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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 


4. Old World—Year 2299

A knock sounded at the door of his one-bedroom apartment in the upper Aerie. Paul rose from bed wearing his robe, and holding a half-full glass of scotch and tinkling ice cubes. Plans for a proposed interstellar mission, two years in future if it were to happen at all, were scattered across the bed. Among them lay a heavy, wide-mouthed black rifle he had been absently cleaning and oiling: A condor gun.

Opening the door, he stared. She!

He had seen her for the first time at the bird-baiting games two days earlier. It wasn't the first time he'd seen her, actually. The Aerie still had nearly 20,000 inhabitants, down from 45,000 fifty years earlier. There were a hundred aeries around the world, all in mountainous regions. Each supported 2,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. In all, about a million humans remained from a pre-doom population of up to ten billion. The Rocky Mountain Aerie was one of the largest. It sprawled over dozens of acres in an area known long ago as New Mexico. It had several schools, several shopping malls as they were still known, hundreds of businesses. It was possible for two persons to rarely ever see each other. Then again, it was possible for two persons one day to stare at each other as though it were for the first time, and to see each other as they never had before.

Paul had been pike man in the games. His partner had been Robert Tynan, a brilliant young engineer. Both men wore blue jumpsuits that insulated against the cold while allowing free range of motion. The only weapons in the game were a club and a ten-foot spear, or pike, with a razor sharp steel point. Tynan's job, as clubman, had been to bring the bird in, as a matador might long ago have taunted a bull. These giant birds were not at all shy, and not easily frightened. After all, since the radical shift in the ecology, the upper atmosphere had become the secure spot in the food chain, and they were the kings of that domain. This bird, a black King Condor with a wing span of 30 or 35 feet, was hungry. Its beak was serrated for killing, and those claws were scarred from fighting other denizens of the air. Tynan, a strapping man of athletic physique and stubborn courage, had gone out on the bare, snowy tarmac holding his club. The trick in this part of the game was not to be too far from the bait nor too close. The bait was a mewling lamb and its mother. The lamb fretted about their small fenced in area while the mother stood stoically. Already, black shadows crept in front of the sun. Raspy cawing traveled for miles in the brilliantly blue sky as the birds talked to one another in a setup for the attack. Paul watched carefully, pike ready to go to Tynan's assistance if necessary. Sure enough, there came their antagonist, a good-sized alpha male from a flock that roosted on a nearby mountain top. The Hunt Club would be dining on lamb, mutton, and fowl tonight, Paul thought with grim pleasure. Since Gregory, he hated the birds.

The helos had been stored below. Above on the rampart, several hundred spectators watched, bundled in heavy clothing. Their features were mostly unrecognizable, muffled by scarves and wool hats. The bird settled slowly, wings noisy in the thick air. The trick was for him to go for the sheep, not for Tynan. Sure enough, as the crowd screamed and hooted, the bird looked from one to the other and raced across the snow with wings pointed up, headed straight for Tynan. Tynan turned to run, but fell. What should have happened was that the bird would go for the sheep, and Tynan would run up and club it across the head. As it lay momentarily dazed, he would slip a noose around its leg, anchoring it to the ground. Then the pike man, in this case Paul, would run out and with great showmanship duel the bird to its death. Or, as sometimes happened, his own. Then it was the custom to shoot the bird and hang its head on the rampart as a ghoulish tribute for the other birds to peck at.

