Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: City of Ruins
Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book. I began this practice in February. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site. If you want to read the opening to the previous eleven novels, click here.
This month, I’ve excerpted City of Ruins, which is the second novel in the Diving series. I decided to post City because the third book in the Diving series, Boneyards, is coming out later this month. You don’t have to have read any of the other novels in the series to read this one, but you might enjoy it more if you read Diving Into the Wreck first. You can read an excerpt from that novel here.
You’ll find ordering information for City of Ruins at the end of this post.
Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:
Boss, a loner, loved to dive derelict spacecraft adrift in the blackness of space…
But one day, she found a ship that would change everything—an ancient Dignity Vessel—and aboard the ship, the mysterious and dangerous Stealth Tech. Now, years after discovering that first ship, Boss has put together a large company that finds Dignity Vessels and finds “loose” stealth technology.
Following a hunch, Boss and her team come to investigate the city of Vaycehn, where fourteen archeologists have died exploring the endless caves below the city. Mysterious “death holes” explode into the city itself for no apparent reason, and Boss believes stealth tech is involved. As Boss searches for the answer to the mystery of the death holes, she will uncover the answer to her Dignity Vessel quest as well—and one more thing, something so important that it will change her life—and the universe—forever.
City of Ruins
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published By Pyr Books
The Ivoire dipped, then rose, then flipped and doubled back. Inside the bridge, the crew could feel no difference despite the rapid movements. The only way anyone could tell if something had changed was the flow of data coming through all the monitors.
The six-person bridge crew had fallen into their various roles, speaking rarely. They all knew what to do. They had to evade the ships, which were coming at them fast and furious from Ukhanda.
The ships were small and feather-shaped. They looked harmless, but already two of them had seared the Ivoire’s exterior with some kind of blast weapon.
The Ivoire’s captain, Jonathon “Coop” Cooper, had been in tight situations before. He knew how to maintain focus—his own and the crew’s. He had just ordered the wall screens on the bridge darkened. Normally he could see through the screens to whatever was happening on the ship’s exterior.
But seeing things just outside the wall as if he were looking out a window didn’t help him now. He had the navigational images front and center. Along the sides, a smaller image of the ship herself, and the enemy vessels pursuing her.
By rights, those ships shouldn’t be anywhere near the Ivoire. The Ivoire had left Ukhanda’s orbit nearly a day ago to rendezvous with the Fleet and figure out what had gone wrong.
No ship the Fleet had ever encountered had the speed to cover that distance in such a short time.
And this wasn’t just one ship. It was a damn armada.
“Whose ships are these?” he snapped at the bridge crew.
The question was legitimate. Sixteen different cultures called Ukhanda home, although the Fleet had had contact with only two of them.
Anita Tren answered. She was tiny—so small, in fact, she didn’t fit regulations for bridge crew. But she exceeded all expectations, out
–performing every other officer in her class, and Coop couldn’t see any reason to deny her the post she’d earned.
Even if she did have to kneel in her chair half the time to see what was happening on her console.
“Quurzod,” she said.
That surprised him. He knew the Quurzod were advanced enough to have space travel—they had taken their war with the Xenth into space more than once—but he hadn’t expected such sophisticated ships from them.
He had expected something big, with more weapons than power. He should have known that expectation would be wrong. The Quurzod were the most violent human culture he had ever encountered, but the violence was ritualized, damn near beloved. Their approach to violence was sophisticated so why wouldn’t they have sophisticated violence delivery systems?
“I suppose good information on the ships is scarce,” he said dryly.
“The Xenth captured only one,” Anita said. “The Quurzod had already destroyed the command center. But those things have a lot of weaponry.”
As if to prove the point, six ships fired at the Ivoire. Coop could see the bursts of light on the navigational screens. Nothing showed up on the screens that depicted the ship’s exterior. Of course not. The Quurzod had made the blast weapons difficult to see.
