Lost on the Last Continent II

— Lost on the Last Continent —


In the Days of Pangaea Ultima

By John C. Wright

 Back to Book One: Huntsmen of PangaeaUp to Table of Contents On to Book Three: Giants of Pangaea

*** *** ***

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream

The Diamond Sutra

*** *** ****

Book Two:  Terrors of Pangaea

Episode 20 Prison Pit

Colonel Preston Lost was caught in a dream. He saw again the shape of the flying disk machine, glowing and strange, speeding through a storm in the Bermuda Triangle. Again he seemed to be at the yoke of his high-speed pursuit plane, specially built by his aircraft company to chase these flying saucers. They had been abducting human beings for years, perhaps centuries, but he was the first to give chase, and follow them back to their origin.

In his nightmare, he saw again the hole in midair, a vortex of nothingness, into which his plane had fallen. He emerged over a landscape of volcanoes. In the sky was Earth’s moon, but larger than it had been in previous geologic eras. It was  two hundred fifty million years after his birth. But his plane was struck by a flying dinosaur, a Pteranodon. Like him, dinosaurs and other ancient creatures had been brought forward into this era, where all the continents of old had collided into one supercontinent: Pangaea.

He again saw himself chased from jungle to lava flow to underground cavern, where men from different periods of history chased him. One man, if only for the space of a hour, he had befriended. They had shared a drink. Fyodor was his name, a man from Thirteenth Century Russia. Fyodor was wounded. Where was he now?

Preston woke, angry before even his eyes opened. He could smell the clear air of early morning, hear the twitter of birdsong, and feel the cool touch of breeze across his naked form. Beneath him was a mass of fragrant leaves, waxy, wet and still alive.

His fingers twitched, and his hand, by its own initiative, groped left and right, feeling no rifle. His eyes popped open, and he leaped to his feet with a roar. His Holland and Holland had been stolen.

Every scrap of clothing and gear had been taken from him, including the mysterious ring he had found in his knapsack.

He was standing in a bed of ivy. Walls of weather-worn brick rose to each side. He was in a pit, twelve or fifteen feet deep, roughly square. Underfoot, near the middle of the pit, was soft soil beneath the ankle-deep leafy cover, and cool to the toes. However, bits of broken stone hidden under the ivy bit into his naked feet when he took a step near to the walls.

Overhead was open to the sky. A brightly colored wigwam of pink and purple slats stood on stilts above, throwing half the pit into shade. The underside was woven mat draped over a framework. There were two exits: round holes in the mat near one leg or another of the tripods on which the airy wigwam rested. Preston could see the little hand-shaped footprints of the monkey-men inside the wigwam whenever one stepped on the mat, which puckered under the weight.

Preston eyed the walls. This looked like some cellar of a vanished building, now used as an animal pen. The stones were old and rough, and overgrown with ivy, and should be easy to climb.

Too easy. He looked up again. The weave of the mat flooring the wigwam above was loose enough to allow any eyes inside to see out. He was being watched.

Also, when he tossed a pebble at the topmost row of stones, and disturbed the thick leaves clustered there, a cloud of wasps rose up. The insects hung in the air a moment, and then, with a sinister and deliberate motion, returned to their position, hidden in the leaves circling the rim of the pit.

The wasps stayed hidden if he merely approached the wall, or touched it with his hand, but as soon as he found handholds and footholds, and began to climb, they buzzed upward and gathered into a dense swarm above, as if waiting for him to put a hand over the edge. If he dropped back down, and released the wall, they grew quiet again, landed, and did not molest him.

He gathered several small stones and threw them sharply against the top of the wall, merely to agitate the wasps.

These noises attracted the attention of other guards: two saber-toothed tigers raised their sleek heads over the edge of the pit, curious at the commotion. These were the big cats he had seen before.

Preston studied them closely. The body was sleek and long like a leopard, but heavy about the shoulders and forepaws. Two canine teeth, longer than daggers, jutted down past the lower jaw. The foreparts were tawny like a lion, but the hindparts were a darker orange, dappled with spots and stripes. The ears were tufted like those of a lynx. Markings like those of a cheetah, or a Pharaoh, underlined the eyes.

The pair regarded Preston with regal, lazy, half-lidded stares.

Preston stooped and picked up a larger fragment of stone, one that fit nicely into his fist, and he wondered if his arm were strong enough and aim true enough to break the skull of a tiger at this distance. He found himself grinning oddly, his heart racing, skin prickling with sweat, and his muscles tensing.

However, he forced the grin away, grimaced, and frowned soberly. Preston dropped the stone and dusted off his hands, taking slow, deep breaths, and telling himself he was not a reckless man.

Nor was he an impatient man. He searched the confines of the square pit thoroughly.

The results were not promising.

Beneath the blanket of ivy leaf, he found two sand heaps near the northern wall of the pit, in the shadow of the wigwam. This was perhaps the sign of a previous prisoner: beneath one sand heap was an accumulation of dung, dry and hard with passing time. Nothing was buried beneath the other. Perhaps the previous owner had meant it for bedding. He also found gray sticks as thick as his thumb and long as his forearm he realized were dead and broken vines, the debris of prior winters. None was thick or strong enough to serve as a club. They shattered in a spray of powder against the stones when he rapped one or two sharply against the wall.

Aside from this, he found dried leaves that had fallen from the ivy vines; more dry vines that had fallen from the stones; and many little rocks and pebbles. If there was a secret door leading into deeper and more ancient cellars, he did not find it.

He inspected the leaves. They were not ivy after all, nor any species of leaf he recognized. The chlorophyll was only in the outer layer. The dry leaves lost this layer, and were delicate semi-transparent or transparent curls of membrane.

In the very middle of the pit was the hoofprint of an animal he did not recognize. He crouched and studied it, pleased to find a beast whose spoor and habits he did not know. If he lived, he would enjoying learning about this new world and its wildlife. A little bit of clear rainwater, about as much as would fit in a man’s cupped palm, had accumulated in the hoofprint.

He doubted this palmful was safe to drink, but he thought he could find a use for it nonetheless.

Preston gathered the dry dung, dry vines, and dry leaves together in the sunniest corner of the pit, and formed a layered stack.

He found a dry leaf that had turned pale and translucent with age. He scraped the leaf until it was transparent, and scooped the water into it. This leaf he held in a sunbeam above the pile of dung and tinder. The water gathered into the curve of the leaf concentrated the sunlight. He saw a ring of light spilling across the dry leaves. He lowered the leaf until the ring contracted to a bright pinpoint.

After a short wait, a wisp of smoke trickled up. Preston carefully breathed on the spark to encourage it, and fed it dry leaves. A moment later, he began feeding splinters from dry and fallen vines into the fire, and then whole lengths of dry vine. The dung started smoking shortly thereafter.

A particularly thick length of dry vine, heavy as a short baton, he gnawed on to make one end splintery, and lit this end on fire. Soon it was burning merrily. He held up the baton and smiled at it, waving it through the air to encourage the flame, until it burned like a torch.

Then he turned and threw the torch, spinning and smoking, into the first of the two openings in the underside of the mat of the wigwam overhead. He prodded a second vine into a burning knot of dung, gathered it on the end of the stick, and threw this into the second opening. Preston was gratified to see several spots, no bigger than the tip of a cigarette, where the matting of the floor began to glow and smolder.

Chattering and complaining erupted from the wigwam. Wizened little monkey faces, muzzles distended in disgust and rage, peered out through the openings, waving scarves.

Preston watched with interest as a trio of small red monkey men came rushing from somewhere outside the wigwam, and scampered up the tripod legs. These wore no clothing, and their hair was close cropped, something like a full-body crewcut, so the hue of their flesh could be seen beneath their red fur. Their heads were bowed and their eyes downcast, and they moved with every sign of fear and diffidence.

Far otherwise were the monkey-men appearing at the opening of the wigwam. The males wore embroidered vests. The females wore embroidered brassieres, and sported an intricately carefully folded sash of fine cloth, variously dyed, which ran from shoulder to hip. The males wore belts or baldrics adorned with bezants and bits of metal. The fur of both sexes was braided and decorated with beads and living insects.

Preston watched. The braided and vest-wearing Terrors lifted no hand to the task, but instead the naked and half-shaved ones ran into the wigwam, gathering up what Preston had thrown, and putting out any sparks smoldering on the floormat.

Preston waited a moment, and then chucked another burning stick into the opening.

At the same moment, he felt a pain like a red hot needle in his arm. Fire crawled up and down his veins. He swatted the wasp he found crawling over his elbow, and found that elbow, and his forearm, already turning numb and non-responsive.

The next burning stick was tossed left handed. His aim with that hand was not as good. The stick clattered against the tripod legs, missed the opening.

A mastodon head now appeared over the edge of the pit. A trunk snaked down, and a gush of water came from the nostrils and doused the little fire.

A Terror wearing a long vest of many bezants came agilely down the trunk, and stood near the tip, looking down at Preston with wrinkled eyes and a cryptic gaze. Preston was scowling, rubbing his lifeless right arm.

The little man spoke. “What meaning have these antics, Lost?”

Preston looked up. “Arson. Are you the Civil Mediator? I cannot tell you apart.”

“I am the same individual, albeit my role is now that of a Warden of Strays. The decision is mine what to do with you. Why do you attempt arson? The behavior seems erratic.”

Preston said, “I was acting uncivilly as best I could, since you decided to be uncivil to me. If you would prefer to return to treating me in a civilized fashion, fine. I want a lawyer. I also want to know what happened to Fyodor; I want my clothing, weapons, possessions, and liberty.”

The wizened eyes narrowed. “You are livestock, an animate possession. A possession can have no possessions. All the materials found on you belong to the Beauty-of-Torment clan.”

“I am a free man.”

“Inaccurate,” said the Warden didactically. “You were a stray freely roaming before this, but that condition no longer obtains. Firstlings are known for the inertia and intransigence of their thinking. Your nervous systems are crude, and cannot adjust to revised conditions except by repeated painful stimuli. Our scorpions have a poison which causes lingering months of pain. Perhaps you will adjust yourself to the reality of your circumstance once…”

But Preston stooped, snatched up a stone with his left hand, and threw it into the little man’s skull. The Warden lost his balance and fell from the mastodon’s trunk. Preston leaped through the air, numb arm flapping, and tackled the Warden in the same moment as his little body hit the ground.

The saber toothed lions roared: a chilling sound. The mastodon trumpeted, and wrapped its trunk around Preston, swifter than a lariat.

Preston gripped the Warden by the throat in his left hand. Both were yanked skyward. Dozens of wasps landed on Preston’s arm and shoulders, neck and face. He felt their little legs tickling the lashes of his eyes.

“Careful!” hissed Preston through clenched teeth. The mastodon trunk was pinning his right arm, but his left arm was extended, and he held the Terror firmly by the throat. “If your wasps sting my arm, I will drop you. If your mastodon crushes my ribs, I’ll crush your throat.”

The little man was gripping Preston’s wrist with both hands, and the fingers and thumb of his feet, and the tip of his prehensile tail, clutched frantically at empty air. Blood was soaking through the red fur his skull.

The Warden gasped, “You overestimate yourself. Yours is the weakest and least of the Nine Races of Man, and not competent in any respect to compete with older, more evolved, more advanced species. Hundreds of millions of years have passed since your race was superseded and went extinct. It is evolution’s verdict!”

“If you say so,” said Preston. “But I’ve still got you by the throat.” He squeezed.

The Warden wheezed, and his voice climbed an octave. “You cannot escape!”

“Nor can you. My nervous system might be crude. But who is not adjusting to changed conditions now?”

He tightened his grip. The mastodon was getting uneasy, and began to tighten the grip around Preston as well. Preston could not draw breath either.

The little man’s voice was a ragged whisper. “I am past breeding age. The clan holds my life to be expendable.”

But, at his gesture, the mastodon eased his grip, and Preston could breathe.

Preston also relaxed his grip a little bit. He grinned. “I feel the same way about my life, when my liberty is at stake. The question is, do you want to expend it? Or would you rather make a deal?”

The little man sagged in his grip.


It was a cough, a hissing movement of the lips, but the meaning was clear.

*** *** ***

Episode 21 Ruins of the Remote Future

At Preston’s command, the Warden had the mastodon deposit the pair atop the ancient temple overlooking the square. Here a green dome of polygonal malachite panels rose up. Its crown was shattered by the trunk of an enormous tree growing up over centuries from within, whose branches shaded the area. The mastodon put them delicately atop a sloping pendentive where the octagonal roof of the main building extended upward to merge with the round base of the dome.

Preston heard trumpets, brays and roars coming from the ruins below. Scores and scores of the little red-furred monkey-men were exiting from wigwams, and climbing atop the broken fragments of walls or isolated pillars, or dangling from high tentpoles. Long haired Terrors in braided vests and close-shaven unclothed thralls alike all came.

Preston scowled. The crowd gathering seemed strangely muted, unexcited, undisturbed. He saw one little monkey-man passing through the crowd followed by a giant tree sloth toting a large sack, from which the man was passing out peanuts and spyglasses.

Preston backed away from the mastodon’s trunk, and perched the Warden on the lip of the cornice, with a dizzying drop beneath. Preston’s right arm was still numb. He clutched the collar of the Warden’s bespangled vest with his left fist. “Your neighbors do not look worried.”

The Warden spoke without emotion. “As one past breeding age, I have no more innate value to the tribe, but only such as service can realize. This is the fate evolution decrees for the old. As Warden of Strays, my service is to assess the prestige-value of feral beasts like yourself, which involves a degree of exposure to risk. This, in turn, involves a certain entertainment value for the clan, and a trifling gain in my prestige. I am a thrifty man.”

Preston said, “What? They are wagering to see whether I kill you or not?”

“Better to say that they are curious about whether my assessment of your prestige-value is correct. Our customs do not permit them to carry out any bargains made under duress.”

Preston said, “In that case, why should I let you live?”

The Warden said, “My death benefits you nothing.”

“Oh, I would not say that. You put bugs on my face and stole my boxer shorts. Punting you off a rooftop and watching you splat will give me immense satisfaction, if brief. You do not seem pleased at the prospect? I thought you Terrors understood the joys of masochism?”

“Indeed we do. It is from this trait we take our name.”

“Well, my people are called Homo saps, which is Latin for wise guy. The trait from which we take our name is sweet reason. So I am giving you this chance to be reasonable. What can you offer me for your worthless life?”

The Warden said, “Your life. You know I have inescapable means to kill you.”

“That is a good start. What else?”

The little man’s eyes narrowed. “You fear death. All lesser organisms do.”

“I prize my life more than I fear my death. That means I prize my liberty and my right to pursue happiness, without which life is not worth living.”

The little man’s muzzle twitched. “Other First Age Men do not speak as you.”

“They are not Americans. My land is different.”

“The difference is racial?”

“Not exactly.”

“How does the biology of the people of your land differ?”

“Our women have bigger breasts and our men have more grit in the craw. We dream big. Maybe it is something in the air.” He gave the Warden a sharp shake. “Enough about me! Your offer is not good enough. I want more than life. You said you could use your spider senses to tell if I am bluffing. Well? Am I?” And he heaved and dangled the Warden over the brink, holding him by the back of the collar. The little man groped and kicked with the fingers of both hand and foot, and swung his prehensile tail, but there was nothing to grasp.

There was no noise from the crowd as he did this, except for a few scattered hoots of mirth. Preston scowled down. “Your neighbors really don’t care what happens to you, do they?”

The Warden remarkably composed. “They await the outcome. Any of them, even a child among us, could destroy you in a heartbeat with the beast or bug, but your fate is still my decision.”

“And what is your decision?”

“Releasing you back into the wild is out of the question. This gains the clan no prestige, no goods, no entertainment, nothing of value.”

Preston had not been planning to abandon Fyodor in any case. So he said, “Don’t tell me what you cannot offer. Tell me what you can.”

“I will return your clothing, weapons, and gear, and give you liberty of the camp. If you stray from the camp, punishment as severe as necessary will result. You will in return be gentle and tractable, committing no more arson or untoward acts, doing nothing to decrease your prestige. This condition is temporary.”

“Deal!” Preston stepped back and lowered him to the ground. “Do your people have a way you seal your bargains? Spitting in your palm, crossing your heart, signing a memorandum?”

“Our memories are perfect. No writing is needed to commemorate shared purposes between those of our order. Shared purposes with those of your order are makeshift.”

“What does that mean?”

“The nervous systems of First Age Men are erratic and wild, so much so that even you cannot bind your thoughts to a given purpose steadfastly. With your kind, there is always risk that unexpected passion or distortion of thinking will overturn your will. The Terrors do not live like your order, with your laws and lawyers and oaths and oathbreakers, kings and crimes, fealties and rebellions.”

“Fine. A man’s word is his bond. No more arson or mischief on my part, and you give me my stuff back. I’ll be nice, and you give me the run of the camp. You called it temporary. Until when?”

The Warden crouched down on all fours. His gaze was baleful. “Once the assessment is complete, my authority over you ends, and the guild mandator will mandate your final disposition.”

Preston said, “But in the meanwhile, what? I am no longer livestock in a pen, but I am a prisoner in the camp?”

“Your status is not so elevated. Provisionally, you will be treated as a domesticated rather than wild animal, to see whether you can fulfill the role. Come this way!” And the monkey-man turned, and scampered with great agility around the base of the dome, moving from one sloping pendentive roof to the next.

Preston was a surefooted man, but he could not keep abreast with a simian traveling on all fours across a sloping rooftop. They circled the dome. As he rounded the structure, a part of the ruined city Preston had not seen before came into view.

Near at hand, in the shadow of the broken temple, a great field, larger than a stadium, opened up in one direction. His gaze was arrested by the vision of the brontosaurus who stood there, chewing placidly. Four elephants lined up trunk to tail would not have matched the length of this great beast, and three would not have matched its weight. It was twice as tall as a giraffe. A child brontosaur, dainty as a pickup truck next to an eighteen wheeler, grazed in its mother’s shadow.

With an effort he pulled his eyes away, and looked outward. The distant jungle formed the backdrop. The ruins stood on high ground with a commanding view of the surrounding wood, which was an odd mix of jungle cycads and temperate hardwoods. The ground sloped in gentle swales down toward the green expanse. Clouds of mist rose from certain points on the horizon.

He saw an oddity: all the largest, old growth trees, the giants of the wood, were set out in neat ranks and rows, as if, many years ago, this land had been orchard ground as far as eye could see.

The monkey man continued. Preston followed.

The ruins which now came into view around the shoulder of the broken dome were more extensive, and in better condition, than those surrounding the well where he had climbed to the surface. The cycads and giant ferns were fewer. The thinner greenery afforded more glimpses of remnants of boulevards and ramparts. Some of the towers and taller buildings were intact, if overgrown with vines and shrub.

Rising skyward were also huge gnomons and dolmens of some shining substance which seemed neither ceramic nor glass, and showed no sign of the weathering that cracked, softened and gnawed the surrounding city of brick and marble. No trace of lichen dimmed their brilliance.

In the distance was an egg-shaped structure taller than a skyscraper, made of a dark, enameled substance, windowless, and with an array of broken aqueducts radiating from it. From crown to base, it was covered over with a silvery scrimshaw of spiral loops and knots, and the long streaks of clinging overgrowth were like a green beard along the lower hemisphere. The vast black oval was gouged and cratered with age, and may have been far older than the surrounding town of stone, or the aqueducts, but made of some far more durable material. When he saw haze gathered against its flanks like clouds brushing a mountain peak, he revised his estimate of the height and distance sharply upward. This one structure, now long dead, could have held the population of Manhattan.

The sight caused Preston to pause. This place was not one ruined city, but several, each built with its own architecture, engineering, and materials. Each no doubt came from a different century or millennium, erected by a different race of after-human hominids. And the Terrors with their temporary structures of slatted wigwams were yet another.

On the narrow brink of the cornice circling the dome, Preston threw back his shoulders and breathed in the air of the latter-day earth. The smell of woodsmoke, the odor of droppings from draft animals, the scent of jungle orchids, mingled with the tingle of ozone as touches the air after a storm. Nowhere was the sound of engines, the honking of traffic, the stink of factory smoke. It was a dangerous, untamed, ancient world.

The strangeness of it was striking, even exhilarating. He had traveled to every continent of Earth back in his own day, but never had he set foot on a place so far from everything he knew. This world might be unimaginably ancient, separated from his home era by an astronomical abyss of time. He cared nothing for that. To him, all was new.

The Warden pointed down toward a cracked boulevard, running between broken pillar stumps, from the foot of the temple to a tall, gray, circular building open to the sky. “Your clothing, gear, and weapons wait there, in the midst of yonder coliseum, in plain sight. We admit to curiosity about their construction, use, and handling, and also the measure of your athletic prowess. We will observe a demonstration.”

Preston felt a tug on the skin of his numb right elbow. He swatted at a wasp crawling there, but missed. An ominous cloud of the wasps was gathering between him and the Warden, who was crabwalking nonchalantly up the slope of the broken temple dome, and was passing quickly out of reach. Preston debated the wisdom of a second round of grabbing and roughing up the little man.

He suddenly felt a sensation like a host of metal millipedes with red-hot legs crawling up and down his numb muscles. Life and strength was returning to his right arm. He flexed his fingers with a sense of grateful satisfaction.

The mastodon below had followed them around the temple. Swift as a snake striking, it put its trunk around him, and lowered Preston roughly to the ground. He climbed to his bare feet, scowling. He stood upon the cracked, grassy and uneven slabs of the boulevard he had seen from above.

The boulevard was clear. But to the left and right, in two thick parallel clouds, were swarms of wasps. They formed a living wall it would have been insane for a naked man to attempt to breach.

Beyond the wasps was an audience. The cold, golden eyes of dozens of Terrors glinted over the edges of broken walls or from around the bases of shattered pillars. This crowd formed two parallel lines embracing the empty road. Preston saw more than one chewing snacks or toying with spyglasses. All were quiet, watching, eyes wrinkled with glee.

“Oh, this is not good…” he muttered.

A grinding noise came from behind him. Two great doors of green metal were being pulled open by a pair of mastodons. A harness ran from the massive and shaggy shoulders of each pachyderm to one of the great rings set in either door panels. The doors were so thick and tall that even these mighty beasts must strain, trumpeting and leaning into their traces. Behind the doors were a trio of saber toothed tigers. Upon seeing Preston, they growled and lashed their tails.

Observe the demonstration of his prowess meant watch him outrun hunting cats, if he could, outswim and outclimb them fast enough to get to his weapons.

A sharp blasphemy escaped Preston’s lips. After that, he saved his breath for sprinting.

*** *** ***

Episode 22 Demonstration of Prowess

The boulevard ran straight as a ruler from the temple to the frowning walls of the roofless coliseum. Pillars holding arches circled the ground floor of the coliseum in an arcade, but the archways on the ground floor were bricked shut. Arches of a second story balcony circling the building opened into the interior, and red sunlight spilled through them. A moat of water surrounded all. Several trees grew up between moat and wall so closely that their branches thrust up between the marble balcony rails. There was no other place to run, as twin clouds of deadly wasps formed living walls to either side of the boulevard.

In the widening crack of the temple doors, patient as cats before a mousehole, watching him with cold eyes, were three smilodons.

As the doors opened wider, Preston did not run away, but toward the smilodons. Naked and weaponless, he yelled at the top of his lungs. The saber-toothed tigers did not flinch, but sprang forward explosively from their haunches, swift as cheetahs, leaping for the huge doors the mastodons were straining in their traces to pull open.

Through the narrow opening of the cracked doors, only one smilodon pushed herself. None of the three had manes. These were females, saber-toothed tigresses.

The lead smilodon came barreling forward on the narrow, dusty aisle of flagstones between the looming bulks of the two mastodons. Preston, racing toward the big cat, swerved at the last moment. He had seen lions in full charge, and he knew that creatures so large, even if more agile than a horse, could not halt or turn as quickly as a running man. The lead tigress was a yard past him before she could slow and stop; the next one was coming swiftly, roaring. But Preston was leaping toward the mastodon on the right.

In India, Preston had learned how to mount up on an elephant, even ones not kneeling. He caught the great beast’s wooden collar in one hand, and had one foot on the mastodon’s knee. The other hand he gripped the mastodon’s tusk, and he swung himself up between the tusks and onto the trunk. He swarmed up between the pachyderm’s eyes and vaulted over the top of its skull. The rough hairs scraped his naked skin.

The trunk of the mastodon reached back toward him, and the other mastodon stepped toward the one Preston had mounted, also lifting a menacing trunk. The motion of the second mastodon pulled shut the panel of the door to whose ring it was tethered, blocking the way for the third smilodon, who was still trapped inside the temple courtyard. The first two smilodons were at the head and rear of the mastodon Preston mounted, snarling and leaping, while the mastodon, startled, reared and trumpeted.

Preston forced himself to ignore all this, and looked at the large and decorated collar across the beast’s shoulders. Brightly colored protrusions and cambers the size of beetle casings and clam shells clung to the leather, enameled in yellow, black, blue, and purple.

Preston was convinced, from all he had seen, that the Terrors had some method of controlling their beasts. Naturally, being born in the days of television, garage doors, and drones, he expected the remote control to be carried by a radio antenna and electric circuits. He ran his fingers over the cambers of the collar, not sure what he was seeking.

What he found was that the beetle casings and seashells, which were warm to the touch, popped open, displaying the agitated bushcrickets and scorpion-tailed centipedes hidden within. He saw the squirming centipedes leaning from their clamshells to sink their stings into the thick and furry hide of the mastodon. The mastodon quickly turned to the direction opposite the stings.

The sheer weirdness of a remote control system made of living insects did not slow him. He guessed that bushcrickets with their nine-inch antennae were the ones receiving the commands, so he began swatting them, and smashing the beetle casings and tossing them away.

Then, turning, with both hands he leaned and pried open the buckles connecting the mastodon traces to the door ring. The buckles were made not of metal, but of what looked like seashell coated with a diamond-hard diamond-bright substance. They could be opened with a sharp tug, or a well placed kick.

The traces slithered through the harness rings and came free. The singletree dropped to the flagstones with a clang. The mastodon was no longer attached to the door ring. One strap of the harness Preston yanked free and quickly wound about his waist like a sash, having no better place to carry it.

He pried a clamshell open and thrust it against the mastodon’s neck. The giant beast obediently turned in the opposite direction. Preston guided it to face the distant coliseum. Preston stared at the collar of insect shells, wondering how to urge the beast into motion.

He need not have worried. The smilodon in front of the mastodon, threatened by tusks and massive forelegs that reared and plunged, leapt away, snarling. Meanwhile the smilodon behind, startled by the falling singletree, roared and leaped at the hindquarters of the mastodon, trying to climb toward Preston. The mastodon, clawed in the hindquarters, charged.

Preston clung to the decorated collar, wondering who was controlling the mastodon, if anyone. The pachyderm ran along the boulevard, avoiding the clouds of wasps paralleling his course. The third smilodon squeezed out through the temple doors. The three gave chase. The mastodon thundered down the boulevard. The smilodons could not do more than claw ineffectually at the stout pillars of the mastodon’s legs, but neither could the mastodon outrun the smilodons with their cheetah speed.

