Lost on the Last Continent V


— Lost on the Last Continent —


In the Days of Pangaea Ultima

By John C. Wright

Back to Book Four: Pirates of PangaeaUp to Table of Contents Appendices: Map, Timeline, Names

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

The Diamond Sutra

Book Five: Gods of Pangaea

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Episode 80 The Skirmish on the Sky-Ship

A jagged crack, like a star with many rays, spread across the levitation vessel’s hull with a sharp noise when it rammed the pirate warship Tosspot, and an uneven electric whine issued from the unseen machinery within. The battleship, her prow commingled with the shards of the cracked vessel, now yawed and pitched madly, and began to careen toward the ground.

The deck was yanked out from under his feet, and Preston fell over the railing. The world spun, and nothing but air was beneath him.

And, of course, as his feet left the deck planks, Preston’s ring lit up.

A weird sensation of buoyancy overcame him. The railing of the ship receded as he was carried away into the blue. He was not carried far: a yank on his belt stopped him. Fortunately, Preston had clipped his lifeline to the rail. Now he was trailing after the ship at the end of this line. He felt like a children’s balloon on a string.

Preston drifted in a lazy halfcircle, arms and legs trying to grab the rail or snag the line to no avail. The gunwale of the Tosspot was between him and whatever disaster was happening on deck. He saw above and behind him two more flying disks closing in on the skyship.

He heard the lifting hoop in the aft of the Tosspot whining and laboring, for the three levitation fields of the three strangely-glowing disk vessels trapping her in and forcing her down were clearly interfering with it.

A harsh, unpredictable wind from the sea now blew and sent him spinning lazily. This brought the lifeline connecting him with the gunwale in reach. When he placed his hands on the railing, his magic ring winked out and his weight returned. The line grew taut. He slammed painfully against the ship’s hull.

Preston scrambled over the side as spryly as he could, drawing his steel sword. It was the crucial moment to launch the secret weapon he had so carefully prepared: but what was happening on the battlefield below?

He looked out, and saw little else aside from billowing clouds of smoke from the burning Lemurian army on the north bank, the burning wreckage of the Reprisal, before the gates of Theno, and the burning wreckage of the enemy command platform falling into the river, sweeping any survivors over the falls. Then the bright, saucer-shaped vessels of the enemy closed in, and further blocked his view, closing in on the rolling and listing Tosspot from each quarter.

As Preston came over the railing, he had to brace his feet carefully. The deck was pitched sharply, as if he were at the apex of a steep roof. He saw the that Captain Grind had been flung down the tilting deck by the impact, and luckily smashed into a mast, which he smote with one of the pick-axes from his belt, making himself an anchor to hold to. His corset of bony scales protected him from a cracked spine. Preston was very pleased to see the Holland & Holland was still connected to Grind’s baldric by a lanyard.

The Legionnaires had also been flung from their feet and were piled like ragdolls. Half a hundred men fell and slid across the deck. Dozens grabbed stanchions or lines and kept their feet. But a score of men were pitched across the rail to fall into the rushing water above the fall, or to slam into the rocks of the southern shore.

He saw how the first flying disk near the prow, which had unwisely rammed the Tosspot, was shedding great, curved triangular shards of her hull. The vessel wrestled the Tosspot, trying to force her down while her sails and wings tried to lift her up. A glittering bubble-like field had issued from the hull of the cracked disk. This field spread like molasses across the deck, making the air thick as water.

A second disk was alongside to the port, rising from beneath the ship, also glistering in its coat of syrupy air, catching the skyship in the hems of its forcefield. And a third swooped down to the starboard, shooting out grappling lines directly at Preston. A grappling hook rebounding from his parry with a steely clang; a second hook pierced the deck inches from Preston’s foot. Others clung to the rail to the left and right, or tangled with the rigging overhead.

The three disks were forcing the sky ship’s prow groundward. Raad, at the wheel on the tilting aftdeck, was calling hands to his aid as he wrestled. The youth was trying to bring the prow about, aiming for the spot where the Happy Fortune lay fallen, whose crew was sorely beset.

