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Authors: Liz Williams

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Banner of souls

BANNER OF SOULS

Liz Williams

A Bantam Book / October 2004

Published by

Bantam Dell

A Division of Random House, Inc.

New York, New York

All rights reserved

Copyright © 2004 by Liz Williams

Cover illustration © 2004 by Cliff Nielson

Cover design by Jamie S. Warren Youll

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by anyinformation storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.

For information address: Bantam Books, New York, New York.

If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to thepublisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

Bantam Books, Spectra, and their colophons are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

ISBN 0-553-58676-9

Printed in the United States of America Published simultaneously in Canada
For Peter Garratt

Acknowledgments

With thanks to

• my editor Anne Groell

• my agent Shawna McCarthy

• everyone in the Montpellier Writing group and the Cantonese Writing group

• everyone at Milford

• Tanith Lee, for all her support

• Mark Roberts, for the shark monkey

• and to Jay Caselberg for the pangolin and much else besides

The Ghost Herd

CHAPTER 1

Mars

Dreams-of-War was hunting the remnants of men on the slopes of the Martian Olympus when she came across the herd of ghosts. The armor bristled at the approach of the herd, whispering caution into her ear, and at first Dreams-of-War thought that it was warning her against the presence of men—hyenae, perhaps, or vulpen, or others of the Changed. She wheeled around, activating the hand-spines of the armor, but there was nothing there. The cold, tawny slopes rolled into the distance, empty of everything except scrub and the sparse desert life that congregated around the canals and sinks.

Far on the horizon, the col-umn of Memnos Tower pointed upward, just visible now against a darkening sky. Dreams-of-War frowned. The ar-mor remained alert, porcupine spikes forming and reform-ing as she moved.

"What?" Dreams-of-War said aloud, impatiently.

"There is someone here," the armor said. Sometimes it spoke with the voice of the warrior who had first im-printed it, but sometimes the voice sounded more akin to that of Dreams-of-War herself. That was the trouble with haunt-tech; one was never sure whether one was imagin-ing things. But perhaps one could expect no less from something that had been granted by aliens.

"I see no one," Dreams-of-War said.

"Yet someone is here," the armor insisted.

And now Dreams-of-War could, indeed, feel some-thing: an irritation over her guarded skin, like an insect crawl. She flinched within the protective carapace.

"Look," the armor said.

They were rising out of the ground, formed from dust and solidifying soil, then sharp-edged and real.

There were perhaps twenty or so: women with long horns and backward-slanting legs, but they stood vertically. Their eyes were red, with narrow pupils that burned gold—a flame within coals. They gazed at Dreams-of-War with a kind of placid curiosity, despite their demon eyes, switch-ing long tapering tails.

Dreams-of-War stood in frozen shock. They were more than illusion. She could smell them: the scent of long-dead grasslands, woodsmoke, and blood. They smelled like prey. And as if they had seen the thought in her eyes, the herd turned as one and began to run, loping swiftly along the slope until they were swallowed by the gathering twilight. Their small hooves made no sound. They moved in silence, and then were gone.

Dreams-of-War stared after them, feeling foolish. She should at least have made an attempt to capture one of them.

She said aloud, "There have not been such beings on Mars since ancient times. I have seen the records. They roamed the Crater Plain. No one knows who created them, what laboratory, or why."

"They were long dead by my day," the armor—itself a hundred years old—remarked with a trace of wistfulness.

"Thousand-year-old ghosts," Dreams-of-War mused. "But why have they appeared now? I suppose Memnos must be told. We should go back." She spoke with reluc-tance. She disliked setting out on a hunt and returning empty-handed, and this would be her last opportunity. Soon she would be headed for Earth, which now shone above her in the heavens, blue as an eye. The maw of the Chain was also visible: a faint glitter high above the surface of the world. She thought of hurtling into the maw, emerg-ing above that blue star… More alien tech. Dreams-of-War's lip began to curl.

The prospect of that journey, however, was super-seded by the thought of the men-remnants waiting in the rocks. It irritated Dreams-of-War. She could feel it in the armor, too: a wildness, a need for killing, for flesh and death. She had spotted no real prey all day, only the ghosts and the small creatures of the plain, and she had thought that the night would provide her with a chance. The vulpen, at least, slunk out of their holes after dusk, in search of the dactylate birds that were their staple diet.

With a sigh, Dreams-of-War repressed the impulse to continue. She set off back down the long stone-strewn slope to the plain, to where the Memnos Tower was waiting.

CHAPTER 2

Nightshade

Yskatarina Iye was named for the sounds she made on her emergence from the growing-skin—first a hiss and then a cry. A daughter of the lab clans, grown in Tower Cold, on the world of Nightshade at the Chain's end and the system's edge, a very long way from the sun.

The name—her child-name, not the appellation of her Nightshade clan—proved difficult to dislodge and Yskatarina retained it into adulthood, along with the Animus that grew beside her from a hatchling no bigger than a dragon-fly. The Animus, spawned from the ancient genetic lineage of the clan just as Yskatarina herself had been, possessed no name. Yskatarina tried various permutations, yet none seemed to fit.

Her aunt Elaki told her from an early age how fortu-nate she was to have an Animus: how women on other worlds could not be bonded with a male, for there were so few remaining, and those were inferior.

She was lucky, Yskatarina knew, that the Elders of Nightshade still sought to return to the old ways, when men and women walked the worlds together, when both genders lived in harmony, each seeking their other self. And the Animus was not a human male, for they had proved too weak, but some-thing better.

