Read The Fall of Tartarus Online

Authors: Eric Brown

The Fall of Tartarus

The Fall of Tartarus

By Eric Brown

 

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank the editors of the magazines where these
stories first appeared: Scott Edelman, Paul Fraser and David Pringle.

 

Destiny
on Tartarus

[Spectrum SF 2, 2000]

 

 

I’d
heard many a tale about Tartarus Major, how certain continents were
technological backwaters five hundred years behind the times; how the Church
governed half the planet with a fist of iron, and yet how, across scattered
islands and sequestered lands, a thousand bizarre and heretic cults prospered
too. I’d heard how a lone traveller was hardly safe upon the planet’s surface,
prey to wild animals and cut-throats. Most of all I’d heard that, in two
hundred years, Tartarus would be annihilated when its sun exploded in the
magnificent stellar suicide of a supernova.

It
was hardly the planet on which to spend a year of one’s youth, and many friends
had tried to warn me off the trip. But I was at that age when high adventure
would provide an exciting contrast to the easy life I had lived so far.
Besides, I had a valid reason for visiting Tartarus, a mission no degree of
risk could forestall.

I
made the journey from Earth aboard a hyperlight sailship like any other that
plied the lanes between the Thousand Worlds. The spaceport at Baudelaire
resembled the one I had left at Athens four days earlier: a forest of masts in
which the sails of the ships were florid blooms in a hundred pastel shades,
contrasting with the stark geometry of the monitoring towers and stabilising
gantries. The port was the planet’s only concession to the modern day, though.
Beyond, a hurly-burly anarchy reigned, which to my pampered sensibilities seemed
positively medieval. In my naivety I had expected a rustic atmosphere, sedate
and unhurried.

The
truth, when I stepped from the port and into the streets of the capital city,
was a rude awakening. Without mechanised transport, the by-ways were thronged
with hurrying pedestrians and carts drawn by the local bovine-equivalent;
without baffles to dampen the noise, the city was a cacophony of clashing
sounds: the constant din of shouted conversation, the cries of vendors, the
lowing moans of draught-animals. The streets were without the directional
lasers in various colours to guide one’s way, without sliding walkways, and
even without airborne deodorants to combat the more noisome odours, in this
case the miasma of unwashed bodies and animal excreta. My horror must have been
evident as I stood transfixed before the gates of the spaceport.

A
stranger at my side, a tall man in Terran dress - seemingly he too had just
arrived on Tartarus - caught my eye and smiled.

‘My
fifth time on this hell-hole,’ he said, ‘and still my first reaction to the
place is shock.’ He mopped the sweat from his brow and turned to a
street-vendor selling cooled juices from a cart. He signalled for one, then
glanced at me. ‘Care to join me? I can recommend them - an antidote to this heat.’

I
decided that a cool refreshment would go down very well before I sought my
hotel. The vendor set about blending the drinks in a shaker.

‘First
time on Tartarus?’ the stranger asked.

‘My
very first,’ I said.

‘You’ll
get used to it - you might even come to love the place. I’d advise you to get
out of the city. The beauty of Tartarus is in the deserted wilds. The planet at
sunset is something magical.’ He stared across the street, at the great swollen
orb of the orange sun setting behind a skyline of three-storey wooden
buildings.

The
vendor passed us two tall mugs. ‘Three lek, three lek,’ he said, pointing to
each of us.

‘Allow
me,’ the stranger said. From his coat pocket he withdrew a credit chip and
proffered it to the vendor.

The
vendor was arguing. ‘No credit chip! Only coins!’

‘But
I have no coins, or for that matter notes, until I find a bank.’ The stranger
looked embarrassed.

The
vendor waved away the stranger’s credit chip and transferred his attention to
me. ‘You - coins. Six lek.’

‘Allow
me to pay for these,’ I said. I looked around for somewhere to deposit the mugs
while I found my money pouch.

‘That’s
very kind of you,’ he said.

He
saw the difficulty I was having and, before I could pass him the mugs, reached
towards my pocket. ‘Do you mind? Please, allow me,’ he said. ‘This one?’

I
nodded, turning so that he could take the pouch from my coat pocket. He opened
the drawstrings and withdrew six lek, paid the vendor and then returned the
pouch to my pocket.

The
transaction accomplished, the vendor pushed his cart away.

I
took a long draught of the delicious juice, like no concoction I had ever
tasted. ‘Do you know the planet well?’ I asked.

‘I’ve
spent a couple of years on Tartarus,’ he said. ‘Let’s say that I have a
traveller’s knowledge of the place. Buzatti, by the way.’

‘Sinclair,’
I said. ‘Sinclair Singer.’

He
drained his mug and dropped it into the gutter, and I did the same. ‘If you’re
dining tonight,’ Buzatti said, ‘perhaps I could return the compliment? I’m
staying at the Rising Sun, along Bergamot Walk. How about dinner? Around nine?’

I
told him I would be delighted, and took his proffered hand. ‘Around nine it
is,’ I said.

‘Till
then.’ He saluted, turned, and was soon lost to sight in the crowd flowing down
the street.