Hatches dilated on the second disk, the one at the foot of the sloping ramp. Roaring Fifth Men, with warhammers and long-handled Frankish axes, and amber wands hissing with electric death, now strode hugely onto the tilted, careening deck amid the toppled, tangled Latins, and waded among them, slaying. The force field surged about their waists, and held them to the deck, but was over the heads of the Latins, who were choking. No sudden swings were possible inside the field: the giants had to pick men up so that the victim’s head was above the field level before it could be dashed to bits like a watermelon beneath their warhammers. The beak of the axe blade, on the otherhand, could be slowly pressed through breastplate and ribcage to the spine just by applying the weight of a Fifth Man, who were heavier than horses. The amber wands were unimpeded, for they slew at a touch, and any man touching the slain man also died, and so on in a chain of electrocution. A shield might stop the wand as it struck, but woe to the man who parried with an iron spear or steel sword.

The disk behind and above Preston also opened hatched in its hull, and out fell a squad of long-necked Ipotane, armed with spline guns and crystal bladed shortswords and spears. This boarding party slid down bluish rays of antigravity from the disk, flying over Preston’s head to land on the higher side of the sloping deck. There was no field where they were, and the toeless Second Men had to struggle to retain their footing.

The hull of the cracked disk also attempted to dilate open its hatches, but only small ovals and lopsided circles appeared and shut again in the bluish inner hull surface, as apparently the damage to the glassy outer hull was hindering the shape-changing properties of the futuristic alloy. A large opening, like the mouth of a clam, appeared along the cracked disk’s equator, and half the hull began to lift up, revealing the whole interior, cabins and internal machinery and all.

The sky ship bucked and reared as Raad wrestled the wheel: the first levitation disk, with no one at the controls, was flung away from the prow and caught by a cross-wind. It reared up and pitched backward, falling end over end. The crew was clearly visible inside the opened valves of the clam-shaped vehicle, scrambling frantically, their dark eyes intent.

The toppling craft was suddenly caught on the ramming prow of the Tosspot when Raad spun the wheel, bringing her prow sharply up. With the skill of a fencer catching a spinning card in midair on swordpoint, Raad pierced the vessel with the ram.

The levitation vessel shattered like a clay pigeon, and the action of the central engine, as it spun itself to pieces, flung the fragments and debris of the wreck away through the air. Those Eight Men with lifting belts around their naked gray bodies able to abandon ship now floated upward as silently as soap bubbles, peering down with their emotionless, huge eyes. The Eighth Men left behind showed no more expression than would so many ants as they died. First and Second Men, crewing the vessel, covered with blood and clawing the air, were dashed down on the rocks, and the winds snatched their cries and prayers away.

Without this disk riding her nose, the ship was suddenly level.

Preston came forward at a catlike crouch, and lunged, driving the swordpoint of his blade neatly into the lower back of the nearest Second Man invader. The tall one next to him spun, raising a shortsword, which, as it turned out, was shorter than Preston’s longsword. Preston severed the man’s forearm, and neatly caught up the glassy shortsword out of the dismembered hand as it passed over his head.

It was fortunate that he did. When the dozen Second Men turned and discharged their spline guns at him, he whirled the shortsword through parry and counterparry. He had seen and noted many time that the splines in flight magnetically repelled each other. The shortsword had the same property: it tried to yank itself out of his grip, but he held firm, and the deadly shots of crystal javelin passed to his left and right.

Two men rushed him.

Second Men had longer legs than First Men, and closed the distance in a trice, but Preston ran to meet the faster of the two, circling to come at him from the direction opposite the slower foe.

Preston had fenced in college, as a sport, under a coach named Mr. Wainwright, with flimsy foils that had buttons on their points, not blades, so nothing could have prepared him for the savagery of real combat … except, of course, for his training in knife fighting in the military, and the enemies killed with bayonet when he was behind enemy lines in Nanking.

What little fighting he had on the battlefield just now was a matter of heavy, curved swords swung overhand simple, short, meat-clever blows between uneven numbers of men meant to batter shields aside, chop through armor, break bones, and dismember and eviscerate rapidly. Or, if the foe was lightly armored, swordplay was the rapid madness of knife-stabs where shorter blades were better. Preston had seen no longswords. (Even his blade was a poniard meant for a giant, that he had dismounted and affixed to a saber hilt). No one fenced.

So when Preston’s instinctive reaction, remembered from his youth, when another man rushed him, glassy blade raised high, was to double step back out of range, and then executed a textbook lunge, rear foot straight, rear arm down, spine upright, forward leg at a right angel, with blade, swordarm and shoulder in a geometrically straight line.

