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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 


25. New World—Year 3301

When they returned to Akha later in the afternoon, the village stood nearly empty. All the imported workers had returned to their villages elsewhere, now that the harvest was over and the apple wine newly fermented. With Ongka and his entourage gone, it seemed to Paul you could sleep in a different hut each night.

Paul, Licia, and Tynan met for supper at the kiln. There were still enough elderly women to cook a generous meal of at least seven different things, including the local poultry. Auska appeared for dinner, a little more reserved, but not unfriendly. Paul pressed: "Auska—why did Ongka go to Avamish?"

Auska chewed slowly, considering. "Ongka balam ada Avamish."

"Yes. Why?"

"Mbalam le Avamish ni adaram ho tolne abaligung."

Paul enjoyed her singsong speech. He was able by now to pick out a word here and there, and Licia helped fill in, but then she'd rattle on. He'd get so lost in the music of her speech that it would be seconds before he remembered to ask her to stop and start over.

Licia said: "Something about Ongka has to go, it's a great festival."

"Bestibo," Auska said nodding. She set her food down and gestured with delicate brown fingers. "Bestibo s'Avamish malam amanga apat witu moliam." She grew excited and spread her hands in the air. "Moliam witu," she repeated several times making a gesture resembling an explosion. "Astad moliam, witu witu."

"Bang bang," Licia guessed.

Auska choked with pleasure at being understood. She pointed at Licia, nodded, held her hand over her mouth, and cleared her throat.

"Moliam probably means big," Paul guessed. He made circular motions and said: "Moliam!"

Auska nodded. "Moliam witu." She gestured.

Paul stood up and spread his arms as far as he could. "Moliam moliam!"

Auska laughed so hard she nearly fell off the little wall by the kiln. She imitated Paul in return, a glint of humor in her eyes. "Moliam witu. Bang bang. Bestibo bang bang. Ho tolne abaligung." With her index finger she pointed upward and rising, appeared to follow the trajectory of something—upward, upward—she bounced on the balls of her feet, pointing to the evening stars. "Abaligung ho tolne."

Licia marveled, and she said in a whisper: "I think abaligung means heaven."

Paul nodded in agreement. Then a black shudder went through him and he added: "Or outer space?"

"We've got to go to the city," Paul told Licia that night, "we've got to get to Avamish."

She was already half asleep. It was dark in the hut, which reeked of cold, burned tallow. "Paul!" she muttered.

"Licia, don't you remember? We have a mission here. We have to find out all there is to know, as quickly as possible, so we can establish ourselves."

She turned and looked at him. Her eyes glittered angrily, and her face looked pale in the faint starlight. "Are you saying we should take over? Five people—three if we can't find Meiling and Ping Weng—against a whole world?" She sounded pitying.

He could sense an argument about to moliam witu, and he couldn't bear the idea. "All I'm saying is that for our own protection, we need to know—what if these people are planning to eat us when they get us good and fat enough?"

She snorted and turned her back to him.

He felt his handles and then pinched her waist. "We're not getting any thinner hanging around here. We're not asked to work, and we can eat all we want. Maybe we're like pets to them. Like chickens or dogs—."

Licia sat up. "Paul, you sound like an idiot." But he could see from her eyebrows that she was considering this from all angles. He added: "We can always come back here."

"I already know all the children by name."

"We'll be back in a few weeks. It's only a few hundred miles."

"On foot."

"We'll take our time."

"Why don't you go and I'll keep the hut warm."

Hah, he thought, and Tynan would argue that his ankle hurt. "No way, Licia. Either we all go, or we all stay. We stay together."

Tynan laughed at first. "What are you going to do, report me to the constab?"

"I'm saying, we agreed to a mission." They stood face to face outside Tynan's hut. "We made a solemn promise to the rest of our race, who are dead a thousand years now, that we would keep our people going."

Tynan sighed. "All right. How can I say no to that?"

