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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 


28. New World—Year 3301

The sound of thunder grew near as they walked along the ancient post road.

Licia saw it first. "The sea!"

They were on high ground. Around them in all directions stretched grassland, with an occasional clump of stone or ruins. Far away, off to their right, just below the horizon, gleamed a mirror surface reflecting the pink-gold sun above.

Their path, however, was taking them past the sea, down into a lower region that disappeared into mist. The thundering grew deeper and closer as they walked. The sunlight faded away, and an eternal foggy dampness enveloped them in unreality. They sniffed curiously at the gray, wet sky. A disturbed wind combed through the bowed grass.

A cry of "nagimo!" came from Auska's companions. At first they balked at approaching Avamish. Then the sight of other natives passing shamed them into a wary silence. Now Paul, Licia, and Tynan walked ahead while Auska and the hunters trailed.

They passed an encampment on a plain that was bisected by the post road. Native people cooked over a small kiln of gathered rocks, while others rested under a blanket spread under trees. They took little notice of the pioneers. In an nearby field, some eight or ten men hunted. The men stalked much as the native dogs did, but with spears raised for deadly throwing.

The prey showed itself: a wild swine, massive and low-built, with the same powerful rear haunches as most of the planet's animals. Twin ridges of stiff bristles ran along the animal's spine in an otherwise smooth back. Its snout, bristling with hook-shaped teeth, dripped with saliva as it charged the baiting scouts. It made a steady roaring sound, almost like a motor, in its anger. And it came right at Paul and Licia.

The hunters surrounded Auska, spears held high to kill the animal, but it ran far around them.

Licia screamed. Tynan and Paul whirled simultaneously to watch the pig's mate gallop across the post road to protect his female. Standing four feet at the shoulder, the boar was an overwhelming spectacle as it charged past Paul at 10 feet. Paul saw enraged little red eyes and a slavering, tremulous snout issuing gouts of saliva and steam. The animal's insane fury made Paul quake. He felt cold sweat as he put his arm around Licia.

The encamped hunters moved smoothly in concert. They held a net in the air. The boar took the knotted twine without wavering in his charge. The ground shook—but more from the distantly visible edge of the shimmering sea.

The hunters moved agilely as if in a dance. The boar pounded among them, unable to break his charge. Clubs broke the boar's weaker forelegs and he thrashed down in a shower of dirt and grass. Instantly the hunters were upon him, goring with their spears.

They brought the sow down in a similar flurry of stone spears. The women cheered by the road while the men waved their weapons in triumph. Paul suddenly realized he'd been gripping his rifle tensely, and now he let it slip by his side. He felt dazed by the roar of the sea and the pounding passage of the now-dead animal.

They left the hunting scene behind as they descended into the mist. Gradually the landscape changed. Fog hung darkly around them, brushing their faces with tiny raindrops. Their arms and faces dripped with dampness. The surrounding trees and hills looked ghostly. Auska and the hunters trudged behind them like silent ghosts.

At last they came upon the source of the noise.

Paul suddenly remembered the planet's geology as seen from space. The continent was split by a fault up to a mile wide in places. A deafening chaos of water poured from a hundred mighty rivers on the continent's surface, spewing through the fault and out into the sea.

Baked in the sun's occluded heat, dozens of rainbows shimmered above the bone-white walls of the fault, which at this point was about 1,000 feet wide.

Clinging to the walls inside the fault were ancient ruins, piled one upon the other and stuck to the thousand foot high walls in a mass so dense it seemed they must all fall down into the thundering gorge in another second. The gouged, blind remains seemed dazed by light and noise. Tynan's mouth moved wetly and vainly, for his voice was drowned out but his meaning was clear: these must be the main power stations of the vanished Senders.

The noise was painful to hear. Water dripped from their faces, making them blink and sputter. A single-span stone bridge miraculously arched the chasm, placed there centuries ago. Against the walls of the fault, ten foot wide cylindrical ducts hung down broken off near the water line. The water was hypnotic to look at. It raced down-continent, in waves dozens of feet high, flying with speed, intersecting and crossing each other, in places green as bottle glass, in places amber, in places marbled with white foam, in places white as milk, all running together in a mesmerizing display. No sooner did Paul fasten his eyes upon a point, then that point had moved a hundred feet. He learned to spot objects—fallen trees, bushes, even a drowned buffalo—bobbing past at a good clip a thousand feet below.