The swiftness and east of the success came as just as much as surprise to Preston as to his foe, whose deep, sad eyes sudden took on a look of shock. The point of his sword passed smoothly into the attacker’s unprotected armpit, and deep into his chest cavity. It takes remarkably little force for a properly sharpened blade to piece skin: between one or two pounds of force.

He recovered from lunge by pushing off with his forward foot and yanking his rear arm forward. The counter stroke of the struck man fell short, Preston counterparried, driving the crystal shortsword out of line, and sent the point of his longer sword into the wrist of his sword hand. Blood gushed from his armhole of his breastplate, and from his mouth. He looked confused, and fell.

The man behind him struck at Preston with a spear with a crystal head. Preston neatly parried with the shortsword in his left hand, using it like a parrying dagger. Again, the crystal blades repelled each other, so Preston was able to do a rapid lunge and land his point in the other man’s throat.

This man was not wearing a breastplate: Preston, in the same motion, stepped in, turned and drove the shortsword knife-wise into the enemy’s ribs and up into his chest. This was a motion he had practiced on dummies over and over again in Basic Training. He used too much force: the blade shattered, leaving glassy fragments deep in the other man’s body.

Suddenly, strangely, he did not look like an enemy for just a moment, but like a man. Taller and thinner than those from Preston’s day, mottled with skin like a giraffe, dark stripes running beneath the eye and down the cheek like a cheetah, or perhaps a pharaoh.

“Haptoiringa!” He gasped, blood gushing from his throat. Preston’s gift of language told him the poetical meaning of the name: the stars circling the north pole, which never rise nor set, jewels ever constant. “She is in labor. My firstborn child is to be born this day. If you see her…”

The deck shifted again. The man fell awkwardly over the rail, legs over head. Preston gripped the rail with his off hand, letting the hilt of the broken shortsword drop away across the rail, following the slain man down. He raised his blade to meet the next threat.

And there was none.

A jovial gush of laughter, like the laughter of an ebullient god, issued from amidships, halfway between the stumbling Ipotane and the roaring Fifth Men. It was Captain Grind, who now had the Holland & Holland in hand. The first two blasts roared through the circular central area of the opening disk, evidently their bridge, splashing the big-eyed solemn-faced grey dwarves to the four winds. The next four blasts went into and through the seashell-shaped machinery humming and glowing midmost. These were instruments whose meaning Preston did not know, but Grind did. Preston noted with approval that Grind was angling the barrel properly, in order to target the shots correctly for a weapon so much more powerful than a spline gun.

The heads and breasts of the seven or eight gigantic Fifth Men were above the retarding field issuing from the portside disk. Laughing with insane rage, the titans rushed toward Captain Grind, but the thick air slowed their feet as if wading through glue. Huge as they seemed, they were not as large as the elephant and rhino the double rifle was designed to shoot. Chests exploded and heads were dashed into fragments. The gushing blood fountained by the gallons into the air, but then hung in slowly drifting clouds when it soaked through the force field below. The field kept the legs and torsos of the obliterated Fifth Men propped upright as grisly trophies.

The Legionnaires regained their feet, formed a line of shields, while splines shot toward them were slowed by the force field. Then they strode forth into the clearer air, gasping, closed with the boarding party of Second Men, and stabbed them brutally to death with their heavy spears in short order.

Grind raised his hands over head to utter a cry of victory, but at the same moment Raad uttered a cry of warning. The Tosspot fell to the rocks in the middle of the enemy forces, keel groaning, planks snapping.

Preston threw a wild glance across the river. The gates of Theno were open. The foe was pouring in. The city had fallen.

“Abracadabra!” But nothing happened. He had waited too long, and the now the Tosspot had been carried out of the range of the Final Unit. The secret weapon had failed. His plan had come to nothing.

The first of the thousands of enemies surrounding the fallen ship now started climbing the hull.

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Episode 81 Massacred by Morlocks

The smell of blood and sweat, ozone and gunpowder, stung in Preston’s nostrils as the foeman climbed and clambered up the hull of the grounded Tosspot, yowling and roaring.

Two levitation vessels were atop the Tosspot, one to the port and one to starboard, pinning her down with a half-unseen shimmer covering half the deck, which made the air thick and gluey. From them the smell of ozone issued. Both had opened hatches and sent landing parties on the deck, but the deadly double rifle in Grind’s hands, and the discipline of the Third Century legionaries of Rome, had reversed the tide of battle: the vessels irised their hatches shut. Grind had filled the air with gunsmoke. The legionnaires, weapons drenched in red, had filled it with the smell of a butcher’s slaughterhouse.

