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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 


32. New World—Year 3301

Leaving the spaceport, Paul started back to camp by a slightly different route. He picked his way through the jumbled city blocks toward a broken dome, and as he drew near, he exclaimed. It was the dome they had seen in the tomb fresco. In his excitement, he nearly stepped off the edge of a flat concrete area. He looked down into a thousand-foot yawning depth filled with water. Shadows of buried machinery rippled between splashes of sunlight and the wakes of jetting squid. He staggered back dizzily. Birds wheeled shrieking over his head, and he recoiled with Aerie-bred fear of avians. Just under the water lay the bulk of a rocket body three times as large as the mother ship had been. The rocket's thin, alloy-tough skin looked broken; a shark-sized fish with twin catamaran bodies and airplane fins swam in a loop around the submerged ship. Paul wished he could reach down and touch its metal surfaces.

In a fever to explore further, Paul passed the dome and descended into the city by one of many soaring, curving ramps that led down to broad avenues between tall buildings. The roadway was of the same E-shaped stones he'd seen in the countryside, overgrown with grass and here and there a skinny tree. The avenues were very wide; and the buildings, now broken off as their walls crumbled, must have been many hundreds of feet high.

Tired and overwhelmed, Paul came to a narrow portal in a high wall. There appeared to be grass on the other side, good to sit down on. He entered what must once have been a park, still carpeted with tall green grass. Hedges and trees grew wild everywhere, through which blew a cool, winey wind. Sunlight was filtered by leaves. Amid the greenery he saw tumbled fountains. He saw statues of athletes, of thinkers, of beautiful women. No statues of soldiers or politicians. No religious motifs. The statues of women were especially wonderful, sometimes explicitly, though never grossly erotic; mostly radiantly virginal and ethereal. The athletes were always caught in snapshots of motion and were gracefully proportioned. The philosophers, or thinkers, whatever they were, were infrequent. These were tucked into hidden recesses in hedges and small back courtyards, whereas the athletes and women were prominently displayed on the open slopes of the park. There was no stylization; no transcendence or transfiguration. The statues were so lifelike that Paul had the unsettling feeling of being in a landscape peopled with gray, immobile Avamishans.

He saw no more bearded figures; but the large eyes of those he'd seen earlier followed him in memory. Their faces stared after him enigmatically with small black pupils in white sclera signifying heightened emotion, perhaps amazement, perhaps fury, perhaps some alien emotion unknowable to Earth people except in feverish and hallucinatory dreams.

He lingered in the park as long as he felt he could contain his appetite. The blissful, unreal landscape created a sense of bitter-sweet longing. Still, amid decay, the statues and their environment strove for perfection in all things. Paul sat down in a grove of trees and opened a can of precious rations. After eating, he felt exhausted. He dozed off briefly.

Awakening with a start, he felt almost as if some outside power was acting upon him. It was a feeling like when Ongka had first drugged him. This was something inherent in the park itself. There was a hypnotic quality, a sense of longing for perfection, for otherness than self, for immortality. Even after all these centuries, he felt the longing for the stars that these people must have felt. Maybe it was the eyes and faces of the statues, the shape of the rolling landscape, the attitudes of the bending, running, whirling athletes, the juxtaposed implications of languidly erotic women and lively sun-smiling girls. The great head of a philosopher sat tilted, hidden in the shadows of wild hedge. Any minute now, those eyes would turn to look at him.

Paul tore himself away from the park. He ran out through the portal, relieved to be once more out on the green, open, mind-ripped avenues. The drugged feeling disappeared.

He realized he had forgotten his canteen in the park. He did have his rifle. Let the canteen stay. Like everything else in the park, if he left it there a thousand years, it would still look as though he had left it only yesterday. He did not want to enter the park alone again today.

He came to the portals of a mile-long building. No telling how tall the building might once have been, because its superstructure had collapsed onto the street. Its jagged ramparts still stood at least three hundred feet high.

