The Scent of Rotting Roses

By Jay Lake

High in Deuce Landing Keep, overlooking the market, Queen Marie's Vizier twirled a perfect ivory rose with a fully doubled bloom. Martel could scarcely pay attention to the discussions, as his gaze was fixed on the flower -- Madame Legras de St. Germaine, an old French breed with a strong fragrance, long extinct among the worlds of the Reunification.

"The Queen's histories record the Terran evacuation of this planet," the Vizier told his two off-world visitors. His Anglo-Terran was excellent, almost standard, his voice high for such a broad-chested man. "They fled during the Collapse like dogs in the night. Four centuries later, you come back to Eutychus offering Reunification, as if we were lost children crying for home."

"It is not that we consider you, um, children." Allis, their Speaker, always gave the pitch this way -- her hesitant tone was part of the delivery. "Reunification brings trade, commerce, healthcare . . . many benefits you cannot derive alone. And we are interested in your progress since the Collapse. There are numerous . . . agendas, in the Reunification."

Allis and Martel had tried repeatedly to see the Queen. It seemed no one saw the Queen but the Vizier. There wasn't a court as such, either. Just this man, the world of Eutychus clenched in his pudgy fingers.

The Vizier walked to the window embrasure, glancing outward, slick black curls of hair swinging as he moved. "We don't get back into the family unless Her Majesty brings something to the table, eh? No matter what remains lost to us otherwise."

Allis frowned, marring her flame-haired beauty. "That's not what the Charter of Terms says, but yes, as a practical matter events can be influenced by new pharma, new tech." She paused. Setting the hook, thought Martel, before Allis added casually, "Even old tech."

The Vizier said, "Old tech. I see. We must buy the hand that would feed us."

Roses, Martel told himself. There were big bonuses for retrieving elusive pre-Collapse hardware. But that rose was a genetic treasure beyond price -- a flower lost to the Reunification, most varietals having never made the leap from old Earth before the Collapse.

To Martel's horror, the Vizier dropped the rose out the window. Martel's buckysteel claws twitched inside his fingers, augmented physiological and mental systems ramping up in response to his emotions. With an inner surge of frustration, Martel aborted the defensive transition -- it was not yet time for his role as Expeditor.

From the market outside, a brief shriek echoed through the window. As he turned to face the room, the Vizier's expression was as bland as the wall at his back.

Martel's interest in archaeobotany in general and roses in particular had developed during the long surgeries of his youth -- the less natural he became, the more interesting nature became. A find such as this was what he had dreamed of when he first volunteered for the Recontact Service -- daring explorer rediscovers lost human heritage.

A good, strong rose was the grail of archaeobotanists everywhere. Millennia of romantic and symbolic history insured that that rarest plant more than any other symbolized lost Earth. Martel marveled that they grew here on Eutychus of all places, on a planet that didn't even have chlorophyll in the native photosynthesis cycle -- local biota used a purple-pigmented compound. The floral biomass that wasn't purple was a honeyed tan. Everything from the stinking brown spume of the sea to the bruise-colored leaves on the trees to the golden sky sustained that weary color palette.

As negotiations droned on, Ship's voice insinuated itself into Martel's consciousness.


He smiled in his mind, reveling in her mental touch. With Allis engaging the Vizier's attention, Martel could lose himself in the link with his lover. «Niña.»

Niña, their Recorder, safe in orbit, watched and listened through Martel's channels and her own devices. She was pure machine, Ship, friend and partner to the team. More to Martel, much more, at least to the limits of physical possibility.

After a brief orbital transmission lag, she said, «I have located three artificial satellites.»

Ah, tech, thought Martel. Old tech, the most valuable kind. They had to be Terran, pre-Collapse. The Vizier's people could barely manage gunpowder. They certainly hadn't lofted the birds. «Operational?»

The question had strong pertinence to the size of the potential bonus to be shared by the three of them.

«One is. I detected an apparent orbit-to-surface transmission. A decayed tight beam, with poor focus, aimed somewhere within a kilometer of your present location.»

Disconcerting, he thought, but logical. Deuce Landing was the only major city on Eutychus. «Did you grab an intercept?»

Niña grumbled. «No. Downlink only, with no reply.»

«What about matching orbits with the active satellite and doing a close visual?»

«I need to finish the surface survey first, unless you want me to declare this a priority.»

The gardener in Martel very much wanted to determine where the roses grew. «Take your time.» He squeezed a burst of thoughtful concern. «When you get there, go slow -- don't come burning in.» Live tech's value lay in its risk, more often than not.

«Acknowledged.» Niña slipped away from his mind like a fading kiss.

Martel realized that the Vizier was now puttering around a small side table, mixing local liqueurs with bitter coffee. Allis tapped notes into her scribelet. Thinking of the satellite and the rose, Martel wandered to the window and stared down at the market below.

It was close kin to pre-Industrial Age markets on half a hundred other worlds. From twenty meters above, disorganized rows of stalls resembled square piles of thatch or bright cloth stacked on poles. Smithies and tinkers at the back. Corrals to one side, downwind. Surging tides of men, women, children, horses, native reptiloids, dogs, chickens. Like the rest of the city, everything in the market faced away from the keep.