Coop’s first officer, Dix Pompiono, moved the Ivoire laterally, and the shots went under one of the gull-shaped wings on the left side of the ship.
“Captain, those things have greater maneuverability than we do.” Dix was hunched over his console, but then, Dix always hunched over his console. He was tall and thin. Yet he could bend himself as if he were made of string
, and fit into the smallest of places. “They’re tiny and they’re fast and in large numbers , they’re a real threat.”
Coop nodded. The ships were like insects. One or two were annoyances. But a swarm could overwhelm a larger and more powerful foe. And the Ivoire was alone. The Fleet was at least a half day away.
“I can maneuver around them maybe twice more,” Dix said, “and then they’ll have us all figured out.”
“Another wave of those things just left Ukhanda,” said Kjersti Perkins, the junior officer on the bridge crew. This was her first space battle. She clutched her console a bit too tightly, her short blond hair mussed. But
, to her credit, her voice didn’t shake and she seemed as calm as the rest of the team.
“How many?” Coop asked.
“Twenty-five. No. Thirty. Make that thirty-five.” She looked over at him, her blue eyes wide. “An entire other wave. Did we know they had this many ships?”
“I don’t think anyone knew,” he said. “Yash, figure out if they’re single
Yash Zarlengo, his onsite engineer, nodded. He trusted her more than anyone else. A former athlete, raised planetside, she had her family’s knack for anything technological.
“Those things are built to fight,” she said. “If I had to guess—and that’s all I’d be doing, since they’re still too far away to scan—I’d say they’re stocked with weaponry.”
“Given what we know about the Quurzod,” Dix said, “I’d expect the fight to be vicious, bloody, and to the death.”
Coop flashed on the images of Mae he’d seen when they brought her on board the ship
, blood-covered, too thin, eyes wild. The Quurzod had killed twenty-four members of her linguistic team. Only three survived, and two of those had fled before the massacre. Mae had somehow managed to escape during or after the bloodbath.
“I think you’re right, Dix. We’re in for a real fight.” Coop cursed silently.
He hadn’t wanted this. He didn’t have the weaponry for this—not if the Quurzod swarmed.
“Send a message to the Fleet,” Coop said. “Let them know the situation. We’re going to engage the anacapa. Twenty-hour window.”
“Yes, sir,” Dix said.
Coop hated using the anacapa drive, but he saw no other choice. The anacapa created a fold in space. If the ship was in trouble, it activated its anacapa, moving into foldspace, and then returning to the same point in regular moments or hours later. Sometimes moments were all it took to confuse the enemy ships.
The Ivoire had the firepower, but not the maneuverability. Staying would subject the ship to too much damage
, damage he could avoid with a simple sideways movement into foldspace.
“Fifty more ships, sir,” Perkins said. “Maybe fifty-five. They just keep coming.”
Coop nodded. That was what worried him. Too many small ships, too many small weapons.
“Activate the anacapa,” he said to Yash.
“I hate this thing,” she muttered, but hit the codes, then slammed her palm against the console.
As she did, half a dozen shots hit the Ivoire.
The anacapa, going through its cycle, froze. Dix’s gaze met Coop’s. Coop held his breath—
—and then the anacapa reactivated.
The Ivoire slipped into foldspace for just a moment
, while it waited for theQuurzod to give up.
I travel to Vaycehn reluctantly. I don’t like cities. I never have. Cities are as opposite from the things I love as anything can get.
First, they exist planetside, and I try never to go planetside.
Secondly, they are filled with people, and I prefer to spend most of my time alone.
Thirdly, cities have little to explore, and what small amount of unknown territory there is has something built on top of it or beside it.
The history of a city is known, and there is no danger.
But I’m going to Vaycehn on the advice of one of my managers. She has a hunch, and I am funding it, although the closer we get to the city, the more I regret that decision.
I made the decision because I’m learning that a single woman cannot manage an entire corporation on her own. I used to run my own wreck diving company, but I hired people when I needed them and let them go when the dive was over.
