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"Wasteland of Flint"
Book #1 of
"In the Time of the Sixth Sun" by Thomas Harlan
Hardback: ISBN 076530192X
Paperback: ISBN 0765341131

The Great Eastern Basin, Ephesus III, in the Hittite Sector

The Gagarin sped out of the east, engines running hot, heavy night air hissing under thirty-meter wings. Though the sky behind the little ultralight was still pitch-black, the dawn wind was already beginning to rise, stirring the air. It was very cold, worse for the wind whipping through the airframe. Russovsky’s goggles were rimmed with frost and her suit’s rebreather left a white smear of CO2 ice across a cargo bag stowed behind the seat. Kilometers of sand blurred past beneath the Gagarin. Ahead, hidden in night but standing out sharp on her vid-eye, the Escarpment shut off the horizon. Tiny green glyphs bobbed at the corner of her vision as a micro-radar taped to the forward wing surface measured and re-measured the height of the cliffs. The mechanism was resetting every second, unable to resolve the summit.

Down on the deck, where a vast soda-pipe field slept among night-shrouded dunes, a haze of fine dust was beginning to lift, stirred by the wind’s invisible fingers. Gagarin droned on, long silver wings gleaming softly in the darkness, engines chuckling as they ate hydrogen and spat out long elongated corkscrews of ice crystal. Russovsky’s vid-eye flashed, alerting her to a break in the mountains. An annotation flipped up, showing a snatch of video - flinty cliffs in harsh white sunlight. Blinking in annoyance, her face grim, Russovsky banished the note. Soft fingers drifted the stick left and the Gagarin heeled over. The ultralight banked, sweeping over a knife blade of red sand rising three hundred meters from the nominal floor of the Basin. As Gagarin rose over the dune, she goosed the engines, automatically correcting for a sudden drag of rising gravity.

Now she could feel the enormous mass of the Escarpment, looming darkness against a sky riotous with stars. The mountain range rose up endlessly and sprinted left and right to the edge of sight. She could feel the ocean of air around the ultralight changing, the quiet stillness of deep night falling away, disturbed by currents, eddies and whirlpools tugging and pressing at the wings. The mouth of the slot loomed up, a hundred meters wide, an abrupt fissure cut into the mountain. Sweat beaded on her neck and along her spine, but the moisture wicked away into the skinsuit so quickly Russovsky did not chill. The radar threw back a confused jumble of images, trying to resolve the jagged cliffs and boulders at the mouth of the slot.

She blinked twice and the radar image folded up and away. She clucked her tongue once, then twice. Her goggles gleamed and light-amp faded back for a second. She was flying blind, the Gagarin winging into the slot, soft hands keeping the ultralight centered between the cliffs. Another tongue cluck. Along the tips of the wings, phosphors woke to life, throwing a diffuse, soft white light over the flinty walls rushing past.

The goggles adjusted automatically and Russovsky could see again. A rumpled floor of broken scree, cockeyed temple-sized boulders and blown sand whipped past below her boots. Walls hemmed her in on either side, kilometers high and relentless, all jagged surfaces and overhangs. The whine of the engines rose, reverberating in the thickening air. A low hissing sound began to grow behind her in the east.

The planet’s air was thin, though a woman could still stand outside without a z-suit. A human needed a compressor and a filter to breath, but it was possible. This exacerbated the storms, huge corolis driven monsters, which could cover up to a quarter of the planetary surface. In some places, like against the world-girdling ring of the Escarpment, there was a storm at dawn, as the rising sun heated the atmosphere and pressed it against an impassible barrier.

Slot canyons cut through the Escarpment, knifeblade thin in comparison of the bulk of the mountains. Gusts began to dart down the Slot, and Russovsky could feel the Gagarin twist and flex in the air. Her chrono said she had fifteen minutes before the sun actually peeked over the eastern horizon.

By then a standing tornado would be howling in the canyon, spitting sand, rock and gravel westward like a cannon at three or four hundred k. The ultralight bucked, riding up on an eddy, and Russovsky’s fingers gentled the aircraft back, away from the looming cliff swerving towards her. Here, inside the mountain, the vast bulk of the Escarpment distorted gravity, dragging at the Gagarin with twisting fingers. The wingtip, still glowing white, danced away from an obsidian wall, barely brushing against the ancient stone. Even that touch rippled down the hexacarbon wing, making the ship suddenly sluggish.

