Lost on the Last Continent IV

— Lost on the Last Continent —


In the Days of Pangaea Ultima

By John C. Wright

 Back to Book Three: Giants of PangaeaUp to Table of Contents Book Five: Gods 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

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Book Four:  Pirates of Pangaea

Episode 60 Gods, Ghosts, and Shadows

Preston wished it were brighter.

The eastern sky was pink with a sun that had yet to clear the mile-high walls of this titanic canyon landscape. Here by the riverside, it was cool and gloomy beneath the jungle canopy. Maruti, the Son of the Wind, was a small, furry shadow to one side of the cookfire, his eyes glinting like copper pennies.

The crocodile man was a huge, hunched shadow, only awkwardly able to crouch in an upright posture. Firelight reflected off his emerald scales and white belly, which shined as if polished. He (in Preston’s mind, anything that could speak was a he, not an it), held his triangular skull crooked forward, jaws flat against his breastbone. The unwinking lizard-eyes seemed oddly placid in so ferocious a visage.

A hot, flat stone, prodded out from the fire and dusted off with an evergreen branch served as an impromptu skillet. A wild piglet caught two days ago in a snare had provided pork and lye soap. Now strips were sizzling now in a puddle of porkfat. It was the first bacon Preston had smelled since his advent in Pangaea. It made him nostalgic for coffee.

Preston had his Bowie knife in one hand, allegedly to turn the sizzling bacon, actually because the massive crocodilian man unnerved him.

Preston started the talk. “So! You are human, eh?”

By way of answer, the huge man held up his stubby forepaw, spread his webbed claws, and wiggled his opposable thumb.

“Are you civilized?” Preston asked.

The man pondered that a moment, then, with a twig from the woodpile, drew a triangle in the sand, and then drew squares on each side.

“Let it be seen that the areas of the squares erected on legs opposite the acute angles, taken together, equals the total area of the square erected opposite the right angle: and this is true for any right triangle. Observe that this parallelogram is double the triangle here, for they have the same base and are in the same parallels…”

“Thank you,” interrupted Preston. “What was your name again?”

“Emogoalekc is my self-name. Sobek is my oath-name when I vowed renunciation. Neither wine nor psychedelic incense do I take.”

Preston raised an eyebrow. “I would not think crocs had much call for booze or smokes.”

“Amphibious am I, not crocodile, nor was my race designed to be immune to vice.”

Preston poked the bacon thoughtfully. “I think I can figure this. Second Men are giraffe necked and peaceful. Third men are monkey beekeepers. Fourth Men are green, three-eyed, and immortal. Fifth Men are the giants. Seventh Men have wings. The Eighth Men are creepy little big-skulled midgets. I’ve met the Final Men, who are disgusting cyborgs. So that leaves only one race left. You are a Sixth Man.”

Sobek said, “Of course. Of the Nephidim am I, the Descenders. All the world-ocean our dwelling is, save for this last and undrowned land, which above the surface rears its naked peaks, and into the airs of storms and misery.”

“Very poetic,” grunted Preston. “Why did you attack me?”

Sobek did not, and perhaps could not, change expression. But he raised his hand and pointed at Preston’s Mauser pistol. “My life to preserve. Why did you attack me?”

Preston rubbed his head, trying to smooth back his hair, which was growing long. He had shot the first shot, hadn’t he? “I thought you were a threat.”

“Ah! Not unreasonable.” Sobek spread his webbed fingers. This gesture seemed to serve the shoulderless creature as a shrug. “Surface-men are forced to live in continual commotion, tumult, sorrow, and war.”

Preston cocked his head. “And under the water? Everything is happy there?”

“Not happy. But the Amphibians are a cohesive folk. We were brought forward through the time-gulf, when our world fell to the Seventh Men and so was destroyed in cataclysm; forth we came all of us together, and so we did not forget our laws nor our lore. We are the first the Eighth Men abducted, but in such numbers, that soon they feared us.

“All upon one day of fire it was,” the crocodile-man continued mournfully. “Our treasure-cities of glass and sea-shell and spiral minarets of mother-of-pearl which reared up from coral reefs and seashore rocks were bombarded from the air, and razed. We took refuge in the sea. Each year, their fighting machines dive deeper, and we are driven farther down into the dark sloughs and sad chasms.”

“You fight back?”

“The sea is without boundary, its resources without stint. Retreat is easier.”

“Easier, but not as honorable. You say you are a man.”

Sobek held up a palm, which was pale. “The Fifth Men designed us for war, to overwhelm and slaughter all their warlike sons. But are we not sons as well, even if born of science, not nature? By renunciation, we overcome the malice of our creators.”

Preston repeated the conversation to Son of the Wind. The little man said, “He did not hear the silent speech. He is man. Ask him why he spies on us.”

Sobek’s answer: “So I was sent to do by the Rogue’s Council.”

Preston: “Who?”

“The High and Most Honorable Council of Rogue Captains, Privateers, and Gentlemen of Adventure. To Grind Goldtooth, Master of the good ship Tosspot, am I the bondservant. He is Reeve of the Council. First of the Council, and Queen of the Pirates, is named Sing-Shi, the Vengeful Widow.”

Preston said, “And, again, who are they?”

“They rule Threno.”

Preston asked, “What is Threno?”

Sobek answered, “Here First and Second Men have taken refuge among the ruins, effigies, and monuments. Houses hang in the air, and the wreckage of antique palaces whose energy lingers. Certain machines of the Phantoms still stir, or cry out in strange voices. Any who are not First Men, or marked by them, must die.”

But Son of the Wind answered, “Threno is the City of Lamentation, the City of Swift Death. It is at the mouth of this river. Mighty Ones fear to go there. The Mighty Ones send fighting-slaves to kill pirates.” Then Son of the Wind bared his fangs. “Ask him what he was told to find?”

Preston passed the question on. Sobek said, “There are five things I was sent to discover.

“First, whether the Last of the First Men, the Runagate all the Eighth Men frantically seek, truly walks the Land of Sluggish Death down the River of the Dry Canal toward Threno. I now know he is. You are he.

“Second, whether it be true you have a weapon of iron thunder that spits deadly pellets. I have seen and heard it: it spat at me. The weapon is smaller than rumor said. It was described as a wand or stave of iron. The propellant is a rapidly expanding gas, released by a chemical reaction, is it not? I can smell a trace of sulfur compound in the air.

“Third, why the Watchers are stirring up the river’s anger to block the route to Threno. That, I do not know, unless you yourself might tell me.

“Fourth, whether you work wonders as did the dark prophets of the Fifth Men in times past, to show that imps and devils would do their bidding. Again, you must tell me.”

Preston gave a jerk of surprise, and almost dropped a precious bacon strip into the coals. “What? What the heck are you on about? Who said I was a witch?”

“Captain Grind is a pious fellow, fearful of the many gods, ghosts, and shadows seen in the wind and water, and spooks who follow the scent of sin like famished hounds. The All-men said you spoke of the One God called the Child, who slew all other gods, and muted the oracles of the Watchers. Hearing this, Captain Grind found his curiosity awake.”

Son of the Wind, seeing him flinch, asked Preston to repeat Sobek’s answer. “Ask him of the blockade.”

Sobek answered, “The levitation vessels of the Watchers were seen at night above the river, firing splines and electric bolts down like rain. They slew a baby giant slug, which drew all the giant slugs for many miles. Whatever moves, is trampled by the silent ones. The river is impassable, and the causeway. The Council of Rogues feared this was the preliminary to a renewed attack from the Fortress of the Unwinking Eye, Xurac Phthia, which stands below the cliffs across the river mouth opposite the free city. Is all this chaos born of you?”

And, when Son of the Wind questioned him further, Sobek said, “Watchfires have been seen along the brink of the northern canal wall, and signal drums and trumpets coordinating a picket of searchers through the glades and bogs upriver. The aerie of the Winged Men sends forth flocks this way.”

Son of the Wind sat without movement for a long while, then said in a dry voice, “All is lost. Downriver is blocked. You cannot climb the cliff. Use of the Compliant Rod or the Falling Ring is unchancy. Upriver, all the Mighty Men of the City of Despair come forth, and all their allies and servants. How to escape this hunt, I do not see. Which way to go? Which way?”

Preston took off his ring, perched it on his thumb, and flicked it spinning into the air. Once, twice, thrice he flicked it up, watched it glittering, and snatched it out of the air as it fell. Each time, it slanted left as it fell.

Preston pointed, “What is that way?”

Sobek said, “Threno.”

Preston said, “Cynisca is also that way.” He stood up.

Son of the Wind said, “Death is that way.”

Preston said, “Death is all around, and will sniff us out here if we loiter. Mighty Ones upriver are smart. But slugs downriver are brainless. When a chain is all around, smash at the weakest link.”

Son of the Wind said, “How do we kill the Sixth Man? He is dangerous.”

Preston said, “You are dangerous, Smiley. No one is killing you, is he?” He turned to Sobek. “Can you lead us into the pirate town, whatsitcalled? Swift Death Burg?”

Sobek raised and lowered his forepaws, a gesture opaque to Preston. “Threnoxaphnicopolis is the full name. Yes, lead you I can, but to what fate?”

Son of the Wind said, “Only First Men can enter that city. The machines of the Phantoms slay all others.”

Preston said, “Sobek got in and out. He said those the First Men mark can enter. He did not say what kind of mark.”

Sobek said, “The chrism is unseen, hence cannot be erased. The Third Man will prosper there, for his folk are thought to be good luck, and expert physicians. You are in peril.”

“What peril?”

“The Rogues have formed attachments to many desires in the world, for gold and wine and womenfolk, for honors and empty titles, and therefore misery follows each footstep, closer than shadows. This makes them fearful, fierce and cruel. The Rogue City will be attacked when you enter; the Captains will fling you from the walls.”

Preston said, “Why tell me this?”

Sobek said, “You are new to our world and know nothing. When an unwise child snatches up a deadly eel, who stands mute?”

“If you want to help me,” said Preston, “help me manhandle this dang heavy dugout into the drink, and help me paddle. You can stay below the waterline and push.”

Son of the Wind could only hear Preston’s half of the conversation, but he guessed the rest. “Do you trust this one now? He sought your life!”

Preston turned to Sobek. “Should I trust you? Why?”

Sobek pondered that a moment. He said, “You speak like one who fears no death. This is the first stroke of a long journey toward enlightenment. The All-men spoke well of you, and said your way was to free slaves. I am a slave. Free me.”

“If I can, I will. So help me God, Sobek. Who are these All-Men?”

“They escaped from Despair. First Men, but they said they were a new race, sons of the One God, who is the father of all races. A man named All-Stone leads them.”

“Hey!” said Preston, surprised. “I know him! I broke him out of jail!”

“His men raided the caravan for food and loot. To Threno, where the Mighty One dare not follow, All-Stone took the captives and plunder for sale.”

Preston flicked the ring into the air one last time, but almost dropped it. “Captives? Heading south?”

In a lightningbolt of fear and clarity, Preston understood it all. The ring was pointing toward Threno because Cynisca was there. She had been taken as plunder by the very men Preston had freed and set loose on the world.

“Dear God, forgive me,” Preston grimaced, and put this shoulder to the dugout. “It is my fault. My fault!”

In a moment all three were in the river, and found a rapid current midstream. Preston worked his paddle furiously, and uttered a curse at every stroke.

*** *** ***

Episode 61 The Deadly Gastropods

It was noon in a year somewhere beyond A.D. Two Hundred Million, and the giant red sun was merciless in the dark purple sky.

Colonel Preston Lost, his eye to the lens of a strangely-formed spyglass, lay on his belly half-submerged in muddy pond where poisonous lotus flowers bloomed.

He was dressed in uncured buckskins, crudely sewn, taken from an unwary giant elk he and his toy bow surprised when the beast was fording the river. The darts he shot were small and slight, but a rough current the megaloceros was fighting sapped the elk’s strength and blood in the water attracted predatory fish.

For hours, afoot or afloat, Preston had chased the bleeding animal along the shore. Son of the Wind banished the predators, or most of them, with the silent speech of kind, a way of signaling the remote descendants of any artificial species his peoples had genetically modified; and Sobek wrestled the wounded elk ashore, and tore out its throat with his powerful crocodile jaws.

Son of the Wind had also been able to persuade clouds of ever-present midges, mosquitoes, and stinging pests from landing on them, at least when they had been farther upriver, nearer to the ancient haunts of the Third Men.

But the farther downriver they came, the fewer bug species were obedient to his mojo. Preston currently had a line of marching insects crawling from elbow, up his arm, across his shoulderblades, and down his other arm, but he dared not stir a sudden hand to shoo them away. In his brown buckskins half hidden in a brown pond against a backdrop of brown, sunburnt grass, he was currently invisible.

Overhead, looming overlarge in his view, hovered a trio of luminous flying saucer craft: the levitation vessels of the Eighth Men. They looked to Preston like glass frisbees. From time to time, a child-sized, bald, big-headed hominid figure would emerge from a circle in upper or lower hull, feet on the curving surface. Whether rightside up or upside down made no difference.

Some unseen property of the disk hull allowed those touching it to ignore gravity: this was a sign of unimaginably futuristic technology. But then the crewman would wave bright semaphore flags at the other two disks, whose hatches would likewise open for crewmen to emerge and wave signal flags in return: a technology from the past.

Preston and his companions had paddled and sailed in their crude outrigger canoe to within eyesight of the rivermouth. And now he was here, his lower half shivering in the sticky cold of an unclean puddle, while his arms and head were damp with sweat in the clammy heat of the tyrannical noon, waiting for the unhurried glassy circles of enemy ships overhead to pass out of sight.

Preston winced at the tinkling sensation of the bugs crawling over him, stonily fighting every impulse urging sudden motion. So far, the Watchers overhead had spotted nothing.

In Preston’s hands was a folding spyglass made of green shell. By twisting the segments clockwise or counterclockwise, the lens could magnify the image, or make intervening mists transparent, or make magnetic anomalies visible, or the Kirlian auras surrounding plants and animals. The spyglass was warm to the touch, like a live thing, but it did not seem to be electric, or to run on any power Preston could name.

Sobek, as it turned out, was tricked out like a walking Swiss Army knife. He had carried the spyglass folded up and hidden among the rough green scales of his skin, along with a lamp, a compass, a listening horn, and various folding tools, switchblades and retractable caltrops. They seemed to adhere to his skin magnetically. All the things were intricately constructed of organic materials that seemed alive. The blades were made of enamel, not steel. The lamp was a clam that could open or shut like a pocketwatch with a bio-luminous bulb for a pearl. A second clam-shaped instrument held a tadpole whose nose always pointed north.

Preston had asked Sobek why he did not carry these things in a pouch or vest. The crocodile man had replied, “Poke or pouch would create drag in the water, and slow me, nor could my warm aura inspire the artifacts. The Rogues forbid garments to slaves. In the eyes of men, slaves are beasts, not men.”

Preston had bestowed a sidelong look at Son of the Wind, who wore nothing over his fur, not even a belt. He translated the comment. Son of the Wind’s answering gaze was half-lidded, sardonic. “Beasts break no oaths, nor blaspheme, nor murder, nor do adultery, nor steal, nor enslave, nor speak lies. Who is insulted when a man is called a beast? The man? Or the beast?”

*** *** ***

Preston made an adjustment to the spyglass lens. Magically, all the leaves and grassblades blocking his view became wispy and transparent. As if it were suddenly winter here, he could see the now-nude twigs masses and crooked branches and trunks of miles of jungle trees, hardwoods, and cycads.

The walls of the canal were both closer and shorter than upriver: uprearing sheer slabs of unearthly material only two thousand feet high, placed a mere half mile apart. Debris and rubble were collected at the feet into a series of hillocks and mounds, making the narrow bogland narrower.

The jungle came to an abrupt end. The river widened into a lagoon which filled the canal bed from wall to wall. The far end of the lagoon poured over a lip and down into a rocky land, leaving swamp and mud and reed-choked pools behind.

The final half-mile of the continent-crossing canal sloped sharply down to the bay. It was a land where no soil had accumulated: a tilted plane of rocks and spires. Here and here only, at its terminus, the river was white and energetic, flowing swiftly and loudly into a distant inland sea.

From his current location, Preston could not see the mouth of the river, nor see the waterfall by which it fell in the thousand bright threads into the sea, but he could hear the echo of a distant, unending roar.

Preston looked at the lower slope with envy. It looked cool. He wondered if the sea breezes from the bay were palpable there.

The great causeway Preston had so often seen paralleling the river, in this place rose out of the stinking jungle, a soared over the sloping land. Here it was a high bridge standing on towers and archways a hundred feet high.

A final adjustment to the lens, and suddenly, the scene changed. Soft oval irregularities he could see clinging to the tower legs of the causeway suddenly were outlined by the Kirlian aura of their slow, coldblooded form of life. Similar shapes, unseen against the gray waters of the lagoon, could now be seen slowly and clearly, large as overturned yacht hulls gathered in flotillas all along the lagoon surface. Mounds of flesh, pale white, light gray, and dark gray, dappled but colorless, were gathered silently on the shore. They were hard to discern against the white and gray toppled blocks of the ruins crowding the feet of the canal walls. Now the mystic lens of Sobek’s spyglass outlined their huge, humped shapes with eerie flecks of light.

He raised the spyglass, and sucked in through his teeth a silent hiss of disgust. The slugs gathered around the lagoon were the size of yachts and busses. But clinging to the walls, black shapes completely hidden against the dark walls, were larger ones, the size of frigates, cruisers, and battleships. The size not only astounded him, but made him queasy.

The red sun passed the zenith began to descend. The levitation vessels moved south. They were still in the air, but shrunk to the size of glittering dimes. Only then did Preston move, sloshing mud over the train of ant bites crossing his arms and back, cursing thoroughly, and rejoin the other two.

The canoe was keel-upward on the shore, one log among many. Sobek, stretched out on his belly, in the shallow water, also was a log, but mossier. Son of the Wind was motionless in the long grass.

Preston described the situation in a few terse words. To his surprise, he found he did not need to translate between his two companions: they had discovered that both knew enough Fifth Man pidgin to understand each other.

Son of the Wind said, “The slugs are slow but relentless. They do not tire. They laugh at the spear, the sword, the arrow.”

Preston patted the stock of his Holland & Holland. A note of regret was in his voice. “Pity I can’t use this. It can knock down a rhino.”

Son of the Wind said, “How large are they?” He indicated the lagoon in the distance with a jut of his jaw. “How many?”

Preston said, “Bigger than ten rhinos. Hundreds. I lost count.”

Son of the Wind said, “I scent their anger on the air. When they try to leave, the Watchers kill another of their young. They hunger, because they are too many to graze here. We cannot pass them.”

Preston said, “Sobek, how did you pass them? More to the point, how did you plan to report back?”

“Flew,” said Sobek. “A pirate ship dropped me in the river above the lagoon. Swim. They are not along the bottom of the lagoon. They white water beyond is no danger to me. You would need your canoe, or be battered to bits.”

Preston said to Son of the Wind, “I’ve been pondering those monsters ever since I saw one. How can they deliver oxygen throughout their bodies without proper lungs and hearts? Their bodies should not be able to exist in such proportions. How can they even move, with nothing by a gastropod skirt? What happened to the inverse-square law? This is a science fiction monster.”

Sobek said, “What means that?”

Preston said, “It means the Third Men made them, probably as part of a military effort: living Panzer tanks.”

Son of the Wind said, “These cannot hear my voice. I cannot put the slugs aside. The Watchers are not fools. They would not stir up against a Third Man, a threat a Third Man can put aside.”

Preston said, “I have also slowly got it through my brain that each of these nine races of men ruled the earth as long as mine did, or longer. So the things that were done in years when the Third Men were more warlike, more technical, you might not know. The heretics you dislike so much. Then I got to thinking about your snotty magic wand: the Compliant Rod. Who would build such a thing, and why?”

Son of the Wind said, “The Lifesmiths fell into error, in those years. Toys of metal serve their pride.”

Preston said, “But why built a weapon that can shoot a spear into a target, while you keep the other end in your hand? Why give it a brain that talks, rather than just a targeting system? Why make the brain so haughty, unless the thing was also a scepter, something meant to be used when impressing crowds? I found it in the saddle of a man, a prince, riding a brontosaur.”

Sobek and Son of the Wind exchanged glances. Both shrugged, and returned their gazes to Preston. Sobek said, “A riddle. Can you answer?”

Preston said, “I figure it can only be meant to read something out of creatures it stabs, use its brain to analyze and give verbal reports and hear spoken orders, and then make some sort of change in the creatures.” He pointed downstream. “Creatures like those.”

Sobek said, “You think to ride a gastropod like a Sixth Man on a whale? A sight to see! How will you survive the acid touch?”

Preston said, “If I am right, and those monsters are war-creatures, living tanks, their designers must have designed a way to use them.”

Sobek said, “Guess is piled atop guess. How will you know if you are right?”

“I will ask,” said Preston. “Well? Am I right? Can you give commands to the gastropods?”

But he was not talking to his living companions. Preston reached a finger to where the Compliant Rod rested on the grass.

The inhuman voice rang out: “It is irregular that command impulses be initiated from this unit!”

Son of the Wind looked relieved. “So it cannot be done! We need not risk to rely on this old and haunted weapon.”

Preston smiled and lowered his finger a second time. “Can you transmit commands from Son of the Wind to the gastropods? Are they a form of life that he, with your help, can command?”

The cold voice said, “Yes.”

“I do not think even the Watchers, no matter what they know, knew that!” Preston leaned back, grinning. Gentlemen! The City of Sudden Death awaits! Shall we?”

*** *** ***

Episode 62 Cataract of Catastrophe

No plan survives first contact with the enemy. It was a saying Preston recalled from his days as a raw recruit, freshly shaved and scrubbed, full of vim, and with a rifle never fired in anger at the enemy in his hands, during his brief stint as a footslogger.

As he was being dragged, battered and half-drowned, by a blind monster through the raging river toward a roaring waterfall, surrounded by gushing streams and globules of poisonous, flesh-eating acid, that old saying popped into mind. It was true, even when the enemy was a mindless gastropod slug-shaped mound of glistering, dripping flesh larger than a raging elephant, and more dangerous.

With a light, tough fishing line provided by Sobek, Preston constructed a four foot wide mat of reeds to be his stalking blind. Son of the Wind, whose fingers were nimbler than Preston, also made a rough scarecrow out of bundled reeds. The scarecrow was propped atop a bamboo wand near the edge of the lagoon. Preston hid behind the blind downwind. Son of the Wind was in the grass underfoot, and Sobek was in the lagoon, motionless as a log, with only his eyes peeking above the water.

A mastodon-sized oblong of flesh, four tendrils protruding from its hairless, featureless, gleaming head-blob, drifted on the water toward the scarecrow, silent as an iceberg. Preston had not really believed the giant gastropod would attack any man-shaped target it neared. It was not the normal behavior of any natural beast.

Then, with a startling speed that belied its bulk, the slug reared up, a living wave gleaming like gelatin, and fell down over the scarecrow. Preston’s nose began burning, as the breeze now held an acrid smell, unpleasant as vomit, of the mucus emitted from the slug’s slippery skin layers. The reed figurine of the scarecrow was crushed and burnt. Tendrils emerged from below the gastropod’s eyestalks, and drew the grassy mass of the scarecrow into the puckered opening, set with countless teeth set in a spiral all down the thing’s throat, which served it as a maw.

During this silent commotion, Preston crept forward, holding the blind before him, peering through the roughly woven weave. At his signal, Son of the Wind scampered up to his shoulder, a look of fear in his squinting, yellow eyes, and raised the Compliant Gold-Ringed Rod. The sharp tip of the rod shot out like a harpoon from a catapult, trailing behind it the untelescoping segment of the wand, length upon length. It reached across the reedbeds to the edge of the lagoon like a red metallic rainbow, and struck the gastropod square between the four tentacles of the head blob. With a sticky, slurping noise, the tip sank down through the doughy flesh, seeking nodes of its primitive nervous system.

The gastropod reacted with unexpected fury, rearing up, throwing itself into a spin like a crocodile, and lunging back down into the water. All this was in eerie silence, save for the slap of the ripples and waves, the cracking crunch of trampled reeds.

Like an angler hooking a swordfish too strong for him, and now must wrestle his fishing pole to keep it, Son of the Wind was yanked forward before he could blink. Preston had lightning-quick reflexes, and was able to grip the Compliant Rod with both hands. He was jerked out from behind the blind, and thrown roughly on his belly across and through the stands of reeds, slapped ten thousand times by the thin and frail stalks, slathered with mud, bruised, cut and bleeding, before he was yanked unceremoniously under the water, and across the rocks and shells of the lagoon bottom.

Now the monster was ploughing through deeper waters, traveling swiftly enough to raise a great curling wake before it. Preston clung desperately to the rod. Waves battered him. He did not see Son of the Wind. Was the little man still alive?

The monster reversed course suddenly, angled back toward Preston, and emitted a great gush of slug slime, which hissed where it drooled into the water. The rod’s tip was still lodged in the creature’s head-blob. To the left and right, plowing serenely through the water, came other gastropods, even larger than this. They were converging on this spot.

The monster dove, dragging Preston under. A mouthful of dirty lagoon water burned his tongue: the acid from the creature was tainting the water, spreading, growing thinker. The slug writhed and spun, winding up the rod and pulling Preston close. The monster extended its head-blob toward Preston. Its maw gaped, revealing endless spirals of teeth lining the throat. There was no noise, no outcry.

Preston released the rod, lunged, and grasped the slippery, gooey face tentacles of the head-blob. Two were tipped with light sensitive eye-spots and pores for smell; two were tongue-like tendrils rough with buds used for touch and tasting. He drew his knife and slashed. The tentacles parted before the knife blow fell: the monster had ejected its eyestalks and tongues. The eyespots dotting the several tentacles writhing in Preston’s hand peered quizzically at Preston. In disgust he flung them aside.

The head-blob struck Preston like a soggy sledgehammer. The maw puckered and closed, but failed to close on him. He kicked at the thing’s head-blob, but the flesh gave way. His boot sank into the flesh layers. The skin then closed around his ankle, and grew firm again.

Then the monster dove. The rocks, slippery weeds, and mud of the lagoon bottom struck, bruised, tore, slapped, and beslimed him, all in the space of a moment or two. The air was knocked out of his lungs. To escape the rocks, he thrust himself closer to the slug’s shining flesh. Fluid from the flesh gushed over him, burning as it entered his wounds.