The boulevard ended at a moat. The water was murky, wide, and deep. Preston stood on the head of the mastodon, and did not lose his balance when the monster reared up. The smilodons roared and slashed with their butcher-knife sized incisors at the mastodon’s knees. The executed a swan dive from the mastodon’s head, hit the water cleanly, and dove.

The bottom was soft mud, but broken columns and fragments of huge statues were half buried in the moat floor. Preston swam furiously, hugging the bottom. He did not know how fast these great hunting cats could swim, but African tigers were more than twice as fast as a man in the water, even if they could hold their breath less than half his time. Preston spotted a likely looked figure of a toppled sphinx, and pushed himself into the slime beneath one of the toppled stone wings, scooping mud over himself quickly.

It should have been dark in the murky water, but strangely, inexplicably, his eyesight grew clear. He could see the three smilodons passing swiftly through the water above, bubbles all around them. He held his breath and held himself motionless, waiting. Either the Terrors were not controlling the smilodon’s actions, or not doing do intelligently. It would have been wiser to keep one saber toothed tiger on either bank and only have one in the water at a time, searching. Instead, all three dove and searched at once, and, in three minutes, all three were low worked their paws frantically to pull themselves to the surface, frantic for air.

Preston chose the moment when the beasts were out of breath, but before they surfaced, to kick off from the sunken statue and arrow toward the far bank, hugging the bottom. The saber-toothed tigers saw the motion, spun lithely in the water, and dove furiously toward him, but could not close the distance before being forced to break off and surface.

He vaulted out of the water and over the brink onto land, but the big cats were right behind him and closing fast. For a moment he was dazzled by the brightness of the sunlight, but an eyeblink later, his sight returned to normal. He saw ahead of him looming the trees that he could have climbed to reach the second story balcony of the coliseum.

He did not try to climb a tree faster than a big hunting cat. It was for this reason alone he had taken the trouble to remove a length of rein strap from the harness of the mastodon. As he sprinted, roaring and dripping and wrathful smilodons clambering to shore behind him, he unwound the strap he carried about his waist and flung one end around the nearest pillar.

The heavy shell buckle at the end carried the strap all the way around the pillar in one throw, and he caught this with his other hand, and gripped it tightly. His weight pulled it taut against the pillar. It made a fine flipline. He had no climbing spikes, but his feet were wet and his soles clung to the stone.

Up he went in frantic set of froglike shimmying motions. The smilodons ran to the base of the pillar, leaped, clawing, but fell short. Good as they may have been at climbing trees, they could not cling smooth stone.

At the top of the pillar came an awkward, dangerous moment, when he was forced to release the flipline supporting his weight in order to snatch at the stones above the capital. He hung a moment by his wet and slippery hands, grunted, did a pull up, found a foot hold, and squirmed up through the balcony railings and onto solid floor.

His naked body was soaked. His whole body was tense and shaking, not just with cold and strain, but also with anger at his captors. Preston’s teeth were clenched in a strange grin, and his eyes glittered. Breathing heavily, he stepped through the archway before him, and saw the interior of the coliseum.

The edifice was a vast ring with stone benches circling a wide arena of sand in four ranks, each above and wider than the next. Atop the uppermost wall were broken statues of ancient athletes. Here also, like crooked and spidery fingers, rose slender poles meant to hold awnings to shade the crowds, but empty, perhaps for centuries, of any fabric.

Preston saw a silent line of red-furred monkey men in ornate vests crowding this upper wall, and perched adroitly on these precarious poles, or the shoulder and heads of the old statues. The onlookers eyed him gravely as he stepped forward into the empty benches. A few red-furred Terrors stood atop the backs of the stone seats carved of ivory in a special box rising high above the innermost course of benches, but otherwise, none actually sat in the stands. The benches, stairs, and archways were proportioned for men of Preston’s size.

As promised, sitting on the sand, in the precise middle of the round arena, he saw his beloved and expensive Holland and Holland, the looted katana and wakizashi, his holster belt. Here also was his knapsack and flightsuit, both neatly folded, as well as boots, gloves, underthings, blankets, signaling mirror, first aid kit, metal cup, bible, and other gear from the survival kit. These was stacked in neat little piles.

He saw an open trapdoor and ramp leading down to underground vaults. Preston scowled, looking left and right, seeking something to improvise as a weapon. The benches were stone and set into the floor. Everything else of wood or metal centuries had rotted or rusted away.

He turned back to the balcony arch whereby he had entered. One of the many trees growing up near the walls was cracked and dying. With a firm, fierce effort, Preston worried a stout branch and dislodged it from the trunk. He spent a moment kicking and snapping smaller branches off the main length. The wood was about as thick as his wrist, too short to be a spear and too long for a cudgel, but it was the best he could do at the moment.

To his left and right, rather far away, were flights of stairs reaching down to the sands. He ignored them, but instead leaped from bench to bench with long swings of his legs, moving rapidly. With a final leap, he was atop the ten foot high podium wall that surrounded the sandy area. His naked feet were between the inward curving spikes that topped this wall.

Along this wall he paced until he came to a position closest the open trapdoor. He leaped to the sand. He raised his eyes to the watching Terrors and saluted them with an obscene Italian gesture, solemnly turning right and left, hand held high. The red-furred simian posthumans looked on silently.

Down to the sand he vaulted, and sprinted for the trap door. He reached the lip while the monster was still below the surface. Its eyes glistered like lamps in the gloom of the underground, and the heavy tread shook the wooden slats of ramp.


*** *** ***

Episode 23 The Mantichore

Preston came to the lip of the rectangular hole in the floor of the arena. Directly below him, the beast was standing on the ramp, crawling upward out of the shadows. At the far end of the rectangular hole from where Preston hesitated were the hinges. The wooden ramp was designed to be raised or lowered by some mechanism below. There was no way for someone in the arena to close it from the top.

A slanting beam of sunlight fell from the rectangular opening in the arena floor onto the ramp. The creature’s foreleg came into view. It looked something like a horse’s leg, sturdy and thick with muscle, but clawed at the end, not with a hoof, with but three great claws like some oversized bird of prey. Now the foreparts were visible. It had a hard breastplate like the plastron of a turtle, and segmented plates growing from its shoulders and spine. Its breastbone jutted like the prow of a ship.

Its face was baboonish, a strange mix of human eyes, ape nostrils, but with a long, bewhiskered muzzle like a fanged lion, and the beard of a goat. The hair of its head fell in long, luxurious waves, shining and full-bodied like the hair of a beautiful woman. The crest of its skull was a miter of gold, with two feathery antennae as long as whips, or the pheasant-tail plume headdress of some costume-opera warlord of China.

With the next step, its back was visible. Great leathery wings were folded along its side. Even folded, the vast wings were almost too long and large for the chute. The scaly wing membranes scraped the opposite sides of the ramp upward.

Finally, its hindlegs were puny, as absurd as the forelegs of a tyrannosaur. From its hindquarters rose a scorpion’s tail, bulb red and swollen with poison.

This was no natural beast formed by evolution. It was a chimera, a monster, something made by unnatural meddling with genetics, or splicing and reweaving DNA, or nanotechnology, or methods unimaginable.

Beyond the far side of the rectangular opening, Preston saw his weapons sitting on the sand, tantalizingly close, many strides yet too far away. If he turned his back to the monster and ran for them, the creature would be upon him. If it came free of the narrow chute, and got into the open, or took wing, Preston doubted he could fight and win, even with an elephant gun in his hand, against an airborne beast large as a pony. Hitting a flying creature with a bullet, rather than the cone of pellets from a shotgun shell, was not likely.

But how could he overcome this mismatched monster, naked and armed with nothing but a stout stick?

In reckless haste, he leaped onto the creature’s back. With one hand, he tore out the long, feathery antenna from the roots. With the other, he flourished the stick, trying to fend off the scorpion sting lolling over the creature’s back. The creature flinched backward, roared, and reared up, crushing Preston against the roof of the chute. His naked skin was bruised and bleeding, and the wind forced from his body.

A flurry of furious wingbeats battered the sides of the chute. The creature struck with its tail. The poisonous barb snaked into the narrow space between the spine of the monster and the roof of the chute. Preston tried to fend off the barb with his staff, but to no avail. The motion was as fast as a striking rattlesnake. Penned between roof and spine, dodging was impossible. He tried to fend it off with his kicks. The barb sank into the muscles of his right calf like a pickax. The poison felt like white hot molten metal in his flesh. Had there been air in his lungs, he would have screamed.

Spasms twisted his muscles. Preston fell. The monster was battering the chute walls with its powerful wing forearms, trying to expand them. Had he fallen a moment earlier or later, the wing forearm would have smashed him against the wall and broken his bones. Instead, by luck, the wing was drawing back against the creature’s flank, preparing for another thrust, when Preston fell past. He struck the floor of the ramp, and fell and slid down past the creature’s puny rear legs, picking up splinters and leaving behind a trail of blood.

The sting was designed to strike targets before the monster, over its shoulders. It could not flex against its natural curve, or straighten strike a target behind. Preston saw the opportunity, scooped up his crude staff that was rolling down the ramp, and jabbed the broken end of the staff into the monster’s rear.

The creature scrambled forward and leaped free of the chute. The creature should have turned immediately, and pursued him down the chute. Instead it spread its wings and used its powerful forelegs to throw itself into the air, roaring like thunder.

Preston flung himself headlong down the chute into the gloom. He could feel the poison pulsing in his leg. He saw the capstan whose chains ran over the wheels to raise the ramp. There was no one around. He hobbled over to the capstan and threw himself against it. He drove himself to turn the windlass as quickly as he could, but he was painfully aware that this effort and exertion was making his heart race, and speeding the rate at which the venom climbed his leg.

The ramp was not fully closed when the weight of the mantichore came down upon it. Preston could not budge the capstan. Instead he took up his rude staff and thrust it through the spokes of the wheel, preventing it from turning. Preston could not shut the ramp, but neither could the creature force it open. It snarled and roared, and a heavy paw entered the room at the roof of the vault, clawing menacingly. Preston clung to the floor, and crawled into a darker corner, dragging a leg limp and aflame with pain.

It was too dark to see. He squinted and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the scene around him grew sharp and clear. But he was seeing it in black and white. He had gone colorblind.

The chamber was twenty paces square. Archways to the left and right led to other areas buried beneath the arena, cages or unlit concrete passageways. Above was a barrel-vault ceiling of stone whose highest point was broken by a frame fitted with the rectangular wooden panel of the ramp. A wooden scaffold of posts beneath held the wheels and pulleys controlling the ramp, and the chains leading to the capstan.

Here in the chamber were skulls and skeletons, picked clean of meat, bones cracked. He saw glints of rotted belts or rags of fabric, shattered shields, rotted length of spearshafts and shattered hilts of rust blades. Some of the weapons and skeletons were too tall or short to be human. These were men of all eras.

Preston crawled over to these remains, and searched frantically.

His fingers found a spearhead of sharpened flint. Time could not rust the stone blade. He made a cut on his leg around the puncture wound where the venom entered. Fortunately, the wound was on his lower leg, so he could bend his mouth to it, and suck and spit again and again. The red, poisoned blood was warm in his mouth, and made ragged streaks in the dust when he spewed it out.

The burning numbness ebbed. Preston found a sash draping a skeleton that looked more like plastic or woven metal than cloth, and had not rotted. With this he roughly bound up the wound.

All weapons of wood and metal were rotted or rusted, but he found a wand of translucent amber fallen under the skeleton of a giant, which did not shatter when he struck it against the wall. That, and the flint-knapped spearhead from the hand of some dead caveman, were the only unrotted weapons his brief search uncovered.

The beast was still above, clawing at the opening of the jammed, half-closed ramp. Preston carefully measure the distance with his eye, stepped just an inch or so out of claw range, and poked the end of the amber wand with all the strength of his arm, again and again, into the nostrils, muzzle and eyes of the snapping beast, hoping to blind it. The creature roared with redoubled volume, and clawed the wooden ramp with redoubled rage.

Now Preston hobbled to the archway on the side of the chamber facing toward the center of the arena. He moved as quickly as he could, leaning on the wand as a crutch. He had to duck his head to pass through the concrete passageway. There was no window, no crack, in the roof above, no torches here, not even a spark of light. Preston did not even bother to wonder how it was he could see with perfectly clarity in pitch darkness. The diet of impossibilities that had clouted him over the head had benumbed his curiosity. He decided merely to accept events as they came until they started to make sense again.

The second archway he found went up three steps to another chamber much like the first, with a wooden mechanism for lowering a ramp. This wheel was held in place by a simple brake. The chains leading to the capstan he could unhook from their fittings in a moment. He yanked the brake open; the wheel spun; the ramp crashed down; he hobbled and hopped upward in a rush.

The red sunlight of the surface blinded him. He heard a murmuring and chuckling from the gathered onlookers. He blinked, and his normal eyesight returned. He glimpsed the hindquarters of the mantichore. It was still clawing and gnawing at the narrow opening where he had poked it.

His weapons and gear were lying on the sand between him and the mantichore. He dashed forward. Several onlookers whistled sharply, and called out, “Fly! Fly!”

The mantichore, hearing the command, pulled its head free, reared up, and launched itself.

Preston dove, took his elephant gun in hand, and rolled to his knees. The vast beast was already in the air, pumping its powerful wings, struggling to gain altitude. Preston brought the weapon to his shoulder, thumbed off the safety, aimed. It was moving too erratically.

Dragging his wounded leg, Preston half-galloped and half-sprinted back the way he came. Down the ramp he jumped and slid, his feet banging on the boards. The whirring of wings came from behind, and a roar of the mantichore as it swooped. Preston spun as he slid, trying to bring his rifle up. His feet went out from under him, but he did not lose his grip on the elephant gun.

The mantichore swooped, and swung with claws and stabbed with sting, but fell short. Preston was on his belly, and too far down the chute for the attacks to reach. The creature landed heavily, and had to fold its massive wings and duck its lion-mouthed ape-faced skull in order to push itself into the narrow chute, its luxurious long hair shaking in the air around it.

Preston smiled a strange little smile. “Plucking out your feelers cut you off from your ringmaster, didn’t it? Because he would have told you not to poke your nose down here.”

He could not miss at this distance, and the mantichore could not evade him.

The first bullet shattered the monster’s skull and splashed it brains like hot red porridge. A group of brightly-winged beetles and bushcrickets flew up from the broken crown, and centipedes crawled out of its ears and out of tiny apertures in its golden headgear.

He was sorry to hit it in the head, but then again, there might be no taxidermists in this world, and he certainly had no place to mount any trophies.

Preston pushed his way past the still-warm corpse. He walked out into the sand covered wooden floor of the arena. The onlookers were a silent line of furry blood-red little bodies crowding the uppermost wall, or hanging from hand or tail from narrow poles. No human crowd would have held itself so still, with no catcalls, no applause, no fidgeting nor murmuring.

He gathered what was left of his gear into his knapsack. He took up the Mauser pistol in its holster, and the Japanese longsword and shortsword in their lacquered scabbards. He dressed himself only partly, since he could not get his flightsuit pantsleg over his wounded calf. Instead he donned his boxer shorts, folded the flightsuit on the sand, and sat on it.

Preston took a breath, and bellowed, “Well? Well, you filthy little sadist monkeys, how was that? Did I pass your damned test, devil take you? Or do I have to kill more of your pets?”

A trio of little monkey-men emerged from a bolt holes in the sand, coming up out of a buried ramp much smaller than the one the mantichore had used. Across the arena sand on their rear hands they paced with nimble, delicate steps, swaying slightly, tails held high.

The three drew near, and squatted down, facing him.

*** *** ***

Episode 24 The Three Terrors

The trio of mummy-faced, cold-eyed simians sitting on the sand facing Preston were white-furred rather than red, for their hair was hoary with age. Their simian muzzles were crackled and wrinkled like old leather. Their eyebrows hung down from brow to cheek, as long and white as something seen on the image of a Buddhist sage, or a Kung Fu master from a Hong Kong action movie.

These three moved with great dignity and presence, and their costumes were more elaborate even than the Warden, for each vest was a solid mass of bezants and bangles, and they wore colored baldrics with shells, insignia and emblems affixed. Preston was reminded of the Eagle Scout sash of which he was so proud in his youth, solid with merit badges.

The one in the center wore a gold miter with long whiplike antennae like the tail plumes of a pheasant, the very image of living headgear of the mantichore. Preston saw flying insects entering and leaving from small apertures pockmarking the intricately patterned miter. Perhaps the monkey man had a beehive underneath, growing out of his skull.

Preston took antiseptic and clean bandages from his first aid kit, and, as best he could, tended to his leg wound, cleaning it and taping the gauze in place. The three were silent and looked on with cold curiosity. Preston found a some of the packets of sterile drinking water were still intact. He opened one and drank it down, though it did little to slake the raging thirst his recent exertions woke.

The crowned elder spoke. “You have slain Lampago. This loss of prestige must be offset against whatever profit in prestige is to be gained at your sale to the city dwellers. Have you any talent or trait of value not obvious to us?”

Preston assumed Lampago was the name or perhaps the breed of the mantichore. He said, “The custom among civilized people is to introduce oneself before starting negotiation. Do you follow these customs?”

The one on the left was dressed in a blue vest, and wore a semitransparent veil of silky black strands over head and shoulders. He said, “No, but we have the habit of opening a conversation with a jest, in order to establish a tone of false nonchalance. We are pleased to see you keep the same habit.”

The one on the right was dressed in a red vest with gold braid. His incisors had been replaced with synthetic fangs of exaggerated length. In his hands was a whip made of scorpion tails. “Negotiation is between equals. It is insolence for one of your order to pretend you could participate in our order on equal footing. Our order is flexible, self-correcting, volitional, and informal. Countless years of evolutionary advance and artificial improvement of the fineness of our neural architecture is not to be imitated by an effort of will.”

Preston spread his hands. “And yet here you are, talking like civilized men to me. Or almost.”

The eldest in the middle, with the elaborate headgear, said, “The Warden of Strays assigned to your case recommends that you be granted the privileges of a thrall, rather than merely domesticated stock, since you may have the capacity to render prestige to the clan voluntarily, in hope of reciprocal benefit. We consult you now to offer you opportunity to prove your worth.”

Preston said, “You wanted me to run a footrace, so you set saber toothed tigers on my tail. You wanted to see how cleverly I could solve this obstacle course to recover my gear. But you did not bother just asking me, so now one of your expensive pets is dead. Now you are telling me that price comes out of my overhead. Nix on that. Think of this as your cost for acting like jackasses.”

The fanged Terror in red said, “Are you claiming you would have volunteered to undergo our testing process? The Warden thought you too stubborn for that.”

“Well,” said Preston, rolling his eyes, “He might be a good judge of human nature, but I guess now we will never know, will we? Because you little creeps decided to treat me like a prisoner of war when I came to you for help.”

The veiled Terror in blue said, “Presumptuous! You assume any race of Pangaea will help any other race?”

Preston said, “You have no custom of mercy toward strangers in need?”

The veiled one said, “On Pangaea, all races are at war with all. Our custom is to enslave and exploit strays found wandering, for our own enrichment. Such would be the fate of any child of our race found by another. Strong prey on weak; otherwise, the weak are not culled, and evolution stalls.”

The crowned one said, “Loyalty is defined by bloodline. Polities erected on any other base are artificial, and hence eventually fail. Only nature is sure.”

Preston uttered a blasphemy, and spat. “How is that working out for you?”

None of the three answered, but stared with half-lidded, cold, reptilian eyes.

“You do not seem to be ruling the roost around here,” said Preston airily. “No mole machines, no artificial lights, no radio, no flying machines. Yesterday, I met a thinking machine who could part lava streams by remote control. You do not seem to have any tricks like that. I notice the doors and windows of the ruins here are not fit to men your size, so I assume this is not your place. You are just squatters. Do you have a home? A land of your own? If your race is a failure, and has reached a dead end, maybe its because your ideas are bad.”

The fanged one said, “Our purpose here is to gain information, not to dispense it.”

Preston said, “Sometimes you have to give to get. Or is your neural architecture too fine to see the obvious?”

The little men stared at him silently, with cold expressions.

He said, “Let’s start again. I am Colonel Preston Makepeace Lost. During the China War, I served in the Fourth Interceptor Wing out of Kimpo Air Base outside Seoul. I flew one hundred twelve missions, shot down seven enemy planes, and was decorated fifty-seven times, including a Silver Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters and a Distinguished Flying Cross with four clusters.

“In my day, I was the youngest colonel in the service! I don’t say that as a boast; the China War used up officers at a deadly rate. It was a war in multiple battlespaces, including cyberspace, civilian areas, and economic war. It had no frontline, and no rear, no safe place, and no one’s family was safe. Anyone’s telephone might be under the control of the enemy, or any package might be a bomb, or any person.

“After the war, the world got stale and small, overcrowded and over-regulated, so there was no place for me in it. I built my own plane and took on myself to fly my own interceptor missions to chase the flying saucers a race of men from another era, the Watchers, are sending from this world to prey on my people. I chased one here but crashlanded. Maybe you can give me your names and particulars now.”

The crowned one said, “I am Grandmaster Isrpa of the Itinerant Lifesmith clan of Terrors, but among the underling orders, I am called Papajit of Crooked Cunning. To one side of me is Mandator Krura, keeper of the hives.” This was the one in the veil. “To the other is Mandator Kuhoo, keeper of the kennels.” This was the fanged one, carrying a scorpion whip.

Grandmaster Isrpa continued: “We claim the whole of the Wretched Desolation Wood east of the River of Weeping Women and north of the bronze-walled fortress of Xurac Cauac as our jurisdiction. All livestock found straying within this zone is ours. The sacred practices of euthanasia and eugenic breeding we have never ceased to practice on ourselves. Not a single mating among our kind is for love or any base passion; not a single deviant or sickly child has escaped the pit called Smothered Wailing, where the unfit young are thrown.”

“So you murder your children and make your women whores.” Preston said, “Are you boasting? Or confessing?”

Grandmaster Isrpa said, “We have maintained our iron-hard customs over ten thousand times ten thousand years, unchanged and untempted to change, for our ways are based in nature’s brutal truth, not sentiment. Our ancestors coded our laws into our DNA. Ours is a fixity of purpose a randomly-fabricated creatures with junk genes like yours could not imagine.”

Preston said, “What I cannot imagine is that you both are willing to sit and talk like civilized men, and I am armed, and yet you keep saying I am your slave.”

Grandmaster Isrpa said, “There is no paradox. You are an intelligent animal. Being intelligent, therefore we speak to you. Whatever words convince you to do, we need expend no effort to coerce. But, being an animal, if you cannot be domesticated, then you must be destroyed as feral.”

Preston said, “I can also imagine shooting you dead right now.”

Grandmaster Isrpa said, “We are all past breeding age. The clan would not suffer longterm loss by losing us. Our senses are sharper than yours, and our understanding of your neural mechanisms far deeper. The Warden Ahara assessed that your psychological frame prioritizes peaceful negotiation. It is a shortsightedness we are willing to exploit.”

Preston massaged his wounded leg, wondering how much residual poison might be left in his veins. He needed these creatures with their sophisticated medical knowledge, like it or not. And he needed to see Fyodor alive and safe.

Grandmaster Isrpa said, “You are an irrational, primitive being who has undue faith in reason; we are beings with more advanced powers of reasoning, who know well how limited that power is. The irony is noteworthy.”

Preston said, “You want to know how I can be of prestige to you, but you do not know what makes a man valuable. You said that other races prey on you. I have seen your kind serving the gargantuans, I forget what they are called.”

“Gibborim,” said Kuhoo, his fingers tightening on his scorpion whip. “Called Mighty Ones.”

Preston said, “Is their service voluntary, or involuntary?”

Krura’s veil suddenly darkened, nearly opaque, but a look of shame on the simian’s face beneath was still dimly visible. “Involuntary.”

Preston felt it was time to take a risk. “Very well: I can be of immense prestige to your people.”

Grandmaster Isrpa said, “Immense? Your provoke my curiosity. I see by nuances of your somatic responses that you believe yourself to be telling the truth. But self-deception is the one unfailing characteristic found in First Men.”

“Someone is expending a vast effort seeking me,” Preston said, “An army of huntsman, both Mighty and Terrors, chased me day and night. They were sent by the little gray flying saucer men with the big eyes, about as tall as you, but with no fur, and bigger heads.”

“Eljo,” said Kuhoo, “Called the Watchers. Eighth Era.”

Preston said, “They seem to be in charge.”

Kuhoo said, “They are the Advocates of the Empire of the Mighty. Their efforts maintain the hegemony dominating Pangaea. They are, as you put it, in charge.”

“There were also crewmen aboard the flying disk shooting glass spears at me. Which race are they?”

“Anakim,” said Kuhoo, “They are called Long-necked Men, which also means Leashed Men. Some call them Ipotane, for they have no toes on their feet. They are the most gentle and servile of the Nine Races, and nowhere is any free tribe of them. They are Second Men, our creators, but weaker than we, whom we therefore swept aside.”

Preston scowled. “In any case, they were after me. I was led into the underground city, built by yet another race whose name I forget.”

Mandator Krura said, “The Megalopolis was built by the Men of the Fourth Era, the Rephaim. When they were alive, they were called the Immortals. They are now called the Phantoms.” There was a note of unease in his voice.

Preston said, “You seem upset. Where they the race who swept yours aside?”

Krura ducked his head. “The Phantoms were made by our ancestors as the pinnacle of our vital arts. They were meant to be perfect and eternal. Our race should have gone extinct before theirs! Their fate is an inexplicable tragedy.”

Preston said, “Why? What happened?”

But Grandmaster Isrpa silenced Krura with a gesture, then lifted his hand, palm upward, toward Preston. “Continue your remarks. The Phantoms are dead, and do not concern us.”

Preston nodded. “One of their machines was still alive, and destroyed my pursuers. But it had been instructed not to harm any First Men, and so squads of them were sent after me. They were fighting slaves. I took control of the Iron Mole they used to breech the wall, and drove it here. The man you found with me, Fyodor Poyarok, was wounded in the struggle. We are brothers, and I must see to his wellbeing.”

Preston spread his hands, “Well? You are more intelligent than I. The reason why I am being hunted should be obvious. The threat I pose to the Watchers is immense, or else they would not expend immense effort to capture me. You see my value to you.”

Grandmaster Isrpa raised a finger. “Make a specific proposal.”

“The Watchers have the Mighty, the Longnecks, and the Terrors all doing their bidding, and also my people, the Firstlings. You need to combine with other races oppressed by the Watchers to rise up and overthrow them. Free me, and I will freely cooperate to maximize the threat I pose to them. This is your best bet to convince the other races to combine forces. As a slave, I can threaten no one and nothing. Free me, and we will win your freedom. No value can be greater than freedom, because, without it, nothing has value!”

For a moment, something in the expression of the three little men gave him hope. It was a mere flicker in the eye, less than a spark of some spirit his words awoke in them.

Preston held his breath, waiting to see if that spark would grow or fade.

*** *** ***

Episode 25 From Beast to Thrall

Immediately Preston’s hope was dashed.

The three little men exchanged glances. Some form of unspoken signal passed between them.

The Grandmaster spoke. “Your proposal is preposterous.”

“What? Why?” The words jumped out of Preston’s mouth before he could catch himself.

