Grove of the Stone Trees

by Joshua Steely

“Wow. Well, never say you can’t trust a copper salt merchant,” Connor said.

Ayumi gave him an inquiring glance.

“Is that a common saying?”

“But what did they put it way out here for?” he continued, gesturing the screen where their ship’s camera focused in on the alien structure. “Two jumps in dead space, not so much as an asteroid within a parsec of it.”

“That might be a bit of an exaggeration,” Ayumi said, smiling, as she watched the telemetry unfold. “But, yes. You’re right. We never would’ve found it without the trail of rumors that began with a wine-sodden copper salt merchant.”

“Was he? I didn’t know there was a market for wine-sodden copper salts.”

Her playful punch took him in the shoulder.

“Well, it’s definitely Indar,” she leaned over by him and touched the screen to zoom in on different parts of the image.

“Very ornate,” he said.

“Yeah, the fluted buttresses were reserved for high architecture. If it weren’t so small, I’d think we’d stumbled on a royal fortress.”

“But this thing…” he looked at the instruments. “Two hundred meters in diameter.”

Their little vessel, the Tesla, closed the distance quickly, and Connor started getting more detailed readings from his instruments.

“Live energy signatures, and lots of them. This thing looks untouched.”

Ayumi sucked in a breath, showing the first signs of excitement. “We could really have something here.”

“If we’re particularly lucky, it’ll be something the Senlath don’t want us to have.” Connor couldn’t keep the note of bitterness fully out of his voice. Despite being humanity’s allies in a losing war against the Shadowborn, the Senlath remained stubbornly close-mouthed about sharing what they knew about Indar military technology. They said the Indar had been a wicked and terrible race; it was just as well they were extinct, and better for them to be forgotten.

A clear ideological opposition stood between them; the Indar had been a warrior race. The Senlath, on the other hand, were very nearly pacifist unless pushed to the brink of extinction.

Which the Shadowborn had done.

Well, if the Senlath wanted to die for their principles, Connor just wished they wouldn’t take humanity down with them.

“Hey.” Ayumi put her hand on his neck.

She could say a lot with her eyes.

After a minute he took her hand.

“You’re beautiful, d’you know that?” he said, kissing the back of her hand.

Her lips curled mischievously.

“I know. You’re not so ugly yourself, Callahan.”

He turned back to his instruments.

Tesla doesn’t see anything standing in the way of us docking. You want to go explore the unlooted relics of the Indar Empire?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for Mars,” she said.

Connor took them in carefully and linked up with the Indar portal.

“Artificial gravity good,” Ayumi read off Tesla’s intel. “Atmosphere golden, lighting minimal. So far, so very good.”

Indar life support settings were ideal for humans because, the Senlath said, the two races were genetically close cousins. Which raised all manner of questions the Senlath couldn’t – or weren’t willing to – answer.

Through the airlocks, they came into a corridor, with very dim lighting indeed. Pillars lined the way, carved like trees with intertwining vines about them, and in their branches stood statues of unfamiliar little creatures with glass eyes. A single chamber lay off to the right, with an elaborately sculpted doorway.

Connor applied the appropriate tool, and forced the door. He glanced inside, probing about with his light globe.

“Ayumi, hon?”

“Mhm?”

“I want to examine this room more thoroughly before we go on.”

“And?”

“And there are the remains of a long-dead Indar – ”

“Pass.”

He paused, looking uncertainly down the corridor.

“You sure you’re fine waiting here?”

“I said I didn’t want to go rummaging about with a dead body laying there,” she said, “not that I’d lost all nerve and become completely helpless.”

“Yeah. Got it.”

He went in and scouted around. He picked up a couple of projectile weapons from a rack, not particularly valuable, and a ceremonial long-bladed spear which hung on the wall. It might bring a decent price, from a collector.

On a Spartan desk lay an Indar computer console, with its strange array of inset spheres. Without any particular optimism, Connor activated it. The familiar pattern of coruscating lights manifested in the air before him. He turned it off.

Every functional Indar computer ever discovered had been locked down with that same bizarre, impossibly complex encryption. The best minds and machines on earth had been laboring half a century trying to decode it.

Prognosis: depressing.

The Senlath thought they were looking at a failsafe that activated in response to the Indar extinction event, whatever that was. Connor mostly accepted that theory. But part of him thought it might be the Senlath’s doing, somehow.

At last he turned to the undesirable task of examining the room’s ancient inhabitant. This proved by far the most fruitful part of his search.

When he came out, Ayumi cast him an impatient glance.

“What took you so long?” she asked.

“Bored?”

“You’re lucky I’m still here. The ghosts of several Indar princes have come by and asked me out.”

“You say yes to any of them?”

“I’m thinking about it. Find anything?”

He set the weapons and the spear aside, and went right to the good stuff.

“One key,” he said, revealing the flat, golden rectangle with its pattern of embedded pips.

