Authors: Stephen Baxter
But Gisco called down in his own tongue, ‘Fall back! Down there – fall back!’ To the blank astonishment of the Hatti, the Carthaginian soldiers broke and ran, as if leaving the
way into the city clear.
Sili brought forward a lit taper. At arm’s length, cautiously, he applied it to the sludge as it emerged from the nozzle.
And the stream turned into a jet of fire, liquid, dense, brilliant, yellow-white, that poured from the hose and rained down over the Hatti and their allies below. Where it touched a man it
burned furiously, and though the men rolled on the ground and beat at the flames with their bare hands, it would not be doused. One man hurled himself into a horse trough, but even water would not
quench the flaming liquid, which clung and scorched and blazed.
The men holding the hose had been terrified when this fiery breath had leapt from the nozzle. They would have abandoned their place if not for Gisco’s roar. Now they yelled in triumph, as
the Hatti below screamed. But then the hose burst, just behind the nozzle, showering the men’s hands and arms with burning stuff. They fell back howling, burning.
Gisco pushed them aside and ordered two more men forward. ‘Bring that fresh hose! Bring it now!’
Nelo stared, at the carnage outside by the gate where screaming men were turning to human torches, and inside this gatehouse where soldiers he had barracked with just last night rolled and
writhed in agony, and Suniatus and the other man pumped, terrified, and he drew and drew.
In the Sea of Indh, the ship was struck by a great storm.
There had already been trouble, from bandits in the water and boats and rafts full of nestspills, all imploring passage. The great continent of Indh, to the north of here, was in turmoil as
Mongols invaded from the north, fleeing the cold, to meet ferocious resistance from the Hindu population and the Turkish sultans who ruled them. Avatak had watched Bayan and the rest of the crew
fend off skinny, half-starved nestspills with oars and pikes as they crowded around on their waterlogged craft, some of them holding up infants for sanctuary. All this added to the anxiety of the
crew, who, Avatak learned, were much perturbed by the disruption of wind and weather patterns which had always been predictable on these great ocean highways. Even without human threats sailing had
become a much more chancy business.
And now, the storm. It took days to gather. The first sign Avatak noticed was a steadily rising swell that lapped against the ship’s hull, gathering into white-flecked waves that rocked
the vessel. That was all: the air was calm, the sky clear of cloud, only the sea was restless. But the sailors watched the weather anxiously, muttering in the coarse Persian that was their common
argot that it was not the season to expect such conditions. Then a lid of feathery cloud covered the sky, and descended, horribly quickly. Lost in grey fog, the sailors began to make fast the sails
and lash loose goods and fittings in place. The captain brusquely told the passengers to stay in their cabins, and they were given a couple of days’ ration of biscuits and beer to keep them
Pyxeas had barely stirred from the cabin anyway, and complained only when the rocking of the ship, the howl of the wind, disturbed his concentration. Avatak spent a lot of time standing at the
window, holding down the scraped leather cover to keep the draught out of the cabin. He watched the sea surge, and the wind tearing at the crests of the waves, scattering spray that flew
horizontally. He began to see strange sights in that sea, trees uprooted, a dead cow floating with its legs stuck up in the air – debris from the land where the storm must already have
struck. He saw nestspills too, their fragile craft smashed, bloated bodies drifting in rags.
Still the seas rose, still the winds gathered until no man could stand on deck, still the clouds raced over the sky, dark and menacing. And suddenly the rain lashed down, coming in horizontally,
hammering against the hull, leaking through the slightest gap. It washed into the cabin and over the scholar’s pages, evoking furious complaint, unless Avatak held the leather cover firmly in
place with both hands.
Then, suddenly, the storm went away. The sea was calm again, the rain vanished, the winds dropped. Avatak and Pyxeas exchanged puzzled glances; this did not seem natural. The air felt warmer
than it had done for days, warm and humid, sticky. Avatak cautiously peered out of his window. By a peculiar golden light he saw a flat sea littered with debris – some of it having come from
the ship, barrels, what looked like a snapped mast – but, further out, there was a mass of cloud, low, racing by.
‘The eye of the storm,’ Pyxeas said, marvelling. ‘Remarkable. I’ve heard travellers tell of it; I never expected to experience it myself. But don’t relax, Avatak;
the storm is not done with us yet.’