A shadow in the water torpedoed past him. A strong, scaly arm entwined him, yanked, and then thrust. It was Sobek, but what was he doing? He was forcing Preston into and through the acid-drenched slimy skin of the creature. Preston struggled, but in vain. Suddenly, his head popped through and into a small, fleshy pocket or vacuole like an armpit underneath the creature. There was a bubble of air trapped here, like one might see trapped beneath an overturned rowboat. The skirts which propelled the creature were to his left and right, ripping hypnotically. The light here was a tiny spark coming from his ring. He was weightless in the water after all, which might have somehow felt the same as falling to what circuitry or magic spell was directing the thing.

“Idiot,” he grumbled at the ring, after taking a delicious breath of clammy, close, warm, acid-scented air.

Crammed in this little air-pocket, regarding him through half-lidded, yellow-gold eyes, was Son of the Wind. He said sourly, “The Chatty-Man’s cleverness is too clever.”

The Compliant Rod was in the little man’s strong, long fingered hands. Preston said, “Can you control the beast with the rod?”

“The slug has three brains. Can speak to one. Other two not listen. It stops giving acid. We will not burn, no, not even in its under-mouth here. But that is all.”

Preston was not sure this was a mouth. He hoped it was not something worse. But what he said was, “Is one brain in charge of the others? Can you do anything to affect all three? The thing is blind at the moment. I have his eyes here in my hand. Or used to.”

“Sleep. One brain can make other brains sleep.”

“Do it!”

Without turning, Son of the Wind extended the rod. Segments unfolded, stabbed into the wall of the flesh all around them, sank deep. Immediately the vibrations of the skirts ceased: small pulsations and drooling rills of acid slowly grew still.

“It sleeps. But the brother slugs have seen this one bucking and leaping. They smell his anger. All around. Closing in. We are still and silent.”

“Can you make it move while it is sleeping? Sleepwalk? Move it?”

Sobek put his eyes above the surface of the water, and put his snout into the pocket of air trapped under the beast. He spoke in pidgin, “No need. We are in the current drawing from the lagoon into the river. In a moment, over the slug will go, and into the white water, where slugs do not follow. After the white water, comes waterfall. Rid of this place we all must be ere then.”

Even while Sobek was speaking, Preston felt the tug of water on his legs, and, dimly, heard the roar and mutter of the river.

Son of the Wind said, “It is time to die. A haunted weapon, a thing of metal, accursed and unnatural, is in my hand, and I picked it up of my own choosing. All is as the One Who Wills has willed. I am content.”

Sobek said, “I do not know this One Who Wills, but if we crowd in to this belly space and pull the skirts tight after, the slug will protect us from blows from passing rocks. Before the water fall, I must get you to shore.”

The roaring grew louder. Preston could see nothing, but his glimpse of the river through the spyglass before told him the water was rapid and steep. “Can you carry the two of us against this current?”

“I will not let you go. If you die, we all die.”

“Fair enough,” said Preston. Son of the Wind looked skeptical.

But Sobek’s prediction proved true. The water roared loudly and more loudly, turning white as milk even inside their cramped confinement. The suffocating sense of claustrophobia was combined with the wild feeling of blind and helpless motion: he was not sure which was worse. He was a daredevil going down the Niagara toward the falls in a barrel. He was a kitten being drowned in a sack.

Then they slammed into the first of many rocks. The translucent, rubbery skin of the sleeping gastropod saved Preston from broken bones, but not from bruises, particularly since he was wedged up against the hard and scaly body of Sobek. Then they struck more rocks. Preston was battered like a piñata. The rubbery walls about them began to flex and tremble, and fumes of acid filled the air. There was a burning in Preston’s eyes. Son of the Wind shouted over the river’s roar. “The slug! He wakes!”

Sobek seized both of them, one in either foreclaw, twisted, kicked, and dove. A dazzle of rippling sunlight and rushing white water now filled Preston’s vision. Overhead was a shadow like the hull of a boat, trailing blobs of shed skin. This was the slug, seen from below. The three men were in a narrow channel of violent water rushing down a thirty or forty degree slope.

Now Sobek showed his might. His powerful body, with strong strokes of his tail, fought the raging current. Through the water he strove, carrying Preston and Son of the Wind one under each arm. The white water boiled furiously under his strokes, but the shore grew closer and ever closer.

Preston’s lungs were nigh bursting. He pounded on Sobek’s armored hide with his fist. Sobek surfaced, spinning, and for a moment lay belly-up in the rushing foam. Preston sucked in precious air with a noise like a scream in reverse. With a hand, he clutched the stock of his Holland & Holland, which was still securely tied to him by its strap. He fretted about wetting the works of the gun before he thought to glance over at Son of the Wind to see if the little man, with smaller lungs, still lived.

The monkey-man looked shrunken and bedraggled as a wet kitten. Son of the Wind, water streaming down his mane and muzzle gave Preston a sardonic look, which said, louder than any words: Great plan, Chatty Man.

Preston said, “This can still work!”

He craned his head. Spray slapped him in the face. Between blinks, he could see the shoreline, a tumbled and twisted heap of weathered blocks and fallen bricks, overgrown with brambles, moss, and weeds, only yards away.

He also saw the brink of the waterfall, rather close and approaching rapidly. The bulk of the giant slug even at that moment was going over the edge. Its blind head-lump wagged in silent, piteous alarm. Large chunks of glistening flesh were flung by its frantic lashing of its tail. Its skirts rippled madly, fighting the current. Then it was gone.

Sobek reached out of mighty arm and clutched at the rocks of the shore. His iron-hard claws of his hand sank into the soft brick, digging out parallel streaks. Son of the Wind scampered lightly from shoulder to arm to shore, a lariat wound of line Sobek had provided with him. With a sharp crack of noise, the Compliant Rod in the little man’s hand drove a piton-shaped tip into the rock surface, and Son of the Wind made fast the end of the line with a hitch. He threw the loop to Preston, who grabbed it.

With a groan, Preston pulled himself up. Sobek’s hand was under his armpit, and Sobek lifted him as if he weighed no more than a child.

“Well!” he said, spitting water from his mouth. “At least we escaped from the flying saucer men. No one saw us!”

He had one foot on the shore when he looked up. Above this rocky shore, looking down, was a black tower of vast blocks. Crawling up these blocks was a vertical line of strongholds and crenelated battlements, one above the other, like a set of fortresses on shelves. On a lower balcony not far above a knot of soldiers in bright rags had gathered, First Men and long-necked Second Men with solemn eyes, staring down. The sight of a giant slug careening to its death down the white water rapids had evidently attracted attention.

One of the Second Men raised a spline gun and fired. A length of crystal shot out, broke into several sharp shards, and fell like a volley of arrows. One struck Sobek, and did not penetrate his skin, but exploded into dozens of sharp glassy fragments. One of these fragments neatly severed the line holding Preston.

Preston shouted, wobbled, and fell. Immediately the water grabbed his legs, banged his head against a rock, picked him up, and yanked him downstream. His hands clawed frantically, but caught only water.

Sobek was yanked backward and out of sight. The roar of chaos filled Preston’s brain. The roar of the waterfall filled his ears, and the spray filled his eyes.

Then he went over the brink. Down he plunged.


*** *** ***

Episode 63 City of Corsairs

Preston was helpless. Air was gone. The fists of a mad ape could not have gripped him more tightly than the chaos of water. He was flung down the steep slope by the wild current, bouncing and scraping against rocks. He was spun like a rag doll in a washing machine.

His rifle was tied too securely to come free, but the metal barrel banged his skull. The heavy stock pounded against one leg painfully; his longsword the other. The survival bow he had so carefully made now snapped in half; the bowstring contrived to wind around his neck, and both halves struck him in the face.

Black sparks danced in his vision. Then, the waters grew bright. His stomach lurched and fled. Weightlessness came: all around was a white haze of falling water.

He kicked with both legs, striking the wall of the cliff, and throwing himself out from the curtains of falling spray, and suddenly into the red sunlight.

The vast vistas of empty sky and the slate-gray sea and the rocks of the seashore into which the waterfalls plunged were now above him, now below, turning end over end like a Ferris wheel, spinning like a carousel.

But Preston, despite his bruises and scrapes and bloody nose, spat water and laughed. The ring on his finger had not been torn free: it was lit with unnatural light. He was not afraid of falling, not now.

He spread his arms and legs like a parachutist. His gyrations slowed and stopped. He was now face-downward, falling, or, rather, wafting like an autumn leaf, down toward the distant sea.

Except he was not falling down. He was falling up. The sea was receding in his view, dropping away from him. The cliffs just out of reach to one side of him were sliding downward. Preston wondered if it were an optical illusion, or perhaps the blow on his head induced hallucinations.

Then he saw a flock of pterodactyls, leathery wings motionless and outspread, hanging in a slowly-turning spiral column in the air above him. Then he understood: the sea wind, striking the tall cliff walls formed a potent updraft.

His magic ring made him lighter than the flock, and so as they rose, he closed the distance with them, and found himself in their midst.

These pterodactyls were larger than condors, but where only a fifth of the size of the monstrous pteranodons that had attacked his plane. From beneath the miters of bone crowning their narrow skulls, the beady reptilian eyes were watching him coldly. Now several of the nearer lizardish birds opened a sharp beak as if in silent, skeletal grin, and they flicked snakelike tongues at him, as if to catch his scent. This was ominous; but for the moment, the flying dinosaurs merely kept their wings of membrane spread, and let the updraft carry them above the cliff brink.

Battered and sprained from head to toe, Preston was also willing merely to be carried where the wind took him. Not that he had much choice.

Up he was carried. The clifftop was below him. Now the whole landscape was spread beneath his gaze.

For over a fortnight, he had been in a hot and dripping clime where never a breath of breeze blew. From on high, he saw that whole extent, running straight as a ramrod to the horizon, was but an interruption in a highland.

It was a cold, rocky, and flattish landscape of low hills and shallow dells that reminded him of the Yukon. The soil was rich with grass, the rocks and outcropping with lichens and moss. The vales were dotted with herds of wool sheep or woolly rhinoceros who grazed forlornly among green combes and misty clouds. Here and there a copse arose of stunted spruce trees or other evergreens with dark and wind-twisted limbs.

Preston felt a pang when he beheld a prehistoric bighorn ram, which stood on a ridge of rock near the cliff edge, head high. The beast was handsome, huge, and heroically proportioned as befitted a creature of the Pleistocene. His fingers itched for his rifle, but it was not worth losing his only trace leading to Cynisca. Besides, the caliber was too heavy.

From this bird’s eye viewpoint, he could also see the sources of the unnatural heat that made the canal bed a sweltering jungle: the ground near the canal was punctured with fumaroles and smoke-holes, dotted with ash heaps, and here and there with steaming hot springs or bubbling lakes. He saw a geyser blow. This bespoke extensive and recent volcanism, no doubt kept at bay only by the imperishable material, whatever it was, metal alloy or artificial macromolecule, lining the canal walls.

Far upriver, near the fortress of Xurac A’a, the walls of the canal had been easily five thousand feet high. At this spot, they were no more than a thousand. A vast seaward wall, no doubt in ancient times the lower lock of the canal, ran between the north and south of the canal mouth. It was more than thrice as tall as Hoover Dam. Its head was level with the grassy highland, but its feet were laved in the sea.

This seaward wall was evidently made of materials less imperishable than the canal sides, able to be broken and weathered: the white and gray rock and jutting spars of alloy here had been wind-sculpted over years into a jagged length like broken teeth. It ran like a bridge between the north and south highlands, but it was broken in the middle.

In ancient days, an immense gate set in this seaward wall had severed the canal from the inland sea beyond. Now, the gate was gone, and the sea level was below, not above, the floor of the canal.

The two gate posts of that long-vanished, unthinkably vast sea-gate still stood, one to either side of the waterfall, twin rectilinear towers made of massive black cubes. Each gatepost was taller than a skyscraper, and wider than a city block. Each seemed too large to be manmade: as if a mountain should somehow be stacked upright, rather than heaped like a pyramid.

Some cubes were depressed into the surface, or stuck out from it, forming shelves and nooks as large as a town square.

The upper third of the northern gatepost was inhabited.

Clusters of stone houses and strongholds built of cut stone and lumber, capped with sharply peaked roofs, clung like swallow’s nests along these shelves and nooks. Suspension rope bridges leaped the horizontal gaps between shelf and shelf, and ladders or elevator baskets lowered on pullies stretched up the vertical gaps, or, in one place, a tower of red stones. The sight was dizzying.

At the foot of the vast black gatepost to the south, the accumulated rubble of centuries formed a tall hill overgrown with grass. The gatepost rose from the hill’s crest, so the seaward wall bisected the hill. The eastern slope of the hill was splashed by the waters of the river. The western slope fell down further, and was wetted in the waters of the inland sea. Between the two, the waterfall roared past the northern slope.

Here was a second walled city, roofed with thick plates studded with portholes and spyglasses, glaring up at its sister other across the gap.

The southern city, quite more reasonably that its northern neighbor, occupied this green hill. This hilltop was also the terminus of the causeway. Most of the city crowded the western slope, and frowned down at an extensive set of quays, and docks. This, then, was the entrepot of all the sea-trade that passed up the canal to eastern lands.

There was a similar hill gathered at the foot of the northern gatepost, but it was uninhabited save for a few ragged shacks. The two hills formed the harbor where the ships were gathered. Longboats, xebecs, feluccas and junks were docked there, and one sidewheeler steamship. Between these two slopes that reached gently into the sea, was the sheer vertical cliff below the canal mouth, where the river leaped straight into the bay.

The southern city had contrived to construct a road, or, rather, a set of switchbacks rising from shelf to shelf up the gatepost to reach the top of the sea-wall. Here was a flat black square of substance, several acres in extent, atop which a fortification loomed. This fort had the thick walls, crenellations, and narrow window slits of military architecture. The archways and stairs were proportioned for gargantuan Fifth Men. From the flattened dome of the central citadel rose a flag Preston had seen before: a dragon looped around a sun-disk of many rays, its fangs bared. It was the sign of the Empire.

Below this, was a smaller banner, displaying a slit-pupiled eye in a scaly green socket. This, then, was Xurac Phthia: The Fortress of the Unwinking Eye.

A breeze pushed Preston north.

Unlike the southern gate, the northern gate post was taller than the remaining sea wall, which had crumbled and fallen. The black cubes, piled in ranks and rows atop each other, rose fifty yards or more above the general level of the weathered red stone of the northern sea wall’s top layer.

Certain of the black cubes were perched most precariously. Others hung in midair with nothing beneath them at all. Above all this was a floor of wood, wider than an acre, broken in many places with trapdoors of various sizes, sitting atop four black cubes, each hanging in midair with no support beneath.

The platform was an aerodrome or airport, with a wide variety of fantastic floating ships, rigged out with different sails, yawls or sloops, junks, or xebecs, or sporting vast vanes or fins. Each ship, no matter how elaborate her superstructure, had a round disk-shape for her hull, like a coracle, or two disks placed side by side, connected by a wooden framework.

From the dimensions, it was clear that these were the flying disks of the Eighth Men, or at least the central mechanism, looted perhaps from wrecks and restored to use. Evidently the motive part of the engine could not be recovered, because these air boats were equipped with sails. Evidently, travel over water, not over land, was the norm: Each was coated with a wooden hull like a seagoing ship, or else stood on pontoons.

But what was the point of sails on a lighter than air vessel? Without the friction of water on the hull, a vessel could not tack or quarter. A balloon could only sail before the wind. Preston reminded himself that this world was strange to him, built on different technologies and different assumptions. Countless years, ages, and eons of difference.

Then he saw the turret jutting from the top of the mid-air airport. He smothered a laugh. Not everything was different.

The flag fluttering from the spar atop the highest turret was a black banner, adorned with a skull and crossbones.

This, then, was the City of Sudden Death. As he passed above the cliffside on which the precarious town was perched, the updraft holding him aloft dwindled. Now he was sliding slowly down the unseen corridor of air toward the city. He descended along a noticeable slant. He glanced with sudden, wild hope at the ring on his finger. The force of the ring was clearly guiding him toward a specific spot near the top of the columnar city.

Nearer he came. A balcony slid by underfoot. A group of dark-skinned First Men soldiers dressed in leathery coats and long pantaloons, or tunics, or kilts were sleeping there, heaped pell mell. Drinking horns, golden goblets, and a toppled cask of ale explained the scene.

On a long and swaying ropebridge leading away from this balcony was another Firstling man, wearing but a loin cloth, hunched beneath a heavy bale on his shoulders. He picked his way carefully, and did not look up when Preston passed overhead.

Large in his view grew two protruding black blocks, one above the other, each with a large, half-timbered, peak-roofed hall atop it, with wings cantilevered over the brinks. The gap of air between the two halls was connected by a tower of red bricks and black timber set with barred windows.

Down to one of these windows the ring brought him. The sill was narrow, but his feet caught hold just before his full weight returned. Gravity yanked him suddenly toward the rocky sea shore far, far below. He clung frantically with both hands to the bars.

The bars were like deer antlers, made of some organic substance harder than horn he did not recognize, fantastically scrimshawed into rose patterns and thorny loops. The leaves were sharp: bit his fingers with shallow cuts, like barbed wire.

There was no glass in the frame. Beyond was a chamber adorned with gold, rich with hangings of red and scarlet silk. Braziers hanging on chains from the ceiling emitted warmth and opiate perfumes. Layers of patterned fur hide hid the floor, pelts of tigers, polar bears, smilodons.

Opposite this window was an archway set with bone bars carved into floral patterns. Beyond it stood a Second Man in a leather kilt, leaning on a spline gun. He was facing the corridor beyond.

A dozen Firstling women, young, red-lipped, long-haired, and fair-skinned, were slumbering on cushions and ottomans, voluptuous curves only half-concealed in clinging camisole or diaphanous shift. They were curled and huddled in postures of fear, as if sleep had come only after misery had weakened them.

Then he saw her. She was clad in a brief tunic, and her luxurious hair was spread across the silk pillows like a black lake. Even in repose, her oval face was dignified, refined, queenly. In sleep, she was serene, and no trace of fear underlined her eyes.

On a slender chain around her throat, she wore the bullet from his elephant gun. It had brought him here.

As the moon outshines any star, more beautiful than any beauty here, was Cynisca of Atlantis, sleeping peacefully.


*** *** ***

Episode 64 Tumult at Widow’s Tower

Preston held his breath.

From his awkward perch on the sill of the barred harem window, he carefully, soundlessly, raised his Mauser pistol and aimed carefully at the guard. With his other hand, he clung to the sharpened antler horns blocking the window. Only the toes of his boots could grip the sill. A thousand-foot drop was beneath his heels.

Now what? If he fired, the shot would alert the tower full of armed pirates. And if he did not? He was a noisy intake of breath away from discovery.

A score of young beauties slumbered in the chamber, dressed in diaphanous chitons or short tunics. Only Cynisca was sleeping soundly; the others were murmuring, turning over, twitching with nightmares. As soon as one woke, a sigh of surprise would be as bad as a scream: the long-necked Second Man leaning on the door bars need but turn his head an inch and see Preston’s shadow filling the window.

Even without turning his head, the stench of slug secretions dripping from Preston’s torn buckskins might reach through the opiate perfume of the gem-studded lamps hanging in the chamber to tickle the guard’s nose. The urge to shoot first was overwhelming.

The wiser course would be to release the bars and leap silently away, letting his ring parachute him to a safe landing on some balcony below, in the faint hope of somehow returning here again once he had reconnoitered other approaches.

But the idea of departing without a word or a glance was torture: Preston stared at Cynisca’s sleeping face, as if by silent willpower alone he could somehow stir her awake.

There is always something strange about staring at a sleeping face: an innocence and serenity not found on Earth can often be seen there. Preston, still holding his breath, was staring in absorbed wonder, dumbstruck by her loveliness. Cynisca’s face in repose was angelic in its serenity. He could see the slight motions of her breathing with the rise and fall of her bosom, and at her swanlike neck. He stared at the firm point of her fine chin, the fulness of her parted lips, the regal delicacy of her slender nose. He was fascinated by the lambent play of light across her closed eyelids, as delicate as the petals of a dark rose.

Then, as if she had indeed heard his silent plea, her eyelids parted. Beneath, brighter than sapphires and deeper than wells, her eyes gazed into his. It was eerie, for she was just as still and serene as if sleep still held her. No hint of surprise was in her smooth expression. The soft rhythm of her breathing did not change.

He wondered for a split second if she did not recognize him, waterlogged and bruised as he was, or if she was not seeing him at all. Her eyes seemed to be staring past him, as if at a vision in another world.

He parted his lips to speak. She touched her finger to her lips, a symbol for silence all the years between her era and his had not changed. She beckoned him to duck.

His Mauser was hanging by a lanyard around his neck, along with the broken halves of his survival bow. The bowstring was intact: and he had plucked it often enough to trust its strength. He slipped a loop of the string around a projecting curlicue of the ornamental window bars, and took the two halves of the bowshaft in his free hand. Then he moved his boots slowly down the red bricks of the tower wall, seeking toe holds.

Clinging to the bowstring, he did not need to expose a hand to grip the sill. When his eyes were even with the lower sill, he could see the ceiling of the chamber and the upper part of the opposite wall, but no more. He could not see the guard, who could not see him.

Meanwhile, he could hear the rustle of silk, the murmur of soft voices, as Cynisca moved softly about the chamber, speaking to the other captive women. The sounds grew louder. Preston craned his head. He could see the tops of the heads of some of the taller women moving across the chamber toward the door, and out of his angle of vision. Suddenly the voices became loud and shrill, jocular and teasing, a mixture of laughter and complaints. He pulled his head higher to catch a glimpse.

A cluster of chattering women now crowded the barred door, each complaining to the guard about laundering her costume. They spread the wide the folds of their long, diaphanous lingerie, or chiton, camisole, or veils both to block his view of the chamber, and to lure his gaze.

Cynisca stepped to the window, as if to gaze idly at the clouds over the sea. “I dreamed of you,” she said softly.

“Me, too!” Preston’s voice was low and husky. Mostly this was the strain of hanging one-handed to a sheer wall. Mostly. “I am always thinking of you!”

The sight of his black-and-blue face and torn buckskins appearing outside a thousand-foot high window had not perturbed her, but his awkward revelation of his feelings did. Delicate blushes touched her cheek and brow. She put her slender hand to her lips as if to hide her expression and turned her eyes to the horizon.

“No, I mean a true dream, through the gate of horn. Fyodor, who counts you as his blood brother, is in need of you, and must be saved.”

“You first,” he grunted.

“I have seen a vision!” she said, her eyes flashing.

You are a vision. Stand back. I’ll shoot out the bars, and have you out of there, lickety-split.”

Cynisca lost her poise. She lowered her head and spoke forcefully. “Do not resist the rogues who rule here! I have foreseen this! Do not come for me!”

She leaned toward him. He could see, nestled in her cleavage, a glass ampoule dangling from a necklace of fine chain she wore. In the ampoule was his long missing bullet, long as her finger. Now that he had found her, he no longer needed her to keep it on her, and so he could use his elephant gun again.

Preston answered with a grim grin. “Not likely. Stand back, I said.”

And he drew the blade hidden in his belt buckle, and cut the line lashing his Holland & Holland securely to his back. He shrugged it into his hand.

A sharp voice now interrupted. Preston did not hear the words, but it was the sonorous, deep voice of the Ipotane, whose longer throat made a note no man of Preston’s race could make.

A choir of girlish voices rang out. Cynisca glanced over her shoulder at the scene outside Preston’s range of vision. The sudden motion shook fragrant coils of jet-black hair tumbling down across her naked shoulders. Preston heard the sound of the barred door rattling in its frame, doubtless being pulled open.

She turned back to Preston. “Flee! It is fated!”

He said, “Not without you.”

“Uzarin comes!”

“Take cover. That’s an order!”

She rolled her eyes upward. “With suchlike men, what can fates do? I say no more, but obey.” She drew back out of sight.

The long-necked Ipotane man, mottled like a giraffe with skin tones of black and yellow, now appeared at the window, peering down at Preston with large, solemn eyes. He blinked at the sight the ominous twin barrels of massive Preston’s elephant gun pointing up his nose. The man yelped, and started to raise his spline gun.

Preston said, “Now, come on, Uzarin, if that is your name. I can blast you from here to next Tuesday before you can point that thing at me, and have time left over for tea and crumpets. Take your gun by the barrel and shove it through the bars stock-first. Let it drop.”

Uzarin did as he was told. He looked mournful as the weapon with its wooden stock and enamel barrel slid away and fell toppling through the air. He said, “The Widow will take the cost out of my next nine shares.”

“At least you will be alive to be in debt. Get back.”

But Uzarin moved with snakelike quickness, grabbed Cynisca by the shoulders, twisted an arm behind her back, and thrust her before the window. Preston could not blast the bars, nor the Ipotane, without risk to her. She wore a cold, dignified expression at this rough handling, but there was no trace of fear in her face.

“Your weapon is cumbrous, First Man,” said Uzarin with a sad smile.

Preston grinned, let go of the bowstring connecting him to the window bars, and kicked himself up into the air. Immediately, he lost all sensation of weight. He floated like a feather. At the same time, with a motion no less swift than the Ipotane’s, he raised his pistol in his left hand, and held it steady, pointing over Cynisca’s shoulder at Uzarin’s narrow, solemn, lynx-striped face.

“I got a lot of weapons, Second Man.”

“You feign! Were you sure of your shot, you would have shot already…”

“I miss talking with Terrors. They always knew I never bluff.”

Cynisca said in low tones, “My lord is compassionate, and will not slay you, Secondling, for fear his bolt will strike one of the maidens behind us. He waits until they depart through the door you left ajar. Then he kills you.”

Uzarin turned his head, and saw the line of girls, either pale with fear or smiling impishly, skipping silently out the door. The sound of naked feet rapidly slapping on stairs came from below, and began to recede.

Preston grinned, “I guess that comes out of your pay, too, eh?”

Cynisca now hooked her ankles around the leg of a heavy couch. Uzarin started to step back, but saw he had no hope of dragging the tall Atlantean girl with him. He shoved Cynisca toward the window roughly, and ran after the fleeing captives.

It did not seem right to shoot a man in the back, but seeing him manhandle Cynisca nearly convinced Preston. Nonetheless, she was safely on the floor, which was covered with pillows, and so he took the opportunity to take his elephant gun into a proper grip — as proper as any man can contrive while floating weightless in the air.

Uzarin paused and looked back. “You have a Winged Man’s ring you hoaxed into serving you? We are the Free Men of the Air! You are in a city of fliers! How can you escape?”

Preston’s answer was to shoot. He aimed at the sill where the bars were embedded in brick. The shot fell with a force of a dozen sledgehammers, and the brick could not cushion the blow.

