Previously in Only Slightly
Visiting Arelon to investigate the removal of Karema magic from the planet and the death of Pen-Ghast, who carried the Fire element of Yarek's spell, The Geraldine and Anneka are dismayed to learn of Bill's death, but their grieving is cut short by the arrival of the Karema, who begin bombarding the planet from orbit.
In order to compensate for the loss of Pen-Ghast, Yarek sends Bidet and Fridgara to his former residence on Mars, where they may retrieve various items and spells which will allow Yarek's master plan to proceed.
The sudden appearance of Bidet and Fridgara in the largest greenhouse dome on Mars caused something of a stir among the colonists, who had been starting to wonder who was going to be the next person to disappear. The story of where they had gone and what they had been told caused an even greater stir and, despite their insistence on urgency and quiet, once they finally climbed into a rover to go to the southern polar region and Yarek's hidden laboratory, they had several people accompanying them. Riy, a stocky engineer from northern Germany, claimed to be the best rover driver on Mars, and had promised to get them to their destination in record time. He sat in the driver's seat next to Harriet, a middle-aged English prodigy of computer programming and hardware design with the magical ability to manipulate electrons. It wasn't either of those two who Fridgara kept glancing at though - it was the two old men locked in a staring match with Bidet.
Well, one of the two old men was locked in a staring match with Bidet. Fridgara wasn't sure her companion even noticed Pord Frespect, former Sitter on the Chair of Moxon and a recent winner of the Peta Award for Getting Into Places Nobody Thought You Could. Since he had acquired the ability to slip himself between gaps in reality forty years ago in an American prison, Pord hadn't really had any competition for that award, which he had no doubt placed on the shelf where he kept his other eight Peta Awards, in fields as diverse as Lawnmower Repair and Lemon Meringue Pie-making. Since retiring as a Sitter, Pord clearly hadn't had much to keep him occupied beyond the acquisition of more Peta Awards. Fridgara wasn't sure Bidet had noticed the woman sitting in the seat next to Fridgara either, despite Agnes Topplebury being his mother; he was too busy attempting to stare out his father, Bath.
'Do they often do this?' Fridgara finally asked, after they'd been driving for half an hour and neither man had even blinked.
'Sometimes,' Agnes said. 'I used to worry about it, but I suppose it's a form of meditation really.'
'They look more like they want to rip each other's throats out to me.'
Agnes shrugged. 'They often do,' she said. 'They get on very well when they're not in physical proximity. Perhaps coming here was a mistake.'
Fridgara thought that might be a slight understatement, although she was quite glad to have Agnes along. She had never met the famous singer before, but she had heard much about her exploits during the events forty years ago, and she suspected that if anything did happen while they were trying to retrieve Yarek's things, Agnes would be a handy person to have around. As would Pord - and Bath, if he ever stopped staring at his son.
'Perhaps we can tempt them to look at something else,' Agnes said, rising from her seat to pull some meal packs out of a locker. They were magically sealed, and the moment she ripped the lid off one the aroma of freshly-cooked chicken curry wafted through the rover's passenger cabin. Bath and Bidet both blinked, and their eyes fixed on the food, which Agnes quickly passed over so she could pull the lid from another pack. 'You two are stupid, you know,' she said. 'Bidet, dear, we came because we were worried about you and Fridgara and The Geraldine. We're delighted to see you safe.'
Bidet grunted, unable to reply properly because his mouth was full of curry. Bath took the pack of chilli con carne offered by his wife and ate it mechanically, attention apparently fixed on the floor. Agnes nodded with satisfaction, but said nothing more.
For her part, Fridgara enjoyed her bowl of chicken ramen - although she was extremely surprised to find such food in a stasis pack on Mars, especially since it was as good as any she'd ever eaten in Japan. The rocking of the rover as they made their way through the southern highlands of Mars made for some precarious moments when the delicious soup came close to spilling, but despite the obstacles Fridgara dispatched the soup in short order. Once finished, she looked out of the front windows and saw a vast white hill, just becoming visible over the horizon.
