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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 


37. New World—Year 3301

Paul stood alone in the dead alien city. It was night time, and he looked up at the stars that wheeled in the black sky. The horizon was an architecture of broken towers and ruined walls, but the stars above shone brightly like windows in a greater skyline. The twin moons clung together, as always, their surfaces swimming with light, and the light softened their craters. The night air was both fresh and sweet, but also mysterious with small musky odors and whiffs of this and that. Suddenly, he was utterly free.

Avamish somehow held the key to the stars. If it was the only thing he accomplished on N60A, it would be to give them the key to the stars. Not for Tynan, or even Licia, but for their children and their children's children.

Strange, that you had to travel light years to find yourself. He lost himself in the rotted, dripping maze of broken houses of Avamish. Suddenly, he was absolved of all debts. He no longer felt compelled to conquer, or even to survive. He was a citizen of the galaxy. Moisture rolled on his face, chilling him.

He barely noticed that night gave way to day.

A morning fog roiled thickly all around.

For once, he felt deadly calm. He had nothing to compromise anymore. It was a feeling of absolute power. He could take the city and shake it until it yielded its secret.

A small detail began to preoccupy him. A matter of life and death; a lost canteen. He was on his own now, and he must have water. He would not let the city defeat him.

Fog brought back the illusion of throbbing city life. He thought of the handsome dignified man with the goblet. He felt Avamishan. Rather than cower in Aeries, man was meant to build great cities that reached to the stars. O SheuXe if you only knew. He felt Chaldean, Sumerian, Zapotecan, Roman, New Yorkan.

Gravity dealt him a blow which brought him back to reality. He stumbled over a log and slid tumbling down an embankment coated with wet mud. He hit hard at the bottom of the ravine. His clothes clung wet and icy as he crawled up onto a dry, solid city street of large stones. Gravity. Of course. The laws were the same here as everywhere else in the universe.

In the still heavy fog, he came to an intersection. He stopped and aimed the rifle. Not far away, where the fog seemed lighter with growing sunlight, a dark figure stood watching him. He lowered the weapon. Ongka. He recognized the dully gleaming copper disk. Fog rolled by, and the figure was gone.

"Ongka!" he cried, searching. "Ongka! Dammit, you brought us here. Play games, will you? Bastard!"

His voice threw a faraway echo among ruined buildings. Only silence answered.

Paul stood there, regaining his breath. He remembered the clockwork. Like SheuXe, Ongka, with his terrible intelligence, had some sort of master plan. The medicus had been toying with them—especially with Paul—ever since their arrival. SheuXe would have been mortified to learn that the new world contained at least one intellect as great as his own, a stone age shaman who understood the workings of the galaxy.

Paul arrived at the space port. Gilt sunlight stabbed through fog molecules, whirling dizzy bright particles around mist-shrouded buildings. Paul passed through the broken memories of star longing. Ongka would make some move soon. Until then, he had to survive. He would have to retrieve his canteen. Remembering how his mind had gone dull in there, he avoided the park as yet, waiting until full daylight.

First, he explored a large building that turned out to be a public bath. The ghostly echoes of his footfalls on tile followed him, traveling away down long high tiled corridors and meeting him again when he passed other doorways. He saw the main pool in a domed hall full of nesting birds. Abundant multi-colored lizards too dwelt in the clear shallow pool water. The lizards hissed and showed rows of serrated teeth as he walked past.

He came to a large office building. A fountain bubbled among pillars in the lobby. In the honeyed sunlight, statues graced odd corners. Everything was businesslike. The lobby opened into a big hall lined on both sides with stone-barred cages. Paul thought of banks or pay offices on old Earth. In one of the cages, entering at random, he found stone office furniture—a tall, graceful stool; a stone safe; a bookcase whose shelves were still stained with the bacteria that had consumed its paper ledgers. On the teller's or accountant's desk was a hydraulic telephone. The speaking orifice extended toward the teller on a stone tube. The listening end was a hand-sized cylinder lying on the desk. A bit of shattered tubing stuck out of it. Why had all this been abandoned?