They found Auska sitting with Licia in Ongka's hut. Auska was showing Licia how to make fancy knots using the dyed leather strips that decorated her best shamiss. As Paul stuck his head into the hut, Licia nudged Auska. Licia had a sparkle in her eye. Auska pointed her chin at Paul. "Waad joo beeg ape?"

Paul choked with laughter.

Tynan pointed his thumb at Paul. "This man wants to go to Avamish."

Licia made a face, but Auska jumped up. "Mbalagang Avamish?"

"Paul," Licia said wearily.

"Will your spouse agree to go?" Tynan asked Paul.

"I'm not sure."

Tynan grinned. "Well, you'd better be sure."

Auska began throwing possessions in a leather bag. "Mbalag ampat Avamish nioske!"

Paul knelt by his spouse. "Licia, the others are willing to go. We can only go if you agree to go with us. We have to stick together. Auska will guide us. She has several men who will walk with us."

Licia hesitated. "Paul, I think it's a mistake to leave here. But yes, I will come along. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I love you. Or because it's our duty. Or both." She kissed him, then stepped out of the hut to put her things together.

They started out just after dawn the next day. The rising sun's rays streaked horizontally through the barely moving leaves. Fog drizzled ephemerally in the stone village and along the post road, diffracting sunlight into tiny rainbows while birds chattered.

"I'm more worried about the dogs than anything," Paul said. They sported their weapons openly. They'd packed just enough to travel light, including some dried fruits and meats that the kiln ladies had packed for them.

Auska walked ahead, accompanied by Licia and three young men wearing the tan skirts and jackets of the village from which Auska came, two days' march east. Today they headed another way, toward Avamish. There seemed to be no warriors here, but they carried spears and knives. They were hunters, Paul supposed.

At times Licia and Auska dropped back to talk with Paul and Tynan. At other times they walked ahead. The three young hunters appeared to be in good humor, occasionally fortifying themselves with apple wine. This was a big adventure for them, Paul guessed, because Licia said none had ever been to Avamish.

Tynan's leg didn't bother him anymore. Licia had rediscovered her sense of adventure. For now, at least, his little party hung together nicely. Should they ever return to Akha? Was Licia's instinct to nest here correct? No way of knowing until they'd visited the planet's only great city. And what about the things that hollered in the forest? Were they a threat, or just background music? There was a lot they must learn.

The road stretched on arrow-straight. In a few spots it sank down into earth, sometimes under a momentary carpet of soil rich with grass and flowers. The countryside was grassy and hilly, dotted with lakes. Herds of the high-haunch buffalo passed in the distance. Once they saw a distant pack of dogs, but the dogs tracked something away toward the horizon.

"Look!" Paul said, pointing with his rifle. Not far away, near a pond covered with water flowers, stood a pink and green tortoise twelve feet long and eight feet high.

"I remember seeing those on the way to Akha," Tynan said. They headed toward Shka, where Nancy lay buried, and Paul wondered how Tynan would take that.

More of the disdainfully munching giants dotted the lush plain.

"Like war tanks," Licia whispered as they passed the first giant. It was the biggest of the herd, and it had tusks. They guessed that it must be the bull of the herd. As they passed, it flicked out its tongue with a hissing sound. Its fan shaped tongue was fringed with curling tendrils that knotted themselves around greens so the animal could tear them off.

"Sorry," Paul told the closest turtle. "We'd love to spend a day studying you but we're on a mission."

Tynan said: "I hope the bastards don't stampede. I can't run so well yet."

"If they stampede," Licia said, "we'll all be riding high."

"On top of those horns." They laughed. The young men joined the laughter without understanding it. The turtles were evidently a common subject for jokes on N60A.

The countryside gave way to forest.

The post road continued straight on, through a chapel-like peace. Paul was in high spirits, having at last freed himself of Akha. The dense, glowing forest was filled with whispers and stolen sunlight. No more turtles. Nothing bellowing, and Auska did not exhibit any particular fear.

A big gray cube of concrete loomed in the woods, in a culvert off to the right side of the road. Paul clambered down while Tynan and the women remained warily on the road. The young men grew apprehensive, jabbering darkly and pointing their spears. "Nagi," they shouted, "nagi! Nagimo."

