First Chapter Friday: Crystal Soldier

Full disclosure:  Crystal Soldier is not the first book in the Liaden Universe®, mostly because, err, it takes place in a Whole ‘Nother Universe — a universe that is not only at war, but is losing the war.

It is the first book of a duology (the second book, despite Sharon’s insistence that she would not, no never, title a book Crystal Dragon, is — Crystal Dragon), which can be read independent of the Liaden Universe® novels.

Soldier was published in 2004 by Meisha Merlin, as a single title; Baen returned it to print as part of the omnibus edition The Crystal Variation, including Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon, and Balance of Trade, available everywhere.  Or it can be purchased as an ebook from Baen ebooks, and Amazon.

A detail we have neglected to mention in our previous First Chapter Friday posts (because the first two titles were available as free ebooks) is this — if you’re kinda, sorta hooked by what you read here, but you’re still not really certain you want to commit to a whole book, Baen has on its site the first nine chapters of this (and indeed,  all of their ebooks), free for the reading.

Excerpt from Crystal Soldier, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 2004

PART ONE: SOLDIER
One
On the ground, Star 475A
Mission time: 3.5 planet days and counting

JELA CROUCHED IN the dubious shade of a boulder at the top of the rise he’d been climbing for half a day. Taller rock columns on either side glared light down at him, but at least helped keep the persistent drying wind and flying grit from his lips and face.

At the forward side of the boulder, down a considerably steeper slope than the one he’d just climbed, should be the river valley he’d been aiming to intersect ever since he’d piloted his damaged vessel to the desolate surface four days before.

Overhead and behind him the sky was going from day-blue to dusk-purple while—on that forward side of the boulder—the local sun was still a few degrees above the horizon, bright over what once had been a ragged coastline.

In theory he should be watching his back; in theory at least one of his guns should be in his hand. Instead, he used both hands to adjust his cap, and then to slip the sand-lenses off. He used them as a mirror, briefly, and confirmed that his face was not yet in danger of blistering from the sun’s rdiation or the wind’s caress.

Sighing, he replaced the lenses, and craned his head a bit to study the mica-flecked sandstone he sheltered against, and the scarring of centuries of unnatural winds and weather. The purpling sky remained clear, as it had been all day, and all the previous days—no clouds, no birds, no contrails, no aircraft, no threats save the featureless brilliance of the star; no friends, no enemy spiraling in for the kill, no sounds but the whisper of the dry, pitiless, planetary breeze.

So certain was he that he was in no danger that the rescue transponder in his pocket was broadcasting on three frequencies . . .
He sighed again. Without an enemy—or a friend—it would take a long time to die in the arid breeze.

Friends. Well, there was hope of friends, or comrades at least, for he’d drawn off the attacking enemy with a reflexive head-on counterattack that should not have worked—unless the attacking ship was actually crewed rather than autonomous. He’d fired, the enemy had fired, his mother ship had fired . . . and amid the brawl and the brangle his light-duty vessel had been holed multiple times, not with beams, but with fast moving debris.

Both the enemy and the Trident had taken high speed runs to the transition points, leaving Jela to nurse his wounded craft into orbit and then spiral down to the surface and attempt a landing, dutifully watching for the enemy he was certain was well fled.
There was no enemy here, no enemy other than a planet and a system succumbing to the same malaise that had overtaken a hundred other systems and a hundred dozen planets in this sector alone. Sheriekas!

Sheriekas. They’d been human once, at least as human as he was—and even if his genes had been selected and cultivated and arranged, he was arguably as human as anyone who didn’t bear a Batch tattoo on both arms—but they’d willfully broken away, continuing with their destructive experiments and their… constructs… while they offered up a grand promise of a future they had no intention of sharing.

They’d named themselves after their own dead planet, which they’d destroyed early on in their quest for transformation—for superiority. In their way, they were brilliant: Conquering disease after disease, adjusting body-types to planets, increasing life-spans . . . . They’d been driven to achieve perfection, he supposed, having once known a dancer who had destroyed herself in the same quest, though she hadn’t had the means to take entire star systems with her.

And the sheriekas—they achieved what his dancer had not. To hear them tell it, they were the evolved human; the perfected species. Along the way, they’d created other beings to accomplish their will and their whims. And then they’d turned their altered understanding back along the way they had come, looked on the imperfect species from which they had shaped themselves—and decided to give evolution a hand.
So they had returned from wherever it was they had gone, sowing world-eaters, robot armor, and destruction as they came . . . .

It had been a big war—the First Phase, they called it, fought well before his time—and the after-effects spread over generations. That those refusing the initial offer of sheriekas guidance had supposed they’d won the war rather than a battle meant… It meant that Jela was here, fighting a battle centuries later.. and that there was no pretense from the enemy, now, of benevolent oversight.

Jela blinked against the glare, pulling his mind back from its ramble. There was a real danger, with your Generalist, of feeding them so much info they got lost in their own thoughts, and never came out again.

He couldn’t afford that—not here. Not yet. He had time, he had duty. All he needed to do was get off this planet, back to a base and . . .
His timer shook silently against his wrist. Water.

He leaned into the warm boulder and dug into the left leg pouch, fingers counting over the sealed bulbs. Ten. That meant that there were still ten in the right leg pouch. He always drew first from the left, ever since the fight where he’d broken his right leg.

The leg ached in sympathy with the thought, as it sometimes did, and M. Jela Granthor’s Guard, Generalist, finished his water, uncurled himself, stretched, and danced several fight moves to bring up his attention level. Feeling considerably refreshed—his was a resilient Strain—he moved around the boulder, heading down.

Behind him, his shadow was flung back across a day’s walk or more as he strode across the ridge, but there was no one there to notice.