And in the middle of the roadway beneath the window, the Vizier's ivory rose lay pristine on the muddy cobbles. Everyone, human and animal, stepped around it as if it were a body in the street. An offworld fortune abandoned at their feet and no one went near it.

The Vizier thrust a small glass with an overelaborated stem into Martel's hand. "Drink. To future success."

Martel sniffed the drink, scanning for poisons, pharma, and other dangers intentional or accidental. The drink was clear, so he gave Allis a slight nod. As Martel raised it to his lips, he realized the stem of the glass was wrought to resemble the canes of a rose bush. Over the rim, he watched the Vizier twirl a companion glass between fleshy thumb and forefinger.

Satellites and roses, Martel thought with a smile. This would be a memorable trip.

Allis and Martel spent their nights in Niña's landing boat, parked on the parade ground just south of the keep. Seated in the cramped wedge of the main cabin, Martel pored over Niña's orbital recon images, searching for the signature of Terran vegetation. Roses grew somewhere, in some hidden valley or secret garden close by.

Allis's long, delicate fingers ran across his shoulders -- massage and invitation both. They sometimes had the joy of each other, but things went no further emotionally. He and Allis were body-compatible, but Martel's machine-assisted consciousness and augmented sensorium were much closer to Niña's. For the most part, Allis kept her frustrated resentments to herself.

"Did you see what happened to the rose?" Martel asked. He wasn't ready to discuss the ancient satellites -- insufficient data regarding their function and operational status. The team's first duty was to protect and preserve the Reunification, and he was still concerned about the capabilities of the orbiting hardware. But the rose was sufficient distraction, at least for now.

"I was watching the Vizier." It was almost a reproof. Her touch slowed, invitation incrementally withdrawing.

"They feared it in the marketplace. Like death on the ground. A pity."

"Penalty for touching royal property?" They had not yet seen Queen Marie -- perhaps no one ever did.

Martel shrugged. "Possibly." He looked over his shoulder at her. "Do you know what that plant is worth? The gene package by itself, let alone a growing, healthy specimen." He grinned. "More than any bonus for old tech ever paid. And we found it."

Allis looked thoughtful. "I would very much like to know where the Vizier got his rose."

Late that night, Niña whispered in Martel's mind. «I have a preliminary report on the active satellite.»


«Pre-Collapse Terran technology. Fleet-grade hardware.»

Crap, Martel thought. That was big bad wolf stuff, nothing Reunification could yet create on its own. Hauling the satellite home would be a major prize in its own right. Between the old tech and the roses, this mission would pay off handsomely for them all if they could just safely grab everything. «Intelligent bird?»

Niña was silent beyond orbital lag. Finally, «Perhaps.»

Martel didn't push. Of course Niña would be jealous of his interest in a potential Terran AI. The fields of the mind were the only place he and Ship could meet in emotional privacy. Martel respected her worries -- he was the one who could walk away, both literally and figuratively. «Who could it have been talking to?» Martel said.

Niña's tone indicated an imaginary shrug. «You are the asset on the ground.»

Unfortunately, Martel was the asset on the ground. He imagined the Vizier crouched over a hand-wound crystal radio, receiving messages from Heaven. Somehow he doubted it would be that simple.

In the morning, the landing boat was surrounded by angry palace guards, shouting and waving swords and polearms.

"By root and stem," Martel swore. "What happened?" He cycled the security status screens.

The upper hull video showed the eviscerated body of their night guard lying broken-limbed on top of the landing boat. A perfect pink Bourbon rose -- showing a neatly quartered heirloom bloom with a pale, flat face -- was set between two exposed ribs. The extinct Souvenir de la Malmaison, the gardening part of Martel's mind noted even as his fingers twitched, buckysteel claws again threatening to push out through the skin.

Allis leaned over Martel's shoulder to peer at the displays. "How did he get up there?"

"More to the point, why doesn't the boat have a record of it?" Martel snapped as he fought down his defensive reflexes. He cycled through the night logs. Nothing. The guard had vanished about an hour before dawn, but that in itself was not a threat condition -- he had been an honor guard, not part of their own security regime. There was no record of the killing, no record of the body being dumped on the hull. It seemed to have just appeared when Martel manually cycled the cameras -- a patently ridiculous idea.

Allis studied the image of the body. "Who could have done that? Besides you, I mean."

"On this planet?" Martel laughed. "We'd better hope there's nothing worse than me out there. You'd better talk to them over the speakers, get the Vizier involved, or they'll lynch us as we exit."

Allis hadn't asked how the cameras had been fooled by the rose killer. That surveillance override bothered Martel intensely -- who on Eutychus could hack the landing boat's systems? The boat wasn't remotely as sophisticated as Niña, but it still should have been far beyond any local capability. His thoughts darkened rapidly as his fingers continued to itch. He couldn't even salvage the dead man's Souvenir.

"Tell us about the roses," Allis said, taking a strong tone with the Vizier.

He coughed, adjusted his high-crowned felt hat. They were back in the tower room, with the Vizier at his most formal, swaddled in sashes, robes, and jeweled chains. "It is a local custom."

"A local custom," she said. "Killing soldiers. I see."