The post road ran right up to the bridge and stopped. The bridge was about twenty feet across and appeared to be made of a light, almost translucent gray stone. It looked like soapstone, but Paul bet it was tough as steel. On either edge of the bridge, it rose up about three feet in a low protective wall.

Clinging together in two groups—Paul's and Auska's—they crossed the bridge. Like a thread, the bridge spanned a mile of raging water. The bridge trembled constantly under the assault of noise alone.

Suddenly Licia pointed out to sea with her free hand. Her eyes were wide and her mouth moved soundlessly.

About a mile or two out in the briney ocean, a pair of gray shapes thrashed about in the foaming, mountainous waves.

Paul could not tell what the shapes were. They reminded him of the extinct Earth whale, only several times larger.

One creature, large as a zeppelin, reared out of the water, propelled by immense tail and flippers. First its bluntly rounded head projected above the waves to a height of fifty feet. Then the head fell back into the water. The rest of the body, a tapered ship of muscle and bone a hundred feet long, followed the head back under water, leaving a huge splash. Paul remembered the gigantism of the turtles they had passed, and the howlings from the forests which had first impressed them. N60A must have undreamed secrets under its usually placid surface.

After this brilliant leap through the air, the post road continued on again, arrow-straight.

Rows of badly ruined buildings, reminding Paul of abandoned factories, lined this rim of the gorge, as well as both sides of the post road. The area was well-overgrown with trees, and in the trees everywhere were the shells of abandoned houses.

"Suburbs," Paul said when he could be heard.

Tynan was excited again. "Just a look, Menard. This must have been a tremendous power-generating plant for the whole city. Probably fed the hydraulic communication system for their whole civilization." Tynan clambered off to one side and up a mound of rubble. Paul followed. Auska seemed terrified of the city and its ghosts, and remained stubbornly planted on the road. Licia stayed with her.

One building was three stories high and several hundred feet long. Its rear overhung the gorge. Great pipes—the ones they'd seen from the opposite rim—extended down to the water line. Inside, the building was a roofless rubble of stone and mud overgrown with greenery.

Auska and her companions walked several hundred feet ahead, as they had done in the forest before Shka, evidently to distance themselves from this disrespect to the ghosts of Avamish.

Beside the building was a tower shaped structure a hundred feet high. Paul felt awed, dwarfed by the massive scale of the ancients' architecture. An aqueduct led toward the fabled city, which could not be far now that they stood in its exurbs.

When Paul returned to the road, Licia said, wrinkling her nose, "I smell something. Gas, I think." They traced the odor to slightly higher ground on the landward side. Past a dense thicket of woods, they found a park-like area of sparse trees. Ragged streams of frozen, crumbling lava had become overgrown with grass. All around were low domes of stone. A few oozed thin tendrils of acrid white smoke. Huge stone machines and kilns surrounded the periphery.

"Look on the ground," Licia said.

Everywhere lay pieces of tools—handles, hammer heads, halves of pliers. "It's a foundry," Tynan exclaimed. "Of course! Think of it. On Earth, the stone age naturally gave way to successive ages of metals. Even on Earth, stone age man had some high moments, if you remember Stonehenge. There were Neolithic quarries where our ancestors dug out good rocks and manufactured tools for trading across huge distances. Yes, and think of New York City. On Earth, the stone age continued parallel to the ages of metals and nuclear energy. Stone is a vital tool that man could not abandon. Here, there are no metals, so they took the stone age to its ultimate expression. They used volcanic furnaces to smelt the most complex alloys of stone you can imagine. Think of the temperatures it takes to melt stone!"

Licia cried out from beyond some trees: "I think I may have found the Senders' equipment. Over here."

They found her at the edge of what looked like a stone amphitheater. At the bottom of the depression was a sort of blockhouse.

"I think you're right, Lish," Tynan said. He knelt to examine some of the cylindrical stone blocks rising like seats all around. "Look, Menard, there are rust stains everywhere. At one time, this whole depression was covered with a lacework of metal. Sure, it makes sense. They took what little metal they had and built a radio dish next to their power source. What power that water must generate!"

Paul stared down at the blockhouse. If Tynan and Licia were right, long ago that squat, ugly structure must have bustled with technicians and scientists. He remembered the day Gregory died, the day the signals were first received. The amphitheater had a melancholy atmosphere. The blockhouse reminded him of pictures he'd seen of the abandoned temples of Yucatan. In the lush silence, many questions hung over the darkly yawning, lizard-infested building.