Russovsky corrected with unconscious grace. Ahead, a slab jutted nearly a third of the way across the canyon. Its eastern face was worn smooth, like glass, a sweeping ebon wing rising up from the rubble. Russovsky’s left hand brushed over the wing pressure control. Hydrogen hissed through fuel tubes running over her head. The left half of the wing stiffened, pressure rising. The right wing began to drag, the microcontrolled airfoil surface softening as the in-wing fuel tanks deflated. Gagarin swung up, left wing rising, right wing falling. Seconds after Russovsky had moved the control the ultralight was flying sideways.

The ultralight swept past the slab, wing lights reflecting in inky depths. Beyond it, there was a curving bowl of sand and - the vid-eye flashed urgently. Russovsky glanced over and saw a sharp angle in the darkness, distinct against the irregular wall of the canyon. She equalized pressure in the wings, then airbraked and drifted the stick right. Gagarin spun out level, slowing quickly, then banked into a tight spin. Hissing softly through clenched teeth, Russovsky feathered the engines, then let the landing skids touch down. A bump, a queasy sliding moment and the Gagarin slid to a halt on hard-packed sand.

Russovsky unfolded herself from the chair, thumbing loose her restraints, each motion quick and assured. Her left leg started to cramp, but she went stiff-legged for a moment, moving jerkily, letting the muscle relax. Working swiftly, acutely conscious of grains of mica and sand pattering down out of the dark sky above her, she triggered one sand-anchor with a tunk!, then leaned back into the cockpit frame and threw the fold switch. The wings trembled in response, then began to deflate, hydrogen hissing back into the reserve tank behind and under the seat. The p-cell battery in the main wing joint woke up with a click and the controls dimmed.

While Gagarin folded up, Russovsky dragged her pack from down from above the H tank and slung it onto her wiry shoulders. She was not a big woman - not and fly a Midge-class ultralight like the Gagarin! - but she had a lean strength and endless endurance. The pack conformed to her back, belt straps sliding around her flat waist with warm hands. A sharp tug freed the winch from the forward centerline strut. Monofil line whined out of the spool as she backed towards the right-angled darkness in the cliff-face.

In the fading light of the wing phosphors, her goggles made the rock glow a pasty green. The angle stood out clear and sharp. Half of a trapezoidal opening, faced with cut stone - a door - yawned in the side of the cliff. Russovsky nodded to herself, unsurprised. Ephesus had been a dead shattered world for millennia, but something had lived here once. Dust was blowing past now, clouding the air. Hurrying, she climbed up into the opening, then flicked a glowbean inside. Pale blue light spilled out like milk from a fallen pail. There was a chamber, a big one, with a canted floor and more sand. It seemed big enough for the ultralight.

Stepping carefully around the edge of the chamber, one hand on the smooth sloping wall, Russovsky slapped the winch-patch onto the wall opposite the door. Outside, the Gagarin was beginning to rock from side to side as wind began to stir in the sandy bowl. Russovsky counted to five, then ran back to the door. At the side of the ultralight, she ratcheted the sand-anchor back in, then stabbed the winch-control. The little motor woke up with a tinny sound and began to reel in the monofil. Sliding on its landing skids, the Gagarin bumped up into the door. Russovsky paced behind the aircraft, then put her shoulder against the rear cargo door, pushing. Windblown sand hissed against her back. Grunting, she shoved the Gagarin into the chamber. On the smoother sand inside, the winch continued to whine until the nose of the aircraft touched the opposite wall.

Russovsky ducked in, her head turned away from the canyon. The wind was rising to a monstrous howl, and the lee of the jutting slab was filling with a swirling dance of dust, sand and fingertip-sized gravel. Working swiftly, she uncoiled a length of fil-tube from her belt, then tacked it along one side of the half-buried door. At the top of the tube was a thumb-tab. Snapping the tab down and away, across her body with a sharp motion, Russovsky unfurled the filament screen and dragged the gelatinous material against the opposing jamb. Pressing firmly, she ran the thumb-tab down the side of the door. The material sheened pearl for a moment, then stiffened. Dust and sand rattled against the polymer, skittering away from the charged filaments. Carefully, Russovsky used the thumb-tab to seal off all the edges and corners. By the time she was done, the rattle of sand was a constant drumming.