Now I oversee hundreds of employees, with dozens of tasks before them. I need to learn to trust.
Even in the area of exploration.
Especially in the area of exploration.
And I find that to be the hardest of all.
Vaycehn sprawls along a great basin on the eighth and most centrally located continent on the planet Wyr. Wyr is tiny and warm as far as planets go. It exists in the habitable zone near its star but is a little too close for the bulk of the human population.
The planet does have plenty of air and edible indigenous plants. A lot of farming communities have sprouted in its arable sixth and seventh continents. But the planet’s only major city—as cities are defined in this part of the universe—is Vaycehn.
I’d heard of Vaycehn decades ago. Everyone who works in antiquities, history, and collectibles has. Vaycehn boasts the earliest settlement in this part of the galaxy. Its history has continued, uninterrupted, for at least five thousand years.
The city has moved several times, but its footprint remains in what the people of Wyr call the Great Basin, a dip in the planet’s surface so deep that it’s visible from space. That dip provides shelter for the storms that buffet Wyr, and it also has temperatures twenty degrees lower than surface temperatures anywhere else on the planet.
The perfect location for both an ancient and a modern city.
A place I never thought I’d go.
My team and I fly in on six orbit-to-ground skips
, and land them in the spaceport at the edge of the Basin. We’re in the City of Vaycehn, but it doesn’t look like a city here. There are buildings, and a lot of dry brown ground. We’re only on the ground long enough to disembark from our skips and sign them into their ports. Then we get into the six government-owned hovercarts that were, Ilona discovered, one of the only ways to travel in Vaycehn.
We left my ship, Nobody’s Business, docked on Wyr’s orbital business station. The Business has a cloned identity, one we adopted when I became a fugitive inside the Empire, and that’s how the Business is registered with Wyr. Fortunately no one seems to care who we are, so long as we spend money planetside.
We’re spending a lot of money to come here. I look at this visit as an experiment; I’m not sure our search for stealth technology should even include land. All of the stealth technology we’ve discovered so far has been in space.
But Ilona thinks differently. She has hired the ground team—with my supervision—and she believes in this project.
I do not.
In fact, part of me wants this project to fail spectacularly. Then I never have to think about land-based operations again.
The hired pilots fly us into the Basin. I sit behind the co
–pilot, separated by a clear wall. I almost wish the cockpit was blocked off so that I can’t see what these people are doing.
These pilots aren’t one-tenth as good as I am. They make tiny mistakes that would kill them in the tight situations I’ve flown through.
But they know the Basin, and they’re cocky. They come in too fast, going deep at the beginning of the crevice that marks the Basin, and get too close to the stone walls for my comfort. I grip the arm
I hate cocky pilots, particularly ones whose skills clearly aren’t up to an emergency. Should the wings of the hovercart nick one of the stone walls, the craft will spin out of control. From my vantage, I can’t see any automatic overrides that will prevent such an accident.
And I don’t have time to break through that clear wall ahead of me, hit a few buttons, and stop the craft from spinning before it crashes.
If something happens, I’d go down with the craft, just like everyone else.
The bumpy ride makes it hard to enjoy the scenery. Behind me, the main team—Ilona, Gregory, Lentz, and Bridge—talk about the mission ahead.
They are all scientists and researchers. Never before have I brought them to a site without examining it first. They’re excited, thinking that maybe they’ll be able to be actual explorers.
Maybe by their definitions, they will.
But I’ve also brought a full dive team as well as some archeologists and a few historians. And I’ve brought the Six. They’re scattered throughout the other craft because if one of these things goes down, I don’t want to lose all of our most valuable people.
We land on a wide patch of empty ground. Other hovercart are parked in the distance, and large buildings outline the empty middle.
I’m glad we have a lot of room for the landing. We still bounce on the ground’s surface—something I would never allow one of my pilots to do—and it takes several seconds for the rocking motion caused by the bouncing to cease.