“Helpful, if we can find the lock.”

“And,” he went on, “one Indar battle gauntlet.”

“Show me.” Her eyes were dazzling.

He brought out the black metal glove, so surprisingly light and supple.

“That is exquisite workmanship,” she said, hovering her light globe in close. “It reminds me of models I’ve seen of gauntlets from the early empire period. This must have been an important soldier. Hm. Oh, there’s an inscription.”

“Can you make it out?”

“Mm. ‘The weapon of’ …oh, it’s no good. It’s a name; I can’t pronounce it. Has at least five glottal stops.”

“Well, this should set us up nicely,” he said.

“Maybe. Or maybe you should wear it.”

“Are you serious?”

“Put it on,” she said. “We could call it an early anniversary present.”

“Ah,” he slipped on the gauntlet, and with a gentle whir it adjusted perfectly to his arm. “Oh, yeah! Fits like a glove.”

“Have you ever used one?” she asked.

“Yes. Well, briefly. Happened during the Battle of Cordoba. I picked one up off a dead soldier; but my major commandeered it after the battle.”

“Well,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek, “consider this the intercession of justice.”

They moved on down the passage, which turned and came to a stop before a very ornate and imposing set of doors. Connor produced the dead Indar’s key.

Darkness dominated the cavernous chamber within until they stepped inside. Then a ring of flame burst into life around the perimeter, leaving only the slender pathway they walked.

“That’s dramatic,” Connor said.

“This whole place has something of a ceremonial feel about it, doesn’t it?”

More of the tree pillars ringed the room about, and interspersed between them seven colossal statues of Indar figures in various poses—but all with weapons bared.

“Are these significant?” Connor asked.

Indar archaeology was Ayumi’s thing.

“These are the Seven Legendary Heroes of the Classical Period.”

“And him?”

In the center of the room stood another statue, this one of a winged man whose head most closely resembled a lion.

“Con, that’s got to be a Naië.” Wonder laced her voice. “I’ve read descriptions, but never seen one depicted before. According to the Senlath diplomat Pereth Cir, the Naië was the most essential creature in all Indar mythology, a manifestation of their warrior spirit.”

With the Indar documents all under impenetrable encryption, the few relevant texts of their own that the Senlath saw fit to share were all the reference humanity’s xenoarchaeologists had to work with.

“That sounds promising,” Connor said.

They’d both begun moving towards that fearsome Naië statue, because before its watchful gaze sat a raised dais, above which hovered a green crystalline sphere the size of a human head.

Ayumi stopped at a prudent distance; Connor at just a little less prudent. He ran his instruments.

“What does that say, on the platform?” he asked.

“‘Unto the’…no, that’s diaeresis… ‘Unto the Worthy.’”

“Low energy signal from the sphere itself; stuff around it seems null, so it’s probably hovering on its own. I’m having trouble getting a good read on the composition. Whoa!” He took an alarmed step back. “Energy spik – ”

Everything around them changed in a flash, and for a moment the shift to bright light blinded Connor.

Then his vision came back, and he stood blinking at some alien landscape: rolling hills with thick blue-green grass, and the distant grim rock faces of monumental plateaus.

“-ing,” he finished lamely.

They stood on a hill taller than its fellows, and had atop a grove of petrified trees, many of which stood rooted and branched. In those branches played live versions of the creatures Connor had seen decorating the Indar corridor: some like scaly monkeys, and enormous centipedes, and others like birds with very long, thin beaks.

Connor and Ayumi had appeared in the midst of all of this; and directly in front of them stood a great stone arch, the model for the doorway in the heart of the Indar space station.

“Well,” Ayumi said. And then again, “well…”

“Maybe if we go through the arch?”

But just then the archway began to glow, and Connor and Ayumi both moved hastily back from it. The space inside the arch became golden with light. All the little animals in the grove about them fled with panicky chirps. Then the brightness coalesced and faded, leaving behind a seven-foot-tall figure.

Connor gazed on an undisguisedly robotic monstrosity. Behind the gleaming masculine torso unfurled two vast wings with razor-sharp steel feathers. Its leonine mask held a fixed snarl. In one hand it clasped a sword with a flaming five-foot blade, in the other a length of chain that crackled with electrical discharges.

The Naië lifted its sword in salute, then lashed out with the chain. Connor moved just in time to avoid the sizzling lightning strike.

Connor found his gauntlet already active, working at the speed of his thoughts. He thrust out an open palm and the battle gauntlet’s laser cut a green arc, slicing into the Naië’s left shoulder and leaving smoking metal where it touched.

Ayumi had her pistols out almost as quickly and emptied them into the monster. But the Naië leaped forward, forcing them to scatter to either side to escape the swing of that flaming sword.

“Cover!” Connor shouted. “Ayumi!”

He felt grateful the Naië turned to pursue him. His beam took it with a direct hit, right in the chest; but heavier armor held there, and glowed red rather than giving.