Arrows and javelin-shaped splines came arching over the gunwale, but only by twos and threes, as the enemy archers and sharpshooters approaching at a quickmarch had not yet formed ranks and let fly their massed volleys.

The ship came to rest after crashlanding on the rocky riverbank with one wing pointed into the air. The other wing was like a ramp made of wooden struts and heavy canvass, resting its wingtip on the soil: up this ramp the enemy rushed.

These were a race from after his time: men as sickly pale as snow with white hair and pink eyes, wearing goggles that darkened when direct sunlight struck them. Some bore a polearm called a zhua tipped with claws rather than blades, which Preston thought looked like giant backscratchers. Some bore pneumatic harpoon-throwers, or extendable pincers like lazy-tongs, or maces set with detachable quills that could lingered in enemy wounds. These quills were spring loaded, and could be fired like short-range dart guns. Each carried a transparent crescent shield made of some hard, synthetic substance. They wore breathing masks, and surrounded themselves with a green fog of gas that made the Romans weep and puke.

“Who the hell are these jokers?” asked Preston, tying a rum-soaked kerchief across his nose and mouth to kill the smell.

“You have not been in our world long,” answered Grind grimly. “Our luck is lost. These are the fiercest among the First Men fighters my cousins have ever mustered: these be the pallid, lamp-eyed Morlocks of the Eight Hundred and Third Millennium. After the Apocalypse of Fire, they dwelt in subterranean vaults beneath the Andes Mountains, and are the ancestors of the Feugians. They enter a hypnogogic state in combat, a battle-trance, and are immune to fear and pain. They take their strength from the flesh of foes they consume.”

Captain Grind took a stance at the spot where the starboard wing came out the deck, at the top of the canvass ramp it formed, and he called fifty of the Legionnaires to form a double rank before him. Ten men under a Decurion were ordered to the center of the deck, as a squad held in reserve. The other twenty, under Preston, were ordered to the rails to repel boarders.

Preston saw that no one could climb up the planks of the hull where the lifting vessels were seated, touching the wheels to the port and starboard just astern of the wing struts, because the force fields were thick as glue at that point, and made the air unbreathable. The aft of the Tosspot was hanging over the riverbank, which, at this spot was a sheer five-foot drop into rushing white water. Preston ordered his men to the prow. He also sent a cabin boy to pass out kerchiefs soaked in grog for the men to tie across their noses.

The attacking troops had no ladders nor grappling hooks with them. But Preston became convinced that they were as ferocious as Grind had said: for the impossible task of climbing the concave wall of a ship’s hull did not daunt them, and no loss of their numbers slowed them. The men were vaulting up on each other’s shoulders like cheerleaders forming a pyramid, or ants using a living bridge to ford a river. They climbed using their clawed polearms, or shot their harpoons into the rigging, and swarmed up the harpoon lines.

The Romans locked their shields in a line along the prow railing, and with heavy, repeated blows of their iron-headed spears dislodged, impaled or broke the helms and skulls of any Morlock reaching the gunwales, while crewmen and cabin boys amidships darted out with cutlass and ax to sever harpoon lines that came across the railing, or chalk-white arms. The Morlocks worked their absurd tongs with deadly accuracy, reaching out ten feet at a thrust to dismember or decapitate a cabin boy, or catch a soldier by neck or shoulder and pull him down.

When the green gas wafted up, Preston sent ten men back amidships so they could vomit in peace, and brought the reserve squad forward, and rotated them ten by ten every few minutes thereafter. The Romans stood glaring down, greaves splashed with blood, chins wet with spew, half-blind with tears, quills from mace-blows lodged on shields or greaves, but their spear arms rising and falling with savage, strong, seemingly tireless blows.

The ten men in reserve, gasping and gagging, started singing hymns and prayers, with the thunder of the endless shots from the Holland & Holland keeping time.

Preston had been given a longbow and quiver by a smirking and sarcastic Grind after the captain discovered that Preston’s Mauser was in the hands of Preston’s woman. With longbow in hand, Preston was perched on the bowsprit, where he could duck behind the wings of the figurehead whenever quills or harpoons darted up at him, or reaching pincers swiped. The figurehead was a painted image of batwinged serpent quaffing a bowl of wine. This longbow was a finer make than anything he had handled while bowhunting: he could not identify the synthetic material of its construction, but it was some sort of smart-metal, or something with a life of its own. The bowstaff murmured and changed very subtly in width and tension when he drew back the string, as it was as easy to hold a draw as with a compound bow with pulleys. He was not as good with a bow as with a rifle, but then again, firing into a mob packed shoulder to shoulder, he could not miss. He would send the cabin boy, whose name was Snotrags, to fetch him more quivers as he got low. He had two hanging around his shoulders at the moment, and another at his hip.

