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Authors: Walter Jon Williams

Tags: #High Tech, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Suspense, #Fiction, #Short Stories, #Time travel

Implied Spaces

BOOK: Implied Spaces
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Implied Spaces

by

Walter Jon Williams

Contents

01

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

09

10

11

12

13

14

15

Veditur

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

Excelsior!

01

 

With long strides the swordsman walked across the desert. Gravel crunched beneath his sturdy leather boots. His eyes were dark, his nose a blade. He wore robes, very dusty, and a flowing headdress, all suitable for the high stony land on which he walked. On his back he carried a pack with dried food, a skin shelter, and a rolled-up carpet to lie on. Though the sun in the sky was small and pale, its heat still quavered on the horizon.

The land rolled in gentle hills, endless as the ocean. The soil was grey and covered with stones the same shade of grey. The air smelled of dust. There was little vegetation. The sky was cloudless and twilit, and the sun never moved.

The swordsman’s blade was carried in a plain wooden scabbard covered with cracked leather. The broadsword was heavy, single-edged, broader in the foible than the forte. Its name was Tecmessa.

The man walked beside a wagon road, two dusty ruts that carried in a straight line from one horizon to the next. The iron-shod wheels of numerous wagons had thrown all the stones out of the ruts, or ground them to powder, but the swordsman found the ruts too dusty, and chose instead to walk on the stones near the road. The thick soles of his boots made this less trying than it might otherwise have been.

While the man made only an occasional detour from the road, the slim form of his companion roamed left and right of the track, as if on a series of small errands. She returned from such a side trip, and spoke.

“A spider, common and brown. And ants, common and black. The former is happy to feed on the latter.”

“Anything uncommon?”

“Alas, no.”

The man coughed briefly, the sound smothered by the strip of turban he had drawn over his mouth and nose to keep out the dust.

“Our trek threatens to become tedious,” he remarked.

“Threatens?”

There was a moment of silence.

“Sarcasm,” said the man, “is a poor companion on a long journey.”

“So,” said his companion, “are spiders and ants.”

They came to the mild crest of a rolling hill and looked into the valley beneath. Shrubs cast a dark shadow on part of the valley floor, and the two left the trail to investigate. As they approached there was a startling clap of wings, and a flock of birds thundered into the sky.

“Quail,” said the swordsman.

She turned her green eyes to him. “That implies there is enough here for quail to eat.”

The swordsman raised a gloved hand to a drooping branch with long, dark green leaves. “Why don’t you investigate?”

His companion darted beneath the shrubs while the swordsman looked at the branch with interest. He turned his eyes toward the ground and saw broken branches, debris, and a scattering of long brown seed pods. He squatted on his heels and picked up one of the pods. It crumbled in his hand and he extracted a pair of seeds, which he put in a pouch on his belt.

His companion returned.

“Ants and spiders,” she said.

“Anything else?”

“An elderly tortoise, and a snake anticipating the birth of many baby quail.”

“What kind of snake?”

“Bullsnake. Long as your arm.”

The swordsmen opened his hand and let fall the remains of the seed pod.

“This appears to be some kind of dwarf mimosa,” he said. “Mimosa can tolerate drought, but they’re hardly desert plants. Yet here they are.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Thriving.”

The man looked at her. “What did I say about sarcasm?”

The pair returned to the road. No earth-shaking discoveries were made. Grey lizards the color of the desert scurried out of their way. Wind swirled dust over and around them. They paused for refreshment at a well, where they sat in the shade of an abandoned caravanserai and ate a meal of dried meat, dried apricots, and stale hardtack.

An hour later, traversing the bottom of another valley, they were ambushed by a troop of cavalry.

Riders came rolling over the hill just ahead, spreading out in a crescent as grey dust rose in a pall. They didn’t charge, but advanced at a controlled trot. The swordsman paused and considered.

“How many?” he asked.

“Seventeen. Eleven with lances, two with swords, four with bows. And their beasts of course, some of which seem ill-natured and prone to violence.”

The man frowned beneath the cloth that covered his mouth. He took a step back with his left foot and loosened Tecmessa in its sheath.

The riders came forward and drew rein about ten paces away. The leader was a massive figure, broad as a wall, with pallid skin touched with the grey dust of the desert. His eyes were an eerie gold. A few links of mail, large and crudely forged, hung from beneath his robes. He carried a long lance, and rode astride a bipedal lizard with long, sturdy legs, an occipital crest, and sharp teeth.

“A troll,” murmured the swordsman’s companion. “What joy.”

There were other trolls among the riders. Others were humans of varied hues and genders. One woman had four arms, and carried two bows, both with arrows nocked.

“Hail, traveler,” the troll said, in a voice like boulders gargling.

“Hail,” said the swordsman.

The gold eyes regarded him. “Have you lost your mount?”

“I come on foot.”

“You have chosen a long road to walk. Where are you bound?”

“Gundapur.”

“And your business there…?”

“I have no business there, or indeed anywhere. I travel for my soul’s sake, not for profit.”

The troll narrowed his gold eyes. His mount hissed and bared slab-shaped teeth.

“You will find the journey dangerous,” the troll said.

“I am not indifferent to danger,” said the swordsman, “but I will walk the path in any case.”

“Your name?”

The swordsman took a long breath, then spoke. “I believe it is customary, before asking the name of a stranger, to introduce oneself, and in such a case as this to state clearly the right by which one asks.”

A puzzled look creased the troll’s face.

“I perceive you are unused to the impersonal pronoun,” the swordsman said. “Allow me to rephrase in the second person plural.
Who the hell are you people, and why are you barring my way?”