He was right. Soon that wall of cloud roared towards the ship, and they were plunged back into the storm as abruptly as they had left it.
The ship survived the storm, thanks largely, Avatak suspected, to the clear-thinking command of al-Quds, although if you listened to Bayan’s bragging it was all down to
him. A handful of crew had been lost, one passenger, and one hold had been broken open and flooded, drowning a few pedigree goats.
On the first calm day, Avatak went down to the ship’s galley and returned with a small tray. A
small tray. It bore two biscuits, flour and fat baked and compressed until they
were hard as fired clay, and one sack of weak beer. Thus their ration for the day.
Pyxeas, as was his wont, had spread his work over the cabin’s two bunks, the small table, the open trunk, even the floor, and Avatak had to be careful where he stepped. He found an empty
spot on one of the bunks and set down the tray. Then he sat on the floor, his back against the closed door, and got to work at mouthing one of the biscuits, hoping to soften it a little before a
first attempt at biting into it.
The ship rolled, and Pyxeas looked around uneasily, as if remembering where he was. ‘You’re back! I didn’t see you return.’
Avatak was used to that. ‘Scholar, when you work, you see nothing else
The wind shifted, and a slaughterhouse stink drifted up from the holds.
Pyxeas pressed a cloth to his nose. ‘The ability to concentrate is a rare gift, boy,’ he said. ‘One you would do well to acquire. I myself would never have dreamed I would be
able to achieve substantial work in conditions like this, in this, this
Pyxeas noticed the tray with the single remaining biscuit, and the sack of beer. ‘What’s this, breakfast?’
Avatak sighed. ‘Dinner, scholar. It’s later than you think. But actually that’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, rolled into one. Not even bribing Bayan helped this
‘I thought the captain promised to reprovision. Fresh fruit, he said! Fresh water!’
‘He’s not been able to put into the ports, scholar.’
‘Plague,’ Avatak said simply.
Pyxeas grunted. ‘It would take a brave king to put his people at such risk for the sake of stocking up a few hungry sailors. Well, the spread of plagues is to be expected – I wrote
it down in my notes some years ago, you can check it. When people are stirred up and on the move, and animal populations too, plagues are carried from their natural reservoirs, even carried between
continents. It’s about time al-Quds sacrificed a few of those prize cattle down in the holds to feed us. I must have a word with him, I must . . .’ He gazed at the biscuit, picked it
up, then set it down again, as if puzzled by its very presence. Then he glanced at Avatak. ‘The numbers, boy – it’s all in the numbers. It always was.’
Distracted, the scholar cast about, shifting in his chair, and brought together lists of numbers, either in the hand of a scribe or his own spidery writing, some set out neatly on scrolls or
books, some scrawled on scraps of paper and parchment. ‘Thank the mothers Bolghai was good enough to have his results translated into the Northlander system. Here now – can you
see?’ He pointed to two lists of numbers.
‘See what? I’m sorry, scholar.’
‘Of course you won’t see it, of course not, it’s been staring me in the face for years, it
, and I can make no firm conclusion, not yet . . . Look! What drives
the weather, I mean the grand changes like the coming of a longwinter?’
‘The sun in the sky,’ Avatak said promptly; he had absorbed that much.
‘Yes. Good. The world bobs about like a duck on the Khan’s ornamental ponds in Daidu. The higher the sun is at midsummer, the warmer the world is that year. But
warm? We Northlanders have been keeping records of the weather for millennia. And in those records I, Pyxeas, have found a good measure of that changing warmth.
‘Look here –
is a list of years, and
is a list of solar elevations at Etxelur at midday on midsummer day on each of those years. And
Avatak, record the last spring frost of each year and the first frost of winter. Pieces of information easily and unambiguously recorded, and though they vary with circumstance the overall trend is
clearly related to the warmth of the year. Can you see the correlation between the two? Oh, it takes a trained eye. Avatak, these tables show conclusively that the elevation of the sun drives our
climate, as indicated by the span of the frost.
‘But the tidy patterns break down! Centuries, millennia back, you can see it. The world should have got colder, quicker. The longwinter should already be here! I had long suspected this,
from historical accounts, anecdotes. Now, after intensive study, I have assembled quantitative proof.’