“You are clearly a dangerous and stubborn man, unlikely to prove tractable without overwhelming coercion.” The Grandmaster continued. “Yet these tests have shown you to be resourceful and bold, and credibly flexible in your thinking for a race as unintelligent as yours. You may prove to be of moderate advantage to us, but as yet there is no evidence of any overwhelming advantage needed even to contemplate a general uprising against the Empire of the Mighty.”

Preston said, “What about freeing your people enslaved by the Mighty? That is worth fighting for?”

“At a far lower risk to ourselves, we can sell you to the Mighty Ones, and win significant concessions from them. Survival is a greater thing than freedom: you believe this yourself, or else you would die here and now, making a futile show of resisting your current captivity.”

Preston rose to one knee, drew his Mauser, and leveled it a the Grandmaster’s eye. “You make that option sound good.”

Isrpa did not even blink. “We are not First Men. One such as you cannot deceive us. You do not know why the Watchers seek you so ardently. Nonetheless, your behavior shows you capable of grasping right conduct. We will elevate your status.”

“Eh? From what to what?”

“From domestic beast to thrall. Your ability to follow instructions intelligently will be assessed.”

Preston scowled, pulled back the slide on his Mauser, thumbed off the safety.

Isrpa took no notice. “You have the freedom of our camp, but are confined to the camp. Do not stray outside its boundary. Report to the infirmary. You may see your brother, and have your leg mended. Your weapons you may keep, provided you use them in a fashion that causes us no commotion.

“Be aware that any theft, fraud, assault, outrage or trespass involves loss of prestige, which is only to be remunerated by suffering psychological and physical torture of sufficient entertainment to compensate for the loss.

“Your conduct will have a bearing on the final decision of your fate.

“If you can discover the mystery of your significance, and demonstrate it to be of greater prestige to ourselves than the concessions we might exact from the Mighty Ones in return for you, you may yet earn a place among us to your liking.

“We will leave you to the liberty of your own devices.”

With no further word or gesture, the three little white-furred men turned their backs toward Preston, and walked away on their hindpaws, tails swaying.

Preston was still steadily aiming his pistol, sites centered on the skull of the Grandmaster as the hominid walked slowly away, but dozens of wasps now landed on Preston’s outstretched arms, and more landed on his naked back, shoulders, head and chest. Their tiny feet tickled and his flesh crawled. Scorpions and snakes which had not been visible a moment before surfaced out of the sand, and were clustered about his feet. Overhead, soaring on vast wings of membrane larger than glider wings, were a flock of winged mantichores.

Preston sighed. How do you bluff creatures with senses sharper than lie detectors? How do you threaten creatures that don’t care whether they live or die? He holstered the pistol, gathered his gear, and started across the sand, hoping to find an exit easier to negotiate than his entrance.

In the end, however, there was no way back across the deep moat save by swimming. He took the time to run a line from a tree on one side of the moat to the other, however, so he was able to tote his knapsack and weapons across on a sling and keep them dry.

Wearily, he limped over to an ancient bench, cracked and tilted, carved of a huge block of ivory sitting beneath the branches of a tall and gnarled oak. Here he sat and applied a fresh bandage to his leg wound. Gloomily he stared at empty buildings and broken walls. The Terrors were a furtive folk, flitting from shadow to shadow, slipping through empty windows, scampering along the narrow wall tops of roofless buildings. Only the old and gray seemed to walk in the middle of the broken boulevard, pacing with dignity on their hind paws, as if unconcerned with a danger that obsessed others.

The danger was perhaps from their many pets. Nearly each simian figure he saw had two or three lizards, insects, or mammals, large or small, with him as he went, either clinging to his back or being ridden.

Preston saw a smilodon turn and snap at a red-furred youth. Had the jaws closed on him, the young monkey-man surely would have died. But, moving in the cautious, squirrel-quick way of his race as he did, he never was far from a bolt hole or broken window through which to duck, and escape the fangs. A flight of wasps rose from his fur, landed on the muzzle of the saber toothed tiger, who screamed, and yet was paralyzed and helpless a moment later, while the youth sent venomous worms to crawl over the helpless brute, and torment it with stings.

He saw the female close at hand: they had no trace of hair on their cheeks or brow, and their eyes were large, slanted, and long-lashed, so that their faces, some of them, had an elfin beauty even by human standards. Their hair was shorter and fairer, a honey-blonde or auburn rather than the blood-red of the larger males. Also, unlike the males, in proportion and shape, they were more like miniature human women, and less like dwarfs or monkeys. Like the males, their feet were a second pair of hands, and a prehensile tail waved from their buttocks.

Preston called to one or two passers-by, and politely asked directions to the infirmary. He was ignored. He brought out his signaling mirror, and amused himself by flashing a beam of sunlight in the eyes of passing strangers, trying to find just the right moment when someone carrying a burden was leaping from tree to rooftop to blind them. One young man, painfully battering himself against a branch, clambered down and loped over to confront Preston, scorpions in either hand.

“Old grandfather, what if I took it into my fancy to inject you with a transmogrifacient, and have your nose swell up to nine times its normal size?”

Preston said, “Young grandson, forgive me for showing off my product, but imagine the hours of fun you will have with this signaling mirror, dazing and blinding your friends as they swing from tree to tree! You will double over with laughter. This prank never grows stale! This little hole for one’s eye allows for a perfect aim. So, yes, I did ply the trick on you, but that was just to show you how effective it is!”

The youth sniffed suspiciously. “You seem to be telling the truth, but there is an aura of deception nonetheless.”

Preston said, “Well, you know and I know that to get mates, one must be the most valuable breeding stock in the clan, am I right?”

The other nodded.

Preston lowered his head and spoke in an intimate tone. “Well, there are two ways the do that. The long and difficult way of outperforming your rivals. And the simple and quick way of making your rivals seem absurd. Any rival you want to humiliate, just have him run into a few walls and trees, and soon he will have a reputation for clumsiness and bad eyesight.”

The kid said, “But the trick is so transparent!”

“The way I did it, yes! Me, a First Man. But you are a Third Man, a super race. You can find a cleverer use, surely?” Preston nodded, leaned back, and said in an airy voice, “Or perhaps you cannot. Not interested, then? Because this is a limited time offer. There is only one patented, guaranteed, Old Grandfather Tricky Fun-Time Signaling Mirror in this area, and only one person can have it. For today only, I am giving away this sample of my wares at an absurdly low price, but by tomorrow, the chance is gone. And just think of what the females will think when they see you with the only Fun-Time Mirror in town! Be the first on your block! All I want in swap is the answers to a few simple questions.”

Preston, not long after, smiling, walked in a weaving line below the colorful wigwams propped atop any taller ruin whose walls were still sturdy. The youth, despite being a member of a superior race, turned out to be unable to resist old-fashioned snake-oil salesmanship. Preston now knew what at least come of the color combinations meant, and how the camp was laid out.

The youth had swapped several interesting tidbits of information. The nomads were encamped in the Nameless City because its underground spaces were convenient incubators for hatching mantichores. Eggs buried months ago were nigh to hatching.

More to the point, the youth had shared with him the news that once the last egg had hatched, and the winged cub was able to join its mother in flight formation, the clan would caravan south to the slave market at Sobbing Girls.

Preston now knew he had to make his escape before those eggs hatched. Unfortunately, the young Terror did not tell him if this were weeks away, or days, or mere hours.

The slats of the infirmary tent were white and red. This wigwam was on tripods set low to the ground, and down from the hole in the floor of matting came a short ramp rather than (as the other wigwams) a rope that looked a wee bit thin for his weight.

This wigwam alone had smokeholes in its roof, and, when Preston entered, he found copper pots slung by chains from the roofpole filled with incense and smoldering coals. The smell was strangely familiar: alcohol and ammonia and disinfectant. The inner bamboo walls and woven mats were all a spotless white. The countless insects the Terrors seemed always to carry with them were not in evidence here.

Preston also expected to see someone in charge, a desk nurse or guard. There were two Terrors in white tunics perched on bamboo crossbeams near the ceiling of the wigwam, but they merely stared at Preston when he entered, and did not speak.

The wigwam was large, long and low-ceilinged, and there were standing screens of silk dividing the interior into bays or cells. Between these silk screens were Terrors lying on the mats.

Four servile Terrors who were close-shaven all over their bodies were scurrying along the aisle than ran along the spine of the wigwam, toting bedpans or gourds. Their demeanor was subdued and downcast, and they wore no vests, no ornaments.

Preston stepped inside, and no one stopped him. The floor dimpled under his weight. He carefully stepped along the support beams under the floor.

Then he saw Fyodor sleeping naked on the floor mats, which were soft as silk. He was wrapped in what looked like a white blanket. His arms were wrapped from shoulder to wrist with bandages made from something like spider’s silk, but transparent and stiff. Clinging to Fyodor’s neck was a jellyfish-like organism with trailing stings. The stings pierced Fyodor’s skin at elbow and wrist. Preston thought it looked like an intravenous drip. Pacing up and down the aisle was a tapir. The tapir approached Fyodor, putting its prehensile nose against the man’s brow as if taking his temperature. Then the creature licked Fyodor’s face first one cheek, then the other, then the brow and chin. It touched it nose against him again, sniffed, and moved on.

Preston came closer, knelt, and touched the blanket. The blanket was not a blanket, but a flat, furry organism. It had body heat and a heartbeat.

He ran a finger along Fyodor’s wet face, and brought it under his nose and sniffed. It did not smell like animal spit, but instead had an odor it took him a moment to place. Ibuprofen. It tingled on his finger, and in a moment his skin had absorbed it. It was some sort of sophisticated, topically-active chemical for bringing down fever.

Fyodor opened his eyes, and, upon seeing Preston, uttered a small sigh of disappointment. “Oh!”

Preston said, “I thought you’d be happy to see me.”

Fyodor spoke in a weak voice. “We are brothers. I do not forget. I remember a nightmare of drowning, and being carried on a man’s back. Yours. So I am grateful! Can a Druzhinnik be otherwise?” Now his voice grew stronger, and he grinned. “But you are not the woman, and for her I sigh. I saw her first, so she is mine! Brothers or not, you cannot come between.”

Preston said, “Who? What woman?”

He said, “She speaks Greek, so we can trade but few words. She helps these domovoy here, the goblins.”

“You mean the Terrors?”

Fyodor bobbed his head in a weak nod. “They bring plague. They have authority over beasts of the field, and crawling and creeping things serve them. She speaks to ghosts for them.”

A soft sound came from behind. Preston turned, and lost his breath.

A dark haired beauty came up the swaying bamboo ramp through the trapdoor in the floor like Venus rising from the sea.


*** *** ***

Episode 26 Daughter of Atlantis


The woman came up the ramp, and was revealed to Preston’s view one detail at a time, from head to foot.

He saw first her head surmounted by a mass of jet-black, curling hair, piled atop her head loosely, but held in place with a crisscross of narrow braids. It was a style Preston had only ever seen gracing the statues of Greek goddesses. Her eyes came into view, large and lustrous as the eyes of a lynx that flashed green fire. Her face was oval, her features finely chiseled, and her chin came to a small but firm point. Her skin was olive, almost bronze, against which the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone avidly, and when she blushed (which she did when she saw Preston’s unguarded gaze drinking her in) her cheeks glowed a winsome pink.

Over one smooth shoulder a light tunic was thrown, belted tightly at the waist, with the hem falling halfway down her thigh. She wore no ornament of any kind, nor would any gold have matched the light bronze splendor of her skin, nor onyx glowed as darkly rich as her hair, nor any emerald as brightly as her eyes. Her figure was perfect and symmetrical, her legs long, her hands and feet graceful and slender. Sandals of doeskin covered her feet, with laces wound from calf to knee.

Courtesy and wonder both made Preston rise to his feet. She, coming gracefully up the ramp, did not break her stride seeing a strange man here, staring at her, but stepped demurely past him, eyes lowered.

So enraptured by the sight of her, the first fully human woman he had seen in this strange, latter-day eon, that he did not at first notice what she held in her hands. It was a vessel made of some bright hard substance, a shallow bowl containing steaming, savory broth. Hunger pangs contracted his stomach. When had he eaten last?

She knelt by Fyodor, who was smiling with gusto. The tapir, who was evidently trained to act as a nurse, raised a portion of the mat beneath Fyodor’s upper back to prop him into a seated position. The kneeling woman began ladling mouthfuls of broth into Fyodor’s mouth, using a small clamshell as a spoon.

Preston realized she was not blushing at the bold manliness of his handsome stare. He looked down. He was garbed only in his boxers. There was no help for it, however. He could not pull on his flightsuit over his leg bandage, and he had no other clothes. He scowled and stood at parade rest, his feet spread and this hands clasped behind his back.

He said, “Fyodor, please introduce me.”

Fyodor looked up, his mouth full and his eyebrows raised. He mumbled, “But I do not know your name, brother.”

The girl turned. Her every gesture was graceful. The way she raised her hand to brush a curl of hair from her brow was a sonnet. The tilt of her swanlike neck was a ballet. “Who are you, that speaks the tongue of fair and lost Atlantis?”

“Colonel Preston Lost, miss, at your service,” he said, inclining his head, his brow still furrowed in a frown. Despite the look, he was not angry with her, nor anyone, but he was nervous around women, and his face displayed the inner strain resulting from his failed attempt at nonchalance. He had been raised up more by his grandfather Makepeace than his father, often absent on business, and still had some trace of his grandfather’s old fashioned old world manners. “Who might you be?”

She said, “I am the daughter of that Cyrene who was sent as tribute from the land of Centaurs. My father was Idmon the Seer, and he was of noble blood, for Elasippus was his ancestor. Foreseeing the hour of his own death, Idmon sent mother adrift in a boat of gopherwood on the waters of the lake in in the high tablelands of Poseidonis in the north region of the island, and me in her arms, and thus we were saved when the whole land burned, and the southern regions sank. I am Cynisca. Are you Atlantean?”

“No, miss. I am an American.”

She said, “The land to our west. It is the continent called Perioeci. But they who dwell there are autochthons and werewolves, and have neither horses nor houses. It is nothing but forest and glacier from coast to coast.”

“I am from two or three thousand years after that. In my time, your island was a myth, and few people thought it was really real.” Preston was surprised that she knew what America was, and he wondered how the words he formed were being translated in her ears. He said, “To answer your question, I do not know how I am speaking your language. Are you both hearing me in your native tongue?”

Both answered in the affirmative.

Preston said, “But that should be impossible. My mouth can only make one set of word-sounds at a time. And words have different shades of meaning in different languages that just do not translate. There must be, I don’t know, hypnosis or something involved. Mind reading. Magic.”

He held up his hand when he saw a look of alarm on both faces, her and his. These were not people who watched comedy shows about young pretty witches trying awkwardly to live as suburban housewives. These were people who thought witches caused storms and plagues as a means of mass murder. Hastily he added, “But not my magic! I am not a warlock! This was something done to me, not something I can do.”

Fyodor said, “Who did it?”

He turned and looked over his shoulder up at the nearer of the two Terrors in white vests who were crouching like gargoyles among the wigwams roofpoles. The creature was staring down with cold, half-lidded eyes.

Preston did not really want to tell his captors anything they did not need to know. He turned back to Fyodor. “It is a strange tale, and too long to tell here.”

Fyodor said, “Perhaps it is a miracle. When the apostles preached at Pentecost, all men heard them in their own tongue.”

The girl said, “In fair eastern parts of the great island of Atlantis is a region called Gadir, where trees grow found nowhere else in the world. They are tended by holy maidens and guarded by serpents. Certain wonderworkers who eat of the fruit of forbidden trees practice the art of reading and sending thoughts, or interpreting dreams, before the practice was outlawed by Xisuthras, the last lord of Atlantis. Perhaps this is the same art as that.” Now she frowned sadly. “But if so, the art exists now only in you. For the great island sank in a single hour of catastrophe, and all the glories, wisdom, and beauty of the land which was queen of the world was quenched in the bitter, winedark sea.”

Preston was charmed by the sound of her voice, and the note of sorrow there. He said, “Do you remember Atlantis?”

She said, “I was but a child when the peoples were taken up in the chariots of the gods, and the floods had already swallowed half the land. The central mountain, Ypsiloron, where once the gardens older than the world stood, and the sea-god seduced Cleito, the mother of our race, was consumed in fire, and the city of Evenor was buried in the earthquakes, and ten thousand families slain in an hour. Those who were in the north, in Poseidonis, survived, and were taken up. Did you say no one recalls great Atlantis in your day?”

He said, “Only crackpots.” And his scowl deepened, for he had not meant to say that.

Cynisca the daughter of Cyrene said, “And what does that word imply?”

Preston was puzzled, for he assumed idioms were also somehow being translated. Perhaps she understood him all too well, and was offering him a chance to recover from his stumble. But the words came haltingly out of his mouth before his brain could stop them: “You know, like the people who believe in fortune-telling or flying saucers…”

And when she said nothing, but merely raised both eyebrows, and let the dimples in her cheeks show with a suppressed smile, he sighed a sigh and added, “And, obviously all those things are true, since there are time travelers and flying saucers all three of us have seen or ridden in. Are you a captive here? I will save you when Fyodor and I escape.”

One of the Terrors clinging to the roofpole over their heads, the younger of the two, let out a small snort at this announcement. “The secrecy that shrouds your planning greatly will aid your efforts, old grandfather,” said he in dry tone of voice. “But, please! When you rush into the wild with your pellet-throwing chemical-explosive hollow iron wand, please take care to shoot only the gray-haired crones and grandmothers, as they consume food, and produce no new young.”

The other one, who was portlier and older, said in a more sober tone, “It is possible to escape from Mighty Ones, who cannot swim, and easy to escape from the Amphibian Men, who cannot run, or from the Winged Men, who dare never travel below ground. But who has ever heard of anyone escaping from the Terrors? How do you think we earn our name? It is not for our stature or strength of limb.”

Fyodor said, “What are they saying?”

Preston said, “They are warning me not to attempt escape.”

Fyodor said, “Well, why would you? It was great good fortune to end up in the hands of the Lifesmiths, for this tribe enjoys friendly commerce with the Empire of the Mighty! As a valued gladiator, I am sure to be returned to my master. I will put in a good word for you with Zipacna when we are returned to him! The life of a fighting thrall is the best of all thralldoms. Other thralls are killed for being brave, killed for touching a weapon. In a fighting thrall, it is rewarded. The arena is less tiring than real battle, and often the crowd will shout to have you spared. There are no long marches, for one thing.”

Preston said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

“You need a bit of showmanship, of course,” Fyodor said between mouthfuls of soup. “It is like being an actor in a Byzantine theater, where they dress in costumes and sing in choir. You have to know the crowd, flatter it, make the men laugh and the women gasp. You’ll do fine.”

Preston said, “I was born a free man and I will die free, so help me. You do not want that too?”

Fyodor gave a sad, slow shrug. “Suppose you grew wings tomorrow, and flew away like an arrow, and took me also. Where do I go? What people are mine? Kiev is dead. Novgorod is dead. My prince, my clan, my fellowship, all dead. Byzantium is gone. Jerusalem is gone. All the cities of men are gone, and only demon cities where these devils dwell remain, and ruins from forgotten ages. Whence do we fly, if we had wings? If you cannot answer, do not dream of wings.”

Cynisca bent her head toward Fyodor and said, “What did you say?” Preston realized she was speaking another language than his, less harsh than Russian, but not the fluid music of her native Atlantean tongue.

Fyodor answered in the same melodic language, repeating what he had said, but in simpler words, and with some mistakes of grammar. Preston was able to listen for the sounds of the words, and repeat them over and over in his mind, until they sounded meaningless. Then he could hear them truly. Fyodor made the sound “ptera” when he said “wings” and “thanatos” for “dead.” It was Greek.

Cynisca spoke very quietly, still speaking in Greek, “You ask wisely, when you ask whence to fly. There is more to know. I will speak later.”

Now she handed the soup bowl, which was empty, to the tapir, and she made sign language gestures with her hands. The creature lowered Fyodor to a prone position, and took the bowl, and walked down the exit ramp with it, licking the bowl as it went.

Cynisca stood and turned her face upward. She spoke in yet another language. “Wise physician Mitha! Wise physician Marutvasura! The patient has been fed. Here is another who is wounded in the leg by a mantichore in the assessment arena. What is to be done with him? Should I prepare him for treatment?”

The younger one, Mitha, turned his emotionless gold eyes toward Preston. “Well, Mr. Wild Beast? What is it to be? Has no one explained the situation to you? Our ways are simple and just, with an easy justice even inferior races can understand. All things seek their own advantage. Such is life.”

Preston asked wryly, “How is this justice?”

“We have a system of quantified units of present and future prestige which enables us to calculate the degrees of risk and reward for any action with precision, that lesser races must do by guesswork and emotion.”

Preston said, “We have a system of units for that, too. We call it money. Is that how you are weighing my life? In gold?”

Mitha said, “Our currency includes imponderable values and social utility, which mere gold cannot.”

The elder interrupted. Marutvasura said, “What we are saying is this: Explain to us why, as physicians, we should tend to your leg rather than maim it to cripple you, if the expenditure of our time and effort only increases your vain dreams of escape? A one-legged man cannot run far.”

The two cold-eyed creatures waited patiently for his reply.

*** *** ***

Episode 27 The Secret of Youth

Preston said, “My freedom is to your benefit, not your loss, for when the evils of these slavers are overturned, your people held in bondage among them will be freed also.”

The young one, Mitha, chattered impatiently, “Unclear! What business is it of yours whether our people are free or slave?”

Preston straightened his spine and raised his chin. “I am an American. We rebel against kings. We kill tyrants. We free slaves. It is our national pastime.”

Mitha said, “All your nation are extinct and long forgotten. Even your race is on the brink of extinction, and is alive only because zookeepers and harem-masters so wish. Once the fashion for your kind falls away, firstling, the market will dry up, and you will go extinct. You are only one man. What can you do?”

Preston said, “Join with me, and we will be two.”

Mitha snorted. “You are mad!”

Preston said, “The Terrors have senses so sharp that they can tell when First Age Men are fibbing. Or so I was told. Can you tell mad from sane?”

Mitha puffed out his cheeks and wrinkled his muzzle, as if preparing to spit an answer, but the older one made a curt gesture, and the younger subsided, muttering.

Marutvasura spoke not to Preston, but to Cynisca. “Tell him why you are among us. Tell him why you do not propose to escape.”

Cynisca bowed her head to the small red furred hominid, and turned to Preston. She spoke without raising her eyes. “I am promised in concubine marriage to one named Iaia Lord Ilvala of L’ra-R’lin-A’a. Him I have never seen, but it is his pleasure that my beauty should not fade. So Lord Ilvala commanded me brought here to the wandering Terrors, who alone of all their kind retain the mastery of their ancient arts and techniques of eons lost. They free to wander where they will, and none dare meddle with them, for theirs is the mystery to expand the life of firstling men by tenfold years.

“Under their ministrations, which are nearly done, it is no more my fate to grow gray at threescore years and ten, but thirty-score and a hundred, and neither wrinkle, nor white hair will come, nor bloom of youth depart. Casually these Terrors give to me the gift which few heroes, or mayhap none, ever wrestled from the gods, which is the secret of eternal youth.”

Marutvasura, from above, said, “Do not underestimate a woman’s vanity. She will gladly stay in our midst, and serve, and freely be our thrall, until the processes are complete to correct the foolish errors nature blindly mixed with firstling blood. Do you understand you are mayflies to us? The reason why our elders are not afraid to face violent beasts like you, is that life for them has lost its savor not years, but centuries ago. She is bound by her vanity more tightly than chains.”

But Preston, staring closely at her downcast face, saw Cynisca raise her eyes for a moment, and catch his gaze, and he saw the fierce, disdainful, emerald-bright fire dancing in her glance, like the glare of a haughty cat before she strikes. Then it was gone almost before he saw it. She hid her wrath, lowered her eyes, and turned away as if humble, demur and shamed. She said, “Masters? Shall I tend him?”

Marutvasura said, “Well, Thrall? Shall she? If you are clan property, we will tend to you. If you prove too stubborn to govern, this will be reported, and the clan will find other use for you less tiresome to exact.”

Preston wanted to lie to the creatures, and swear on his mother’s grave that he would not attempt escape, and the break his word the split second good opportunity presented itself … but he could not bring himself to speak. The idea of demeaning himself to these little monsters who thought themselves so far above him was an idea that closed his throat with bile.

Beside, they apparently could detect deception at glance.

So he merely nodded and spread his hands. “Do as you will,” he said.

The two red furred monkey men said nothing.

Preston licked his lips, which were dry. He said, “But keep in mind, I made a deal with your Grandmaster, Whatshisname, and I have not broken it yet.”

“His name is Isrpa.” And the drawl of contempt with which the little man said this reminded Preston that the simians had perfect memories, and could not make mistakes like this.

Cynisca said to Preston, “I need sunlight to examine the wound. Come with me.”

And she also beckoned to one of the short-haired slave hominids and a sloe-eyed tapir, who gathered up candles of incense, buckets of eels and jars of beetles, and followed Cynisca outside.

Preston saw that Fyodor was fast asleep. He wondered if the soup had been laced with soporific. Without any more ado, he also followed Cynisca out of the tent. Her walk was as lithe as the limbs of a birch tree swaying. The two physicians spoke no word, and made no gesture. How and when they had let Cynisca know she had permission to treat Preston was something he had not seen.

He turned his eyes away when she opened the bandage. It was not that he was squeamish. Nor was it that the living implements of the medical arts of the Terrors, who used tapir spit rather than antibiotics, worms instead of probes, and spiders instead of sutures, were grotesque and slimy. It was that he did not like seeing her well-formed and gentle hands daubed with his blood, or any foul thing.

He said, “I have many questions about this world. Can you tell me?”

“What little I know, I can tell. But first I must ask you.”

“Ask me anything.”

“Why do you speak so boldly to them? You cannot free the Terrors from the Mighty Ones. You cannot free your brother from the coliseum of the fighting slaves. You cannot free me from the harem of Lord Ilvala. You cannot even free yourself!”

Preston scowled. The girl evidently thought he was some empty-headed braggart. But what could he say to answer that? No matter what he said, it would be mere words. It would sound like boasting. Sound like? It would be boasting.

Never had he wanted so badly to say something to impress a girl. Never had he known more clearly that anything he said to try to impress her would backfire.

The opportunity died, stillborn, when a small, red-furred figure with a braided hair and braided whiskers dropped down from above. He landed on all fours, rose to his hindpaws, and walked foreword with the awkward-seeming rolling steps typical of his species. He was dressed in a short vest covered with rondels and bezants. Atop his head was a brimless pillbox cap. A swarm of red and black bees crawled up and down the braids of his hair.

The little man said, “Lost, it may prove to your advantage to answer certain questions.”

Preston said, “Come again?”

The little man wrinkled his muzzle. “The same emblems bearing the same cartouches were displayed on my jerkin when we met earlier today. Although, obviously, my valet reordered them according to the afternoon patterns proper for the season.” He tapped his vest, pointing at the many tiny sequins of glass, shell or metal affixed there. Filigrees as complex as fingerprints or printed circuits were displayed on the face of these ornaments. “It would behoove you to recall your assault victims, particularly those judgment determines your fate.”

Preston said. “You are the first one I spoke to. The Warden. Your name is Ah Ha-ha? Something like that?”

