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World's Third E-Book—Published On the Web in 1997 For Digital Download

an Empire of Time SF novel

by John Argo

 Preface   Chapter 1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37   38   39   40   41   42 


2. Old World—Year 2299

Paul Menard rested his cheek against thick glass as he and Master Engineer Roger Krings sat deadlocked in their debate of survival priorities.

The own grim situation would never come up in conversation. Each had thought of killing the other in a duel, and each had let the thought go, knowing Licia would not sanction it.

The Rocky Mountain Aerie window overlooked angry black cloud cover obscuring the bitten, stunted landscape of Earth. Muffled thunder regularly growled in the electrically tormented clouds below. As the mountains rolled into dusk, the evening sun shone into the small turret room where Paul often came to sit alone. Even in the remaining aeries, populations were dwindling and one could find many places to be alone—too many. Only today he was not alone.

Startled by a noise minutes ago, he'd turned.

Roger Krings stood in the doorway, award-rich and much honored, but now in danger of being despoused. Paul was about to take his daughter from him, his remaining woman, and under Aerie law that meant Krings must be put to death. Spousing didn't mean you slept with each other; it meant any man-woman relationship. When you became despoused, they disposed of you. That was Old Law, of course, when there had been too many people. Now it was nothing like that, but the old shame remained. Krings would be allowed to remain in his spacious condominium, close to the precious earth, but there would be a stigma. Without meaning to, or knowing why, people would dread speaking with him. They would shun the formerly great man. He would probably step outside one day—he'd all but threatened this, in an effort to keep Licia with him—having said goodbye to his few remaining contacts. He had no students any more. He would step outside without benefit of suit or helmet and pick his way down the old U.S. Forest Service trail. Probably cold would kill him first. If he chose to wear thick clothing, he'd go a bit farther down until the air delivered less oxygen to his laboring lungs. If he wore breathing pack and helmet, he might make it almost to the shores of the mysterious sea. Before the comets had rained down, before the Earth had vomited up slag and smoke, the sea had already risen to new highs and made new beaches. That was generations ago. It was pitch dark down there, people said—no one had gone there and returned alive—but robot probes suggested strange things living down there that relished the poison air, and glowed greenish-yellow when excited. If nothing else got him, these things would.

"Well, Conquering Hero, you are about to lift your wings."

Paul, two weeks away from launching, looked away.

"I came to talk about Licia," Krings said perspiring.

"We have talked enough about it." Paul sweated but felt cold. He coughed gently and looked out of the window. Two condors, faint dots at first, approached high over the alternating black patches and white-and-gold angel's hair clouds. Krings too had noticed, and bent at the knees to watch.

The condors tangled briefly, losing altitude. When they had nearly sunk into the cloud tomb, they abruptly parted by truce of mutual necessity. They climbed steeply upward and apart.

"The new kind,'' Krings said scientifically.

The leading condor passed over the buttressed gray Aerie walls like a shadow, its wing span over 100 feet. The birds were thickly insulated with fat and feathers. They could lift a dog or a child into the upper atmosphere within minutes, to suffocate their prey. As the birds passed, their shadows flitted over the Aerie, each shadow for an instant darkening the room.

Krings began to blubber.


Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.