In the bank cellars Paul found money. The stone coins rattled through his fingers, and he thought that once they must have been well-guarded. His flashlight beam picked out stacked coins on tables. Nearby, he heard the splash of some lizard guarding this hoard. It was not a place to tarry long. On one table was a mound of spongy matter that might once have been paper or wooden money. He slipped one of the cold coins into his pocket. As he did so he heard something breathing nearby and crawling over the stone floor with rasping scales. As he backed up he could feel its cold breath on his hand. He tumbled over backwards, landing in a shallow puddle. He got his hands around something to throw. A stone, he thought. The thing bucked in his hands, twisting this way and that. Another lizard. It had been sleeping in the cold water. Now he saw its teeth flash in the gloom as it arched backwards to bite him. Its split tongue flashed wetly in the dim light. Paul threw it as hard as he could against its mate. How many more were down here? He heard a hiss of reptilian breath and ran as fast as he could, back up into daylight, where he stood with his back to a wall and gasped to get his breath back.

In the upper stories he found sealed offices, many with heavy glass windows overlooking the city still intact. He entered one room that was larger than the rest and had no windows. He waded through an ankle-deep layer of dust and hair that must once have been a carpet. The room contained a large desk—empty, as if the owner had taken its contents with him—and several tumbled, rotted wooden chairs. Against one wall stood shelves piled with bric-a-brac: The dust of manuscripts; empty flower vases; an assortment of stone coins and the spongy remains of wooden money; a stone carving of a whale-like fish. Another wall had once been covered with a cloth tapestry. The cloth was long gone, but a ghostly after-image of rockets and tall buildings remained on the dry stonewall, burned in by the desiccation of old dyes.

As he turned to leave, Paul noticed a strange pattern of designs on a third wall. The wall was citron-colored. On it were fine-ruled white quadrilles, and in many of the quadrilles were variously colored squares of thin foil. Metal foil? Paul bent closer, scratching one off so it stuck to his fingertip. Some conductivity or magnetism in the wall kept them attached. As Paul ran his fingers over the wall, he felt a tingle race through his fingertips, his elbows, his brain. Quickly he withdrew his hand, and the feeling ceased. He touched the wall again, hesitantly, and felt a pleasant jumbled consciousness of something larger than himself and abstract. What was it? He placed one fingertip directly on one foil square. For an instant he perceived a number, 5000, then there was that vapid, white feeling again leaving an aftertaste of feminine pleasantness. It reminded him of the girl with the goblet. He touched a few more squares.

Nothing. Just pleasant white feeling, fading quickly as if to recharge.

Then, from a brown square, he picked up a fragment of thought—not words, but pure thought, delivered in report-like efficiency: "Ang-Shevi Geyser 500 ixtl sha output average in year 607 and..." (white, fading). Paul put his hands to his head. Only his experiences with Ongka prevented him from reeling about in shock.

He touched another square. Nothing, He noticed that the floor before him was littered with light-colored squares that had fallen off. Apparently the darker squares were stronger and more empathic. As he touched another dark brown square, a thought stung his fingertips and expanded behind his eyes: "...With Xnl Iplon owes 400 bactrs to City Treasury..." (fade). When Paul put his fingertips on the square again, he received only a faint pulse saying "400" and then white dim-out. Apparently, it took a little time for the information squares to build up their charge again. From the air? Perhaps that was why this room had no windows. Perhaps ... anything. Paul lightly made a sweep with his hands over the wall. It was like listening to a hundred radio stations at once.

Some of the squares had lost their imprint but still emitted a powerful white field. Paul seemed to understand the foreign words. Bacter was a unit of currency, ixl was a measure of volume, sha was time.

In a stroke of admiration, Paul realized that this wall was a sort of corporate progress chart. The room was an executive conference room.

