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Banner of Souls

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Banner of Souls

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Author: Liz Williams
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2004
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Slipstream
Soft SF
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Synopsis

Journey into a strange future fueled by haunt-tech: a technology which works by harnessing energy from of the realm of the dead. But who are the mysterious race known as the Kami who brought haunt-tech to earth? Saviors from another world, or something else entirely? And how does the child named Lunae who can manipulate time with a thought fit into the puzzle? It is up to the Martian warrior Dreams-of-War to answer these questions before life as she knows it comes to an end.


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Mars

Dreams-of-War was hunting the remnants of men on the slopes of the Martian Olympus when she came across the herd of ghosts. The armor bristled at the approach of the herd, whispering caution into her ear, and at first Dreams-of-War thought that it was warning her against the presence of men--hyenae, perhaps, or vulpen, or others of the Changed. She wheeled around, activating the hand-spines of the armor, but there was nothing there. The cold, tawny slopes rolled into the distance, empty of everything except scrub and the sparse desert life that congregated around the canals and sinks. Far on the horizon, the column of Memnos Tower pointed upward, just visible now against a darkening sky. Dreams-of-War frowned. The armor remained alert, porcupine spikes forming and reforming as she moved.

"What?" Dreams-of-War said aloud, impatiently.

"There is someone here," the armor said. Sometimes it spoke with the voice of the warrior who had first imprinted it, but sometimes the voice sounded more akin to that of Dreams-of-War herself. That was the trouble with haunt-tech; one was never sure whether one was imagining things. But perhaps one could expect no less from something that had been granted by aliens.

"I see no one," Dreams-of-War said.

"Yet someone is here," the armor insisted.

And now Dreams-of-War could, indeed, feel something: an irritation over her guarded skin, like an insect crawl. She flinched within the protective carapace.

"Look," the armor said.

They were rising out of the ground, formed from dust and solidifying soil, then sharp-edged and real. There were perhaps twenty or so: women with long horns and backward-slanting legs, but they stood vertically. Their eyes were red, with narrow pupils that burned gold--a flame within coals. They gazed at Dreams-of-War with a kind of placid curiosity, despite their demon eyes, switching long tapering tails.

Dreams-of-War stood in frozen shock. They were more than illusion. She could smell them: the scent of long-dead grasslands, woodsmoke, and blood. They smelled like prey. And as if they had seen the thought in her eyes, the herd turned as one and began to run, loping swiftly along the slope until they were swallowed by the gathering twilight. Their small hooves made no sound. They moved in silence, and then were gone.

Dreams-of-War stared after them, feeling foolish. She should at least have made an attempt to capture one of them.

She said aloud, "There have not been such beings on Mars since ancient times. I have seen the records. They roamed the Crater Plain. No one knows who created them, what laboratory, or why."

"They were long dead by my day," the armor--itself a hundred years old--remarked with a trace of wistfulness.

"Thousand-year-old ghosts," Dreams-of-War mused. "But why have they appeared now? I suppose Memnos must be told. We should go back." She spoke with reluctance. She disliked setting out on a hunt and returning empty-handed, and this would be her last opportunity. Soon she would be headed for Earth, which now shone above her in the heavens, blue as an eye. The maw of the Chain was also visible: a faint glitter high above the surface of the world. She thought of hurtling into the maw, emerging above that blue star . . . More alien tech. Dreams-of-War's lip began to curl.

The prospect of that journey, however, was superseded by the thought of the men-remnants waiting in the rocks. It irritated Dreams-of-War. She could feel it in the armor, too: a wildness, a need for killing, for flesh and death. She had spotted no real prey all day, only the ghosts and the small creatures of the plain, and she had thought that the night would provide her with a chance. The vulpen, at least, slunk out of their holes after dusk, in search of the dactylate birds that were their staple diet.

With a sigh, Dreams-of-War repressed the impulse to continue. She set off back down the long stone-strewn slope to the plain, to where the Memnos Tower was waiting.

CHAPTER 2

Nightshade

Yskatarina Iye was named for the sounds she made on her emergence from the growing-skin--first a hiss and then a cry. A daughter of the lab clans, grown in Tower Cold, on the world of Nightshade at the Chain's end and the system's edge, a very long way from the sun.

The name--her child-name, not the appellation of her Nightshade clan--proved difficult to dislodge and Yskatarina retained it into adulthood, along with the Animus that grew beside her from a hatchling no bigger than a dragonfly. The Animus, spawned from the ancient genetic lineage of the clan just as Yskatarina herself had been, possessed no name. Yskatarina tried various permutations, yet none seemed to fit.