The doors open, and I sneeze as planetside air filters in. Planetside air has unfamiliar scents—in this case, both sweet and dry.
Most of the air I breathe is recycled. It has a faint metallic edge, and sometimes a warning staleness. I’m used to that. I’m not used to air that has a taste, air that tickles my nose and makes me feel a little lightheaded.
This air is also warm. I’d been warned that Wyr was a hot place, but I’d also been told that Vaycehn was one of the coolest locations.
If this is cool, then I don’t want to visit any other site on the planet. I’m already sweating as I step off the craft. The metal railing of the make
–shift stair is warm beneath my touch, even though it’s only been in the light from Wyr’s sun for a few minutes.
Heat shimmers across the pavement in little waves that look like turbulence before a planetside storm. I’ve already decided I don’t like it here, and this is only the first of thirty days.
Ilona is already talking with our guides. Ilona is slight, with black hair that looks almost blue in this light. She wears it tied back, but some strands have come loose in the wind. She brushes at them as she speaks.
The guides—all male—watch her hands. The guides’ uniforms make them easy to identify. The uniforms are brown with red piping. Sleeveless, with shorts instead of pants. The men wear sandals on their feet. They also have their hair cropped so short that their scalps are visible.
“Well, this is going to be interesting,” says a voice beside me. I turn to see Mikk, one of my best divers. He’s not built like a man who space-dives. He has too many muscles because he does a lot of weight work to maintain his bone structure. He’s also large.
Most divers are small people with such delicate bones that being on a planet with normal gravity will hurt them. I’ve left some of my best divers behind because I don’t want them subject to the planet’s g-forces. Unlike me and several others, those divers grew up in space. I’m landborn and can handle gravity. I just don’t like it.
Two divers and one of our pilots are getting off the second craft. So is Julian DeVries, one of the Six. He’s tall and broad shouldered. Out of all of my team that have landed so far, he looks the most out of place. He’s wearing a blue silk suit that has to be too warm. But aside from removing the coat and slinging it over his shoulder, he doesn’t seem affected by the heat at all.
“You think those people know what they’re doing?” Mikk asks me. He’s still looking at the guides.
“I think they know how to take us to the caves,” I say. “I suspect they’ll get us to our accommodations with a minimum of fuss, and I hope that they don’t have too many regulations to follow.”
“What about canned speeches?” Julian says as he joins us. “I loathe canned speeches.”
Mikk frowns at him. “Meaning what?”
“Guides,” I say. “They usually have a small spiel about the history of a place.”
“Which we theoretically know,” Julian says.
“Emphasis on theoretically,” I say. “It’s always good to listen to the stories and the myths and the legends. You can learn a lot from them.”
Mikk gives me a nervous glance. He used to pooh-pooh the idea of the importance of myths and legends until he dove the Room of Lost Souls with me. Then he learned how oddly accurate legends could be.
“You don’t think we’ve tapped everything,” he says.
“I don’t think we’ve even started.” I watch as the third hovercart eases down. If only we’d had that pilot. He, at least, is cautious, using the craft to hover before landing, just like it was designed to do.
This machine lands close enough to swirl dust and dirt around us. Mikk covers his eyes, but Julian merely adjusts his suit coat so that it blocks the worst of it.
When the engines shut down, Julian continues as if the conversation hadn’t been interrupted at all.
“That ride in was bumpy.”
“I have a hunch things are more dangerous here than we planned.”
He sounds like he’s been involved from the beginning. But he hasn’t been. He has no idea how dangerous we think this is.
Five years ago, the city suffered a groundquake and an entire section of old buildings fell into the caverns below, revealing caves no one had ever seen before. Like many ancient cities, Vaycehn has an underground component—old transportation routes, basements, and quarries where the original buildings were dug out of the rock. Supposedly, these new caves are different, structured with walls. They look like someone had built them purposely and then forgotten them.