When they joined Auska, her eyes were wide with wonder at the achievements of her forebears—if indeed the villagers were of the same race. Auska had overcome her timidity somewhat and poked around in some ruined houses that might once have had pleasant yards, verandahs, and gardens. Her companions hung back in a sullen trio.

"No signs of war." Paul remembered the skulls in the mound at Akha, and wasn't sure. "Everything seems to have been left lying all of a sudden. Why? What did they look like? Where did they go?"

An hour or two passed as they walked along the road. They passed several major crossroads. Everywhere were empty houses. Bright green trees reared up wild on either side of the road. Everywhere was a spell of enchantment. Paul thought back to pictures he'd seen of American suburbs in the late 20th century. In one place they found what looked like a playground full of children's crawl-through toys. He thought of other pictures—of the ruins of Pompeii, of Rome after its long and terrible death.

Auska skimmed along the edge of the road, picking flowers that she gave to each of her companions, perhaps as a charm against the ghosts lurking in the villas all around. Licia passed a canteen of water around. They ate heartily the last of their canned rations atop a hill from which they could see for miles around. Above the far tree crowns loomed broken spires, truncated towers, and the blunted tips of crumbling pyramids. "That's got to be the city itself," Paul said, wondering if that were true, or if it went on like this for many miles, building to some great climax. "We've got to get into the soul of it, find out what makes it tick."

Tynan looked sullen. "You haven't tasted death here like I have. I think it's all a big flower, just waiting for us to nuzzle close before it slams shut and devours us."

"We should be careful," Licia seconded. She gave Paul a glaring look.

Wounded, Paul left the other three to rest in the shade. Making a small excursion through the ruins, he came upon a recessed area surrounded by a stone wall. Within were several pyramids and temple-like structures with neither doors nor windows. Puzzled, he walked around several of these structures, until he came to a blind doorway. Hewn directly into the white marble was the imitation of a doorway. On either side of the doorway was a flat continuous surface depicting a scene in low relief. It was the first bit of art work he'd had found on N60A. He forgot his anger and ran back to call Licia. Tynan came instead.

"It is sublime," Tynan allowed. They stood back.

"This is a tomb, I think."

"I think so," Tynan whispered.

"Well now we know. There they are, the Senders. That's what they looked like."

The scene showed a man and a woman sitting on stools facing each other. The figures had all the physical attributes of Ongka's people, including the way their hair grew. The scene glowed with simple, studied clarity, and it matched the finest artistic achievements of lost Earth.

The man and the woman toasted each other with goblets. The man had a thin, carefully manicured beard and was naked from the waist up save a pair of broad belts that crossed in the middle of his chest and extended over the shoulders. He was bald on top, but had a gently understated mane of hair over each shoulder. He was powerful and muscular-looking, but in good, modest proportion. Around his waist was a thick, corded belt, from which a loose dress extended down to his mid-calves. His feet were shod in heavy leather sandals, Roman-style. His face was elegant and sophisticated; the smiling, small mouth and narrow almond eyes were directed over the rim of his goblet at the woman opposite. The look they exchanged was filled with lively humor and urbanity, which Paul remembered from artwork left by Cretan and Middle Eastern people of ages ago.

The woman—or girl—was smaller than the man. Like Auska, she had a shock of (he assumed) silvery hair like a close-cropped helmet. Her feet were bare. She wore a long, single-piece gown or chlamys draped over one shoulder, looped down across her belly and back, to join into a single piece extending to mid-calf. Her delicate, small feet and exquisitely tapered lower legs were exposed. The stool she sat on might have been a bit too large for her, because her legs were tucked slightly under it, crossed at the ankles, toes touching the floor, while the man's feet rested flat, one slightly ahead of the other. The girl's chlamys left exposed the shoulder facing Paul, which tapered into a small soft arm. Also exposed was the side of her torso, which was long and girlish like Auska's, pert and round in the waist and buttock, and she revealed one small spherical breast set high like Auska's, with the nipple indicated as a faintly raised circle with a pucker in the middle. Her left hand, closer to·Paul, was relaxed and curled in her lap. The right arm raised a glass to the man's. Her face shimmered with a demure yet somehow mysteriously sensuous, delighted guile.

Their eyes looked directly into one another's. Paul wondered about the equation, the infinite geometry, of this gaze. How many centuries had that gaze of obvious nuptial love remained interlocked unmindful of the deterioration of their forest-drowned world?

"There they are, the Senders," Tynan said quietly as Licia and Auska quietly joined them. Wonderingly, Auska drew a finger lightly along the man's beautiful face. Tynan added: "Spoused, you can bet."