'Ja, that is the southern ice cap,' Riy said when she mentioned it. 'We will be there in twenty minutes, perhaps. Where exactly did you wish to go?'
'We'll know it when we come close to it,' Bidet said. He'd been avoiding his father's gaze since finishing his food, deliberately trying not to get into another staring match. 'Just head for the ice cap, then drive eastwards around it until we tell you to stop.'
'Okay. It is not like I had anything better to do.'
'What are we going to do when we get there?' Harriet asked.
'We are going to go inside Yarek's lab and retrieve what we came here for,' Fridgara told her. 'Then Bidet and I will return directly to Yarek, and you can go back to base.'
'Is that it?'
'Probably not. You can come along, but I would suggest you keep an eye out.'
'For these Karema?'
'I would hope not, but they might know more than Yarek thinks. It never hurts to be cautious.'
They drove for about fifteen more minutes, Bidet and Fridgara too intent on locating the entrance to Yarek's lab for the former to even come close to entering into another staring match with Bath. For his part, the old wizard turned his orange eyes to their spells, and Fridgara was willing to bet that he could reproduce them perfectly even after only seeing them a couple of times. Or perhaps even only once. Bath's reputation was towering, but it wasn't quite the same as sitting near him and feeling his abilities in the same way one could detect the odour of freshly baked cake from across the kitchen. For all his appearance, the old man was extremely impressive.
The irritating thing was that he clearly knew it.
Pord, on the other hand, appeared entirely unaware of the reputation he carried around with him, as if he could slip away from it whenever he wanted - which he probably could. Fridgara had seen video clips from his latest Peta Award final, and the way he had found his way into a completely sealed hollow metal cube by squeezing through the gaps between some of its atoms was quite uncanny.
She turned her attention to Agnes, another walking legend, and was surprised to see the seat next to her was empty. She stared at it for a moment, then there was a soft chuckle and Agnes appeared with a faint 'pop'.
'Just practising,' the singer said with a small smile. 'It's come in handy in the past.'
'I can imagine.' A sudden change in the spell Fridgara was holding made her turn to Riy. 'Stop! We're here!' she called. Riy braked sharply, and they were all dislodged from their seats as the rover skidded to a stop. Riy flushed under multiple accusing stares.
'Well you said to stop,' he said, 'so I stopped.'
'Quite,' Fridgara said. 'Now, if everybody is still fit enough to continue, we should suit up and go find the entrance.'
The orbital bombardment of Arelon continued long into the night. Elizabeth and Anneka sheltered in an underground storage room at the spaceport, waiting for The Geraldine, drawn at least partially out of her grief by the attack, who had filled a large bucket with water and used it to go and have a look around, over Anneka's protests.
'She should have let me go,' Anneka said for the fourth or fifth time. 'I could see at least as much as she can.'
'I think she needs to do something,' Elizabeth said, the first time she'd ventured a response to Anneka's complaints. She looked at the Sitter on the Chair of Mina. 'Let her feel useful. It might take her mind off Bill for a while.'
The water in the bucket rippled, and The Geraldine's head appeared, sticking out of it.
'The Karema are landing troops,' she said without preamble. 'They're heading straight for you. Probably not a good idea to stick around.'
'Where do we go?' Elizabeth asked.
'I don't know. Anneka, take Elizabeth somewhere you'll be safe for a while, I'll try and find something more permanent. Or a way off this planet.'
'Right,' Anneka said. The Geraldine's head melted back into the water. 'Okay, I'll see if I can find somewhere. Sit tight. I'll be back soon.' The Sitter closed her eyes, and dissolved into the air. Elizabeth sighed, leaned back against the wall and waited.