Her aunt Elaki told her from an early age how fortunate she was to have an Animus: how women on other worlds could not be bonded with a male, for there were so few remaining, and those were inferior. She was lucky, Yskatarina knew, that the Elders of Nightshade still sought to return to the old ways, when men and women walked the worlds together, when both genders lived in harmony, each seeking their other self. And the Animus was not a human male, for they had proved too weak, but something better.

Her Animus whispered to Yskatarina as she slept, throughout the long illnesses that marked her childhood: dreamfevers, feral malaises, and the modified infestations that would enable her not only to suffer the transformation when the time came, but to welcome it. She spent the endless dark of Nightshade with the Animus crouched beside the cot like a murmuring spider, spinning webs of words.

Transformation nearly killed her. It had been explained to her by her aunt that it would make her stronger, but she did not understand what "transformation" meant.

"What am I to be transformed into?" she had asked Elaki. But her aunt replied only, "You will see."

When the time came, Yskatarina lay, a small uncomprehending form, in the sparkling dark of the blacklight matrix as the engrams rewrote her: a process of alchemical change she was powerless to resist.

The blacklight powered down into a gleaming cube of air. Yskatarina blinked, waking. It felt as though she had been wrenched across a vast distance, torn through the remnants of boiling suns. There was a smell of fire and a terrible heaviness, a weight. She tried to raise her head, but it felt too large for her fragile neck. Someone bent over her. Yskatarina looked up, but it was several moments before the strange shape floating before her congealed into human features.

She saw a long face, cheeks puffed out into veined pouches on either side of a thin, hooked nose. The skin was unlined, unnaturally smooth and shiny as porcelain. The eyes were set in deep hollows, filled with bloodshot gold. The hair was feathery: dirty-black, coiling in wispy tendrils from beneath the high hat.

Then, Yskatarina's vision shifted and she realized that it was her aunt Elaki peering down at her. Yet for a moment it seemed that there was someone else looking out from Elaki's eyes, someone who cried out in horror.

"You!" Elaki shrieked.

"Aunt?" Her own voice sounded faint, a thin croaking. Elaki reached down and shook her.

"It's you, isn't it? I'd know you anywhere."

"Aunt, what is wrong?" Something squirmed inside Yskatarina's head, running in turn from Elaki's anger, tunneling down to hide in the deep channels of her mind.

Elaki's face became thoughtful and cold, as if a crucial decision had been reached. She turned on her heel and spoke to someone unseen, probably the Animus Isti, who followed always at her heels.

"Prepare the matrix once more. There are some further modifications to be made."

Darkness swept over Yskatarina like a wing. There was a tearing, rending sensation, a lightning bolt through her brain. It felt as though she were being split in two, and the pain sent her squealing down into the abyss.

She did not wake for a long time. At last, swimming up through unconsciousness, she found herself no longer in the blacklight chamber, but in her own room. Her head felt like a great hot bag, too heavy to lift. She put up a hand to feel her brow, but nothing happened. Alarmed, Yskatarina tried to move her arms and legs. There was no sensation at all. She cried out for Elaki.

"Ah! You're awake," her aunt said, bustling in.

"I can't feel my arms, or my legs!"

Elaki placed a clammy hand on Yskatarina's forehead. "I fear that is because they are no longer there. You suffered a rare meningeal infection after the transformation process, and your limbs were damaged by gangrene. We were forced to remove them."

"Aunt?" Yskatarina whispered, in fright and shock.

"We will make new limbs for you," Elaki promised. Her face softened, almost imperceptibly, but there was something behind her eyes that alarmed Yskatarina beyond measure. "Better ones. So do not make such a fuss."

When Elaki left, Yskatarina stared numbly up to find the Animus above her, in chrysalis form. She reached out for him, before she remembered. He hung in a motionless silver-black shape from the ceiling of the laboratory, depending from a piece of growing bone. After her own experiences, Yskatarina did not expect the Animus to emerge alive, but emerge he did, gliding from the tinsel wreckage of the chrysalis: arachnid, escorpionate, baleful.

Yskatarina knew then that there was nothing she would not do to keep the Animus beside her. Hadn't they always been together? And after the dreadful experience of transformation, the Animus was the only being on which she could rely.

There was another change, too. Before, Yskatarina had been afraid of her aunt: dreading the touch of Elaki's pale, plump hands, hating the way her aunt's great eyes would gaze at her with such chilly calculation. But after the transformation, she also became aware of how much she truly loved Elaki. The feeling overwhelmed her. She sat shivering on the cot, filled with longing, and when Elaki next came to see her, she threw her new arms around her aunt's shrouded form. Elaki pushed her away, wincing.

