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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 


19. Old World—Year 2299

The whirlybird chopped steadily over the sun-glazed ice. Its pilot was one of the Aerie's two hundred constables in powder-blue jumpsuit uniform. She steered cautiously around crags where showers of icy grit whirled, forming new slopes of snow.

Wizened little Dr. SheuXe stared tensely from the cocoon of his snow suit, teeth gleaming as if he were smiling. Which most certainly he was not.

Paul, 20, Citizen Constable Intern, rode on the fold-out stool behind SheuXe and the pilot. He had the honor of serving as SheuXe’s special assistant on this case. Paul's uniform was so new that it still bore creases from the quartermaster's shelves. Paul resented the fact that they—the Council and its committees—had decided he should do his generalist internship as a constable instead of one of the technical specialties as he had always dreamed. At the moment, he wasn't thinking of that, only of two things—that this ride was his first act of duty as a man and constable; and that the Citizen Anthropologist Rondo Chavez had made a discovery SheuXe said boded the worst danger yet for mankind, a final nail in the coffin of Krings's dream to return to the surface, and the ultimate impetus to begin an interstellar project using old CANUSAMEX hardware left in orbit over the centuries.

A ride on a chopper was a rare treat, even for a constable. Fuel was scarce, coming from several small oil wells on the plateau and slopes just below cloud level. The drillmen, as the oil miners were known, had to wear atmosphere suits near the wells. The aircraft were at least 150 years old, kept patched from a virtually inexhaustible supply of parts stored in the Aerie's subterranean caverns. A lot of equipment still bore old legends like UNASA or CANUSAMEX.

The chopper headed south along the major plateau on which the Aerie had been built. After ten minutes, the pilot veered west and continued along a series of snow-capped peaks. Paul's stomach tensed. He had been told that Rondo Chavez's find was to remain a secret known only to the ruling council, and just the necessary members of the constabulary.

Rondo Chavez! The charming 33-year-old historian had over the years captivated the Aerie's imagination with his stories, slides, and motion pictures. He seemed always to be off on some danger-filled expedition, and one did not need to stray far from the Aerie for that. Initially a disciple of Krings, he had drawn the inevitable conclusions and switched to the space camp of people like Mannering and Souspolitis.

In the chopper, SheuXe said to his pupil Paul: "Now remember everything you ever learned about evolution. Remember what you learned about environment causing viable and lethal mutations. Think of the giant birds we now see." At that, he smiled mysteriously to himself, and it was not a pleasant smile. "Call it competition."

The chopper rocked sharply in a gust of wind. Right ahead was the bright orange marker set up by Rondo Chavez's expedition. The pilot flew over a vast chasm of white ice toward a broad shelf that had several black dots on it. As they drew near, Paul began to make out shapes.

The chopper set down. As the lift surfaces feathered, Paul realized with nausea that the transparent bags on the ice contained the bodies of Rondo Chavez and the members of his expedition. All four men had been stoned to death. Their dead faces—eyes and mouths wide open—radiated the horror of their last minutes.

Mannering and several other Council members were already present. They'd set up an ops-HQ in Rondo's dark blue nylon tent. At least a dozen constables were working on the case, treating it as a multiple homicide. Mannering took SheuXe’s arm and helped the elderly man out of the chopper. SheuXe shook his arm free and pointed along a path that led in among the mountain uplifts. Mannering summarized: "We think they caught Rondo and his men by surprise. First they started throwing stones from the tops of those cliffs. The men managed to drag themselves over to where we found them, trying to radio for help. Then the bastards ran up close to finish them off right where they are lying now."

Paul noted that two dozen more constables with shotguns stood all about the high points. Sun gleamed on the face shields of their helmets. Two of them shouted a conversation with two others below. Mannering spoke urgently with SheuXe, who summoned Paul to help him climb among the rocks. It was dark between the stone faces, and colder than any refrigerator. How could life exist in such a place? A gentle wind keened and moaned through the passages, making Paul's hair stand on end. He kept imagining he heard whispers just around this or that corner. He kept one hand under SheuXe’s elbow, the other on his loosened holster. SheuXe was old and fragile, but he was a wisp of a person, and therefore supple. With his walking stick, and Paul and Mannering helping him, they descended down a winding path. Snow crunched around their boots. Their breathing came in ragged strokes, lost in the music of the air.

There was a cave opening. Inside it was dry and dark, and not quite so cold. A battery-powered lamp stood on a tripod to shed light on the interior. Paul smelled a strong, stale odor that was unlike anything he'd ever smelled before. Neither avian nor human, but definitely spoor-marking. The cave was a dead end, a rough circle some 30 feet across. It had been scooped out eons before by side pressure from an arm of a receding sea as the land pushed up.

"How many?" SheuXe asked.

Mannering considered. "Maybe a half dozen. We're bringing dogs in. But there may be many more than that scattered far out of our reach."

"We can keep them away from us, but for how long?" SheuXe said. His shocked, thin, spectacled face radiated the additional realization that he wouldn't be around much longer to lead the fight. He was dying from cancer of the throat, having been a lifelong smoker of the golden tobaccos grown on the sunward slope. He'd called it his only vice.

In the center of the cave Paul saw the remains of a campfire. The fire had been made with wood, bits of coal, and some form of animal oil as the stains on the wood showed. Mannering pointed to some strawy biscuits. "Those are the droppings of mountain grazers, goats probably. They burn long and hot. You can make a good fire with those. And anything else you can find."

The cave entrance was like a cleft lip, providing a natural flue. Dry, cracked bits of bone lay scattered around the fire—someone or something's lunch. Paul recognized the bones of a small mountain hen, cracked and sucked empty of marrow.

Mannering pointed to a hole at the far end of the cave. Paul smelled a faint odor of dead flesh. "This is what Rondo Chavez discovered when they killed him. It's a burial pit."

Inside the pit lay a small, strange skeleton, neither human nor animal. It was about four feet tall, Paul guessed, and still had most of the blackened flesh attached due to the cold. At first Paul thought it was a chimp, but then he could see the face was all wrong. It had remnants of reddish hair along the head. Its body had been slightly flattened by the heavy load of gravel and earth used to fill the grave above it. The creature had long, spindly arms and legs sort of like a monkey perhaps. Wrapped around one wrist was a leather thong, and at the end of the thong was a little leather pouch as yet unopened; food, perhaps, for the afterlife.

"What is this thing?" Paul asked.

SheuXe had already formed his opinion. "It's a bat, Paul. An evolved, intelligent bat, and its relatives have killed their first humans."

Paul stared at the large leathery wings folded on the creature's back, from the neck down to the thighs. There was something intelligent, pondering, and ominous as it lay on its side, curled eternally in a fetal position, awaiting the coming of the sun. Or the rising of the moon.


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