sound. I knew it was looking directly at me. “Fairly?”

“Why are you here?” I repeated. “Why come here? To this place?” I turned from side to side, taking in the cavernous space around me. “Detu ne?” Why?

The Cielcin snarled through its helmet and tried to lurch forward, only to groan as the mamluks twisted its narrow arms. “It is not for you!” This was so far from any response I’d expected that I stood there stunned, hands frozen in the act of forming a gesture as if I were a marionette in the hands of a forgetful puppeteer. This, by chance, was precisely the right thing to do, for the Cielcin said, “This is a holy place.”

“You worship the . . . the ones who built all this?” The images I had seen in my vision marched back to me: the Cielcin standing amidst the stars, their shining host overshadowed by that massive ship and the light of that murdered sun.

“It is not for you!” the Cielcin repeated.

“What is it saying?” asked Lieutenant Azhar.

I waved her off, attentions focusing entirely on the creature pinioned before me.

“What is it saying?” Olorin asked, realizing that my earlier bluster was not bluster at all.

I stayed focused on the Cielcin. Inspired, I said, “They want to hurt you.” I took a step forward, crouching beside the corpse of a mamluk long

enough to prize its phase disruptor free of its skeletal fingers. I checked that the thing was set to stun, recalling Prefect-Inspector Gin threatening Rells’s gang outside the corner store in Borosevo. I recalled also the shopkeeper I had stabbed, the dockworker whose arm I had broken. I saw Crispin bloodied on the floor and Gilliam dead at my feet. “I will.” I wasn’t sure I

could. Nasty things, phased nerve disruptors. Set high, they could carbonize every nerve cell in the body. Set low, they could cause unconsciousness—or pain.

It was not hard to figure out the antique gasket that sealed the Cielcin’s more primitive suit. As I removed the helmet, I reflected that the Chantry was not wrong: the Cielcin were so beneath us in so many ways. It was their tenacity, their sheer bloody-mindedness, that elevated them. The seal was like the sort I had seen in historical dramas about the beginnings of

spaceflight, the helmet bulky and made of common materials. No nanocarbons, no ceramic. The armor plating was proper metal, clumsy, weighty, and overdesigned.

“Marlowe . . .” Olorin interrupted. I could not read his tone, had no attention left to pay him.

Face-to-face, the Cielcin looked shrunken. It had no hair, and the crown of horns on its head was filed to rounded nubs. Its four slitted nostrils flared. “I do not fear you, yukajji-do.”

I do, I wanted to say, and I clenched my fist to keep the disruptor from shaking as I pressed it to its forehead. “Where are the others?” I asked.

“No others.” I fired.

The Cielcin rocked backward, baring teeth clear and sharp as glass in black gums. Its lips peeled back in a rictus. It was not stunned, barely dazed. The all-black eyes stayed fixed on me, unblinking. Was that scorn in their depths? Defiance?

I could not read them. My hand was shaking now. The creature saw it— they all did. “How many of you are there?” I did not wait for an answer but squeezed the trigger again, hand jouncing at the Cielcin recoiled, arms

straining painfully against the mamluks that held it fast.

“Ubimnde!” it wheezed, breath somewhat strained.

“Eleven?” I repeated, then said it again in Jaddian for the benefit of the humans in the room. “Where?” A part of me believed I could keep going, could press forward, but that part had not told my hand, which rattled the

disruptor. I squeezed off a third shot, striking the Cielcin in the face. It slumped, groaning, and I echoed my question. “Saem ne?”

I’d heard stories about people dying during interrogation, about soldiers botching the job, so unskilled were they compared to the cathars. I had

always thought those stories incredible, and yet there I was. I was glad Valka could not see me, though I felt the shame in her eyes, prayed she

never learned of that moment. I felt her contempt for violence, for me, and lowered the gun. I tried to tell myself that what I was doing was not really torture. It would recover, would not be like the cripples who lined the vomitoria of the Colosso, begging bowls in hand.

It was not like that.

The lies we tell ourselves to guard us from ourselves . . . I lowered the weapon.

“Where are they?”

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