The bars were made of something that shattered rather than bent under impact. The whole length of the sill fell outward, dragging the embedded bars with it, and then the window frame came free of the surrounding mortar, and the whole thing fell down toward the balconies far below.

Meanwhile, Preston was sent end over end by the recoil, and was tumbling away from the tower. Like a spinning ballerina watching the recital hall around her circle past, the cloudy upper world circled Preston dizzily. He could glimpse the sight of Cynisca as she swept through his angle of vision, moving like a comet from left to right.

She was standing on a crumbling lip of brick. The opening was larger than the window had been, since the falling frame had carried part of the wall away with it.

She shouted. Preston’s ears were ringing with the echoes of his shot, and he heard nothing clearly. He spread his arms and legs to slow his topple, and then he beckoned for her to jump. She did not answer, but popped out of sight. A moment later, she was back, and in her arms a length of long, slender chain from some lamp or drapery. She threw it.

The first time, he missed the catch, and the second. But the third time, the moment he grabbed it, this tenuous connection to an object connected to the earth was enough to break the spell.

Down he plunged. Cynisca who was holding the end of the chain, was yanked out into midair, her black hair swirling like a long, silken banner behind her.

*** *** ***

Episode 65 Through the Gate of Horn

Preston and Cynisca were yanked from the thousand-foot-high tower and fell spinning into an abyss of empty air. Immediately once her feet left the crumbling ledge, however, and nothing Preston touched was touching anything connected to the ground, the ring on his finger lit up, and buoyancy returned.

The sensation was strangely dreamlike. Cynisca hung above him, a slender chain running from her grip to his fist, and this apparently was enough to transmit his weightlessness to her. Her onyx hair was a many-armed thundercloud behind her. The thin tunic fluttered like the wings of a snow-white dove, molding her lithe curves. Her amber skin shone brightly against the dim, violet skies of latter-day Earth. Her eyes were bright and unafraid.

When he released the chain, her weight returned for only a half second, until she fell into his arms. He caught her about her supple waist and tightened his embrace. She twined her shapely arms about his neck, and clung. The wild, alluring, natural perfume went to his head like wine. While he laughed for joy, they spun like a couple in a waltz. For a breathless moment, he could see nothing but her face, per parted lips, her eyes, while the sunlight and shadow of the earth and sky about them turned and turned again.

The moment seemed right; he bent his head to kiss her. She neatly intercepted his lips with her cheek, and whispered archly in his ear, “Claim you a maiden carried off but halfway, hero? Find ground first! Your thunder stirs the Watch!”

The waltz became swing dancing when he took her hands in his and flipped her body neatly over his shoulders. She wound her legs about his waist and clung to him piggyback. He took his elephant gun in two hands, and fired skyward.

The world seemed to go silent under the hammerblow of sound. Cynisca clung frantically as the recoil slammed Preston and her sharply downward, spinning. The centrifugal force like the claws of an impalpable demon tried to yank her away from him.

He released his rifle and clutched at her with both hands. He pulled her body from his back to his side, and curled an arm around her, terrified at what nearly had happened. The rifle was pulled to the end of its strap, but did not fly away. His pistol on its lanyard was pulled the opposite direction, and the fluttering black cloud of her unbraided hair was pulled in a third direction. If the world around them had been painted on the inside of centrifuge, it would not have spun any more madly, or, if painted inside a wind tunnel, roared more loudly.

But the silent influence of the antigravity ring, and the action of the bullet to which it was attuned, still worked. The two of them fell up, not down. Preston expected the bullet to remain above them for at least fifteen seconds. Where it might land depended on the winds. He was gratified to see the tower of red bricks fall away underfoot, and then many ledges, balconies, and levels of the gigantic pile of black, cyclopean blocks where the impossibly vertical city of Threno was built.

Their spin slowed, and their upward flight began to level out. The unseen bullet holding the point in space toward which their personal gravity drew them must have reached the apex of its arc, and was now moving laterally. Preston saw below them the huge, floating platform of the mid-air dockyard. To the left and right, titanic black blocks sat motionless in the sky, cubes an acre wide on each side, unsupported. Mansions or little gardens had been erected atop the upper faces of some of these unfalling, impossible cubes. Swaying rope bridges connected some cubes hanging adjacent to each other if they were nearly level, or ropes with dangling baskets for elevators, if not.

Cynisca looked toward a point behind Preston’s head, and shrieked in alarm. Preston craned his neck. Their spin brought the scene from behind him into view. He saw, not far off, the flock of pterodactyls his path had passed through a handful of minutes ago. The leather-winged things were larger than any bird of his day. They hung in the updrafts above the sea cliffs, seemingly as motionless as the weightless black blocks.

Preston said, “Are those dino birds dangerous? They were giving me the eye before.”

As they spun, Cynisca tossed her head impatiently, pointing with her nose. He craned his neck as the scene passed behind his head, trying to see what she meant. Then he saw a hovering trio of glittering, crystalline circles half-unseen among the bright clouds in the distance beyond the flock of pterodactyls. Cynisca said, “The danger is from the discs of the Watchers. The fingerwings will not molest us.”

The noise of hoarse shouts came from below. Someone blew a trumpet.  Below his spinning feet, Preston saw a rotating scene of men on balconies, some in rags and some in long coats, running to and fro. Some brandished weapons. The escaping women in their brief tunics were fleeing each direction, along balconies and rope bridges or ducking into windows.

A squat-legged, wall-eyed Neanderthal from the Middle Pleistocene in a bearskin mantle flung his flint-headed javelin from a spearthrower up at Preston. From a period after Preston’s native age as far in the future as the hominid was from the past hailed a dark-skinned, white-haired Progerian in a coat of braided colors, who  fired a pneumatic speargun. Both bolts flew wide.

Keeping one arm about Cynisca, Preston snatched his Mauser from where it swung on the end of its lanyard, aimed at the spinning, receding targets, fired twice. Both men were struck in the head and died instantly. The Progerian’s corpse toppled slowly from the bridge where he stood, rebounding from ledge after ledge as he fell away into the distance below, leaving red streaks behind.

Preston, despite himself, was impressed with his own marksmanship, or luck, and whistled.

Cynisca shouted over the noise of the wind, the thunder of the weapon. “Stop! Do not infuriate them!”

At that moment, the first of the pterodactyls stooped and struck, digging its claws into Preston’s back and shoulder. He pointed the pistol behind him, fired, and drilled an inconsequential hole into the monster’s leathery wing.

A second pterodactyl snatched at Cynisca, who screamed. Preston dropped the pistol, and used his free hand to grab the first pterodactyl by the throat.

The creature hissed like a snake, and thrashed, snapping at Preston’s eyes.

Preston tore the flying dinosaur from his shoulder, threw it onehandedly over his head to bludgeon the second pterodactyl sharply in the skull.

Humans and creatures together spun madly in the frictionless air. Both pterodactyls fell away in a dizzy flutter of leathery wings, the great membranes snapping like whipcracks.

But then three more of the flying monsters were upon them, then four. Preston saw it was futile. He put both arms around Cynisca, tucking her under his chin, trying to shield her with his body.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the attack from the pterodactyls ceased. Two of the great batlike lizards grappled Preston’s buckskins with their claws, and towed his weightless body rapidly back down to the vast black columns below.

Here was a nook between two of the cyclopean blocks where someone had built a shed. Preston’s weight and Cynisca’s returned as soon as the first of them touched a claw to a solid surface. Now Preston, laughing, used both hands to whirl his Holland & Holland overhead like a bludgeon, gripping the barrel and breaking legs and dislodging claws with the heavy stock. He came to his feet. Cynisca lay between his feet, dazed. Preston flipped the gun end over end, and caught it with stock at his shoulder, one hand at the trigger, one at the barrel.

But the pterodactyls were in full retreat. Preston lowered the barrel, scowling, wondering where some trick was afoot. Pumping their vane madly, the condor-sized creatures climbed up into the air, and then swooped down and away.

Preston turned. On the roof of the shed, a sardonic look on his muzzle, Compliant Rod in hand, was Son of the Wind.

Preston wiped the blood from his shoulder, where the claws had pierced flesh. “You sent those ugly things?”

Son of the Wind said, “I thought you were wise. You would not shoot your weapon, which makes a loud noise and causes gravity to bend, because the Watchers, and everyone with ears, would tell. So I thought you needed a push to go where you are going. I thought wrong. You were heading toward the Watchers.”

Then his speech changed, and he said, “Maiden of the First Race, I am Anemogen of the Third. That man is Foolish Chatterer. Him, he is my follower. Me, I am his master. You are his mate.”

Preston recognized some of the words. Anemogen meant Wind-born. It was Greek.

“Hold on, there!” objected Preston. “You are my sidekick. Not the other way around! When did you become the boss?”

“With your mouth, you said it. You named me mother. I am to teach. You, to heed.” He pointed at himself. “Master.” He pointed at Preston. “Follower.”

Cynisca rose gracefully to her feet and placed her palms together in what, to Prescott, seemed a Hindu-like gesture of respect. As regal as a queen in ermine and gold she seemed then, even if dressed in a mere wisp of sheer fabric. She spoke in Greek to Son of the Wind, “I humbly greet the master of my lord. But his bride I cannot be, for the law has promised me to another. Only in this lawless city am I free.

“Cynisca, daughter of Idmon the Seer am I, and trained in his gift. Hear me! I have dreamed a true dream. I have seen Colonel Preston Lost garbed in the scarlet cloak of a captain of corsairs. It is his fate to find allies here, not to slay them, nor to flee this place. Tell your disciple to abide here, and face down the dangers. He will prevail.”

Son of the Wind said, “The Phantom put his hand over Chatters-Much and saved him, for he is unseen by any prophecy of the Watchers. His fate is not here.”

“Where is it?” she demanded.

“Before the Gate of Eternity. He will silence the oracles of the Watchers, halt their slave raids, and select the One Race to replace the ten races of man.”

Preston uttered a curse-word, then glanced at Cynisca, and muttered, “Sorry!” Louder, he said, “Problem is, I have no idea how to do any of these things. I do not know where the tesseract is. And I am not selecting anyone to be the One Race. That is not anything the Last Immortal ever mentioned.”

Cynisca said, “Then be guided by me. Be guided by friendship. Your blood brother Fyodor, while he and I were together, spoke to many other slaves and low people about the One God you worship, who forbids idolatry and slavery alike, but sets men free.

“This talk displeases Tlatoc of Vathanc, who has many friends among the Imperial Family, and he demands Fyodor’s death. Zipacna the Sportsman is Fyodor’s owner, for a time was shielding his expensive gladiator from Tlatoc’s wrath. But Fyodor and I were parted when the caravan split paths, and he was taken by air to the Imperial capital. I have seen in a dream that you will rescue him.”

Preston said, “That means I cannot stay here. Where is this Imperial capital?”

The eyes of Son of the Wind grew hooded. “In a place a pirate raid has more chance of reaching than a single man.”

He hopped down from the shed’s roof, and pulled open its door. Beyond was a musty tunnel, dank and old, rising at a sharp angle. Here was a staircase of age-worn, irregular, broken steps.

“You are both crazy,” said Preston. “Cynisca and I are getting out of here!”

“The Watchers will soon besiege the town,” said Son of the Wind sourly. “You will save it.”

“Save the town? How will I do that? And for that matter, how did you get here? I thought only First Men could enter, or people they marked.”

“Come and see.” And with that, Son of the Wind was scampering quickly up the age-cracked stairs. Preston bit back a curse, beckoned Cynisca to go before him with a courtly bow, and followed.

Up the dark tunnel they went.


*** *** ***

Episode 66 The Treasure House

Son of the Wind led Preston and Cynisca through a maze of passages, up stairways, past forks, through holes, up ladders, that were bored through the solid black rock. The light here came from square inscriptions of trigrams inscribed every few yards into wall or stair or ceiling, which gleamed with a firefly glow. Then the walls were red stone, no longer black, and there were no lights. There was only one stairway here. It led up into darkness.

In places, the dark stairway was so narrow, Preston’s elbows brushed either wall. In others, the rock overhead was so low, he and Cynisca must stoop to crawl. Where rubble blocked the passage, they clambered over.

Mud had accumulated in the smooth, bow-like depressions that countless feet over countless ages had worn in each stair, and a trickle of water dribbled down the center of the stairway.

Preston walked, or slid, or scrambled, or crawled ever upward in the perfect darkness. Son of the Wind went before him, sometimes near, sometimes far, sniffing and groping, finding his path by scent. Cynisca followed, holding his left hand, and trusting. Only Preston could see.

In this cramped space, Preston feared ricochets. The steel dirk, to him a longsword, he had looted from a nameless Fifth Man soldier, some miracle was still in the scabbard dangling from his baldric, despite all his acrobatic summersaults through water and air. He had the blade out now, and slew the vipers he found from time and time slithering along the cracked stones or hiding in the mud.

Preston grinned as he skewered them, for this was a species he recognized from his own time and era, and not some pre-paleolithic creature whose habits he did not know. It was a mottled brownish snake from southeast Asia, called Russell’s viper, known for striking without warning.

Finally, the stair ended in a wooden trapdoor that was jammed or locked shut. However, there was a crack in the boards large enough for Son of the Wind. A few minutes of chopping with the sword, and prying and straining, enlarged the opening enough for Cynisca, and then himself, to pass through.

They found themselves in a wide, circular, tower room. Thin archery slits in the stone walls emitted a dim light. Here rose up a garden of mushrooms, molds, and orchids. Underfoot was damp soil, fed moisture from spouts in the ceiling. Some of the mushrooms were taller than children. Some fans of brightly colored fungi, blue and gold freaked with jet, or pallid green, reached the ceiling. Snakes and the bones of snakes were thickly gathered alone the soil, and more than one human skeleton. Puffballs glowing with internal light encrusted the ceiling, which was punctured by a large, round hole, lipped with spikes. At the moment, a hatch or lid was over this hole.

Son of the Wind flourished the Compliant Rod, and many of the snakes withdrew. Those that did not, Preston clove.

Preston said, “What is this place?”

Cynisca whispered, “Eyes are watching us, but not living eyes. There is a spirit in this chamber.”

Son of the Wind said, “This is the treasure house of the Widow. She is queen.”

He pointed at a shelf of strongboxes, one of which was opened: gold coins in neat stacks were piled inside. Against the opposite wall were stacked casks of ale before a rack holding bottles of wine.

“Pirate treasure chests, eh? Some things never change.”

Son of the Wind said, “Her greatest treasure is there. It is the source of her power. Look!”

He threaded them through a stand of lacy fungi to the center of the chamber. Here rose a narrow-based stepped pyramid of a dozen or so blocks of black substance. Each cube was three feet on a side, and each face was covered with lines of trigrams. He recognized the writing of the Fourth Men, the Phantoms.

All the cubes were cracked and dull save one. That one shined like an onyx mirror, as if it were freshly waxed. Preston peered, and saw that this block was not resting on row of blocks beneath it, but hovering half an inch above. The block above it was likewise not touching it, but was separated by a half-inch gap. Preston tried to slip his sword tip into this gap. An unseen force pushed the blade away. It was like trying to force the south ends of two bar magnets together. He sheathed the sword, doffed his glove, and touched the cube itself with his bare hand. It felt warm.

A bee-sting of pain bit into his palm. Startled, Preston jerked his hand back, and saw a ruby drop of blood sitting for a moment on the upper face of the black cube. The blood drop sank into the surface, absorbed.  A soft, ruby light now touched the lines of the rectilinear script indited into the surface of the black cube.

Preston remembered beating on the Last Unit in the buried metropolis until his fists bled. Only after his blood touch that cube, did it come awake.

Son of the Wind pointed. A large number of hollow snake fangs, touched with rust-colored stains, had been tossed to the foot of the stone pyramid.

He spoke softly: “All who are not First Men wait beyond the gate stones. Any after-man the Widow says, a drop of his blood is carried in a serpent’s tooth to this place, and put here. The stone drinks blood. The stone knows. Those it knows may enter the city. The Sudden Death does not smite. Sobek told me of this place, and I came in secret, and put my blood on the stone.”

Cynisca whispered, “Why did not the Sudden Death strike you as you came here?”

Son of the Wind said quietly, “The Phantom, before he died, gave me his blessing, so I have power to tell the haunted stones to sleep. But this stone must wake. Foes gather.”

Preston asked, “Is this the thing that protects the city? What is it?”

A dispassionate, nonhuman voice answered. The words seemed shockingly loud. Cynisca straightened her spine and took a slow step backward, unnerved by the sudden voice and its emotionless cadence and monotone accents. Son of the Wind was startled, and leaped atop the dangling loop of an orchid-covered vine hanging from the ceiling stones.

“Affirmative. This is a detection, assessment, and lethal deterrence unit of the Eternal Machine. What are your instructions?”

Cynisca said, “What does it say? My lord, do you understand?”

Preston was looking up at the ceiling boards. He had heard a board creak, as if under a footstep. Someone was in the room above this one.

Preston said to Cynisca, “It’s a computer sentry. A machine.”

She said, “A what?”

Son of the Wind said to Cynisca, “The ghosts of the Immortals, the Fourth Men, are trapped in this stone. Their thoughts are like embers after the fire is gone. But Fourth Men do not die. Their thoughts do not die. The stone has been told to obey the Lost man.”

Preston turned to Son of the Wind.  “The men upstairs heard us.”

Son of the Wind said, “They will not enter the treasure house unbidden. They go to the Widow. Command the stone! You must lift the siege the Watchers will bring. Their troops sit across the river.”

Preston said, “Won’t this defense unit use the Sudden Death – whatever that is – to kill any Fifth Men who attack, once they are inside city limits?”

The inhuman voice said, “Affirmative.”

Son of the Wind said, “They have gathered First Men as fighting slaves and hirelings. Many spearmen. Many archers. The numbers for the attack are many tens of tens more than will fight back, and the pirates have no heart.”

“And you brought me here to command this machine I have no idea how it works? You’re nuts, Smiley! The computer here can make a battleplan better than I can!”

The inhuman voice answered, “Negative! This is a non-cognitive unit. Mental processes involving independent judgment or creative thought are not available. Weapon actions outside of the range of broadcast power are not available.”

Preston said to the stone: “If I order you, can you open fire on First Men?”

“Negative. Higher priority orders countermand.”

“What is your range?”

“Half a parasang, which is five thousand ells, depending on local wind motions.”

Preston wondered why his inexplicable ability to translate all languages did not translate units of measurement. It was about a mile and a half. “Your weapons depend on wind motions?”

“Yes. Those apertures that are held aloft by Brownian motions in the air can be carried by strong winds out of command range, whereupon they dissolve due to lack of sustenance power.”

“Describe these weapons.”

“Tachyonic deceleration vortices induce instantaneous tau meson decay in strong nuclei. Atomic structure is reduced to components.”

“A disintegration ray?”

“Yes. Aiming apertures are submicroscopic nodes, distributed randomly in the air and water and stones in a roughly spherical volume centered on the municipal energy antenna, at an average density of two thousand nodes per cubic ell.”

“Submicroscopic? You mean like nanites?”

“Term not understood.”

“Tiny machines as small as bacteria?”

“Negative. Bacteria on average are half a twip in length.”

“What is a twip?”

“One twentieth of a point.”

Preston grimaced, telling himself not to get distracted. “What size are these weapons? What is their range?”

“The vortices when active are six ells along their zed-axis, spindle-shaped, composed of balanced positive and negative impulses in third-order energy matrix. When inactive, each collapses into a manifold of zero volume, having no extensional property. Each aiming aperture manifests a three-dimensional cross-section, one twip in radius, when interacting with the visible continuum of mentally orthogonal conditions. Without an independent energy source, none can operate beyond the half a parasang limit.”

“What can act as an independent power supply?”

“Of the first order: Molecular operatives: diesel, petrol, alcohol; chemical second order operations: cellulose in wood. Nucleonic operatives: fusion, fission. Electronic and positronic operatives: changes in energy state. Of the second order: timespace frame changes, including gravity and supersymmetric expansions. Of the third order: thrones, dominions, dominations…”

It sounded like gibberish to him, but it also sounded like a puzzle. He felt that old stirring in his heart, a desire never to surrender, never to quit. He could solve it.

It was clear that the pirates here had never talked to this machine, and probably did not know it could change tactics, or deploy its weapons in any new ways. Armed with disintegration rays against a bunch of spearmen, he did not need to be Napoleon. All he had to do was get to know the gimcrack well enough to speak reasonable orders, and tell it where to shoot.

But did he have time? Preston said to his companions, “Get back downstairs. If I cannot solve this, I will follow you. If I can, I will face the pirates, and see if I can convince them.”

Cynisca said, “Do not send me from your side. I stand or fall with you.”

He said, “There is danger here.”

She said, “You are my shield, my lord.” She slid a soft arm up his back and shoulder to twine his neck. “Glory is greater if I die with shield in hand. Ask me not to live like a craven who flees without a shield.”

Preston glanced at Son of the Wind. “You should go.”

The little monkey man squinted one eye and gave him a sardonic look. “You are still the child. The mother cannot go. I am your shield. Touch your ring to the stone, and say these words as I shall instruct…’

Moments later, the sounds of footfalls and hoarse voices came down from above. A shaft of reddish light fell in through the circular trapdoor above when the lid was hauled away. Here was a Second Men with a spline gun, and half a dozen scarred and dark-eyed First Men with longbows, all aiming down.

Preston shouted up, “Peace! I come to talk!”

The Second Men had peacock feathers braided into his mane and trailing down his long neck. He grunted: no archers shot. At his motion, rough men in gaudy rags came from behind the archers, and began clambering from the trapdoor to the top of the pyramid of dull black blocks.

“You are prisoners of the Widow!” shouted the befeathered Second Man, as the burly men descended. “Her mercy will decide if your death is slow or swift! Give us your weapons and surrender the girl!”

As they came down from block to block, Preston saw that the pirate crewmen, just like characters from a storybook, to free their hands for climbing, held their knives between their teeth.

The sight made Preston throw back his head and laugh.

The Second Man snarled at this sign of mirth. “Give up your weapons!”

Preston beckoned. “Come and take them.”

*** *** ***

Episode 67 The Corsairs of the Clouds

Preston waited, lips drawn back from his teeth in a strange expression, half grin, half grimace. Clinging to his side was Cynisca, her face tranquil, her eyes bright. Son of the Wind was staring up with eyes half-lidded and sardonic.

There were half a dozen men in the throng of thugs, climbing down the narrow-based pyramid from block to block. Preston eyed the distance. There were seven courses of three-foot cubes leading up to a ceiling over twenty feet high.

Through the round trapdoor, the rafters of the chamber above could also be seen above and behind the circle of leering, growling, scarred faces grimacing down through the hole. The tiles of the tower top were seven to ten feet above these rafters.

The roughnecks leaped down spryly, but only one or two could go at a time from the ceiling to the top block of the pyramid. The throng hesitated on the third course of blocks, nine feet up, looking warily at the soil coating the floor for the vipers guarding the vault.

Preston saw the men shift weight, take blade in hand, or draw a sharp breath in preparation for a blood-curling yell and a bold leap.

At that moment, Preston, who was standing with one arm tightly around Cynisca, and with Son of the Wind perched on his shoulder, unlimbered the Compliant Gold-ringed Rod, unfolded it from baton to wand to pogo-stick to a twenty-five-foot pole. The three of them were jerked upward like marionettes. The force of the unfolding rod lifted its foot off the soil for a moment, and Preston’s ring made them weightless as they passed through the circular spike-lipped opening. The rod snapped back to baton length.

While the three were yet in weightless free fall in mid-air, a burly spearman whose skin was a motley of yellow and black blotches, leaned over the hole, and, in a swift, fierce lunge, he grabbed Cynisca as she came flying upward. Weight immediately returned. Preston leaped, and landed, arms windmilling, on the brink of the round trapdoor. The Compliant Rod went spinning away into the air.

A blond longbowman with a long and braided beard was next to him. The bowman was still aiming down at the spot Preston had just vacated, and only started to straighten up at the sudden motion. Preston steadied himself by grabbing the man’s beard and yanking sharply. Preston went forward and found safe footing. The man toppled screaming into the pit, and landed atop a knot of vipers with his longbow and both legs broken. The vipers quieted his screams quite quickly.

Cynisca was also screaming. The motley man had grabbed her by the hair, and pulled her roughly out of Preston’s arms. Her slender neck was craned back painfully, almost breaking it, as the man lunged past her, trying to get a clear shot for a spearthrust.

Preston stepped into the spearman’s embrace, too close to be struck, and in one swift, savage motion, drew the hidden punching dagger in his belt buckle and drove it with an uppercut punch through the man’s ribcage and up into his heart. With his other hand, Preston had grabbed the wrist of the hand clutching the girl’s hair: he felt it go limp.

The man was dead without a sound, folded over Preston’s fist, dead before he struck the floor.

Preston was surrounded. Bowmen spun, drawing string to ear. Spearman moved as lightly as dancers, seeking a clear shot. Knives and short clubs were brandished.

Meanwhile, Son of the Wind had leaped up into the rafters overhead. He whistled. The Compliant Rod rebounded from the floor and kicked itself neatly into his hands. With two quick thrusts, telescoping and untelescoping, the metal wand tip jabbed down at the two men behind Preston. One died instantly, blood and brain-stuff gushing from the ruin of his shattered skull. The other stumbled and fell back, collarbone broken, swordarm limp.

Preston dropped his dirk and drew his pistol, put his arm around Cynisca, and leaped back over the trapdoor. The floor of the treasure chamber was far enough away for the magic ring to interpret this as a danger: he floated. He fired into the chest of one archer swift enough to have spun and raised his bow, a redheaded youth painted with madder. Preston shot him just as he released the arrow, which flew high. The recoil sent Preston soaring backward.

He landed in a clear spot, halfway between the circular pit and the circular table ringing the round room. The sound of the gunshot was absurdly loud in the enclosed towertop. The throng hesitated, shocked, and momentarily deafened.

“Halt!” roared Preston in the sudden silence. “I am here to talk! Don’t make me kill you!”

Louder than a trumpet, a bald, wide-shouldered man as muscled as a hairless gorilla, now bellowed out a curse and a command. He wore pantaloons of scarlet silk, and a broad, iron-studded leather belt, from which a pair of tomahawks depended. Hoops of gold were at his ears, and a ring in his nose. His feet were black, and his head was yellow, and his broad chest and arms held a giraffe pattern of black and yellow motley.

“Stand to, you dogs! The Widow speaks!”