* * *

FROM ORBIT IT had seemed clear that something . . . unusual . . . had been at work on the world, and that a good deal of time and energy had been spent in this, the last of the river valleys likely to have retained life under the onslaught of meteor-storms and radiation bursts. After concluding that his vessel would not in fact leave the surface in its current state, there’d been little left to do but sit and hope—or explore the structures on either side of the river. Being a Generalist—and an M—he’d naturally opted for exploration.

Moments after stepping around the boulder and moving on his way, he realized that, somehow, he was not exactly where he thought he should be. He was not overlooking the valley that led to the tip of the former river delta, but was instead on the rim of a side valley.

Curiosity drove him to check his position against the satellite sensors—and he sighed. Gone, or down to three and all but one on the wrong side of the planet at the moment. They hadn’t had time to get the things into stationary orbits.

“Can’t triangulate without a triangle…”

The breeze took his voice along with it and rewarded him a moment later with an echo.

He laughed mirthlessly. Well, at least that ranging system worked. It was, alas, a system he’d never learned to use, though he’d been told that on certain worlds the experts could say a song across a snowy mountain range and tell, from the echoes, distance as well as the safety of an ice pack.

Ice pack. Now there was a dangerous thought! Truth was that this world used to have an ice pack, but what it had now for all its trouble were two meteor scarred polar regions and a star with so dangerously and preternaturally active a surface that it could be a candidate for a nova in a million years or so. His ship’s geologist had speculated that in the height of planetary winter—five hundred or so local days hence, when the planet was nearly a third more distant from its star—there might be enough cold to accumulate a water snow to some significant depth—say as deep as his boots—on the northern plains and cap.

Checking the magnetic compass for north he saw a nervously twittering display as the field fluctuated, and he wondered if there’d be another round of ghostly electric coronas lighting the night sky.

As he walked across the rocky ridge, anger built. Within historical record—perhaps as recently as two thousand Common Years—this world has been a candidate for open air colonization. In the meantime? In the meantime the sheriekas conceived and mounted a bombardment of the inner system, setting robots to work in the outer debris clouds and targeting both the star and this world.

Kill. Destroy. Make life, human, animal, any—already improbable enough—impossible…

The sheriekas did this wherever they could, as if life itself was anathema. Overt signs of sheriekas action were an indication that a planet or a system held something worthwhile…

And so here was Jela—perhaps the first human to set foot on the planet, perhaps the last—trying to understand what was here that so needed destroying, what was here that the sheriekas hated enough to focus their considerable destructive energies upon.

It wasn’t useful to be angry at the enemy when the enemy wasn’t to hand. He sighed, called to mind the breathing exercises and exercised, dutifully. Eventually, he was rewarded with calm, and his pace smoothed out of the inefficient angry stride to a proper soldier’s ground-eating lope.

Suddenly he walked in near darkness, then out again as the defile he’d entered widened. In time of snow or rain this would have been a dangerous place. It was as convenient a walkway as any, now that the plants were killed off or gone subsurface, now that the animals, if there had been any, were long extinct.

After some time he found himself more in the dark than otherwise, saw the start of a flickering glow in the sky to the north, and stopped his march to take stock. Underfoot was windblown silt. Soft enough to sleep on.

He ran through his ration list mentally, pulled out a night-pack, selected his water, and camped on the spot. Overhead the sky flickered green fire until well after he went to sleep.

* * *

THE FOOTING HAD become treacherous and Jela half-regretted his decision to travel with light-pack. The dangle-cord he carried was barely three times his height and it might have been easier to get through the more canyon-like terrain with the long rope. On the other hand, he was moving faster than he would have with the full pack, and he’d have had no more rations anyway…

Now that he was below the ridges rather than walking them he found the grit and breeze not quite so bad, though the occasional eddy of wind might still scour his face with its burden. Too, not being constantly in the direct rays of the local star helped, though that might be a problem again as it approached mid-day. For the moment, though, he was making time, and was in pretty good shape.

Rations now. Rations were becoming an issue. It was true that his rations were designed to let him work longer on less, and it was equally true that he’d been designed—or at least gene-selected—to get by on less food than most people ate, and to be more efficient in his use of water. Unfortunately, it was also true that he did require some food, some water, some sleep, and some shelter—or he, like most people in similarly deprived circumstances, would die.

Bad design, that dying bit, he thought—but no, that was what the sheriekas had thought to conquer—and perhaps had conquered. No one seemed to know that for sure. Meanwhile, he—Generalist Jela—had been designed with human care, and he approved of much of the design. He could see and hear better than average, for instance, his reaction times were fast and refined—and he was far stronger for his size than almost anyone.

It was this last bit of design work that had got his leg broken, despite it, too, being stronger than average. He just couldn’t hold the weight of six large men on it at once. He’d gone over that fight in his mind many times, and with several fighting instructors. He’d done everything right—just sometimes, no matter what, you were going to lose.

He was rambling again. Deliberately, he brought his attention back to the job at hand. The next moment or two would bring him to the mouth of the canyon and into the valley proper; soon he should have sight of the structures he’d spotted on his recon runs.
The possibility that they were flood control devices had been suggested by the ship’s geologists, as well as the idea that they were “cabinets” for some kind of energy generating stations that needed to be able to survive both flood and ice. Dams—for water conservation? Even the idea that they were the remains of housing had been suggested…

His stomach grumbled, protesting the lack of wake-up rations. He figured he’d be hungry for awhile. No reason to break that next pack open quite yet.

He slogged on, cap shading his eyes, watching for the first sign of the—

There! There was one!

It was silted in, of course, and beyond it another—but the form of it, the details of it, the stubs—
He ran—a hundred paces or so it was to the nearest—put his hand on it—

Laughed then, and shook his head.

And laughed some more, because he didn’t want to cry.

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