Authors: S.M. Stirling
IN THE COURTS OF THE
Tor Books by S. M. Stirling
The Sky People
In the Courts of the Crimson Kings
S. M. Stirling
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS
Copyright © 2008 by S. M. Stirling
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
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is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Stirling, S. M.
In the courts of the crimson kings / S.M. Stirling.—1st ed.
“A Tom Doherty Associates book.”
1. Mars (Planet)—Fiction. 2. Life on other planets—Fiction. I. Title.
First Edition: March 2008
Printed in the United States of America
0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
TO JAN, MY EMERALD-EYED MUSE
To Melinda Snodgrass, Daniel Abraham, Sage Walker, Emily Mah, Terry England, George R. R. Martin, Walter Jon Williams, Yvonne Coats, Sally Gwylan, Laura Mixon-Gould and Ian Tregillis of Critical Mass, for constant help and advice as the book was under construction, which enabled me to avoid some of the faults I couldn’t see. A fish can’t see water!
Thanks to Jerry Pournelle for some inside information on matters fannish . . . but he’s not to blame for the things I got wrong! And to Mike Ralls Jr. for a suggestion about the prologue.
To the Pulpsters and Golden Age writers, from the author of
Phra the Phoenician
on down, to the creators of Northwest Smith and John Carter; and to P. J. Farmer. For inspiration!
All mistakes, infelicities and errors are, of course, my own.
IN THE COURTS OF THE
World Science Fiction Convention
Labor Day, 1962
Fred sat in the suite’s bedroom and sipped his beer. A hot, muggy Midwestern early autumn day was dying outside, but he didn’t think he’d gone more than a block from the hotel since he’d arrived. It had been a wild ride of a con: Nobody wanted to talk about anything but the pictures from the Russian probe on Venus, of course. Dinosaurs and Neandertals and beautiful blond cave-princesses in fur bikinis . . . although excitement was building about what the American lander would find on Mars.
hadn’t wanted to talk about anything but the Russian probe on Venus—except what the American probe was going to find on Mars. Orbiters and telescopes over the last few years had seen what looked like structures and cities. There had been evidence as far back as Lowell’s investigations in the nineteenth century, and spectroscopes had hinted at free oxygen in the air as far back as the 1920s, but it was all a whole lot more credible after what had been
found on Venus. The entire world was holding its breath and waiting, when it wasn’t babbling.
Nineteen sixty-two: the year everything changed
But as his agent had told him, the publishers weren’t going to pay
to burble, and he had his rent to pay and groceries to buy regardless of whether or not Mars turned out to have intelligent life. Plus, fiction of his sort was going to get a lot more difficult; it had already, in fact. Extrasolar stuff, that was the ticket . . . From now on, books set on Mars and Venus were going to be a variety of . . .
, he thought.
They’ll be like Westerns—like the penny dreadfuls they wrote while the Old West was still going on
He’d heard somewhere that Kit Carson had read dime novels about his own supposed adventures while he was
a scout and Indian fighter out in the Rockies. And Buffalo Bill had been taking his Wild West show around Europe before the last Indian wars had been fought.
And our astronauts—no, our planetary explorers—will be reading about themselves while they do it; probably watching movies and TV about themselves while they do it. Louis L’Amour and James Michener will horn in on our territory. I don’t think the president meant “New Frontier” quite so literally, but that’s the way it’s turning out
“Come on, Fred, Carol! They’re about to switch from the talking heads to the real pictures!”
He picked up his Tuborg—Poul had brought in a case, saying that the occasion required actual beer, rather than Schlitz—and they walked through into the lounge of the suite. It was crowded, but virtually none of the fans were there. Not today, though that young friend of Beam’s was off in a corner, the one doing surveys of the writers for Boeing and the Pentagon.
Someone kicked over a footstool, and he sank his long, lanky frame down on it; Ted had the seat in the middle, right in front, but then he was Guest of Honor. There was an awesome amount of talent in the room now, all the way from Jack—who’d sold his first story to Gernsback in the ’20s, for God’s sake!—through the Big Bull Gorillas like Bob and Arthur to the postwar crowd of Young Turks like him and Poul and first-timers like young Larry from L.A.