When Ilona requested the visas to travel and work in Vaycehn, she was warned that the underground caverns were unsafe. The Vaycehn government denied her requests several times—and not because we were using false identities. Our identities, while fictitious, are impenetrable.
Any time we enter the Empire, we run the danger of being arrested. But we’ve been in and out so many times that we know no one is tracking these identities. We know we’re safe, so long as we don’t attract any notice.
As for Vaycehn, the problem was the city government itself. It didn’t want us in the caves. We finally had to sign waivers protecting Vaycehn from liability should any of us die. We also had to sign confidentiality agreements; we couldn’t run to any form of press—whether it was Vaycehnese, Wyrian, or system
–wide—and tell the story of our explorations beneath the city.
What little off-planet income Vaycehn made came from tourism, and the government was afraid that negative publicity would destroy that tiny trade. Our guarantee that we would not do anything to harm their tourism industry got us into Vaycehn. I hope that we do not stay long.
The fourth, fifth and sixth hovercarts land in a perfect row, as if they’ve practiced the maneuver. The engines shut off in unison, and before long, my entire team has gathered around me.
I have never brought so many people on a single exploratory mission. Thirty, plus equipment. Keeping track of all of them will be difficult, particularly when I have duties of my own.
The team knows the risks.
But I’ve learned over the years that knowing the risks
, and living with their consequences are two very different things.
I used to work for myself. I ran my own wreck diving business out of my ship, Nobody’s Business. I specialized in historical wrecks. I’d dive them, but I wouldn’t salvage, believing that history should remain intact.
My first encounter with a Dignity Vessel taught me the dangers of intact history. That encounter also changed my life.
Now I run an organization so big that I don’t know the name of everyone who works for me. We operate out of a space station that orbits one of the planets in the Nine Planets Alliance.
The Alliance sounds more official than it is. In reality, the Nine Planets Alliance is a kind of no-man’s land, ignored—
Fortunately, that day hasn’t come.
Although I might be the one to provoke it.
The Empire and I are both searching for the secret to something called stealth tech. It’s a lost ancient technology, something no one entirely understands. The Empire has learned how to recreate it, but in order to do so, they need bits of actual ancient equipment, and so far, they can only take that equipment from Dignity Vessels.
Our mission, at least at the moment, is to find any Dignity Vessels in this sector and keep them out of imperial hands. Right now, we have four Dignity Vessels in various states of decay docked to the ring on our space station. We have parts of two more on a nearby ship—a decommissioned imperial military science ship that we bought through a proxy at auction.
I let my own team of scientists work on stealth tech. I’m in charge of finding more. Stealth tech doesn’t just exist on Dignity Vessels. We’ve also found it in a place called the Room of Lost Souls that we believe to be an ancient abandoned space station , though we don’t know that for certain.
We don’t know much for certain.
What we do know about stealth tech, though, is that it is deadly. It has killed three of my friends.
It also killed my mother.
It didn’t kill me, because I have a genetic marker that allows me to work inside stealth tech with no ill effects. The Empire has discovered thirteen of us with that marker.
Six have chosen to work with me.
We find, learn about, and will ultimately recreate
, ancient stealth tech. Then we will sell it to governments other than the Enterran Empire, in the interest of keeping the balance of power within the sector the same.
If there’s ever any serious deviation from that mission, I will shut us down and disband. I see no other way.
Vaycehn has sixty-five hotels, the best of which are in a ring around the city’s center. We’ve booked two floors in the Basin, one of the oldest and grandest of the hotels.
I saw to this part of the trip personally because I knew what I wanted. I wanted a hotel that wouldn’t mind thirty guests who arrived nightly covered in dirt and mud; a hotel that would cater to our every whim at any hour of the day; a hotel that would be able to provide secure communications off-planet since we would be so far from our ship; and a hotel that would guarantee our privacy from any inquiries not just during our visit but for years afterward.