Preston saw that the attackers employed no strategy. Only once, when a group got the idea of using the claws on their polearms to pry planks out of the hull at ground level, was any clever tactic attempted. Preston took the trouble to put an arrow into every man trying it, until such time as the crew in the hold thrust spline gun muzzles out through the holes pried open in the planks, and shoot crystal spears into face or breast of the Morlocks.

A sudden wind from the sea came up, blowing along the river channel and cleared the greenish gas from the eyes of the legionnaires. The Decurion called out “Deus vult!” The legionnaires cheered.

For a moment, the battle was in their favor. Every albino soldier flung from the railing fell twenty feet or so onto the heads of his thickly-packed comrades.

The curtain of gas that hid the larger scene from view was parted. Preston saw that Raad had been trying to reach the Happy Fortune when she was driven to the ground: he had been successful enough. The two vessels were surprisingly close. There were men fighting on and throughout the rigging and latticework of the larger ship, and the Second Men moved with greater speed and grace than the First Men, and were holding the greater numbers back.

A company of Captain Roc’s gold-eyed long-lived Methuseleans was also with the Siberians and long-necked Second Men defending the Happy Fortune, but where or how Captain Satavaesa had brought them aboard, Preston did not know.

The moment was short lived. Preston spared a glance toward Captain Grind. The deafening thunder of the Holland & Holland had not ceased nor paused, and the ramp formed by the wing was littered with dead and dying. And yet the weight of numbers favored the Morlocks: the pallid men, no matter how many the elephant gun struck down in on place, rose up in another, until they were shield to shield with the legionnaires, exchanging blows with pilum and harpoon. Crewmen with axes were chopping away at the struts holding the wing to the gunwale, but Preston saw it was in vain.

For the dead were now piled in ranks and pyramids enough to act as a ramp of corpses, and the exhausted and outnumbered legionnaires, legs coated with blood from wound large or small, could not keep them back. The flying squad went to reinforce them, and, for a moment, the number of bone-white goggle-eyed faces rising up out of the greenish smog at the starboard wing was not greater than the corsairs could throw down.

At the same time, the immensity of his own folly and blindness crashed into his awareness, as a mass of Morlocks came clambering over the stern, not the prow, sliding between the narrow space separating the deck from the discoid levitation vessels hovering above it: for the force fields issuing from the disks did not choke men wearing breathing masks, and the same action of the fields that prevented a rapid climb also prevented a rapid fall. The attackers had merely climbed the sloping hull like flies on a wall. Preston shouted commands, and his men fell back to the poop deck, where the wheel was, and stood back to back. Grind likewise called his men there, and the crewmen with their cutlasses, the cabin boys with their knives.

A shadow fell across Preston. He looked up. Levitation vessels had come to rest directly above the Tosspot, and were extruding semi-transparent force fields down across the decks, pinning the ship in place, and beginning to smother the men. Preston swung on a line, kicking a man sharply in the head as he passed, to land amid the circle of legionnaires, and he felt the air grow viscous as water, then as mud, hardening around his limbs and in his lungs.

The Morlocks came over the railings at the stern and at the starboard, moving slowly, sluggishly, in the semisolidified air, their masks hissing with effort. The legionnaires drew their shortswords and the Morlocks flourished their pincers and quill-maces.

The legionnaires were surrounded.

A slow, hideous fight now began, more like a rugby scrum than a clash of arms, with men pushing blades through the impeding air, slowly penetrating armor and piercing flesh, sometimes with two or more men, panting, gasping, and leaning on the lead man’s blade to thrust it home in nightmarish slow motion.

Preston, with his longer sword and greater height, could lean over and around the Romans, passing his blade over a friendly shoulder, and between two shields, to find an enemy throat. But in the retarding field, the blade felt as massive as a two by four, and even small motions left him gasping and sweating. Meanwhile, the enemy pincer-blades on their extending arms reached likewise overhead or between shields and struck slowly but surely.