“Ahara of the bloodline of Andhaka.” He fingered one of the larger emblems on his vest as he said this, and a looked of pride came into his eye. He twitched an eyebrow in surprise. “You do not know the name?”

Preston said, “Should I?”

The little man said, “Andhaka the Darkener. Due to a misprint in his gene design, Andhaka had a thousand heads, and two thousand each of eyes, arms and feet. After his stature was too great for the earth to bear, he terrified all this land from his seat at the bottom of the Sea of the Sea-Crone, until he was slain by the great battle-boar Emusha, a monster designed for this purpose by the Lifesmith Varaha, whose descendants my bloodline has served from that day to this.”

“Sorry, doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Andhaka was born of the bloodline of Hiranyakasha of the Golden Eyes, who was carried in the womb one hundred years, and whose designer plagues in the Fifth Eon drove all human life into the sea. Hiranyakasha, in turn, was from the bloodline of Kashyapa, one of the seven sages of the Third Eon, who designed the fundamental techniques and instruments for gene-forced evolutionary sequencing.”

After this speech, Ahara squatted down on his haunches, watching Preston’s face, eyes narrowed.

Preston said, “My world died — what was it? — a quarter million years ago. I have been here three days. Maybe less. I was unconscious, and then underground, so I may have lost track. Less than a week. Most of that time was spent running from creatures trying to kill me. You cannot seriously expect me to know names and events from your history.”

Cynisca, who had her back to the monkey-man, glanced up from his wounded leg to catch Preston’s eye. The silent message in her glance was clear: Ahara did expect it.

Preston said, “You are using your spider senses on me, aren’t you? Because you think I know your history, and that I am faking? But why would you think that?”

“There are anomalous omissions in your tale,” Ahara said in a soft voice, “These anomalies might be better explained had you been living in this era many years.”

“What anomalies?”

“You are newly come through a lesion in the continuum opened by the Tesseract. How did you pass through it, since you come from an era where that technology is unknown?”

“I told you. Or your boss. I built a plane to chase UFOs. I chased one through a magic hole in the air, and landed here, and was attacked.” Preston felt his chest inflate with pride. With a smile, he said, “That plane, she was a beaut. Shooting Star was her name, and she was, too. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and her ceiling was higher than the top of the tophat an angel. She was a freaking spaceship. In that baby, I could stick back to an absolutely vertical climb and ride her on her tail like a skyrocket. The first one in the series, I had to use the salt flats in Utah for by landings, since no runway…” Preston interrupted himself. “You don’t know what I am talking about, do you? Your people do not have any flying machines. You lost it. You don’t know how to fly.”

Ahara made a dismissive gesture, waving Preston’s comment away. He asked, “Why do the Mighty Ones seek you?”

Preston’s first impulse was to speak, but Cynisca squeezed his leg with her hand in silent warning.

So instead he said, “You are my evolutionary superior. You cannot figure out the answer?”

Ahara said, “How did you escape their pursuit?”

“I told you. There was a machine underground that talked. It destroyed the people chasing me.”

“You also said you were led you into the Megalopolis?”


“Who led you? A man newly come to our era would have no reason to suspect that the Megalopolis was buried below the lands north of here, nor that the ancient weapons were still live that would protect you. Indeed, this is a fact not generally known outside the Watchers, who control access to the mines, or their servants, who dig and scavenge for them.”

Preston said, “Then how do you know of it?”

Ahara said, “Our cousins enslaved by the Watchers pass along messages and rumors.”

Preston said, “Why would they keep that secret?” But then he remembered the Iron Mole. It had clearly been something originally made by a civilization with a very advanced level of technology, and copied by someone not so advanced: Like the Soviets faithfully mimicking American military aircraft. And the Iron Mole had been designed for a human operator, but a machine cube taken from the buried city had been wired into the controls. Preston snapped his fingers. “Let me guess. Everyone thinks the Watchers invent their technology themselves. They do not tell anyone they are cannibalizing material from a previous civilization. Am I right?”

Ahara said, “I have other questions. How did you negotiate the corridors under the coliseum without light? You are not a nocturnal creature. How does your weapon fire without ammunition? And then there is this.”

Ahara took out of his vest pocket a ring. Eight gems were equally spaced about the heavy band, inset and flush with it. The gems had flat faces, giving the ring an octagon shape. At first it was dull and inert, but the little man waved his palm over it. Light entered the gem facets. Now the ring was glowing.

The light trapped in the gems looked like the blue-white Cherenkov radiation he had seen issuing from the flying disk.

Ahara said, “Your galvanic skin response and pupil dilations show that you recognize this talisman.”

Preston recognized it. He had found the ring in his backpack. He had not placed it there. It did not look like anything from the Twentieth Century.

He said, “It is mine. I will thank you to return it.”

Ahara said, “Tell me how you came by it. It is not from your eon of time, nor three eons after.”

Preston said, “Meaning that it come from some period of history more advanced than your own?”

Ahara said, “My purpose here is to gain information, not to dispense it.”

“That seems to be a phrase popular with you people.” Preston regarded the other thoughtfully. The little man apparently could detect his bluffs. And Preston was not a fan of lies anyway. He shook his head. ” I will keep what I know to myself. For now. Maybe you will keep me alive and free as long as you hope I might answer.”

Ahara raised a finger and pointed. “Again, you overestimate yourself. Look there.”

Preston craned his head. In the distance, bright as flecks of burnished gold, a flock of flying mantichores in arrow formation were passing low over the ruins. Flying up to meet them were silhouettes of the same shape, but smaller in size and clumsier in motion.

Everywhere, little red-furred men and women were climbing to the crowns of trees of the tops of broken towers, and letting out a high-pitched ululating wail. The musical cry spread across the ruins, like the wails of spirits. It was an eerie sound. Mastodon raised their trunks and trumpeted. Smilodons roared.

Preston stared, his heart sinking. He realized what the sight meant.

Ahara said, “Your value to us as a source of information is small. Whereas if the Mighty pay us even one tenth the value of resources expended to hunt you, the gain to us is great. Our sojourn by the well called Reliable is done. You are being made hale for the journey to the slave markets. We follow the shadow of the wings of the Mantichores south to the river.”

Ahara closed his finger over the octagon ring, which grew dark and still, and returned it to his vest pocket, which he shut with a metal clasp.

*** *** ***

Episode 28 Coercion Creature

Preston, almost against his will, admired the organization of his captors. None of the military units with which he had served had been able to break camp and gather men and gear into march so rapidly, and with so little friction. That their women, children, and also animals packed and prepared with such smooth and silent coordination seemed nigh miraculous.

The wigwams folded like venetian blinds, and collapsed rapidly and neatly. The fabric floors could be lowered to the ground, so that all the furnishing, cots, and other movables could be dismantled, folded, and rolled into bundles. Dousing and burying campfires was done by giant, short-faced bears called arcotherium.

Preston saw the tents all about him vanishing rapidly into compact bundles. From all about the ruined cities, small red figures moved quickly toward the central paddock. Dire wolves, smilodons, and mastodons picked up the large bundles with jaws or trunk or tusk. Rapidly but with no wasted motion, Preston saw the Terrors and their servants, both animal and hominid, converging on the brontosaurus.

The colored slats decorating each folded wigwam seemed to symbolize rank or type, and the various families seemed to wait or to hurry based on which heraldic colors were before and after them. Preston watched, amusing himself by trying to discover the pattern.

The folded wigwams were hauled up to the immense lizard’s shoulders, and fixed into place to form a vast yoke and platform. It looked almost like a coat of wooden scales draped across the gigantic shoulders and spine of the titan. A singletree the size of a warship’s mainmast was attached by long chains to the yoke, and then by longer chains to a series of wheeled frameworks. This wagontrain thus formed was over two hundred feet long.

Other wigwams were folded into these frameworks to serve as wagonbeds. These were not lashed into place with line. Instead swarms of industrious worms and bugs used wax and thread stronger than epoxy. Trained anteaters licked away the excess, so that no unsightly drips marred the joints thus fitted.

Other huge lizards, none as large as the brontosaur, were driven forth from other paddocks. Here were four dinosaurs like a nightmare version of a giant turtle, with wide shells rimmed with short, sharp spikes, and tails tipped with balls of bone greater than any battle mace. Preston recognized these as ankylosaurs from the Cretaceous. Towers like the howdah atop an elephant, but larger, were rapidly erected atop the shells.

During all this, Cynisca finished working on Preston’s leg, and wrapped it in a clear substance secreted by certain bugs she carried in a jar. The medical technique was nothing less than miraculous. Preston found he could squat, kick, stretch, and move his leg in an unhindered range of motion, with no pain and no sensation of weakness. The first thing he did was put his flightsuit back on. The second was to belt on his sheath and holster for his knife and pistol, and to shoulder his Holland & Holland rifle.

A young Terror in a square cap, wearing a baldric festooned with sequins, but no vest, loped up to Preston. “I am Vkra of the modified blood of Vakasura. I am come to tell you where to stow your gear and in which column of thralls to march.”

Warden Ahara was still squatting nearby, giving curt orders to shaved, servile Terrors concerning stowage of thralls and livestock. However, he cocked an ear when Vkra addressed Preston, and was looking on wryly. Preston caught his eye. “Is this an order, or a suggestion? Am I taking orders from him, or you? Who is in command here?”

Ahara said in an airy tone, “We are a flexible and informal people. For now, simply obey anyone who addresses you. If someone oversteps his authority, his reproductive privileges may one day be curtailed.”

Vkra said to Preston, “I am to act on your behalf to maximize your sale value.”

Preston spat. “A free man has no sale value. All I agreed to was not making a fuss.”

Instead of answering, Vkra with a snap of the wrist looped a sinuous creature about Preston’s neck like a living slave collar. The creature was a cross between a boa constrictor, a millipede, and an electric eel. It could sting, strangle, or shock him, or all at once.

Preston drew his pistol with a motion too swift for the eye and aimed at Vkra. But the creature around his neck was more swift. A shock of pain sent spasms only through Preston’s right arm, but left the rest of his body untouched. The Mauser fell from numb fingers.

Preston drew his knife to slash at the creature around his throat. Barbs entered his neck and electric shocks first forced the knife from his fingers, and then forced him to his knees.

Vkra said dryly, “I see you do not understand why we are called Terrors. The myriapod can induce nausea, blindness, and the various symptoms of diseases and maladies to which your race is prone, but not ours. You are worth a certain value in units of prestige. Expenditures to coerce you are counted against that prestige. Causing me to expend effort lowers my face. The myriapod around your neck is a rarity, and it is not in your best interest to provoke me to use it.”

Spasms jerked the muscles of his abdomen. Preston fell to all fours and began puking.

Cynisca, with a cry, threw herself at the feet of Vkra. She spoke in the chattering, clicking language of the Terrors. “Spare him!”

Vkra said, “You favor him? Urge him to submission. Quickly! Or be punished as well.”

Cynisca said, “Lost is still under medical treatment! The physicians will lose prestige if you undo their work!”

Preston, curling with cramps on the ground at Vkra’s feet, croaked and was unable to speak.

Cynisca, kneeling, was still taller than the little red furred man. She bowed her head until it was lower than his. “He is ignorant, of low intelligence, and does not understand the circumstances! Do not damage a valuable specimen!”

But Preston saw that she had surreptitiously picked up his dropped knife in her right hand, holding it behind her body where Vkra could not see. Preston saw her stiffen, readying to plunge the knife into Vkra.

Ahara was beside Preston, and must have seen the knife also, but merely looked on with mild interest.

But she never had the chance to strike. Vkra spat. “What? You think to practice wits on me, girl?” A wasp left his mouth, striking Cynisca on the right shoulder. Her arm jerked and dropped the knife. A spasm threw her onto her back. Vkra gestured, and two scorpions climbed onto her face, stings waving before her eyes.

The agony twisting his torso and limbs was not any less, but Preston found he could force his left hand to move. The electric caterpillar choking him had not been ordered immobilize both arms, and Vkra was not looking at him at that moment. In one motion, Preston rolled over the pistol, snatched it up, and fired while still prone.

Vkra’s head jerked back. His right ear was torn into bloody streaks of tissue.

Preston squinted up at the monkey man’s face, which was blurred, pulsing and swimming through his gaze. Through clenched teeth, he said, “Leave her alone.”

Vkra gingerly touched the red mess dangling from his right earhole. He looked thoughtfully at the pistol, somehow being held as steadily as if it were in a vice, in the fist of a man wracked and trembling with pain. With a look of cold impatience in his eyes, Vkra reached out with the fingers of his foot and flicked the two scorpions away from Cynisca’s face.

At the same moment, the thing around Preston’s neck pulsed, and darkness came into the center of Preston’s vision, and spread to the periphery. He was blinded.

Insects landed on him. White hot stings entered his thumb and forefinger of his gunhand, and then an electric shock convulsed the muscles, snapping his fist open. He heard Vkra’s voice floating somewhere before him. “I am young, and have many breeding rights to earn, and nubile mates. Should I allow you to manhandle me as senile Ahara did? His gentleness encouraged disobedience: he increased needless risks by allowing you to keep your arms!”

Ahara said mildly, “The stray’s resale value as a fighting slave will be reduced if we use any of the countless sadistic techniques, refined to perfection over eons, to break his stubborn spirit. Such conditionings lower breeding value as well. And, frankly, I advised the Mandators that it would be instructive to the young to provide them an opportunity to learn how to handle bulls whose horns are intact, or lions not declawed. Nature is unforgiving, if we make nature safe. Such is the lesson of history.”

Vkra said to him, “As a bird in season dances and spreads his tail to win a mate, so you dance with death, Warden of the Commons. You are suicidal.”

Ahara answered, “There are longer and shorter forms of suicide. Where are the Phantoms, now, that perfect race, who ruled a perfect world? Release the stray from your constriction, speak to him civilly, and he will join the march in due order.”

“He will escape.”

“The neuro-electric changes to his aura are unmistakable, were you skilled enough, youth, to read the signs. You minimize loss of prestige by directing your coercion properly. Not to mention,” Ahara finished with a very human-sounding chuckle, “that you risk loss by debating your elder.”

“I see the auranetic blush,” Vkra responded. “What means these signs, respected elder?”

“The stray has formed a fixation that will hold him here: he is sexually attracted to the female and wishes to protect her.”

In such crass words, from the mouth of an enemy, Preston’s profession of his true feelings were made known. Even in the midst of his pain and blindness, hearing this was a worse pain, because it stabbed his soul.

Preston felt the myriapod relax. It was removed from his neck. After a few minutes of intense pain, sensation and strength returned to his limbs. A moment later, his optic nerves began to function, dimly at first, but then more clearly.

He blinked the dark dazzle clear of his eyes, and saw Cynisca standing. Her back was straight, her chin was lifted, and her tiny fists were clenched at her sides. But the multi-legged snake creature called a myriapod was wrapped about her neck, and barbs were tickling her neck.

Vkra said, “Do you understand the meaning of what you see?”

Preston took a step toward her, her face flushed with anger, his fingers already reaching to tear the grotesque insectoid monstrosity away from the girl’s fair throat. Vkra said, “The Myriapod has been instructed to punish her if you touch her, and to damage her nervous system permanently if you attempt to remove it.”

He felt helpless. She stared at him, her face expressionless, eyes wide, tears in them.

Vkra said to her, “Go. Prepare the other patients for the caravan.”

Cynisca turned without a word, and walked stiffly up the ramp into the infirmary tent, which had not yet been broken down.

Preston picked up his knife and pistol. “Release her, or I kill you.”

The little man said, “Kill me, and you die.”

“And if I say it is worth it?”

“Kill me, and she dies. You might regard death resulting from an aimless act of mutiny to be honorable, but she does not. Your best method of protecting her is to bide your time, and ceasing to aggravate your betters.”

“Betters? You?” Preston then asked Vkra to perform a vile and biologically unlikely act. “Your race is cowardly and weak, to hide behind a woman.”

“So many claim. Our makers made us ill, unsuited for great deeds, and we hate them for it. But you are more ill-made yet, having been designed by no one, and suited for nothing. Enough of your talk!” Vkra’s voice took on a savage note. “The elders treat you with foolish indulgence. This is the result! Recognize that we are a later race than yours, therefore more evolved, therefore higher. Obedience is wiser than resistance.”

Preston holstered his pistol and sheathed his knife. “What about all the races later than you? Do you obey? Or resist?”

Vkra did not hide the cold and bitter passion on his face. “The later races slew all the brave among us, so that only cowards reproduced in numbers, and carried the trait along. Warden Ahara and even Grandmaster Isrpa tolerate your insolence due to this defect.”

Preston snapped his fingers, “You are the bad cop.”

Vkra said, “What?”

“In my day, whenever a prisoner was detained, and the police wanted him to talk, one cop played it hard, and the other played it soft. You are the hard one.”

Vkra said, “It would be a closer analogy to say that Ahara and I have wagered on different strategies to tame you, and that if I can bring you into submission at a cost below his proposed cost, I will win the prestige he loses. My mating rights before the eugenic tribunal depend on a successful outcome.

“You see the grim symmetry between us?” Vkra continued. “Neither your reproductive longings nor mine will be fulfilled if you remain willful.”

Vkra now took a creature like a jellyfish out of his belt pouch, and held it up against his torn ear, to staunch the bleeding.

Vkra said, “The time of march is the time when most discipline is called for, so be warned. You mind is slow and sluggish, but even you can see the limits hedging your acts. You were wise merely to maim my ear! It will cost me prestige to regrow it, and additional cost to alter the left ear to match. But had you attempted more, the cost to you would have been more.”

“Actually, my aim was off, because I hurried. I was trying to drill you between the eyes.”

Now Vkra pointed to a knot of Terrors and the long-necked mottle-skinned men called Ipotanes. Here also was a large cluster of short-haired, unclothed Terrors. “You are with the semi-domesticate thrall column forming there. We will speak to the quartermaster to arrange for shelter and board. I will show you to the column boss, and to him you can explain what tasks you can do that might be useful or entertaining. The more valuable you make yourself, the more comfortable your provisions. Follow me!”

Some instinct made Preston turn his head and glance behind. He saw the slender silhouette of the girl through the opening of the infirmary tent, looking down, watching him. Her eyes were green as emeralds in the gloom of the tent, bright as the eyes of a cat. He could read no expression.

His sense of defeat was like a blanket of lead. He did not want her hurt, or, for that matter, Fyodor.

Preston turned away, teeth gritted, and walked where Vkra the Terror told him.


*** *** ***

Episode 29 Brontosaur Caravan

With massive steps and slow, the brontosaurus paced through the wood, grazing as he went. Larger hardwood trees the titanic beast slowly circumnavigated. Smaller hardwoods were chopped down by advance parties of thralls. Cycads small or large, the vast and lumbering thunder lizard merely trampled or shouldered aside.

Preston at first was astonished that an entire tribal village of nomads could be packed up on one beast of burden. He estimated the creature’s weight at fifty thousand pounds. Assuming it could carry and haul the same proportion of freight to its own weight as a donkey could manage, it was shouldering over ten tons, and hauling a wagon train over a hundred twenty-five tons.

This amount of freight that would have fit into seven or so standard shipping containers back in Preston’s day, or the boxcars of an average-sized circus train in his grandfather’s day.

The whole procession reminded Preston more of a circus parade than anything else to which he could liken it. In addition to the giant armored forms of ankylosaurs pacing to the left and right of the brontosaurus in its path, winged mantichores flew above, a line of mastodons followed after, and then herds of Irish Elk, packs of Dire Wolves, tapirs, giant sloths, anteaters and arcothers came on in slow columns, and meanwhile saber-toothed tigers ranged back and forth and on all sides; and the clouds of swarming insects darkened the red sun, hanging above the march in like thunderhead, visible miles away.

And there were human and hominid livestock marching as well. Preston estimated the thralls outnumbered the Terrors by five to one. Two thirds were Second Men, the race Preston had seen crewing the flying disk: the giraffe-like hominids with mottled skins called Anakim or Ipotanes. They were nine foot tall with nine inch necks, large heads, and sad, deep eyes.

The remaining third were apparently First Men, but they were not from any land or era Preston could name, not of his time nor any time he knew: They were a dark-skinned, white-haired people with blue but slanted eyes. Their faces were lean and triangular, almost feminine, with protruding noses and pointed chins, deep-set eyes widely spaced, and round, well-shaped skulls. Their skin hue and straight hair was like that of Dravidians from India, but with Chinese eyes, Cherokee cheekbones, Roman noses, and Norse eye color. Perhaps these were some hybrid peoples born in centuries beyond his own.

Preston was assigned to carry a litter on which a female Terror reclined and six yowling and grinning infant children nestled, or wrestled, or nursed, or groomed, or played. The whole group of seven was less than one First Era woman would have weighed, but the weight grew heavier on his shoulders and arms as the hours passed until it was nearly unbearable.

He told himself that as days passed, he might get used to this rigor. He told himself he did not want to get used to it.

The man shouldering the poles in the front was an Ipotane. He wore nothing but a loincloth. His blotchy skin made him look sickly, or leprous, but Preston noticed the darker patches grow larger when the man marched for hours in direct sunlight, until the man was dark all over, and shrink again when under tree shadows.

His head was larger than Preston’s and narrower. No hair grew on the sides of his head, only on the crown, and down along the spine. He was hatchet faced, and his nose was a thin but protruding hook. His mouth was a thin and lipless slash, curling down mournfully at the edges, his chin a mere nub. But his eyes were fascinating, larger than human eyes, and as changeful in hue as an opal, mutating from pale to blue to green to amber from minute to minute. His pupils were enormous, like black wells with no bottom. The cheetah-markings below his eyes gave him a look of undue solemnity.

His hands were hands any surgeon or pianist would envy, with long, tapered fingers strong as chords of steel. His feet were toeless, which made him look like a cripple, but it was Preston who had to stop more often to tend to blisters other ailments of long marches, while the She-Terror made sardonic remarks and her children screamed and hooted.

He was abnormally short for his race, six rather than nine feet tall, which was why Preston was impressed into being his partner. An Ipotane of normal stature would have tilted the litter.

Preston was lucky enough to be the rear litter bearer. When the lady’s children flung poop at him, he would throw a small stone back at the imp, hard enough to raise howls of pain, whereupon the lady would turn and punish the imp, while Preston assumed a vacant expression. But the Ipotane man in the front was facing away, and could neither dodge nor retaliate when the imps tormented him, or pulled his hair.

At the first rest break, Preston gratefully drank water a pangolin offered. Even though his shoulders and feet were aching with the unusual stress, he limped over to the Ipotane, and offered to change places with him.

The man pondered a moment in silence before answering, studying Preston.

“You speak the language of my youth. But the South-by-Southwest Clade of the Unified Division was abolished during the Time of the Pathetic Supplications, while I slept in the Pits of the Living Death, so who is yet alive to teach that tongue? You have the appearance of a First Era Hybrid from before the time of the Patagonian Reconstitution of Man; but I sense something of the aura of hidden power, such as the Phantoms are said to emit, hovering about you. What are you?”

“I am Lost. I am also trying to help. Do you want to swap places or not?”

The deep eyes grew deeper as the Ipotane studied his face. “You wish to save me from discomfort? The children of Terrors are bred like dogs, and valued only for their resale price. They have sperm donors, but no fathers. How can they be other than sadists? We must pity them, even if they torture and kill us.”

“They deserve no pity,” Preston spat.

“None do. Pity is love, which is always a gift. Gifts are never deserved. We are greater than they, your race and mine, and they know it. This torments them. What else can they be but Terrors?”

Preston said, “They speak and reason. They understand right and wrong. They could be friendly rather than hostile, and treat strangers with hospitality.”

The Ipotane bent his large head on its sinuous neck to peer closely at Preston. “No race dwelling on the face of Pangaea so treats any other, nor do the Sixth Era Men, who live in the drowned lands, nor the Ninth, who live in the buried lands.”

“It takes no great effort to see that one empire oppresses all the races here, and yet you do not combine against a common foe. Were you never taught that all men are created equal? That we are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights? No one should enslave his fellow man.”

“There are nine races of man, not one. There is no fellowship.”

“So? Do they know right from wrong? Do they love virtue and fight evil? Any creature able to do that is my brother, no matter what he looks like. That makes us one.”

“Your words are wild and strange. Yet I see no madness in you.”

“I am sane enough. I will swap places with you because I do not like the little Terrors picking on you. Bratty kids are a pet peeve of mine. I was raised kind of strictly, you see. It makes me old-fashioned.”

The man shook his head. “You do not even know my name.”

“So? What is your name?”

“You are my elder, old-fashioned one. Call me Ushahin. Were you younger, my name would be different. What do I call you?”

“Lost, like I said before. I have a longer name, but it does not matter here. Pleased to meet you. Okay, Ushahin. Now I know your name. Swap with me. You can pelt the little twerps with stones if they bug you, and the Mom won’t notice.”

“Lady Sinhika is a nursemaid, and not the mother. She is of high prestige, for these young come from rare stock. No mother is allowed to see the young before the eugenic judgment, lest she develop fondness for them, and she cease to regard them a tribal property.” Ushahin shook his overlarge, sad-eyed, mime-painted face.

“As for your proffered kindness,” he continued, “It is unneeded. Neurochemical balancing regulators were evolved into my race after the Second End of the World ended yours. My mind is stable beyond the nerve-trauma level of stress. Second Men cannot go insane and cannot go to war; First Men wobble ever on a razor thin divide between hysteria and apathy, and never cease to prey on your own.”

But now Ushahin peered at him again. “But you are odd! You are not like the other First Men.” He gestured toward the dark-skinned, white-haired men Preston had seen earlier.

Preston said, “Who are they?”

“The Progerians come from a time roughly four hundred thousand years before the Second End of the World. How long before that do you come from?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what that is, and it happened after my time. A long ways after, I hope.” And then Preston frowned, because it struck him that it did not matter how many years after his own the first human race continued, or his civilization, or his nation, or anything. All were extinct. Everything was gone.

Ushahin said helpfully, “The First End of the World was the Apocalypse of Darkness. The Second was the Apocalypse of Fire, when your race went largely extinct.”

“I still don’t know. How long is that after the Moonshot? Or Columbus discovering America? The Fall of Rome? The Birth of Christ? The Battle of Marathon?”

“These events are not known to me. I ask again how you know my language?”

Preston said, “I honestly don’t know how. It is something a machine did to me.”

Ushahin looked startled. “Then you are being cheated.”

At that moment, a mastodon with a quartet of simian Terrors riding atop its headgear came down the line of weary slaves taking their rest, followed by the giant bearlike arcothers who extinguished the campfires. The Terrors called out in cold, sarcastic voices to return to the marching order, and sent bees to sting whoever was slowest to respond.

Ushahin whispered quickly, “There are legends of Phantoms who walk the Earth. Come find me at dusk, when we make camp. I will return your kindness.”

Another period of marching followed. At first, to keep his mind from endlessly circling thoughts about Cynisca, and the danger into which his heart had put her, he distracted himself by giving all the ill-behaved young he carried foul nicknames, and imagining various methods of murdering them that would neatly preserve the skin and skull for a taxidermist. The brats fell asleep as the sun grew high, and the weight began to oppress him, so this diversion flagged.