He touched another square and its fragmentary message was: (noise) "...transfer credit allowance of 70 spenter type 45 fuel to Moon II launch station under armed guard. Anticipate conversion to non-spenter money base if metals found on Moon II as hoped. Star Base One alleviate shortage..." (noise...noise...).

Paul's flashlight was growing dim and he pulled his hand away with deep regret. In this place, if those delicate charges could survive but a few more weeks, he could learn a lot about ancient Avamish. The most exciting thing was that they had indeed reached space, and Paul wanted to see N60A from orbit once more. If it had been done before, it could be done again.

He felt elated when he returned to the street, but suddenly he felt a twinge of loneliness. He had nobody to tell of his discovery.

A cursory probe of several other buildings turned up more of the telepathic boardroom charts, but none quite as explicit or well preserved. He did find the unreadable remains of tons of paper. Apparently, metals were necessary for telepathic reporting, witness Ongka's disc.

He found a library. The building was oblong, of light-green stone like a marble. Its windows were broken. In the main entrance a few shards of stone door still hung on their hinges. The interior of the library was a barren, scoured disaster. The ceiling had been constructed of many skylights, all of them broken by now, so that the elements had erased all of the precious books.

As Paul stood hungering amid the empty shelves he heard a clattering noise. He thought he caught the faint echo of departing footsteps as he whirled about with his rifle ready, but he heard nothing now. Shaking, he called out: "Ongka!"


Slowly he relaxed. Probably a bird or other animal. Maybe the crumbling of a piece of mortar.


He was alone.

When he left the library the sunlight was long and golden. The city, like its cup-raising ghosts, steeped in eternal melancholy.

And now Paul was part of that tranquil death, that silent slow fading.

He hurried from building to building, faster and faster, as if to outrun himself. To outrun the black hollow in his heart now that he was despoused. He was in a suburb of wealthy palaces and homes beyond the starport.·Thoughts of Licia pursued him. The thought of her tormented him.

He ran across the grounds of a deserted palace. He bumped into something; tumbled a small statuette off of its pedestal so it crashed in pieces on the tiled walkway. The dead city surrounded him with walls of resentful silence.

The palace had been gutted by fire. What remained of its walls were blackened. In a corner he found a round thing encased in moss and when he looked at it he found it was a skull that had been smashed by some heavy bladed thing, an ax maybe. He remembered the skulls in the mound near Akha. So there had been fire and violence in the decline of Avamish after all. Paul ran through the ruin like a maddened dog, shattering anything the building's destroyers had left unbroken. Licia! The pain—There was a kitchen and he heaved chinaware over his head so that for long seconds he was enveloped in a tinkling nose as loud and constant as rain. He ran down a long corridor. At the end of the corridor he dimly perceived a glassless window open to a patch of azure sky. He screamed and wanted to ...

(noise...xxxx...noise...xxmnorxmnt...noi...noise····xxmann rxxxx xxxmannr...noise)

...but he stopped. He leaned with his back to the wall and gaped for air. What were they doing to him? The city was alive with stray telepathic thoughts, many of them black and unpleasant. He slumped into a squatting position to gather his mind back together.

Must not—must not feel this way.

The sky was hot and hazy when Paul stood in the space complex again.

Behind him lay the wealthy suburbs, destroyed violently centuries ago. Beyond those suburbs lay the open land, the today and the tomorrow of a city steeped in yesterday. He would only have to begin walking. It would be like a death. He would walk and walk until he fell down and became part of the soil. It would be a journey with no return. But no. The city yet held him back, demanding that he delve into its mystery.

Soon, night would fall again.

He looked north and saw the smoking kilns of the tent city. Right then he decided what he would do that night. Taking a drink from a fountain, he began the long march through the city amid the heat and haze of late afternoon. Despoused, alone, he was no longer of Earth. He could now make the city part of him. He and the city would soak up each others' souls and understand one another. He was now the last Avamishan.


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