Scores of Romans fell. The eighty men were sixty, then forty, then just a small knot standing back to back, fighting ever onward, grimly and without hope. And the Morlocks still had a thousand more men crowding around the hull, trying to climb aboard and slay all.

The Holland & Holland held back the attackers for a brief time. Even though slowed, the massive bullets still had enough momentum to pierce armor and inflict deep wounds, and the double rifle never ran out of ammo. Again and again fired the captain, until all ears were numb, since the sound of the report was that much louder in the thicker air trapped in the force fields.

Because of this, Preston did not hear the shouts of alarm coming from the Morlocks nor the shouts of victory roaring from the throats of the Romans. He was so intent on stabbing and slaying, so intent on drawing in the unbreathably thickened air, and so near to blacking out with so many flashing metallic spots crowing his dimming vision, that the sudden release of tension, the sudden wash of leaping red light across the scene, the sudden blast of heat falling across his back and shoulders, was his first hint that the battle had shifted.

He looked up. One of the levitation vessels was covered with a coating, clinging flame like napalm. The force fields, to be sure, slowed the descent of the liquid flame, but a mass soaking the upper part of the force field merely dripped down to the hull, and the crystal surface cracked and blackened with the heat.

A second beam of flame, like the gush of a firefighter’s hose, if such a hose shot a sluggish goo that ignited upon exposure to air, arched through the sky and struck a second levitation vessel, and then a third. The fire was coming from the wreckage of the Happy Fortune.

The bass globular engine of Greek fire had somehow survived the wreck, and the few remaining Ipotane gunners had restored it to use. Like the Tosspot, she had been swarmed by Morlocks from the Ninetieth Myriad A.D. Unlike the Tosspot, a wall of flame surrounded the Happy Fortune as a moat of fire, and those foes trapped within were being cut to pieces by the crystal swords of the Ipotane veterans, or falling under Methuselean pickaxes, and the hordes outside were driven back step by step was the flames spread.

Meanwhile the vessels above the Tosspot now withdrew, taking up their suppression fields, moving out of the range of the Happy Fortune’s engine shooting Greek Fire.

With the levitation vessels no longer suppressing the action of the Tosspot, she shook from stem to stern and lifted into the air. Raad, at the wheel and surrounded by bloodstained, grinning legionnaires, called on the crew to affix lifelines. Then he heeled the deck so sharply, that everyone not tied down was swept into the air and tumbled away. Morlocks fell, for each man scrambled for his own advantage, and men pried each other away from handholds trying to grip them. It was a horrid sight, like seeing crabs in a bucket who, by trying to climb those who try to climb out, pull all down together. Whereas the Romans linked arms, and those tied down saved those who were not.

By the time Preston’s eyes were free of black sparks, and his ears had stopped ringing, and he could take in the scene around him: As suddenly as that, the fight was over, and the decks were awash with blood.

Victory it was, but the victory cheer raised by the Latins was weak. Their voices were shockingly few. Of the hundred legionnaires who had seen that dawn, less than thirty remained alive, twenty still able to stand and fight, none unwounded.

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Episode 82 War in the Wind

Raad spun the wheel. The Tosspot traveled the short distance across the battlefield to the wreckage of the Happy Fortune. There was no way to bring the great globular flamethrower aboard, but the surviving crew and soldiers of the corsairs swarmed up lines and gangplanks: graceful Second Men, long-haired Siberians, and a group of banshee-voiced, gold-eyed Methuseleans in leathery cloaks of their own shed skin.

Over Preston’s objection, a squad of men stayed behind to man the engine of Greek fire, whose murderous beam of clinging flame would keep the flying disks at bay, long enough for the Tosspot to ascend into clearer air. Preston saluted the solemn-eyed Second Men gunners remaining behind to perish amid the burning boards, and smoke, and green fog. The Romans clashed spear on shield.

The Tosspot passed above the clouds of green mist which surrounded the Morlocks, and Preston had a clear view across the river.

Enemy troops were thronging the tunnel leading into Threno, and only a few desultory boulders, splines, or buckets of flaming pitch were dropped down from the shelflike tiers above. The attackers at the gate, surge after surge, were thrusting their way within against some great resistance.

Preston realized that the rearguard inside the city itself, as planned, had abandoned the first level, drawing up ladders, blocking trapdoors, filling stairwells with rubble. He clapped the binoculars to his eyes: smoke was pouring up from windows in the lowest reach of the great vertical city. The hordes crowding the great doors were a confusion of rear ranks charging into front ranks retreating to escape the flame. It had been a shorter time that it had seemed. The foe had made little progress. It was bad, but not half so bad as Preston feared.