Tabu, Paul guessed. In the end, Auska and Licia calmed them. Paul climbed down the embankment himself.

As he neared the box-shaped structure, he and a fox-like animal surprised each other. The animal disappeared in a streak of reddish hackles. Paul waited for his heart to resume a normal beat. Rifle ready, he walked to the doorway. Outside, the structure was overgrown with rich pads of blue and green moss. The walls, which might once have been smooth gray or even off-white, were now blackened with age. Flat-layered, pink mushrooms grew along the edges like coral. A yellow lizard scuttled up the wall; on its fat custard-colored back was a large eye whose pupil coldly tracked Paul while its owner ran for safety. He clambered over boulders and fallen trees toward the utilitarian building.

The one-room structure was gloomy inside, filled with an apparitional green light. Water dripped loudly. Insects plagued Paul's face. Inside were the remains of some complex stone machine, looming to just under where the ceiling had once been. The marshy black ground was filled with shattered bits of clay pipe, some of it slimmer than a man's finger. Fat pieces of stone conduit were filled with a dozen or more spaghetti-thin ceramic pipettes. Each pipette had a stained, needle-thin bore. Paul picked up a few fragments to show the others.

He returned to the road above.

The three young hunters stood sullenly in a group up the road.

Tynan held up two pieces, one with a male thread, the other flared and female, and examined them. "The stains probably indicate some sort of fluid, maybe an oil, Lord knows for what purpose." He took his knife and chipped a diagonal cut into one piece. "They're the size of electrical wires, except of course there is no conductor inside because they had very little metal."

Paul pointed, "There are remnants of conduit running parallel to the road as far as I can see."

Tynan threw the pieces aside and dusted his hands on each other. "They're too small to pump sewage or drinking water. Maybe they had a fluid electrical conductor of some sort. This building would then be a sort of amplifying relay station."

Licia and Auska peered down the opposite side of the road. "Look over there," Licia exclaimed.

"It's another building down there in the culvert," Tynan said. Only one of its walls was fairly intact. Several wide-diameter pipes ran through a relay inside the building. This ruin was thickly carpeted with snow-white flowers.

"Nagi," Auska said, "nagimo." Tabu.

Licia called to her, but Auska walked on to join her hunters.

"These look like flower trellises," Licia said, pointing to two troughs running along either side of the pipes.

"And here," Tynan said, stepping rapidly around the inside of the wall, "are smaller pipes running along the wall. They run through meters, it looks like. Look at the broken glass and the enameled dials. " Age-smoothed fragments of glass and ceramic crunched under his feet. "This was definitely a pumping station. But for what?"

Paul studied the array of green-stained white enamel dials. "Probably ran from Akha to Shka. Maybe on a whole network of old towns that are now nothing but primitive villages. But what were they pumping?"

"Look at these lamps," Licia said several feet away. Auska kept close to Licia, looking almost scared at this mystifying evidence of her people's past.

"Light bulbs?" Tynan, the engineer, seemed more alive than he had been in the weeks since their arrival. A row of what looked like broken light bulbs were spaced about three feet apart along the conduits. "Look, they have no filament inside. I think I have some idea what went through these pipes."

"What do you think?" Paul asked.

"Natural gas. See, they planted flowers because whenever a break appeared, the flowers would close up. The bulbs were for gas light—with the flames completely closed off from the pumping system. Each bulb had an intake and outlet for air."

"What about that other place across the road that Paul climbed down into?" Licia asked.

"I have a theory," Tynan said, climbing quickly back onto the road, followed by the others. "Information. Pure information."

"You've lost us."