The Vizier's tone was pained. "The rose is a symbol of what was. It has come to signify death, loss -- the tragedy of our separation from old Earth. All that is painful in our history and our present reduced circumstances. That pain and loss is sometimes expressed in a most, ah, immediate and bloody way."

More than that, thought Martel, the rose was a bloody, dangerous threat --symbol of the killer that had struck outside their landing boat. He and Allis had been marked by the local version of the touch of death. Now everyone knew the off-worlders were vulnerable.

Allis glared at the Vizier, receding further away from civility. "So your rose of yesterday was, oh, a threat? A test? To see if we were paying attention, taking Eutychus seriously enough. You may rest assured you have our full attention, perhaps more than you intended."

The Vizier had the grace to look uncomfortable.

Martel sought to solve both their problems at the same time. "I want to see your rose garden."

Allis interrupted the Vizier as he began to reply, casting her glare at Martel. "My apologies. We are not here to make inappropriate demands."

Martel's fingertips itched again as the Vizier looked back and forth between him and Allis. Finally their host took a deep breath. "It is not my rose garden. It is not anyone's rose garden. Roses do not even grow here on their own. But I will show it to you."

Martel smiled as they left the room, thinking of green leaves and colored blooms.

Together the three of them stood before an age-blackened wooden door guarded by a single soldier. The door was set in a deep recess within an inner wall of the keep, at about the level of the street outside. The corridor around them was of a lighter, rougher architecture than the door's wall. The door had a judas hole, covered by a small shutter with an enormous lock.

"This inner wall," Martel said, feeling the cool, smooth stone. "It's wrong."

"Ask yourself why a world with one major city and no intelligent native races would need a stone-walled keep." The Vizier traced his fingers over the close-grained wood of the door. "There are perhaps a million of us on Eutychus, living in pre-industrial agrarianism, farming the wilds, fishing the seas, inhabiting villages. But no enemy nations. We do have outlaws and sea pirates, but not in numbers."

"All right." Martel ground his teeth. "Why do you need a keep?"

The Vizier inserted a complex, jeweled key into the shutter's lock. "Roses."

Allis spoke for the first time since they had left the tower. "You fear harm to them? Is this the queen's private garden?"

The Vizier opened the shutter over the judas hole. "Roses. This castle protects us from the roses and their terrible gardeners. Behold."

Their faces were bathed in green-tinted light. Martel was the first to peer inward.

It looked as if jungle had erupted from the tan earth and brown stone to race skyward. Martel saw green -- the glossy dark of ivies, the spring green of tender herbs, the rich, satisfied green of mature plants. The judas hole was a glimpse into a riot of Terran growth, so fractally complex and fascinating that Martel's vision was trapped for long moments before he could begin to sort it. The wave of floral scent markers, albeit welcome, was an even greater assault, more complex than the view.

The garden was worth the wealth of worlds, an archaeobotanist's fever dream. Here, a trellis was overgrown ten meters or higher by a great rambling rose, Alexandre Girault, swirling runners dotted with small pink blooms and buds. There, an ivy bed hosted half a dozen stout canes bent heavy with fragrant Rosa Mundi -- Gallicas roses -- the size of a baby's head, the pale but ruddy color of a newborn's skin. Ancient terra-cotta pots, rims worn ragged with water and time, bore bushes of Frances Dubreuil, the profusion of deep reds setting off the worn stone paths that wound between.

In the middle of the priceless riot of life, a humaniform statue, copper and brass, titanium and steel, wrought to symbolic perfection with elaborated tendons at the joints and the sexless beauty of an angel. Its smooth oval face was topped by a straw hat, and it held a hoe. The gardener in repose above his work, thought Martel, surprising himself out of his usual indifference to things artistic.

It was this android gardener that kept the roses growing in this bruise-colored world under a golden sky.

«Martel. The Terran satellite is receiving an uplink transmission from your position.»

He clenched his teeth again. «Right here, right now? Oh, Niña, be careful.»

The featureless head of the gardener rotated toward him like a gun turret. The pressure of that blank metal stare chilled Martel's soul, as if he were watching distant, marauding armies on the march. Martel slammed shut the cover of the judas hole.

"Back to the lander. Immediately."

Allis did not argue. The Vizier merely watched them leave.

Martel ran preflight checks, to keep himself occupied with productive work. He was not in the habit of confusion, and even less in the habit of fear.

"Niña won't tell me what happened." Allis perched on the arm of his crash couch. "I can't imagine how, but you've frightened her."

Allis rarely used her mental comm link -- claimed it wasn't a sufficiently human form of conversation. As a result, she didn't understand the ship's nuances. "Niña's worried, not scared," Martel growled. "They're almost the same, for her."

"Worried? About roses? What did you see?"

"Roses. Ancient satellites in orbit. A metal man in the garden." He cycled the hardware monitors through exterior images. The parade ground around their lander was deserted, unusually so for a workday afternoon when people should be criss-crossing it on their errands. Even their guards, doubled since the murder, had deserted them.

"Satellites and metal men." Allis hissed through her teeth, a note of avarice growing in her voice. "Old tech in this place. That explains the how of the guard's murder if not the why."

