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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 


9. New World—Year 3301

An outcrop of brown cliffs rose about two miles away, a logical place to go, higher ground. Survive, said a small voice sounding remarkably like SheuXe's in Paul's head; Conquer.

"From high ground, we might be able to spot the other two lifeboats," Licia said as she and Paul rested on a large flat rock. They sipped water and tore open foil packets containing thawed meal bars. "Taste that?" she said, closing her eyes. "Raspberry. My mother used to have a little garden in a sunny spot under the west windows, before she died. She grew things like this and I especially remember the raspberries."

"I never had raspberries," Paul said without rancor; he'd long accepted that she came from a much higher social position and had many more privileges. "Is that the tart, sweet taste?"

She nodded. She interlocked one hand with his.

"I like the bready part, what is it, oats and grains?" He scanned the horizon as he chewed. "We should have seen some smokes by now," he said, wiping his mouth. "All the lifeboats are equipped with signal rockets and smoke generators."

"They would certainly have seen ours," Licia said. "A little unintentional humor there."

"I smell goat shit," Paul said.

She laughed and wrinkled her nose. "Buffalo poop." She pointed. Far off, the buffalo-like creatures that had run in fright had resumed grazing. The air had a pissy, musky oxen smell. Strange, this rich-life planet. The Aerie, by contrast, had had fewer smells, most of them either to do with cleansers or else with mustiness in abandoned corridors. "We can live here, Paul."

"I know," he said, "it's great."

"And scary." She looked around uncomfortably. "It's all so wide open. We don't have to hide from the snow and the cold. You know what scares me most? What scared me to think about even before we left Earth? The idea of sleeping on the ground in the open. I know we have all the gizmos and gadgets, but still—."

He nodded, well understanding. Hiding his own fear, he patted the gun on his belt and then the one on her belt, but she didn't look convinced, and neither was he. "Let's get moving," he said. It seemed like the best thing to do—walking a step ahead of their fears and uncertainties.

They passed several groves of trees, one or two with small animals that nibbled at hanging leaves. Like the buffalo they had spotted earlier, these animals had shaggy, powerful hind legs and small forelegs. These animals had foot-long snouts for pulling down their fodder. When the humans drew near, the animals bolted quickly in a thrashing welter.

"Good runners," Paul said.

"Probably means there are faster predators."

"I'll be you're right."

She kicked a stone. "Six people against a whole world."

"Don't be dramatic."

About an hour after they came to the foot of the cliffs. A reed-choked, swampy area spread under the steep stone face, which was pasty white in color and crumbly. They paused for a few minutes, eyeing the patchy brown water amid the reeds for signs of anything unfriendly. "I guess we do have to keep a look around us at every minute," Licia said.

The sun, N60, had declined visibly in the sky, and there was a cool breeze filled with warm but unfamiliar scents. "We should get up there before dark," he said.

"Right. High ground." She picked her way across grassy and rocky clumps across the swamp, and he followed. "Paul, what about the Senders? We have not found any trace of them yet."

"Yes. Seeing all the ruins wasn't exactly encouraging." In the mother ship, the six pioneers had been able to plan their descent very carefully, even though everything had later gone wrong. They'd expected to find a vibrant but benign space civilization of people much like themselves. The low-density raster images received by Aerie dishes, which themselves were centuries old and no longer optimal, offered only muddy feelings for the aliens' exact appearances.

As they reached dry soil at the foot of the cliffs, darkness came rapidly. Far away, something roared, a sound like a ship's siren, and Licia jumped against him so suddenly he was scared both by the bellowing and by her movement. They stood together, holding each other, and trembling unashamedly. "Paul, let's get to the top of the hill." It was the aerie-borns' instinct to get to high ground. Quickly, they slipped on their heavy work gloves. She followed as he plunged forward. They attacked the dry chalky soil, clinging to a scraggly branch here and a thorny bush there. He could hear thorns ripping at the impervious surfaces of the gloves. Halfway up, reluctantly, he snapped on the small lamps in his collar, and Licia did the same. "Hate to do it. Might give us away, but we have no choice."

"Just a few minutes," she said panting.

"There's the top. Whoa." He hoisted himself around a boulder and emerged on a clearing backset with dense woods.

"Not going in there tonight," Licia said.

"Right. Here, let's set up."

