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Chapter Eighteen

Israel’s captain was in a grumpy mood.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but Israel’s crew were bright, competent, confident … and young. And, as bright, confident people are wont to do, they’d underestimated their task—which made their lack of progress enormously irritating. Still, Sean told himself with determined cheer, for people who’d found out they were approaching a populated world only in the last half hour of their flight they weren’t doing all that badly. And Sandy had said she and Harry had some good news for a change.

He lay back in the captain’s couch, studying the image from one of the stealthed remotes. They’d decided to rely on old-fashioned, line-of-sight radio, something an Imperial scan system probably wouldn’t even think to look for, rather than more readily detected fold coms to operate their remotes. That limited their operating radius, but it gave them enough reach for a fair sampling, and Sean watched a kneeling row of villagers weed their way across a field of some sort of tuber and wondered how whatever they were tending tasted.

He glanced up as Tamman arrived, completing their gathering, then turned his gaze to Sandy. She and Harriet relied heavily on Brashan’s hard-headed pragmatism to shoot down their wilder hypotheses and upon Tamman to build and maintain their surveillance systems, but the major burden of analysis was theirs, and Sean was delighted to leave them to it.

“Okay, Sandy,” he said now. “You’ve got the floor.”

She rubbed the tip of her nose for a moment, then cleared her throat.

“Let’s start with the good news: we finally have a language program of sorts.” Sean sat up straighter, and she smiled. “As I say, that’s the good news. The bad news is that without a proper philologist, we’ve had to fall back on a ‘trial and error’ approach, with predictably crude results.

“It helps that they’re literate and use movable type, but it would’ve helped more if the old alphabet had survived. Out of forty-one characters, we’ve found three that might be derived from Universal; the rest look like somebody tried to transcribe Old Norse into cuneiform. Working at night, we’ve managed to scan several printed books through our remotes, but they didn’t do us much good until about six weeks ago when Harry found this.”

The display changed to a recorded view looking down from some high vantage point on a circle of children. A bearded man in a robe of blue and gold stood at its center, holding up a picture of one of the native’s odd, bipedal saddle beasts to point at a line of jagged-edged characters beneath it.

“This,” Sandy resumed after a moment, “is a class in one of those temples of theirs. Apparently the Church believes in universal literacy, and Tam built a teeny-tiny remote for Harry to land on top of a beam so we could eavesdrop. It was maddening for the first month or so, but we set up a value substitution program in the linguistics section of Israel’s comp cent, and things started coming together early last week.”

Sean nodded, glad something had finally worked as he’d hoped it might. English was the common tongue of the Imperium and seemed likely to remain so. Its flexibility, concision, and adaptability were certainly vastly preferable to Universal! Age had ossified the language of the Fourth Imperium and Empire, and, given the availability of younger, more versatile Terran languages, the Fifth Imperium had no particular desire to speak it.

Yet all Fourth Empire computers spoke only Universal, at least until they could be reprogrammed. Worse, in some cases—like Mother’s hardwired constitutional functions—they couldn’t be reprogrammed, so all Battle Fleet personnel had to speak Universal whether they wanted to or not.

Cohanna’s Bio-Sciences Ministry had met that need with a dedicated implant, and with the enormous “piggy-back” storage molycircs made possible, Battle Fleet had decided to give its personnel all major Terran languages. That made sense in view of their diversity—and also meant each of Israel’s crewmen had a built-in “translating” software package. True, none of the languages in their implants’ memories were quite this foreign, but if Israel’s computers could cobble up a local dictionary…

“As I say, it’s still patchy, but we ought to be able to make a stab at understanding what someone says. It’s going to be another matter if we try to talk back, though. So far Harry and I have identified seven distinct dialects and what may be one minor language, and there’s no way we could mingle with the locals without a lot more work.”

“How much more?” Tamman asked.

“I can’t say, Tam—not for certain—but I’d estimate another month of input. At the moment, we can read about forty percent of the printed material we collect, and the percentage is expanding, but that’s a far cry from understanding the spoken language, much less conversing coherently. And we need more than simple coherency, unless we want to scare the natives to death.”

“Umph.” Sean frowned at the frozen image of the teacher. He’d hoped for better, but even while he’d hoped, he’d known it was unreasonable.

“In the meantime, one of our ‘borrowed’ books—an atlas—has given us a running start on figuring out the geopolitics of the planet, which, by the way, the natives call ‘Pardal.’ We can’t find the name in any of Israel’s admittedly limited records, so I suspect it’s locally evolved.

