My new book, Champion of Mars, is out in the UK today. I’m excited about this one, as the story the book grew from has always been close to my heart. An epic tale spanning hundreds of centuries, Champion of Mars takes in the near future, the far future, and the times in between.
And, here’s an extract! This is “The Last War of Tsu Keng”, one of the bridging chapters that, through the course of the book, bring the stories of the far future and the near future closer and closer together.
The Last War of Tsu Keng
Year 15,105 of the Hegemony of Man
The ships sang for joy as their pilots approached, eager to be free of their hangar.
The cavernous eyrie of the Royal Dock vibrated with energy, men and sheathed spirits running to and fro, support automata refuelling the machines and loading them with projectiles. The scramble alarm chimed its carillon, a calm exhortation to battle. Light dazzled, caught on a million facets of crystal and metals. The Royal Dock was a wonderful display of the decorative arts; that, and power.
Tsu Keng’s principle eyes were poor at such close quarters. He saw the furthest ships clearly: slender, killing darts a kilometre distant. They would appear distorted to a human’s perception, for Tsu Keng’s field of vision extended all around him; everything nearer to him was a smear of colour and movement.
But he could feel his pilot, the ripple of his approach cutting through the Second World as he walked toward the ship. He walked Tsu Keng’s gangway and presented himself at the ship’s main port. Krashtar Vo came into sharp focus as he came close to Tsu Keng’s near-sight eyes around the door. Behind him floated the spirit form of his companion, Kybele, ethereal against the tumult of preparations for war.
Tsu Keng saw the pilot in both worlds: as he was now, a Martian bred for the rigours of combat space flight – squat, heavy featured, dense bones, thick muscle, internal organs protected by fluid sacs and strengthened by encysted smart gels – and as he was in the Library, a flickering mass of faces, of histories, one laid over the other, a line of personalities stretching back to the dawn of this era. Permissions and activation whispers swarmed from Krashtar Vo, to interface with the ship’s own Second World self. Tsu Keng’s soul was different, monolithic. Not for him the psyche-clouds of the human Martians, or the choirs of the spirits, whose co-operative subminds made up a greater whole. Tsu Keng’s material and psychic self were indivisible. He was made for one purpose, and desirous only to serve that purpose.
Tsu Keng lived to fly, nothing but to fly.
His systems thrummed in anticipation of it.
“Greetings, Tsu Keng.”
“Greetings, Krashtar Vo. Welcome aboard, my pilot.”
Tsu Keng’s door skin developed a seam and rippled apart, and Krashtar Vo stepped inside. The gangway and door deliquesced, and Tsu Keng drew their lead-grey substance back into his larger mass. His door eyes rolled backward, their eyelids closed, and these too retracted into his body. The portal became smooth skin. His epidermal layer shivered, and a pattern of scales rippled, diamond plates lifting sharp edges up and then lying flat as Tsu Keng activated his armour. The atomic structure of his hide interlocked and became rigid, pressurising the liquid and ablative layers below it.
Krashtar Vo’s feet made only a padding sound as he waddled through the ship. He was heavily adapted for his role, and could lead a comfortable life neither upon the surface of Mars nor within a microgravity environment. It was said some of the pilots enjoyed the deep habitats within the atmospheres of the gas giants, but they seldom stayed there long; the call of deep space was too great. A sacrifice, this modification, some of the humans held.
What do they know? Krashtar spoke mind to mind. He had been a pilot only a few years, but already his bond with Tsu Keng was such that they could achieve interface without the aid of machine or spirit. No price is too great for this.
Tsu Keng thought this true. He had no conception that it could be otherwise.
Krashtar Vo gained the command bridge; he slipped into his couch and lay back. Tsu Keng wrapped himself about the pilot. Krashtar Vo’s body was hardened to the perils of slip space, and so required no stasis field, but Tsu Keng held him tight nevertheless.
There was a sensation like a kiss, and their minds ran one into the other. Tsu Keng felt a caress, and the man’s companion departed. They were lovers, it was said, Krashtar Vo and Kybele, and had been through many lifetimes. Unusual, a man and his companion to be actively engaged in an affair of the heart, or so Tsu Keng had been told. This also, Tsu Keng did not truly understand, not even when he and Krashtar Vo were one.
A call echoed through the canyon; one note, long and low, the song of the squadron alpha leader. The other ships responded, and the hangar became a sounding chamber for a harmonious outpouring of emotion.
We are ready, the ships and their pilots thought as one. We will fly.
The cradle arms holding the alpha ship folded back, and the ship dropped from the racks, plummeting to the floor. Gravity engines came alive, and it sped toward the dock mouth and out into sunlight.
Follow, it thought. The beta ships dropped – one, two, three. Then all the ships rained down, like oak leaves in autumn. They twisted around one another, a cacophony of hooting song sounding in both worlds, the electomagnetic spectrum crowded with their delight.
