One hundred fifty-one

One hundred fifty-one

“I think we should investigate this Ghost City, and do it with the ship and the neutrino detector,” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said.

“I’m not sure that should be our next move,” said Dr. Ransom. “I’d still like some of the gaps in Clerestory history filled--like where the Armada went, how long ago, last contact with them, and so on.”

“I’d argue that we go for the biggest mystery first,” the capybara said. “Besides, we may be the first to reach here with knowledge of a link between the Ark of Infinity and neutrino structures. Add to that the fact that it may just be following us, we could learn something to change this entire war,”

Ransom bowed his head. “You’re right. There are a lot of mysteries about the buildings of Clerestory, but this may trump them all--if we learn anything at all. We may find nothing.”

Captain Tchulik Chreste said, “Except that going to look for an invisible city may be a bit difficult. Still more for the ruins of one.”

“Well then, we get back up into our low polar orbit and turn on our ridiculously expensive weak-force neutrino detector. If we don’t see anything, we go back to our information kiosk and ask for a map,” Ransom said.

This seemed to satisfy everyone, so they rose from the breakfast table as the plates, bowls and utensils obligingly absented themselves. Jeanette, despite the constant dread that she was not getting used to, was feeling excited. If this was the home base of the Ark--or even one of its bases--it could mean connecting with its captain River Daughter, and through her, the being Change herself again.

Or it could be nothing, certainly, yes. Not being able to find an invisible city, she thought with a wry smile: what a surprise!

Shortly, they launched. Reminding herself that she was positively blasé about something that would have been the biggest of big deals not that long ago--but then, what wouldn’t be? Self cleaning breakfast table!--She sat in her cabin and watched the detailed map of the planet begin to take shape in front of her. Unfortunately, for all the activity Clerestory had been host to, most of it was still undeveloped: the no-roads thing contributed a lot to it. The data from the weak-force detector (color-coded, thank you) was only a light dusting of noise.

They were getting the full treatment, with magnetic fields and minute gravitational variations, as well as energy budget, but after four orbits, there wasn’t anything, or rather there were hundreds of areas that might be a weak-force-only concentration.

On the seventh orbit, her father’s voice came over the comm system. “We’ve got this one area where the vegetation cover is different from the land around it, and it corresponds to a subtle bump in the weak map. Can we get a close look?” A red circle appeared on the map.

“Descending now,” said the Captain’s voice.

They were in powered flight now instead of orbit, and that reduced the sensitivity of the neutrino detector, but once they got in low, little more than a kilometer, a pattern began to take shape: the plan of a city. Low, ragged cubes that could be crumbled buildings, and a cluster of broken spires in the center. Except for the height of the spires, it was closer to a town than a city, but already Jeanette’s imagination was taking over. Beautiful spires and wide avenues; buildings with pillars and arches. The ornamentation in her fancy was the decoration on the ancient Gateways. She forced herself to stop: this was definitely doing more harm than good.

They landed just outside the defined area. It was all just tall grassland, and the only real clue of the Ghost City was that the trees that grew up out of the savannah were completely absent where the city would be. They walked towards what they could not see, hear, feel, smell, touch or taste.

It struck her to use the necklace. She touched the stone that would show the greatest evil that had been done in the place. For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then there were two figures standing there, one turned away from each other. Jeanette’s unavoidable reaction was that if this was the worst, it must be a nice place indeed. Then things began further to resolve: the city, much as she’d imagined it, down to the decorations, was all around her. While the further figure remained indistinct, the closer one took shape.

With an electric shock, Jeanette recognized the closer one. Clad in black and silver, with an orchid between her breasts, it was the Goddess from her dream at the Ambremerine Station. As she stared, the dark-haired fire-lipped woman held up a black crystal and crumbled it into dust. The further figure came closer to the goddess, then stopped.

Then she looked straight at Jeanette. So you’re here. Very good, said a voice inside her head. Terrified as she had rarely been before, Jeanette’s fingers moved toward the healing jewel on the necklace. The goddess raised her hand. Don’t. If you do that, it will all have been for nothing.

Her hand dropped. A fierce pain shot through her head. When she raised her eyes again, her father and the others, were clustered around her.

“Are you all right?” Dr. Ransom said, and Jeanette nodded.

“That was very indistinct,” the Queen of Hearts said. For a second their she looked plain and even fat to Jeanette, before returning to her usual magnificence. “Just two shapes standing there. If that was the worst that happened--and who knows? Tens, hundreds of thousands of years ago?”

“Maybe,” Jeanette said. The ever-present dread seemed to rise in her. She wanted either to collapse, or run.

“Look!” said the Lieutenant, pointing upwards.

The bright blue daylight sky was now strewn with bright stars.

Then, one by one, the stars turned to meteoric streaks, as the stations around Clerestory fell burning into the atmosphere.


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