Full of curiosity and still tingling from his experience in the park, Paul entered, but cautiously. The floor had crumbled and was overgrown with soft, spongy sod. In the lobby a fountain emptied into a cracked basin. Paul bent down and drank from the water. Then he looked up and gasped, water dribbling down his chin. The ceiling was a dome several stories over his head. At first he thought the dome was supported by pillars. The pillars weren't pillars but statues forty feet tall and taller, of slender, long-robed men and women. No beards; all Ongka's kind. These were more likely images of important citizens. Perhaps the bearded ones on the other building represented mythological gods. The leading citizens of Avamish portrayed here had flat introverted smiles and clenched hands. They conveyed a sense of desperate, gigantic wanting and waiting.

Paul's feet echoed on intact tiles as he walked through another portal into a whispering, cathedral-sized hall whose ceiling was lost in gloom. This was no place of reverence. Everything suggested to Paul an exhilaration of the senses. He found the elephantine statuary in the larger hall vapid and subesthetic by Earth standards. Everything in the building was gigantic in scale, to daze the senses, to quash thought, to create an effect in the Avamishan mind and body that Paul could not even guess at. It only served to depress him.

He labored up huge steps to a mezzanine. He looked down at where he had stood a minute ago, and almost had the impression he could blink and see himself looking up at himself. Crazy, this place. Playing tricks on his mind. He began to suspect the walls themselves had some telepathic aura. He walked through echoing corridors whose sense of disproportion gave him vertigo. He reached only elbow level to the muscular, somber-faced, rippling statue of a wrestler grappling with some shapeless horror like a cloud. The space, between troubled-looking eyes, was almost a meter. The gaze was startled, as if the wrestler could barely contend with the nightmare in his arms, but already stared at an even greater nightmare beyond that.

Paul's walk brought him back to the mezzanine. A maze of rooms and galleries ran off in all directions. In the rooms were colossi. This was truly a building of statues. In one room was an ethereal, child-faced beauty, nude, with an overly massive torso and heavy arms and legs that to Paul seemed to defeat the purpose of the facial presentation, to contradict or overwhelm the airiness and purity.

In another room was a forty-foot tall athlete whirling a discus with airfoils on it.

Room after room had figures in it, huge and somehow weary, as if their weight could not overcome the gravity that bound them to whatever their tragedy was.

Paul left the building feeling drained and slightly nauseous. His own erotic and esthetic standards had been assaulted and offended, overwhelmed and numbed.

Even the size of the building oppressed him and he hurried away from it, back toward the encampment. He felt badly in need of human company. Faraway on the hillsides he could see smoke from the natives' tent city. He jogged in the that direction on the crumbling, deserted avenues. Wind keened desolately, just audibly, around his ears, and he often looked back over his shoulder. His spine crawled and he was glad to get out of the dead city's heart.

Just seeing the living natives cheered him up. On his way back Paul found a fresco of life in ancient Avamish. The scene was off-hand and lacked any elements of tragedy or comments about the seriousness of life. Several Avamishans sat in a cart in a variety of bored or anxious poses, as if they were on a rumbling bus. The right rear wheel of the wagon ran through a puddle of water. It splashed an Avamishan lady on the sidewalk. The lady was depicted in the act of staring with a surprised, angry look over her shoulder at her dress, which she grasped with one hand and pulled away slightly. Nearby two young dandies were caught in the act of winking at each other and pointing to the splashed lady. An Avamishan boy farther along the street, unaware of the lady's plight, busily played an instrument like triple pan pipes. The boy sat on the curb. A young girl with a sweet face was enraptured by his music. The girl, like the lady, wore a chlamys that demurely covered both shoulders. There was still a freshness, an innocence here, that belied the frank but joyless motions of the statues he'd seen in the building of gigantic art.

Thinking of Licia, he let out a yell and ran up the post road.


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