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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 


29. New World—Year 3301

The city, when they came to it that afternoon, was a staggering sight.

Avamish was colossal and beautiful, even in death. It lay in a gently sloping bowl of earth about five miles across and a thousand feet deep. Millions of people might once have lived here. There were thousands of buildings, some towering as high as the bowl's rim.

Auska and the hunters got there first. They stood on the rim looking down into the city, like figures in a magnificent diorama. For the first time, the young men laughed and pointed excitedly.

Paul felt dazed. Licia and Tynan all seemed moody. The late afternoon air had a haze that settled mightily among the trees and ruins. There was a faintly smoky smell. Maze upon maze of buildings poured out of the city, overwhelming its suburbs, and spreading for miles beyond.

Post roads from all over the planet converged on Avamish. In the center of the city were the most fantastic and sprawling structures of all—which could only be the remains of an abandoned star port. The road they had been traveling led down into the city, joined by dozens of local feeder roads.

Auska's companions pointed off to the left, on the gentle slopes leading down into the city. Now Paul understood the smoky smell. Spread over a plateau, overlooking the city, were a thousand or more tents. Auska gestured for them to follow her. "Ongka hada. Moniam bestibo."

The distant tent city bustled with foot traffic. In one place, dozens of people clambered around the carcass of a dead giant turtle. Makeshift kilns smoked with roasting turtle meat. Auska led them away from the tents, her form lithe and self-assured. No doubt she would be happy to see her uncle.

Paul did not immediately sense the sudden buildup of tension among Auska's group as they passed through a grassy, sunny clearing abuzz with insects. He felt lulled by the smell of food, by the quiet. Already the sun reddened within the city haze, and darkness forked through the tree crowns.

Suddenly, something hit Paul in the face. The pain was dulled only by the near-unconsciousness in which he found himself on the ground. Groggy, he tried to rise up on one elbow. He heard shouting—Auska's, Tynan's, Licia's. He heard other men's voices. Natives. Angry. As his vision returned, he glimpsed the rock that had hit him, the man with the ax upraised to kill him, and the scuffle in which Licia was thrown to the ground. He saw Tynan fingering his rifle, ready to shoot.

Auska stood protected by her companions. Her horrified eyes stared from among their grim faces. They made no move to help Paul or Licia.

The man holding the ax looked down with crazed eyes. He was one of the figures who bore a wide white stripe up his forehead and over the top of the head. The obsidian blade glinted with a coppery sheen—looking death in the face, Paul clearly made out the greenish-black gleam of the rock, and the bloody redness of the sun reflected within it.

Then, before anyone could move, a voice arose from somewhere. A young man's voice. "Nagi! Nagi! Nasso mnalaminam bindi!" There was authority in that adolescent voice. And something familiar.

The ax wielder's hate-filled eyes wavered. Uncertainty flickered, and he staggered back a step, lowering the ax out of striking pose. Licia, propped on one elbow, quietly extracted her handgun, ready to shoot. Paul held up his hand, signaling Licia and Tynan to hold fire. Auska rushed to Paul's side, offering a cloth to wipe blood from his cheek. The rock had come out of nowhere and split the skin on his cheekbone.

"Nagi!" the voice said again, "no!" Paul stared as a tall young man entered the clearing. He also had a stripe painted on his forehead and was followed by other men of all ages with a similar decoration.

"Amda!" Paul exclaimed. Behind the boy was his chunkier companion, Dunda. Same white face. Neither smiled. On Amda's chest glittered a brand-new copper disk. Amda issued orders, and the stripemen withdrew. He spoke sharply to Auska, who acted deferentially. "Po-wul," he said, "Li-sha." He waved his hand for them to stay away from the tents. "Tay-non." He pointed down into the city and shrugged. Then he pointed to Paul. Finally he pointed to the four points of the compass, but ordered them to avoid the tent city.

"Auska," Amda said, "nagi mPowul mLisha..." He poured a torrent of instructions, each time cutting off her objections. Her three companions braggingly joined the ranks of the stripemen, as if relieved of some unwanted burden. Amda shouted at his cousin: "Apatimo h'Ongka!" That was the final word. With a pained look back at her pioneer companions, she followed Amda when he turned and walked off. The rest of the natives followed.

Paul, Licia, and Tynan were alone in the clearing.

"Let's get away," Tynan said. "Get the hell back to Akha."

They trudged away, not wanting to go into the unknown of the City as dusk came, but back up to safety beyond the rim. Stars already twinkled in the bleach-blue sky. Auska began sobbing quietly to herself, trying to hide her feelings behind her hands. Licia told Paul sharply: "I knew this trip was a mistake. I knew it all along."

"We'll be lucky if we get out here alive," Tynan said.

Paul held a rag to his swollen, throbbing cheek and felt uncertain. Maybe they were right. Maybe the survive/conquer instruction was all wrong. Maybe it should be survive/stay out of the way. All he could say was: "It's getting dark. We should really stop here."

Tynan glared around. "What, camp on the road?"

"I'm not going anywhere down there," Licia said, shivering. Paul followed her gaze to the sunken houses on either side of the road. Under the bushes that grew on their walls, the insides were no doubt filled with water and things that crawled through mud.

"Over there," Paul said. He pointed to an elevated room of some sort. Looked as though it had once been the upper story of a house. A thousand years of drifting dust had deposited a layer that had turned to soil and sprouted grass. They climbed up cautiously and explored. They were too tired to go any further. As darkness fell, Paul watched Licia drop her things on the ground and unpack her shelter and sleeping bag. Her gaze never met his, and her lips were pressed in a hard line. Paul unfolded his own shelter and bag on the dry, grassy soil. Tynan silently camped a few yards away. Then Licia screamed. Something—an orange lizard the size of Paul's foot—darted through the grass and down into the street. "Paul, you are a fool," Licia wailed, "and I was a bigger fool for ever coming here with you!"

Paul wasn't sure if she meant Avamish, or the entire journey away from Earth. He lay awake, staring at the stars. Tynan began to snore. Licia sobbed steadily, and Paul crawled close to her to offer whispers of comfort. She pushed him roughly away. He looked at the stars and thought that maybe he should not have come here. He'd be long dead now, and so would Licia. Nothing more to worry about. Licia's sobbing got quiet, and pretty soon Paul was startled that his own snoring woke him. He stood up and looked around for any signs of danger. The city glittered in the light of the twin moons. Avamish almost looked as if it were still fully inhabited. Only the utter lack of city lights gave away that it was a dead place. To witness a death so big was unexpected and overpowering and depressing; more than the soul could bear. The Milky Way as always looked alien and slightly distorted from this vantage point. A cool wind, with foreign tenderness, bled through sifting leaves. Paul lay down. He listened for a moment—just night sounds, nothing extraordinary—and he turned onto his side, curled his arms around himself, and went back to sleep.


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