To my sister Dianne, for whom “steadfast” is an apt description. Thank you.
For S., as always.
I remain indebted to my agent, Joshua Bilmes, for his ever-inspired suggestions and assistance, and to my editor, Anne Sowards, for her support and editing. Thanks also to Catherine Asaro, Robert Chase, J. G. (Huck) Huckenpohler, Simcha Kuritzky, Michael LaViolette, Aly Parsons, Bud Sparhawk, and Constance A. Warner for their suggestions, comments, and recommendations.
ADMIRAL John “Black Jack” Geary, accustomed to gazing down upon worlds from hundreds of kilometers high and looking into the vastness of space in which a man could fall forever, felt slightly dizzy as he leaned over the crumbling remains of a stone wall to peer down the other side, where the land dropped away for about ten meters in a steep slope littered with rocks. Beyond, a land green with vegetation rolled to the north into the low hills that marked this small portion of Old Earth. He remembered land like this, in parts of his home world of Glenlyon, a planet he had not seen for a century.
Geary squinted against a wind that brought scents of growing things and animals and the enterprises of people. Not like that inside a spacecraft, which despite the best air scrubbers known to science, always held a faint taint of crowded humanity, caffeinated beverages, and heated circuitry.
“Not much left, is there?” Captain Tanya Desjani commented, looking at what had once been the wall’s foundation.
“It’s thousands of years old,” Historic Properties Steward Gary Main replied. He seemed as much a part of the landscape as the wall itself, perhaps because members of his family had served as Stewards of the wall for generations. “The wonder is that there’s anything left at all, especially after the ice century of the last millennium. The Gulf Stream helps keep this island of ours warm, so it got very cold up here when the stream lost a lot of push. The rest of the world got warm, and we got cold, but then England has always been a bit contrary when it comes to the rest of the planet. Since then, everywhere else on Earth has been cooling down, and we’ve been warming up.”
Geary smiled crookedly. “I have to admit it feels strange to be on a planet that has known humanity for so long that people can speak of the last millennium.”
“That’s all quite recent, compared to this wall, Admiral,” Main replied.
“Hadrian’s Wall,” Desjani mused. “I guess if you want to be remembered for thousands of years, it helps to build a big wall and name it after yourself. I remember the Admiral and I talking about that Empire of Rome, and I thought it must have been pretty small. Just part of one planet and all. But, standing here, I realize it must have felt awfully big to people who had to walk it.”
Main nodded, running one hand above the fitted stones remaining in the wall. “When this was intact, it was about six meters high. Forts every Roman mile, and numerous turrets between them. It was an impressive fortification.”
“Our Marines could have jumped over it in their combat armor,” Tanya said, “but if all you had was human muscle, it would be tough, especially if someone was shooting at you while you tried to climb it. How did it fall?”
“It didn’t. Rome fell. As the empire contracted, the legions were called home and the wall abandoned.”
Geary looked down the length of the wall, white stone against green vegetation, thinking of the massive demobilizations that had taken place inside the Alliance since the war with the Syndicate Worlds had ended. The legions were called home, and the wall abandoned. It sounded so painless, but it meant that defenses once regarded as vital were suddenly surplus, men and women who had once carried out duties considered critical were no longer needed, and things once thought essential were now judged too expensive. “The borders and their horizons shrank,” he murmured, thinking of not just the ancient empire that had built this wall but of the current state of the many star systems in the Alliance.
Tanya gave him the look that meant she knew exactly what he was thinking. “They say this wall was garrisoned for centuries. Think of all the soldiers who stood sentry on it. Some of them might have been among our ancestors.”
“Many people think Arthur might have been a king during those times,” Steward Main said. “That maybe his knights held the wall for a while after the Romans left.”
“Arthur?” Geary asked.
“A legendary king who ruled and died long ago. Supposedly,” Main confided, “Arthur didn’t die but remains sleeping, awaiting a time when his people need him. Of course, he’s never shown up.”
“Maybe your need hasn’t been great enough,” Desjani said. “Sometimes, sleeping heroes from the past do appear just when they’re needed.”
Geary barely managed not to glare at her. But his sudden shift in mood was apparent enough to cause silence to fall for a few moments.
Main cleared his throat. “If I may ask a question of you, what do you think our other guests think of all this?”
“The Dancers?” Geary asked. An alien landing shuttle hovered nearby, mere centimeters above the ground. “They’re amazing engineers. They examined the remains pretty carefully. They’re probably impressed.”
“It’s hard to tell, Admiral, since they’re in their space armor.”
“You probably couldn’t tell even if you could see their faces,” Desjani told him. “They don’t display emotions the way we do.”
“Oh, right,” Main replied with remarkable understatement. “Because they, uh . . .”
“Look to us like what would happen if a giant spider mated with a wolf,” Tanya finished for him. “We’ve speculated that we look as hideous to them as they do to us.”
“Don’t judge them on their looks,” Geary added.
“I wouldn’t, sir! Everyone’s heard how they brought that fellow’s remains back. How did he get out as far as their territory in space?”
“A failed early experiment with using jump space for interstellar travel,” Geary said. “We don’t know how, but he finally popped out at one of the stars occupied by the Dancers.”
“His ship and his body popped out,” Desjani corrected, a rough edge in her voice. “He must have died long before then. Died in jump space.”
“That’s bad?” Main asked.
“About as bad as it gets.” She took a deep breath, then forced a smile. “But the Dancers treated his remains with honor and brought them home when they finally could.”
“That’s what I heard,” Main said. “Those Dancers did better by him than many a human I’ve encountered would have, I’ll tell you.” He glanced at the sun, then checked the time. “We should move on when you’re ready, Admiral, Captain.”
“Give us a few minutes, will you?” Desjani asked. “I need to talk to the Admiral about something.”
“Of course. I’ll be right over there.”
Tanya turned her back on the curious crowds hovering a few hundred meters away, citizens of Old Earth who were fascinated not only by the newly discovered alien Dancers but also by the humans from distant stars colonized by those who had left this world long ago. She turned her wrist to show Geary that she had activated her personal security field so their words could not be heard by others or their lip movements or expressions seen clearly. “We need to talk about something,” she repeated to him.