In front of this man was a tall chair of black ivory. Here was an old woman in red. Her hair was a white crown piled on her head, held in place by a square framework of long needles. Her face was wrinkled as a crumpled paper bag. Her eyes shined like black beads. Her whole aspect was regal and terrible as she rose. She seemed as thin and straight in her red robe as a bloody sword.

The old woman’s voice was shrill and sharp and strong; a voice of command. “I am Sing-Shi. This city you break into is mine. The men you kill are mine. The slavegirl you steal is mine. She has been granted endless youth by the Third Men of the Land of Lamentations. Many prize such a one! She is worth a warship with full forcefields intact.”

“She is mine!” said Preston, and with his free hand urged Cynisca to go behind him, which she did. “She is worth far more than you say.”

The Widow’s voice grew sharper. “So, you take from me what is mine. It is right you die for this. Those who take mine from me must pay! How can I let you live? You boast you will kill us! How can you kill us?”

Preston said, “Just by being here, I can kill you. All the Empire and all their men will come against this city.”

Sing-Shi said, “And if we sell you to the Advocates? They offer a bucket of gold for your head.”

Preston said, “I have spoken to the Phantom machine which protects your city, and given it my orders. If I die, it shuts down, and leaves you undefended. But if you make me one of you, and follow my plan, I can deliver the Fortress right across the river there, where their armies gather, into your hand. Any buckets of gold they may have there, you can walk in and pick them up, once the defenders are dead. Look at this.”

And he held up a bottle of wine he had taken from the treasure chamber below, flourished it a moment, and then smashed it against the wall stones next to one of the chamber’s narrow windows. A heady scent was in the air. The pirates looked in puzzlement at the puddle of fragrant wine dripping down the wall.

Sing-Shi said, “That vintage was worth the ransom of nine lives of men. What do you mean by spilling it?”

Preston pointed his finger at the winestain, and said, “Shazam!”

The wine ignited, not into flame, but into a white-hot flickering energy, bright as the flash of a lightningbolt. Where the winestain had been, now there was a hole burned cleanly through the wall. The wide scope of the horizon, the breadth of the river far below, and the titanic pillar housing the enemy fortress across the river, all were visible now to the eye. The smell of ozone and burnt rock stung the nose.

In the shocked silence, Preston said, “I can command an ancient, all-powerful weapon of the Phantoms. I can call on the Sudden Death. I can put that weapon into your hands. I am no foe of yours: I fought only to defend myself, as any of you would have done.”

He pointed with a dramatic flourish through the newly-made hole in the wall at the domed fortress visible in the distance.

“There is your enemy! There! Together, we can defeat them!”

Sing-Shi said, “We are a free people. Let nothing be done without the consent of the captains here gathered. Captain Vanant, what say you?”

Next to Sing-Shi stood a First Man of elfin features, dark-haired and long necked, pale as milk. He was a Siberian, a breed dating from a million years after Preston’s birth, an era when only the polar regions were cool enough to be habitable. The man was dressed in a scarlet coat with gold braid and buttons of pearl. This was the first Siberian Preston had seen with a shaved chin, neck, and shoulders. Shorn of his mane, the Siberian sported a neck as slim and flexible as a Second Man’s.

He said, “Widow! The whole world is burning with rumors of the Last of the First Men. They say the End of the Age is at hand, and that the Phantoms, or the fates, or the gods, decree that but one race will survive the end, and nine races die: this man, he will name the race. Let it be us!”

Sing-Shi said, “Say you we should shield this one?”

Vanant the Siberian, said, “If all the posthumans pass away, then all the world shall be free as Threno!”

Sing-Shi said, “Captain Pheleg?”

The burly. motley-skinned man standing behind the Widow’s chair said, “It must be true. What else explains the madness of the Watchers, who sent their air fleet to the Forbidden Mountain, where the Last Immortal dwells? All know it is death to approach that mountain. And we see how frantically they search: legions of huntsmen comb earth and sky for him! Spare him.”

Sing-Shi said, “Captain Satavaesa, you?”

The Second Man with the feathers in his mane was near the circular trapdoor. “Widow! Why listen to this? Rumor has a hundred tongues to spread a thousand lies! This man is just a man. Slit his throat and see the hue of his blood.”

“Captain Dogbane?”

Preston’s ear heard the syllables Allamanda, but his mind heard the literal meaning: a deadly flower. Perhaps this was a nickname.

A heavy-set man of sinister aspect, slab-faced, with tiny moustachios clinging to the upper corners of his lips sat crosslegged on the table, smoking a hookah.

He blew a smokering and spoke. “See the carnage! Poor Baalook is yonder, his head smashed like an ostrich egg: Stinking Phaugh is there in a pool of blood; Zral the Red was blasted; Big Hrolf was thrown down among the snakes. Kill this man. The shadows of dead comrades will haunt us through time, if we do not avenge the dead.”

“Captain Grind Goldtooth, your council?”

This was also a nickname, and he was glad of it, for the syllables in Preston’s ear were bewildering: Tecini Teocuitlatltlantli

A very tall shape, twice as tall as the men gathered there, stepped forward from the shadows that lay thickly along the walls. He clattered as he walked, for he wore a corset of bony scales taken from the armored hide of some dinosaur or prehistoric pangolin. Over one shoulder was a length of red cloth, bright as blood. When he spoke, Preston saw his teeth had been replaced by sharpened fangs of gold, dazzlingly bright between his grisly lips.

The huge Fifth Man laughed, a terrifying sound. “Baalook’s eyeballs squinted this way and that, so his ghost will be too crosseyed to see us. He was fool enough to get himself killed. I fear no dead men! My ghost will make their ghosts my catamites in the afterlife! Among the free men, does not each haul his own weight, fight his own fights? I like the crazy look in his face.”

“Captain Roc?”

A dark haired, scarred man in a scarlet coat and a tricorn cap, who might have come from Preston’s native years, spoke up. His voice was as soft and sinister as a snake’s. “He called up the Sudden Death with a word. This is why the Watchers want him. He is too dangerous to stay among us, but the Watchers will give us gold and ships, a kingdom, if we ask it. Everything he offers, they offer more. Death to him.”

The Widow narrowed her eyes. “The tally is even. Three say life, three say death. My vote breaks the tie.”

Silence fell over the chamber.


*** *** ***

Episode 68 A Prize Beyond Price

Sing-Shi spoke in her high, sharp voice. “Return to me the slavegirl you have stolen, and I will spare you. A transfusion of her blood will shed three decades of age from my frame.”

“The girl stays with me!” said Preston. And he holstered his pistol and raised his elephant gun. He took a step toward the hole he had burned through the wall. It looked large enough to leap through. He could escape into the air.

But Cynisca said, “No! This is not as I have dreamed. You! Grind Goldtooth! Was it not your men who raided the caravan when I was captured? By the Code of the Corsairs, am I not your prize, not hers?”

Preston whispered to her, “What are you doing, woman?”

Cynisca whispered back, “Threading the labyrinth. The future I foresaw is near. Events must be arranged to find it.”

Grind Goldtooth said to the Window, “Venerable Sing-Shi! In dividing the spoils, you take eight shares to my six. But I am willing to wager the Last of the First Men can deliver Xurac Phthia into our hands, and, yes, more than this. I will yield my five of my shares of the spoils of that fight, in return for the girl.”

The old lady said, “Are you mad? If this man can deliver his promise, the fall of Xurac Phthia will be the richest haul in memory: we will double in size and power. You would forego that for one slave?”

Preston saw the looks on the faces of the pirate captains: a spirit of cupidity was there, of pure greed. More than one stole a glance out the hole cut in the wall at the rich city which had flourished under their gaze, fat with wealth, for many a year.

The huge Fifth Man smiled, and showed his flashing, gold-plated teeth. “And if this man cannot do as he says, and we do not take the city, I will give you the girl back, and kill him myself.”

Sing-Shi said, “The castellan of Xurac Phthia, Tlacatecolotl, slew my husband, Sing-Ye. Tlacatecolotl is old, and I would not have age give him a peaceful death. To have the beauty of youth returned to me is a great thing; but to see my enemies perish on the great wheel of torment is greater. And this will make my people glad, will it not, my captains? Grind, your bargain is folly, but before you change your mind, I take your offer. The girl is yours.”

“Begging your pardon,” said Preston, who felt the heat rising in his body, and the heartbeat in his face. “The girl is mine. You call yourself the Free Men! Then you cannot keep slaves!”

The gargantuan Fifth Man walked toward Preston, and the floorboards trembled under his tread. “She is not yours, yet, my good man. I just saved your life, so you had better heed my bargain. That girl is my property, and I could crush you under my foot like a scorpion if I wished, but haha! You might sting my heel! What is the profit in that? Let us bargain.”

“What do you want?” said Preston, warily.

The Fifth Man grinned his awful grin, showing his golden teeth. “The question is what you want! The girl delights you: many a man has weakness for a woman. I will sell her to you, all legal and proper. I am a pirate, but I am no scofflaw! You come with me as we sail against Xurac Phthia! You will be my man, and do as bid. Deal?”

“She comes, too. I am not letting her out of my sight.”

“It is against clean against our code: No boy or woman be allowed amongst us! Any man who seduces a wench and carries her to sea, disguised, he suffers death.”

“Stuff your code. I am not leaving her here.”

The Fifth Man rolled his eyes. “Women are trouble!”

“Men love trouble,” said Preston. “She comes or no deal. And my monkey friend.”

Son of the Wind, who was perched on the rafters above, looked offended, and his hands tightened on the Compliant Rod, as if he were toying with the notion of smiting Preston, but the little man said nothing.

“And Sobek!” Said Preston. “I don’t remember his other name. Your Sixth Man servant. Free him. That is part of the deal.”

Son of the Wind said, “Emogoalekc.”

Captain Grind looked down from his ten-foot height at Preston Lost. His eyes narrowed warily. But instead of asking more, all Captain Grind said was, “It will cost you extra.”

Preston started to say, “I don’t have anything to …” Then his voice trailed off.

The Fifth Man grinned. “Rumor spoke of your iron spline gun, which shoots a sling bullet but with godlike force and deafening noise. They say it never runs out of splines, or whatever you use for bolts. Are you willing to give up your most prized possession for a mere slavegirl? Men will laugh at you.”

Without a word, Preston handed over his elephant gun.

Captain Grind took the elephant gun in hand with a bow of courtesy, and turned, and spoke to the Widow. “Queen of Pirates! Grind Goldtooth and all my crew is ready to sail against the citadel of Xurac Phthia! Once my Cabin Boy here—” He gestured toward Preston.

Cynisca said, “He is fated to be a captain among you!”

Goldtooth shrugged with one massive shoulder, a gesture of nonchalant indifference, “Once my First Mate here summons up the Sudden Death beyond the walls of Threno, then the fortress of our foes is in our hands! Grant me the honor of being the first to assault the walls!”

Immediately the other Corsairs roared objections. “Greedy, giant lout!” called the motley-skinned, heavily-muscled man who stood behind the Widow. “You seek to be first to have the first hand in the treasure coffers, with no honest eyes to see! How do we know you will not cheat us of our shares!”

Captain Grind grimaced in mirth, displaying his fearsome row of bright and shining metallic fangs. “Pheleg the Feugian! The share of craven dogs who hang back is the waft of my aft-wind!”

Pheleg blushed with such anger that his yellow face turned black as his mottled feet. “I claim the vanguard as my place! Widow! Do not let this grinning Gargantuan cheat us!”

And suddenly all the other captains in the room were shouting and clamoring as well, eager for a place in the forefront of the attack. Avarice banished caution.

The Widow raised one thin and bony hand, and Pheleg shouted the other Corsairs down. When silence was restored, the Widow said in her cold, thin, cracked voice, “Through the years, from before my time, two thing prevented the destruction of Threno.

“One was the Swift Death, which forces the Mighty Ones only to bring their fighting slaves against us, for the Sudden Death will pass over any First Men, and touch them not.

“The second was the unwillingness of the Mighty Ones to send their fighting slaves into our city in any great numbers, lest, once beyond their masters’ hands, they join us. But this Lost Man is a Runagate, sought by all the powers of the world, and the Mighty Ones will bring every First Man in their service against us.”

She turned her small, cruel, eyes, black as pebbles of agate toward Preston. “I have bargained with Grind and given him leave to ransom your life, and you are now his man. But the wise course is to expel you, to send you aboard the Tosspot far from here, that the blow miss us. Yet, now, my good rogues and gentlemen of adventure are infatuated with a dream of assaulting Phthia, which lies beyond a wide and rapid river mouth, up a slope, behind ranked walls and beneath iron roofs, surrounded by the legions of the Fortress of the Unwinking Eye, and protected from aerial attack by gathering flotillas of Watcher levitation vessels. Convince me of a battleplan more likely to end in gold than in iron, more likely in victory than death, and you have my bullies and rogues to command. If not, begone!”

They were interrupted by a noise as loud as the end of the world, then a second: a double hammerblow of sound, ear-splitting. All the pirates, except their aging queen, threw themselves onto the floor with fear. Grind Goldtooth was stumbling gigantically backward, coughing, and sat down heavily.

The Holland and Holland in his shaking hands was venting two plumes of smoke. These curled like snakes and rose upward into the rafters, where Son of the Wind sneezed, and leaped nimbly to a farther rafter. A fist sized hole had been blown in the wall, and rock shards flung like shrapnel about the room. Two or three pirates had been cut by flying rock-splinters, but no one severely, and they wiped the blood away, cursing.

The rail thin mummy-faced old woman stalked silently across the chamber. She glared at Grind, who, even when seated, was half a head taller than she. Nervously, he put the elephant gun down on the floor.

“Begging your pardon, Window,” Grind coughed. “I wanted to see how the magic worked! I mean, it is my newest prize now, and I…”

The Widow turned and stared at the hole in the stone, the second made this hour. Then she nodded at Preston. “Tell the fool! Before he kills us with your dangerous toy.”

Preston stepped over, broke open the rifle, extracted the spent shells, and snapped it shut again. “This is the queen of rifles. The Holland and Holland is a double rifle, that is, basically two break-open barreled actions melded together with a common body and stock. If one side breaks, the other half still works. Here are top levers, mounted on the top tang, which rotate a Scott spindle to unbolt the barrels and allow them to pivot downward for loading and unloading. Double guns offer the shooter an immediate choice of two chokes, without taking the barrel out of service…”

Grind wasn’t listening. “It reloads itself, you said. When can I fire again?”

Preston said, “Immediately. I have never noticed any delay in the…”

He immediately regretted his choice of words. There was another sound of thunder, and a third hole in the wall. The pirate captains laying or kneeling on the floor began to curse in earnest now. Grind had fired from a seated position, and now he was flat on his back from the recoil.

The Widow was speaking in a harsh, snappish voice, but the ringing in Preston’s ears prevented him from hearing. Preston pulled the gun from Grind’s grip. The giant did not resist.

Grind coughed again. “So much smoke! I was expecting the smoke to go back into the tube.”

Preston cracked open the rifle. There was one spent shell. The other was ready to fire. Preston paused, and said, “W-What? Pardon me, Captain Grind. What did you say?”

“I was expecting the smoke to go back into the engine. Into the weapon.”


Grind said, “Well, the sling bullet goes back into the weapon. It is remade in the barrel.”

Preston said thoughtfully, “Is it, now?”

Grind said, “What is that smoke? That smell? Why does it smell?”

Preston knelt down, and from the pouches in his moneybelt, found a tool to opened cap and cartridge case of the remaining unspent cartridge. He poured the gunpowder out onto the palm of his hand. He then handed the gun back to Grind, telling him to snap it shut and to fire once more.

The Widow said, “Wait a moment! This is the council chamber!”

Boom. A fourth hole was in the stone wall, and then a fifth. By that time, the whole room was in a rage and an uproar, and Grind had to stand up, holding the weapon high overhead, where no one was likely to snatch it from him and beat him with it.

Meanwhile, Preston was staring thoughtfully at the palm of his hand. The cartridge and slug had vanished in an eye-twisting scatter of twinkles. But the tiny little pile of gunpowder which was still in his hand.

Preston raised his head and spoke to the Widow in a ringing voice, “Ma’am, I can assure you victory over your enemies. Phthia will fall. You will have all her treasures as your prize. But there is much to do and little time.’

*** *** ***

Episode 69 First Mate’s Mate

Cynisca and Preston were alone in the small, unadorned tower chamber that Preston, as First Mate, had been assigned by Captain Grind. Each captain who owned a sky-ship had one block of the city of vertical blocks set aside for his use, and to house his men when in port. The Widow was topmost of them all.

Finally, the sun had set. Finally, the two were alone. One flickering lamp, flame guttering, washed buttery yellow light back and forth across their bodies.

Arms intertwined, they were sharing the warmth of a deep kiss. Her moan was music, the warmth of her voluptuous, soft body was ecstasy. She swayed, as if trying to gather the strength to resist, as he lowered her to one narrow cot the chamber held. But then she flung back her head, tossing her dark hair into a wild cloud, and pulled him down atop her. The cot creaked dangerously.

Just at that moment, as he was wondering how to undo his belt without a free hand, he heard a noise. At first, he thought the pounding in his brain was the throbbing of his exulting heart, pounding a mad rhythm: but, no. Someone was knocking on the doorboards.

“Lost! You are summoned by Captain Grind!”

The noise grew louder. This time it was the pounding of his heart, beating in his ears, a pounding of anger and frustration. He released Cynisca and stood. He shouted at the closed door. “Go away!”

The bar rattled in its staples under the force of a potent blow. The voice from beyond the door was a man named Raad. “Grind calls! Hop to, you sluggard!” The anger and contempt in his voice was plain to hear. He had been First Mate, and these had been his quarters, until an hour ago.

She clung to him a moment, “You should command here, not obey!”

He said, “I will be back soon.”

Cynisca said, “Take me!”

“Sure, soon as I get back.”

“No, I must go with you: left alone among rogues, they will take me and perform an outrage.”

He handed her his Mauser. “Put two bullets into the chest of any attacker, and one in the head. Remember to squeeze the trigger, not pull. Use both hands.”

Earlier that day, after the Council of Captains had adjourned, but before the drunken feasting, lit by countless smelly wall sconces and oil jars, in the mess hall (Grind had ordered a fattened boar slain, in celebration of his acquisition of a magical firearm), Preston and Cynisca had found a long-unused corridor of stone where it was safe to practice target shooting with his sidearm. Meanwhile, the sound of the Holland & Holland, being fired by Grind in a chamber not far away, louder than thunder, had continued unabated, echoing over the tower city of Threno, twice a minute, all the hours before the feast. This had hidden the noise of their shots.

At the feast itself, Grind did not stop leering at Cynisca, and she did not stop bickering with him.  Grind had pounded the table, demanding she dance for the assembled company, and she, in turn, had pressed a knife into Preston’s hand, and demanded he avenge the insult by slaying the Fifth Man pirate captain.

So Cynisca had no fear of the Mauser. She looped the lanyard around her neck. This let the heavy sidearm hang down between her cleavage, pulling her tunic fabric taut, and sharply defining the roundness of her jutting breasts. To prevent the sidearm from swinging, she tied it beneath a sash that she tugged tight about her slender waist, which emphasized her hourglass figure. Preston stared in admiration akin to awe at her luxurious beauty, wondering at his good fortune, but the girl seemed blissfully unaware of how this simple act of strapping on a firearm displayed her charms.

Preston turned and unbarred the door. Raad banged the door open with a kick.  He was a tall Firstling, but of some future race Preston did not know, halfway between a Progerian and a Siberian: thin, rangy, boney featured, hawk-nosed and hatchet-faced with a rat-trap mouth. He was dark complexioned with straight black hair, but his eyes were an eerie yellow, and his neck was long and thin, like the neck of a Second Man. He was a head taller than Preston. He dressed in drab hues and wore a dour expression. His hair was tied in a short tail behind his neck with a black ribbon. His baldric carried throwing knives of black glass; at his belt, a cudgel sporting an obsidian blade.

When he stepped in, his yellow, wolfish eyes ranged first up and down the figure of Cynisca, then along the scabbard holding Preston’s longsword, with its blade of metal, not bone, which Preston had looted from a nameless (and no doubt wealthy) captain of the Mighty Ones. Raad looked at the first with lust, the second with greed, but at both with envy. He said, “Keep not the captain waiting!”

Cynisca said, “I am coming!”

Raad said to Preston, “She is not wanted. Lost! Control your woman!”

Preston set one shoulder toward Raad and came out into the narrow corridor with a sudden step. Raad backpeddled rather than get shoved. The motion carried both of them out of the door.

Preston said over his shoulder to Cynisca, “I love you, and will do anything you ask. So don’t ask this. You are staying here.”

Her lovely, emerald-green eyes narrowed, flashing impatiently. But at the same time her lower lip, ripe and red, trembled. “Is my counsel of no worth to you? You are yet a stranger to our world, a child.”

He said, “I don’t want Grind eying at you. I don’t want you, uh, dishonored.” He did not say that he did not want to risk a fight between himself and Grind. “So it’s decided. Stay here. Shoot anyone who bothers you.”

“But, my lord—” she protested.

“It’s decided!” he snapped, and pulled the door shut after him. He said, “Bar the door!” And, when he heard the bar fall into place he said, “I will be back soon.”

She said, “You will not be! I will not open this door for you.”

That startled him. He spun and stared blankly at the blank surface of the door planks. “What? What gives?”

“You wish me not dishonored. Where are the wedding bands that bind us?”

“I’ll come back with a chaplain. A priest. Whatever you have here in this crazy age.”

“You must slay Iaia!”

“Who? Did you say Yaya?”

“You must slay Iaia Lord Ilvala of L’ra-R’lin-A’a! Or force his renunciation from his lips!”

“Who the hell is Yaya Lard Impala of La- Whathehellyousay-Ah?”

“My betrothed. The bridegroom to whom I am bound. Until I am not his, I cannot be yours.”

“Now, Cynisca, let’s be reasonable…”

“Do not attempt the door! I have a fearsome engine of thunder, the Skyfather’s own bolt, to shoot!”

Raad put a hand on his shoulder. “Leave your harlot! Must you sniff like a dog at his bitch in heat?”

That was a mistake. Preston’s boiling anger at his spat with Cynisca was like a drumbeat in his head. His eyes were sparks and his muscles swollen with the unsatisfied desire to break something. Before he knew it, he had turned and clouted Raad on the point of his jaw, a magnificent roundhouse punch which snapped the other man’s head back on its sinuous neck. A rapid left hook to the chest followed by an uppercut to the solar plexus sent Raad stumbling back to fall on his rump, all before the tall, dour man could raise a hand in defense.

Raad, seated, drew a glass knife. Preston kicked him in the head to knock him prone, and stepped on his wrist, drawing his longsword as he did so. The glass knife chimed as it bounced from the floor stones

“By the senile gods! I’ll have your lifeblood for this!” Raad spat.

Preston stared down at the other man, wondering if it would be wiser to take the threat seriously, and kill him here and now. He thought perhaps he should, but it did not sit right with him to stab a man when he was down.

Preston stood back, and flicked the dropped knife toward Raad with his boot toe. Raad made no move to rise, but stared at Preston’s long steel-blue blade. The wave pattern of the tempered edge glinted in the flickering light of widely-spaced wall sconces. Preston laughed, sheathed the longsword, and drew his Bowie knife, beckoning the other man to rise with his other hand.

“Now’s your chance,” said Preston. “If you have the stomach for it.”

“Senile and anile!” Raad cursed.

He heard a sound of footsteps of several men, then muttered exclamation from down the corridor, a murmur of voices. Preston did not take his eyes from Raad.

A diffident voice said, “Begging your pardon, First Mate, sir, but no killing the Second Mate without the Captain’s say so.” This was the fluting, musical voice of a Second Man.

Another man, a baritone, said, “Left alone aground with two spline guns betwixt, and coming back in a watch for the survivor, that is the code! Them’s the articles! Not this brawling and back-room work!”

Preston glanced up, and saw a trio of roughnecks standing in the gloomy shadows of the ill lit corridor, on the landing where two stairways, each slanting up in two different directions, met. It was Second Man with a solemn, clownish face with its eye-markings. Next was a tall, stern-face man with red skin and a black topknot, face garish with colored paints. Last was a freckle-faced, red-haired thickset brute in a kilt. Preston said, “He has a foul mouth.”

A third crewman spoke. This was the redhaired man. He has big, crooked teeth in a big crooked grin, and a round head orange with stubble, so he looked like a pumpkin come to life. He sprung have come from any age between the Paleolithic and the rise of the Progerians. “No one will say the First Mate cannot knock the Second Mate a right hard tap, if he made no obedience.”


The red haired man put his knuckles to his brow in a close-fisted salute. Then he said, “I saw him lack to honor you, sir. It is a scourging infraction, but a clout will do.”

Preston glanced down. “What do you say, Raad? Was I in my rights to punch you? Then take back your threat, and apologize for your language. Cynisca is the daughter of a king.”

Raad sullenly stood, sheathed his knife, lowered his eyes, knuckled his brow, and muttered, “You’ll have no harm from me, First Mate.”

Preston did not believe it for a moment, but there was no more to be done now. To the sailors standing idly by, he snapped, “You men! Post a watch on this door. No one enters but me.”

Cynisca from beyond the door called out, “Not even you, my lord, until Iaia is slain or overcome. I am no penny-worth prize!”

He shouted back, “Would you shoot me with my own firearm, woman?”

Her voice rang with pride through the doorboards, “I am the daughter of Idmon of the House of Elasippus! Doubt you my word?”

The men could surely not understand Greek nor Atlantean, but they understood her tone of voice, and the two firstling pirates tried unsuccessfully to smother their grins, while the Second Man looked solemn and sad. “Alas, what woe is mating!” said the Second Man. “It is both paradise and purgatory! And yet, what would we be without them? Merely apes.”

The red-skinned man in the topknot had a very mild voice, despite the garish colors inked over his features, “Me, I would still be an indentured thrall, serene in my small hovel, herding goats, if my wife had not urged me to find a nobler profession. See me now, boatswain of the Tosspot, air-sailor, rogue, corsair and buccaneer. I killed my tenth imperial marine just last month! I gild their teeth and strung them on a necklaces for her.”

To Preston, with a sly wink, the red haired man said, “Learn from wisdom from the Bosun! Come back with some nice sparkly trinket, gold rings for her anklets or ears, opals pale as the moon. They will set her right! Lassies will love them their sparklies.”

Lost sighed. “Let no one pass, not even me, until the girl sends for me.” He turned his head. “Lead me to the Captain, then, Raad.”


*** *** ***

Episode 70 Captain Goldtooth

“I should kill you,” was the first thing Captain Grind Goldtooth said when Lost walked up.