"Communications, right? In our text books on Earth, we frequently used the analogy between electricity and water, right? To explain voltage. In an electrical conductor, electrons flow from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration once you complete the circuit. We would take sound; convert it to a code of moving electrons; at the other end we changed the electrical impulses back into sound. Suppose you were to use water in place of electrons? Water cannot be compressed—so you have a technology of hydraulics—vastly refined, of course, in ways I can't even guess at. If you want to use water to transmit a telephone conversation, you take the speaker's voice, which is air pressure; maybe you amplify it somehow with a system of drums and hammers; you change it to a code of pulses; pulse this pressure against a pipe of water of tiny diameter but ten, twenty, a hundred miles long; and convert the hydraulic pressure back into sound at the other end. Along the way, you could amplify or repeat the signal. You could use gas-driven engines to power the whole."

"Maybe that is why they put the two types of station so close to each other," Licia suggested.

They rejoined Auska, who waited for them anxiously while the hunters were already another few hundred feet ahead. "Nagimo, nagimo!" Auska whispered urgently, waving her arms forward.

Licia said: "They're anxious to get through the woods before dark."

Paul thought of the bellowing beast, whatever it was. "Can't blame them for that."

As they continued their journey, they encountered more combinations of these buildings, always on opposite sides of the road. In one place they found a ruined settlement that might have been a combination farm and station-keeper's house.

As they left the forest and walked in open veldt again, the hunters began to banter among each other again. Auska was learning a kind of pidgin English. She seemed to get along best with Licia. Paul was wary of Auska, not wanting to be conned into going native. Tynan showed her moments of kindness, but as they drew near Shka, he became increasingly morose.

They made camp under the stars. The hunters took turns standing guard. Paul and Licia sought each other's warmth. Auska slept in a simple blanket between the hunters and Paul and Licia. Tynan put his shelter up by himself, off to one side.

Soon after daybreak the next day, they came to the outskirts of Shka. Shielding his eyes, Paul counted not one but four mounds, all covered, surrounding the village. On one the natives had planted a vineyard. Except that Shka was larger and situated on slightly elevated ground, it was not much different from Akha. The similarity told Paul that there must once have been a homogeneous culture over much of N60A. Shka had a three-chimney kiln in its center. Two post roads crossed another in the center of the village. The kiln had been erected in the middle of what must once have been a sort of traffic circle for stone-wheeled wagons. "Imagine the traffic that must once have passed here," Licia said.

Tynan said: "My head wants to keep moving, but my feet are dragging. I want to get far from this place, but then again I just want to lie down here and die."

A group of men, women, and children came up to meet them just outside the village. The hunters waved their spears like big conquerors and enjoyed the attention. The natives peppered Auska with questions, glancing often at the odd visitors. Tynan told Paul: "No sign of Ongka's local equivalent. He bound up my leg and sent me to Akha. A younger fellow, but he also wears a shiny disk."

"Probably gone to Avamish," Paul said. "Ongka probably came through here."

Auska addressed a question about Ongka to an elderly woman whose sling bra hung flat against gray, wrinkled skin. The woman launched into a rapid explanation with gestures. Licia shook her head, having lost track of the conversation. Auska explained: "Ongka—here—one day—one night—say we come—gone to city."

Tynan side-mouthed to Paul: "I guess you were right. Ongka passed through here and picked up the local shaman on his way. Must be some to-do there in the old city."

"We eat," Auska said.

"Good old kiln," Tynan said. Surrounded by friendly people exactly like those in Akha, they ate their first hot meal since leaving the other village.

At that moment, Auska uttered a shriek. A young man holding a spear pushed against her shoulder with one hand and yelled at her. The hunters were by her side in a moment, separating her from a group of glaring young men. Paul and Tynan slowly moved their weapons around to the ready. Paul heard the catch of Licia's rifle slide quietly open.

The young man pranced demonstratively about, pointing to himself with the air of one who does not yet have authority but soon will. Auska and her hunters stood fast.

The local women backed away. It was the first time Paul had seen signs of fear in these people. "I wonder if these joes are from the same village," he muttered to Licia while trying to look neutral. Licia rose and stepped to Auska's side. She asked: "What's the matter?"

Auska gave her a troubled look. "He say Avamish nagimo—ngo back,"

The young man spread his arms and offered a last, sweeping word of disparagement, giving Paul and Licia bad looks, before stamping off accompanied by his followers.

