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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 


14. Old World—Year 2299

Paul, 19, had reached the point of truth in his test aerie. This was the seventh and last night he'd have to spend in this hell. If he could only hold out until dawn! The night was black and scratched full of stars. Paul huddled in his concrete shell which was barely large enough to hold him. The cold seemed to eat him alive. He must stay awake. Must stay awake,—and his mind swam through one delirium after another.

No moon.

This was the Aerie's way of teaching a young man about himself, about itself, about the universe. It cured the youthful urge to wander. It was childhood's destroyer if nothing else had been. For Paul, his childhood lay buried with Gregory. He did not have to be here. If you hoped ever to be a member of the ruling elite, or better yet the Council, this was one of the trials you had to undergo.

The soft part of Paul longed to be back in the Aerie. Oh the soft warm girls in the Aerie. The Aerie was all-providing. Never, never, he vowed, would he violate Aerie law.

The hard part of Paul cursed those comforts. He trembled with delirium. If he could only hold out until dawn. He'd had only melted ice to drink. Nothing to eat for days. He'd killed and eaten a baby bird. Killed it with a stick he'd found. No heat, no fire. He'd pawed grunting desperately over it. Its blood had been warm as he'd sucked on its still-beating heart after piercing its chest with the stick. That was days ago.

Ice, everywhere, ages old. The world was a museum of stalactites. Of shifting silhouettes. Sometimes, when he was half out of his mind, it seemed the Aerie was abandoned, its windows gone, the ice inside like a cancer. Then he felt more alone than ever, the last man in the universe.

Not far away was a box containing a radio transmitter. All he'd have to do was push the button and the rescue team would come. One heard stories of young men trying to claw their way aboard the helicopter in a change of mind, too late, and being kicked and punched back into the snow. Some boys lasted the full seven days, but most didn't. It was no great shame to push the button after the third or fourth day. Some had been found frozen to death. Those who'd terminated early had gladly, with relief, though with a little lasting regret, consigned themselves to the role of ordinary resident rather than Citizen. Paul had decided against that. It was success or death. Those were the only two choices he allowed himself.

His world had narrowed to a few dozen yards of frozen horror. Mostly he dreamed, whether he was awake or asleep. After a while waking and sleeping became the same things. He couldn't walk anymore. His hands were blue, and soon he couldn't bear to look at them.

Was that dawn sweeping a white sheet over the snow or was it—?

From here on, he must stay on his feet, for if he lay down he'd fall asleep and drift into the cold mouth of death.

No, the sheet of dawn was like a pink wine, sparkling with splashes of gold.

It was still night out; the glare was simply his pain.

He gritted his teeth and damned all eternity, all night. He would fight for the day, or die, and be welcome doing it, wind up beside Gregory.

As they told him later, they'd found him standing in the hut covered with ice. At first they were sure he'd frozen to death standing up, his features distorted with runneling ice, an eerie figure leaning against the wall, frozen to it, leaning on a stick. In fact, as they lowered him into the stretcher, they weren't sure it was he—one nurse thought it was a legendary old man of the mountain who'd replaced Paul.


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