The guargantuan was over twice Preston’s height. He was darkskinned on his bald, bullet-shaped head, but pale-skinned on his hands, as if he wore gloves. His tunic was silk and adorned with ruffles and his coat was scarlet with amber buttons. Gold chains dangled from his bull-thick neck, from hoops in his ears, and all the teeth in his fearsom jaws were gold. By corsair standards, he was rich, and wore the evidence of many successful raids with pride.

Raad the recently-demoted Second Mate had led Preston upstairs through cramped and ill lit corridors of dripping stone, along a balcony where the shouting night-wind plucked at their clothing, and then across a swaying rope bridge leading to a large cube of the unearthly stone of which the city was made. The cube was two hundred feet to a side, hanging serenely in midair with no visible support.

Apartments had been carved out of the rock in some places, and narrow corridors drilled through. In other places, houses like swallow’s nests clung precariously to balconies, cantilevered over the abyss. On the upper surface, a sturdy mansion house with high peaked gables and a slanting roof reared up from the stone. Unsteady rope ladders led over head to some higher block of the City, hundreds of feet above.

Far below, patchy clouds, silver in the moonlight. drifted between the mountain-sized gateposts. The wind hurried the clouds out to sea, which reached to the black horizon below the cold stars. Underfoot, when the clouds parted, then the hillslope, walls and turrets of the enemy fortress could be glimpsed, on the far shore beyond the wrinkled shadows of the river. The waterfall was pale as a ghost. The dim echo of its endless thunder could be heard even from this high. Bats and night-flying pteranodon wheeled in spooky silence above the towers.

Grind stood there, seated with his legs dangling over the edge. He had a pair of needle nosed pliers in one hand, and the Holland & Holland in his lap. With weary, aching motions, he would load one shell, snap the gun shut, pull the trigger on the empty barrel, break the gun, remove one shell of the two found there, pry away the bullet, and drop the grains of gunpowder, less than a teaspoon per shell, into a cask sitting by his side.

The small pile of grains inside, about two cup’s worth, had not yet hidden all of the cask bottom. Over and over again, mechanically, Grind dropped the propellant into the cask and the brass he flung tinkling to the ground along with the slug. Brass and slug would vanish in an eye twisting twinkle of light, but the gunpowder remained.

“Kill me?” said Preston once Raad had lifted knuckle to brow and departed “Because you volunteered for some busy work? You could let someone else do that.”

“No one else lays a pinky finger on this weapon!” Grind displayed a savage grin. His odd, metallic teeth caught a gleaming moonbeam among its jags. The twin barrels also gleamed in the moonlight. The wooden stock glowed, and the moonlight was caught in the intricate mazes of the scrollwork about the lock and breech. He petted it fondly. Preston felt a dull stab of jealousy.

Grind said, “I sent for you because Raad could not find Sobek. I need him.”

“I sent Sobek out.”

“Out? Damn your eyes, you Runagate! I really should kill you.” He had paused in his endless rounds of unloading and pulling bullets, breaking and cocking the weapon. With a rumbling bass-note groan of profound weariness, and a tired curse, he set to again. “By all the devils! How long will this take?”

“Twelve hours for two pounds of gunpowder. Twenty-four for four. One shot, maybe two.”

Grind cursed again. Preston was surprised to hear names he recognized, like Moloch, and Beelzebub, and Baal. Then Grind said, “We will not have many days of this. The Watchers spy it out, each time I work the warp, and remake the shots from their anachronist ideations.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Admitted Preston.

“Nothing comes from nothing, lad,” grinned the gold-toothed giant. “Save but where the Fourth Men work their wills! You don’t know how this iron splinegun of yours reloads itself?”

“No. Do you?”

“Hints, maybe. Hints. My forefathers stole many secrets from our makers, the Fourth Men, before the Deluge of Blood. It was from them we learned how to communicate with the higher dimensions, and make contact with the macrobic life forms, creatures of pure intellect, who live in eternal torment there, outside of time. From them my forefathers learned other secrets.”

“Your forefathers sound like bad folk.”

“The worst!” Grind grinned. “They are in Michtlan now.”

“Where is that?”

“It is a negative energy dimension, a place of fire whose flames give no light. My fathers burn and never perish. The Watchers have special instruments to exchange messages with them, and can learn of future events. They yearn to break free, to return the lands of the living, and unleash their unholy revenge. That is why the Empire exists. That is what the Advocates are advocating.”

Grind shook his head, and his grin vanished. “My mother taught us to curse the damned and let them be. Why honor our fathers who bore us but not honor the Fourth Men, who fathered our fathers? My brothers never learned to mind their mouths, so they were killed by the Grand Inquisitor, Ilhicamina, when the new royal family rose to power. I killed the Ilhicamina in turn, then his brothers and cousins, and looted their mansions, sold their wives and young ones as slaves. Found out there is a lot of money to be made. Ha! So that is my story. You?”

“My story is simpler. The Watchers raid and abduct my people. I aim to stop them. Now I also have to save I boy I met for less than an hour, but we had a drink together, and he is likely to be killed on my account. I also have to beat the tar out of my girl’s old fiancée, or I sleep in the doghouse and live a monk’s life. For all three things, the Empire is in the way.”

“They say you have the Tesseract, and the Watchers want it back.”

Preston spread his hands. “Frisk me. I got nothing. That was disinformation from the Last Phantom, a green man with three eyes. He wanted to lure them to his mountain, so he could blast them, I guess. And speaking of Phantoms…” Preston nodded at the elephant gun. “So how does it work? Spent shells reappearing whole.”

“We here in this world are but shadows,” Grind said, “The Phantoms, in their day, found out the secrets of the higher world, the realm of forms, and they knew how to cast the shadows we call matter back into being from the higher dimensions. Each time I do this, the rate of entropy over the entire continuum speeds up by a fraction of a hair’s breadth and a mote’s weight, and the devilish Watcher instruments know it, like the lodestone knows north.” He shook his massive, jet-black head mournfully. “Too bad I’ve taken a liking to you, lad! Were it not for that, I could rip your head from neck and toss it like a grapefruit to the pterodons, and watch them fight over it. What joy would that give!”

“I thought you liked our swap. Why so glum?”

“My ears have not recovered! I may be half deaf for good!”

Preston drew his eyebrows together in a puzzled scowl. The Council had adjourned, and then the whole city had heard the endless thunder, two and three each minute, of the Holland & Holland firing. Grind had been emptying one shell and shooting the other to get them both to reconstitute, and this he had done hour after hour.

“Not just that!” Grind growled. “But you’ve drawn the Watchers down around our ears! Some are here. More are coming. And why am I doing this again?”

“Creating gunpowder out of nothing? Because it takes months to extract saltpeter from urine or bat guano. I explained it to the Widow. There is not enough metal to cast a cannon on your iron-free last continent here, and your other materials are not strong enough, but then again, using the Swift Death, we can sink a shaft of the right size to hold a twelve pound ball of stone. We do not need to track or elevate the barrel, because the enemy citadel is motionless. And since it is easier for us to bore stone than to reload, we can have one bore per shot.”

Preston was distracted, even fascinated by the sight of Grind working the gun without pulling the trigger. He said, “You found a way to reload without firing.”

“Sobek came and showed me. He fiddled a bit with those living instruments that cling to him.” Grind squinted at Preston sharply. “That strikes you as funny? You smile.”

“I am smiling at the irony. Sobek is a spy. Obvious, once you see at it.”

“Course he is! Works for me. I send him out by river or see to search out surface ships or shore movements, all unseen. Now he works for you.”

“No, for me, he is an ambassador. I sent him into the sea with a message.”

“Where? To his people? They are not here, lad.” Grind gestured with a massive hand toward the dark horizon to one side. The moon, larger than ever it had been in Preston’s day, hung above a glittering path of its own reflections in the wave. “This is the inland sea, the Sea of the Sea Crone Tethys. They dwell in the Panthalassa, the all-ocean that reaches across the globe, unbroken.” But he squinted sharply again. “You think they are nearer. A sunken outpost? A camp? How do you figure?”

“Sobek knew enough Fourth Man science to tell you have to work the gun without shooting it. That is more than you or I knew. Then, he was the one who told Son of the Wind how to anoint the stone which was the source of the Window’s power, and make himself immune to the Swift Death.”

“How did he do that? Why didn’t the Swift Death strike your Third Man as he was walking up to the stone, before he shed the blood drop to make the Swift Death spare his life?”

The truth was that Son of the Wind could put Fourth Man engines to sleep. For about an hour, or however long it took for Son of the Wind to sneak into the city, the little monkey man had deactivated the paramount superweapon of the Corsair City, leaving them defenseless. But no one had attacked during the moment of weakness, so one knew.

Preston was not willing to say that. So he said, “Somehow. Magic. I do not know. The more important question is this: How did Sobek know about the stone to tell Son of the Wind where to go? How did Sobek know how to fine tune the magic mojo in my gun — uh, your gun, now, I guess. You see my point.”

“The Sixth Men beneath the sea know more of the Phantom lore, tricks of the ancient ghosts and haunted stones, than anyone guesses. They are near and curious about us, because we have a working stone of power from the Phantoms. Sobek was sent to spy on us. He let himself get caught. Is that your point?”

Preston said. “He is under my protection now. He is my man, not yours, so if he outsmarted you, no hard feelings.”

Grind grunted and shrugged. Preston took that as a yes.

Then Preston said, “I sent Sobek to go ask get help. Son of the Wind also. What did you want him for?”

“His spyglass. I think there are Watcher vessels hidden in the clouds on high, and more coming. His spyglass could see through cloud. Well, you sent him off, so you have to get me a count of the enemy craft.”

“What? Fly up in the air?”

“You have been seen doing it.”

“I need the Holland & Holland. My flightpath follows one of the bullets.” And, when the gargantuan merely shook his dark, bald head hugely back and forth, Preston said, “”Fine. Shoot a shell into the air. Just be sure to shoot one into the stones here at your feet before I land in the sea. Do you have a catapult? A trebuchet?”

Grind stood. “None are needed.”

Preston did not quite black out from the acceleration pressure when the Fifth Man snatched him up like a baby, and spun, and threw him, hammer-style in a long, straight trajectory directly up into the clouds. It was a feat of absurd, frightening strength

He heard the huge laughter of Grind Goldtooth diminishing below, and then a deafening crack of thunder like a blow. His ring tingled. Weightless, he rose.

*** *** ***

Episode 71 The Armada of the Air

Being flung by a giant like a slingbullet into the clouds dazed Preston Lost. Dark spots swam in his eyes. It took a moment before vision returned. He heard the cold wind flapping in his ears, and felt the sting of sudden chill in his limbs. Cold fog drenched him as he passed through and above the clouds. He had to blink the spots from his eyes. It suddenly grew bright, and he squinted in awe.

The upper layers of cloud caught and reflected the moonlight like so many snowbanks. The moon in this era was four times its old diameter, and, now that it was full, shed eight times the light: this was redoubled when it was reflected off the cloudbanks. It as bright as standing beneath a streetlamp. The scene was brilliant and clear.

Here was a sight to make a firm heart quail.

Serene as ghosts, silent as icebergs on the sea, the levitation vessels of the Watchers had gathered in flocks and flotillas, by scores and by hundreds, for as far as his eye could reach. If there were more distant vessels yet, their glinting light was lost amid the cool twinkle of the stars.  It was like another cloud layer.

Each levitation vessel was lens-shaped, translucent, and glowed with a blue aura. Hint of the moving shapes of crew and equipment could be glimpsed through the translucent hulls whenever one passed before the moon. Beneath the hull of each vessel, parallel to its circular rim, was a rapidly turning hoop of machinery, about thirty feet in diameter.

A half a dozen larger vessels, also disk-shaped, with catapults and mangonels peering across their rims in each direction, like the severed heads of towers, were stationed above the fleet of saucers.

And, above them all, like a continent amid scattered islands, a master ship, larger than an aircraft carrier, was shining like the dome of some terrible, heathen temple, with minarets, turrets and weapon emplacements adorning its vast rim.

A veritable fortress was seated in the air.

The huge ship was passing between him and the oversized moon. The hull was semi-transparent, like frosted glass, blue as a sapphire. Curving segments of a great wheel could be glimpsed inside the vessel, following the circumference of the disk shaped hull, turning. Several widely-space lesser wheels mounted on the rim of the great wheel were turning as it turned, like some curvilinear clockwork snowflake of spur gears. These secondary wheels had tertiary wheels smaller yet on their rims, cycling in epicycles in the same plane as the other sets of wheels, all moving in a great, slow mechanical waltz.

The moon-shadows shimmering on the glowing glass keel of the aerial fortress showed square and blockish shapes in the deadcenter of the vessel, which Preston assumed were atomic piles, entwined in a snake’s nest of tubes which might be coolant or power lines. This center part glowed with eerie Cherenkov radiation. A circle of cabins and holds, barracks and armories came next, occupying the thicker part of the vessel farther from the center. Shadows of soldiers and material were stationed near the rim of the vessel, above and below the turning wheels: squads of riflemen, archers and pikemen, gargantuans and midgets. Other shadows hinted at stalls holding cavalry of various beasts, mastodons and dinosaurs.

A searchlight beam stabbed down, catching Preston in its dazzle. A trumpet blast followed, high-pitched as a shriek of anger. Hatches in the underside of the aery fortress opened; lamplight spilled out into the night. Long necked Second Men, bearing spline guns, trotted out onto the curving deck. They stood upside down, their feet stuck to the keel, and raised the weapons toward Preston, who was, even then, being carried to one side.

Preston was still for a moment, at the apex of his parabola, and then started to rush down toward the dark waters a mile below. No doubt the bullet pulling him was even then falling into the sea.

With snaps like crystal shattering, the splines shot at him, crystal javelins sharp as broken glass. The moonlight glanced off them like fire as they sped through the night. From far below, Preston heard the thunderclap of the Holland and Holland. His trajectory changed, and the glass lances flew wide. The scene around him spun and the clouds seemed to leap up toward him. A cold fog closed around him. The crystal splines, glistering, flicked through the fog around him, left and right.

Then the cloud was above him, a pale ceiling in the night. One flying disk, a vessel no larger than an aircraft of Preston’s day, shot down out of the cloud after him. Fingers of fog trailed after the glowing hull. Miniature figures of bald, large skulled, grayskinned men were standing on the hull, held there by an artificial gravity that blithely ignored the pull of the Earth.

Preston put his hand to his hip, but he had no firearm. He glanced down. Below him was were the blocks of Threno, growing larger in his sight. Was it near enough? He raised his finger toward the pursuing vessel, and shouted, “Shazzam!”

Apparently there were a sufficient number of the microscopically small weapons of the Swift Death within the air here to act. There came a flare of light inside the hull of the pursuing disk. Too late, the vessel wobbled, and tried to ascend. The flicking stabs of blinding light, like a string of flashbulbs, blazed here and there within the hull. The vessel listed sharply, and started drifting, a sport of the night wind.

The artificial gravity failed. The little, bald, bigheaded gray men slid from the hull and fell into the cold, night air. One passed near Preston, wearing an expression of unearthly calm. But they were also too close to Threno: stabs of white-hot energy consumed their bodies, leaving no ash, no residue.

Preston landed lightly at the feet of Grind, next to a bullethole in the floorstones. Overhead, a wooden sky-ship of the Corsairs, a corvette with a wooden hull, her canvass wings and sails spread wide, was already closing with the listing, unmanned vessel, and throwing out grappling lines.

“You’re a rich man, now,” was the first thing Grind said. “There will be a squabble and a squall over it, mind you! And the Widow gets her cut. But I saw you take the enemy ship above the ceiling where the Swift Death strikes, and I will lay my oath on it! That prize is yours.”

“I don’t care about that!” said Preston.

“How not, little man?” grinned the giant, his gold teeth flashing in the moon. “You bought a woman from me in return for your weapon of power…” (He flourished the Holland & Holland) “… and you must know women are expensive to keep! She will need a house and servants. You’ll need a girl to see to her hair and attire, if you want your lady to look fine; not to mention a nursemaid, once you father whelps on her. A cook to feed her and a steward to manage her purse, unless you want her to end up plump and poor. And you will need a brace of stout eunuchs with cudgels to walk behind her on the street, if you plan to let her out, to fend off any lustful lad with too much cod in his codpiece…”

“I don’t care about that just at this moment!” Preston interrupted in exasperation. “I counted two hundred and seven flying disks thirty feet across, six larger vessels ten times their size sporting siege engines, and one dreadnaught easily two or three thousand feet in diameter, carrying troops and cavalry. They are massing for an attack!”

“More likely,” grunted Grind, “they are massing for a siege, with a blockade above to thwart re-provisioning by air. Did you see the ring of skulls planted in the stones before our gates?”

Preston nodded. The curving line of skulls, embedded in a knee-high line of stones, marked the deadline surrounding Threno. This marked the distance where — until now — was as far as the Swift Death reached. Only First Men could cross it with impunity.

“Threno is strong! Her ancient power protects us!” Grind fondly patted the stones he sat on.  “Threno will burn any invader. So starving us out is their sole option. They are settling in for a long, long fight.”

Preston said, “I have a friend to go save, so it will have to be not so long as all that! But the more time we have to prepare, the better.” And he pointed at the nearly empty cask of gunpowder. “Captain…? If you would, please? We don’t know how long we have…”

As it turned out, they had three days.

On the first day, the aerial armada descended from the clouds, staying well beyond the deadly radius of the imaginary sphere where, as far as centuries had proven, the Swift Death could reach. The sky-ships of the Corsairs were grounded and hauled under iron roofs. The swifter of the ships, crewed, armed, and ready to serve as blockade runners, were levitated into locations beneath the giant floating blocks that hung unsupported in the air above and to either side of the main towers of the Threno.

On the second day, the titanic dreadnaught ship lowered herself to the highlands above the brink of the great canal, at the top of the sea cliffs, hence level with the highest point of Threno. The tall grass brushed, but did not bend, beneath the glass keel.

This city was carved throughout a mountain-high pillar of colossal proportions, with houses and ladders clinging to its massy blocks. This pillar had once been one of two gate posts for a long vanished seaward gate of a canal lock, in the days before the mile-wide canal was dry, when the inner sea was higher.  A high causeway, the crumbling remnant of the old sea wall, connected the highlands with the postern gate of Threno, which was set amid the balconies and window-slits of the northern face of one of the higher blocks.

Troops disembarked from the hovering dreadnaught.

On the left flank, near the sea cliff, were tall, blue, skeletal shapes of owl-winged Seventh Men, walking on mincing steps through the grass, carrying oversized longbows or windlances across their shoulders.

On the landward side were giraffe-mottled Second Men with long necks and clownish dapples on their cheeks, bearings spline guns, and a crew of engineers wheeled an engine like a Gatling gun, loaded with spears of crystal the size of fenceposts.

Between the two were First Men. Here were infantry in caps and brigandines or leather and bone and boar-teeth, bearing with crystal-headed pikes. Flanking the infantry were cavalrymen with lances tipped with flame, mounted on Allosaurs. Midmost was a Triceratops carrying a crew of four: a gunner with a tripod-mounted wasp cannon peering through a notch carved in the Triceratops’ bony neck plastron, two spearmen with flamethrowers, and a driver bearing round shield made of tortoise shell.

Their command was a trio of towering Fifth Men in antlered helms, carrying war-axes and amber wands, at whose knees, like naked children, gray-skinned Eighth Men stood, large- eyed, balloon-skulled, and silent. There were about a thousand troopers in all.

The Corsairs in reply posted a single squad of men with tower shields across the mouth of the narrow causeway, and squads of archers were gathered on the roof of the black cube behind them, or at the windows. Two sky ships of the Corsairs, one to either side, hovered to either side of the causeway, anchored to it by long guy lines. The ungainly crews barked and hooted at the besiegers, inviting them closer.

But there was a pillar of skulls that rose up a few yards beyond the point where causeway met highland, and no one came. The troops stood their ground, while pioneers with spades erected the tents and corral, cookpots and defensive ditch of an armed camp.

The dreadnaught climbed into the sky that night, and was lost to view.

On the dawn of the third day, all hell broke loose.


*** *** ***

Episode 72 Mu, Kumari, Polaris

In the gray, gloomy hour before dawn of the third day, when only the earliest birds pipe their uncertain notes, a flare of light burned for a bright moment between the riverbank and the city gates down below, around the largest block of the city which formed the foundation of the column-shaped city of Threno.

The skulls set in the grim circle that surrounded the base of the city was briefly illuminated where some luckless soldier, not a First Man, had stumbled in the dark across the deadly, unseen boundary demarking the range of the Swift Death.

In that flash was revealed the scene: above, a ceiling of cloud, dark and without star or moon. Below, was a wide area of grass and shrub between the massive, dark, pyramidal base of Threno and the banks of the river. The armies of First Men janissaries from the fortress city of Xurac Phthia were crossing a long bridge of floating pontoons which had been thrown across the river in the night. The pontoon bridge was bowed out by the whitewater current, forming a great curve which, at its midpoint, almost touched the lip of the waterfall. Moving quite silently and without lights, more than half had already taken up positions around the base of Threno.

Beneath city wall, numberless as ants from an upturned colony, the horde of warriors stood revealed, weapons gleaming, terrible banners waving. Tens of thousands of men under arms were here: it was more than the whole population of Threno.

With a great cry and brazen blare of horns, the men of the Empire rushed the walls.

It was not to be a siege after all.

Nigh the uppermost reaches of Threno were several cubes of black stone, a hundred yards to a side, suspending impossibly in midair without support. Here was the platform holding the aerodrome of the Corsairs, and several mansions with roofs of stone, or pavilions with walls of silk.

The Tosspot, Captain Grind’s wood-hulled three-masted sloop-of-war, was hovering at anchor in the shadow of a vast overhanging block. The two levitation rings cannibalized from wrecked Watcher vessels were affixed to the port and starboard in vertical drums, looking like odd paddlewheels. The vessel had a keel like a sea plane, designed for water landings.

To her right and left, hanging beneath other vast black cubes, were the Reprisal, and the Happy Fortune, the warships of Captain Pheleg the Feugian, and Captain Satavaesa of the Second Men. The Reprisal was a wooden torpedo shaped like a swordfish, over forty feet long, with a single lifting hoop in carried in a vertical drum, wider than the hull, for a stern. She was tipped with a ramming prow. The Happy Fortune was a larger, slower vessel. She consisted of three lifting hoops connected by a latticework of carved and painted braces, with a myriad of wings and sails both above and below the single deck.

When the flare of light and blare of horns announced the assault, the gray cloud overhead was disturbed: spines, spears, and shafts of gleaming crystal and pots of fire began to come down like hail, and glassy spheres, large as cannonballs, that burst on impact into knife-sharp shards, electrocuting whoso they touched: a non-explosive grapeshot.

Burning oil and electrified grapeshot fell to either side of the blocks, and any pavilions and wooden structures built on the upper surfaces were aflame, but the aerial ships hanging close beneath were untouched.

Preston, binoculars in hand, stood on a goose-necked observation platform cantilevered beyond the rail of the Tosspot. To Preston, a man who had survived the flame and thunder of endless mortar shells, rolling bombardments, and airstrikes in the muddy trenches and dark tunnels of final, terrible assault on Shanghai, the near-silence of this bombardment of latter-day weapons seemed eerie.

But he saw derelict sailors or drunk roughnecks gathered on the high balconies of pubs and cathouses. The Widow had ordered these establishments closed for the duration, and now the disobedience had a terrible price: cut by shrapnel, impaled by a glassy splines, or licked with flame, were cast from the balcony as it collapsed. Below them on the city-pillar, a half nude serf bearing a load was trapped between spreading fires on a swaying rope bridge between two horns of the towers of Threno. His rope bridge parted when it was struck by the plummeting bodies of the sailors and the flaming debris with them: all fell screaming into the still, dark air. These were first casualties of battle.

Meanwhile, the first rush of men had crossed the open field between the main host and the foundations of Threno. The bottommost tiers of the vertical city were shaped like a vast, stepped pyramid, hundreds of yards on each side, rising up in four courses. There were great doors of bronze, twenty feet high, set in a tunnel opening in the lowest course like a giant mouth. However, this base did not rise to a point, but instead held up the myriad vast blocks of the vertical city. The sea-wall grew out of the spine of this pillar city and ran back toward the canal wall.

Captain Grind stood loomed behind Preston. He had been pointing to the enemy formations, and saying their names and histories. “Ah! Now they charge!” He put a spyglass to his eye. “Look! The Watchers send in their oldest fighters first. It is their habit: they assume whoever is older is weaker.”

At first, foolishly, Preston assumed Grind meant the Watchers were sending in greybeards first, because the figures below, at least seen at this distance in the bad light, seemed like tall men with white hair, running amid groups of dogs. But then he blinked his night vision into effect, and saw the picture clearly.

A large group of ape-jawed, hirsute men was in the forefront, running on all fours, carrying in their mouths truncheons of bone or dirks of sharpened antler. Their wolf skin ponchos made them easy to mistake for dogs in the dim light.

On their flanks were groups of dark-skinned pygmies with straight, dark hair, dressed in uncured skins and armed with tomahawks, flint-tipped javelins and sharpened bullroarers. This was a simple weapon Preston had never seen before: a heavy flint blade on the end of a line. It was shaped to make an eerie, low-pitched sound when spun, but could be flung with greater force than any mere overhand throw.

Bringing up the rear were the figures Preston had mistaken for old men: they were seven or eight feet tall, with long, pale, flowing hair falling unbraided down to belt or to boots. They had beardless, narrow features, and flesh of starkest white. The main mass of this company were armed with crossbows or atlatls, but their front rank carried poleaxes and large, oval shields of hide painted with rayed disks or triskelions. Their limbs were hidden in long, shining garments bedecked with belts of precious stones. These gems flickered and flared with sparks, slaying any who attempted to grapple them, as if each figure were armored in an unseen electrified fence.

Preston saw their stride and posture as they strode forward, and loosed a flight of javelins. “Those albinos are women!”

Captain Grind gestured at their battle banners. “See their solar emblems! I know them. Not women!” But then he spoke in a strange, chanting voice, as if he were reciting a lesson. “Behold the hermaphrodites of Mu, Naacal women altered to have the strength and stature unnatural to them. Firstling civilizations of India, Babylon, Persia, Egypt and the Mayas were merely the decayed remnants of Naacal colonies.”