I have the penthouse suite in the west corner of the top floor — six rooms, including a conference area, a kitchen, a bedroom suite, a “guest” bedroom, and a private sitting area. I’m going to need all of it.
We will have our meetings here. Some of my staff will set up the replay equipment in the conference area. I’ve already ordered the hotel staff to remove the furniture from the guest bedroom so that I can put some dedicated computer equipment inside.
I set up that equipment alone. I am the only one who knows how it works, and I want to remain that way. Usually I set up equipment like that in my own bedroom, but this is a hotel, not a ship. I can take advantage of the room.
From the conference room, I have a view of the city below. It sprawls. Buildings crawl up from the ground as far as the eye can see. Humans live and work in each of those buildings. Hundreds of buildings, maybe thousands. And if I think about that too much, I get claustrophobic.
I think the staff of thirty that I’ve brought with me is twenty-nine people too many; if I think about the millions who’ve settled here in Vaycehn, I will drive myself crazy.
Still, it’s a pretty place. The basin walls rise up around the city itself like the walls of a space station. Sunlight falls on ruins in the distance—one of the many abandoned sections of the city.
Those sections have been explored by historians and archeologists through the ages. Vaycehn is one of the most studied areas in this sector of the galaxy.
As I stand in these windows and look at the orangish light settling on the rooftops below me, I realize that layers are visible before me. If I squint, I can see the Great Ages of the city just in its architecture, and that makes my heart pound.
This is not one of the Great Ages of Vaycehn. Now it is merely the largest settlement on Wyr. The city itself has several million inhabitants. But in some of the more populous sections of the galaxy, there are permanent space bases that boast a similar population—and those are sprawled over a greater area. Attached by warrens and cubbies and gangways, those large stations were once small stations that joined with others for the sake of power or wealth or sheer greed.
Vaycehn became a city because of its location. It remains one because it has done several things: it has preserved its history; it serves as the center of trade for this small region of space; and it has the longest existing continuous government in the known universe.
Ilona thinks Vaycehn is a major source of stealth tech.
I don’t think stealth tech can exist on land. I think the technology is too unstable, and too dangerous.
And even if it did somehow manage to exist on a planet, there is no way that the stealth tech could have remained hidden for thousands of years, only to reveal itself in a dramatic and frightening way just a few years ago.
Ilona argues differently. She says that since stealth tech originated on Earth, it was probably invented on land, and there were safeguards for working and living with it.
Maybe so, I have said in response, but in no way would those safeguards exist so many light-years away from the home planet, in a place those ancient Earthers could not imagine.
I feel safe in my argument; I have had several direct experiences with stealth tech. Ilona has not.
But she does have one small point in her favor.
They all—and me, so really, we all—are built-in safeguards because we can work with stealth tech and survive.
The Six are in my conference room, along with the rest of the team. We are mapping the morning strategy session. The Six are Orlando Rea, a quiet, bookish man with a surprising amount of gumption; Fahd Al-Nasir, black-haired, dark-eyed, timid; Elaine Seager, a fit middle-age woman who hangs to the back of any group; Nyssa Quinte, skinny and tough, who should be my best diver, and is not; Rollo Kersting, a charming man, very fond of his comforts; and of course, Julian DeVries.
Our guides—who are not here—already know that we are not average tourists. Ilona spent an hour after our arrival explaining that we will not follow the same path as the other archeologists.
One guide has already threatened to quit. I’m sure others will as well.
The key point is whether or not we can legally work on Vaycehn without the guides.
I assign Ilona to discover that piece of information. She makes a note, while I continue directing the staff.
We will have six teams, composed of a diver, an archeologist or historian, a scientist, a pilot, and one of the Six. I will head a seventh team, and what I don’t tell them—but which becomes clear as I make the assignments—is that my team will have the best people from each division. I’m going to work the site just like everyone else, and if there’s a discovery, I want it to be mine.