‘Then there is another agent, acting to postpone the longwinter.’
‘Yes. Good! And that agent is?’
Avatak considered before answering; he had fallen into Pyxeas’ verbal traps before. He said carefully, ‘You
that the agent has something to do with the various airs
Bolghai was studying.’
‘Yes! Especially the fixed air, which holds back the heat. Good. But how? And why? That is the question I wrestle with. And I
can’t see it, I can’t. Though I
suspect I edge closer to the truth.’ He glared at Avatak. ‘Suppose I fell over the side of this wretched tub tomorrow. Would you be able to communicate all this to the scholars of
‘No,’ Avatak said frankly.
Pyxeas nodded. ‘And could they progress the work without me? No! Those dolts in Etxelur have always been too busy questioning me and my methodology rather than
Very well! I, Pyxeas, must resolve this planetary conundrum, or go insane in the attempt. Yes?’
‘Yes, scholar.’ Avatak took a moment to pop his biscuit into the sack of beer, hoping it would soften a bit more, before he bent with Pyxeas over the tablets, scrolls and books.
Nelo saw it all, that fateful day, the day that everything changed, for Fabius, for Carthage – for everybody Saw it all from beginning to end. Drew it all, and
It began before dawn, on another chill late summer’s day. Nelo, in his barrack, was woken by a shake from Gisco, unexpectedly gentle, not the usual boot in the back. ‘Out you get,
aurochs,’ he murmured. ‘Got a special job for you. But keep quiet about it. No need to disturb the other cock-pullers in their slumbers. You too, Suniatus.’
‘What did I say?’ Gisco snapped, in a whisper. ‘Keep that mouth of yours shut.’
The barrack room was dark, with only a single sputtering lantern burning in one corner. After another night in here the air was thick with beery farts, the acid stink of rotting feet. Only Nelo
and Suniatus were moving; the rest of the troop slumbered on.
Suniatus pulled on socks and boots. ‘Just us, Sergeant?’
‘Why? I mean, why me and
?’ He jerked a thumb at Nelo.
‘Because I can trust you two. Yes, you as well, Northlander, I know I can rely on you to follow an order while keeping your mouth shut, and you can do this little job for me and still be
free to scribble your drawings for the rest of the day. This army of ours is full of useless Libyans, and useless sods, and useless Libyan sods, and two reliable men are hard to find.’
Suniatus grinned. ‘Hear that, aurochs? You’re reliable.’ He picked up his sword in its scabbard. ‘So what’s the job, Sergeant?’
‘To save Carthage.’
‘Just get on with it.’
Nelo grabbed his weapons and satchel and made for the door. Suniatus couldn’t resist clowning; he walked on exaggerated tiptoe and shoved Nelo in the back, trying to make him stumble. But
they got out of the barracks without disturbing anybody else.
They emerged onto a silent street. The sand that had blown in from the desert scraped on the cobbles under Nelo’s boots. Gisco had left a lantern by the barracks door; he raised this now
and scrutinised a bit of paper. Nelo saw it was a list of addresses, all in Megara. This barracks, by the city wall, was on the periphery of the suburb.
Suniatus glanced over the sergeant’s shoulder. ‘I know the first address, sir. That street anyhow. There’s a whorehouse where they have these Balearic women
‘All right, Suni. Just lead the way.’
The soldier strode confidently through the darkened streets. With experience Suniatus was becoming a good soldier, Nelo realised, for all his bullying and bluster. The word in the barracks was
that he would already have had a few promotions if not for his habit of punching out his comrades when drunk.
The sky was a lid of cloud, the city all but pitch-dark save for the occasional gleam of a lantern in the houses and shut-up shops and shrines. Nelo wasn’t sure what time it was, but these
were the hours of the curfew the suffetes had imposed months before, and the streets were empty – silent save only for distant soft whistles, the signals of the patrolling guard. One of
Fabius’ iron rules was that the streets had to be kept clear, there could be nobody sleeping out in the open, in alleyways or doorways, as had become common since the city had filled up with
nestspills. The rule seemed to be working well. Occasionally you would hear a scurrying in the dark, a rustle, perhaps footsteps, a rat or wild dog, or maybe some human scavenger. But Nelo, eyes
wide open, saw nothing.