Grind then gestured at the men in wolfskins running on all fours. Again, he chanted, as if repeating a memorized phrase. “Behold the troglodytes of Gnophkeh. They were driven from the polar regions by the heroes of ancient Lomar, who collapsed their painted caves and covered over their blood-soaked sacred pits to rear up many-templed Olathoe atop. The route back to sunken K’n-yan was blocked. The man-eaters fled to Catalhoyuk in Asia Minor, where they built a great city with no footpaths nor streets, with walls shared with neighbors. Each entered his home down a trapdoor in his roof, and no young left home until he learned to scale wallstones and roofbeams. They buried the bones of their grisly feasting beneath their floors, decorating the skulls of particularly succulent children with beads and ochre.”

Finally, he pointed with his spyglass at the dark-haired, dark-skinned men. “Behold the Kumari, whose huntsman ranged the lands reaching between Madagascar and Indochina. When the Lemurians came, armed with Vedic chants and bronze weapons, all their tribes vanished in a single night, preferring suicide to slavery.

“An era later, the whole land of Lemuria broke and sank away, destroyed by power of Pashupatastra turned upon its wicked wielders.”

Then he laughed and spoke in his normal voice: “The accursed Lemurians are gathered there, in the reserves, in boar-tusk helms, armored with ringing bronze scale, tridents of thunder, and arrows of fire that multiply themselves in flight. Damn their eyes!

“But these three first companies, they are weak. The Fifth Men seek to test our mettle.” And then Grind pushed the covered lantern of the heliograph into Preston’s hand.  “Well? Will you not give the signal? The men have been drinking: they will not wait forever.”

Preston squinted at them. “How the devil do you know so much about extinct First Men races?”

Grind laughed more loudly and pointed in the distance. “That is my cousin Quiyahuitl, who owns the Naacal, and trains them for battle. Tetli and Xipil are my step-sister’s uncles. Tetli commands the troglodytes, and serves the weak or disobedient us as meat dishes for this feast table, boiling them in their own mother’s milk. Xipil feeds the Kumari on honey and lotus blooms, and peaches from his own trees: pork they eat only before combat.

“Ichtaca of Ometeotl is a more distant relative: I never had to sit through long, dull talks about his fighting slaves, the Lemurians, so I do not know their weaknesses, curse him! We breed First Men as a dog breeder his thoroughbreds: what else do you think my people boast about and bet on?”

The fight was joined. Howls, screams and roars rang out as the front rank rushed the obdurate face of the titanic column base of Threno. The rough blocks, deeply incised with ancient trigrams and adorned with gargoyle spouts, offered generous handholds for the Troglodytes: they swarmed up, rapid as simians climbing a tree.

“Call the Swift Death upon them!”

Preston said, “Remember what I told the council. The Deterrence Unit will not hurt any First Men. The power cube inside the Widow’s tower can only broadcast inside the city limits, unless its little mechanisms, which are smaller than dustmotes, are carried inside something it can burn for fuel…”

The first level of the stepped pyramid formed a wide shelf or tier. Here was a company of corsairs, roughnecks and scallywags in rags and officers in helmets, milling without discipline, forming no ranks. They were armed with ax, cutlass and pike, and midmost stood a picked company of sailors in leather coats armed with spline guns.

Even though they were greatly outnumbered by the beast-men, for the Troglodytes thick as swarming ants came up the wall, but they could not come quickly. Bone knives were futile against the long pole-arms, and axmen with ease could split the skulls of any brute clawing his way up the wall. Preston could hear the corsairs roaring with mad mirth.

Meanwhile, the Naacal of Mu run straight into the open tunnel mouth that led to the great metal doors of Threno. Preston heard the high pitched screams and saw the leaping redness of the many casks of burning oil and molten pitch poured through murder holes in the tunnel ceiling, and he heard as well the noise of stone blocks dropping.

“Now!” bellowed Grind.

“Why?” called Preston. “We are winning.”

“That’s the problem!”

For as the screaming Naacal, shining robes afire and silk hair ablaze, came racing from the tunnel mouth, casting their weapons away, Preston heard the metal echo of those doors being flung open, and heard the shouts and battle cries of an unruly route of sailors chasing after.

Ichtaca of Ometeotl raised a flag. As the men emerged from the protection of the doors, the swift Kumari closed on their flanks, whirling their knife-tipped bullroarers like buzzsaws.

Meanwhile the Lemurians launched arrows into their midst, which exploded into flame and replicated their numbers in mid-flight, forming an ever-growing flaming cloud of shafts so numerous and bright, the men below were blotted from Preston’s sight, and only their screams told their fate.

*** *** ***

Episode 73 Warlords of Ages Lost

The roar of the militiamen, hard on the heels of the fleeing Naacal spear-maidens, now turned to screams, as the preternatural arrows of the Lemurians fell among them. These arrows in midflight split into additional shafts, as solid and real as the first — an insolent abrogation of the law of conservation of mass.

The arrowheads ignited in flight and exploded on impact, but no smell of gunpowder or napalm rose up to Preston’s high perch. This was some alchemy dating from years when the rest of mankind was trapped at a Neolithic level of progress, from a land mass in the Indian Ocean, lost with all her kingdoms, all her secrets.

Preston swore, and flashed the signals he had so recently learned. The trumpeters blew the retreat: to no avail.

From left and right the pygmies of Kumari fell among the militia, and, although each lusty foot-soldier could maim two pygmies with every blow of cutlass or bludgeon, and kill eight or nine before he fell beneath their dark blades of knapped flint, they were outnumbered ten to one.  The mass of militiamen, roaring, shouting, bleeding, dragging their wounded with them, tried to pull back into the tunnel mouth leading to the great doors: to no avail.

The Naacal amazons, reinforced by Kumari pygmies and brutish Neolithic troglodytes, now formed ranks in the tunnel mouth, and blocked their way with poleaxes, flint blades, and dirks of antler horn. The Naacal would fall under a wooden truncheon or spear, but a metal cutlass cutting into their electrified robes slew the slayer with a thunderclap.  The way back was blocked.

Help came from the wall above the great door. A squad of sharpshooters in leather coats stood there, with their strange, spline-shooting spearguns shaped like harquebuses. These harquebusiers were dour Second Men, part of a band who had joined the corsairs with Captain Satavaesa, and who had bled on the stone of the Lethal Unit, to be granted immunity from the Swift Death.

They shot their splines point blank into the heads and shoulders of the climbing horde. The splines broke in midflight, forming pairs, trios, or half a dozen smaller darts of glass, impaling more than one of the close-packed bodies with every shot. They did not laugh, but they used up the splines in their quivers with alarming speed.

When the Kumari pygmies beset the corsairs from the gates, now the sharpshooters used up more splines thinning out their numbers. They could only fire down into the rear ranks of the attackers, since the fore ranks were commingled with the corsairs.

At the same time, trumpets sounding the advance rang out over the clamor of the battle, and the Lemurian warlords in their shining breastplates of bronze scales marched forward in step, singing their battle chants, and their forward ranks formed a wedge before them, flourishing tridents and lances that glowed with strange energies.

Preston said, “We can never win this, even with all my tricks. I do not even know what their weapons can do, what is their range or…”

Grind slapped him playfully on the back, knocking the wind from his lungs, so Preston could not finish the sentence. “Screw your manhood more tightly to your groin-sack, lad! The Window has faith in you, enough to kill you by slow torture if you fail, so you must not fail! I have a large wager resting on the outcome. Those Lemurians in the front have spearheads of the eighth metal artificially grown in lodestone mountains, which is galvanized with azote and a choleric humor of earth-current. Their range is about the same as a fulguration scourge.”

Preston stared. He had been in battles before, and the prospect of losing men did not petrify him, but each time he saw a cutthroat or blackguard among his men do some bold deed of carnage, he found his affection for them growing, and each death was more bitter to him than the last.

More militiamen poured out of the gates, and directly into the mass of fighting Naacal amazons. The warrior women fell screaming beneath the bludgeons and cutlasses of the corsairs, blood pools began to soak grass, which was trampled into mud. But even the fallen amazons could slay, for if any man touched their shining garments with hand or metal blade, an unseen shock tossed his jolted body to the ground, stone dead.

“Stick to the plan, you idiots!” Preston hissed.

The reinforcements had been scattered when they erupted from the tunnel mouth, for the Naacal maintained their formation, and stood as a wedge to split the charge. The reinforcements could not retreat, for more corsairs, behind them, were pressing forward, eager for battle and booty: so half fell among the pygmies, and were stabbed with knives of stone; and half toward the troglodytes, and were stabbed with knives of elk-horn.

Then more shafts from the Lemurians fell, each archer releasing a fusillade, uncaring whether foe or allies were smitten. Fire and smoke hid the scene from Preston’s eyes, looking down.

“Release the Swift Death!” said Grind.

“Not yet, Captain,” said Preston through clenched teeth. “Not yet.”

He looked toward the main force of the enemy, which still was held in reserve. Units were still marching across the floating bridge. The enemy grew stronger. Dawn was also coming over the highlands overhead, and pink light painted the upper cliffs with haunting hues.

Before Threno were twenty thousand First Men soldiers. Another ten thousand was gathered at the far bank of the river, in the shadow of Xurac Phthia, waiting to cross. These warriors were preserved from every forgotten and unknown nook of history, strangely armed with weapons from Preston’s future as from his past.

And beyond the known range of the Swift Death, gathered on the riverbank, or hovering in shiny disks amid the low clouds (slowly turning from gray to pink), were races that arose after the extinction of Preston’s species of hominid.

Here were long-necked and sad-eyed Second Men, gigantic Fifth Men with skulls like domes, slender Seventh Men with owl-winged cloaks, eerie and silent Eighth Men. These Eighth Men, called the Watchers, were like nude children, pale as mushrooms, big-headed, with eyes as large and dark as the eyes of devils. These were the ministers and servants of the Advocacy, whose power dominated Pangaea.

And Preston had wagered all to defy them … armed with what? A broken down machine from countless eons past, a whispered prophecy from a girl from Atlantis he loved, and his hope that the foe would err. It was not much.

He saw a broad platform hanging above the river, held aloft by glittering cables beneath half a dozen levitation disks. The broad, high shapes of Fifth Men were loomed there, looking over the heads of trumpeters and signalmen with semaphore, and many ranks of archers. Two of the Mighty Ones raised their luminous wands, signaling the trumpeters to blow.

The mass of foemen now marched left and right, spreading to either side up and down the river bank, and moved to encircle as much of the great pillar-base of Threno as the sea wall running north from the city’s spine would permit. In the gap thus formed, came now a fantastic cavalry hove into view: a thousand chariots.

Some were pulled by utahraptors, toothy bipeds like miniature tyrannosaurs, running on ostrich-legs. Others were pulled by prehistoric miniature horses called merrychip, harnessed in twin rows like a dogsled team.  At least one was pulled by a tall pair of robotic legs, awkward but swift pistons of brass and oakwood, with the tongue of the car lashed to the hips of a machine that ended at the torso. The charioteer’s reins ran to rings and controls at the hip-joints.

Grind pointed, “My cousin Xoxoctic owns them: these are Zoroastrians from the City of Irem of the Pillars, a walled paradise of silver and gold built by Shaddad son of Ad, scented with ambergris, watered of many fountains, and rich with fruit trees in their courtyards. They worship the Good Mind as Supreme God, but he smote the city and buried it in sand, and all those not carried off by the Watchers perished without grave or gravestone. Their iron chariots are passed down from father to eldest son, since the ore to build another is so rare. Xoxoctic uses whalebone sheathed in micro-diamond polymers to repair broken struts or wheels.”

The chariots came midmost. These were enameled basket of metal on wheels, set with carven plaques, carrying driver, and a lancer, who was also armed with a recurve bow of horn. Spikes jutted from the wheel hubs.

The Lemurian warriors were on the right flank of the chariots, with strange energies glowing and pulsing on the tines of their tridents, advancing at a quick march. On the left flank, half naked men were brandishing their spears and gnawing the edges of their shields. Their hair was blond, long, and tangled. Their eyes were wild, red-rimmed, and blue. Their skin was daubed with stripes and swathes of blue paint and white chalk. Bear pelt of brown or black were slung across their shoulders.

Preston focused his binoculars. He saw the blond, blue-stained men grasping blades, or driving them into their chest or abdomen, but miraculously unhurt. One man was pulled red-hot, flaming coals from a lit brazier, and chewing and swallowing them, unharmed.

When the trumpets rang, the bear-skin wearers sprinted in an unruly mass, stabbing each other for sheer fury, in their haste, and they were as swift as the charging chariots.

“Now look! Behind the Iremites come contemporaries of yours: the woad-painted berserkers of the Witch-City of Ys, submerged in a single hour in the sea! They follow the reanimated corpse of Dahut, their druidess and queen! Ah, I would have wagered on them had I known they were in this battle. The Ys are more like Fifth Men than First. They are owned by a sewing circle of old women from the Ahuitl clan, who’ve grown rich from breeding Ys, and now drip with new money: The Ahuitl are an upstart clan, and no relations of mine. Order the men to kill off as much of their breeding stock as you can.”

The base of Threno was a tiered pyramid. Veterans Siberians of Captain Vanant’s band, men hailing from the eight hundred centuries in Preston’s future, were stationed on the second tier. These pirates were tall, pale men, almost elfin in aspect, but with ferocious beards that coated cheek and chin and neck, but also shoulders and upper arms. They wore breastplates and helmets of fiberglass. The breastplates of the sergeants were painted with bright images of Fifth Man skulls.

The men of the first tier were troubled by the climbing troglodytes, as more and more of the apelike attackers overtopped the wall. Without awaiting orders, these veterans now repelled down lines as rapidly as monkeys, coming in one huge rush, to support the belabored squad. The assault was as swift as a thunderbolt, and fell from above, unexpectedly.

In short order the veteran pikemen in twos and threes held the stronger, apelike attackers at bay, and thrust them down. Dark-eyed Second Men under Captain Satavaesa’s First Mate, an Ipotane lieutenant named Tishtrya, solemnly shot spline splinters into their bellies. Veterans with pole-axes hewed their hairy arms like firewood, far out of reach of the simple bone knives. Bloodstains hung like banners from the brink.

The severed corpses toppling onto the heads of their Neolithic brothers below caused a panic, which spread to the Kumari and Naacal. The enemy started streaming away in each direction. Seeing this, the Siberians and Second Men together, with Lieutenant Tishtrya in the lead, landed among them. Blood and grass splashed up from their boots. Some swung down on ropes and others fell long on elastic strands. Preston was reminded of Tarzan movies and parachute practice.

Thus the sortie from the gate was saved, and Tishtrya and the bold veterans held the field, and protected the mouth of the gate tunnel, while panicked soldiers fled from them, and were cut down from behind.

Tishtrya picked up a broken standard of the gate-keepers, and mounted atop a pile of corpses, waved the colors high. For just a moment, from the third and second tier, and all the lower windows of the city, rang with cheers, and seemed as if Threno had hope.

But a second blare of enemy trumpets sounded, and the chariots of the Zoroastrians of Irem went from trot to charge, and the berserkers, sprinting, tongues lolling and eyes ablaze, closed in from the left, and the eerie Lemurians, their tridents dancing with fire like the northern lights, closed in from the right.

And still more troops crossed the bridge; and still the forces before the city grew stronger.

*** *** ***

Episode 74 Attack of the Ancients

A red sliver of the rising sun peeped above the highlands to the east. The clouds above shined with cherry-colored light. Between the mile-high walls of the canal, the dark and narrow land was lit only by the distant reflections of heaven. A ghostly and lunar light, like the baleful glow of a blood moon, fell over the clash of armies, the red light making the red pools beneath the wounded and dead look black.

From their high post, Grind and Preston gazed down. Preston was appalled at the carnage: the iron chariots of the Zoroastrians of Irem charged into and threw the line of corsairs, whose premature cheers of victory became screams and calls of panic.

The disciplined ranks of veterans in fiberglass helmets were separated from each other, and the militiamen in bandannas, who had started to rally, now ran pell-mell, their ensigns cut down.

And then the berserkers of Ys were among them. Had they held their battle line, the corsairs might have been able to fend off the furious, unarmored fighters, despite their superhuman frenzy, for the berserkers attacked in uncoordinated spasms of manic wrath. But the chariots had chewed through the corsairs like lawnmowers, leaving them scattered as well. The lines were broken: men were trampled, gored, and speared, and small clots of random fighter ran blindly here and there across the battlefield, like blind and helpless things.

Cutlass or iron spearhead rebounded from the blue-daubed flesh of the mad warriors of Ys, and the burning arrows exploding across the battlefield from the advancing archers of Lemuria  did not scald nor affright the berserkers.

Preston saw one of his men have his sword arm snapped clean off by the teeth of a charging dinosaur, only to fall beneath the bloodstained wheels of the iron chariot the thunder lizard pulled. The wounded man tried to hide beneath his shield, but to no avail. The wheels passed over his legs and snapped them in half. The stern faced charioteer nonchalantly drove his lance down into the abdomen of the fallen man with a gesture like a janitor impaling litter on a trashpick.

Meanwhile the bold Lieutenant Tishtrya, blowing a horn to rally the men and restore the battle line was beset by two berserkers.

The first was shot with a pair of crystal spears from Tishtrya’s spline gun, but the maniac merely laughed and pulled the razor sharp javelin-shards out of his bleeding flesh, and pushed one of the glassy lengths into and threw Tishtrya’s breastplate and out his back. Blood red as a bouquet of falling rose petals showered down. The other berserker wrung the Second Man’s long neck like a hungry farmwife strangling a chicken, and ripped the head clean away.

Laughing, the second blue-painted madman tied the long hair of the severed head around his own neck, so that the shocked face of Tishtrya, the light not yet faded from his eyes, hung beneath his slayer’s chin like a grisly bib.

A dozen other atrocities, a spectacle of slaughter and carnage, erupted in those same few moments as the veteran reinforcements, as well as the survivors of the militia sortie, scattered. It was a scene of nightmare: Preston swore, and yanked the binoculars down from his eyes, which stung with tears. Damn them all.

Without the binoculars, the horrid view was suddenly small and distant, no more than a battle of living chessmen set on a board of red at the bottom of a well.

“Release the Swift Death!” Roared Captain Grind. “That was your plan! Why delay?”

“My plan?!” Preston shot back. “The hell you say. My plan involved men who did not go off half-cocked!” Odd, he had not notice at what point, in his thinking, they had turned into “his” men. But they were under his command.

Without the binoculars, seeing the scene at one glance, he saw an opening: The chariots were wheeling, breaking north, coming about in a wide turn, to circle back for a second pass.  They did not realize, in the gloom of early dawn, that the whole area east of Threno between the river bank and the canal wall had been dug up with holes and pitfalls, then flooded with water. This was the direction from which the all the Corsairs had assumed the mounted attack would approach, and they had so prepared the ground, whereas an assault by river over a bridge of floating rafts bound together had not been foreseen.

It was an opening. Their rear was toward the tunnel mouth where the great doors of Threno rose.

Preston raised the lantern, it’s beam pointed at the warship Reprisal worked to the hood to send out one short flash and one long: the signal to Captain Pheleg to advance.

Then he turned the beam down, and sent another stuttering message to bugle boy stationed on the capstone of the archway of the tunnel mouth leading to the great main doors. The boy acknowledged the signal with a salute, and blew the flourish for the Captain Roc’s crew disembarked from the Cockatrice. Then he blew the advance. In response, with a roar, a company of bravos charged into view.

They were dressed in tattered cloaks or coats of scarlet, russet, or brown, which shed scraps and shred of leather as they jogged. They wore leathery caps with copper noseguards and cheekplates, and were armed with bills and picaroons, and with artificial claws protruding a foot past the knuckles of their gauntlets. These were savage men, and loped on long, leaping strides, no two running together, keeping no order of rank and file.

“You send in the gold-eyed ancients, the Methuseleans,” said Grind. “Each was over one hundred years old before he first came to Threno, and no one knows their ages now, for who keeps track?”

“Why don’t they wear armor?” Murmured Preston, half to himself.

Grind answered. “They are the race that replaced by Progerians, who are full grown at five and gray-haired at fifteen. The same genetic alchemy which grants the Methuseleans quintupled lifespan, and alters their vocal chords to reach pitches above and below what your ears can hear, also hardens their skin like cuir bouilli, and they shed like snakes each century. Each wears a coat of his own shed skin for luck, and to boast his age. Why send them forth? They are the weakest of the reserves.”

Preston did not answer. To the other buglers of the other units Preston then signaled three short flashes: stand by. Hold position.

Grid send, “You send in reinforcements with one finger? Use the whole fist! Order this ship to swoop. Or, look! The Happy Fortune is eager to avenge their fallen First Mate! The sailors roar and wave their caps at you, eager for the signal.”

“Thank God Captain Satavaesa is not an idiot and will wait for my signal. His sharpshooters are in position to cover the lower balconies, and will save the militiamen, if the Methuseleans can pull them back. Let me see if I can pull us out of this mess those drunk sailors on the sortie got us in.”

“And if not?”

“They are old,” said Preston grimly. “They’ve lived good and long.”

“You send in what you consider expendable? Bah! We can win, if you commit all our forces in one swift blow. Call the Widow’s veterans, or mine! Call the Han! Call the Latins!”

Preston said grimly, “The Mighty Ones are still bringing troops across the river. They have three hundred sky-ships to our thirty, sixty warships to our six, and a monster ship big as a floating island above us. On the ground are twenty thousand men to our two, and seven more in reserve on the far bank of the river. Why am I in charge of this mess, and not you, or one of the other captains?”

“The Widow trusts you to carry out your cunning scheme.” His teeth of shining gold flashed unnaturally in the light of dawn as a grinned a ghoulish grin. “That way, when things go wrong, you can be torn to bits. She need not lose any more Captains, and you have no followers, no kin, to avenge you, so the cost to her is nothing.”

Preston said, “You are still talking as if the city cannot fall.”

Grind said, “The Sudden Death has never failed us before.”

“Have such numbers ever come against you before?”

Grind said, “The Widow’s husband, Sing-Ye, when he was alive, was a fighting slave of my grandfather Tzopelic, and captain of a company. Sing-Ye led an assault on Threno, to wipe out the nest of First Man pirates who were lodged here, Old Silver Hawk and his crew. As they lolled amid the bloodstained heaps of gold, Sing-Ye and his men realized they were beyond the reach of their masters: they became the next generation of Free Men of the City of Swift Death. The city will live, even if we fall. But we shall not fall!”

“Won’t we? We don’t enough by way of men and materiel,” said Preston.

Grind said, “We have courage.”

“Too much courage. Damn the militia jumping the gun! The Widow should hang their officers, if any of them live.” He clapped the binoculars to his eyes again, and looked at the battlefield. It was like looking like the face of Hell.

Dismembered limbs were strewn here and there where the iron chariots had passed with their sickle-bladed wheels. Berserkers were gnawing the wounded, or tearing them to bits, or with superhuman fanatic strength were hoisting them aloft like a washerwoman with soggy laundry, to dash their brains out against the stones.

The Lemurians had closed to melee, and their glowing spearpoints, when driven into a man’s guts, caused unnatural fires to erupt from mouth and nose. But the corsairs, with war-ax, spline-gun, bludgeon, and cutlass, or, at times, with tooth and nail, wrought equally ghastly havoc on the foe.

Preston darted his binoculars left and right, trying to keep the whole battlefield in view. From the east, upriver, the Lemurians were advancing into the scattered ranks of the Siberians. The eerie, glowing metal of the Lemurian tridents plunged through the fiberglass breastplates of the Siberians with ease, and igniting horrifying fires inside guts and lungs. Wherever the Siberians held a line, weapons braced against the charge, they would poleax the Lemurian soldiers, keeping them at bay with their longer weapons. But they were two few and too frightened, and the Lemurian archers, who could release a dozen shafts with each pull of the bowstring, would burn them from a distance.

The Siberian sergeants bellowed over the battle clamor, calling their men to fall back by ranks, and retreat toward the tunnel mouth. But the apelike troglodyte-men of Gnophkeh, hailing from circumpolar lands later lost beneath the glaciers of the Mesolithic, outnumbered the demoralized Siberians. Even though the shaggy men could not overmatch Siberians with their polearms, and they could blocked the way with their fallen bodies. Hooting and screaming, the shaggy men climbed over their own writhing and screaming wounded, brandishing dirks of bone and horn. Red slaver dripped from the fangs of any troglodyte who had paused to defile the dead.

But suddenly the Methuseleans fell upon the troglodytes from behind, roaring. Their picks and clawed gauntlets did no more damage than the poleaxes of the Siberians, but their battlecries appalled and panicked the shaggy men, as unheard, infrasound waves affected the inner ear, the hearts and other organs of all in armsreach. The effect sent the apelike men stumbling and puking, so it was not lethal: but the pickaxes driven into skull and ribcage were.

The troglodytes broke and fled, seeking refuge the only place where the Methuseleans could not follow: clambering with apelike speed up the rough brick of the walls of Threno.

Preston flashed his lantern: bugles blew. The Siberian survivors rallied and formed ranks, while the Methuseleans pressed forward. Together, these two companies took the iron charioteers of Irem in the rear. These had circled wide to avoid the Lemurians, but now found the soft ground giving way beneath their wheels, and the heavy chariots were bogging down. The drivers and lancers dismounted, beating their beasts and tugging at the bladed wheels.

The charioteers, wheels trapped, were decimated.

*** *** ***

Episode 75 The Death of Dahut of Ys

It was with grim satisfaction that Preston, through his binoculars, stood on the deck of the sky-pirate warship Tosspot, where she hung in the lee of a protective cornice of Threno, and watched as, five hundred feet below, the charioteers of Irem, the City of Pillars, were destroyed. In a world without stirrups, without firearms, and with few metal weapons or none, a troop of iron chariots was a force to fear, and nearly unstoppable. Preston gritted his teeth in an odd little smile. Nearly.

The various dinosaurs or prehistoric horses pulling the chariots were as easy to panic as the apelike men, and while the bold warlords of Irem of the Pillars cursed and tugged futilely on their reins, or drew their useless scimitars, Siberian poleaxes and Methuselean picaroons rose and fell, glinting red in the growing light of dawn. Severed limbs toppled to the trampled mud, trailing gushes of blood.

Grind said, “See? We are tougher than they are! Free men can beat hirelings and slaves.”

Preston did not answer, but merely squinted in the binoculars, counting, smiles fading.

The berserkers of Ys, seeing the charioteers die, uttered their hideous war-whoops, and sprinted in disorganized throngs or solitary runners toward the victorious Methuseleans, approaching from the west.

The Lemurians to their south now wheeled in a crisp, well-practiced maneuver, and were closing in, their alchemical weapons blazing. They wore bright turbans wound around their pie-plate helmets of bronze, and these caught the light from their weapons, and made each soldier seem to be crowned in flame: a terrifying sight.

