Acclaimed as one of SF's most exciting new talents, Thomas Harlan took readers by storm with his remarkable Oath of Empire series, a thrilling blend of alternate history, high fantasy, and military adventure. The books in the series, including The Shadow of Ararat, The Gate of Fire, The Storm of Heaven, and The Dark Lord, not only earned Harlan rave reviews but gained him two nominations for Best New Writer of the Year.
Now Thomas Harlan draws upon his extensive knowledge of history, politics, strategy and tactics to create a brilliant new science fiction epic set in an alternate future in which the Aztec Empire rules the earth and an interstellar empire.
Led by the ambitions of the powerful, world-girdling Empire of the Méxica, the human race has spread out among the stars, only to discover a perilous universe once ruled by vast interstellar civilizations that suddenly vanished, leaving behind their mysterious artifacts.
Dr. Gretchen Andersson, a xeno-archeologist and second-class citizen of the empire, has made a career of searching for those First Sun artifacts. She has suddenly been recalled by her employer and sent to discover the fate of a missing survey team. To her consternation, she discovers that her team is to travel on an imperial warship, under a Japanese commander, instead of using a Company vessel. Worse, an Aztec aristocrat, Green Hummingbird--an imperial judge who is also a brujo, or sorcerer-is in command of the rescue mission. Clearly, there is more to this assignment than rescuing a team of company scientists from a dead world. In the company of Green Hummingbird, Gretchen will discover that there is far more to Ephesus III than meets the eye.
For the vast, rocky wasteland of the seemingly dead planet hides a secret life, and may hold treasures far too deadly for the empire to ever allow her to discover.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Thomas Harlan is the author of the highly regarded "Oath of Empire" fantasy series, as well as being an internationally-known game designer. He lives in Salem, Oregon.
Thomas Harlan is the author of the highly regarded “Oath of Empire” fantasy series, starting with The Shadow of Ararat, The Gate of Fire, and The Storm of Heaven. An internationally-known game designer, he lives in Salem, Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
the great eastern basin, ephesus iii,
in the hittite sector
The Gagarin sped out of the east, engines running hot, heavy night air hissing under thirty-meter wings. Though the sky behind the little ultralight was still pitch-black, the dawn wind was already beginning to rise, stirring the air. It was very cold, worse for the wind whipping through the airframe. Russovsky's goggles were rimmed with frost and her suit's rebreather left a white smear of CO2 ice across a cargo bag stowed behind the seat. Kilometers of sand blurred past beneath the Gagarin. Ahead, hidden in night but standing out sharply on her vid-eye, the Escarpment shut off the horizon. Tiny green glyphs bobbed at the corner of her vision as a micro-radar taped to the forward wing surface measured and remeasured the height of the cliffs. The mechanism was resetting every second, unable to resolve the summit.
Down on the deck, where a vast soda-pipe field slept among night-shrouded dunes, a haze of fine dust was beginning to lift, stirred by the wind's invisible fingers. The Gagarin droned on, long silver wings glowing softly in the darkness, engines chuckling as they burned hydrogen and spat out fine trailing corkscrews of ice crystal. Russovsky's vid-eye flashed, alerting her to a break in the horizon. An annotation flipped up, showing a snatch of recorded video--flinty cliffs in harsh white sunlight. Blinking in annoyance, her face grim, Russovsky banished the note. She drifted the stick left and the Gagarin heeled over. The ultralight banked, sweeping over a knife blade of red sand rising three hundred meters from the nominal bottom of the basin. As Gagarin rose over the dune, she goosed the engines, wary of treacherous winds coiling close to the mountains.
Now she could feel the enormous mass of the Escarpment, looming darkness against a sky riotous with stars. The mountain range rose up endlessly and ran left and right to the edge of sight. She could feel the ocean of air around the ultralight changing, the quiet stillness of deep night falling away, disturbed by currents, eddies and whirlpools tugging and pressing at the wings. The mouth of the Slot loomed up, a hundred meters wide, an abrupt fissure cut into the mountain. Sweat beaded on her neck and along her spine, but the moisture wicked away into the skinsuit so quickly Russovsky did not chill. The radar threw back a confused jumble of images, trying to resolve the jagged cliffs and boulders at the mouth of the Slot.
She blinked twice and the radar image folded up and away. She clucked her tongue once, then twice. Her goggles gleamed and light-amp faded back for a second. She flew blind, the Gagarin winging into the slot, her hands light on the stick, keeping the ultralight centered between the cliffs. Another tongue cluck. Along the tips of the wings, phosphors woke to life, throwing a diffuse, soft white light over the flinty walls rushing past.