After, he concentrated on studying the tracks left by the various other beasts in the caravan. He was near the front of the column for the cohort he was in, just behind a large group of marching animals, so the tracks were fresh, clear, and deep before the footprints of slaves and servants of the Terrors trampled them. He observed and memorize the length of stride, the gait associated with each, the slight differences in imprint between male and female, and so on. It was not as difficult as it might seem to become familiar with this unfamiliar spoor: the arcothers were much like bears, and the dire wolves like wolves, and so on.

They came clear of the trees and entered a grassland of long, low swales. The sun beat down without mercy on heads without shade.

Studying the trampled grass in the bright sunlight began to disturb him. Every place a foot or hoof had turned the soil over displayed broken bits of glass or plastic, ceramic or alloy, or bright and nigh-microscopic beads and polygons of some unrusted, everlasting substance he did not recognize. The soil beneath the grass was a rubbish heap of ten thousand shards of unknown, unrecognizable, tools and toys and manmade things.

There was something underfoot in every square foot of soil he saw upturned. Amid the strange bright grit and sand, he recognized buttons or arrowheads of flint or petrified wood, horn, diamond, or exotic materials. He saw printed circuits, artificial fibers, a tooth made of flexible crystal, a ceramic coin.

A heaviness descended on his soul. The sandy residue of hundreds of millennia of human history was trod with every step.

At noon, a marsupial came past the resting marchers, and handed out skewers of roasted meat and balls of cheese. Preston ate his portion ravenously, puzzling over the strange tang and texture. From what animal these came, he could not tell.

Preston went looking for the wagon stowing his gear. To his immense surprise, no one had molested it. He sat, and removed his boots, and winced at the sight of his feet, and carefully applied moleskin and tape to his blisters. He laced up his boots again, using a fork from his mess kit to tighten the laces.

There came a clamor of noise. Mastodons trumpeted. Smilodons and arcothers growled and roared. At the same time, a stinging smell like burning almonds stung Preston’s nose. In the distance, the great brontosaurus reared up its neck like a living tower, and Terrors perched on its head, as watchmen from the crow’s nest, blew conch shells in patterns of long and short blasts.

Preston turned to the teamster of the wagon, who was a long-haired Terror with a plain white baldric and loincloth. The lack of ornaments bespoke a low status. Preston said, “What is it? What is that noise?”

The little simian spared him no glance. “To your battle station, Brother!”

Preston said, “No one gave me one.”

The little man turned. Surprise widened his eyes. “Ah! No brother of mine. You speak my home tongue from the Desolate Barrens, beyond the Mountains of Cruelty. You are the thrall who knows all dialects.”

“Who is attacking?”

“The Ascenders are against us, the Zamzummim of the Seventh Era! Who else would dare? Are you so ignorant? Shame! I must deduct from your account to reflect your uselessness.”

Preston glanced up. The watchman on the head of the brontosaur, was waving a signal flag in a semaphore Preston could not read. On the ground, men and simians were running and loping in various directions. Preston shouted to the Teamster, “Where are they? Which way?”

The teamster’s expression turned cold. “If you have no station, Old Grandfather, this is the hour to learn initiative! Showing utility wins prestige! Adding to the noise and commotion with stupid questions detracts!”

But Preston did not wait for the little teamster to finish his sentence. As he spoke, he had belted on his holster and sheath of his knife and Mauser, unwrapped and shouldered his Holland and Holland. He lit out running as fast as his feet could fly. The aches and blisters, now, suddenly, were no hindrance.

He called out Cynisca’s name.

*** *** ***

*** *** ***

Episode 30 Attack of The Ascenders

There was confusion and uproar, but it was muted. The furry, child-sized Terrors were running on all fours, looking like a knee-high rushing red flood, moving in grim silence. Their man-sized human and hominid thralls, eyes wide, were running also, being herded by dire wolves, but very few screamed or shouted.

Preston ran, looking frantically any sign of Cynisca, or the Infirmary staff, or their patients, Fyodor among them. Certain white-haired Terrors in long vests richly adorned had climbed atop tall poles or the heads of Irish Elk, and were waving signal scarves or blowing ram’s horns to direct the guards both human and animal in one direction, and to direct livestock both animal and human in the other. Tents and pavilions were unfurling, rising their colorful roofs as rapidly as a London crowd caught in a rainstorm raised umbrellas. These sudden walls of bamboo slats or silk blocked Preston’s view.

Then, over the clamor, he thought he heard someone call his name. He turned and ran that direction.

He collided with a crowd of Ipotane thralls. Tall as he was, their shoulders were over his head, and their large but narrow heads were even higher, held aloft on thin, elongated necks. He pushed his way through the stampede. The Ipotane were long-legged, and ran in a strange posture, with their hands hanging low at their sides, their knees kicking high, their toeless feet pointed. He was kicked and battered by the tall, swaying bodies. Any Ipotane he shoved aside uttered no protest, but merely looked down at him with wide, dark, sad eyes, which were made to look more sad by the clownish cheetah-stripes marking each cheek like painted tear streaks.

The sun grew dim. Preston heard a pitter-pat noise like hailstones drumming on the grassy ground. The Ipotane around him winced and ducked their heads, raising their hands.

The crowd of running Second Men parted, and Preston sprinted forward. He found himself in the open. He looked down. At his feet were the wasps and bumblebees of the Terrors, motionless. It was raining wasps. They were falling from the sky in sheets.

Around him was waist-high grass, trampled flat by the vanguard of Irish Elk, and Mastodons. In the distance, where the grass was still standing, it formed a line as tall as a fence.

Overhead, dark, strange clouds had covered the sun. They were strange, first, because they were cobalt blue, the dark hue of poisonous smog. Second, these clouds were long, thin streaks, like the smoke from cropduster planes. Third, these were moving as if winds surpassing the speeds of hurricanes were hurrying them along. But they approached from every corner of the horizon, closing inward. The bright part of the sky looked like the mouth of a cobalt bag, slowly closing, as seen from the inside by the eyes of a trapped animal.

Then he heard, above the noise of trumpets and roars, shouts of men and high-pitched shrieks of Terrors, above the thudding and rustling and running crowds, the last noise he would have expected: the sound of lawnmowers. It was coming from the sky, a whirring buzz that rose and fell, a hissing song that warbled between a high and low pitch.

He was so surprised, he stopped running, and looked up. Not for the first time, he cursed himself for lacking the forethought to have packed a pair of binoculars before letting his pursuit plane be thrown through a hole in timespace. The strange cobalt-blue clouds had covered the sun, and made the air dark as before the thunderstorm. He could see shapes that he assumed were aircraft moving in the cloud mass overhead. But he had no clear view yet.

Then they fell out of the belly of the blue clouds. In shock, he saw what had seemed like aircraft were smaller, closer figures. Falling men. It was a flock of skydivers or paratroopers or something of the sort. A manlike shape in a vast dappled cloak of dark blue, shot through with streaks of white, was falling headfirst out of the cobalt smog, followed by other men flying in the V-formation of dive bombers.

Overhead, they were whirling what looked like bolos or whips in great circles of blurred motion. The sound came from them. It was not lawnmowers buzzing, nor the engines of prop aircraft. He had heard this sound before, when hunting in Australia. It was the cry of a bullroarer: a slender blade of pierced wood spun on the end of a long tether made a deep whistling buzz. The sound of hundreds of them spinning together carried and echoed across miles, murmuring like thunder, an eerie sound.

They were spinning the bullroarers on the tips of long wands held in their hands.

The details were hard to see, not only because of the dim light, and the blue-green mists surrounding the flying men.

For their long cloaks were not cloaks, but wings. In traditional art, angels were drawn with wings springing from shoulder blades, and usually not longer than the angel’s outstretched arms, perhaps a six foot wingspan. But the wingspan of these creatures was over thirty feet. Angel wings were feathery. These were leathery and scaly, demon wings or dragons, made of countless folding segments.

They had thick tails longer than they were tall. The wings were connecting all along the length of tail and spine. The tail opened into a large fan of skin, two angled rudders that could also act as elevators, that oddly reminded Preston of the tail section of his own downed plane.

Their skintight uniforms of dark seal-fur sported a shaggy mane about the neck. Or perhaps this was a natural fur, not clothing. They wore bug-eyed goggles and hook-nosed gargoyle masks like plague doctors. Or perhaps those were their natural features, not masks at all. Preston could not tell.

The winged men attacked in three groups. The vanguard buzzed the head of the brontosaur, and plucked goods and people off its back. The second group dove at the dangerous beasts, the smilodons and mastodons, and scattered them. The final group descended on the marching files.

The Terrors and their thralls were flooding into rapidly-erected pavilions, or calling their hunting cats or giant pachyderms to form defensive formations around them. These fierce beasts were leaping and clawing or rearing up with slashing tusks to protect the smaller hominids cowering in their shadows.

The Terrors apparently had no firearms, nor arrows, to fend off an aerial attack, only wasps and fierce, small falcons. Their only spears were the antlers of their many fighting-beasts.

But they could meet the attack in the air. Preston saw a winged mantichore, a Terror riding its neck, dive toward the foremost dragon-winged flying man. The little monkeylike Terror flourished a seashell shaped wasp-throwing gun. The flying man cupped his wings, slowing his fall, and the formation behind him broke up and peeled off.

Preston noticed the two formations formed neatly into “four finger” flights, a triangle of fliers with the fourth man following to the right rear of the man on the leader’s right flank. The leader and the wingman to his left were one element, the right man following the leader was the leader of a second element.

The man under attack banked and headed toward his wingman, whose banked the other way and crossed paths with him. Preston could not help but call out a warning to the hapless Terror on the winged mantichore. The maneuver of the flying men was as old as the Battle of Midway. It was called the “Thatch Weave.” The mantichores had larger and more powerful wings, and were faster than the winged men, but when the mantichore attacked the lead flying man, his wingman turned and dove and came at the mantichore from the side. When the mantichore turned to meet this threat, the leader banked sharply and came at the mantichore’s other flank thus exposed.

The mantichore rider was taken by surprise. Preston, from below, shouted curses at the little rider for being blind to an obvious danger.

The flying men carried what looked like a weapon absurdly awkward: some sort of speargun running from belt to ankle. It was drawn in a crouching position by taking the ankle mechanism in both hands and straightening the leg. The flier pointed his toe at the target, and fired while diving away, a Parthian shot.

But the bolt they shot was not solid, but exploded into a long, thin streak of cobalt smoke but which kept expanding into unbelievable volumes. Preston saw other fliers had triggered their leg bolts without firing them, so that long plumes of gas followed in their wake like contrails.

The wasps fell out of the sky whenever any wisp of this rushing cloud passed nigh. The plume must have been less deadly than nerve gas, because the mantichore and its rider did not fall out of the sky, but both swooned drunkenly.

But the winged men had another form of attack. A hovering flier spread his wings, and, instead of falling, hung in midair, in defiance of gravity. A great wind rose from behind him, driving the gas clouds in the backdrop suddenly forward like curtains. The same headwind caught the mantichore, and sent him spinning downward. The great creature pumped its wings laboriously, but seemed to be heavier that it was a moment ago.

Preston stood stock still, everything forgotten. He stared upward at the dragon-winged men in awe. To him, control of wind and cloud was like magic. On the other hand, neither did he understand how invisible forces could part lava flows or keep flying disks aloft. No mechanism had been visible then, either.

Meanwhile, other mantichores dove at the winged men, but the sky itself was a weapon in their hands, and great masses of air battered or whirled or scattered the mantichores, and the streaming volumes of cobalt-blue cloud were like vast and ghostly pythons in the air, monsters with a hundred arms endlessly elongating, and ever-widening cloaks that overspread the heavens.

He heard his name called again. It was a high pitched voice. Cynisca?

Preston turned and ran. Ahead of him he saw not Cynisca, but Ushahin the Ipotane. He was wrestling with three winged men who were trying to steal the litter carrying Lady Sinhika and her six bratty charges, and fly off with it. Ushahin was shrieking, his voice climbing in pitch, as he clung to the poles of the litter with hand and feet, swinging his head and clubbing at the clutching hands and curling tails of the dragon men with his skull.

Preston saw other Ipotane thralls jogging by. A number of scampering Terrors were rushing past the scene, glancing with cold, sardonic eyes as they ran. No one stopped to help.

Ushahin was stuck with a spear of gas at point blank range, which flung him down to the ground and covered the scene with lurid dark blue smoke. The She-Terror and all the repulsive Terror children screamed in panic. Two winged men now curled their tailed around the front and rear of the litter and hoisted it into the air. Their heads rose above the expanding cloud of smoke.

Without pausing to think, Preston shouldered his elephant gun, aimed, fired, turned, aimed again, and fired a second time. The recoil of his overpowered weapon kicked his shoulder like a horse. His bullet was meant to drop a musk ox or rhino in one shot. It was more than man-sized targets could withstand. The chest of either man burst into red and bloody rags, head and arms and upper wings were flung in each direction. Showers of blood coated the screaming children. The litter hit the ground, and the children and the nursemaid ran off on all fours.

The remaining winged man whirled his bullroarer like a bolo, and spun it around the fleeing form of Lady Sinhika, pinning her arms to her sides. The winged man landed, and hoisted her up in his arms.

Preston slung his rifle, since there was no way to hit the man without risking his captive. Instead he drew his knife and ran forward, bellowing.

He grinned as he ran, for he knew that no winged thing so large could possibly lift off without a long run into a stiff breeze. The enemy was only twenty yards away, then ten, then five. Preston knew the other could not get away. He knew it.

Then came yet another magic trick. The winged man took off like a rocket, launching himself directly upward, a gush of blue smoke trailing from his boots like jet exhaust.

But Preston could see with his eyes that the amount of thrust from the boot smoke was ridiculously insufficient to lift a payload the size of a grown man carrying a child.

By any laws of physics, it was impossible. Preston cursed.

Cursed, and kept running.

*** *** ***

Episode 31 The Winged Prince

A winged man weighing at least one hundred pounds, carrying a fifty pound simian woman, left the ground by shooting directly upward, not bothering even to spread his wings, in gross defiance of every law of momentum, aeronautical engineering, and common sense.

Preston swore blistering oaths at the unfairness of it all, but he did not stop running.

The flying man now spread his wings, and was pumping the air with great, slow strokes, trying to gain altitude. The little simian woman was huddling fearfully in his grasp, her legs and tail wrapped partway around her captor, her terrified eyes turned toward the gulf of air below her.

Preston drew his pistol, halted, and held the Mauser overhead with both hands, aiming. Hitting a winged target with a bullet rather than a cone of pellets or a cloud of flak was an unlikely prospect. This was precisely why birds were shot with shotguns and planes with antiaircraft guns.

Preston’s attention narrowed to the spot of his aim. He saw from the motion of the dark wisps in the air all around that the wind was changing, and so he knew the winged man was about to turn.

He no longer was aware of the head or chest of the dwindling man, nor the abducted woman. Preston saw only the man’s legs and torso.

He did not dare risk a lethal shot, since the winged man would drop his hostage if he died too quickly. There was no practical nor reliable way to shoot a moving target non-lethally, and no real way to force a flying man down just with fire from the ground. But on the other hand, Preston was not willing to let the enemy fly away unscathed. He did not think of himself as reckless, but he swore and grinned and stared upward with hatred boiling in his eyes, and then he took the shot anyway.

Red stains spread across the man’s midriff and upper legs. He flapped the great wings. Preston put another six puncture wounds through the wing membrane. He struck no bones, and the winged man was unhindered as he continued to climb. Then he was out of pistol range.

Preston began running again, trying to keep the wounded flier in view. Two other winged men dove out of a nearby cloud bank, reaching for the wounded one, as if to render aid. Both carried long lances. Preston shrugged his elephant gun to his shoulder and cut one of the lancers in half with a blast. The other lancer panicked and did a banked turn, whirling away on furious wings. No other helpful volunteer swooped near the wounded flier.

The wounded flier fled away from the battle. Preston ran into the tall grass, which whipped his torso and legs and slowed his feet. The winged man found a thermal, and rose in a lazy spiral until he was but a miniature figure at the edge of vision, above any blue cloud, high in the dazzling sky.

The winged man drew away, gliding along with but a few huge powerful strokes of his wide vanes. Preston followed after, alternating jogging and running. The fugitive was out of rifle range, but it did not matter. He was bleeding and losing strength; and Preston was resolved to be damned before he would let the other man outlast him.

It was not until he had been running for a long while that he glanced over his shoulder. The brontosaur was shrunk with distance, the long neck rising like a curved and leafless tree trunk in the flat grassland. It occurred to Preston that if any guard had been posted to stop thralls from escaping during the commotion, none stopped him. He did not look back again.

He lost sight of the fugitive, and slowed his pace. He saw a blood drop dark against a leaf; and a few paces beyond, another. He continued, following this spoor.

The red sun was well past the zenith when Preston saw a crystal plinth as tall as the Washington Monument, canted over at a drunken angle like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It loomed high in the West above the grasslands like the gnomon of a titanic sundial. As the sun sank behind it, the transparent shadow of this diamond tower reached toward Preston across the grass. Where the sunbeam passed through the crystal facets and touched the grassland, it looked like a ghostly river of light, shot through with long parallel spears of rainbow hues. The tossing of the grassblades in the wind gave the gleaming stream the illusion of flowing motion.

This stream was broken in one place by a distorted shadow. Preston looked up. From this angle, the sun was almost directly behind the winged man, who was slumped on the flat but tilted roof of the tower, arms clutching his stomach. The little red monkey-girl was next him, bound hand and foot.

Preston broke his elephant gun and studied the two bullets he found waiting within. The magic spell or magic technology or whatever it was that was keeping his Holland & Holland perpetually loaded was still working. He snapped the weapon shut with a loud and solid clack of noise, and thumbed off the safety.

The winged man did not actually have bug eyes and a gargoyle face. His goggles were slung on a strap around his neck, and the hook-nosed mask with hoses attached was dangling below them.

Preston called up, “Hallo, up there! How do you do? Nice weather we’re having for this millennium. You are probably wondering why I can speak your language with no accent, aren’t you?”

The winged man groaned wearily. He raised his boot, straightened his leg to cock his gas-gun weapon, and started to point his toe at Preston. Preston shot a round into the glass tower about two feet below where the man was seated. The noise of the crystal shattering was shockingly loud, and the thunder of the gun deafening. Sharp shards flew up, leaving small cuts in the winged man’s face, small punctures in his wings.

“That was me being nice, Chicken Little!” shouted Preston. “You won’t survive seeing me nasty!”

The man glared down at him.

Preston said, “Let’s try this again. How do you do? My name is Colonel Lost of the United States Air Force. I come from the country that first split the atom and first put a man on the moon. We are the toughest hombres in history, tougher than the British Redcoats, the Roman Legionnaires, Egypt or Babylon or any of those bad boys.”

“Eternity eats all glory, Firstling. Nothing of the doings of your race are known in my time, save that you destroyed the world. Twice.” The language was made of sharp syllables, each one distinct. It sounded a bit like Chinese. His face twitched in pain as he spoke, but he smiled a stiff smile, and showed his teeth. “Know you the name of he who first made fire? He was your race.”

“Sure. Alley-Oop the Caveman. He was in my squadron. Burned down the mess tent when he tried to cook the world’s first Sloppy Joe. It is where we get our word ‘oops’. Speaking of names, give yours.”

“I am Cucuio of the Ascenders. What would you have of me, Firstling?”

“You stole a girl. I came to get her back safe and sound.”

“And if I throw her down to dash out her brains?”

Preston said, “The Terrors can tell when a First Man is lying. Can you do this too? Otherwise you have to guess if I am telling the truth when I say, first, that she means nothing special to me, but, second, if you kill her, I blow your fool head off.”

“You would not dare!”

Preston said, “Nothing I have done so far seems to support that belief. You are carrying my lead in your belly. Or do the spent slugs disappear when my pistol magically reloads? I was curious about that. And, next question, what in the devil’s blazes makes you think I won’t put more lead straight into your apparently underutilized brainpan?”

“Do you know who I am?”

“At the moment you are a kidnapper who picked on a girl instead of facing an armed man in a fair fight. What that makes you in my book, I won’t say with a lady present.”

Cucuio prodded the bound and bedraggled Lady Sinhika with his toe. “Tell him who I am.”

She apparently understood Cucuio’s language, for she called down to Preston, “He is a prince of the Phratry of Achiyalabopa, who founded the Iron City Unvanquishable atop the Forbidden Plateau in the mountainlands called Impious Pride, for their height defies all heavens. His life is worth an immense ransom.”

Cucuio said, “Achiyalabopa was a revenant. He drew his first breath in the Seventh Era of Man, and had memories of our greatness in the old world, before he was brought forward to this time called the Tenth Earth, when all the lands and seas are changed. In the time of the Greater Resurrection he came, when the Ninth Men were in eclipse, the reborn Phantoms had raised their Monoliths of Immortality, and waxed great in strength. Pangaea was a blank wilderness newly risen from the sea, and the dinosaurs were few. Achiyalabopa and his band fought the world, and raised towers and aeries in the high places, and established all my people here in this era. Would my people have insisted I flee, had a blood less precious been in my veins?”

Preston called up, “So! You are a prince, eh? Who is here carrying off wetnurses with babies to feed. Is that right, Your Highness?” He wondered if the strange power that translated his words to the winged man also translated the sarcastic tone of voice.

Cucuio said, “It is fate. When the mighty wind blows, all trees bow. All bloodshed in the Peninsula of Ceaseless Bloodshed has ceased. The Mighty have defeated our Phratries whose plantations were settled there, uprooting the buried cities of the Ninth Men and driving them south. Us they pushed north. Next, the Mighty established a string of armed outposts between the Impious Mountains and the Desolate Barrens. We are cut off from trade with the valley folk, and our herds in the barrens are decimated. We need Terrors to mind our herds to replace those we lost. The Mighty reward us for raids and abductions into the few remaining Third Men collectives still at large in the Land of Lamentation. Fate governs all Pangaea. What can mortals do?”

Preston shouted up, “Sinhika, is that right? I thought your people had friendly trade with the Mighty Ones? And they are pressuring these folk to raid your caravan?”

Sinhika said, “The Advocate of the Empire wishes us to beg protection from their great, black Gibborim janissaries. They will take away our secrets, our wealth, and our way of life. In return, we keep our lives.”

He said to her, “Nice friends your tribe picks.” To him, Preston said, “I want you to surrender. Throw down your boots and any other weapons you have.”

Cucuio scowled. He moved slowly and painfully, removing his spurs, unhooking the slender tubes running up each calf, and dropping them down the side of the diamond tower to the grass. He also dropped a long dagger made of an ultralight and ultrhard blue semitransparent substance which Preston recognized as aerogel.

“I yield.” Cucuio’s voice was dignified.

“Good. Bring her down here, Prince. Nice and easy.”

Cucuio said, “You will kill me afterward.”

Preston said, “Lucky for you there is a lady present, otherwise I would tell you exactly what I think of any man who would make the suggestion that I would kill an unarmed man who surrendered to me. For one thing, if I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. My aim is better than that.”

“You did not shoot because I held the girl.”

“Then why am I not shooting now?”

Cucuio clutched his stomach and frowned. “I do not know.”

Preston said, “I’ll tell you what. You come down here. I’ll dress your wounds as best I can with what I’ve got in my pockets, and then when you are feeling a little more chipper, we can discuss why both your two races are helping the Mighty Ones conquer your two races. How does that sound?”

*** *** ***

Episode 32 Truce and Dementia

As it turned out, it proved easier to have Prince Cucuio cut the bonds of Lady Sinhika. He banished the blue mist that lingered in the area. This mist apparently interfered with Sinhika’s control of her personal stash of wasps and crawling medical insects that she carried with her at all times for the sake of the children she watched.

Her first aid kit and skills were also much better than Preston’s, to a miraculous degree.

She wanted to poison and kill Cucuio immediately, but Preston was glad she could tell he was not bluffing when he said he would shoot her dead if she did that. Overhearing this (Cucuio could understand Preston’s side of the conversation) impressed the prince greatly, and so he submitted to her ministrations.

The sun was not yet touching the horizon, when Cucuio descended lightly from the glass tower, his vast pinions spread, and Lady Sinhika scampered down headfirst with the agility of a squirrel.

When she was done, Cucuio stood. Preston had been among the Terrors long enough that a man a foot taller seemed like a giant, despite being skeletally thin. Preston wondered how his bones and membranes were constructed, since the tremendous wings folded into one fifth their span, and the fans of the tail and the tail itself, shrank dramatically in length. The winged man could stand in an upright posture, looking for all the world like a man in a cloak of patterned leather, with the swallow tails of a formal coat peaking out beneath the hem.

Cucuio said stiffly, “It is the belief of the Seventh Men that all life returns to a primal chaos of fire between reincarnations, obliterating all sins and demerits that life inflicts.

“No crime is punished forever!

“Our most sacred songs tell how this bubbling chaos surges against the limits of nonbeing, trying in vain forever to press itself into existence! This blind hunger creates life as an accidental by-product, trapping and weakening the original vital impulse.

“In retaliation, the material world imposes sickness, decay, and sorrow on the vital impulse, trapping spirit in matter, and bewildering it with impulses gluttonous and lustful, dazing it with beauty, leading it to forget its primal all-consuming force.

“Hence, for us, death is but a gateway to return to the source of all things: broken shards tossed into a cauldron of molten metal.

“Self and soul are obliterated, and all our deeds forgotten, but a new thing comes forth from the madness, filled with youth and energy: this life-force is the only god we acknowledge.”

During this impassioned speech, Preston stared at him in puzzlement. “Sounds like a stupid god, if you don’t mind me saying so. What keeps you on the straight and narrow? I mean, does your god not punish the wicked and reward the just?”

“The life-force bubbles and roars in mindless frenzy at the heart of eternity. We hold good acts to be meaningless and evil ones equally so. All that matters is whether the thing is done with a surpassing fury and beauty, worthy of the energy of the primal chaos!”

“So why are you telling me this?”

But it was Lady Sinhika who answered. “He is boasting that he does not fear death, so that when you kill him, your victory will not diminish his élan.”

Preston peered at her. “But you know I am telling the truth. I do not kill unarmed men, and I do not break my word. He does not believe me?”

She said, “First Men have nervous systems subject to unexpected changes, inversions and passions. No matter how sincere you appear at a given moment, your race is subject to fits and strange flights of fancy. You have asked him for no ransom. Hence he thinks you are distracted, half-witted, and have failed to kill him only because you do not realize you have the advantage.”

Preston squinted at Cucuio. “Is she telling me right? Is that what you think? Doesn’t your chaos god tell you all life is precious, and that we kill only to save life, defend the innocent, or to punish rape and murder?”

Again it was Lady Sinhika who answered for him. “The psychology of the Seventh Men is based on their physiognomy, as are the psychiatric states and belief systems of all races of man. When they fly, their blood releases a natural muscular enhancement, similar to the strength hysteria temporarily grants your race. At such times, their state of mind is elated. Their pedestrian minds seem colorless by contrast. Their religion is but an apotheosis of these altered states.”

Cucuio scowled and stepped forward, hand raised as if to strike the woman. He had to stoop, since she was half his height.