"Husband and wife," Licia said with certainty, stressing this world's cultural ways.

"They are buried in there," Paul said with certainty.

Tynan looked closer. "Look at the detail. It's incredible. There are flowers and grass along the lower edge of the frieze. And look at that bower of leaves and twigs and berries curving around the top. Every detail shows. And look deeper. You can see the city, the whole city, as it once was."

Behind the couple, in the far distance, Paul saw sky-scraping buildings and an expanse of sky. The buildings looked elfin—interconnected with high-flung ramps and arching bridges. The bridges, like that spanning the gorge, were of an art different from any achieved on Earth. Also unlike Earth's great buildings of the late period, these were not blunt rectangles of metal and glass, but they flowered in a profusion of all the universal geometric shapes.

Then Licia made a discovery within the frieze. In a small area, between some rooftops near the center of the city, was a mess of detail so fine it looked as though it had been carved in glass, and its smallest components seemed to lose themselves into the very pores of the stone.

"Clouds," Paul interpolated.

"Smoke," Tynan thought. "Do you see a shape in it though?"

They all stared closely. Licia said: "It's pretty well hidden in the smoke, if smoke it is. Looks like an egg, or a dome."

"Look next to it," Tynan said.

Paul exclaimed: "Lord, you're right. It's a rocket lifting off from a launch pad!"

"No," Licia said. Then she staggered back a step. "So they did master space flight?"

Within minutes, they found other reliefs.

Plainly visible was a scene depicting an elderly couple. An old man in a long robe held a stick with which he playfully goaded a small furry animal resembling a cat. The woman sat nearby on a stool. She watched the domestic scene with stately serenity. Her hands were interlocked in the folds of her robe. The couple were in a garden. Perhaps this was an older tomb, for the city skyline looked sparser and there were no rockets in evidence. Tynan suggested: "We could probably date the tombs by comparing skylines."

Thousands of tombs covered the adjoining area. They were in a vast necropolis.

Auska's eyes shone pleasurably in this great place of her ancestors. Paul supposed she also looked forward to seeing her uncle soon.

As they walked on, everywhere amber and green light played on ruins under trees. The late summer heat pressed, and they grew tired. Paul felt again that melancholy something that reached right into his soul and tugged painfully at the fiber of his being. He remembered Ongka, the clockwork, the probing of his mind. It seemed almost as though the city had telepathic waves about it, as if it had a soul of its own.

The many windows of deserted dwellings gazed after the travelers with gloomy eye sockets. The forest was lively but haunted. Bees with great butterfly wings droned unmindfully in search of flower prey.

Stopping to rest, they were surprised by a band of natives carrying amphorae. Paul and Licia had their sidearms ready. Tynan slowly undid his rifle strap. The natives had been drinking and were in an ugly mood. As they passed, they waved spears and made unsavory remarks. Once again, Auska stepped forth, frail wiry figure protecting her alien companions. This time, her companions were ready for a fight. They appeared to be in a vile mood, afraid of the ghosts in the city, resentful of the alien pioneers who had forced them here. The standoff with the passing natives was brief. Auska resolved it peaceably as she explained something to them. For some reason, the Earth people were important. The villagers backed off suspiciously and marched on.

Slowly, Paul returned his weapon to safety. The three hunters commandeered the road ahead. Auska followed them. Paul, Licia, and Tynan walked behind. "What are you getting us into, Menard?" Tynan grumbled in a low voice. Licia seconded: "Paul, I don't know if we should be doing this. It feels so—out of control."

Paul considered. Had he made a mistake? Perhaps. They had to know about the city. They had to stick together. Hence, they had come here. But he'd exposed them to the danger of a fatal run-in with armed and drunken natives. For the first time, he felt a chill of morbid apprehension that he might be utterly wrong. And that the remnants of Earth's expedition would pay for it.

"No answer?" Tynan goaded.

"We'll see," Paul said curtly.

Tynan rolled his eyes up. Licia looked furious.

Suddenly, every echo among the tree trunks spelled ambush. More than once, they stood stock still, overcome by the haunted forest of ruins. Every grave seemed to emanate a soul wanting to communicate. Desperately. Fearfully. Paul sensed some terrible trouble impending the closer they came to the city. They would not tread lightly and innocently among its mysteries, he knew. He saw the same thoughts reflected in Tynan's and Licia's eyes. He saw other things there too, that troubled him deeply.


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