Russovsky flicked another glowbean against the ceiling, where it spattered and stuck, making a spray of cold cobalt stars. Despite a sudden feeling of exhaustion, the woman moved around the ultralight, checking the exposed surfaces for cracks, wear or abrasions in the silvery composite. The local dust on Ephesus had incredibly corrosive properties. At the right-hand engine she paused, clicking her teeth together. Her goggles were dialed up high into the ultraviolet and a faint pitting glowed on the intake nacelle.

Shaking her head in disgust, Russovsky removed her helmet and the over-goggles, revealing high cheekbones and a seamed, weathered face. She was not young, and the hot sky of Ephesus had given her a steadily deepening tan. Clipping the helmet and goggles to the back of her belt, Russovsky adjusted her bugeyes - it was dangerous to leave the moist human eye exposed to the raw air of Ephesus - and took the big v-cam from a flat pouch on her left thigh.

"Recor... cough!" Russovsky cleared her throat, tasting bitter alkali. She unclipped the suit drinking tube and took a swallow. Her fingers dug into a pocket of her z-suit and she popped a round, polished stone into her mouth. When her throat had cleared, she started again: "Recording inside a manufactured structure at the eastern end of slot canyon twelve."

She raised the v-cam and slowly panned around, pausing on the door. By now the sun would have risen in the east, but the canyon outside was still pitch black. The wind was still rising, making the monofil membrane in the doorway shudder. Completing her slow turn, she walked away from the Gagarin to the edge of the light thrown by the glowbeans. The chamber ended in a slick, glassy wall. There was another trapezoidal door cut into the rock.

One-handed, she kept the v-cam up while she flicked a bean into the passage.

More blue light filled the space - a corridor with slanted walls, matching the angle of the door. It ended no more than a dozen meters away, abruptly, in rough, uneven extrusion. Frowning with concern - how queerly even -, Russovsky advanced gingerly across a glassy, slick floor. The rock here, like that throughout the Escarpment was Ephesus’ particular trademark - a jumbled, compressed, mangled aggregate of sandstone, rhyolite, granite and flint. She paused below the irregular wall.

"Ah... krasivaya devushka" Russovsky’s faded blue eyes crinkled up in a broad smile. Her fingers were trembling a little as she set the v-cam down on the sandy floor, propping the camera up so it could record the wall in detail. Kneeling, she ran gloved fingers over the rumpled, irregular surface. There were whorls and lumps and patterns familiar in kind, if not in detail, to her experienced eyes. Here, a fluted shape, the outlines of stalk-like legs, a curled shell. There, the echo of flat-pressed reeds and tiny nut-like cysts.

Limestone. The muddy floor of a primordial Ephesian sea. The wall rose up at a queer angle, obviously trapped in the greater matrix of the mountain. Russovsky rose, picked up the v-cam and panned it around, showing the way the passage ended at the shale. A gray eyebrow rose, seeing a set of cylindrical objects were scattered near the wall.

Russovsky bent down, examining one. They seemed to be stone, or crusted with ancient fossilized earth. There were three of them, regular in length and width. Cautiously, she backed away, still recording with the v-cam, and then walked carefully back to the ultralight. The smooth, almost mirror-smooth tunnel floor could have been cut with a plasma torch.

She was exhausted and hungry from the long night-flight. After choking down a threesquare bar Russovsky drank some more water and lay down on the sand under the Gagarin. The suit kept her body temperature within a survivable range and was far too much trouble to shed. The glowbeans were beginning to die, letting soft darkness steal back into the chamber. Russovsky tugged a folded woolen blanket from under the seat of the ultralight and tucked it under her head. Faded red, orange and black stripes made a repeating series of pyramids on the blanket. The wool was scratchy on her cheek and the woman closed her eyes and fell asleep.

The storm beyond the door roared like a distant sea.

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