Only two teams will go down with the guides each day. The other teams will explore the city, interview residents and experts about the city’s past as well as its legends, and investigate the fourteen deaths that preceded us. So far the Vaycehnese government does not want us to discuss those deaths with the locals. But I have promised Ilona that on my days off, I will fight that prohibition in the name of safety; I will say that unless we know what happened, we cannot know what went wrong.
I don’t know if that will work—I’m a diver, not a diplomat—but it’s the only argument I can come up with that the local government might back. From all the work we’ve done off
The collapsed section is visible from the conference room window. The section is a black smudge near the convergence of the basin’s two steep walls. I glance at it as I speak, pausing occasionally to wonder at the darkness below the surface.
When I finish laying out my plans, I open the discussion to the team.
Lucretia Stone, one of the archeologists, says, “I don’t understand why we need pilots on each team. The guides will drive the hovercarts.”
She’s squarely built, with muscular arms and legs. She’s worked all over the galaxy, on some of the most famous digs in recent years. That she signed on with us is surprising until you get to know her history; she’s lost five digs in the past ten years to imperial interference. She likes the fact that we’re not part of the Empire.
Signing on with us was as much a political statement for her as it was a personal one.
But this is her first off-site on-planet work for us, and I can already sense how much she dislikes not being in charge.
“I’m not going to run this like a dig,” I say. “I’m running it like a dive.”
“A space dive?” She frowns at me. The other two archeologists look to her for guidance. In the past few months, they’ve all gone diving with me because I insisted. But it was tourist diving on established wrecks.
Even then, the archeologists were terrified. To them, space suits are something you wear in an emergency, when the ship you’re riding in loses its environmental controls, not something you don voluntarily to go into abandoned ships in the emptiness of space.
These people are, perhaps, the exact opposite of those of us who have spent our lives diving. The archeologists love the firmness of the ground beneath their feet. They understand gravity and they love to sift through dirt.
We prefer to float, and dirt is something dangerous, something that can clog our oxygen supply and damage our suits.
Not for the first time do I feel a slight hesitation. Maybe I am configuring these teams wrong. Maybe I should dump the historians and the archeologists and the geologists for people who understand dangerous free-floating situations.
Because if I’m wrong and Ilona is right, we will be in a dangerous space-type situation underneath the city of Vaycehn. We will need every bit of diver’s creativity that we have.
“You’re running this like a dive.” Lucretia repeats my words with a touch of incredulousness. “We’re going to suit up and everything?”
I nod. “We’re bringing our suits. That’s why I want an experienced pilot on the hovercart. It’s too bad the Vaycehnese don’t allow other vehicles inside the site. I would prefer something with more maneuverability and power. But they’re afraid that something with that kind of thrust might cause more collapse.”
“They have a good argument,” says McAllister Bridge, one of the scientists. He’s a slender man with long fingers and the glittering eyes of someone who has had expensive reconstructive eye surgery. “If you’re not sure what’s down there, you don’t want to do anything that could potentially shake it up.”
“The walls have held for five millennia,” says Roderick. “They’ll probably hold for five more.”
“Except in the area that collapsed,” says Bridge.
“That’s something we need to find out,” I say. “How many other collapses have there been in Vaycehn’s history? And were any of them followed by deaths, just like those of the archeologists?”
Fourteen archeologists have died in Vaycehn in the past few years. All of the archeologists were working in the oldest parts of the city. And none of their bodies have ever been recovered.
That alone intrigued Ilona. But the fact that some claim the bodies vanished intrigues her more.
“You’d think information on collapses and deaths would be in the data
“Not if Vaycehn has always been as secretive about its problems as it has been about the fourteen dead,” I say.
“I don’t think they’re being secretive.” Ilona sits close to me, her fingertips tapping lightly on the tabletop. “After all, I was about to find out about the deaths.”
“Because most of those people were well known in their field,” Stone says. “If they came here and disappeared, it would be more suspicious than if they died.”