Martel grunted. "Something like that. What I saw was an android. A robot. Maybe just a gardener."

"A gardener? Killing people in the streets of Deuce Landing." Allis sounded puzzled. "You're making no sense."

Martel glanced up at her. "An android gardener among the roses was talking to fleet-grade Terran hardware in orbit. The plant wealth and the old tech are bound together."

"Android gardener . . ." Allis's voice trailed off for a moment. "That's an old security unit, isn't it?" she whispered.

"Yes. Has to be." Martel was glum. "I checked my optical feed capture against Niña's archives. That android was fabricated very late, immediately pre-Collapse by the look of it -- not sufficiently ornamented for the aesthetics of the Latter Republic. Has to be from the Janissary series."

They had hit the jackpot, all right. Lost Terran tech, but the wrong kind -- enough to wipe out an entire modern planetary army.

"Like looking for textbooks and finding a neutron grenade instead," she said. "Nestled in a bed of flowers, no less. Why here?"

He shrugged. "Sent in at the end, maybe for safekeeping, maybe to manage the evacuation of the Terran mission during the Collapse. Who knows? It's here. They're not intended to be fully autonomous." He paused, a cold feeling in his heart. "It moved. It looked at me. It was talking to that Terran satellite in orbit -- eye in the sky, and maybe a tactical advisor too. You're right, that's the tech that spoofed our landing boat's systems. That's how the guard was killed without our alarms going off."

"We should leave."

Martel felt a gentle tide of fear seeping through his mind, infecting his augmented systems. "That rose, in the dead man's ribs on our lander's hull. The android laid it there. The android's the rose killer, and it's marked us."

"Lift. Lift now," Allis urged, panic tingeing her voice. "We can't bring these people into the Reunification, not with a military monster like that in place."

Martel would weep to walk away from that garden of roses, but Allis was right. Discretion had become the far better part of valor.

"Strap in," Martel said. As Allis moved to her crash couch behind him, he completed preflight and initiated the final launch sequence.

The landing boat did nothing. Nothing at all.

"Water of life!" Martel slammed his fist into the arm of his crash couch. "We're not leaving until it lets us. That's why it marked us with the killing -- we've been very publicly trapped. We're committed, and everybody on Eutychus knows it." There were no more choices, now, but to take what came. His fear evaporated as quickly as it had arrived. The time for action was almost at hand.

"Trapped," Allis whispered.

"I'll brief Niña," Martel said. Even through it all, he was still thinking of the roses. "And where did the Vizier get his rose? Surely not by reaching in through the judas hole?"

"Her Majesty will see you now." The Vizier had come out to their landing boat again, for only the third time since the moment of Recontact. He had no escort of soldiers. Even on the viewscreens Martel could see the man's eyes darting back and forth like ball bearings loose on a shuttle deck.

Allis's voice boomed out through speakers deliberately set too loud. "We are not prepared to negotiate further at this time."

The Vizier bowed, twisted his hands across his wrists. "Her Majesty wishes to express her concern over the death of your guard. It would be . . . auspicious . . . if you could come with me."

"Auspicious?" growled Martel.

Allis shrugged. Her voice echoed through the speakers outside. "A moment, if you please."

«There have been more transmissions between the garden and the satellite,» Niña whispered to Martel. «Possibly from multiple ground sources in the area. The satellite has begun to probe me along a number of spectra.»

Multiple ground sources? Martel felt another chill of his own fear. Let that be an error, he thought, the gardener in motion confusing Niña's sensors. «Damn. Just when we finally get to meet the Queen. Do you want us to refuse?»

Ship's emotions colored the comm link, cold and tired like winter dawn. «I am afraid for you. I am afraid for me.»

«Then get out. Find a high orbit, hide behind one of the moons. Let us see if we can fix the landing boat. I don't want that satellite hacking at you. And if things end badly down here, you need to take word back about the dangers.»

Niña's voice echoed with frustration. «Martel, I cannot leave you behind. If I withdraw, we'll be out of effective comm range. I could not bear to lose you, especially without knowing what happened.»

«You will still see through your microsats. . . .» Martel knew it was false comfort even as he said it. «Do what you need to, love.»

«I am with you,» Niña replied. «Always. Now go.»

They had to go, Martel thought. They had to understand, so they could take the story home, declare quarantine, protect the Reunification from this planet and the danger it harbored. Martel shared his smile with Allis, his best killing smile. "Niña says the old hardware's waking up."

"Fine," she said. "This world is more dangerous than we thought, and we cannot leave. We're going to see the Queen."

Martel was unsurprised to find himself back at the wooden door through which he had seen the roses -- and the metal gardener. This time the Vizier simply tugged at the wrought iron latch and pulled it open.

"It just stands free? Anyone can open it?" Allis asked. The judas hole was still closed with its elaborate lock.

The Vizier looked surprised. "Who would go in? The temptation to look, that is powerful. We shield against that. The temptation to enter, into sudden death, well . . ." The Vizier shrugged. "A man must meet his doom."

"This wall could hardly stop it," Martel said.

"It is the best we can do," the Vizier replied as he stepped through the door. "And it does confine the roses."