“As near as we can tell, this is what Pardal currently looks like.” The display changed to a map of Pardal’s five continents and numerous island chains. The biggest inhabited continent reminded Sean of an old-fashioned, air-foil aircraft, flying northeast towards the polar ice cap with a second, smaller land mass providing its tail assembly. “We made enough photomaps on the way in to know the atlas maps aren’t perfectly scaled, and we still can’t read all of its commentary, but it appears Pardal is split into hundreds of feudal territories.” Scarlet boundary lines flashed as she spoke. “At the moment, we’re located just inside the eastern border of this one, which is called, as nearly as I can translate it, the Kingdom of Cherist.

“Now, North Hylar—” she indicated the fuselage and wings of the “aircraft” “—seems to be the wealthiest and most heavily populated land mass. The ‘countries’ are larger and seem to contain more internal subdivisions, which suggests they may be older. It looks to us like there’s been a longer period of absorption and consolidation here, and that conclusion may be supported by the fact that our ground site is, indeed, underneath North Hylar’s largest city.” A red cursor flashed approximately dead center in North Hylar.

“South Hylar, connected to North Hylar by this isthmus down here, is less densely populated, probably because it doesn’t have much in the way of rivers—aside from this one big one out of the southern mountains—but that’s a guess. As you can see, the other two populated continents, Herdaana and Ishar, are located across a fairly wide body of water—the Seldan Sea—to the west of the Hylars. These other two continents to the east are uninhabited. As far as we can tell, the Pardalians don’t even realize they exist, and from the aerial maps, they seem to have less human-compatible vegetation. Looks like they were never terraformed—which, in turn, suggests they never were inhabited, even before the bio-weapon.

“Of the settled continents, both Hylars are extremely mountainous, and Ishar’s on the desert side. Herdaana’s much flatter and seems to be the bread basket of Pardal, and a lot of the territories in Herdaana and Ishar alike have Hylaran names prefixed by ‘gyhar,’ or ‘new,’ which probably means they were colonized—or conquered—by North Hylar. It may or may not imply a continuing relationship between those territories and their ‘mother countries’ back home. Some evidence suggests that; other evidence, particularly the small size and apparent competition between the Herdaana states, suggests otherwise, but we simply can’t read the atlas well enough to know, and the entire continent’s out of range of our remotes.”

She paused, brow wrinkled in frustration, then shrugged.

“All right, that’s the political structure, but there’s a catch, because despite all these nominally independent feudal states, the entire planet seems to be one huge theocracy. That surprised us, given Pardal’s primitive technology. I’d have thought simple communication delays would do in any planet-wide institution, but that was before we figured out what this is.”

The display changed to a tall, gantry-like structure with two massive, pivoted arms, and she shook her head almost admiringly.

“That, gentlemen, is a semaphore tower. They’ve got chains of them across most of the planet. Not all; they’d need ships to reach Herdaana and Ishar, and given the mountains on the isthmus, they probably send over-water couriers to South Hylar, too. It’s a daylight-only system, but it still means they can send messages a whole lot faster than we’d suspected.”

“Ingenious,” Sean murmured.

“Exactly. Obviously we’re still guessing, but it looks like the Church deliberately keeps political power decentralized, and control of the communications net would give them a heck of a tactical edge. I’d say they push it to the max; when the Church says jump, it’s a good bet the local prince only asks how high. In addition to the semaphore towers, every town—and most of the villages—in range of our remotes contains at least one Church complex. Some larger towns have dozens, and they do a lot of business. Our reading class is only a tiny part of it.

“More to the point, our power-source city is where the semaphore chains converge—the Pardalian equivalent of the Vatican. In fact, the entire city is simply called ‘The Temple,’ and as far as we can tell, it’s ruled by the high priest as both secular and temporal lord. Interestingly enough, the title of said high priest appears to be eurokat a’demostano.” Sean looked up sharply, and she nodded. “Even allowing for several millennia of erosion, that sounds too much like eurokath adthad diamostanu to be a coincidence.”

” ‘Port Admiral,’ ” Sean translated softly, frowning at the city’s light dot. “You think the Church is tied directly to the quarantine system?”