"You must learn to operate your limbs with more care, Yskatarina. The servomechanisms are powerful."

"Thank you, Aunt. Thank you." But she could not have said what she was thanking Elaki for. It occurred to her, vaguely, that this should have bothered her, but somehow she dismissed it.

When she was well enough to venture forth, Yskatarina and the Animus wandered together through the shadowy passageways of Tower Cold. They learned the secret ways between the walls; they slipped past hidden chambers as Yskatarina's artificial feet crunched and crackled on the thousand-year-old bones of mice. Concealed behind living tapestries, they watched as the Steersmen Skull-Faces bottled up the canopic jars and dispatched them into the boats that would carry them to the gates, there to be launched upon the Night Sea for their endless journey. They traveled down to the depths, where the mute-kin slaved on the production lines, assembling haunt-devices. They sat for hours above the docking bays as the service ships headed out toward the Chain. They scuttled through the Weighing Chamber, while the mourn-women sang the ancient songs, conjuring--so they said--the spirits of the future dead, untied from the rivers of time. But Yskatarina did not understand what they meant by that, and when she asked her aunt, Elaki only laughed and said that the mourn-women were filled with superstitions and nonsense. The only places Yskatarina and the Animus did not go were the haunt-laboratories of Tower Cold, sealed behind horrifying weir-wards, open only to Elaki.

And it was the Animus who learned with Yskatarina, upon the eve of her nineteenth birthday, that it was to be her task to seek out one girl from the teeming billions of Earth and Mars and the inner worlds. To seek her out and slay her.

CHAPTER 3

Mars

Two days before her departure for Earth, Dreams-of-War left the Memnos Tower and made a short journey across the Crater Plain to Winterstrike, in order to register her departure documents, undergo a necessary modification, and take a medical assessment for her suitability to withstand the temporal forces of the Chain. This last was merely a formality; Dreams-of-War was in excellent physical shape. She knew, however, that at least once a week some luckless passenger was found shriveled and wizened at the end of a voyage, ruthlessly aged by the forces that governed travel within the confines of the Chain.

It was, after all, a form of haunt-tech, and thus little understood except by the technicians of Nightshade and presumably by the Kami who had given it to them. It was alien and could not be trusted, at least if you were Dreams-of-War. The only piece of haunt-tech with which she was prepared to deal was the armor, and that only because its previous occupant had been such a great warrior. And while Dreams-of-War trusted the armor's spirit, it still occurred to her to wonder whether this was wise.

She further distrusted the prospect of the modification that she was about to undergo--more alien tech--and she did not care much for Winterstrike, either. The city was ancient, dating back before even the Lost Epoch. Its black-and-crimson mansions and narrow streets were a testament to its age: basalt, iron, stone--old materials for an old city. The more recent buildings rose up around the edges, etched metal towers and turrets connected by hanging bridges.

Dreams-of-War took a rider, crammed with standing passengers, in through the southern gate of the city, past the clan holdings and mansions, and finally past the sunken fortress of the meteorite crater that had given Winterstrike its name. She looked neither right nor left, though when the rider rumbled by the great lip of the crater, her head involuntarily turned and she gazed into the pit: a caldera of garnet stone, pockmarked with holes and rifts. The fortress rose up at its center, a place of shattered spires, half-ruin, half-home to the city's dispossessed, of which there were many.

The fortress was a grim place, but better this, thought Dreams-of-War, than the Crater Plain and the mountains. There, the ordinary women who were not warriors would not fare well against the men-remnants: the hyenae and vulpen and awts. Better they remain here, living off the verminous birds that infested the pits of the crater wall.

The fortress passed by; Dreams-of-War once more stared ahead. This long, winding street, fringed with engine shops and child-supply emporia, was the road to the spaceport. She would be coming this way again tomorrow, in the cold early light, to take a ship for the Chain and Earth: the city known as Fragrant Harbor. She had been told little enough about her mission. There was a child, it seemed, and the need to guard her.

Dreams-of-War had done her best to find out more, by devious routes she disliked pursuing, but she had failed. This in itself was disquieting. Memnos only bothered to keep closemouthed about those secrets that were a danger to the bearer, and they had seen fit to tell her nothing. Thoughtfully, Dreams-of-War jostled her way to the front of the rider as it approached the next stop, and stepped down onto the street.

Copyright © 2004 by Liz Williams


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