There were over two thousand, closing in like the pincers of a crab: a hoard against three hundred.

But now the Reprisal stooped like a striking hawk, and came down among the Lemurians, her trumpets blaring, battle flags bright, with bombard and harquebus cracking and blazing with the crystalline gunfire and explosive orbs of Ipotane spline weapons. The keel of the warship passed over at head-height, causing men to throw themselves to the ground. Those who failed to move in time were struck and killed like a cow found on a railroad track by a speeding freight train. Preston was amazed: he was used to aircraft being built as light as possible, and so unconsciously had expected this great wooden torpedo of a warship to be flimsy, not heavy.

The Lemurians returned fire. Dozens of arrows shot up, and lodged in the wooden hull of the Reprisal. Preston adjusted the magnification on his binoculars. Strange. Why had not the arrows magically multiplied in mid-flight as they had before? Why had they not exploded?

The Reprisal swept over the army and out over the waterfalls. She was perhaps right to be wary of the Lemurian ground fire, because how the arrows duplicated and reduplicated as they struck her stern, and wide balls of flame expanded with a shock and a roar.

The crewmen deployed wings and sails so quickly, the canvass seemed to snap open like the canopy of a parasol. The continual updraft from the sea caught the vessel, and she performed an Immelmann, that is, a half loop followed by a half roll. This elicited gasps of wonder from Grind, and (Preston heard it dimly) cheers from the reserves on the tiers of Threno, who saw. It was quite something to see an airborne vessel the size of a seagoing sloop twisting so neatly through this acrobatic gyration.

Then she was over the battlefield again, her stern afire. The Lemurians raised shields and crouched, presenting minimal targets to keen eyed sharpshooters manning spline guns. But the blue-painted berserkers of Ys would not cower, and they could not slake their fury on a target in the air and out of reach: so they howled helplessly at the sky, throwing spears that fell short.

Preston saw hatches open in the lower hull of the Reprisal, and the mouths of some weapon he had not seen erenow peer forth: It looked like a casket packed tight with glittering scraps and shards of unfired splines. When a silent magnetic charge was applied, the expansive force of the packed mass was ejected in a great eruption from the barrel. As with the spline guns he had seen before, each jagged shard of shrapnel sprayed from these casks was repelled from each other, making am expanding cone of fire. Unlike the glass javelins shot from a spline gun, the range was limited. But as a weapon shot down into a mass of whooping blue maniacs during a slow pass overhead, it was devastating.

Now dozens of barbed grapnels on long lines shot down from the hull, swung like claws, and raked through the gathered bodies, plucking some of them up into the air like beef on meathooks, but screaming and cursing. The lines retracted as the ship climbed sharply. The barbs then flexed flattened and retracted. These grapnels were some sort of smart metal, able to do tricks Preston had seen the Compliant Gold Ringed Rod do. This flung the swinging victims down again, killing them and anyone they struck. It was an inefficient weapon, tactically, but the psychological effect was immense. The enemy troops throughout the battlefield howled in woe and wrath.

But the loudest howls did not come from the Berserkers, for more than half of the men of Ys were dead, and not one was unwounded.

The Ys commander, Dahut, a slender figure wrapped in funerary garb, swathed in a mantle, and adorned with a coronet, perched sidesaddle atop a palfrey, silently amid the destruction of her people with brown teeth grimacing, empty eyesockets blazing.

Preston, through the binoculars, saw or thought he saw Cynisca, dressed in a sleeveless pink tunic, candle in one hand, standing just before the horrid figure. She held up a scroll to the dead queen’s worm-rotted face, showing her something Preston, at his distance and angle, could not see. He blinked, and Cynisca was gone. Had it been some trick of his eyes? A hallucination? -Because Cynisca was in the treasure house of the Widow, with the black cube of the Lethal Unit.

But then Dahut staggered and shrieked a hateful wail heard even over the pandemonium of battle. Her steed started running, and but the jostling of the gallop undid her. Arms and legs, torso and head, fell away into dust and tatters across her horse’s flanks. Preston was baffled.

At the same time, the air fleet lying in wait above the pink clouds overheard must have seen the Reprisal, for now ballista-sized spears of glass, big enough to stave in a hull, showered down from overhead, along with burning globes filled with oil or with electric shrapnel. This fire rebounded from the stout oak roof of the warship, shielding the upper deck like tortoise shell of wood. What missed the ship or glanced or slid from her fell down and wrought ruin on the berserkers clustered below. The burning oil seemed not to hurt them, but the glassy splinters peppered their unarmored flesh, and the electric charges fried them. They laughed at pain, but broken bones and punctured organs could slow and stop them, and blood loss could eventually kill them.

The Methuselean rear guard advanced through the wounded berserkers. The red and brown tatterdemalion cloaks of the Methuseleans turned the enemy spearpoints like hard armor, and when the berserkers in rage made to grapple with them, the iron fighting claws tore them to shreds. Meanwhile the eerie wails and infrasound screams issuing from their open mouths caused the shards lodged in flesh or nearby soil to shatter and shatter again, filling the air with a snowstorm of tiny flying flechettes.

Preston watched the Methuseleans in awe. They were sure footed on the blood soaked and muddy battlefield like mountain goats, and moved with the ballerina grace. Not one he saw ever missed a stroke or made an awkward stance. It was as if each blow had been practiced for centuries. Perhaps it had been.

“Why did you call them the weakest of our units?” Preston demanded of Grind, not taking his eyes from the binoculars.

Grind said, “They are too set in their ways.”

Preston now saw that each fought ignoring his team mates, each man alone. None cried out for help nor came to another’s aid.

The Reprisal rose and turned for another diving run, but this time a squad of half a dozen levitation vessels came shooting down from the cloud. These were the glass-hulled flying disks of the Watchers. Always before, Preston had seen them floating serenely and silently, looking like china saucers resting on a transparent tea tray in the sky, with their rims held horizontally.

But these were titled sideways, rims vertical, and came spinning down like glass wheels, looking like strange and stringless yoyos in their motion, or perhaps like buzzsaw blades.

Preston had never seen aerial combat in this era before. It was unlike everything experience told him to expect.

The flying disks crowded around the Reprisal as if attempting to grapple or trap her, but neither grappling lines or futuristic tractor presser beams were used. Instead, the air grew thick around the levitation vessels, and shimmered like a pavement on a hot summer day. It looked like a yard-deep coating of particularly transparent but thick fluid was clinging with immense surface tension to the smooth hulls of the flying disks.

A force bubble? Solidified air? Preston was not sure what it was. It moved and surged slowly and sluggishly, a shimmering field of fluid as thick as molasses but clear as air, and it impeded the motions of anything in the field. Splines and arrows from sharpshooters and archers darted out of arrow slits in the Reprisal’s hull, are larger spears, the size of poles, rocketed from her bow chasers: all splashed into the fluid field, slowed, and were trapped in midair, never touching the crystal hulls.

The cigar-shaped Reprisal maneuvered wildly, but the smaller, disk-shaped craft boxed her in and rammed her. The ramming maneuver was more like flypaper than collision, for the two craft never touched, but now they were grappled by the shimming fluid field.

Once the disks were in position to every side of the struggling Reprisal, and above and below, a group of gray skinned Eighth Men, no larger than children, emerged from hatches on the disks, along with the taller, thinner shapes of Second Men. The fields of force which slowed darts did not stop flamethrowers, whose burning streamers of jellied gasoline would still burn as they sank through the transparent resistance. The disk crews began burning the sails and wings of the Reprisal.

The sailing ship was in the updraft from the sea cliff, so the struggle was fierce, but as the wings and sails burned, and ever less canvass was able to catch the wind, the disks prevail, and began dragging the larger ship upward, back over the battlefield, back up past the windows and balconies of Threno, up toward where the mother ship, unseen, waited above.

Burly Feugians in leather armor, mottled and colored like the Second Men, and armed with hooked swords and pruning bills emerged on the deck of the Reprisal. They made daring swings on shrouds to board the vessels entrapping them. Where their feet struck the decks of the levitation vessels, Earth’s gravity was overruled, and they stood on the slanted decks as easily as the Eighth Men, no matter how slanted or perpendicular or upside-down.

The fighting was in slow motion, and the field slowed any blows. When numbers where in their favor, one corsair would pin the foe in place with a hook, and the other slowly push a blade through the field and into flesh. When one on one, the corsair caught the foe with the spikes on their polearms, and pulled the luckless wight away from the deck, wrestling him upward, outside the clinging field, at which point the gravity of Earth would re-assert itself, and away he would fall.

The Eighth Men had personal fields. A touch on a belt ornament would darken and thicken the force directly around each man’s own body, so he seemed to be wearing an armor made of shining paste protruding an inch from his skins. Preston watched in confusion as corsairs by twos and threes would work their polearms, to pin the now-opaque childlike silhouettes against the deck. It took less time than strangling a man, since their lungs were small, but eventually the Watcher inside was smothered, or if he relaxed the field, he was peirced. Evidently the impeding fields also impeded air, if turned up too dense.

More little gray men emerged from the entrapping disks onto the perpendicular decks, armed with flame throwers. The reinforcements stood back and sprayed flame across the boarding parties, and also down at the corsair warship.

A squad of corsairs chopped away a place in the high stern where the flames were too fierce. This was the roof of the poop deck, or had been. As the flaming wreckage of the roof fell away, Captain Pheleg in his scarlet pantaloons could be seen at the wheel, as broad and burly as a blacksmith, his skin a motley yellow and black, shouting out curses and commands.

It was hopeless for the sky ship. She was being hauled ever upward by the levitation vessels. She passed so close to the spire of the highest tower of Threno that a girl poised there — Preston thought it was one of Pheleg’s young wives — was able to call out and be heard. A man with an engine of some sort, like a ballista without arms, at her signal threw a winebottle up and up. It traveled the length of a bowshot, but one of the sailors caught it in a net and put it into the captain’s hands.

Pheleg laughed, and held it up sparkling in the rising sun. It was a winebottle.


*** *** ***

Episode 76 The Wreck of the Reprisal

Grind said, “Send in other ships to aid the Reprisal. She is doomed. Her sails are afire!”

Preston said, “If I send any in, the foe would send in ten for one, and all would be doomed. As things stand now, the bad guys dare not come too close to Threno, or the Swift Death will blast them.”

“They are close enough to blast with the Swift Death! The Reprisal is brushing the top of the Sinful Pride Tower!”

“Almost,” muttered Preston. The exact distance from the Final Unit hidden in the middle of the Widow’s tower that the motes in the air could rebroadcast the disintegration signal varied a little, depending on wind and available energy sources…

Then he interrupted his thought with a loud curse of astonishment.

Captain Pheleg, red faced and roaring, barked out an order. From hatches in the keel now shot out, as they had before, a dozen anchors and grapnels. But these were not aimed at any enemy trooper or enemy vessel. Instead they caught onto the gables and rainspouts, roofbeams and corbels of the uppermost tower of Threno.

The disks surrounding the Reprisal now flickered more brightly. The laboring of their engines, a high, eerie whine, became audible over the clamor of the battle below to Preston. He was stationed on a high point, and could see the struggle close at hand.

He saw Captain Pheleg, with one laugh gust of mad laughter, throw the winebottle in his hand up against one of the flying disk vessels grappling his ship. The wine spilled out of the spinning bottle, making a little spiral of ruby fluid glinting in the red light of dawn, before spreading over the field of solidified air surrounding the uppermost vessel. The drop sank slowly, touched the glass hull, and erupted into pallid fire.

An eye-stabbing burst of incandescent white, brighter than a photographer’s flash bulb, flickered through the vessel, and the shadows of dying crewmen shined stark black against the blinding blaze. This vessel dropped, but the force field was still gluing it to the Reprisal, helping her to descend. The other disks were carried suddenly down, and now were too close to the city, too close to the Fatal Unit hidden in the middle of the city. White fire flashed through the hulls, dissolving flesh and blood and bone of any posthumans inside, but leaving their gear untouched.

Preston cursed. “Don’t give it away, you dolts!” He muttered.

The Swift Death did not deactivate the Eighth Man machinery, nor shut down the force fields gluing the levitation vessels to the Reprisal. Now all six disks were falling, and the wind of the fall fanned the flames clawing at the canvass of her sails and wings. Fire spread. The burning was also inside the ship, and smoke poured from hatches in the hull.

Pheleg was wrestling with the wheel. The ship was making a great half-circle as she descended. He struggled to keep her nose up, and ordered his men to abandon ship. The mighty pirate vessel flew low over the battlefield, and men swung down on long shrouds, hitting the ground at the speed of a galloping stallion. Some fell and did not rise; some fell and staggered to their feet, only to be swarmed by foes; some fell and rose, and sprinted for the tunnel in the wall of Threno leading to the great doors, cutting foes with cutlass or axe as they ran.

Lemurian archers grouped near the tunnel mouth shot at the wounded ship as she plummeted down toward them, shafts multiplying in midair. An inferno of fire erupted along the hull. But Pheleg did not abandon the wheel. Lashed by smoke and flame, Pheleg kept the wheel in hand, and turned the prow down toward the massed archers. The burning vessel accelerated as she fell, a screaming dive: The Lemurians broke and fled in all direction, panicking.

The ship crashed to the ground, and the crystalline shells and spears in her magazines exploded from the shock, and the magnetic charges in the flying shrapnel, in a chain reaction, ignited the rest of the ammunition. The splines expanded, and burst through the planks of the hull. The burning ship rolled as she fell, crushing luckless Lemurians beneath, and mashing those not fleet of foot enough to flee. Grinding, burning, with a great cacophony strangely like the shattering of glass and exploding lightbulbs, the ship rolled to a halt just before the tunnel mouth.

Corsairs were falling back into the tunnel mouth, retreating from the battlefield. Captain Pheleg, as his last act in life, had measured and timed the fall of his mighty ship with an expert eye, and so now the attackers were separated from the retreating corsairs by the mass of flaming shipwreck.

The body of Pheleg had been flung into the broken spars of the mast, impaling him. One arm, pierced by a giant splinter, was held up in death pointing toward the gate, as if the Captain were, even after death, urging the corsairs on the ground to retreat to safety.

During that time, the troglodytes climbing the walls were under less threat. Two groups had swarmed up the eastern and western walls. The undisciplined defenders were thinner there, having left their posts to rush to the sounds at the southern wall, above the main gate, where all this commotion was taking place.  Now the troglodytes, some on two feet, and some on all fours, came at the defenders atop the southern wall from either side.

Preston signaled to the men standing by on the third tier. These were more disciplined than other corsairs, and waited for orders before advancing.

These were the men of the Widow’s own handpicked marine guard. By and large they were men from her own nation, although all from different centuries and even different millennia: the unit was called the Air Lords of the Han. Rapidly they repelled down the steep wall to the second tier, or lowered ladders and poles. No one could climb down faster than a sailor: in short order the whole company of the Han reserves was gathered on the second tier, along with the Siberians.

On the first tier were the fighting men under Captain Dogbane. They were Zealanders, coming from a land mass connecting Indochina and New Zealand, which, in Preston’s time, was underwater. During the glacial period of their native eon, the sea level was lower, but whether this was an Ice Age in Preston’s past, or one from his future, no one knew.

They dressed in seal fur tunics and hairy turbans, and each man carried with him at all times the loot from prior adventures in the form of gold earrings, necklaces, or glittering gems. They were armed with warclub, spears tipped with stingray tailspines, and tomahawks bladed with sharpened clamshells. They painted their faces before combat into ferocious goblin-masks. Preston thought they looked like an odd blend of Hawaiian and Eskimo.

The Zealanders, however, fought with an unsteady courage. Like fire in October leaves, it would blaze up, irresistible, and then vanish into panic and route just as suddenly. They neither marched in step, nor advanced in ranks, nor retreated in order. Each paused to loot an enemy, and no one was eager to fight naked savages, or any foe with nothing to take.

So when the neolithic Gnophkeh of Catalhoyuk rushed upon them along the narrow tier, nude save for wolfskin cloaks, the Zealanders fell back in horrid disarray, pushing their unsteady or weaker members over the brink to a wailing death. Only a few men could front the foe in the small space between the wall to one side and the sheer brink to the other, and the neolithics were stronger and longer of limb in a one-on-one match.

The Han overhead concentrated their arrows and javelins at selected spots, dropping heavy slabs, boiling oil, and flaming pitch at the larger platforms situated at the corners of each tier. This separated the neolithics one the south wall from those on the east and west. The Siberians riddled them with splineguns and spearguns.

Trumpets blew the charge. The Han descended by rope and pole and ladder with lightning speed, before the astonished troglodytes could gather their forces: with bland-faced efficiency, the Han pikemen squads fought as teams: two would kneel and brace their polearms, preventing any sudden charge, while two choke up on their shafts, and stand and stab those close at hand, and the final two, behind them, would poleax those farther back. The sharpened deer horns and bone knives of the primitive Catalhoyuk were worthless.

Meanwhile, the Siberians efficiently gathered up the confused and wounded Zealander corsairs, and drew them up by many lines to the second tier. When all were gathered, the Han and the Siberians rushed up the lines and ladders themselves, and drew up the rearguard as neatly as a puppeteer lifting a marionette offstage. The primitive ape-men left below looked up the wall in confusion. This was polished stone, close faced, with not even a crack to insert a knifeblade, slick and unclimbable.   It was almost as if the rough stones and the easy climb of the first tier had been meant to lead them here, and trap them in a spot where they could climb no farther.

The Happy Fortune, anchored in the shadow of an overhang above, now went into motion, sails furled, and sinking. She was the opposite of the well-protected Reprisal, for her deck was an open platform of latticework set between three large lifting rings held in wooden housings like oversized tambourines. Three sponsons, as peaked as bowsprits, peered in each direction between the three lifting rings, giving the ship the overall shape of a snowflake.

She was not build or ramming, but for shooting, for deck guns, mangonels and ballistas protruded from the sponsons, and from atop cranes splayed out like insect legs above and below the hexagonal central platform. Preston was reminded of a star fort, designed  maximize the overlap of fields of fire.

Midmost, held on an armature that could be lowered below the keel, was an engine shaped like a great brass globe, with a spout for firing.

Her captain was a thin and rangy Second Man, named Satavaesa. He dressed like a dandy, with ruffles and rings around his long neck, and peacock feathers in his mane. The Second Men who served him likewise wore ornaments in garish array, unlike any other of his race Preston had so far seen. Their coloration also differed, being most black with only stripes and streaks of yellow.

During the long, sleepless nights preparing for the war, when Cynisca would not let him back in his quarters, Preston had spent time with this man, going over the field pieces. Preston had asked about brass globe.

Captain Satavaesa had smiled a sad smile. “It is the only weapon lore to survive from the prior age into mine. It is the Greek Fire, once used by the Byzantines against the Levantines.”

Preston was surprised to hear names he recognized. “From my time!”

“A time before yours,” Satavaesa had corrected him gently. “They were purebreds. In your generations, the breeds of man were mixed: you are from the hybrid centuries.”

“The Loest family is Prussian,” Preston had said. “Some of my folks, in my granddad’s day, were really dead set on their bloodline being purely Teutonic. They came to a bad end.”

“Oh? What fate was theirs?”

“The other branch of my family, living in Brooklyn, joined the marines and kicked their tailbones into perdition during the Second World War.”

“I heard you are from the First Atomic Age.”

“Yes. We Americans invented the First Atomic Age.”


“And the Space Age. Flying machines. Steamboats and submarines. Telegraph, telephones, cinema, home computers, not to mention the Colt .45, the Browning P-35, the Winchester 1886, the Remington 700, and the Browning Automatic Rifle — correctly regarded as the greatest engineering feat of all time! . We invented most everything else, too.”

Satavaesa had said, “Your Prussian family members are not pure of blood. I hope this does not distress you. By your era, you Firstlings would have had Neanderthal from Caledonia and Cro-Magnon from Mu mingled in your strain, with perhaps some Floresiensis from Cathay. Those from earlier times were isolated.”

Preston had been curious. “Where and when are you from? How did you end up as a sky pirate? You don’t seem the type.”

“The Empire of the Mighty sent my sept-brothers to surround Threno to slay the pirates, but instead the Vengeful Widow took bee-stings of blood from us, and the Swift Death protected and spared us.”

“You joined the Widow? Why?”

“I am a Revenant,” Satavaesa had confided, dropping his voice, “I was born free and under a yellow sun. In my world, the only people were our people, and the differences between older septs and younger seemed so important then! Now? They are nothing. All men are men. One must not own another.”

Preston had asked, “Back in your day, other Second Men looked down on you?”

“Our continent, Laramide, was the thirteenth and last colonized after the extinction event, and only the bones of the First Men preserved in their mile-high towers were there. We were called unharmonious by the older colonies, and scorned for our meddling with biogenetics and weaponeering. We grew rich, and this was called crass by the older lands!”

“Sounds like my homeland. We also kicked ass. No one was tougher.”

“So with us. We are the ones who discovered how to grow long splines, and to generate more expansive force. My father ran a crystal plantation. In this world, under this red sun, the men of the Land of Laramide are feared.” Satavaesa grinned a nasty grin, and this expression was one Preston had not seen erenow on any Second Man face. “We brought the disaster that sank our continent upon ourselves, but the Watchers saved us to enslave us. They cherished us because we, out of all the Second Men reborn in Pangaea, know best how to grow our own ammo. Watch us tomorrow. We will not run out of shots.”

Preston remembered all this as the Happy Fortune took up a position above the first tier, where the troglodytes were trapped, and rained down crystal spears like a glittering hailstorm of glass, until not a body was left standing, and the splines impaling the stones were thick as a bamboo grove. Red curtains dripped from the lips of the brink all along the southern wall, and stained the stones.

The foe ran out of men before the Happy Fortune ran out of shots.

*** *** ***

Episode 77 The Apparition from Atlantis

Grind now squinted through his spyglass, reading the semaphore flags flourished by the servants of the Gargantuan commanders perched atop a large platform hovering over the river.

“Your plan is failing, friend Runagate,” Grind grimaced through his gold teeth to Preston. “My cousin Quiyahuitl has lost too many shield maidens: he is trying to convince Ichtaca to pull back his Lemurians, and establish a perimeter beyond the range of the Swift Death. Once we are besieged, they need but wait!”

Preston said, “I had been hoping they would be too impatient to get their hands on me to settle into a siege. Everything they’ve done since I first set foot on Pangaea has stunk of panic. Some deadline is driving the Watchers.”

Grind said, “The Watchers are taking orders from the Mighty Ones, now! You might not see it, but I can see. Look at the composition of their general staff, see who is holding the banners of authority! My cousins, if they are smart, will merely starve us out, with Lemurians shooting fire arrows to burn the lower reaches of Threno.”

Preston saw the Lemurians were now falling back, their strange tridents glowing, reforming into ranks. His heart sank. “Let’s see if a sortie will make them forget to be smart.”

“It’s not smart to think the foe is not smart, lad.”

“My smart ideas are not working, Captain. Let’s try stupid.”

Grind found this amusing. A dark glitter was in his eye, and his teeth flashed brightly. “My people believe any man you slay in battle or chase must be your slave in hell, and you are allowed to add to his tortures. That delight is greater even than victory, and so our warleaders command desperate ventures. You think like us!”

“Is that so ..? Then they should be easy to outfox. Let me gamble with the lives of some of our hardcase soldiers. Who do I send?”

“The Widow’s men. She picks the hardest of the hard. They fear and love her.”

At Preston’s signal, the Han swarmed down from the upper tiers, descending by ropes and poles that were pulled up after they were on the ground.

Forces of the enemy were gathered before the main tunnel mouth leading into Threno, but stymied by the flaming wreckage of the fallen Reprisal. These were First Men from among the more primitive eras: the few remaining blue-painted men of Ys, the neolithic troglodytes of Gnophkeh, and a multitude of dark-skinned pygmies of Kumari. The Han descended on lines from the platforms at the opposite corners of the southern wall of Threno, as swift as paratroopers landing, and so appeared suddenly on either flank of the enemy.

The wild Ys, for all their ferocity and strength, were no match for the shorter, grim-faced men of Han, who fought with a quiet and mechanical teamwork, with front rank pikemen fending off attacking berserkers, while the rear rank, with their longer weapons, poleaxed them. When it was seen that blades did not bite the Ys, the Han concentrated on clubbing them to death with their heavy pike heads.

The pygmies fought with unexpected skill and ferocity: a flight of stone knives, whistling like bullets thrown from slings, made a deadly hail: The Han fell as they advanced, and more fell as the Kumari spearmen met their pikemen, darting into places where the line was broken.

At the same time, the Feugians who served Captain Pheleg, eager to avenge his death, without awaiting any orders, came rushing out of the great doors of Threno, and poured from the tunnel mouth. The Feugians were motley-skinned and heavily muscled. If the neolithic cannibals of Gnophkeh, from the first days of the firstlings, looked like men with ape heads, their opposite number from the last days of the first human race looked like apes with man heads.

By happy coincidence, the rising sun cleared the cliff walls just then, and ruby light spilled down, striking brilliant glitter from the rushing river behind, the polished helmets of the Han, the hooked blades of the Feugians.

The Kumari were a nocturnal people, and cowered and wailed when the light dazzled them. The sudden onslaught of the ferocious Feugians sent them into a panic, even though their numbers were far greater than the men making the sally. The Han formed ranks and marched with methodical quickstep after the fleeing foe; the roaring Feugians sprinted after, flourishing their bloody hooks.

One of the Lemurian warlords, a tall man with gem studded helmet of boar’s tusks, with a luminous battle flag flying from a staff lashed to the spine of his bronze corselet, seeing his allies being cut down from behind, blew a conch shell and signaled the advance.  Perhaps the lamps being used to send heliographs signals from the platform over the river were washed out by the sunlight, or perhaps this warlord merely ignored the order to retreat. His men were of the same mind: they advanced, singing a strange chant that made their spears and tridents glow more brightly, and the bowmen found their half empty quivers now full again.

“How the hell are they doing that!” Preston swore. “Refilling exhausted ammo, I mean!”

Grind fondly petted the Holland and Holland double rifle he carried tucked in his belt. “The same way your wondrous weapon does: temporal alchemy. The Fourth Men only perfected the arts of commanding nature. The secrets were there for anyone to find, including the men of Lemuria.”

“Will they ignore orders to save the Kumari?”

Grind said, “It is a strange thing: after the Kumari were driven into extinction by the Lemurians, their lingering ghosts among old monoliths became objects of fear and worship. The children of the very men who killed them came to regard the little people as holy. Thanks to the Watcher abducting both groups before they perished, the Lemurian squadrons of the current world are always eager in combat to rescue those who were their fathers’ victims in the old world. It is justice of a sort, I suppose.”