Preston stepped in the way, and punched Cucuio smartly in the jaw. Preston was surprised to feel the jaw give way, as if it were made of soft cartilage, not bone. Cucuio grabbed him. Preston was suddenly aware of immense, gigantic strength hidden in the slender arms and wiry body of the flying man. The muscles were superhuman. Had he closed his grasp, Preston would have been finished. Before Cucuio could tightened his grip, Preston twisted and gave way, putting the other off balance. He flung Cucuio in a hip throw. But, just as Cucuio was unexpectedly strong, he was also unexpectedly light: he went sailing three yards away from Preston’s hands, and landed on the grass heavily.

Preston grinned and cracked his knuckles as Cucuio rose to his feet.

Cucuio spoke through clenched teeth, “You said you would not attack.”

Preston said, “No, I said I wanted the girl back safe and sound, and you tried to slap her. What? Can’t handle hearing the devil you worship get blasphemed?”

Cucuio said, “He Whose Name None Dare Speak does not take heed of the words of men, nor is He aware of the material universe at all.”

“Then why the rough stuff?”

“The offense against logic was all my upraised hand meant to punish, to stir her out of the frozen rut of her materialistic thought.” Cucuio spat on the ground. The spittle was red. “Primitive Third Men! By their own logic, their obsessive drive to reduce all things to biological explanations is itself a result of their neural biology.”

Sinhika nodded gravely. “Of course. Our neural arrangements and extra senses dictates a sympathy with other living creatures which could shape our psychology in no other way. We are incapable of enlightenment, reformation, or mental evolution. It was precisely for this reason that my race at the height of its glory destroyed themselves by creating the Phantoms, the Fourth Men, who supplanted us.”

She turned her golden eyes toward Preston. “But your psychology is odd. Did you want me to heal the Seventh Man so that you could wrestle with him? But you have stopped fighting: he is still alive.”

Preston dusted off his hands. “I am not going to kill him. I will not even hurt him if he plays fair. He said he surrendered. He broke his word by attacking you.”

Her little monkey face screwed up in puzzlement. “Why do you defend me? You are not my bloodline. We share no genes in common. I can smell the contempt you have for me. It grows each time I speak.”

Cucuio hissed through clenched teeth to Preston, “Answer me first. Why have you asked no ransom for me? If you do not want ransom, why let me live?”

Preston said in a voice of weary patience, “What the hell is wrong with you people? I am defending the woman because she is a woman. That is what men do. Doesn’t matter if she is a slave-owner, or some creepy creature that lets other people select her mate or kill her kids. I am not killing you because you surrendered and we made a truce. I cannot break my word. That is what men do not do. We are not enemies.”

Cucuio said, “Every race of Pangaea is predator and prey to every other race.”

Preston said simply, “No more. We are putting a stop to it.”

Cucuio said, “We? You are the slave of some undiscovered race? A Tenth Man later and greater than the Devastators of the Ninth Era?”

“No, I am an American who salutes the flag and prays on Sundays, and I know men are not meant to live as slaves, and men are not meant to worship devils. We are putting a stop to that, too.”

Cucuio looked puzzled. “If you do not speak for some hidden warlord or buried machine of infinite power, then who is we?”

“You and me, Prince. And the nursemaid here. And anyone else who will join us.”

Cucuio scoffed. “Join us? There is no us! Join what?”

“Our truce.” He turned to Sinhika. “Are you in? Do you want truce? Or do you want me to step aside and let the winged man work his will on you?”

Sinhika showed her teeth. “My medical wasps also serve as weapons, their secretions also act as poisons! Your body has only natural, internal defenses against viral, chemical and neural manipulation. And they are as nothing! You cannot dictate to me now, First Man!”

Preston said, “Who is dictating? I am asking you if you want to make this truce permanent.”

She shook her head. “I would lose prestige if I were to treat with an inferior as if he were equal; and lose more to treat with Seventh Men, who are more evolved. Mockery would eat into my retirement funds. Evolution does not allow for equality!”

Preston growled. “But you both can be equally pigheaded!”

The two stared at him, puzzled.

Preston said patiently, “Both the Terrors and the Winged Men are being played for fools by the Empire. The Empire is expanding and eating your territory, Cucuio; and forcing your people, Sinhika, into a protection racket. You claim no two races cooperate, but it looks to me as if the little gray flying saucer men and the black giants are working in concert.”

Sinhika said, “The Watchers advocate for the Mighty. It is true. They act as one.”

“If they can act as one, you can. You can make a truce, an alliance. You do not have to like each other. All you have to do is trust each other. A little.”

Preston scowled. He could see the look on Cucuio’s face. “Don’t believe me? You still think I am going to simply murder you? Gather up your gear. Take up your weapons.”

Sinhika said, “Do you wish me to heal his jaw trauma? I assume you wish an equal opponent to fight, as the death of a strong, healthy opponent wins you more glory.”

Preston said, “Yes to the first, no the second. Don’t assume. I would not have smacked him so hard, if I had realized his bones were weak.”

Preston nodded toward the horizon. “But both of you have a decision to make. Look.” For nodding above the distant horizon could be clearly seen the dark cylindrical cloud of turning bug-swarms and larger shapes of swooping mantichores hanging in the sky over the Terror line of march. The cobalt blue cloud which heralded the presence of the Seventh Men had separated from it. Apparently the raid was over.

Preston said. “Neither of you know which will arrive first. If you join the truce now, you both live and go free, because each will protect the other from your people. If you don’t join, it is a coin toss whether you live or die. How are those odds?”

Cucuio said, “Your talk of truce between races is demented!”

Preston said, “If the sane answer leads to slavery and death, give crazy a try. No skin off my butt either way, Partners. Just think it over.” He leaned against the crystal plinth and began checking all the pockets of his flight suit. He was itching for a smoke and hoping a spare might have dropped out of his cigarette case and be lodged in some overlooked crevasse of fabric or inner pocket. He knew there was nothing there. He checked anyway.

His fingers closed on something hard, small, and round. Preston stiffened in surprise. Then a thoughtful squint narrowed his eyes.

Meanwhile, Cucuio reconnected his leg-tubs to his boots. The slim, purple nodules he loaded into them were obviously the ammo of his gas weapon. He retrieved his dagger. He then slipped a ring on to his finger. He twisted it one way and the other, and it glowed with the eerie blue-white aura of Cherenkov radiation.

Preston recognized the ring. It was octagonal, with flat gems set in every face. It was almost the twin of the mysterious ring Preston had found in his knapsack. The metal was a darker hue and was inscribed with arabesques, whereas his ring was plain. “What is that ring?”

Cucuio raised an eyebrow. “It is a magic ring. You would not understand.”

Preston said, “Try me.”

“There is a hunger in the earth, called gravity, which draws all bodies to it. Rings like this were made long ago by the Phantoms to curtail that hunger.”

Preston said, “Antigravity rays. Got it.”

“We dig them from the ruins. No one knows their workings.”

Sinhika began wrapping Cucuio’s skull in what looked like silkworm thread, with bands running under his chin to hold his jaw still. She sternly told Cucuio not to speak, but answered in his stead.

She said, “The Winged Men have electro-gravitic ganglia in their nervous systems which give them the ability to levitate. This ability is amplified and refined by these flight rings, which other races cannot use, and grants the Winged Men mastery over the wind and welkin.”

While Sinhika worked on Cucuio, Preston climbed the slanted crystal plinth. It was too sleek to shimmy up, but he found that he could pry out rectangular shards with his knife, making sharp-edged handholds and footholds.

From the top, he fished inside his flight jacket pocket once more. Out he brought his fist and opened it. There on his palm, gleaming with blue radiation, was the eight-sided ring.

He said aloud. “Warden Ahara, the Monkey-faced Wonder, took you away. How in flaming perdition did you find your way back into my pocket? More to the point, why? I am forced to conclude that the things happening to me are not accidents. Someone is trying to yank my puppet strings. Well, let us see what happens if the puppet pulls back. This is the worst idea I have ever had. But, if I die, I won’t be around to regret it.”

He put the ring on his finger, grimaced, utter a word that might have being a swearword or perhaps a very short prayer. Then stepped off the top of the plinth, and plunged toward the ground.

Cucuio and Lady Sinhika looked up, gaping. Sinhika uttered a shriek of shock.

The ring blazed like a star, a silent explosion. A tingling sense of buoyancy, like a wave of dizziness, passed over his body. Invisible forces lifted him silently aloft.

“Ha!” he shouted. “Knew it!” And he laughed like a madman.

The grassland below started rushing away. He was still in free fall, but he was falling parallel to the ground, not toward it. “Wait a minute,” muttered Preston. “How do I pilot this? How do you make a landing?” He twisted the ring, uttered random commands, waved his hand in random gestures. His flight accelerated.

Sinhika and Cucuio rose to their feet, and stood staring, as the body of Colonel Preston Lost, carried by unseen forces, sped away across the red-tinged sky. He diminished to a speck, still gesturing furiously with the ring, and was lost to sight.

*** *** ***

Episode 33 The Last Immortal

Preston had often had dreams about flying, especially during his days in paratrooper training during the China War. The reality was not dreamlike. Zero gravity, as far as his inner ear was concerned, was free fall. It was the same acrophobic sensation as being flung out of an aircraft without a chute. The wind blast roared in his ears, brought tears to his eyes, the weightlessness brought his blood to his head, and his bladder felt like it was full. He had no sense of up or down. The ground rushing past him was a blurred green wall; the horizon was a bottomless pit.

He flung out his arms and legs to prevent toppling. Swales and hills of grass passed quickly by beneath him. He saw troops of two-legged dinosaurs, theropods, running through the long grass in a wedge formation, looking for all the world like flocks of birds against a green sky. From the sun, he knew he was heading northwest. The landscape became rolling hills, broken with green canyons and cycad-covered buttes. Ruins of ancient towers and domes dotted the hills, and the shards of crystal as long as toppled skyscrapers lay broken along the ridges.

The land became a field of craters, large and small, and the hills became broken mountains. He passed over a land of craters, as if the surface of the moon were overgrown with brush and wiry, crooked pines. Some craters were small, the size of cities, and others so wide that their rim walls were miniature mountain ranges. At the center of each shined a round crater lake.

Oblong objects the size of aircraft carriers, made of alloys and ceramic that did not rust nor perish, were visible wherever erosion or earthquake had parted the tree cover. What they were, Preston could not tell. Monuments? Machines? Battlewagons? If they were tanks, they were the size of walking cities.

The craters grew smaller and fewer. The mountains grew taller, then taller still.

The tallest mountains on Earth in his day had been under thirty thousand feet. This range held peaks twice that height. The land was folded and cracked by ancient convulsions of the tectonic plates. Blocky ruins, looking like a giant version of a Navaho Pueblo village, indented the mountain walls for mile after mile, an empty metropolis larger than New York.

Up he rose. He was carried over an area of icy, windswept table lands. Each mountain peak had been sheered off. It did not look like the result of any natural geological process: Preston assumed some ancient, unimaginable weapon had leveled these mountains. Some of the resulting plateaus were forty thousand feet high, some forty-five. Some were flat and even, others tilted, with waterfalls like icy, white beards dangling from their crumbling lower edges. The gulfs between were so deep the bottoms were lost in shadow.

Cirrostratus and cirrocumulus clouds did not range higher than forty-five thousand feet. Peaks and plateaus that rose higher were bare of any trace of snow and ice. The crags and ridges were black and gray stone, barren as the moon, cold as the arctic.

In the middle of a perfectly circular plateau as flat as a polished marble floor, rose a pyramidal tower on a narrow base, topped with a beehive dome. Each face of the tower was folded into convoluted indentations.

He slowed, descended. Weight returned. He struck the ground, stumbled, and fell to all fours. The ground was cold and hard as cast iron, and the heat was sucked out of his hands and knees instantly.

Unsteadily, he rose. The tower looming over him was composed of cubes and rectangles, like an edifice built of children’s blocks, but six to twelve feet on a side. Each face of each cube was covered with intricate, rectilinear trigrams.

There was only one spot of color anywhere in the bleak, mid-air landscape of bone-dry, wind-scoured, ice-cold rock. A large statue of jade was seated on a cube of black metal at the foot of the pyramidal tower, half hidden in one of the indentations or bays forming the corrugated slopes. The manlike shape was draped in white, leaving bare a bright green right chest, shoulder and arm. The figure had long hair like a woman, spilling down past neck and shoulders, shining like polished onyx. The moustache and eyebrows were stark black streaks against the green countenance.

The figure was larger-than-life. Seated, the face was level with Preston. The features were of no race Preston knew. The cheekbones were high, the chin sharp, the nose thin, the eyes were long and narrow. The eyebrows were oddly long, growing at a slant across the temples and joining the hair above the ears. Between the eyebrows was an oval facial organ like a third eye, hidden beneath a vertical slit. All three eyes were closed.

As he looked, the trigrams coated each face of cubes composing the black tower began to glow cherry-red. He walked closer. Not only heat, but fresh air touched his face. Warmth filled him.

Preston stepped forward and touched the upper corner of the black cube on which the figure sat. “Hello? You look like a friendly cube I met underground. Are you a cognitive unit of the Eternal Machine?”

The jade statue had moveable eyelids, for these came open. The eyes beneath were black in pupil, iris and sclera, black as two marbles. The man’s gaze was so cold and dispassionate that for a moment Preston did not feel as if anyone were staring at him. The next moment, Preston jumped back, startled.

This was no jade statue after all, but a jade man.

A vertical slit between his brows opened, revealing a third eye consisting of startling array of concentric pupils. This was more piercing and magnetic than a human eye. Staring into it was like falling into a well.

The man spoke. His voice was a bass baritone so deep, it seemed to rise from underfoot. “These are mnemonic and perceptive units, not meant for cognitive function. Through their agency, I am aware of distant events.”

Preston held up his hand, displaying the glowing ring. “This ring carried me here. It protected me from the cold and low pressure. It also moved me, when I was unconscious, three miles down through buried ruins where no one could follow me. Why?”

“To put you within speaking distance of the Eternal Machine.”

“Who, exactly, are you?”

“The chessmaster who placed you on the board. One of my agents saw you emerge from the tesseract aperture and crashland in a boiling lake. You are the sole human ever to pass through the time-singularity unexpectedly, unforeseen, and of your own accord. It would be wrong to neglect this benefaction.”

“It was an accident.”

“A meaningless word. All events fit into a cosmic pattern that extends throughout the natural order of timespace and transcends it. Your advent is part of that pattern.”

“I mean, I did not intentionally come to this era.”

“Your intent is inconsequential. You are here. You will serve the transcendent.”

Preston scowled. He certainly did not like that kind of talk. “I don’t remember volunteering for anything.”

“Then your memory errs. You indeed agreed. The task is to save the human race from extinction.”

“My race? The first humans? Or all the races?”

“Your race, certainly. The others, their doom rests with them. Mine, no. I am the last.”

“And do you have a name, Mr. Chessmaster?”

“My many names and titles accumulated over millennia now mean nothing. Call me Eien. I am the last of the ageless Rephaim race, the Fourth Era of human evolution, whom the vulgar call the Phantoms.”

Preston said, “The Final Unit told me I was supposed to destroy something called the Time Tesseract, but it did not say where it was or how to destroy it. The people chasing me seem to think I already have it on me.”

“Their leaders were fed misinformation. It is useful that they so think, so that you are not destroyed by an indiscriminate, long-range weapon.”

Preston said, “And are you going to tell me how to find this dingus is, and what I do when I find it?”

“The location is currently unknown.”


Eien said, “The Tesseract has a limited self-preservation prerogative. Years ago, the Eighth Men seized the three-dimensional cross section of the core, which houses the directional elements. The control protocol was breached, whereupon the defensive reflex was triggered. The core removed itself to an unknown location outside their reach. But the Tesseract could not legally shut down its own operation. The Eighth Men are able, by remote control, to call upon the directional core to force open timespace apertures. However, the Tesseract is not allowed to evade or elude you. It will obey your orders to self destruct.”

“You cannot give the order?”

“No. My race created it to obey yours.”

“Fine. Where is the phone?”

Eien said, “A hearsay command will not be acknowledged. It must be given face to face.”

Preston rubbed his temples. “So all I have to do is talk to a machine, face-to-face, that no one knows where is it? Why did you people build a machine you cannot turn off?”

“To service our overweening pride.”

Preston grew impatient. “Then why the heck did you bring me here? Aside from telling me you cannot do anything?”

“To clarify your role in this world.”

“Go ahead. Clarify like nobody’s business.”

“Need I use many word, or few?”

“I am a bright guy. Just give me the bottom line.”

The two dark eyes narrowed, while the vertical eye in the middle of his forehead opened wide and grew bright and terrible to look at. “Do not throw yourself from any more high places, merely to provoke me. Cure yourself of your reckless, suicidal tendencies.”

Preston bristled. “What tendencies? What the blazes are you talking about?”

The bass voice of Eien was so deep Preston could feel the words in his bones. “My instruments have observed you: A hunger for death haunts you. You are not to blame for having survived your dead fellows in war, nor may you condemn yourself for your inability to adapt to the peaceful but rigid life of the post-war years. Your race has been reduced to rarities collected for gladiatorial sadism or harem degradation. Your world is dead; she can no longer condemn you; your rebellion against her must cease. This is your world, now. Your fate takes priority over your personal preferences. Do your duty.”

Preston uttered a swearword and spat on the ground. “Who died and made you god?”

Eien closed his third eye, and his face grew still and impassive. He seemed as calm as the statue Preston had first taken him to be. “Free men obey truth because they submit to no man’s voice. Serfs obey a master’s voice because they submit to no truth.”

“Is that why you flew me here? To tell me to shut up and man up?”

The lids fell halfway over the strange, black-within-black eyes of the immortal, but he spoke no word in answer.

Preston said, “When I find this tesseract, can I use it to carry me home again? To return everyone to his own native era?”

“You can do so, but you may not.”

“What does that mean?”

The jade-green face seem to come to life again. The expression was now earnest and stern, “Tell me the truth, Colonel! Do you wish to return to your home era?”

Preston shrugged “I suppose. Haven’t really thought about it.”

“Think now.”

He had only talked to Fyodor for a few minutes, swapped a few drinks, but he had made the man a promise to help him escape. And then there was Cynisca. And he had made promises to Cucuio; extravagant promises, to be sure, but Preston had made them. No one forced him to open his mouth.

Preston eventually spoke again. “There is nothing for me back there.”

“Then this is your world. She claims your loyalty. You must love her.”

“This freakish place? I hate it. Well, I like the dinosaurs.”

“You must love your world with infinite love and hate her evils with infinite hate, or else you cannot make the effort needed to save the world from the evils of the world.”

“No one died and make me god, either. How can I save the world?”

“How can you not? To revive the race, the power of the Empire of the Mighty must be broken; which means overthrowing the Advocacy; which means striking at the heart of the power of the Watchers; which means destroying the Time Tesseract. The alternative is the abolition of man.”

Preston said, “Who, precisely, is included in this war effort?”

“If you join me, the number increases by one.”

“What makes you think we can do it?”

“I am a Rephaim of the Paragon rank, older than countless eons of time. I adhere to the mental disciplines of my kind, and follow the ancient rites of neuro-pneumatic enlightenment. I know men are not meant to live as slaves, nor to serve and worship evil.”

Preston laughed, and found his anger vanishing. “What is the plan? What do I do?”

The green man spread his hands, and spoke solemnly. “I have no plans. My time here is short. You must lead.”


*** *** ***

Episode 34 Two Hundred Fifty Million Years of Woe


Preston mused, “You say I have to fall in love with this world to save it. Why should I?”

“Your answer is not in words. Look.”

Preston turned away from the green man. For many minutes, he stared in silence at the panorama.

At sixty thousand feet, the curve of the horizon was visible, with a line of luminous blue clinging to it beneath a sky of black. Beneath was a strange, flat-topped landscape of black plateaus and tablelands. Between the plateaus yawned dizzying gulfs of air. The rock was as dry as the moon, since this was above the height clouds reached. The upper cliffwalls of the odd, headless mountains were wind-tortured black rock, but, further down, glaciers were bright necklaces, from which cloaks of snow reached down the mighty slopes from forty thousand to fourteen thousand feet. The lower hems and fringes of this white ended in the dark green of pine. The distance reduced these hilltop forests to featureless jade pools, crisscrossed by wind ripples.

The circle of his gaze reached some three hundred miles. He was not used to seeing airplane-level vistas while standing on solid ground. It was like looking at a satellite photograph.

A quarter billion years had passed. Nine separate human races, comprised of myriad civilizations rising and falling, myriad generations as uncounted as the grains in a sandstorm, had been carried into oblivion by the winds of time, but had left their stamp on the landscape.

Even from such a height, signs of man were visible.

A dark and endless ocean formed the eastern horizon: Panthalassa, the ocean with no hither shore. Closer was a checkerboard of farmland recovered from this ocean by dikes longer than the Great Wall of China; a landscape of craters could be seen in another quarter; glints of light reflected from broken and tilted towers impossibly high, rising above western jungles. South of the jungle was grassland flat as a pool table.

Far to the west, a smaller mountain range formed jagged blue shadows against a dark sky. Darker clouds of volcanic eruptions hung above it. These were the Persian Gulf Mountains beneath which he had found the dead metropolis. Down to this plain from the mountains reached an aqueduct astronomically vast, leaping valleys and canyons on many diamond arches. This was greater than any work of engineering Preston had ever envisioned. The aqueduct fed into a canal, mile-wide and straight as a ruler, which cut south across the grassland.

Aqueduct and canal were dry. Ruins of vessels, river-going warships large as cities, were seated on the canal-bed. The smoke of campfires trickled upward from portholes and gun muzzles of the nearest warship. Someone was using a long-dead warship as his stronghold. A locust cloud hung above it like a smudge. Preston wondered it this were the current caravan camp of the Lifesmiths. Was Cynisca there?

The grassland lapped up on the foot of the hill and mountains on which he now was perched. In the lower mountains below him he saw the bookshelf-shaped metropolis that he before had noted carved into the dark walls of a vast, raised plateau, pueblo houses on a titanic scale. Thousands of windows stared at the sky like blind eyes. In one place only, a small cluster of windows were bright. Lamps burned. There, he saw opaque azure clouds, a sure omen of the Seventh Men.

This mountainscape holding the vertical city was separated from the dry canal by only a few miles of grazing land. The dry canal ran toward a distant blue glitter hinting at the inland sea of Tethys. Above this blue shimmer, at the very limits of vision, were dots in the air his eyes could not resolve. Flying ships? Flying castles? Not for the first time, he cursed his lack of forethought, that he had stowed no binoculars in his survival pack.

This, then, was the land of the Empire of the Mighty. Preston turned away and spoke to the motionless green man.

“We are both crazy, you know,” Preston said, “We cannot win.”

“Doctors eventually lose all patients to death,” said Eien with superhuman calm. “We cannot yield.”

“How come a man your age still cares about doing anything?”

“If you found a baby fated to die young crying, is it better to feed her, or break her neck?”

“Feed her. But I am not a million years old. I have not seen a million babies die. You have. You are the last of your kind. What keeps you going?”

“To answer, I must explain the sorrow of all eons, which no words can encompass. I will say the smallest part of the truth, merely a shadow.”

“The executive summary. Got it.”

“The First race drove itself to within two hundred individuals of total extinction, not once, but twice. After the second self-caused near-extinction, small habitable zones existed in Siberia and Tierra del Fuego, divided by boiling equatorial regions. These brought forth two separate sub-species of the First Men, whose mating produced but mules. The solemn Siberians outperformed the more aggressive Feugians in matters of organization and communal spirit, but fell behind them in creativity and inner vision.

“Two hundred thousand years of irreconcilable conflict followed. Neither could understand, tolerate, conquer, govern nor pacify the other. Both breeds, mired in materialism, concluded that the sole way to produce lasting peace was to produce an artificial race of Second Men, equipped by genetic predispositions to be fair-minded, longsuffering and temperate magistrates, and to submit both to their rule.

“The Second Men were a mystical and passive folk, combining the worst of their parent species. So things stood for a million years. The Second Men governed, but could not befriend the First. The First Men suffered from a crippling sense of inferiority, seeing neighbors wiser, smarter, and saner than themselves as their overlords. Their numbers fell.

“The Second Men could not save the Firstlings from extinction. The grief of that failure persisted past generations. The Second Men blamed their makers for the imperfections found in themselves. A race more ruthless, and more able to bring forth perfection, indeed, perfect no matter the cost, was called for.

“So the Third Men arose. The rapid destruction of the Ipotane by their vicious children established an aberrant psychology which persists to this day. You have seen it.

“The Emim, whom the vulgar rightly call the Terrors, sought absolution for the sorrows of mankind by creating children immune to all their flaws. Their innate sadism and love of death they corrected by fathering a deathless race.

“They learned the praxis of recovering periodic totipotence and reducing cellular senescence to zero, a secret amoebas know, which more complex organisms forgot. Combined with advances on a molecular engineering level, the Fourth Race were made immortal, and nearly unkillable.

“They made us.

“They thought if we feared no dying, we would not be morbid. They thought installing mechanisms to give us conscious control of our glands, hormones, and endocrine systems would place all passions under the sovereignty of reason.

“They made us perfect, incorruptible. The gates of eternity were opened, but only at the loss of necessary components of the human soul.

“For three million years, we immortals ruled Earth. All aspects of man and cosmos we investigated, understood, cherished, for so we had been designed. Over all things we held dominion. All the secrets of nature had been cracked open, save only the nature of time and death, entropy and eternity.

“Finally, into this unreachable we ventured. At the pinnacle of our progress and pride, an era came when we deemed nothing within our power was forbidden, and nothing was outside our power. Preparations lasted centuries. All our institutions bent their resources to the end of creating a chronic singularity. The Tesseract we made by folding the fabric of spacetime itself, using unimaginable energies.

“In our arrogance, we assumed that the timespace continuum was not a made thing, not an artifact, not a creation like a fine machine nor a work of art. We assumed it was not a thing with its own indwelling spirit and sense of self preservation.

“Had we recognized the design in nature, we would have foreseen what safety features would surely be designed to prevent us from destroying the continuum. We were blind.

“The singularity woke, and the walls of timespace were punctured as if by grapeshot all up and down the timestream. Our era was at the eye of the storm. The atrocities and calamities following the failure of cause and effect at a macroscopic level I cannot describe. Let us simply say we were haunted by ghosts of men and nations, strange machines and spectral suns, or by beloved and wonderful things, towers of twilight, prophetic swans and ominous comets, symphonies issuing from living lightbeams, that faded into and out of existence. These were other versions of ourselves and our works we had unintentionally eliminated from the timestream.

“The greatest and final haunting came in our own form. We were our own nemesis.

“Our own immortal selves from beyond the end of time reached backward and smote the singularity, obliterating themselves by this act. This created a time-paradox whose effects could be avoided only by the terrible expedient of condemning our own inextinguishable race to extinction, so that those future shadows of us could never solidify. Their self sacrifice gave us the chance to save mankind.

“But it was a chance my race could not act on. The mystical and immanent oneness with the transcendent your race dimly can sense, our dispassionate neural organization was utterly incapable of approaching. We were too sane to go mad with love.

“We had to create a race better than ourselves in this respect, even if it was worse in all others, in order to aid us in accomplishing out downfall.

“Words fail. Let analogy serve. Imagine if you discovered you could neither see the hues in a sunset nor hear sublime themes in a symphony or song, nor feel the love in shining from eyes of wife or child, but you knew your grandfathers had once enjoyed this capacity. Would you not seek the return of your grandfathers, no matter their other flaws, in order to amend this loss?