The foe had not reached the Widow’s Tower, near the middle levels of the city, equally distant from attacks from above or below. They were not even near. Preston sighed with relief. Not only was the Lethal Unit housed there in the shape of a stone cut with glowing trigrams, Cynisca was there.

However, the Widow had ordered the counter attack: flags commanding the charge were flying gallantly from the mast of the Yu-Shenzhou, the Heavenly Boat of Jade, her flagship. In her wake were smaller vessels, sloops and raiders, all diving from their protected perches.

All battleships of the Corsairs sailed forth, swooping in the still air, and spreading sails and wings to turn their falls to forward momentum: Here came the Stormwolf with her rakishly cut sails and vicious three-pronged ramming prow like a giant’s trident; the Nightshade low, dark and swift, with four lifting disks arranged in a line along her keel; and the Cockatrice whose golden prow equipped with an array like the eye of a cyclops: these was a battery of lasers and lenses concocted by Nug-Ma’at, the sorcerer-engineer from the time of the Dark Conquerors.

Like goslings flying in V-formation in the goose’s wake, smaller gunships and yawls, manned by grinning cutthroats, dove into battle after the main battleships of the corsairs, and spread their wings.

They passed lower over the attacking forces low enough to break the lines of the enemy, and send them in small groups scurrying this way and that. It was strange to Preston to see an aerial combat take place so low to the ground, at such low speeds, and without gunpowder. Crew aboard the ships, passing along at mere feet above the ground, could open a hatch in a lower hull or hanging gondola, strike out with pike or pole-axe, arrow, dart or spline, and then laugh at any return fire bouncing from the sturdy wooden hull. It was as if armored wagons were rolling across the field, or flying towers, and masses of archers perched there were free to rain death down on any flank or rear as the battleship moved from point to point freely.

The levitation disks descended rapidly, wave after wave, outnumbering the corsairs ten to one. There were some three score of the disks were large as baseball diamonds, with towers rising from their hulls, or battlements circling their rims, or gondolas carrying war engines beneath: Grind called these battlecruisers. The smaller disks numbered in the hundreds, and were armed with harpoon cannons and adhesion fields, used to suppress the antigravity effects of the lifting rings. Grind called these corvettes. The dreanought hung above the battle in the air, aloof, a flying island large enough to carry whole regiments of infantry and cavalry.

The corsairs held their own during the first wave that descended upon them. The Stormwolf pierced a corvette disk ship at high speed, ramming it, and shattering it like a glass plate. Men and equipment fell cartwheeling down to earth, while child-sized shapes wafted away like thistledown, arrows flung vainly after them rebounding from invisible bubbles of solidified air.

The Nightshade also rammed a corvette, but the hoop in the levitation vessel’s rim did not break, so that its great weight hindered the prow of the ship. Frantic marines were chopping with axes to release the heavy debris. But three other disks hove to, throwing out magnetic beams and grappling hooks, holding the Nightshade in place while a battlecruiser dove down. From the battlecruiser issued a squad of Fifth Men, leading berserkers of Ys and spearmen with fiery lances from Lemuria. They fought a boarding action with the savage Zealanders under Captain Dogbane. The fur tunics of the Zealanders were useless against savage talons or burning tridents, but they were proof against electric shocks. These black-clad islanders broke the amber wands of the Fifth Men with their wooden clubs, hamstrung the giants with their tomahawks, and tossed them over the side. In retaliation, the Lemurians lit the sails afire, and blasted the lifting wheels free of their housing with explosive arrows. The Nightshade fell a thousand feet into the sea, carrying her attacking craft with her. She was lost with all hands.

The Yu-Shenzhou was the largest of the corsair vessels. She was shaped like a catamaran, with two great hulls to either side, and with a platform between where troops were mustered. The figureheads port and starboard were carved and lacquered countenances of tiger and dragon, jaws gaping. The Vengeful Widow had not just cannibalized lifting rings from downed levitation disks, but also the force field generators, which she could use as unseen armor, or use to grapple fleeing craft. Preston saw her swoop up to meet a battlecruiser, which the Yu-Shenzhou snared with a dozen harpoon guns and grappling irons, drawing her prey into the space between the two jutting hulls. Han marines swung across on lines, whooping, or hooked onto the enemy hull by means of a beaked bridge or gangplank called a raven. They broke into the tower held on the battlecruiser’s back by means of pickax, bore, and battering ram.