The goggles adjusted automatically and Russovsky could see again. A rumpled floor of broken scree, cockeyed temple-sized boulders and blown sand whipped past below her boots. Walls hemmed her in to either side, kilometers high and relentless, all jagged surfaces and overhangs. The whine of the engines rose, reverberating in the thickening air. A low hissing sound began to grow behind her in the east.
The planet's air was thin, though a human could stand outside without a z-suit. She would need a compressor and a filter to breathe, but it was possible. Such thin air exacerbated the planetary weather, making the wind and sky a menace to man and machine alike. In some places, like against the world-girdling ring of the Escarpment, a storm roared at every dawn, as the rising sun heated the atmosphere and pressed it against an impassible barrier.
Slot canyons cut through the Escarpment, knife-blade thin in comparison to the bulk of the mountain range. Gusts darted down the Slot, and Russovsky felt the Gagarin twist and flex in the air. Her chrono said she had fifteen minutes before the sun actually peeked over the eastern horizon.
By then a gale would be howling in the canyon, spitting sand, rock, and gravel westward like a cannon at three or four hundred k. The craft bucked, riding up on an eddy, and Russovsky's fingers gentled the aircraft back, away from the looming cliff. The wingtip, still glowing white, danced away from an obsidian wall, almost brushing against the ancient stone.
Russovsky corrected with unconscious grace. Ahead, a slab jutted nearly a third of the way across the canyon. Its eastern face was worn smooth as glass, a sweeping ebon wall rising up from the rubble. Russovsky's left hand brushed over the pressure control. Hydrogen hissed through fuel tubes running over her head. The wings stiffened, pressure rising. Motors whined and both airfoils levered up into a v. Gagarin slowed dramatically.
The ultralight swept past the slab, wing lights reflecting in an inky mirror. Beyond the monolith, there was a curving bowl of sand and--the vid-eye flashed urgently. Russovsky glanced over and saw a sharp angle in the darkness, distinct against the irregular wall of the canyon. She dropped the wings back level, then airbraked as the ultralight started to gain speed and drifted the stick to her right. Gagarin slowed into a stall. Hissing softly through clenched teeth, Russovsky feathered the engines and let the wheels touch down. A bump, a queasy sliding moment and the Gagarin slid to a halt on hard-packed sand.
Russovsky unfolded herself from the chair, thumbing loose her restraints, each motion quick and assured. Her left leg started to cramp, but she went stifflegged for a moment, moving jerkily, letting the muscle relax. Working swiftly, acutely conscious of grains of mica and sand pattering down out of the dark sky above her, she triggered one sand-anchor with a tunk!, then leaned back into the cockpit frame and threw a switch glyphed "fold." The wings trembled in response, then began to deflate, hydrogen hissing back into the reserve tank behind and under the seat. The p-cell battery in the main wing joint woke up with a click and the controls dimmed in preparation for system shutdown.
While Gagarin folded up, Russovsky dragged her pack down from above the H2 tank and slung it onto her wiry shoulders. She was not a big woman--not and fly a Midge-class ultralight like the Gagarin!--but she had a lean strength and endless endurance. The pack conformed to her back, belt straps sliding around her flat waist like warm hands. A sharp tug freed the winch from the forward centerline strut. Monofil line whined out of the spool as she backed toward the right-angled darkness in the cliff face.
In the fading light of the wing phosphors, the rock glowed a pasty green. The angle stood out clear and sharp. Half of a trapezoidal opening, faced with cut stone--a door--yawned in the side of the cliff. Russovsky nodded to herself, unsurprised. Ephesus had been a dead, shattered world for millennia, but something had lived here once. Dust was blowing past now, clouding the air. Hurrying, she climbed up into the opening, then flicked a glowbean inside. Pale blue light spilled out like milk from a fallen pail. There was a chamber, a big one, with a canted floor and more sand. It seemed big enough for the ultralight.
Stepping carefully around the edge of the chamber, one hand on the smooth sloping wall, Russovsky slapped the winch-patch onto the wall opposite the door. Outside, the Gagarin was beginning to rock from side to side as wind began to stir in the sandy bowl. Russovsky counted to five, then ran back to the door. At the side of the ultralight, she ratcheted the sand anchor back in, then stabbed the winch control. The little motor woke up with a tinny sound and began to reel in the monofil. Sliding on its landing skids, the Gagarin bumped up into the door. Russovsky paced behind the aircraft, then put her shoulder against the aft cargo door, pushing. Windblown sand began to hiss against her back. Breathing hard into her mask, she shoved the Gagarin into the chamber. On the smoother sand inside, the winch continued to whine until the nose of the aircraft touched the opposite wall.