An electric bolt hit the stone tree not two feet from him. He rolled, and had immediately to roll again as the Naië cut a burning furrow with its sword.

He fired, missed, and scrambled to put a few trees between him and the enemy.

“Honey, if you have a shot, take it!”

“Get low, Con!”

He dove.

Four shots rattled off – he could hear by the heavier impacts that she’d switched to a magazine of armor-piercing rounds – two of them striking home. The other two buried in petrified wood, scattering a shower of chips. Then a boom that would have knocked him off his feet rattled his ears.

He hadn’t even known she’d brought a grenade.

The explosion lifted a cloud of smoke. Connor scrambled in Ayumi’s direction, scanning the grove.

“Do you see it?”

“No,” she called.

Then he heard a swoosh above and saw the razor wings zipping overhead. It dove for her.

“Ayumi!”

She tried to get clear, but the Naië closed in on her fast. Connor sprinted with every ounce of energy he could put into his legs, and as the monster descended for the kill he leaped up and caught one metal leg.

His pounce impacted hard enough to steer it askew, and with his gauntlet laser he raked the Naië all about. With a twist of tremendous strength it threw him, and he cried out in pain at the horrible burning when the fiery sword grazed his ribs.

The world got all fuzzy and gray, and he heard the report of Ayumi’s pistols, but they sounded far away…

Then Ayumi knelt next to him, shouting at him. Through clearing vision he saw the Naië strewn out a few feet away.

“Con,” Ayumi said, tears in her beautiful eyes.

“Kiss me, you dummy,” he said. Oh, but his head hurt.

“Kiss you?! I could kill you! You almost died.”

“You can’t kill me. You promised to love and cherish me.”

“You jumped on it? What were you thinking?”

“I remember distinctly. You said, ‘I, Kobayashi Ayumi, take you – ’”

He shut up, because she was kissing him.

Another flash surrounded them, and they were back on the Indar station.

“Your lips are magic,” Connor said.

“Enough, soldier. Let me see your side…looks like the fire cauterized the wound for you.”

“Yeah, I felt that. Still feel it.”

“Easily enough healed with what we have on Tesla.” She helped him up.

She treated his side under the regenerative lamps, and he moaned and milked the sympathy for a little bit. He let off before it became pathetic, and moved in for another smooch.

Then he noticed the weave of black lines forming around her neck.

He told her. She reached up and pulled down his collar.

“You’ve got them too.”

“Get under the scanner,” Connor said. She was too worried to argue about it.

He took all kinds of readings, squinting at the results. How on Earth?

“What is it? What’s it doing to us?”

“Nothing harmful,” Connor said. “Only…” he gave her a hand up, “would you mind picking up this humidity unit for me?”

“Con, that’s, like, a hundred kilos.”

“Humor me, hon.”

She rolled her eyes, reached down, and picked it up.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, wow. So, am I a super-powered woman now?”

“You’ve always been a super-powered woman to me.”

“Hush. I’m serious. This Indar relic gave us super-strength?”

“Not just strength,” Connor said, hefting with one hand a piece of equipment that would have taken both before. “From what the instruments tell me, we should be running faster, jumping further, holding our breath longer, you name it.”

After a few minutes they both became more reflective.

“What happened to us?” Ayumi asked. “Did we really travel somewhere? Was it some kind of hallucination?”

“My burns were real enough.”

“Yeah. So if one of us had died…”

“I guess we’d be dead.” He shrugged down a shiver. “We know the Indar were a famously warrior culture. This place, this orb – a test for champions? You either die, or get tremendous physical advantages?”

“Not for champions, I think,” Ayumi said darkly. “I remember reading one of the Senlath accounts. They said all the Indar were extraordinarily strong and fast. I think they must have used this to cull their race, weeding out the weak ones and strengthening the strong ones. Con, if we bring this back to Earth, what will happen?”

He heard fear in her voice, and had his own sinking feeling to match it. What would happen?

“It might help us beat the Shadowborn,” he said. “Some would die using it. And it would still be around if we won; people might be made to use it. But even without the relic, if someone was going to require everybody to pass some trial by combat – ”

“It would be different,” she said. “Nothing we have offers this kind of reward and badge of victory.”

They were both quiet.

“Maybe super-powered humans aren’t what we need,” Connor said at last. “At least, not enough to make it worth the risk.”

“It’ll be hard to go back empty-handed,” Ayumi said, with a sigh … but a sigh of relief.

“Empty-handed? I’ve got an Indar battle-gauntlet.”

“Sure, but what about me?”

“Uh, super-human strength?”

“Yeah,” she smirked. “But is that all?”

“A super-human husband?”

“Let’s see if you give super-human backrubs.”

Notes …

Joshua Steely’s short fiction has been published in Havok, Swords and Sorcery, and Niteblade, and is forthcoming in Mad Scientist Journal and the anthology Dark Horizons.

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