“We had lost the human spirit, and nearly lost the universe.

“Two factions divided us: call them Naturalists and Artificers. The first faction said that meddling with the nature of man was an art man was too unwise to use: therefore we must resurrect the First Men, and face whatever fate nature, and whatever lies behind nature, originally intended.

“The second said that evolution itself had given man the power to evolve the race in whatever direction man wished, and therefore it was our duty to create a child race, even as the Terrors had once created us.

“The Artificers created the Gibborim, or Mighty Ones, to have the original passions and emotions we lacked, and a true human spirit. The curse of immortality we did not impose on them; and for this, they hated us bitterly. We made them with a spiritual dimension we lacked, so that they might entertain angels, as it were.

“They entertained fallen angels.

“Of the after races, each was created in its own time for purposes either wise or vile. When worldwide war melted the icecaps and sank continents, the Fifth Men created the amphibians of the Sixth Era, a placid and inert people. These in turn eventually created their replacements, the erratic and ecstatic Winged Men, to correct for errors they saw in themselves.

“The Winged Men proved unable to maintain lucid civilization: their idea of perfection was the icy and soulless collective mind possessing the Eighth Men, the Watchers.

“The collective mind of the Eighth regretted their lack of individualism, and so created the Final Men, who are anarchists. The Finals are called the Avim, Devastators, because they obliterated all surface life.

“In their final years of civilization, rediscovering our proud technologies, the Final Men recreated our disaster. Born amid machines they could neither understand nor repair, the final generation of the Final Men adopted a base superstition of ancestor worship, and called dead mortals gods. The Final Men found the wreckage of the Tesseract, and used it to bring forward into their own dead age their own half-forgotten fathers, the Eighth Men. This created a paradox that decimated them: in a single hour, the Finals were overthrown.

“A bitter and broken remnant Avim still exist, those who are neither children nor fathers of any who dared meddle with the structure of time. All others are disembodied voices, overheard in remote places, screaming forever to be let out.

“Eighth Men, warned by this disaster, carefully abducted from times past only those certain to die. Slowly, they re-peopled the Earth, bringing forth extinct creatures in the same sequence nature brought them, starting with trilobites, then amphibians, then dinosaurs, and so on.

“But when they brought my race out from the past, they brought that faction of the immortals who had vanished from history: the Naturalists, who made the Eternal Machine.

“We saw the artificial evolution of man had merely ended, once more, in self destruction. Not without conflict, we put aside the Artificers and their faction. The Eternal Machine we once used to resurrect us from any bodily harm or undo any memory loss, we destroyed and rebuilt with a new purpose: to protect and serve the First Men, whose revival was now at hand.

“All the dead races won a second life in this, the Tenth Era of Man. The history of Tenth Earth began with one hundred million years of struggle between the Phantoms and the Watchers. The Eternal Machine grew, and displaced all the warrens and buried cities of the Devastators, seized their energy sources. The Machine blessed and protected the First Men. The Eighth Men were driven, cringing, into the tropics of Alaska.

“But we Naturalists were still condemned by time and fate. Death overtook us. Those we hoped to take up our dropped mantle failed. Slowly the Eighth Men prevailed. Now only I am left.

“Unlike us, they were willing to use the Tesseract to receive information from the Final Aperture. When, in due time, the years pierced by apertures arrived, contact with the Final Aperture could be resumed, and was. Watchers in such years could be forewarned by their descendants against all of our strategies before we formulate them. Until now.

“This current year is the one occupied by the Final Aperture. If you destroy the Tesseract, no future apertures will open, and no further messages from the future will ever be discovered.”

Preston said, “So that is why you want me to lead?”

For the first time, the grim face of the green man showed a smile. “That is one reason. No future history of you exists. You will surprise the world.”

“What is the other?”

“I must die.”

And the smile was gone, never to be seen again.

The green man raised his hand high and pointed. Preston, scowling, turned.

Many flotillas of bright, deadly, shimmering disks of the Watchers, their upper hulls crowded with soldiers, like meteor showers dove down through the dark, thin, freezing air.


*** *** ***

Episode 35 Armada of the Air

The green man fixed his eyes on the incoming airborne flotilla as he rose to his feet. He was alarmingly tall, taller even than the giant Mighty Ones; Preston’s head was even with the titan’s waist. Eien raised one hand in a slow, stiff gesture, his face stern. Immediately half of the five score or more flying disks of the Watchers lost control, and dropped straight down, yawing and spinning, like puppets with strings suddenly cut.

The flying disks were made of some hard, crystalline substance that shattered like glass but burned like wood when they plowed into the sides of black mountains over fifty thousand feet in the air. The smashed wrecks spilled tiny corpses or bald men, exposing parabolic frameworks of ceramic ribs and struts. As the disks broke open, some threw their metallic toriod cores free and sent them rolling downslope, glowing with Cherenkov radiation, and spreading debris as they fell. These doughnut-shaped machines Preston recognized with a start. He had seen artist’s conceptions in trade magazines of what fusion reaction engines in aircraft or spacecraft might one day look.

A few, a very few, thin silhouettes leaped free of the toppling, tumbling bodies, but then the parachute canopies Preston expected to see bloom did not appear. The falling men struck the iron-dark rock of the mountain slope and burst like water-balloons filled with red ink.

Preston, meanwhile, had taken cover behind the large, trigram-covered cube Eien had been using as a throne, brought his Holland & Holland to his shoulder, thumbed off the safety, aimed at the lead flying disk, and waited for it to come into range. Preston could see figures standing on the upper hull of the flying machine: these were the tall, narrow silhouettes of giraffe-necked Second Men, each carrying his weird harquebus that fired crystal lances. Their crests and cloaks were stiffly streaming backward in the thin, sharp wind of their descent.

Half the flying disks were still in flight, still approaching. Eien spoke solemnly. “When I used that ring on your finger to bring you here, the command was evidently overheard. You were detected and followed. My observation mechanisms failed to warn me of this approach. Note that only half the ships fell when I opened fire. The remaining disks have Firstlings aboard. My weapons are prohibited from slaying them. I must override that prohibition, and give each fire order manually. I cannot do so from any remote location, because my information, thought-subroutine, and memory prosthetics have evidently been invaded, and their integrity compromised.” Preston thought it eerie that he had not seen anything strike the ships. He wonder what sort of invisible, inaudible force Eien commanded as his weapons.

“So what does that all mean?” asked Preston. He spoke without taking his eyes from the nearest incoming ship, not blinking.

Because Preston’s eyes were fixed on his target, he did not notice when the black cubes and rectangles comprising the looming beehive-shaped tower behind him lost weight, grew buoyant, and began floating one by one toward the incoming armada, slowly at first, but gathering speed. The red-glowing trigram writing inscribed on each face grew bright and brighter as the massive blocks accelerated.

Eien spoke in a calm, distant voice. “It means the Eternity Circuit will no longer raise me from the dead. Now is my hour when I discover what lies beyond life, a mystery long denied to my race.”

Preston said sharply, “No! There must be another option.”

Eien now turned. His all-black eyes were narrowed, but the organ on his brow blazed like a bright star, lens within lens. “Must there be?”

Preston could make no answer. A cacophony drowned out other noises. The men crouched or clinging to the upper and lower hulls of the advancing ships now opened fire. The glowing, levitating blocks and cubes from the disintegrating tower crowded together, moving to intercept the incoming fire, blocking Preston’s aim. Preston jerked his head up, startled, and saw the general scene.

The long-necked Second Men shot crystals spears that gleamed and flashed as they fell. One of them was as loud as a flashbulb shattered. A hundred was a thunderstorm. Dark-faced giants shot electric pellets from the end of elongated amber wands, which clattered like hail. Chattering Terrors dropped beehives or shot humming wasps, which died immediately in the cold.

Kneeling First Men dressed in turbans and red silks fired arrows from recurve bows; tribesmen in bearskin jerkins and painted clay masks threw stones from slings or bone-tipped darts from spearthrowers; white-haired dwarves from some First Men epoch after Preston’s home age fired sonic beam-weapons whose deadly vibrations were muted and lost in the thin air.

Preston saw the makeshift incompetence of the attack, and realized the Watchers had not prepared to assault so high an aerie. They had not known where Eien hid. Preston unintentionally had led them here.

Some of the fire penetrated the interception. Preston shrank back behind the block of the throne. Eien did not deign to flinch or cower. A glassy spear penetrated Eien’s chest and protruded from his back. Preston looked on in awe as Eien, with no change of expression, snapped the glass spearhead in his fingers, drew the bloodstained shaft from his body, and cast it casually aside.

Arrows and darts pierced him. He did not bother to draw these. Instead, a bright flame came from the hem of his robe, and burned the wooden shafts, consuming stone or bone arrowheads. The wounds closed and the flesh sealed over without scar.

Preston’s hackled rose to see it, seeing so clearly how inhuman this ancient being was. Perhaps missing flesh and blood be replaced by the technology of the Phantoms they same way Preston’s ammunition was replaced. But, if so, what was the difference between technology and black magic?

Huge blocks swung upward through the air, smashing into the flying disks. Some were shattered like clay pigeons, but others fended off the flying cubes by erecting fields of force that shimmered in the air like the surface of a disturbed pond.

Blocks thrown back by force fields now divided themselves into countless tiny cubes no bigger than dice and flung themselves like un-aerodynamic bullets through the fields and into and through the bodies of archers and slingers and harquebusiers clinging by antigravity to the top or bottom of the flying disks. Anyone who lost his footing, or was flung awry by yawing or buckling, was suddenly subject to the normal gravity of the environment, and fell. The dead fell silently; the giants laughed and roared defiance as they fell; others screamed horribly.

The flotilla parted, half going left, and half going right. The mountaintop was encircled. Ships were landing.

Eien called back the blocks and bricks of the tower. They formed an instant dome around the two of them, windowless. Fiery trigrams flashed and faded in rows and streams along the faces of the black cubes, quick as numbers speeding on a computer screen.

The noise level fell from a roar to a mere clamor. Shouted conversation was possible. The green man looked black as jet in the flickering red-lit gloom. Eien shouted, “The burden of leadership is yours. Name another option, and I will obey.”

But as he spoke, he tapped his foot against his the bare cube of his throne. The cube moved silently aside. A square well dropped down.

“Is this your priest’s hole? We both use it.”

“Final men are below us. I can paralyze them for a time, but not if I leave here.”

“We hop on cubes and fly away.”

“The levitation vessels are faster. One of us must stay behind and direct fire against pursuit while the other retreats. Which one? I cannot train you in my weapons. I can withstand wounds that would destroy you. I have no other loves, nor obligations.”

“What about the option killing them all?”

“The Watchers mean to release radiation from their drive cores which will halt all biological life. Only if they kill every part of my body, is my death sure. I can withstand for an hour what you cannot withstand for a minute.”

The air suddenly grew hot and close, even with whatever invisible power was protecting Preston from the altitude and temperature, he felt it.

“The Watchers are opening their core containment. Death comes.”

“I will stay and die with you.”

“His followers own a leader’s life, not he. Fulfill your oath.”

With no further word, the tall green man seized Preston suddenly by the jacket front, and drew him suddenly toward the mouth of the square pit. More by instinct than thought, Preston drew his knife and slashed at the hand trying to save him. The ichor inside the green man’s hand was not truly blood, but a liquid cold as icewater that splashed and clung like glue. Eien did not wince nor frown, but set his wounded hand against Preston’s face, for a moment choking and blinding him with the strange, clinging cold blood. He shoved. Preston fell.

Down he went, rebounding against the sides of the shaft. He kept expecting the ring to light up and slow his fall. It did not. First one side of the shaft hit him with a glancing hammer blow, then the other. He was clubbed by his own rifle stock as he rebounded again. He barked shin, both elbows, face, legs, feet. Finally a blow struck his head. At that point, he could not tell if he were asleep, awake, unconscious, or dead.

It was later. Perhaps only a moment later, or perhaps a century. He decided he must be dead. Freezing, groaning, gasping, panting, Preston was feeling his own warm blood trickling over his face, mingled with the icy fluid of Eien’s blood. Preston felt his body was moving. Something had him by one ankle, and was yanking him in short, sudden jerks across a bed of broken scree and chipped rock. It was so uncomfortable and unpleasant that he decided he must be dead. His grandmother had been right about his careless lifestyle, his fighting and gambling, and now he was in hell.

Preston squinting, wishing for his magic night vision to turn on. It did. Suddenly he could see the hunched figure dragging him along by the leg. The man was shaped like a turtle, with a great carapace on his back. Preston only saw three limbs. One was a pegleg ending in a wheel. The other was a multijointed leg ending in a metal claw. A limb like an elephant trunk issued from the man’s arm socket and ended, not in nostrils, but in a fanged muzzle. It was this that was clamped onto Preston’s leg.

Preston whistled. The man turned, grunting. Half his skull was a metal hemisphere. His jaw was a contraption of wires and tubes, some of them tucked into a machine clamped to his chest. His other eye was oversized. A secondary eye peered forth from his cheek below the main eye, and it had a pupil like a cat’s. Another limb came into view as the hulking man turned, a crooked appendage issuing from the middle of the chest ending in a hand with nine fingers and two thumbs. In this nine-fingered hand, dangling by its strap, was Preston’s Holland & Holland. On the man’s pinky finger was Preston’s ring.

Red rage ignited in the black void of Preston’s dazed brain, bringing a scream to his lips and motion to his hands. He drew his Mauser and fired.

The man scuttled back. He dropped the ring, which lit up, but kept his grip on the rifle.

Preston fired again. The jaws holding his foot released him. Out now came a tongue as long as a horsewhip and struck Preston’s gun hand.

The Mauser slipped.

Blood and other fluids were bubbling from the man’s face and torso. The man began to curl up like a pill bug, trying to close the upper and lower lip of his carapace against itself. But he could not withdraw entirely into the shell and close it, because the rifle was in the way.

Preston, ignoring the various aches and pains of his body, wormed forward and grabbed the riflestock. Preston yanked. The man clung tenaciously to the shoulder strap. Preston reached into the gap between the lower and upper lips of the folding carapace and got his hand on the trigger-guard.

When he slid across the glowing ring, the sensation of cold vanished. The ringing in his ears stopped. Preston grunted, “Damn you, Devil! I listened to you all my life! Now is my chance to kill you! Kill you forever! Drag me down to hell, will you? I am not trapped in hell with you! You are trapped in hell with me!”

As his spoke, his fumbling fingers pushed the folding trigger into place, and, with his thumb, clicked the safety off. Tangled in the shoulder strap, the crooked man had managed to fold himself around the deadly barrel of the weapon, so the muzzle was pressed deeply into his midriff.

The man said, “Phantom! Do not slay me!”

At the same moment, Preston heard the murmur and rustle of a multitude. He raised his head. Clinging like insects to the high, wide roof of the cavern he saw a throng of misshapen men with mismatched limbs, no two alike. Dozens of eyes and lenses peered down.


*** *** ***

Episode 36 The Final Men

Preston was bruised, dazed, and shivering. The cold shock of realizing a dozen enemies were all around him cleared his wits. He kept one hand on the trigger of his two-barreled elephant gun. With his other hand, he reached under himself, finding and donning the magic ring that protected him from the freezing air and low pressure. Then he groped without looking, found his dropped Mauser pistol, and picked it up.

The barrel of the double rifle was pressed into the torso of a grotesque cripple whose limbs, and head, had been partly or wholly replaced either by machinery or by mutated flesh. A carapace growing out of the man’s shoulder and back gave him the look of a freakish giant armadillo. One pegleg was a unicycle. One arm was a boneless trunk tipped with jaws.

Other grotesques and gargoyles clung to the ceiling. All were squamous, pockmarked, careworn, wrinkled, patched, dented, scarred. Some were bloated with fat, with round faces and pig eyes and boar tusks; others were lean as starving greyhounds, with alligator jaws crowded with shark fangs, or noses like hawk beaks. Many had replaced eyes with lenses, or with the eyes of night animals, or added a third eye or more to brow cheek, or chest. One had eyestalks like queer periscopes. The instinctive loathing a healthy man feels toward a leprous corpse that he suddenly sees move, and smells the scent of diseased and rotting flesh, made Preston’s bile rise.

It took an effort of will for Preston to remind himself that these were human beings.

The armadillo man was bleeding, weeping, and begging softly for his life. “Kill not me, O Phantom! I carry my twins in my womb-pouch! Young, undeveloped! They must be aged two years, or three, before they are lobotomized, for my cortex material to be grafted in, and brain information to overwrite theirs!”

His sense of disgust told him to shoot. His sense of self preservation, which was, perhaps, weaker in him than in other men, told Preston to hold his fire. Preston shouted, “Does anyone in this room want to lead me out of here? Otherwise I shoot your friend.”

A thin, vulture-faced man, wrinkled like a prune, called back, “You have wounded him, and he lacks the proper medical appliances and material. When he dies, we will take any organs or prosthetics to our own use, and suborn his Eternity Circuits.”

A metallic man with jaws like scissor-blades and eyes like pinecone clusters said in a soft and unctuous tones, “You have circuits as well! Fight each other. We will cannibalize the victor. Your chemical firearm destroys too much material to make recovery feasible. Fight with knives or biological pathogens only.”

A cyclops-eyed albino with multiple arms like a Hindu statue said in a high, thin, scraping voice, “Instrumentalities show you have second order interconnections with the dying Eternal Machine, in your weapons, your eyes, your cellular nutrient cycles, and a third order operative in the speech centers of your brain. This is valuable! None but Phantoms have hitherto been able to suborn mental domains to personal use. How was this done?”

A frog-mouthed hippopotamus man called down, “Eien was the last of the Phantoms. You are not he. Who are you?”

A sensation of unnatural horror crawled over Preston. “You are the Final Men. The Devastators. Eien said he would paralyze you.”

The hippopotamus said, “We interrupted the command logic he attempted to use. Twelve of our number were petrified. They had insufficient defensive routines written into their neural base levels.”

The thin and wrinkled vulture man said, “It was a windfall for us, a gracious gift! All of us here took valuable organs, organisms, and resources from their defenseless bodies as they writhed and screamed.”

The armadillo man pushed trembling fingers into his bleeding bullet wounds, and coughed. “Make me not laugh! The memory is too pleasant.”

Preston felt hot anger and then cold chills run through his body listening to this ghoulishness. “I am Colonel Preston Lost. I lead those who will overthrow the Empire. I am a First Man, not a Phantom, although I am allied with one of them, and his machines and agents have aided me in the past. Who are you?”

The armadillo man said, “Rarely do we recall or use names for each other. Only in these decayed and dying later days are we forced to make alliances, more than three together. The proud days when the principles of anarchy and self-reliance were pure, those are long behind. Others call me Horn.”

The others spoke. None waited for the others; each talked over his neighbor. “Hoar,” said the one-eyed albino. “Bore,” said the metal man with insect jaws. “Yean,” said the prune-faced vulture man. “Lean,” said the frog-faced hippopotamus. The other gargoyles, cyborgs, and cripples also spoke their names at once: Aim and Maim, One-Ear and None-Ear, Schlich and Thick, Fang and Fin, Wing and Sin, Windrune, Bloodvintner.

Preston said, “Okay, how about this. Suppose I ask you to help me escape, but I won’t threaten to kill Horn here if you don’t. Instead I will promise to kill him if you do. What then? I will turn his body over to whoever wants to make a deal.”

The vulture-faced cyborg, grinning, scuttled down the wall and drew closer. “Me! I am eager to benefit myself! These others are languid with despair. They are a dying race. But my father-mother lacked proper brain imposition circuits when I was cloned, and so the energetic spirit of youth is still mine! I am not adverse to risks!”

But the armadillo man whined, “No! Not so! Do not slay me for his benefit! You must only benefit yourself! Anything else betrays the beauty of anarchism.”

Preston waited for Yean, the vulture man, to get too close. Preston, without rising from his prone position, moved suddenly, and kicked the vulture’s spindly legs out from under him, threw a leg over his midsection, held him down.

Yean’s body was thin, weak, wretched. Only his mechanical parts, sinister blades that unfolded from the appliances hidden along his ribcage, had any strength. But when Yean slashed Preston, Preston’s heavy jacket turned the awkward blow. Preston clouted Yean with the pistol butt, pressed its barrel against his temple, pinning the man’s narrow head against the hard floor. He ordered him to sheathe his these rib-claws. Yean made a strangling noise, his beaklike jaws writhing in the dust, but obeyed.

The other Final Men, seeing one of their number in distress, chuckled. One or two applauded by clapping misshapen hands, or clashing nails against hard breastplates.

During all this, Preston never let the Holland & Holland barrels, pressed into the bleeding midriff of Horn, the armadillo, waver by an inch.

Preston said, “What about now, Horn? What if I kill him and let you cannibalize his parts?”

Horn said, “What trick is this? I am confused. Why would you help me?”

Preston said, “I will kill one of you and feed him to the other. Is that your way of life? So! Tell me why it should be him, and not you!”

Horn said, “How can we compare each other? He is he and I am I. We share nothing in common. Without the Machine, we would not even understand each other. We each invent our own private language.”

Yean worked his jaws, spat dust, and said, “It would benefit me if you slew him! Me!”

Horn answered, “But I also wish to survive, and to fatten myself on others.”

Yean scratched against the ground with his rib-knives, an ear-splitting note as shrill as a baby’s whine, and said in an eager voice, “Me, also! I want others to suffer.”

Horn rotated his bald, metallic head and spread his throat tendrils, a gesture somehow as melancholy as a shrug. “The suffering of other folk makes me laugh. I like to laugh. But because you shot me, Lost, it hurts when I laugh.”

A voice came down from above. Lean the hippopotamus man grinned with his grisly, lipless frog-mouth. “It is futile, First Man!”

Preston said, “What is?”

Lean moved from ceiling to down the wall, clinging to the sheer surface as easily as he had clung to the roof. Preston wondered if this was the same technology as he had seen the flying disks use, which allowed crewman to stand on the underside, head-downward, as if right side up. Preston saw a glint of blue light among Lean’s fingers. The fat man was wearing an eight-sided magic ring, not unlike Preston’s own. Lean croaked, “Tempting us to cooperate is futile!”

Preston said, “Anyone can see reason.”

Lean said, “Each race sees differently.”

Preston said, “And facts are still facts, no matter who looks at them.”

Lean grunted. “Lost, your name and demeanor is like ours, but you do not understand us.”

“Enlighten me.”

Lean said, “In our fatter days, there were many parts of the Machine to cannibalize, and we each expanded our lives by many years, replacing limbs and organs and cloning brains as needed, and copying memories into our young, who survive the process only as copies of ourselves. We have achieved the long sought dream of human evolution: the pinnacle of all progress ends with the Final Men.”

Preston said, “You keep yourselves alive like vampires, is that it? You scrounge materials and such from the Phantom’s worldwide Machine.” He assumed this included their secrets of self-repair and making matter out of nothing. “You don’t need civilization, or so you tell yourself. No social contract. No family. No friends. No children. No love. I think I understand you well enough. You live in hell.”

No one replied.

Preston said, “Even with a gun at your head, none of you can think of a reason to live. You call that progress?”

The pallid, many-armed cyclops said in its shrill, horrid voice, “There is neither male nor female among us, neither is there mating, brotherhood, kinship. The unfairness of hierarchy is abolished. Among us is neither trade nor government. All property is theft, and all law is crime, so we abolish both. All men own all things, whatever he can seize from another. Each is sovereign over his body, each a god ruling the universe of his own mind.” The man’s grin of triumph was a ghastly semicircle of metallic fangs.

Preston was overcome with a sensation more like disgust than like anger. His self control vanished. He yanked the Holland & Holland free from where its strap was tangled with Horn’s irregular carapace, pointed it up at the grinning albino, and fired.

In this enclosed space, the noise was like a nail into each ear, and the body of Hoar was broken into quarters by the force of the overpowered bullet. A blow from a sledge hammer or a pile driver would have not done more. Bloody fragments were flung to each side of the dark chamber. Hard metallic bits of internal machinery fell to the floor. The Final Men clenched their eyes or clicked new lenses into place.

Preston said, “Well, if you are your own god, I guess god is dead, then.”

Yean said, “Confusion mounts! Clarity eludes. You did not kill Horn, but Hoar. And your method leaves fewer salvageable parts. Asphyxiation is better.”

But Horn said, “Yean! Hear my words. If we both together, as one, ask him to spare us, and agree to save him, he will.”

But the vulture-faced Yean said, “How does this benefit him?”

Preston said, “It will prove you are not total idiots. Join me. Fight the Empire of the Mighty. I do not know what they promised you to get you to aid them in their attack on the mountain above us, but I do know they mean to enslave you. So, now I am telling you to undo what you did. Turn back on whatever machines you turned off. Fix what you broke. Maybe Eien is not dead. Maybe he is, but maybe his machines can resurrect him, if you stop bollixing them. What did the Watchers promise you?”

Yean said, “Nothing. They are the race that made ours. They have ways to compel obedience by mean of remote signals to pain centers in our biology, to induce agony, or inflict brain damage, or various other sensations which most of us find displeasing.”

Preston said, “The hell you say. You are able to graft machines and limbs and organs onto yourself and swap your brains from body to body. You tell me you cannot get rid of a doohickey in your own brain? That is—” He uttered a swearword.

Horn said, “It is the command and control mechanism written into our nerve tissue at a genetic level: One must be unconscious during the operation, utterly helpless. No one can remove it from himself.”

Preston said, “Free each other. One of you acts as surgeon for the next; and then switch.”

The Final Men simply stared, uncomprehending. Then, slowly, a look of wonder appeared on one face, and then on the next.

Horn said, “And if the Watchers detect the attempt? The surgeon would be struck down.”

As suddenly as that, the little spark of hope vanished from all their eyes.

Preston grimaced. He either had to speak, or shoot. But he could think of nothing to say.

*** *** ***

Episode 37 Dead Summon Living

Preston pondered. Here he was, buried alive in a cavern somewhere beneath a barren mountain peak, somewhere above fifty thousand feet, and not knowing whether Eien of the Phantoms, last of the immortal men of the Fourth Era, still lived and battled alone against the aerial armada of the Watchers and their fighting slaves, or had died attempting to cover his retreat, Preston was surrounded and outnumbered by the crippled and crooked Final Men.

Perhaps he could blast his way free with Mauser and elephant gun. Perhaps not. But the glowing ring on his finger was his only hope of leaving the Indochinese Plateau, and he did not know how to make it fly. It did not, as last time, magically turn itself on when he was falling. Instead he had fallen and wounded himself, knocking himself unconscious, perhaps giving himself a concussion.

And the idea of climbing down mountain peaks twice the height of the Himalayas, and making his way on foot across a landscape of glacier, snow, peaks and chasms for countless miles while eluding airborne pursuit was madness.

Two of the subterranean Final Men, and perhaps more, were toying with the idea of cooperating for their mutual benefit. But some sort of biological control mechanism was built into the pain center of the brains. No Final Man could remove it from himself, nor did any trust the other to perform the operation.

It was an impasse. He could not trust them, nor ask them to trust him, until the concept of trust was something they could imagine. But how?