Tsu Keng and his squadron mates jockeyed for position, not breaking formation, not quite. Below them on the floor of the Royal Dock, men and machines moved painfully slowly, as slow as unphased Stone Kin. Tsu Keng and his kin laughed at them, fighting the desire to engage their slip drives there and then.
Not here, not now, said Krashtar Vo. Not safe.
The ships tumbled out of the hangar mouth into the Marrin, great bats leaving their roost. Sunlight turned their grey skins silver, and when they passed through the broad beams of the mirror suns, the scales of their armour sparkled iridescence.
Onward, upward! To war! To war! the alpha sang. Five hundred combat ships obeyed, falling into formation. Their shadows raced up and over the canyon bluffs, drawing excited gestures from onlookers below. In the Second World, companion spirits mobbed the souls of the ships and their pilots, wishing them well, good hunting, come home. Air roared against Tsu Keng’s skin, his sharp prow forcing it aside.
Oh, to be a ship of war! they sang. Oh, to be in flight!
Sky turned from caramel to blue to purple to black, the ship’s song became thin and then vanished into vacuum, heard only now in the Second World.
Stars shone unhindered upon the raiment of infinity. They were not alone. The heavens blazed with shiplight, bright dots moving swiftly, vessels the size of countries diminished by distance to needle-tips. Thousands upon thousands of them filled the sky in long trains, rising from Earth, Venus, and Mars, from the habitats, from the belt, from the moons of the giants, heading away from the Solar system, heading out for the stars and for safety.
The greater part of mankind was in flight.
Out from the warships, past the crescent of Mars, a great light burned, one that appeared foul and wrong to the eyes of the ships, a second sun in place of Jupiter.
The Stone Sun, brighter now than the tear in the sky it would close. The hyper-dimensional object Jupiter was becoming would constrain the Stone Kin within the gravity well of Sul, seal the tear in reality and keep the Stone Kin from infecting the wider universe. Sulian ships swarmed about the transmogrified gas giant, the fruit of Man’s last great labour, working without pause to ignite this second, uncanny star and save mankind.
It was here the Martian ships flew. This is where the Stone Kin concentrated their efforts. The craft of the kin descended to the lower dimensions and assailed the construction fleet daily, for they, like Man, wished to be free. This was but the latest of a thousand skirmishes.
To the fight, my brothers! called the alpha ship. To the battle!
Tsu Keng’s wings unfurled, as did those of his brothers and sisters. Their unity of purpose and mind saw them all drop up from this world, their wings folding them into complex eleven-dimensional geometries where the wills of the pilots could more effectively move them.
You are not here. Krashtar Vo’s inner voice, indistinguishable from Tsu Keng’s own, told him of his place in the universe, convinced him utterly that he belonged somewhere else. You are here.
Concentration was difficult. Things assailed them as they passed the Veil of Worlds into slip space, the infections of the Stone Kin spreading even there.
Screams scarred the higher reality of the Veil as ships succumbed to raking claws and incomprehensible technologies.
A short slip. Tsu Keng knew that he was elsewhere. That was the natural order of it. How could it be otherwise?
The Martian squadron materialised deep in the Jovian subsystem and into the heart of battle. Tsu Keng’s wingmate flew straight into a cloud of debris at near-luminal speed, tumbling into a million pieces. Tsu Keng’s combat wing split, the four remaining ships spiralling in evasive manoeuvres as thousands of anti-collision hardbeams vaporised the debris.
Krashtar Vo looked upon the battle through Tsu Keng’s eyes, his mind comprehending their situation as Tsu Keng bent his own mind to the task of survival. Their battlefield spanned anything up to eight spatial dimensions, only the highest and the second temporal axes safe, unsullied by violence. Combat was conducted at speeds approaching the four-dimensional maximum for objects of their mass. At such velocities, relative position at a distance was impossible to judge, so they fought at close quarters.
A dozen Terran ships fought a desperate fight with four Stone Kin vessels. The Terran ships were near-identical to those of Mars, the same in all but song. Their armour was scarred and their movements panicked. The Stone Kin craft – if they were craft, none had ever been captured, and no crew ever seen – warped and flexed. Their presence was an intrusion into three dimensional space, and their forms were not fixed. It was as if they rotated in their own space, presenting first this aspect of themselves to the lower dimensions, then that, where they could be understood only as disparate parts. The spirits and humans of ordinary spacetime perceived them no more clearly than blind men describing an elephant. Beams of exotic particles erupted unpredictably from their surfaces. Their effusion and potency defied analysis. Eleutheremics could not predict them. They might impact upon a ship with less effect than a ray of moonlight, or they could cut it in two.
The alpha ship severed the fleet’s higher linkages, lest the Stone Kin infiltrate the ship’s cortices. Training, experience, and force of will would determine the outcome of the day.