She must have dozed off, because she was woken by the door opening. Blinking groggily, she took a moment to realise what was happening, and by then it was too late. The figure which had opened the door was unlike anything she had ever seen before. Although humanoid in form, it only seemed to be that way because it was convenient to be so. The figure wore no clothes, but had a skin which diverted the eyes - you could see it, but focusing on it was almost impossible.
YOU ARE AMBASSADOR ELIZABETH RANDALL. YOU WILL COME WITH US.
The voice - if you could call it that - was the kind of voice you would only consider disobeying under the most extreme circumstances. These were not. As Elizabeth got to her feet and was ushered out of the door, she realised that the shaking and the sound of distant explosions had ceased. Directed up to the ground floor, she was surprised to find that the spaceport appeared completely undamaged, with not even a window broken.
But although the building was fine, the people were not. At numerous places Elizabeth saw corpses, some blackened and burned, some in pieces. One was nothing more than a leg sticking out of a wall, a sight sufficiently unusual to provoke an exclamation from her. Her escort, three figures who she had concluded must be Karema of some sort, did not slow, but did respond to her unspoken query.
WE DO NOT DESTROY BUILDINGS WHEN THEY CAN BE OF USE TO US, was all they said. Spying another corpse embedded halfway up a wall, Elizabeth recalled Anneka saying how the Karema used magic exclusively. A magical weapon could surely do this, affecting people but leaving buildings untouched.
'Where are you taking me?' Elizabeth asked a few minutes later, after they'd crossed a landing pad and passed through one of the departure lounges which had been converted to house plague victims.
YOU WILL SEE WHEN YOU ARRIVE THERE.
And see she did, for her escort took her into what had been the main hall of the spaceport, but was now completely changed to how it had been the previous day. Instead of the rows of ticket desks and check-in machines, there was a vast empty space, lit by tall glowing cylinders which emitted a pale blue light. As Elizabeth was ushered across the hall, she noticed a group of other humans, including Harin, who had been in charge of the plague control effort based at this spaceport. He caught her eye and nodded slightly, a gesture she returned, but they were precluded from attempting to talk by the sudden appareance of another Karema, who stood on a floating platform which had appeared with him. Or her. Or it.
YOU ARE THE LEADERS OF THE HUMANS ON THIS PLANET, this Karema said. I AM THE LEADER OF THE KAREMA FORCES WHO NOW OCCUPY THIS WORLD. YOU ARE NO DOUBT CONCERNED BY THOUGHTS OF WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR WORLD UNDER OUR OCCUPATION. WE SHALL TELL YOU WHY WE ARE HERE. WE SEEK TWO HUMAN FEMALES. ONE IS CALLED THE GERALDINE, THE OTHER IS CALLED ANNEKA. ONCE THESE HUMANS HAVE BEEN FOUND, WE WILL DEPART THIS WORLD AND HAVE NO INTENTION OF RETURNING.
'What do you want them for?' Harin called out before he could stop himself. The Karema leader looked down on him - there were no eyes in that faceless head, but the Karema's gaze could nonetheless be felt.
THEY BELIEVE US THEIR ENEMY,' it said, 'BUT WE ARE NOT THEIR ENEMY. THEY ARE BEING USED BY OUR ENEMY. WE WISH TO FIND THEM AND SHOW THEM THE TRUTH.
'If your intentions are so peaceful, why attack as you did? How many of our people have you killed?'
WE HAVE THE ABILITY TO RESURRECT THE RECENTLY DEAD. OUR ATTACK WAS NECESSARY TO ALLOW US TO LAND WITHOUT RISK TO OURSELVES. ALL CASUALTIES WILL BE FOUND AND REVIVED BEFORE WE DEPART.
Elizabeth didn't hear anymore. The Karema couldn't be telling the truth. She could barely credit what they had been told - Anneka had said they were a brutal race, uninterested in communication with other species, with truce or coexistance. She shook her head. She didn't want to believe her friend wrong, but oh how she wanted to believe the Karema right!