The air was thinner and cooler on the plateau. SheuXe’s master plan had provided them with an ideal camp site based on things he'd researched in old army manuals, made of nylon and metal composite struts, and weighing no more than 40 pounds. They began with an alarm perimeter—a thin wire, stretched through the trees in a circle fifty feet in diameter, and grounded to a small body-heat detector. In the center, they erected a tent just big enough for both to lie in. Around that they erected a secondary perimeter consisting of an alarm-rigged shield of dark-camo nylon that blocked the view of their tent. Inside the perimeter, they fired up a small stove that gave off almost no smoke or light, but enough heat to warm up some rations. The stove also gave off a an odor, outside the human range of smell, that was described by the citizen-chemists as "peppery," and which would wipe out any predator's sense of smell for as long as it stayed around, which probably would not be long. They laid their hand guns and rifles in the tent, ready to grab, along with strong flashlights. Without trenches or berms, SheuXe had told his pioneers in class, their only real strategy was to always keep a person on guard while the others slept. If something did spot them despite the visual shield, and didn't mind the pepper smell, then as it crashed through the outer perimeter, alarm noises and lights would go off, scaring it and rousing everyone. Hopefully the person on guard could fill it (or him) full of energy slashes before it could make it into the tent for a dinner of humans. ("What if we are separated?" someone, Nancy Tynan maybe, Paul couldn't remember, had asked in class. SheuXe, diminutive, spectacled, white-haired-balding, forever in a white lab coat, unassuming, yet authoritative and aware of his genius, had shrugged and said in his high, thin voice: "Keep your sense of humor." And everyone had laughed.)

As they ate, the twin moons shone like cracked pennies in a field of stars. Because there was no light pollution from cities, nor industrial pollution—and they'd seen no signs of natural pollutants like volcanoes or forest fires from orbit—the sky was so clear that the stars formed an almost continuous sheet of photoflash yellow along the plane of the Milky Way.

"Look," Licia said. "Orion."

Paul stared in amazement. He had to look closely, for in this rich display, individual groupings of stars were hard to pick out. "You're right. SheuXe told us we might be able to recognize some Earth constellations, though slightly tweaky because of the different angle."

"Twenty-five light years isn't far in the universe, is it?"

"It's eternity if you can't go back."

"We couldn't go back even while we were still there."

He nodded. "It was a dying world." Seeing Orion, and then the Big Dipper, and the rest of the familiar constellations, in various minor degrees of distention, made him think of the lost libraries. "If just one of the other lifeboats makes it, then we have the observations we made before we auto-launched."

Licia gave a small, confident laugh. "We can figure things out for ourselves. Look, if you follow the outer part of the Big Dipper as if you were throwing out the soup in it, you come to that little star there. That's Polaris, Earth's pole star. See the Little Dipper? Of course if this planet has a pole star, it won't likely be Polaris. We should find some reference points, because—."

He reached out and pulled her to him. She laughed and let him. It felt good to feel her lithe young body in his arms, her smooth skin and bony points pressing against him. They made love while the night deepened around them and invisible breezes rustled through the tall, dense trees, Small animals and nesting birds rumored in dank holes.

A while later, each occupied a separate sleeping bag. Paul lay propped on one elbow. Licia lay on her back, eyes half-closed. Fragile moonlight turned the nylon tent gently aglow, painting a restful luxury around her features. The night was full of tiny sounds—insects, birds, all the things he'd imagined you could hear on Earth before the clouds came. Every so often, something huge and terrifying, and thankfully far away, would bellow with an echo that carried for miles.



"It's so alien—and yet so familiar somehow."

She opened her eyes and held up a leaf with both hands, She touched the leaf wonderingly in several places, "Yes, I think I know what it is. There's more geometry, somehow, I think. The leaves are square or diamond-shaped or ... and the grass is more leafy, sort of furry." The leaf in her hand was feather-shaped, with the spine at one edge. "Maybe it isn't more geometry, but it's all just different enough to be noticeable."

"Generalization," Paul murmured. SheuXe’s grand theory had been that, given there are only 92 naturally occurring elements, and given that planets are common in the universe, and given that the same laws apply equally everywhere, and finally given that we have the Senders broadcasting to us, why should there not be myriad Earths?

"We have to find the others," she said. "We must."

"We'll make it." Paul brushed her forehead with his finger to wipe away the worry lines. She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her face into his chest. She mumbled something.

"What, Lish?"

"It's far behind us, Paul. My father. Your brother. The Aeries. All of it. We can start a new life."

He sighed. "Yes, but it's still all up here." He pointed to his head. "It's like yesterday." He could not even say the other things.

"Sleep now," she said softly, drawing him down beside her. "Warm me."


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