One of the other archeologists, Bernadette Ivy, nods. “We all know the risks of working underground. We don’t think twice when someone dies at a dig off-planet.”
Then she stops because we’re all staring at her. We all don’t know the risks of working underground. Most of us only know the risks of working in space.
“What risks?” Tamaz asks. He sounds tentative, which is unusual for Tamaz.
“Ground collapse is one,” Ivy says.
“Probably the biggest one if you’re in a cave,” Stone says.
“Then there’s cultural issues,” Ivy says. “Sometimes the local population hates it when you touch something sacred—and you had no idea it was sacred.”
“Local laws prevail in some of those cases,” Stone says.
“Except in digs that are sanctioned by the Empire,” Ivy says, and then she bites her lower lip.
“Okay, so be honest,” Tamaz says. “The work you archeologists do is mostly safe, right? You don’t die if you make a mistake.”
He stated it like a sentence, but it was really a question. A nervous question.
“That’s right,” Stone says. “Mostly we don’t die when we make mistakes.”
“I mean,” Tamaz says, “if your clothes rip, you’re fine. You don’t usually need extra oxygen or some kind of gravity boot to keep you on a path or—”
“Enough,” I say.
Ivy’s cheeks are flushed and Stone actually looks angry. I don’t want my people comparing their specialties. It does no good.
Tamaz bites his lower lip, as if he wants to say more. But he doesn’t.
, “I think we get the archeologists’ point. Because those fourteen deaths occurred over time instead of all at once, they didn’t look that suspicious.”
“Exactly,” Stone said with a glare at Tamaz. “It just looked like that particular dig in Vaycehn was a treacherous one.”
“It took Ilona to put some of the facts together,” I say. “Like the fact that the dig itself didn’t collapse. These people died in a perfectly clear area.”
“And some of them,” Ilona says softly, “mummified in the short hours they were inside that area.”
Mikk shudders so violently I can see it across the table. A few of us have seen this before. Mikk saw it at the Room of Lost Souls. I’ve seen it more than once. First with my mother, then with one of my divers on the first Dignity Vessel I found, and finally, at the Room of Lost Souls.
“If you work this like a dive,” Stone says, going back to the original topic, “then we could lose a lot of archeological data. We need to spend time with each patch of ground, examining the layers of soil for evidence of—”
“You’ve only gone on tourist dives,” Tamaz says. “A wreck dive forces you to spend time in each section. You have to, or you really will die.”
An edge in his voice makes me hold up a hand. “I’m sorry to say that the in-depth archeological information is less important than the stealth tech. But you knew that when you signed on.”
Stone leans back in her chair.
“If we don’t find any tech,” I say, “then you and the other archeologists can stay if you want, and do some real field
“But there won’t be any more funding, will there?” Stone asks.
I’m paying for everything. Or rather, the company is. As a result, any discoveries we make will be the company’s, as is any information on how those discoveries were found.
“Whether or not the funding will continue depends on what we find.” I think, but don’t add, that it will also depend on how easy Stone is to work with now that she’s on-site.
“It seems strange to go into a dig with a preconceived notion of what we’ll find,” Stone says.
“Oh, spare me,” Bridge says. “You always have a notion of the area’s history before you go in. You know that the early colonists stopped somewhere nearby or that someone settled the area before the Colonnade Wars. You have a hunch or you wouldn’t dig in that area in the first place.”
Stone glances at him sideways but doesn’t answer. She’s finally realized that her comments haven’t made her popular with the group.
If she’s like me, she really won’t care about that.
But I’m slowly learning, as I’m managing more and more staff, that people actually care what others think. Sometimes that’s even a motivation for misbehavior.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I will have to remind myself repeatedly that the very structure of this excursion is an experiment. And that will require some flexibility on my part.
“My team goes first tomorrow,” I say. “I want to know exactly what we’re facing.”
And whether there’s any hope that Ilona is right.
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