“Amazing we’ve gone from the first satellite to this in only a little
over ten years,” Isaac said, looking like a balding Jewish leprechaun as he grinned and rubbed his hands.
“We had the incentive, once they proved Mars had an oxygen atmosphere back in ’forty-seven,” Bob replied. “That’s why we had von Braun hard at work from the day we caught him, and the Russkis were slave-driving
Krauts, too. Without that to push us, we might still be waiting for the first manned mission to orbit, or even the first satellite.”
Then, softly: “But we do have the motive. A whole
“Two,” his redheaded wife said sharply. “We’re not going to let the Reds have Venus all to themselves, even if they did get the first probe there.”
“What’s really bloody amazing is that we’re going to watch it on TV. In color, worldwide, no less,” another writer said, in excruciatingly British tones. “Which is like Ferdinand and Isabella watching Columbus land in a newsreel at the cinema.”
“Hell, Arthur, you predicted it fifteen years ago,” Poul replied, and they all chuckled. “Or at least you predicted transmission satellites for TV.”
“Prediction is becoming less and less attractive, with actual reports from other planets expected daily. I think I’ll stick to writing historicals and time-travel from now on and leave the solar system alone,” one tall distinguished-looking man with a goatee quipped.
“You lie, Spreggie,” Catherine said crisply. “You won’t be able to resist it.”
Then all sound died; even breathing seemed hushed. The little crackle as someone sucked on a cigarette and added to the blue haze of smoke under the ceiling sounded loud. Walter Cronkite was pontificating on the screen; for once, his solemnly portentous tones matched the occasion, probably for the first time since D-day. Werner von Braun was beside him, looking like a cat with little yellow feathers stuck to his lips . . . well, a man might, when the U.S. government was giving him ten percent of its budget to play with on a lifetime basis. It might be twenty percent, after this, or more.
Fighting over Berlin is starting to look a lot less important. To both sides
Behind him, a model of the Mars Viking Lander dropped down a hypothetical trajectory and settled on long spidery legs. Half the
fans at this convention were wearing Viking helmets with horns. Poul grumbled that the horns weren’t historical. A lot of them had added little propellers on top, too.
Bob began: “You know, I had this idea for another Mars book a couple of years ago, about an orphan adopted by Martians, but then the preliminary orbital telescope reports came in and I didn’t dare—”
” someone else said. “Everyone shut up!”
The color screen flickered, showed snow. A groan started, then cut off abruptly as the picture cleared save for a few rastor lines; smoke faded away, blown by a stiff wind. Someone swore softly. The ground in front of the lander was a plain covered in low-growing reddish-green plants.
“Mars, Commie-Colored Cabbage Planet,” someone said.
That brought a brief nervous chuckle. The ground cover
look a little like splayed-open cabbages with thick waxy leaves the color of dirty rust. Here and there was a reddish-gray shrub covered in white flowers. Neither seemed to want to burn; the circular fire set by the rockets died quickly.
The vegetation rippled in the wind, and there was a haze like dust on a horizon that shaded up to a sky that was pink as much as blue. Low rocky hills showed in the distance. Between the lander and them was . . .
“It’s a canal! If only Edgar could be here!”
“Hell with Burroughs, if only
a canal; about fifteen yards wide, sweeping from left to right and then turning so that it dwindled out of sight like in a perspective drawing, curving to follow the contour of the land, for all the world like a canal in California or Arizona, except that it was covered in an arched roof of some transparent stuff so clear it was barely visible at all. The banks were reddish, man-high stone or concrete, sloping away from the interior and covered in abstract figures something like hieroglyphics, ancient and crumbling and faded.
A low black shape like a flattened turtle, about the size of a Volkswagen, crawled over the crystal roof without visible means of support, unless there was something like a snail’s foot beneath the carapace.
“Guess that settles the question of whether those structures we
saw from orbit were the product of intelligence or not,” Isaac said dryly.
“That . . . turtle, beetle, whatever it is . . . could be something like a giant social insect,” Frank said stubbornly. “Beavers build dams. That . . . whatever it is could be doing it.”
“Beavers don’t carve hieroglyphs on them and neither do ants. The hominids—well, some of them—on Venus looked awfully damned human, which means we’re not reasoning from a sample of one any more. Panspermia and parallel evolution—”