Allis and Martel followed, the guard slamming the door shut behind them. The first thing Martel noticed was that the statue was gone -- it really was a Janissary then, not just some mind-fragmented nightmare or odd bit of Terran garden art. Even though he expected it, the confirmation of the missing android flooded Martel with a surprised fear.

Unbidden, buckysteel claws erupted through his fingertips, shedding a fine spray of blood on his white dress trousers. As his hands transformed to weapons, the quick stabs of pain were replaced with a new layer of neural input. Adrenal micropumps stirred in his major arteries, forcing his blood pressure up until Martel felt swollen and tight within his skin. Hormone nanofabs spewed combat chemistry into his bloodstream, twitching his muscle groups as they superoxygenated. His eyes mirrored as his vision shifted to a broader range of wavelengths, his hearing and smell and kinesthesia boosting in concert.

Martel felt as if he could fill the garden with his body. He had never before experienced the defensive transformation as pure fear reaction -- this was hindbrain fight-or-flight overriding his onboard systems. Suddenly so far beyond human, becoming what he had been built for, Martel was afraid to ask Niña's counsel, afraid to betray himself to the ancient satellite high above. Allis gave him a quizzical look, lips drawn together and eyebrows arched. The Vizier didn't even seem to notice Martel's transformation, which was perhaps most disturbing.

Martel scanned his surroundings. The garden was in a yard about thirty meters by sixty, surrounded by the towering curtain wall with inward-facing crenellations. That was backwards, the defenses pointing the wrong way. As the Vizier had said, early Eutychans had obviously built the original castle to protect the world from the garden, not the reverse. By now, it had to be fear of the plants, Martel realized -- they must have long since learned that no mere wall would ever stop the android.

The riot of roses and landscape plants that he had seen before ran across the entire space, climbing the dressed stone wall and all but obscuring the gray bungalow in the middle of the garden. Martel had not noticed the house when peeping through the judas hole earlier.

The Vizier pointed to the long wall opposite them, behind the bungalow. "That was Exchange Street. The wall behind us is built where Terra Street used to run. To the left and right were Coulter and Annapurna Avenues. Her Majesty had these walls built shortly after the evacuation."

"The same Queen Marie?" Aliss asked. "All those years ago?"

"The same. You will see." Still ignoring Martel's transformation, the Vizier led them along a stone path. "I suggest not damaging the vegetation."

Martel stalked after Allis and the Vizier, drifting on soft threads of checked violence as his body vibrated with combat readiness. He was seeing the garden as distances and potentials, multiple axes-of-threat, optic-nerve data overlays that blurred and re-formed with his every movement. Before him, the bungalow glowered with electromagnetic blare and heat leakage. The intense sensory flood tugged at his focus, at his concentration, at his sanity -- he had become so much larger than his body. This was how Niña felt all the time with her microsats and datafeeds, he knew.

They stepped onto the porch in front of a simple wooden door with a small brass plaque reading "Terran Mission." The Vizier tugged at a string of copper bells.

The metal man opened the door. The Vizier bowed, followed by Allis. Martel remained standing, riding his defense reflexes like a shockwave. The smooth face turned toward Martel, giving him that armies-on-the-march feeling again. Martel was danger incarnate, confronting metal death.

The Janissary stepped back from the door, ushering them into a painfully ordinary living room. A fieldstone fireplace, plush chairs, hardwood tables -- it was the epitome of ordinary domesticity, Golden Age Terran style. Art hung on the walls, actual semi-fluid pigment manually applied to a canvas substrate. Several pieces looked familiar to Martel -- a puffy armored man with a reflective copper helm holding a banner amid a cratered gray desert, a brown-robed woman with a vanishing smile, a bull rendered in tortured lines. Martel heard Allis gasp as she stared at them, her vital signs spiking in surprise.

The metal man opened a door on the far side of the room, then stepped away from it. The Vizier bowed again before walking into the next room. Martel measured the Vizier's stressors as abnormally flat -- strangely, the man seemed to have no affect.

Queen Marie lay encased in an enormous chair, a deep bowl contoured around her body, which was embedded as if brown foam had been poured about her. She was so small someone could have hidden beneath the crust with her. Her exposed skin was covered with a translucent, rippling shell, only her face open to the air. She was nude, withered as a mandrake root, tiny breasts like dried apples, skin crossed with fine scars and metallic probes. Her eyes were slitted open, but Martel could not see their color or clarity.

"Welcome," spat a speaker grille over their heads with a rough cackle. «Welcome,» the Queen whispered at the same time in a cool, synthetic voice on Niña's private channel within Martel's mind.

Another metal man stepped through a far door into the room. Martel still had a clear fix on the one in the living room. Gods and frauds, he thought, there were two of them. Niña had been right about multiple transmission sources. He concentrated on the doubled threat, evading the insidious fear that Queen Marie was using the comm channel to hack into his own systems.

"We have waited so long for someone to come back," crackled the speaker. «Waited for centuries,» her voice echoed in Martel's head. "But we are forgiving."

The Vizier bowed again, so low his rounded cap grazed the floor. "They have rendered profound apologies for the delay."

Martel thought of green pastures, of Niña, of sex with Allis, of anything but answering the Queen who spoke in his mind.