Russovsky ducked in, her head turned away from the canyon. The wind was rising to a monstrous howl, and the lee of the jutting slab was filling with a swirling dance of dust, sand and fingertip-sized gravel. Working swiftly, she uncoiled a length of fil-tube from her belt, then tacked it along one side of the half-buried door. At the top of the tube was a thumb tab. Snapping the tab down and away, across her body with a sharp motion, Russovsky unfurled the filament screen and dragged the gelatinous material against the opposing jamb. Pressing firmly, she ran the thumb tab down the side of the door. The material sheened pearl for a moment, then stiffened. Dust and sand rattled against the polymer, skittering away from the charged filaments. Carefully, Russovsky used the thumb tab to seal off all the edges and corners. By the time she was done, the rattle of sand was a constant drumming.
Russovsky flicked another glowbean against the ceiling, where it spattered and stuck, making a spray of cold cobalt stars. Despite a sudden feeling of exhaustion, the woman moved around the ultralight, checking the exposed surfaces for cracks, wear or abrasions in the silvery composite. The dust on Ephesus had incredibly corrosive properties. At the starboard engine she paused, clicking her teeth together. Her goggles dialed up high into the ultraviolet, revealing the faint glow of pitting on the intake nacelle.
Shaking her head in disgust, Russovsky removed her helmet and the overgoggles, revealing high cheekbones and a seamed, weathered face. She was not young, and the hot sky of Ephesus had given her a steadily deepening tan. Clipping the helmet and goggles to the back of her belt, Russovsky adjusted her bugeyes--it was dangerous to leave the moist human eye exposed to the raw air of Ephesus--and took the big v-cam from a flat pouch on her left thigh.
"Recor…cough!" Russovsky cleared her throat, tasting bitter alkali. She unclipped the suit's drinking tube and took a swallow. Her fingers dug into a pocket on her z-suit and she popped a round, polished stone into her mouth. When her throat had cleared, she started again: "Recording inside a manufactured structure at the eastern end of slot canyon twelve."
She raised the v-cam and slowly panned around, pausing on the door. By now the sun would have risen in the east, but the canyon outside was still pitch-black. The wind was still rising, making the monofil membrane in the doorway shudder. Completing her slow turn, she walked away from the Gagarin to the edge of the light thrown by the glowbeans. The chamber ended in a slick, glassy wall. There was another trapezoidal door cut into the rock.
One-handed, she kept the v-cam up while she flicked a glowbean into the passage.
More blue light filled the space--a corridor with slanted walls, matching the angle of the door. It ended no more than a dozen meters away, abruptly, in rough, uneven extrusion. Frowning with concern--how queerly even--Russovsky advanced gingerly across a glassy, slick floor. The rock here, like that throughout the Escarpment, was Ephesus's particular trademark--a jumbled, compressed, mangled aggregate of sandstone, rhyolite, granite, and flint. She paused at the irregular wall, staring into another chamber opening off to her right.
"Ah…krasivaya devushka!" Russovsky's faded sapphire eyes crinkled up in a broad smile. Her fingers were trembling a little as she set the v-cam down on the sandy floor, letting the camera adjust itself level so it could record the wall in detail. Kneeling, she ran gloved fingers over the rumpled, irregular surface. There were whorls and lumps and patterns familiar in kind, if not in detail, to her experienced eyes. Here, a fluted shape, the outlines of stalklike legs, a curled shell. There, the echo of flat-pressed reeds and tiny nutlike cysts.
Limestone. The muddy floor of a primordial Ephesian ocean. The wall rose up at a queer angle, obviously trapped in the greater matrix of the mountain. Russovsky rose, picked up the v-cam and panned it around, showing the way the passage ended at the shale. A gray eyebrow rose, seeing a set of cylindrical objects scattered near the wall.
Russovsky bent down, examining one. They seemed to be stone, or crusted with ancient fossilized earth. There were three of them, regular in length and width. Sucking cautiously on the stone in her mouth, Russovsky backed away, still recording with the v-cam, and then walked carefully back to the ultralight. The smooth, almost mirror-smooth tunnel floor could have been cut with a plasma torch.
She was exhausted and hungry from the long night-flight. After choking down a threesquare bar Russovsky drank some more water and lay down on the sand under the Gagarin. The suit kept her body temperature within a survivable range and was far too much trouble to shed. The glowbeans were beginning to die, letting soft darkness steal back into the chamber. Russovsky tugged a folded woolen blanket from under the seat of the ultralight and tucked it under her head. Faded red, orange, and black stripes made a repeating series of pyramids on the blanket. The wool was scratchy on her cheek and the woman closed her eyes and fell asleep.
The storm beyond the door roared like a distant sea.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Harlan