A second platoon of Lemurians joined the attack, then a third, and then all.

Preston laughed. “They’ve been lured in! Now, all we have to do is signal the retreat, and pull back behind the walls, to get more of them closer … closer …” He put down the lantern and used a semaphore flag to signal the bugler. The Feugians began pulling back behind the still burning wreck of the Reprisal and were helping any survivors found back into the tunnel mouth.

Preston swore, and swore again, wishing he knew worse words. The Han were not retreating. It seemed that the Methuseleans who served Captain Roc were still on the battlefield, slaughtering the panicked Kumari in frightening numbers, and had disappeared under the flight of flaming arrows from the advancing line of Lemurians. The Han marines would not abandon their comrades, but charged.

“Doesn’t anyone in this damned world obey orders?” Preston yelled.

“My men do,” said Grind. “I brought them with me when I fled, and granted them their freedom. Fighters I once sent into battle by the whip, I now pay yellow gold for their loyalty, and I worship and revere their god, the sky-father. They are a pale skinned race like yours. Call them into battle.”

Just at that moment, Preston became aware the Cynisca was standing next to him. She made no noise, but the sense of warmth, the hint of her perfumed hair, made him as aware of her location as he was aware of the location of his left hand.

She was talking to him. Strangely, he felt as if the conversation had been going on for some time, and that he had been answering absentmindedly, but only now woke up to the fact that she had been here all along.

He turned. There was no one there. There was no place for anyone to be there. He and Grind were perched on a small observation platform like a tongue of wood protruding from the upper deck of the Tosspot, hovering under the belly of the stones of the upper reaches of Threno, with a thousand feet of empty air beneath. And yet, somehow, he had seen her:

Cynisca’s curvaceous form of golden bronzed skin, lovely as a dryad, graceful as a swan, had been draped in a sheer, filmy garment he had never seen before, a thing that looked more like it was woven of sparkles than thread. The trains and trailing hems of transparent wisps had been floating, and her jet-black raven-black hair had lifted and waved as if underwater. Her eyes were brighter than emeralds.

Son of the Wind, ere he left, commanded the living stone of the Swift Death to speak to me in the tongue of Atlantis. I have consulted the stone: The arrows of the Lemuria are produced by an intrusion of the eternal into the temporal, which distorts the warp and woof of extension and interval. But it is an impure intrusion, a pollution. You are a child of high heaven or so Fyodor once told me, and bathed in the water that cleanses sin. Employ a purification rite to undo their effect. Call on your One and Solitary God.

Preston clutched the railing with white knuckles, feeling giddy. “What on earth — ?”

Grind said, “That was not of Earth. It was a manifestation from an ulterior realm, a materialization.”

“You saw it? You heard?”

“No. But Fifth Men of my rank are trained to be sensitive to extra-dimensional energies, as this allows us to communicate with the Eighth Men without the use of translation machines, which are getting rare and hard to make.”

“She said the Lemurian fire arrows were an impure intrusion of the eternal into the temporary. It caused pollution. She told me to pray. Or something.”

Grind showed his flashing teeth. “One should always pray: one never knows which gods are listening, or what they will do, so it does no harm. But the pollution of which she spoke is a distortion in timespace, similar to the flatspace dimensional manipulations used in levitation and non-extensional variance. The lifting rings like those in a Watcher levitation vessel — or mounted port and starboard right here in my fierce old gal Tosspot — will dampen out the effect, and return warped space to true. The only problem is we have to land nearly right on top of them, while they are shooting explosive, supernatural fire into our keel.”

“Have the men coat the inside of the hull with wet blankets, and soak the boards.”

Grind said, “I will do that, if you will do the purification ritual. She told you to call on the Lonely God you worship.”

“I don’t know any prayers,” Preston objected, feeling obscurely embarrassed.

“Everyone has gods! Even the Eighth Men, who pretend to worship nothing, have rites and rituals to placate the macrobic entities that psychiatric bathynauts detect when they dive below the level of the racial sub-consciousness.”

The two men went to the poop deck, and attached harnesses to line, lest they fall from the deck in flight. Marines marched out on deck shouting a battle slogan. Sharpshooters with spline guns took up posts in the prow. In a moment, they were ready to cast off. The Tosspot unfolded batlike wings and ran them out her port and starboard spars, and unfurled her topsails, topgallants and jib. Her ramming prow, sheathed in iron, glittered black in the sunlight as the sky ship emerged from the protective shadow of the upper reaches of Threno. She dove between the pillars of the great sea gates, caught the updraft from the inland ocean, and suddenly as graceful as a swan on the wing, or the mighty condor, came about, and spiraled back toward the battlefield.

Preston signaled to the bugle boy, who blew the flourish for the Happy Fortune, and the signal and come about.  The two ships came together, rose up, poised for a moment in the breathless cold of the air above the river, and then, together, dove toward the battlefield.

Preston could only remember one prayer: “And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take!”

He was shouting this over the rushing wind of their steep decent as the massive ranks of Lemurian archers ignited their arrows and shot. A wall of red flame rose and rose toward the diving ships.


*** *** ***

Episode 78 The Battle Pyre of Lemuria

Preston clung to the rail of the poopdeck, eyes wide, his fears and calculation about the battle below, for a brief moment, forgotten. The wonder of soaring in a sailing ship was overwhelming.  The turrets, black blocks, balconies, barbicans and endless ladders of the City of Swift death seemed to swoop upward at an angle in a rush of motion. The spars groaned as wings and sails caught the air.

As they departed from the shadow of the overhanging block, a dozen or score of spline javelins, glinting like lightning, followed by crystal petards, darted suddenly from the low clouds above, no doubt the work of some overzealous officer manning the siege engines of the enemy vessels hidden overhead: but the glassy spears and bombards fell astern, dashing harmlessly against the black bricks of lower levels of Threno underfoot.

As the Tosspot came about, Preston saw the whole of Threno in panorama pass from left to right. The action of the guard at the postern gate, in the northern part of the city, hitherto hidden, came momentarily in view: the crumbling wall, less than four yards wide in places, connecting the northern blocks of Threno to the end of the canal wall a quarter mile away was filled with enemy troops, infantry and cavalry coming single file, with the corsairs defending that spot retreating in a rush. And no wonder: the leader of the file was a cavalry officer in a feathered headdress, his skin painted with gold dust, riding a triceratops. The terrible lizard merely ignored the spears and splines of any line of defense, and trampled over pikemen and axmen attempting to bar his way.

A numerous force of the enemy was gathered on the highland plains above the canal wall, ready to cross the narrow causeway once the postern gate was forced, and the attackers had control of the gatehouse.

A single figure stood at a narrow upper window, overlooking corsair’s defense. This was the Sorcerer-Engineer from Captain Roc’s ship Cockatrice. He was thin, tall and bald, dressed in a mirrored cloak. He, like Preston, had been born an earlier world, from the early period of the Dark Conquests, circa A.D. 16000. His name was Nug-Ma’at.

The Sorcerer-Engineer raised his hand. Circling his head were tiny machines or amulets bright as pearls. These flew from the window and took up position to the left and right of the causeway. Now these emitted laser-thin lines of ruby light, each line sent a high-pitched hiss of sparks into a set of touch holes Preston, the night before, had used the matter-disintegration powers of the Lethal Unit, to bore deeply into the rock at strategic spots along the causeway.

Preston had a clear view. Just at the moment when the Tosspot flew low past the northern quarter, oil barrels buried in the stones, ignited by casks of gunpowder that had so carefully been gathered, a thimble’s worth at a time, by Captain Grind from the shells of the Holland & Holland, now went off. Rolling balls of oily smoke rushed upward. The crack of thunder was like the end of the world.

The bellows of stricken dinosaurs and the screams of maimed men were lost in the hellish cacophony of flames roaring and stone shattering.

The result was better than Preston had hoped when he had spent a long sleepless night boring holes to hide the charges, for an unseen flaw in the upper reaches of the mighty causeway now formed a crack, and then a seam, and more than half of the walkway swayed, toppled, and slid headlong into the vast gulfs of air overlooking the sea, carrying the enemy troops along. Then the scene was hidden behind a rising wall of dust and fine debris carried cloudward by the updraft from the sea.

Preston smiled an odd, little smile of satisfaction. The first use of his first secret weapon, gunpowder, had proved worth the effort. He turned his gaze forward: the Tosspot, with the Happy Fortune off her lower port stern, was beginning her diving run.

He was fascinated by the sky ship. The Tosspot was built for water landing, so her hull was actually a boat hull, with her ram protruding from her sloped prow, and with her lifting rings carried in vertical drums port and starboard like the wheels of a riverboat.

The Happy Fortune was both larger and lighter, a latticework of wooden beams and struts, holding three wooden drums horizontally. Each drum was the diameter of a Watcher levitation vessel — which was no surprise, since these drums contained the levitation rings cannibalized out of the hulls of lost, wrecked or abandoned Watcher vessels.

In some ways, the Tosspot maneuvered like a lighter-than-air craft, since her buoyancy was apparently provided by ring-shaped antigravity engines — albeit how the corsairs ran them without a power source, Preston had yet to see. The wings were not actually wings, but oversized ailerons, meant to control roll, not lift. How in the world sails jutting from the top of the vessel but not from the keel could impart motion to the craft without capsizing her was a mystery.

For that matter, how the vessel could use sails to tack against the wind, rather than just float like a balloon howsoever the wind carried her — this was not just a mystery, but an absurdity. Preston shrugged, chalked it up to science so futuristic it might as well be magic, and focused his mind on other things.

Preston raised his hands to protect his head and eyes from heat and glare when a gust of flame from the explosive arrows of the Lemurians rushed across the bow of the Tosspot. The soldiers in the prow, in perfect unison, ducked behind their octagonal shields, and also threw what looked like perfectly twentieth-century fireproof blankets of silvery material over themselves.

The Tosspot dropped down. Preston, feeling foolish, reciting the only childhood prayer he could recall. It seemed monstrously unfair that the religion of his day and age should suddenly, somehow, here in the last days of man at the end of time, turn out to be true and important. It was doubly unfair that he, aside from a Russian from the Thirteenth Century, was the only man he met who remembered anything about Christianity, and then he, who had never paid much attention to such things, now couldn’t remember anything important.

Then suddenly he did remember certain words, but he could not say when nor why he had memorized them. They seemed to well up on his lips of their own:

“Blessed be the Lord, my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight! My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth mine enemy under me!”

The Tosspot now swooped low enough to decapitate the banners of the Lemurian vanguard, or smash the canopies of their chariots. The vessel, no higher than ten feet off the ground, bore in toward the center of the Lemurian square, where the archers stood in ranks, drawing back their terrible bows.

More words rushed up out of Preston’s mouth. He shouted them at the top of his lungs, wondering if he were crazy or not.

“Bow thy heavens, O Lord, and come down: touch the mountains, and they shall smoke! Cast forth lightning, and scatter them: shoot out thine arrows, and destroy them!”

The soldiers cheered, startling Preston, who, for the moment, had forgotten that everyone could understand anything he spoke.

Preston notice these men for the first time, and, with a start, he realized he recognized them: they were short, tough-looking men, olive-skinned, brown-haired and hook-nosed, with fierce dark eyes and red lips. They wore breastplates, greaves and leather skirts with metal bosses. Their helmets were hemispheres of steel set with heavy cheek guards and lobstertail neckpieces. The men had their crests mounted longitudinally and officers, transversely.

It was not until his eye fell upon their standard, a golden eagle displaying the letters SPQR and a banner reading LEGIO IX HISPANA that Preston realized who these men were.

This legion was an enigma: In the Second Century, it had marched beyond Hadrian’s Wall into the misty wilds of Northern Britain, and vanished from history. There was but a cohort here, a hundred men. The rest were among the defenders of Threno, awaiting the signal to sally: that his heart swelled with strange emotion. He felt like Dorothy in Oz, meeting a countryman from Omaha.

Their centurion flourished his pilum, a heavy iron-tipped javelin.   

And all the men echoed his roar. God be with us! They let fly their heavy javelins, and a rain of iron fell down upon the turbans and helmets of the Lemurians.

Then the Tosspot furled sails and cupped her wings, decelerating. She passed slowly over the Lemurians. Preston raised his binoculars. The remnants of the Naacal in their white robes, and the surviving troglodytes of Catalhoyuk were inside of a large hollow square of Lemurian spearman. Preston now saw the heroes of the Lemurians had arrived in roofed chariots or two-wheeled carts pulled by teams of bipedal raptor dinosaurs. These were not as massive or war-worthy as the chariots of Irem, but they were decorated with lapis lazuli, garnets, jade, and carvings of ivory and mother-of-pearl.

In the center of the square were Lemurian archers, readying their glittering bows and fiery arrows. Preston heard the jeers of laughter from the bowman, as the Tosspot came closer, low and slow, within their deadly range.

Flights of arrows rose up, and, for a moment, seemed each one to have a dozen shadows of itself surrounding it in the air. But then the shadows vanished like blown candles. A few arrows struck and lodged the hull of the Tosspot, and none exploded.

Then the Happy Fortune hove to, and a hailstorm of glassy spears and arrows and explosive crystal shards began showering down upon the helpless Lemurians.

The Tosspot had a hull thick enough to turn the bow of any spear or trident, glowing or not, the Lemurian launched upward, and the Happy Fortune, hanging above and partly shielded by her, had supplies of splines seemingly as endless as the Lemurian arrows.

Their magic broken, the Lemurians were not helpless: the stern-faced commander ordered his chariots forward, and he had his men pile one atop the next in a crude siege tower. Using their tridents to aid them climb, or standing on each other’s shoulders, the Lemurian troopers seized the keel of the Tosspot, and began climbing up the wooden slats of the hull.

Preston bellowed the words that filled his mouth. Where they came from, from what buried Sunday school memory, or whether or not they had some magical effect to undo the Lemurian magic, he did not know or care. The words filled the Roman Legionnaires with fighting spirit, and each wave of foes who attempted to climb the hull to the railing was blocked with shield and spear. Maimed and slain and thrown down on his fellow’s heads.

I will sing a new song unto thee, O God: upon a psaltery and an instrument of ten strings will I sing praises unto thee! It is he that giveth salvation unto kings: who delivereth his servant from the hurtful sword!

The Happy Fortune circled, and the silvery glass splinters of their eerie Second Man firearms hissed and crackled and sang, until the whole battlefield glittered like snow. Barrels of liquid fire followed, trapping any wounded or otherwise slow of foot. The fires touched off any leftover spears or arrows, and ignited their alchemical substances: flame joined flame as the red roaring holocaust climbed skyward: a huge pyre, the funeral fires of an army.

Preston, looking over the stern rail at the hideous combustion, did not see any Lemurians escape. They were too proud to flee.

Preston turned his eyes upward. He had been expecting the levitation vessels to close in the moment any corsair left the shadow of the upper reaches of Theo, as they had for the Reprisal. But there was no sign of them.

Bugle calls yanked his binocular’s gaze back to the column city. “What’s going on?”

Grind said, “The Widow ordered an all-out sortie. The platform holding their leadership has drifted into range of the Happy Fortune! A fatal error!”

Preston said, “It has to be a trap. This is a disaster!”

“Unless we win…” Smiled Grind, his bright, metallic teeth glittering.

Preston said no more, for, with an uproar, and a great clamor of trumpets, bugles, and bells, the Han and the Feugians advanced. The Happy Fortune dived toward the six levitation vessels carrying the platform where the ponderous Mighty Ones stood.

*** *** ***

Episode 79 Fate of the Happy Fortune

Captain Grind gave the wheel to the long-necked yellowed-eyed Third Mate, Raad (who gave a salute to Preston so slovenly it bordered on a gesture of contempt) and then strode with huge, heavy footfalls to the bow, bellowing for archers and darters to ready their arms. Preston drew his sword, the fine steel blade he long ago had looted from a fallen Fifth Man officer, and weighed in his mind whether to make an answer to the insolence of Raad by striking him down then and there: but Grind was already mounting the prow and calling for him.

Preston half jogged and half slid down the slanting deck, and reconnected his lifeline to the taffrail when he reached the prow. The Tosspot, with her different arrangement of lifting hoops, was capable of greater maneuverability, but could not match the speed of the Happy Fortune. Captain Satavaesa, who was perched on a platform admidship of his open latticework decks, wind whistling in the peacock plumes of his fancy outfit, gave Captain Grind an ironic salute with his spline gun, even as his ship overtook the Tosspot and left her behind. Like some skeleton of a giant moth, the Happy Fortune fell rapidly toward the command platform, wind whistling through her braces and stays.

The six levitation vessels from which the platform depended had strayed, perhaps pushed by breezes, over the battlefield, and were no longer above the river. The clouds above the river rippled, and flying disks, spinning down the corridors of air vertically, to minimize wind resistance, descended by the score. But Preston saw that the Vengeful Widow had eyed the situation correctly: the rescuers would not arrive in time before the Happy Fortune met the platform. For its part, the bulky and awkward platform had not attempted to flee, but to land, evidently hoping for archers and sharpshooters among the infantry and chariots to help them fend off the oncoming corsairs.

That hope was dashed when the Kumari archers, instead of obliterating the Tosspot in a firestorm of alchemical arrows, as suddenly as if cursed by heaven, found themselves burning in their own fiery concoctions, all their ammo having ignited by the corsair’s napalm.  A pyramid of white flame reached up from the battlefield and lashed across the bottom of the platform, igniting the bunting.

Grind shouted out the names of his old acquaintances and relations as he brought the Holland & Holland to his shoulder and fired. “Xipil! Have my greetings! Quiyahuitl! You snubbed me at my name-day celebration! Here is by gift in return! Tetli! You are vermin! Serve me in hell! Ichtaca! Congratulations on your rank and new concubine! I will leave your member intact for her! Ha-HA!”

Even amid the din of battlecalls and curses, the clash of arms, the clamor of trumpets, the clatter of chariots, and the cries of the wounded, it was the loudest weapon on the battlefield. Troops on the ground stopped, stunned by the sound, looking upward in wonder, forgetting, for a moment, to fight.

Preston was impressed that the gargantuan man could wield the potent elephant gun without being kicked backward by the recoil. Unfortunately, he was holding it like a spline gun, which had a shorter range and sharper drop, and so he was shooting over the heads of his targets. Now, since the platform was crowded with archers and signalmen, missing one man still put a bullet through two or three others, leaving exit wounds larger than bowling balls, or blasting bodies in half, or blowing holes the size of basketball hoops in the wooden platform floor.

Grind’s fierce expression showed that he enjoyed the sensation of endless ammo: he fired and fired again, as fast as his thick fingers could work the trigger. But then he lowered the weapon and scowled. He said something to Preston, whose ears were ringing. Preston did not catch the words. From the expression and gestures, however, the meaning was plain enough: Grind wanted Preston to give him an instantaneous lesson in marksmanship with a high-powered elephant gun.

Preston had been studying the rate of descent of the rescue flotilla, and thought the Tosspot did not have much chance of escape, if she continued to follow the Happy Fortune. The larger, three-ringed sky ship was plunging directly into the line of fire from the archers positioned in ranks around the officer corps. These included man Kumari archers, whose arrows were multiplying in midflight, and exploding on impact with unquenchable, bright fire.

Preston stared in wonder and fear: The Happy Fortune‘s lifting rings for some reason did not quench the Lemurian alchemical arrows this time. Perhaps the approach was too swift, or from too far away. Perhaps for another reason.

Of a sudden, the snowflake-shaped latticework hull of the Happy Fortune was ablaze, and flames jutted from spars and crawled along catwalks.

But the retaliation of the Second Men of the Happy Fortune was terrible. Rank on rank of harquebusiers released their shots all at once, along with engines that looked like onagers. Slicing sheets of spline gun fire ripped through the platform, impaling and slicing faces, bodies, arms and legs; exploding balls of crystal that shot razor-sharp shrapnel and bolts of lightning in every direction followed; jets of fire spouted as if from a dragon’s mouth from another engine shaped like a globe and dangling amidship; springels threw pots of sticky oil mixed with sulfur and white phosphorous among them. Hideous, unquenchable flame erupted in their midst, caressing and clinging to the forms of doomed, fire-soaked men, who ran blindly over the nearest railing, and spun away into the wind like screaming comets.

Preston saw it would be to no avail: The Gargantuans were holding up above their head their child-sized allies, the Watchers, to use their living bodies as shields. The Watchers seemed undismayed. With no change of expression on their strange, large-eyed faces, the little gray men worked the controls on their baldrics, and erected half-unseen bubbles and films of force around them, thickening the air into armor. The hail of glassy death slowed and sagged when it encountered these zones, even though the oil fires still leaked through.

Preston slapped Grind on the shoulder and pointed at the levitation vessels upholding the platform. Grind smiled a ghastly smile and raised the Holland & Holland again. The shots smashed into the blue crystal substance of the hull, which broke and cracked like glass, first of one flying disk, then the next. The third, seeing the danger, erected a shimmering bubble of thickened air around it: this slowed, but did not stop, the overpowered high-bore bullets, but it slowed them enough so that the hulls were only pierced with small holes, not great craters.

Preston pointed again. “There!” The guy wires connecting the platform to the disks were not protected by the air-shimmer. Grind grinned again, and passed the Holland & Holland to Preston. “I cannot hit a wire from here. You do it.”

The thrill of having the weapon back in his hands was electric. The joy in his heart seemed to flood through his body like cleansing fire; his vision seemed somehow sharper than it had been a moment before, his hand steadier. Each shot was a thunderclap of deafness and a mule-kick of recoil. He did not hit the wire with the fire bullet, or the third, but he hit it. Then the next wire, which was further away. Then a third.

Next he turned his eye to one of the vessels Grind had hit, for now bright lights, as if from an electrical short, were flaring inside the semi-transparent hull, and in that light, Preston could see the shadows of the crewmen cast along the sloping bulkheads, and saw the shadow of the conch-shell shaped machine they bent over. He put shots through the shadows and through the machine. That levitation vessel lost lift and fell like a stone: but the guy wires leading back to the platform were still intact. Down the vessel plunged, and its full weight now yanked that corner of the platform awry. The two other vessels on that side had half their guy wires shot off, and the strain on the remaining wires was too great. The other wires snapped with high-pitched, harpstring shrieks. The platform listed to one side, and men started toppling from the deck, arrows and javelins, lanterns and flags like whirling like confetti around them.

The Happy Fortune, ablaze, badly wounded, struck the platform a glancing blow, capsizing it entirely, and throwing two of the remaining three levitation vessels into one another. They shattered like china plates. The remaining vessel issued a beam like a searchlight beam, glittering, and several of the giant officers of the Fifth Men, caught in that light, were free of the tyranny of gravity, and floated to the ground like thistledown. The childlike Eighth Men merely stood midair when the platform dropped from under them, making small adjustments to instruments carried on their belts.

But Preston was watching these events off the stern of the Tosspot, for she was now carried out over the river by the wind. He took a few shots at the hovering little bald men, but the shimmering aura cloaking each midget was protecting them.

“I need that back!” Said Grind with gusto, reclaiming the Holland and Holland. He blasted away at the Fifth Men floating toward the ground. The range was too far. Grind cursed.

Preston’s fingers ached with the loss of the familiar weight of the gun taken once more away from him. But he reminded himself of what the swap had brought, and told himself to snap out of it.

The Happy Fortune was below and ahead of the Tosspot as the wind blew them across the river, southward. She was half hidden beneath the smoke of her burning spars and sails. One of her three lifting rings, trailing debris, came loose from its moorings. The drum and the ring inside it fell away upward into the red clouds of dawn high above, and was lost to sight. Two or three crewmen were still connected to it by lifelines could be seen as tiny struggling insects, limbs writhing, as they entered the upper cloud layer.

Meanwhile, on the rocky southern bank of the rushing river, the Happy Fortune was driven to the ground. She was perched precariously on the rocks of the riverbank. Her keel was snapped like a broken spine, and her timbers were on fire. Four glassy flying disks were settling down upon her, spreading their force-fields like a miasma, so that her rings had no lift.

As the burning sky ship came down, a vast cavalry of gold-painted braves whirling carven and brightly-colored warclubs and mounted on prehistoric birds and beast closed in on one side of the Happy Fortune. An infantry of diamond-studded, black-cloaked, dark-haired men with silvery, shape-changing shields and spears closed in from the other. The foe stormed the fallen skyship. Corsairs were dying in the sudden onslaught.

Preston saw the charred body of tall, sad-eyed Captain Satavaesa falling from the shattered stern to the stony riverbank, his brave peacock-feather headdress drenched in blood. He was still clinging to his burning battleflag, and his broken sword dangled from a lanyard about his wrist. For a moment, he seemed to be moving: but, no, it was only the rocks shifting under him.

The corpse fell into the water, was hurried down the river, and was flung with a spray of white water over the falls. The morning sun struck rainbows from the rising mists.

As if the doom of Captain Satavaesa had been the waited signal for the general assault, now from several quarters of the battlefield on the northern bank, trumpets blared and horns roared, answered by the tattoo of drums and the calls of battle slogans. Preston ran from one rail of the listing ship to the other, clapping binoculars to eyes, his gaze darting wildly from point to point on the battlefield. The enemy high command had just been slain. Who had given the order?

Down now from the cloud layer came not one squadron or two, but the whole fleet. As a man who sees a roof collapse on him, so now Preston saw array of glassy, glittering vessels, rank upon rank, descending with sinister, majestic deliberation.

Preston held his breath. He saw the enemy troops on the move. The reserves on the northern bank were charging into combat, adding their numbers to the decimated berserkers, amazons, and pygmies.

Grind joined him. “My brother is still alive. I recognize his fighting style. He ordered the advance. All the enemy troops are committed now, including the behemoth cavalry. The bridge must be well-enough to hold their weight. Look! The Dogbane’s militiamen and the Siberians veterans under Vanant are retreating into Threno, with the Widow’s Han soldiers falling back in good order behind. The Feugians under Pheleg are making a last stand as rearguard — they will not survive. A glorious thing, to die in battle, your teeth in the enemy’s neck!”

“More glorious to win,” said Preston softly. “It is almost time to release the Swift Death. Almost… a few more moments. Let them get closer … closer …”

At that moment, a levitation disk smote the Tosspot amidships, cracking planks and making the deck heel over. A jagged crack, like a star with many rays, spread across the levitation vessel’s hull with a sharp noise, and an uneven electric whine issued from the unseen machinery within.

Preston was flung headlong over the side.

 *** *** ***