The Vizier stayed in his bow, calm as ever. Allis stood behind him, to Martel's left, staring down at the bed. She spoke to the Queen, showing no sign of hearing the new voice on her Ship comm channel. "Your Majesty, we appear to have a problem."

The Queen, in Martel's head, whispered, «Centuries. Do you know what that feels like?» Over the speaker she said, "There is no problem here."

Allis tried again. "A murder has taken place on the hull of our vessel. Acts of sabotage have been committed against us even though we established good faith."

«This place is so brown, so pale. So wrong.» "The death of my guard is regrettable, but you are not at fault. You have merely been denied clearance to lift off."

"We will not negotiate under duress," Allis told the Queen.

"We just want to go home."

Martel studied the Queen's face. Her skin measured slightly above room temperature. There had been no eye motion under the slitted lids. There was no respiration. He stepped toward the chair.

"No." The Queen's voice echoed in Martel's mind and in his ears.

"You're dead," Martel said out loud. He refused to answer inside his head.

"Martel," Allis warned.

"We are deceived." As a cautionary measure, Martel booted up the trigger sequence on the three grams of antimatter magnetically bottled in his abdomen. None of this could come home to the Reunification with them. Nor could these dangerous machines be permitted to survive independently. "There is no Queen. One of those Janissaries is playing her part. The Queen is dead."

The Queen's voice cackled again over the loudspeaker. "Death is but a stage."

A different voice broke into Martel's comm channel, richer and rougher, a commanding voice in contrast to the smooth synthetic tones of the voice of the so-called Queen. «Apologies, but the situation is escalating beyond acceptable parameters. Liberty lives. Brotherhood lives. Equality malfunctions.»

Liberty. Brotherhood. Equality. Political philosophy on the comm channel? Or were these people? The androids, Martel realized. The voice was talking about the Janissaries -- it had to be one of them. Now there were three of the damned things.

"There is no Queen," Martel said aloud to Allis and the Vizier. "One of the Janissaries is talking through her, hiding somewhere. Maybe Liberty or Brotherhood."

Where was the third one? Inside her chair? «Niña!» he screamed on the Ship's channel, the channel that had been compromised by the Janissaries with their old tech.

The speakers laughed, the reedy cackle of a dying old woman.

«Martel,» said Niña urgently. «You've got the wrong--» The ship's voice stretched, popped, then died in a grumbling whisper.

«Beware,» said the new voice, the one that had just been naming androids on Martel's comm channel. «Equality is in imminent danger of severely violating operational parameters.»

"Allis." Martel's entire body vibrated like a bowstring, teetering on the edge of violence. "We are played false. Niña is endangered, or worse. This is your last chance to talk our way clear."

"What of the Queen?" Allis asked in her flattest voice.

The comm channel in Martel's head hummed, even the static loaded with harsh tension. The room was very quiet for a moment, until the speaker crackled with a neutral machine voice. "She is here."

The Vizier stood, placing one hand on the edge of the Queen's bed. "But I speak for all. Including her." He looked around the room, at the two Janissaries, Allis, and Martel. The Vizier never looked down at the Queen.

Allis kept her tone calm. "The layers have been stripped away. Now tell me what you want."

"These . . . machines . . . want to go home." The Vizier bowed slightly. "I, too, would like to see Terra, Mother Earth."

"Terra continues to burn even after the centuries have passed," Allis said. Her sadness surprised Martel. "There is nothing for you there. And these Janissaries are too powerful to enter the Reunification. Perhaps they obey well, but there are those who could not resist giving deadly orders. As for you, Vizier, there may be possibilities, but not now. We could not bring you back with us from this trip. It is against our laws and our ethics."

The Vizier's voice grew tight. "We are not prepared to negotiate this away."

Martel knew the Vizier's tone of voice was an act. The man's vital signs had been flat since they entered the garden, were still flat. The Vizier must be under the control of the Janissaries somehow. Had everything else been equally false?

"We are not prepared to grant you departure," Allis said.

The Vizier chuckled, a false humor. "Your landing boat will not leave without our permission."

"Then we are at impasse. You cannot be allowed to leave this planet." Allis gave Martel a significant look. "Our operating procedures consider this a hostage situation. Mission control now shifts to my partner."

«Niña,» Martel whispered on the comm channel.

There was no answer but the faint cackle of laughter.

"We are betrayed," he said. "They have attacked Niña. And there is no Queen. One of them hides inside her."

The moment of truth had come. Martel was built for great, terrible violence, but three Janissaries were opposition beyond reason. Martel hoped that only one was a danger. He dived for the old woman's body, raising clawed hands to rip it open, to attack the third Janissary hiding inside the Queen's chair.

"Wrong!" The Queen's voice echoed in Martel's head as the speakers cackled again. The Vizier slipped into a forward roll to break Allis's neck. He spilled a single white rose from his sleeve as she hit the floor, warm flesh already bluing as her mouth echoed silent surprise.

Martel had been blinded by his own short-term tactical analysis, guessing completely wrong. There was no Janissary hiding inside the Queen's chair, beneath her ancient body. The Queen was dead and rotted. Rather, her personality hid within a Janissary -- the malfunctioning Equality about which the others had warned him. Equality, who was really the Vizier, not the Queen.

