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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 


24. New World—Year 3301

"There it is," Paul said, next day. He and Tynan lay side by side on their bellies staring into the interior of the mound. Tynan's flashlight beam was blunted by a dead darkness. Sweat shone on their dirt-streaked faces.

"My God," Tynan said. "What is it?"

Arriving in the fresh morning sunlight, they had first admired how much work they'd accomplished the day before. Then, within an hour, they'd broken through the inner wall, and now they lay in their tunnel looking in.

"It took a lot of work to seal this building," Tynan said. His voice sounded leaden and flat.

"Here goes." Paul climbed in, lowering himself until he felt a firm floor under his feet. "Come on in." Tynan followed suit. It was terribly dry inside.

Their entry had disturbed a fine dust that hung like fog in the motionless air. It made glare of the flashlight beams. Paul pointed to a huge object looming before them. He took a few steps on the dusty floor stones. He brushed away clouds of fine cobwebs. "Look, Tynan, it's a wagon."

They stood side by side and marveled. It was a flat-bedded load wagon some fifteen feet long and half as wide. "This is what the old man wanted us to do all this work for?" Tynan looked disgusted.

"There has to be a reason—look, Tynan, it's made of stone. Can you believe it? A stone wagon!" Paul shook his head slowly. "Hard to believe. Those wheels look smooth as though they were made in a factory. I don't think it's something Ongka's people made."

"Ahhh," said Tynan the engineer. "I begin to get it. They had little or no metal to work with, the old people, the Senders. Solid rock—looks like metal, but it's rock, poured, molded, tenpered, not a slip of metal on this wagon anywhere."

"Or those other tools," Paul said. "Somehow, they used stone the way we did metal."

They walked around the wagon, their flashlights stabbing in all directions. Paul said, "this place may have been a sealed a thousand years ago. But why? Where did the Senders go? Why did they seal everything up, even their tool shed here?" A clutter of large and. small objects loomed in the darkness. Something like the arched ribs of a great animal that had died on its back turned out to be a harvester, made of tempered stone.

Paul remembered a tangle of circles and squares that was Ongka's clockwork.

"There's nothing but stone machines all around us," Tynan said.

"And tools," Paul added. Chains of stone links hung from the walls and from stone supporting pillars. Dry, transubstantiated wisps of straw puffed out of existence under their feet. Paul saw ghostly work benches laden with stone hammers, files, planes, saws, pliers, wrenches, all marvelously smooth and masterfully made.

"This is obsidian," Tynan said full of awe, as he held a small wooden box of blades. "This stuff is stone but can be made sharper than surgical steel. The Maya and the Incas successfully performed brain surgery with it."

There were drills with wooden bits and drills with stone bits, drills with diamond tips and drills. Tynan picked up a drill with the bit still in it. "Corundum, I'll bet. These clever so and sos, they made alloys of stone and stone, and metal and stone. On Earth, we soon graduated to metal alloys. Here they never had that luxury."

Paul considered the implications. "Imagine, a civilization that never left the stone age. On earth we discovered metals. Oh, there was a stone age that lasted many thousands of years. Our early ancestors on Earth had factories where they made stone implements. They discovered metals, though, and that spelled the end of their industry. On this planet, the stone age never ended. They must have explored the limits of what you can do with stone."

"Look at this," Tynan said.

"What is it?" Paul whirled.

Tynan's flashlight stabbed into a hidden corner. There, piled neatly on top of each other, were dozens of skulls. Paul's heart raced as they cautiously stepped closer. The skulls grinning at them must be a thousand years old, black and brittle. Many had severe gouges in them, as if their owners had died violently. Some had their faces bashed into splinters. Other bones lay strewn about—ribs, femurs, fingers. "What do you suppose happened here?" Paul asked.

Tynan shook his head. They stared at the bones until their lights weakened and they had to head back to the daylight. Tynan said at last: "You say Ongka knows about space flight?"

Paul nodded. "For some reason, when they came to the end of their civilization, they sealed up this mound, maybe for us to discover, maybe for us find some way to progress beyond the point where they ran out of steam. And maybe some of them killed some others, for reasons we don't know."

Tynan shook his head slowly. "Menard, quit dreaming. This planet is a giant sandbox. This mound is like a message left for us. A message of despair. What can we do without metals? Do you understand what this means? There is no space-faring civilization. Maybe there was or maybe there wasn't, but there sure hasn't been in centuries. So we're stuck here. There is no way back into space, not tomorrow, not in a million years."

Paul disagreed in turn, turned off by the other's adamant negativity. "Dammit, Tynan, they sealed this place up for a reason. Ongka wanted us to find it this way. I don't feel he's given up." Paul remembered the clockwork, and Ongka's nearly religious fervor, and the medicus’ passion about the great city they called Avamish. "We have to go to the star port, Tynan. We have no choice. We have to find out—the sooner the better—what went on here."

Having glimpsed other tantalizing pieces of this puzzle, Paul climbed out of the mound. Tynan crawled out behind him. Leaving the dust and debris of a dead civilization behind them, it felt good to reenter the sunlight of the living. Paul was quietly grateful for the sounds of birds and insects that signified life.

Auska and Licia approached with lunch. As they laughed and conversed, they were making themselves haltingly familiar with one another's languages. They walked together like old friends. Auska, younger than Licia, carried a basket and made hop scotching jumps that Paul found cute. At times, Auska could seem regal; at other times, a child. Licia clowned along, balancing a jug on her head.

Auska forgot her shyness and waved to the two men as if they were old friends. Auska spread a blanket. Licia positioned the jug and laid the picnic basket beside it. Paul sniffed—and exclaimed: "You two smell of wine."

"Applejack," Licia said, offering him a cup. "Go on, it's diluted with water." He sipped from it and felt refreshed. "The whole village smells of this stuff, Paul. They've stopped harvesting and they're now in the distilling business." She giggled.

Auska scrambled squealing up the side of the mound. Tynan went after her, hobbling and grasping. She ran so fast and so eagerly she fell. Up in a blink, she ran to the top of the mound. There she waited, holding two small bottles high over her head. An ivory grin slashed her dusky features. Her bare, slim waist was exposed as her jacket rode up.

Paul nudged Licia. "So what do women on this planet think about things?"

She paused in mid-chew. "About what, men?"

"I dare not ask. About things in general."

"In some ways, she's just like another aerie girl. Then again, in other ways, she is so strange and different that it scares me."

"Like what?"

"Well, she's obviously a chief's daughter. A princess. I gather she is a virgin, and that she is saving herself for a great chief she will marry one day in Avamish."

"You'd better tell Tynan," Paul said, pointing. Tynan was chasing her down the mound. Auska stopped and laughingly fended him off. He tried to embrace her in a gesture probably meant more as mock wrestling. Abruptly, she let out a yell. Her facial expression changed from amused to shocked, and she pushed Tynan away. Tynan tipped over backwards and sat, dumbfounded, watching Auska's pert rear disappear through the bushes toward Akha.

Tynan limped sourly toward Paul and Licia.

"We tried to warn you," Paul said.

"Too late," Licia said. "We learn another lesson about etiquette. You can play with a princess, but you never touch her."

Tynan slapped dust off his trousers and muttered: "Bloody stuck up bitch."


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