The bird was upon Tynan. Paul ran, readying the pike as he went. The bird managed to gash Tynan's clothing, which was thickly insulated; no blood appeared on his torso. The bird suddenly looked up, aware of Paul running toward it. Its eyes contained 120 million years of evolutionary mercilessness and survival pride. In that moment, Tynan swung the club. His swing was weakened by his position on his back, with the bird's claws on his leg, but he caught it awkwardly across the face. It darted back, without relinquishing its hold on him, and snapped its beak to one side. The club flew away. Paul ran at full tilt, bringing the pike back like a throwing spear—something never seen before, but the moment was desperate—and lunged. The composite shaft whirled through the air, penetrating the bird's neck. The condor backed up, flailing angrily, making the wound worse. Scarlet jelly ran down its chest and spattered the snow. There hadn't been strength in Paul's throw to penetrate the feathers and fat, but the condor managed to thrash and drive the point deeper. Paul and Tynan tried to get closer, but the bird, lying on its back and thrusting with its claws and its beak while shrilly screaming, was too dangerous to approach. The two men had provided sport and proven their courage. A sharpshooter of the Aerie Police finished the condor with a single shot to the skull, and everyone clapped, including Paul and Tynan, who shook hands. It was customary that the winning pike man got as his trophy the severed head, and the clubman the wings; but if the bird had to be shot, the head went to the shooter and the wings were left in the snow for two weeks. Licia had removed her hat and scarf and tossed a kerchief to the two men. Paul and Tynan had looked at each other, and in that moment a controversy had been born. Gallantly, Paul had picked it up after conferring with Robert, and both men had returned it to her. Her name, she said, was Alicia Krings. It was then that Paul recognized the angry older man beside her as Councilman Krings.

Tonight he held his glass, staggering slightly as she stood in his doorway. "Hello."

"Hello," she said. Smartly dressed, with long, slender legs and a fine figure, she was five years younger than Paul. Rumor had it many men had courted her, and Krings had driven them all off, some under threat of their lives. Being on the Council, he could get away with that.

She was lovely and Paul was shocked. She looked at Paul with clear hazel eyes. Then she looked quickly down at her hands and awkwardly twirled her sunglasses, "Won't you ask me in?"

"Of course." He stepped aside.

She walked into his apartment, as was her right under aerie law. "I felt that I must get to know you."

"I am flattered."

She offered the kerchief. "This was meant for you, although the other man also was beautiful."

He bowed slightly, putting it in his pocket. "If you had warned me, I would have worn something more appropriate, and I would have gotten flowers."

"You know what is right," she said.

"I beg you to educate me if I don't."

"May I sleep with you tonight?" The words were ritual.

"My heart beats fast at the thought." The words were from a poem about medieval romance, written during the Middle Ages, and discovered under an altar in France as salvagers brought what they could to trucks for transport to the Swiss Alps. That had been during the melting of the glaciers, but before the comets and volcanoes.

She was beautiful. They stared at each other, and he wondered if she felt the way he did. This was to be no one-night reward for a condor baiting game well brought off. He could see the hunger written in her eyes, and he hoped she was falling in love with him as he was falling in love with her. She seemed strong, yet innocent, and he knew much about her when she said: "My father is very jealous and violent, but you are brave. Maybe you, who kill condors, can take me from my father. Otherwise I will grow old alone. I will have no children and I will walk down the mountain before I am old."

"I don't want to dishonor your father."

She unbuttoned her brown jacket, revealing a fine creamy silk blouse underneath. "I have come and you have accepted me. If you send me away, it will dishonor me, and if you dishonor me, you have dishonored my father. If on the other hand you treat me well, it will honor my father. No matter what I do with a man, it will anger my father, but you will not dishonor him if you keep me with you."

Paul laughed, though all sorts of dreadful implications flickered through his mind. Aerie law was about survival; it was harsh and merciless, and for a moment he pictured himself being sent down the mountain with only food and clothing to keep him alive for a day or two. "You have a sharp mind. If you weren't so beautiful, I would be panicking."

But she was preoccupied with her thoughts and did not hear him. "You see, I have never slept with a man. My father never even allowed me to date during high school or college. And now I have to get away from him. It's not just that you are beautiful and brave." She looked down, biting her lip, and her fingers stopped working the second button of her blouse loose, a heavy round button of the same luxurious material. "You see, I heard that you may be sent to the new world, and I thought you might take me with you. Then I could truly be free."


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