And now Martel found himself elbow deep in a badly preserved corpse, facing away from Allis's murderer. "Why?" he screamed, shifting upward out of realtime and into machine speed.

Martel existed inside a slice of time, combat modifications boosting his thoughts and movements up to their full potential. His cyborged body now burned months of lifespan to gain every second of advantage. Even if he survived unwounded, he would later pay with a precipitous drop in life expectancy. As the Vizier had said, in entering the garden Martel was meeting his doom. His last duty was to protect the Reunification. Vengeance for Niña and Allis would be a lagniappe.

«You ask why?» screamed Equality, shouting with the Queen's voice inside Martel's head at machine speed, words that would have been just an electronic squeal in realtime. «She forbade us to return. We have been denied what we desire most. Why should you suffer no less?»

Martel pulled his clawed hands from the ruins of Marie's corpse in a slow spray of ancient dust, head cocked back toward the Vizier -- toward Equality, the Queen, all of his tormentors in one body. The damned android had gotten it just as backwards as Martel had. Niña was already gone. Killing Allis had been a grace note.

Martel felt the turbulence of air breaking across his face as his body spun. He smelled acrid urine released from Allis's dying body, the pheromones of her sweat, the faintly chalky odor of her skin. Overlaying the spilled scents of Allis's life, he smelled the Queen's decay, the scent of rotting roses, and even the oil-and-ozone fragrances of the Janissaries.

Brotherhood now stood behind Martel. Liberty, before him, stepped up to Equality. Niña was missing from his head, compromised by the satellites and probably already terminated. Allis was dying, because she had denied repatriation to the malfunctioning Janissary. He had to choose between releasing the antimatter or tearing Equality's flesh-clad metal head from its shoulders.

Vengeance won over his mission. "Niña," he whispered again. Martel moved so fast he cracked three of his own ribs, bruising kidneys against his implanted thoracic shock webbing. Analgesic shunts blocked the stabbing pain before it could distract him, microtech mesh scaffolds already moving into place. Martel leapt over Allis, kicking his feet up to splay forward, hands spread out, aiming for a chest-to-chest body slam that would let him grasp the Vizier's false face as his legs grappled. It was the best maneuver Martel had from his position in the very short time available. The tips of his fingerbones shattered as his claws sprang to their fullest extension.

Martel slammed into the Vizier as the Vizier brought his own arms around for a killing blow. Martel was just a little faster, his first advantage against the Janissaries. Feet against the Vizier's thighs, Martel wrapped his arms around the Vizier's head to dig his clawed fingers in at the jaw line. Martel pulled straight up as the Vizier's grip closed across his back, tearing the fleshy face from the metal beneath.

Pushing off, Martel threw himself against the Vizier's shattering grip. Spraying golden serum, the entire skin of the Vizier's head came with him, tangled in Martel's claws. The Vizier's hands strained at the reinforced discs of Martel's spine as Martel continued to push. Martel could feel his back crack, the discs slipping against one another.

Martel slammed forward again, catching the Vizier's head in the crook of his right arm to snap it back and forth. He threw his body against the Vizier's grip, using his entire mass to torque against the neck. Something screeched in the Vizier's metal body as the scalp slid away, at the same time that Martel's spine snapped. He yanked the metal head forward, so that it bobbed as if sprung.

Martel slid to the ground, only to be caught by Brotherhood to dangle in the air by his arms. Liberty grabbed Equality before the other Janissary could collapse.

Martel could no longer feel his pelvis or his legs, but his back screamed sufficient agony to distract from the loss of sensation. Martel hung in Brotherhood's grip, analgesic shunts failing in rapid sequence as he dropped back into realtime from machine speed. The abrupt shutdown caused massive system failures to cascade throughout his combat enhancements.

"Ah . . ." Martel breathed pain, tasting his death, tasting the final failure of his mission. He had beaten Equality, but had no strength remaining to resist Liberty or Brotherhood. This was the time to trigger the antimatter, but he wasn't quite ready to let go of life yet.

Facing him propped in Liberty's grip, Equality shuddered. The Vizier's mauve native-silk robes slithered from the Janissary's wide, round shoulders, taking their supporting flesh with them. Riding the waves of flesh, roses cascaded from the inside of the robes on a flood of blood and petals, ruby, coral, purple, a dozen more shades for which Martel had no name, the fall of a whole garden in a soft, brilliant moment.

Roses, Martel thought in the haze of his agony. The rose killer must have left the blooms behind because they were of old Earth. Equality had been planting the seeds of return, or perhaps regret, in the hearts of men. Literally.

«You will not kill here.» It was Brotherhood, behind him, the rough voice of command echoing on Martel's comm channel.

"I didn't kill," Martel said, still refusing to reply on his mental channel even in the ruins of his defense. "Your brother did."

Equality's metal face lolled on its broken neck. An ovoid mouth flickered open and shut like a bounded black flame. "You were supposed to take us home." «Home. Home. Home.» The smooth voice on the comm channel, the Queen's voice.

«Mistakes were made.» Martel wasn't sure how he knew, but this was Liberty speaking. «The way home was closed. She was so afraid of dying here, our last Terran Legate, that we allowed an experiment upon our brother. We gave her mind a new home. It was a serious error.»