I
found a rickshaw - or rather a rickshaw driver found me - and I gave as my
destination the Imperial Hotel. As I sat back in the padded seat and was
ferried swiftly down the surging stream of packed humanity, I felt gladdened by
my chance encounter. My major fear had been to be alone in the alien city; now
I had an urbane dining companion, and one who was familiar with this strange
world.

My
optimism rose still further when the Imperial Hotel turned out to be an old,
ivied building set back from the street in its own placid lawns. I paid the
driver in the units I had used aboard the sailship, as he had no machine with
which to take my chip. Then I dismounted, hauled my travelling bag up the wide
steps, and entered the cool foyer.

I
had had the foresight to book a room from Earth, via the shipping agency. I
gave my name to the clerk. ‘Three nights, Mr Singer . . . That will be three
hundred shellings, please.’

I
pulled my money bag from the pocket of my coat and withdrew a bundle of notes,
which I proffered to the clerk. He frowned at the wad in my outstretched hand.

‘Is
there some problem?’ I asked.

‘Indeed
there is,’ he said, taking the notes and laying them upon the counter. ‘Behold,
they are worthless scraps of paper - not even competent forgeries!’

‘But
that’s impossible!’ I cried. ‘I exchanged my Terran notes for Tartarean
currency at the bank in the port! They would never have robbed—’

‘Then
someone else has taken the liberty,’ he said.

I
recalled that Buzatti had helped me with my money bag. Only he might have
robbed me of my life savings! I very nearly collapsed, overcome with despair at
what I might do now, and self-loathing that I had been such a fool.

Buzatti
had given me the name of his hotel. ‘Do you know if there is a hotel on
Bergamot Walk called the Rising Sun?’ I asked.

The
clerk frowned at me. ‘No hotel of that name exists,’ he replied.

I
told him that I would book a room for one night, and paid for it with the spare
notes I had in my trouser pocket.

He
completed various forms and handed me the key. ‘And I’d contact the police if I
were you, sir.’

In
a daze I made my way to the elevator and rode to the third floor. Once in my
room I dropped my bag, slammed the door and sat on the bed, disconsolate at the
prospect of an early end to my quest.

The
famous night lights of Tartarus were flickering in the southern sky, a writhing
aurora that danced on the horizon like the flames of hell. I stared through the
window, the beauty of the spectacle and the skyline of the city in silhouette
serving to remind me of how little time I would now be spending here.

My
mind in a limbo of uncertainty, I sorted through my bag and found the
persona-cube. I carried it onto the balcony, placed it on the table, and sat
with my feet lodged on the balcony rail. I was loath to activate the device; at
this juncture my self-esteem was at a low ebb, without it being drained any
further.

I
pulled the cube towards me. On impulse my fingertips found the press-panel. In
truth, I was lonely and in need of company - even the dubious company provided
by the persona contained within the cube.

A
sylvan scene appeared in the heart of the crystal: a vista of trees, a summer’s
day, the wind soughing through the foliage with a sound like the crashing of
surf.

A
figure strolled into view, emerging from between the rows of trees and
approaching the front plane of the cube. The image magnified, so that the tall,
broad-shouldered figure filled the scene. It had been a while since I had last
sought his company. I felt a constriction in my throat at the sight of him, a
strange anxiety that visited me whenever I was in his presence - compounded
this time by what I had to tell him.

Was
it a measure of my lack of self-confidence that I felt I had to ask his advice
at the risk of earning his opprobrium?

‘Father
. . .’

Alerted
to my presence, he smiled out at me. ‘Isn’t it beautiful, Sinclair?’ He
gestured about him. ‘Big Sur, California. Where are you? How are you keeping?’

I
swallowed. ‘On Tartarus,’ I replied. ‘I’m well.’

‘Tartarus
Major?’ he said.

I
nodded. I had never been able to bring myself to tell him that Tartarus was
where my flesh and blood father had met his end.

‘Well?’
he snapped, impatient.

‘Yes,’
I said. I still made the mistake of not answering his questions verbally: the
verisimilitude of his likeness persuaded me that he could observe my every
movement and gesture.

‘What
are you doing on Tartarus, Sinclair?’ he asked.

I
shrugged, then remembered myself and said, ‘I’m curious. I wanted to see the
place. It’s unique, after all . . .’

The
persona of my father before me was just that, a memory-response programme
loaded into the cube’s computer banks ten years ago - a present from my father
to my mother. I always considered it a measure of his cruelty - or his
unthinking sentimentality - that he should have made a gift of such a thing
shortly before he walked out on her.

She
had given me the cube six years ago, on my tenth birthday, programmed to
respond to my voice only. ‘Here, your father. It’s all you’ll ever see of him,
Sinclair.’

Not
long after that, I found a letter from my father on my mother’s bureau. I did
not have the opportunity to read it before my mother entered her study and
found me lurking suspiciously - but I did memorise his return address: that of
a solicitor in Baudelaire. Over the next three nights, in the safety of my
bedroom, I had written a long letter to my absent father, and added a
postscript that upon my sixteenth birthday I would make the voyage to Tartarus
and attempt to find him.

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