While he thought, Horn, the armadillo-scaled man with a wheeled pegleg, backed away from him. Horn brought an eight-sided ring out from his cheek pouch, and made a gesture, muttered a word. The gems in the ring lit up with an unearthly blue glow. Horn passed the ring over his gut wounds. The lips of the wound closed up, and the blood dried.

Preston said, “How are you doing that? What is that ring?”

Horn scuttled back, fearful. Preston asked his question again, and several more. Horn eventually explained. “Certain subroutine units of the Eternal Machine are hidden in the rocks here. Some are microscopic, some are smaller yet. Some assume the shapes of cubes when reaching down into three dimensional space, or grow as large as towers, as great cities, or engines larger than hills. Some are in the immaterial realm. In older days, there were many, and we could take from the Phantoms without retaliation. Now, they are few, and we grow less. A second order benediction, combined with invection, expels alien matter and returns living material to replicate time-states. A third-order manipulation is needed to restore life and motion. Then, a fourth order change removes the spiritual stain: this is an oblation. The ring is a basic interface. It is a tool to carry commands to the Machine.”

Preston said, “But now the Machine is dying, isn’t it? You burrowed into its systems, hacked its mind, and messed it up. For years? For centuries?”

Lean the hippopotamus man said, “We keep no records. Unpleasant memories, we discard. It has always been thus. We recall no other world.”

Horn said, “I remember. Once, we fought the Phantoms. Long, strange wars in the bowels of the earth, where none saw.”

Aim was the name of the man with crablike eyestalks. His coat was porcupine quills. He spoke in a voice like creaking leather. “I recall. They took everything we built, and rebuilt it to serve a memory from the past: the First Race. Your race. But then, they passed away.”

Horn said, “Even though they could not die, they wished to depart, and take your place in the realm of the dead.”

Bore was the insect-faced man sheathed with metal armor. His voice was like rasping stones. “Only in these later days, when the cognitive units are gone, and the mnemonic and metempsychosis units rare, are we forced to act in concert in order to overcome Eien, the last immortal. With his defeat, mutual detestation will part and scatter us.”

Horn said, “Eien was the greatest of their savants. All that our race knows, we stole from his stored thoughts, for he buried them in many machines, in many places.”

Preston straightened up. “All?”

None-Ear, a cyborg who had not spoke before spoke now. His limbs were stubby, his head blank bone helmet crowned with horns, and his pelt was a sharkshin. His eyes and mouth were situated in his chest. “The Watchers were too controlled, too calm. They share their minds with each other, and each blends into each. We were made from what they lost. We share nothing. Time and evolution must end with us: we are the nothingness men, the nihilists, the god-men, divine each man within himself. We are final. The Watchers could only reverse engineer the Eternal Machine through our intermediation.”

Preston said, “You are all slaves of the Watchers. But you have never tried to free each other?”

Horn said, “The pain induction mechanisms are subtle and self-repairing, carried on by mitochondria. Several orders of manipulation, both molecular and surgical, would be needed, including fourth-order alterations to moderate spiritual deformities.”

Preston said, “Could Eien do it? If you fix his machines, could he do it?”

There was a murmur in the chamber. “He is a Phantom,” said Bore in a clash of metal insect-jaws. None-Ear said, “Their powers are great; no one can estimate their reach.” A third man with a mole head said, “The Phantoms once broke the chains of time. All the dead come forth in the latter days.”

But Lean said, “The Last Phantom has never aided us in the past.”

Preston said, “He is under my orders. I will tell him to do it.”

A strange thing happened. All the misshapen heads of the cripples gathered there jerked as if a loud noise had arrested their attention. They stood still, frozen and rapt. Some quivered, trembling.

After a moment, all of them relaxed. Some breathed audible sighs.

Horn said, “Lost, we agree to your terms. I will restore what I have taken from the Machine. I will undo the damage I did.”

Yean said, “I as well.”

Preston said, “Why?”

Yean said, “That was the voice of the Phantoms. Eien is dead. His echoes and shadows are fighting the Watchers, but little time remains.”

Horn said, “You cut off the finger of Eien, the last immortal, and it fell with you. I salvaged it. The genetic information in the cells, and the nanomachines in the blood, are valuable. It is enough to begin a restoration.”

Preston said, “What did the voice of the Phantoms say?”

Lean said, “That there is one truth, not many, and you have spoken it. Eien will obey the command, and free us. The servants of Eien have heard your words.”

Preston stood up, holstered his pistol, and shouldered his rifle. As he did so, he felt something in his jacket pocket. He brought out the Bible that had been packed in his survival kit. How it came to be in this pocket, he did not recall, but it was too good a coincidence to pass up.

He held it toward Horn, and told him what it was. “Put your hand on this and swear. Swear to Almighty God that you will perform your oath faithfully, and restore what you broke, repair what you damaged. Someone older and scarier than the Phantoms will hear the oath. And if you break it, you will be brought to life again on the world’s last day, and burned in a lake of fire forever.”

Horn gingerly touched the book, and repeated the words at Preston told them. Then Yean did likewise. Hoar scuttled away, apparently by stepping into, through, a solid wall like a ghost.

And then he administered the oath the others. They all swore. To them, who knew that Phantoms could revive the dead, it required no great leap of faith to believe Preston’s threat.

Just as the last crooked cyborg was removing a three-fingered claw from the bible, a worried look in three mismatched eyes, the ring on Preston’s finger lit up brightly. He felt a sensation like falling, but the floor was only an inch below his feet.

Hoar emerged from the blank wall. “The mental systems are damaged. I can induce one destination into your ring by orienting a gravitational supermolecule to a single anchor point. But more, I cannot do.”

Preston said, “You are asking me to chose one spot to which this ring will take me? Every time I jump off a cliff, it will turn on and carry me there?”

“Just so. The destination must be one spot.”

Preston cracked his double rifle, and removed one of the two .700 Nitro Express bullets loaded there. The bullet was as long as his little finger. “I chose the nose of this bullet. Will that work?”

Horn’s upper eye squinted, but his lower eye grew wide. “My genetic memory does not reach far enough back to the days of knowledge. Much is unclear.”

“I notice that the bullets do not reappear until after both are shot. Are they copies of the same bullets, or are they the same bullet being reconstituted?”

“It is a second-order entanglement. This allows macroscopic matter to follow subatomic behaviors, including impersonating the time symmetry seen in virtual particle pair annihilations.”

“The magic spell that lets me understand all languages must be low on juice, because I did not get that.”

“The Phantoms were a great race. Lesser races are subject to time and space, entropy, decay and death. It is the same bullet, but of a different angle of the time plane slicing through the continuum worldline. Behold!”

And a dot of light, bright and pure as the Evening Star on a cloudless dusk, darted out from Preston’s glowing ring, and touched the bullet on the nose. The star winked out. The bullet felt heavier and warmer in Preston’s hand than it had a moment before. Preston reloaded his weapon, and snapped it shut.

At the same time, dust started falling from the roof above. The ground was shaking. A noise louder than trumpets, louder than the roar of waterfalls, filled the air, growing loud and louder.

Horn said, “It begins. The great and invisible forces the Last Immortal set to recover his corpse clash with the great and invisible forces the Watchers set to prevent that recovery.”

But red light began to glow from the walls, for in some places the rockface was smooth, and cyclopean square bricks formed ceiling and walls. These bricks were incised with the tiny rectilinear trigram writing of the Phantoms. He looked up, and saw that the places where the Final Men were clinging to the ceiling were exactly those places where the component blocks of the Eternal Machine were visible. Preston saw all the Final Men step backward and melt like insubstantial dreams into these solid bricks.

Horn spoke no word of farewell. None would have been audible over the rushing roar of noise. Horn also stepped into the nearest red-glowing surface, and vanished.

The whole chamber now shook. Preston, still weightless and hovering near the middle of the chamber, felt no vibration, but the air grew hot and breathless. Now what? No handhold was in arm’s reach.

Preston aimed his Holland & Holland at the far wall, and fired the righthand barrel. The recoil kicked his shoulder like an angry mule. He was not only flung through the air, but sent spinning and gyrating. He stuck one of the red-glowing brick walls. The roaring now rose in pitch. Preston’s ears starting ringing.

Preston shouted, “Open Sesame! Abracadabra!” and he touched the glowing ring to the black surface. The red-lit letters flickered and ran back and forth frantically across the face of the block, rearranging themselves into concentric rings of a writing he could not read.

His hand passed into the surface. An unseen force surrounding him like a tingling blanket, and yanked him into the stone. The insubstantial substance absorbed him like a pool of ink swallowing a fallen stone.

*** *** ***

Episode 38 Death in the Stratosphere

It was dark. Somehow, Preston was passing through solid matter. A pure silence, hushed as outer space, rushed past his ears. His eyes saw nothing but elusive sparks, such as a man might see before fainting.

And then came a shock of cold and brightness. The side of the mountain was behind him, and glacier below and to either side. He had emerged from solid rock. He was thousands of feet in the atmosphere, and falling. The clouds were a wrinkled wool blanket far below. The sky above was a vast dome, a purple darkened almost to black. Preston turned end over end as he fell. The dim, red sun and the gigantic, quadruple-sized moon passed before his gaze, a silent procession of giants.

Circling the flat-topped peak of the tallest mountain in the range was a ballooning zone of white energy brighter than flame, surrounded by streamers, heat-flashes, bolts and flares of lightning, swarms and sheets of pulsating sparks, and strange balls of St. Elmo’s fire. At the edges of this hellish conflagration the shining, crystalline disks of the Eighth Men darted and danced.

Always before, these levitation machines had seemed serene and graceful in motion. Not now. Now they spun frantically, speeding toward any open gap in the white flames, shooting glinting crystal spears toward the center of the peak.

Preston, a thousand feet below the scene, and falling away through freezing air, could feel the heat beating on his face, but could not see what the disks were battling. Nonetheless, each time the disks fired toward the unseen source of the conflagration, the white flames were diminished, and drew back.

At the same time, out through these gaps, trios and dozens of black, red-lit blocks came tumbling through the air, looking, at this distance, like nursery toys. The cubes were angular, un-aerodynamic, but that swirled and circled around each other in a complex pattern of cycles and epicycles, like blocks spinning in the hands of an invisible, giant juggler.

Where four or six or eight of them formed tetrahedron, cube or octahedron surrounding a frantic flying disk, the air shimmered with half-unseen fields of force, and the air grew thick, like water solidifying into ice, and the disk was pinned in place. Then, a larger force of nine cubes meeting only at their vertices would approach; the disk would emit a screaming noise, its soft glow would grow bright, erratic, stuttering, and the disk-shaped machine would explode.

Preston plummeting into the upper cloud layer. Thin and icy fogs were all around him.

His paratrooper training took over; he spread arms and legs for stability. The wind was a continuous yell in his ears, a solid pressure on his head and hair, rippling jacket and pantslegs.

Then the layer of cloud was a ceiling above him, a white veil through which the glow and flash of the uncanny air-battle was glimpsed as diffused, half-hidden flickers and flashes. Lifeless mountain peaks fifty thousand feet high pierced the cloud. Peaks forty thousand feet high were below that. Many peaks had been sheered off, and were flat as prairies. Preston saw clusters of half buried black blocks large as walled towns, half-unseen among the dark rocks and scree of these flat crests, now visible only because the block faces were lit up with fiery red lettering in the language of the Immortals.

Valleys and passes, filled with ice, were lower. Farther down, chasms yawned, showing pine forests deep in shadow; more clouds were lower still, and other peaks and valleys below. Preston had never seen a landscape so high, not even in the Himalayas.

He hoped the magic ring would waft him to a soft landing. At the moment, he could not tell if he were flying or falling, since the sensation of weightlessness was the same in both cases. Another problem with this vehicle-free one-man flight method was that he had no altimeter, no directional gyro, and no attitude, airspeed, nor turn-and-bank indicators.

Three flying disks dropped out of the cloud cover, shining like silver dollars. Giraffe-necked Ipotanes were clinging to the upper hull of the lead ship, manes streaming in the wind, and dark-faced gargantuans knelt with their amber wands raised high, clinging with their off hands to stanchions. All wore masks.

The other two vessels were crowded with bowmen, crossbowman, and longbowmen in leather, taken from medieval, ancient and prehistoric First Men tribes. No Terrors were among them. Someone alert mind leading the attackers had observed that Terror wasp-guns were useless at these high altitudes.

The disks dove at faster than terminal velocity: the distance between Preston and the lead vessel narrowed. The disk crew fired first, and Ipotanes sped a volley of glassy dowels or splines toward Preston, expanding from each harquebus with supersonic energy; each broke into three or four smaller shards; but wind pressure scattered the crystal splines before they reaching him, sending them spinning. The splines broke into smaller bits, and the lead vessel dove through the glittering cloud.

Preston drew in his right arm and leg, so that he turned, and was facing upward, falling with his back to the ground. He saw the lead vessel passing through the cloud of bright, broken shards. The crewmen hid faces behind elbow or hood-brim, so the shards bit no bare flesh.

Preston put the rifle to his shoulder, but hesitated. Unless he contrived to have the axis of the barrel pass through his center of gravity, the kick would send him tumbling. The recoil was about ten times what a .308 Winchester would deliver. He could not set the butt of the stock into his solar plexus. Such recoil would knock the wind out of him. He twisted, somersaulting once, and pointed his boots at the ground so far below. The speed of his fall increased as his cross section narrowed. Preston again put the rifle to his shoulder craned back his head. Now rifle barrel and stock, and his spine and legs were a single line. He aimed straight up.

He fired. Thunder deafened him. The recoil was a hammer blow to his shoulder and spine, but, instead of sending him into a spin, he was driven downward through the roaring air.

Perhaps a small caliber bullet passing through a more robust vehicle might have only pierced a radiator or a gearbox, but this .700 caliber goliath delivered eight thousand foot-pounds of force at two thousand feet per second. The levitation vessels, like all aircraft, were built to minimize weight. These were moreover made with crystalline hulls and ceramic struts, so that instead of bending or crumpling on impact, they shattered.

A spiderweb of cracks appeared on the curved hull, and the ferocious wind yanked and peeled triangular shards away into the air. The disk began gyrating wildly, wobbling like a dying top.

The magical force holding the crewmen to the ship hull failed: writhing figures of giraffine Second Men or elephantine Fifth Men were flung into the unsupported air, arms and legs jerking, weapons spinning away. Their dying prayers or dying roars of laughter were inaudible above the shriek of the wind.

The damaged lead ship slowed, and the two flanking ships darted down, seeming to accelerate. Preston swung his rifle to aim at the closer disk of these two, but the motion made him tumble. Clouds and mountain spun in his view. He spread his arms and legs, trying to stabilize his fall. He saw the two pursuing flying disks, but, somehow, the landscape of black chasms, rugged peaks and rippled white glaciers formed the backdrop behind them.

Weightlessness disoriented him. It took Preston a moment to realize he was above the two undamaged disks. They shrank in his view. Where they accelerating away from him? He twisted his head, and saw the damaged disk, a plume of broken hull-crystal spreading like a wake above and behind the machine as it fell, spin unsteadily into a beam of crepuscular light, and flash like diamond.

The clouds above were broken in places. Long, streaming, parallel shafts of light slanted down across the gray cloudscape and black mountainscape and white snows, giving the backdrop a strange and majestic beauty, almost as if men were not falling to their helpless deaths in the foreground. Preston thought these beams of light were sunlight, but the angle was wrong, and the hue was too bright. This light came from that one mountain peak, taller than all others, hidden above the cloud layer, surrounded with walls and domes of coruscating white fire. It was a sign that the machines of Eien, the last of all Phantoms, continued to battle with the Watchers over possession of his fallen body.

With the light shining through the translucent hull, Preston could see the shadow of the doughnut-shaped engine inside the disk rotating more and more wildly offcenter, shaking itself free from the curving legs holding it in the center of the vessel. The shadows of dwarflike beings in postures of terror and panic being splattered against the glassy sides of the were also visible, as was the growing spiderweb of cracks where the machinery was battering the vessel walls apart.

The damaged ship grew larger, and only then did Preston realize that he was falling not down, but up. The glassy hull swung toward his feet like a giant tennis racket. The ring on his finger glowed bright. Instead of being struck and flattened, he slowed and halted with his feet touching the white glass. There, between his feet, at the center of all the crack lines, he saw a dark spot in a semitransparent whiteness: it was the spent and flattened slug of his bullet.

The ring on his finger went dark when his feet struck hull. The wind and gravity of the world grabbed Preston, banged him sharply against the glass hull, and sent him sliding across the sleek surface. The shoulder strap of his rifle was now down around his elbow, and the barrel and stock banged and bumped against hull-glass, head, shoulder-blade, upper back. Red drops from his bloody nose flew up, wind-blown, into his eyes.

He clutched at the smooth, sleek surface of the hull as his body was blown across the sloping hull toward the rim of the craft. The glass substance — but it was not glass at all, but some semi-living surface that changed shape under his groping grasp. It turned fluid, like clay or mud, and his fingers sank beneath the surface. The fluid glass turned solid in his palms as he half-closed his fists.

He tossed his head, wiped his face against his shoulder, blinked his eyes clear of blood.

The hullglass had formed a stanchion under his grip, like a D-ring. The hull was canted over at a forty-five degree angle, as if a river steaming down a steep slope had frozen over. Streamers of vapor and debris from the disintegrating hull material formed vertical streamers flowing upward from the vessel rim, and the scream of the wind benumbed the ears, so the scene seemed paradoxically silent.

Over the rim came a huge, pale hand, and the another. A dark-faced giant hove into view, the hems of his leathery greatcoat flapping in the wind, and clawed his way with sinister intensity toward Preston. The fur pelisse at his shoulders stood up straight in the screaming updraft. The iris of each eye was as pale as the sclera, so that the pupil seemed contracted as sharply as the eyes of men maddened by an opiates.

His monstrous arms were five feet long; the gargantuan pulled himself across the hull with nightmarish speed. The hull material liquefied and solidified beneath his grip each time a huge hand smacked the glass, leaving a trail of knobs behind him, that slowly flattened themselves back into surface.

Preston writhed, putting one boot toe awkwardly into one stanchion and bracing himself. The other stanchion he gripped with his left fist, knuckles white. The winds battered and whistled and roared, slapping and pulling him like unseen ogres, as he wrestled one-handed with his elephant gun. He clasped the stock under his armpit against his body, and swung the barrel toward the gargantuan.

The man raised one huge, pale hand. Like a stage-magic trick, a shining amber wand telescoped out of his sleeve and struck the Preston’s barrel just as he fired. Thunder roared. Preston’s shot went wild, blowing a plume of smoke harmlessly over the Gibborim’s shoulder. Then the amber wand lit up with buzzing sparks, smelling of lightning. The barrels of the Holland & Holland were electrified, the lock and trigger. Sparks burnt holes in Preston’s glove. The electric jolt stunned him, and all Preston’s muscles jerked. His vision went momentarily black. The hull spun away from him.

Against his jet-back face, the man’s grimace of malice was bright as a drawn daggerblade. His pale hand gleamed like a white glove as he waved an affable farewell to Preston.

Preston’s elephant gun was snatched away by the winds and tossed end over end, while Preston’s body was sent in another direction, whirling madly like an autumn leaf in a gale.

*** *** ***

Episode 39 War in the Wild Blue Yonder

Preston was dazed. He tried to blink the fog free from his eyes. But no, he was not fainting, he was passing through a lower cloud layer. Freezing raindrops clung to the hairs of his head and hands like dew, and made his jacket slick.

A glowing circle, round as the full moon, appeared, growing larger and brighter as it approached through the intervening curtains of cloud. It was one of the flying disks. Three or four Firstling spearmen in buckskins and breathing masks were clinging to the glassy surface. The gravity from the ground ignored them. Some unseen force adhered them to the hull.

A brute in warpaint with a stone-tipped spear caught sight of Preston and uttered an ululating whoop.  A circle of the glass substance of the hull near the spearman’s foot came to life, and dilated, revealing a hatch, which opened. One after another, Firstling spearmen and bowmen, and Ipotane harquebusiers, rushed out on deck.

Preston waved his arms, sending his body into a slow spin, as he tried to grope for his rifle. It was nowhere at hand. He had lost it in midair. With a smaller cross section than his body hence less wind resistance, it would fall faster. He had blacked out for a moment, so he could not even estimate how many thousands of feet away it was, or where it would fall.

He kicked his legs, trying to spin himself to face the flying disk again. A thrown spear, tipped with a flint-knapped spearhead sharp as a razor, struck him in the gut, knocking the wind out of him.

Terror flooded him, for he knew that a pierced intestine was a lingering, painful, and messy way to die, and not a wound that a tourniquet or bandage could slow. But the spear was wagging like a stiff tail in front of his jacket, and had not penetrated. The wind plucked it free. It brought away with it part of his jacket pocket, and a scrap of golden flyleaf. The deadly spear had struck and cut into the Bible which Preston had tucked into that pocket, but only halfway.

“Thank God!” He said, for once, literally.

The throw had been expertly aimed, executed under nearly impossible conditions. Preston was not one to underestimate the skill and courage of a man from any age. Savages who spent every waking moment in the wild, on the gametrail or on the warpath, could not be inexpert at hunt or war.

Beams of light issued from the strange, white fire surrounding the dark, high peak where the battle continued, piercing gaps in the clouds. Preston fell into one of these slanting beams. The flying disk followed, and lit up with diamond brilliance as the light glanced from it. Spearmen and harquebusiers aimed their weapons at Preston. The distance narrowed. Preston drew his Mauser, wondering how many he could kill before the spearwounds and glass shard lacerations finally overcame him.

“Let’s find out!” he grinned, taking the pistol in both hands, and spreading his legs to help stabilize his fall.

He never got the chance. The glittering glass-hulled vessel, flashing in the brilliant lightbeam falling from a break in the cloud, grew suddenly, explosively brighter, a silent nova. Burning heat touched his face. Preston threw his elbow over this eyes, shouting in alarm. He did not see what smote the vessel. Rushing wind-roar filled his ears as he fell, so he heard no impact.

The heat vanished. He looked. The disk was broken in bits. The falling corpses were cooked black, surrounded by streamers of steam, mummies. In the very middle of the expanding swarm of broken glass, metal and ceramic shards, was a black cube with glowing red script burning on every face.

Eien the Immortal, as he had promised, ordered his machines to cover Preston’s retreat. Instead of staying behind to protect its master, this haunted cube had rushed down to protect him.

Just at that moment, another dozen flying disks descended out of the cloud layer.

The cube did not keep pace with him, but hung back, and moved serenely toward the descending flotilla of flying disks. The ring on Preston’s finger grew bright. The wind-pressure on his body grew stiffer. Was he accelerating downward? If so, what force was acting on him?

His rifle, unharmed, came tumbling upward from out of the vast abyss of air underfoot. At first it looked like a spinning twig. The rifle sped toward him, slowed, and the lock tapped politely against his toe.  The magic ring flickered with light again.

Preston laughed, understanding what was happening. He bent, snatched the rifle out of midair, put it to his shoulder. Other disks were also descending from the cloud. He selected the direction where no flying disks barred his way, aimed high, and pulled the righthand trigger.

Immediately the direction of his fall changed. He moved in a parabolic arc back upward into the cloud layer. Meanwhile, below him, the black cube was diving into and through the flotilla of disks like a hawk scattering pigeons. Those disks on the edge of the formation must have spotted Preston, and slowed in their rushed descent, hesitating in confusion, and began rising again, coming toward him.

He entered the cloud. Fog blinded him. Perhaps the pursuers had radar, or some instrument to penetrate the opaque mists; perhaps not. He fired the second barrel, and broke  and looked in the breech. For a moment, there was nothing but two empty barrels. After another moment, there was a glittering movement of tiny dots of light in the barrel, and two bullets materialized out of thin air.

The light from his magic ring flared and faded. The howl of wind in his ear changed. He was now falling downward, not sideways. Preston knew that the Final Men had programmed his magic ring to carry him, whenever he was falling, to wherever his righthand bullet was. This was apparently the same bullet being teleported back in place. The antigravity ring would fly him wherever that bullet landed, and arrange a soft, smooth landing.

Meanwhile, the magic spell on the rifle would not recall either bullet to the barrel until both were shot, which meant the spent slug would act as his landing point until he fired once more. It would act as a landing point even when the bullet was above him.

There was easier ways to fly, but this would do.

He fired first one direction, then another, so that his weightless flight zigzagged. The light from the pursuing disks, dimly glimpsed through the dark clouds, grew dim, dwindled and vanished.

Then he was above the clouds. There was no sign of any flying disks in any direction. He had apparently outdistanced them.

He heaved a sigh of relief. He patted his rifle fondly. Now he could select his heading.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder. Where to? What was his destination?

It was not as if he had many places in mind. He had been in this world for three days, more or less. He had been driven unconscious three times, and fallen into natural sleep only once. Being slung haphazardly from one deadly danger to the next galvanized him with a continual rush of adrenaline. This was mostly what was keeping him alert at this point.

So he also knew almost nothing about this world: back in his own time, had he been dropped naked into practically any environment on any continent, he would have known the basic steps to take to survive, how to feed and shelter himself, how to find water, and he probably would have enjoyed himself doing it. Now? In this new world, he was a newborn.

Eien the immortal had asked Preston if he would go back if he could. Would he?

The sunlight was bright as burning rubies: it brought tears to his eyes. The mountains below him had changed their hue and texture. Here, the mountain peaks were natural, not sheered off, and the black rock slopes of stratospherically-high slopes were far above. These were lower, snow-clad, and the pines below the treeline were a familiar green. They looked so much like the Rockies, where he had spent all the summers of his youth, that it made him homesick.

The certainty in his mind was something he discovered there, not something he decided to put there. He was certain that this world, this wild, unknown, dangerous, melancholy world, was worth making his own. The passion came from somewhere deep in him, a place he could not name. It was almost like the craving of a conqueror seeing rich, unguarded cities of gold gleaming in the East; or an explorer casting eyes on a Western ocean, unnamed, never before seen by civilized man; or a lover with a guitar seeing the curvaceous silhouette, if only for a moment, of the shy and lovely maiden listening by lamplight at her upper window.

He wanted to see and know these dinosaurs, these prehistoric mammals, all these natural wonders, as only a hunter, that lone man who stands before the naked majesty of nature in all her regal fury, truly can know.

Pangaea was his world. He knew it. When had that happened? Whence came this certainty? And where would he go now?

Preston laughed as he flew, head downward, arms and legs spread, through the uproar of air.  Because the answer to all his questions was the same.


The dark-eyed lass from Atlantis gave him his destination. To save her from her fate, he had to find the encampment of the Lifesmiths. Her world was his.

His eyes scanned the wide circle of the landscape in his view. The mountains reached from the cloud layer floor below to cloud layer roof above like rough pillars in the nave of a cosmic cathedral. Framed by two of these looming black walls was a glimpse of distant rolling forestland opening into a grassy plain as flat as a billiard cloth, reaching beyond sight. Here was the dark line he had seen before of a dry canal wide as a river, running, rule-straight, from the hills to the horizon. The brontosaur caravan of the Beauty-of-Torment clan was in that direction.

He raise his rifle and fired. The recoil kicked him away from the direction of the shot, but then the influence of the ring, slowed, stopped, and flung him flying in the opposite direction, following the bullet.

The fires were left behind him. Toward the girl he loved, the world he battled, and toward his unknown fate, he flew.

*** *** ***