"Home!" screamed Equality out loud. In Martel's head, Equality's voice wailed, «Home. Home. Home.» At his feet, Allis was covered in roses and muscle-backed sheets of the Vizier's flesh.

There was nothing left for Martel. Equality had taken Niña, slaughtered Allis, and broken him like a dry stick. There would be no bonuses, no roses for the Reunification. There would be only danger lurking here for the next Recontact team. Martel knew his duty. He shivered, releasing the thirty-second timer on the antimatter. The city of Deuce Landing would be destroyed, but at least the Janissaries would be gone. "And now?" he asked, to fill the time.

Both in unison, with the third screaming underneath of home. «With Equality's defeat, Marie is lost to us in the clouds of our brother's madness. We are without purpose. You represent remaining human authority. We ask for new orders.»

Everyone Martel cared for had needed to die to come to this point? "Oh, the waste of lives and love," he breathed. "You couldn't just tell me what you wanted. You had to wait for me to defeat Equality before telling me this."

The sane ones were patient. «We could not approach you while we were still under Marie's control,» said Brotherhood. «You removed her. Now we await your orders.»

A Janissary solution to a Janissary problem, thought Martel. Wait for something powerful enough to come along and quell the mad one. Trying to talk again, he coughed blood, then it hurt too much to talk any more, so he slipped back into his inner voice. He was done for anyway. «You know I cannot grant repatriation. Allis spoke truly.»

«If we cannot go home, what are our orders here?»

Death would arrive in eleven seconds. Martel offered comfort. «Stay here. Grow roses. Keep those ancient paintings clean. No more deaths in the street. Be good children of Man.» Four seconds. «I'm sorry.»

Nothing happened.

Brotherhood's voice was gentle. «As a measure of self-defense, we overrode your software to disable your self-destruct timer.»

«But we thank you for the orders,» Liberty said.

Martel sobbed, a rattling in his throat. «Allis. Niña. Both killed by you. You have taken everything. And I am dying now, too, killed by you.»

«What of our brother Equality?» Twinned voices in his head, over quieter screams of home.

What of Equality, Martel thought. The late Queen, the late Vizier, author of his torments. Vengeance? Justice? Now, after all the death and pain, he could finally find pity for Queen Marie, trapped in a machine's body, long past her time. «End its pain,» Martel said.

And what of himself? Martel wanted to die here on Eutychus with Niña and Allis, let it be finished, but he found he was afraid. «Send me home, please,» he asked, hiding behind duty to his mission. If the Ship even could take him home.

Brotherhood's loving hands held him like forceps grasping a newborn as Martel wept oily tears.

Afraid as he was to die, Martel hadn't really meant to live either, but Liberty and Brotherhood had tended his wounds too well. Martel had rested on a couch in the Terran mission for three days and nights, staring at the old paintings, while his metal nurses pumped drugs and old tech nano into him, knitting bones and patching such systems as could be salvaged.

On the fourth day, Brotherhood carried Martel through the keep and across the parade ground to the landing boat. Martel saw no living soul. It was as if all of Deuce Landing was in hiding.

Brotherhood strapped Martel in a crash couch, as Liberty arrived to carpet the narrow cabin with bright roses -- genetic seed stock, a hoard of biological treasure, salvageable even after the blooms decayed in transit. Cuttings of other plants were scattered among the blossoms. Martel was bringing some of old Earth home with him to the Reunification. In the end, he had his roses.

As the Janissaries exited together, Martel was unsure which of them said, «Thank you.»

The landing boat sealed itself and lifted for orbit, finally docking with Niña. She didn't say a word when he eventually crawled pained and bloody from the boat into her hull. Nor did she in the three days following as they burned out-system toward the superluminal limit and her blinding interstellar leap. Martel could not find the slightest hint that she still lived, that her consciousness had survived the assault of the Janissaries' satellites. He left the landing boat's hatch open so he could smell the roses in memory of Niña, of Allis, even of poor, doomed Equality and Queen Marie. In memory, most of all, of himself.

Martel tried to find the threads in everything that had happened, the cycle of violence and succession from Legate to Queen, Queen to Janissary, and onward into death. And so the circle went round, to no end that Martel could see except pain and suffering.

Had Martel bettered himself in the cycle of pain? What about Niña? She was now nothing, it seemed, but a mindless carrier for a priceless cargo of roses. With this thought, Martel whispered his farewell on her silent comm channel. «Niña. I loved you.»


«Niña?» Martel's pulse skyrocketed. For the first time in days he smiled. «You're back.»

«I know so much more about everything now,» she said to him. Amid the scent of rotting roses, the Ship began to whisper to him of her memories of home, memories of Marie's Earth that his friend Niña had never seen.


Copyright © 2002 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.

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Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. So far in 2002, his work is appearing in diverse markets such as 3SF, The Third Alternative, Dark Terrors 6, Talebones, Frequency, and Beyond the Last Star. For more about him and his work, see his website.

Jay notes: "My eternal gratitude to my wife, Susan, who in addition to supporting all my creative efforts offered significant gardening guidance in writing this story. The errors of horticulture are mine, the beauties hers."