Her Animus whispered to Yskatarina as she slept, throughout the long illnesses that marked her childhood: dreamfevers, feral malaises, and the modified infestations that would enable her not only to suffer the transforma-tion when the time came, but to welcome it. She spent the endless dark of Nightshade with the Animus crouched be-side the cot like a murmuring spider, spinning webs of words.

Transformation nearly killed her. It had been ex-plained to her by her aunt that it would make her stronger, but she did not understand what "transformation" meant.

"What am I to be transformed into?" she had asked Elaki. But her aunt replied only, "You will see."

When the time came, Yskatarina lay, a small uncompre-hending form, in the sparkling dark of the blacklight ma-trix as the engrams rewrote her: a process of alchemical change she was powerless to resist.

The blacklight powered down into a gleaming cube of air. Yskatarina blinked, waking. It felt as though she had been wrenched across a vast distance, torn through the remnants of boiling suns. There was a smell of fire and a terrible heaviness, a weight. She tried to raise her head, but it felt too large for her fragile neck. Someone bent over her. Yskatarina looked up, but it was several moments before the strange shape floating before her congealed into human features.

She saw a long face, cheeks puffed out into veined pouches on either side of a thin, hooked nose.

The skin was unlined, unnaturally smooth and shiny as porcelain. The eyes were set in deep hollows, filled with bloodshot gold. The hair was feathery: dirty-black, coiling in wispy tendrils from beneath the high hat.

Then, Yskatarina's vision shifted and she realized that it was her aunt Elaki peering down at her. Yet for a mo-ment it seemed that there was someone else looking out from Elaki's eyes, someone who cried out in horror.

"You!" Elaki shrieked.

"Aunt?" Her own voice sounded faint, a thin croaking. Elaki reached down and shook her.

"It's
you
, isn't it? I'd know you anywhere."

"Aunt, what is wrong?" Something squirmed inside Yskatarina's head, running in turn from Elaki's anger, tun-neling down to hide in the deep channels of her mind.

Elaki's face became thoughtful and cold, as if a crucial decision had been reached. She turned on her heel and spoke to someone unseen, probably the Animus Isti, who followed always at her heels.

"Prepare the matrix once more. There are some fur-ther modifications to be made."

Darkness swept over Yskatarina like a wing. There was a tearing, rending sensation, a lightning bolt through her brain. It felt as though she were being split in two, and the pain sent her squealing down into the abyss.

She did not wake for a long time. At last, swimming up through unconsciousness, she found herself no longer in the blacklight chamber, but in her own room. Her head felt like a great hot bag, too heavy to lift.

She put up a hand to feel her brow, but nothing happened. Alarmed, Yskata-rina tried to move her arms and legs. There was no sensa-tion at all. She cried out for Elaki.

"Ah! You're awake," her aunt said, bustling in.

"I can't feel my arms, or my legs!"

Elaki placed a clammy hand on Yskatarina's forehead. "I fear that is because they are no longer there.

You suf-fered a rare meningeal infection after the transformation process, and your limbs were damaged by gangrene. We were forced to remove them."

"Aunt?" Yskatarina whispered, in fright and shock.

"We will make new limbs for you," Elaki promised. Her face softened, almost imperceptibly, but there was something behind her eyes that alarmed Yskatarina be-yond measure. "Better ones. So do not make such a fuss."

When Elaki left, Yskatarina stared numbly up to find the Animus above her, in chrysalis form. She reached out for him, before she remembered. He hung in a motionless silver-black shape from the ceiling of the laboratory, de-pending from a piece of growing bone. After her own ex-periences, Yskatarina did not expect the Animus to emerge alive, but emerge he did, gliding from the tinsel wreckage of the chrysalis: arachnid, escorpionate, baleful.

Yskatarina knew then that there was nothing she would not do to keep the Animus beside her. Hadn't they always been together? And after the dreadful experience of transformation, the Animus was the only being on which she could rely.

There was another change, too. Before, Yskatarina had been afraid of her aunt: dreading the touch of Elaki's pale, plump hands, hating the way her aunt's great eyes would gaze at her with such chilly calculation. But after the trans-formation, she also became aware of how much she truly loved Elaki. The feeling overwhelmed her. She sat shiver-ing on the cot, filled with longing, and when Elaki next came to see her, she threw her new arms around her aunt's shrouded form. Elaki pushed her away, wincing.

"You must learn to operate your limbs with more care, Yskatarina. The servomechanisms are powerful."

"Thank you, Aunt.
Thank you
." But she could not have said what she was thanking Elaki for. It occurred to her, vaguely, that this should have bothered her, but somehow she dismissed it.

When she was well enough to venture forth, Yskatarina and the Animus wandered together through the shadowy passageways of Tower Cold. They learned the secret ways between the walls; they slipped past hidden chambers as Yskatarina's artificial feet crunched and crackled on the thousand-year-old bones of mice. Concealed behind living tapestries, they watched as the Steersmen Skull-Faces bot-tled up the canopic jars and dispatched them into the boats that would carry them to the gates, there to be launched upon the Night Sea for their endless journey. They traveled down to the depths, where the mute-kin slaved on the production lines, assembling haunt-devices. They sat for hours above the docking bays as the service ships headed out toward the Chain. They scuttled through the Weighing Chamber, while the mourn-women sang the ancient songs, conjuring—so they said—the spirits of the future dead, untied from the rivers of time. But Yskatarina did not understand what they meant by that, and when she asked her aunt, Elaki only laughed and said that the mourn-women were filled with superstitions and non-sense. The only places Yskatarina and the Animus did not go were the haunt-laboratories of Tower Cold, sealed be-hind horrifying weir-wards, open only to Elaki.

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