Auska's hunters glared after the local boys. Auska seemed near tears but put up a brave front. The local women closed around her in a babble of apologies. "Young men," she told Licia and Paul, "much drink, much bestibo. Moliam bestibo."

"We won't stay in this village long," Paul said.

"For once, I agree right away," Licia said.

Soon, they finished their meal. Alone with Licia and Paul, Tynan said: "I have to pay her a visit." Paul didn't know what to say, and exchanged stymied looks with Licia. Tynan added: "You're welcome to come along."

Paul noticed the boisterous young men seemed to have disappeared. This surprised him, since he'd figured they'd trail the Earth people everywhere from here on in; he'd debated about warning them off with a shot. But the countryside all around appeared peaceful.

Auska and the hunters withdrew to the village chief's hut, where a group of women gathered protectively outside.

To get to the grave, Paul, Licia, and Tynan had to pass through the village's lush gardens. A great variety of fruits and vegetables were in various stages of ripeness. In the orchards, small kilns smoked, distilling wine, so that a fruity sweetness hung in the air. People worked here and there at a leisurely pace in the last days of harvest. An adolescent boy dropped his hoe and chased a pretty, shrieking young girl who had been picking berries in an adjacent garden.

They left the village and delved into rolling grasslands. They followed a hard-trodden path among scattered messy boulders. The four mounds fell behind away. They came to a small forest, and in the forest lay a swamp dotted with trees and patches of grass.

On the shore of a small lake, black with deposited pine needles, lay a cigar-shaped life ship, about 20 feet in diameter and 100 feet long. It was very similar to the one Paul and Licia had crashed in. The Aerie folk had cannibalized an abandoned CANUSAMEX space station to build the mother ship and its components for the 1000-year journey. None of the old UNASA rescue and reentry lifeboats was identical to any other, but they were of the same generic line. The boat lay on the edge of the lake, pointed into the water. It was hauntingly out of place both in its smooth texture and imposing size. The dark green silence in the wood made it all the more eerie. Its tall, lightly curving sides were scorched from a reentry, and gouged from a landing. It lay slightly tipped to one side and obviously would never fly again. The lower of its broad, stubby air foils was buried in spongy mud, while the opposite had been nearly severed and hung accordion-shaped down to the curve of the boat's underbelly. By now, only the tail protruded completely from the placid black lake water. Only the thick reeds underneath saved it from sinking faster. The broken cockpit windows were only about a foot above the water line by now.

Licia cried quietly as Tynan crouched over a mound of earth nearby on higher ground.

Paul climbed up into the lifeboat. Already, there were bird droppings on the seats inside the burned and shattered main area. Lizards fled as he dragged his feet through debris. He climbed over torn cushions and piles of shattered glass. Warped disks of Shakespeare, Newton, Caesar mixed with those of Einstein, Galileo, and everyone else ever brilliant on Earth—fused together in a slag heap that could never be undone—gone forever. Gone, Paul thought, like those in his own lifeboat and in the mother ship. That left only the Wengs—and where were they? Were they alive? With two out of three boats crashed, that did not bode well for the third boat—and the deadly radio silence all but shut the book.

Climbing out to rejoin the others, Paul read the legend on the ship's hull with bitter pride. The peeling letters said : EARTH.

The hulk slept silently on the haunted lake shore.

From the depths of the forest, from the darkest hidden places, from the underside of the planet, a siren-like predatory bellow sounded. It echoed a thousand times over the water. Something immense and lurking, Paul thought.

Tynan was just turning away from his spouse and companion's grave. His face was ashen with grief. His eyes looked wide and shocked. Licia stared at Paul with tear-beaded eyes and a grimace of a sob on her face.

Like forest spirits, a group of native men stood at the edge of the forest. They did not appear to be the same group of young toughs who had bothered them in the village—or were they? Seen from inside the forest, they looked luminous, almost enveloped in a kind of haze in the midday sun. They carried spears and shields. Each had painted a white stripe down his forehead. They looked menacing, but they didn't move. They didn't make a sound. Just stared.


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