S.M. Stirling, Swords of Zar-tu-Kan

Zar-tu-Kab had been an independent city-state and ancient when the Tooamune emperors of Dvor-il-Adazar united Mars. It had outlived the Eternal Peace of a planetary empire that lasted thirty thousand years, and was a city-state again.

Sally always enjoyed getting back to Zar-tu-Kan, the main contact-city for the US-Commonwealth Alliance of explorers and scientists of Mars. It was honestly alien. While Kennedy Bas was… sort of like a major airport that had somehow landed in Antarctica with everyone stuck in a second-rate hotel by bad weather. She was probably going to live out the rest of her life on Mars, and with antiagathics cheap at the source, that could be a long time….

Slim tulip-shaped spires reared hundreds of feet into the air between warrens of lower-slung, thick-walled compounds, their time-faded colors still blazing against a sky of faded blue tinged pink with the dust of the Deep Beyond. The towers varied in pointillist shadings like the memory of rainbows seen in dreams, Lacy crystalline bridges joined them, and transparent domes glittered below over lineage apartment houses of the homes of the rich and powerful, full of an astonishing flowering lushness. The narrow serpentine streets below wound among blank-faced buildings of hard, glossy, rose-red stone whose ornamental carvings were-often worn to faintest tracery…

… The building was a smooth three-story octagon, featureless on the outside save for low-relief patterns like feathery reeds, with a glassine dome showing above its central portion, typical of the Orchid Consort style in the Late Imperial period. Maintainer bugs the size of cats and shaped like flattened beetles crawled slowly over the crystal in an eternal circuit.

… The inner door with its glossy surface slid aside to reveal an arched passageway in the foamed stone. That gave onto an inner courtyard about a hundred yards across. The air was blissfully damp – about like Palm Springs or Bakerfield – and smelled faintly of rock, growth, and things like marjoram and heather and others that had no names on Earth. The pavement was ornamental, a hard, fossil-rich, pale limestone that was replaced every few centuries. Little of it could be seen beneath the vegetation that covered the planters, rose up the slender fretwork pillars that supported the arcades balconies that overlooked the court, and hung in colored sheets from the carved-stone screens. It wasn’t quite a closed system like a spaceship, but fairly close.

… The apartment was large, several thousand square feet, paradisical after you got used to spaceships or space habitats or that habitat-on-Mars called Kennedy Base. The furniture was mostly built into the substance of the walls and floor, with silky or furry native blankets and rugs folded on top, some stirring a little as the sensed the Terrans’ body warmth.

zar tu kan

An Ancient City on Mars, illustration : © Megan Jorgensen

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