The Stone Kin shattered two more of the Terran ships to glittering clouds, and bright fire roiled and died in the vacuum. The remaining Terran craft fell back, joining with the Martian fleet. The ships greeted each other with long songs, broadcast on inter-ship ranges, but they were muted. The Terran ships were exhausted and afraid.
Today they could all die. They were poorly matched against the Stone Kin, no matter how many Sulian craft crowded the sky. The Stone Kin’s power was ineffable.
Survival did not matter, not to Tsu Keng. He and his fellow ships found the Terrans’ fear contemptible. To fly, that was all. To fight, that was what was demanded. He had no fear, he would fly, he would fight. Death was immaterial.
The Martian fleet surged forward. They ducked and arced like dolphins as their engines pushed at the fabric of space.
The Stone Kin revolved their incomprehensible bodies to face this new threat. Beams jagged out from them, all targeted unerringly on the alpha craft. Beams of infinite colouring intersected on the space where the alpha swam. Too late, its pilot attempted to exert her will and force the ship elsewhere. Its wings were part unfurled as it was cut into a hundred pieces, fragments of it spinning out and impacting on those following it.
Some of the younger vessels, those with inexperienced pilots, hesitated and swerved, songs vibrating with panic. The rest hurled themselves on, diving through the lattice of beams the warping Stone Kin projected. More ships died in ecstasy, annihilated as they flew.
The Martians had lost thirty ships already.
Krashtar Vo and Tsu Keng moved themself into an attack pattern. They part-deployed their slip wings. Their remaining wingmates spiralled down after them, copying their leader’s action.
Pilot’s and ship’s shared skin prickled as slipshields came online. Krashtar Vo enforced his interpretation of events upon Tsu Keng and the craft jinked madly, moving from location to location without crossing the space in between.
Tsu Keng deployed his cannons and opened fire. Krashtar Vo extended his mind, unique organs in his brain pre-observing an infinity of outcomes. Their joined mind was capable of processing vast amounts of information at once. Self-imposed ignorance was the lever to the imposition of will.
Vo’s mind, pushed to great heights by that of Tsu Keng, observed all possible quantum outcomes exactly simultaneously, not sequentially, preventing any one state of truth being determined before the desired outcome was chosen and enacted.
Not all men could become pilots, just as not all spirits could be ships. The act of forcing one’s will onto an eleven dimensional space required a stupendous act of double-thinking, for they had to be both ignorant and aware they were doing it. Awareness that all possible outcomes existed contaminated the observance of said outcomes, reducing the number of outcomes to one, and crippling the possibility of success. Through denial, they thus preserved the undetermined state of things before the time was ripe for determination to come into effect. At the same time, they saw what they saw; the inevitability. What happened was always the only answer. The pilots of Mars were unshakeable in their conviction that they were right.
They were bred to defy fate.
All truths, however, are subjective.
Together, Tsu Keng and Krashtar Vo observed exactly where the Stone Kin would be, and fired. But the Stone Kin operated outside of time, observing their fire at precisely the same moment, their will undermining the certainty principles of the aggressor.
Even if it was inevitable it would be hit, if the target could force its own interpretation of events onto the firer, then it would miraculously avoid the shot. Always. If the ship could force its own observed interpretations on a target’s, then the opposite would occur – it would always be hit. The target would either always be hit, or always be missed, but never both, as decided by the eleutheremic arguments constructed by the duelling craft, and how well they tricked their opposite number into adopting their point of view.
Combat was a matter not of flight, then, but of sheer will.
For a few brief moments, two observable realities vied with each other for dominance. Only one held true at any one time, but both could be true at different times, and the ships, the Stone Kin and the cannon’s ordnance flickered into and out of existence, describing multiple fractured courses and positions, the universe blurring into a myriad possibilities, time spread like a rainbow. The fabric of reality groaned under the strain.
Probability was wracked by a monstrous contest of wills. Packets of energy exploded or failed ever to have existed about the weaving, poly-possible craft. The ship was, then wasn’t, then was again, its potential ruination hanging on the threads of contested interpretation.
Seventeen thousandths of a second and it was over. Tsu Keng’s fire raked over the body of the Stone Kin. Volleys from his wing mates crisscrossed the thing. For one moment its pulsations stilled and its form solidified into something ugly and squamous.
It imploded, and ceased to be.
The Martian fleet flickered through the space the alien craft had occupied, rolling and singing as they moved from one potentiality to the next. Emboldened, they assailed the remaining three Stone Kin. Many died.
The sky wept tears of light as ships left mankind’s birthplace in their millions, fleeing the tear in the sky. The harsh light of the transformed Jupiter glared at them all as they fled. The Stone Sun was one fight closer to being kindled, the Stone Kin one step closer to being trapped. Earth, Mars, Venus – the ancestral homes of Man – would be entombed with them, but the plague of the Stone Kin would go no further.
Tsu Keng did not care. Tsu Keng flew.