“Probably,” Harriet answered for Sandy. “The Temple’s site certainly suggests it, especially given this ‘port admiral’ priestly title. And if they have, in fact, preserved any access to the computer running the system, it’d have to be purely vocal; there can’t be anyone out there with neural feeds. If they’re running it on some sort of rote basis, that might explain why the system seemed so slow and clumsy when it attacked us; they literally didn’t know what they were doing. On the other hand, if they do have voice access, think what it might mean for a religion. It’d be like the very voice of God.”

“Which might help explain the Church’s authority,” Sean mused aloud.

“Exactly,” Sandy said, “though we’ve turned up a few suggestions that the Church’s current political power is a relatively recent innovation. And it might also explain how they could have contact with high-tech without realizing it was technology. It isn’t a machine; it’s ‘God.’ ”

“Which,” Tamman observed sourly, “doesn’t help us out at all, Sean. Not in terms of getting hold of the computer, I mean. If it’s their holy of holies, access is going to be limited, I’d think—unless we want to shoot our way into neural feed range, anyway.”

“We’re a long way from crossing that bridge yet, Tam. Anyway, I’d prefer to do a personal recon on the ground before we make any plans.”

“Perhaps,” Brashan said, “but I fear you’ll have a problem there.” He changed the display image to a closeup from one of their approach opticals. “Observe a typical citizen of the Temple.”

“Oy vey!” Sean sighed, and Sandy laughed at his disgusted tone. The image was far from clear, but the individual in it was perhaps a hundred and fifty centimeters tall, red-haired and blue-eyed—the complete antithesis of any of Israel’s human crew.

“Indeed,” Brashan replied. “Obviously, I could never pass as anything other than an alien, but I fear the same is true of all of you in the Temple.”

“Not necessarily,” Sandy said, and Sean brightened as the image changed again. This time the man standing before him had dark hair. His eyes were brown, not the black of the old Imperial Race—or of Sean or Harriet, for that matter—but the newcomer stood just over a hundred seventy centimeters, far short of Sean’s own towering height but getting closer.

“This,” Sandy continued, “is a citizen of something called the Princedom of Malagor. It’s one of the bigger national units—a bit larger, in fact, than the Kingdom of Aris, which contains the Temple—and it’s just over the Cherist border from us. We’ve been watching it through our remotes, and I’d say the Malagorans are an independent sort. Malagor’s very mountainous, even for North Hylar, and these seem to be typical, stiff-necked mountaineers, without a lot of nobles. Their hereditary ruler’s limited to the title of ‘prince,’ and I’d guess there’s a lot of local government, but that doesn’t make them stay-at-homes. There’s an historical maps section in our atlas, and there’ve been lots of battles in the Duchy of Keldark, which lies between Malagor and Aris. It looks like Malagor and Aris were probably political rivals and Aris came out on top because of the Temple.”

“Not so good,” Sean muttered. “If there’s a tradition of hostility, trying to pass as Malagorans wouldn’t exactly get us a red carpet in Aris.”

“Perhaps not,” Brashan said, “but consider: the Temple is the center of a world religion.”

“Oho! Pilgrims!”

“Maybe, but let’s not get carried away, Sean,” Sandy cautioned. “Remember all of this is still guesswork.”

“Understood. Can you bring your map back up?”

Sandy obliged, and Sean frowned as he stared at it. Israel lay hidden in the spine of the westernmost of North Hylar’s major mountain ranges, while Aris lay to the east of an even higher range. Malagor occupied a rough, tumbled plateau between the two before they merged to form the craggy spine of the isthmus into South Hylar.

“I wish we had a line of sight to run remotes into the Temple,” he muttered.

“Perhaps,” Brashan replied. “On the other hand, our position puts the mountains between us and any surveillance systems the Temple might boast.”

“True, true.” Sean shook himself. “All right, Sandy. It looks to me like you guys are doing good. I’m impressed. But—”

“But what’ve we done for you lately?” She smiled, and he grinned back.

“More or less. We need to refine your data a lot before we poke our noses out. Would it help if we took a stealthed cutter over closer to the Temple and ran some additional remotes in on it?”

“Maybe.” Sandy considered, then shook her head. “Nope, not yet. We’re already pulling in more data than we can integrate, and I’d rather not risk running afoul of any on-site detection systems until we know more.”

“Makes sense to me,” Sean agreed. “That about it for now, then?”

“I’m afraid so. We’ve spotted a Church library in one of the towns just west of here, and Tam and I are going to run in a couple of remotes tonight. Harry and I may be able to develop something out of that.”

* * * | Heirs of Empire | * * *