For a moment the troll could not decide between anger and laughter. He chose the latter. A grin split his huge grey face.”

“Stranger, you have courage!”

The swordsman shrugged. “I claim no more than the normal share,” he replied.

Laughter gurgled from the troll. “I am Captain Grax,” he said. “These—” Gesturing. “—are my Free Companions. We’re employed as caravan guards on the route from Lake Toi to Gundapur.”

The swordsman drew his feet together and offered a modest bow.

“My name is Aristide,” he said. “My companion is Bitsy.” He looked at the Free Companions. “You seem to have misplaced your caravan,” he said.

“It’s ahead, at the Ulwethi Caravanserai. We’re patrolling, looking for bandits who are infesting the district.” The gold eyes narrowed. “You could be a bandit scout.”

“If so,” said Aristide, “I’m a poor one. I’m without a mount, and I walked directly into your ambush.”

“True.” Captain Grax considered, his cone-shaped ears flickering. “You have seen no one on the road?”

“Nothing but ants, spiders, and the occasional tortoise.”

“We’ll continue on for a while, then, in case you’re lying. If you are, we’ll come back and kill you after we’ve disposed of your allies.”

“Good hunting to you,” said Aristide, and bowed again.

Grax and his Companions parted and rode around Aristide, on his trail. Aristide adjusted his turban and continued on his way, conversing the while with his companion.

In less than four turns of the glass he came upon the caravanserai, a blocky stone fort crouched over an oasis. Animals and people swarmed about the place, more than could be contained within its walls. A pen for extra animals had been built out of dry stone, while many brightly colored tents were pitched near the oasis. On the near side of the glittering pool, Aristide could see what appeared to be a market.

Far from moving on, the travelers seemed to have settled into this remote outpost for a long stay.

Bitsy gave the swordsman a green-eyed look over her shoulder, then slipped away to conduct an investigation.

The swordsman walked past the stone corral and a row of tents to the elaborate arched door of the caravanserai. He pulled away the strip of turban that lay across his nose and mouth, revealing unshaven cheeks and lips shadowed by a heavy mustache. He asked the guard where he could find the seneschal.

“His office is by the pool of life.”

Aristide entered the great stone building and found the shrine with its menhir and silvery pool, and next to it the booth of the timekeeper, who—as the swordsman approached—turned the glass and struck eight o’clock on his gong.

The seneschal’s office was behind the timekeeper’s booth. The seneschal was a lean man with a sly look in his eye, and a paper-thin mustache that followed the line of his upper lip. He smelled of strong tobacco.

“You will be provided with food for one hundred and forty-four turns of the glass,” he said, “and fodder if you need it. Afterward you’ll have to purchase rations at the market.”

Aristide wondered if the seneschal was slipping food and fodder to the market, and making a profit with the items the sultan intended he give away.

“What’s causing the delay?” Aristide asked. “Is there war in Gundapur?”

“The area has been plagued by an unusually rapacious troop of bandits. The caravans have stopped here until their combined companies of guards feel equal to the challenge, or until the sultan sends a force to relieve us.”

Aristide looked out the arched window of the office, at the swarm of people and animals in the fort’s courtyard.

“There is a small army here,” he said.

The seneschal touched the corner of his little mustache with a long finger. “The last group to leave consisted of three caravans with nearly sixty guards. They were routed. A few of the guards returned, but none of those they professed to guard.”

“How many bandits were there?”

The seneschal’s lip curled. “Swarms of them, according to the survivors. But of course that’s what the ones who ran
would
say, is it not?”

Aristide looked at him. “They weren’t orcs by any chance, were they?’

“Not according to the survivors, no.”

“At least we’ve escaped cliché,” said Aristide. “You have informed Gundapur of the situation?”

“I’ve sent messages. It’s impossible to know if the messengers were intercepted on the way to the capital.” He shrugged. “In time the government will wonder at the lack of caravans and send a force to relieve us.”

“If you wish to send another message,” Aristide said, “I will carry it.”

The seneschal raised an eyebrow. “You will brave the bandits?”

“Bandits exist to be braved, though I will avoid them if I can. In any case, I shall accept your hospitality for a few dozen turnings of the glass, and then continue on my way.”

The seneschal gave a little smile. “Is it pride or foolhardiness that causes you to make such a decision? The two often go together.”

“I claim no more than the normal share of either,” said Aristide.

On taking his leave of the seneschal, Aristide inquired where he could find the caravan masters. The first he spoke to was Masoud the Infirm, a lean, leathery man with long grey-white hair and a hacking cough. Masoud had been at the caravanserai for the longest amount of time, nearly three months, and had a small apartment in the building itself. Tapestries hung on the walls, and the floor was thick with carpets. He courteously offered, and Aristide accepted, a cup of tea.

“Hasn’t enough time been wasted?” Aristide said. “There must be a force of sufficient size to deal with any bandits here, surely.”

“Any ordinary bandits,” said Masoud. “But these are a particularly vicious band. They capture whole caravans, over a dozen so far, and nothing is heard from the captives ever again. None are ransomed, none escape, and none appear in the slave markets. It is said that the bandits serve a god who demands human sacrifice.”

Masoud’s voice cracked on the last few words, and he coughed heavily for a few moments while Aristide politely waited for the fit to subside.

“If the bandits serve an evil god,” Aristide said in time, “then fighting them will surely grant a warrior spiritual merit.”

“Let the sultan’s army earn such merit,” Masoud said. “They could use it.” Again he coughed, then wiped spittle from his lips with a napkin.

BOOK: Implied Spaces
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