Two great battlecruisers and countless corvettes thronged the Yu-Shenzhou, the most deadly ship in the air, and threw grappling hooks and harpoons into her hulls like Lilliputians binding Gulliver. The Yu-Shenzhou fired out harpoons of her own, like a squid reaching out with welcoming tentacles, and spread her forcefield around all the craft near her.

The Yu-Shenzhou reared up magnificently, like a pair of killer whales breaching the water, and then dove, her lifting rings reversed and whining with strain. She was directly above the towers of Threno at that moment. Too late, the crews of the levitation vessels, large and small, tried to sever their grappling lines and escape the adhesive field surrounding the giant pirate ship.

But then the Vengeful Widow’s vessel was too near to Threno, and bright flame flickered like the lightning flares of hell beneath the glassy hulls of the disks, instantly killing all who were not First Men.

Elsewhere, the air battle went against the corsairs. Preston saw two smaller sky-ships, sloops with twenty man compliments, boxed in by half a dozen corvettes, lose all lift. The ships crashed to the ground amid the newer troops that were still streaming across the river. Dark robed men with jet black hair lit the downed skyships on fire, and cut the survivors to bits with weapons that looked like long flowing ribbons of steel.

Then the second and third waves came down among the corsair sky ships, and the air was filled with gleaming crystal disks, moving with eerie silence.

Meanwhile more of reserves were pouring across the bridge of pontoons. This race looked like a mix of Chinese and Russian, with sallow skin, slanted eyes and flowing hair as black as jet, but also being rangy, tall and hatchet-faced, with sharp noses and hawkish features. They were armed with curious, shape-changing weapons of smart metal, and wore robes of darkest black, set with glittering sequins and crystals, so that each man shimmered rainbows when the light glanced from the rippling folds. Their officers stood in unwheeled chariots carried on mechanized bipods.

Preston limped up to Grind, who was being bandaged by an inexpert cabin boy, the ship’s surgeon being dead. Preston said, “It may not be too late to save the city. I just need to get in range of the Lethal Unit to give the command.”

Grind pointed, “It is too late by far! Let us take this ship and flee to some new hideout. I have a stronghold in a place called Skull Island, to the northwest of Tethys, where no trade routes run, and no patrols seek.”

“There is too much air cover. The city is not yet fallen.”

“She will fall. Look! The Tamon-ten of the Two Hundredth Century, called the Dark Conquerors, are those men closing in on the city. They belong to my accursed brother, Tlatoc. They are armed with chakram, katar, and urumi, fearsome discus, punching-dirk and whip-sword, which can form whatever shape the need requires, forged of the vampiric, living metal! They worship the dim, blind and mindless Outer Gods, and each adept has seven demon-minds lodged in his soul: therefore, mesmeric rays, soporific dust, and chanted charms alike do them no hurt! See their numbers! Their glittering coats fend off the lasers their grandfathers once used, and their fathers forgot how to make. Most likely ’twill fend off the Swift Death!”

“Doubtful.” Preston spoke in a soothing voice, hoping to calm the fear he saw in the Fifth Man’s eye. Perhaps he prattled a bit: “The Swift Death, whatever the heck it is, is not anything as crude as electromagnetic energy. It works on a subatomic level, but why there is not a hydrogen-bomb explosion each time, I don’t know. Love to see how that thing ticks — it would make a great space drive.” Preston brought out his binoculars, and peered through them. “Why aren’t they, and everyone, dressed in a standardized uniform, with the best weapons your Empire can forge?”

“Surely you know these are showmen.”

Preston answered with a swearword of disbelief, jerking his binoculars down.

“Gladiators!” Grind nodding ponderously. “The audiences want to see them in their quaint costume armed with exotic, forgotten weapons. There has never been a battle like this: only Threno, only the City of Swift Death, is immune from conquest by the Fifth Men, the Mighty Ones. We do not maintain regular companies of First Men. They are slaves. They fight and die for our amusement, nothing more! Surely you knew that!”

Preston answered with another swearword.

“No doubt we are,” Grind allowed nodding. “Gladiators were sent against Threno last time. That is why most of our men are carrying their traditional weapons. We can get no better. And the gladiators who routinely prevail against all others are those: The men of the time of the Dark Conquests, when the earliest attempts by First Men to speak with the dead by time-energy manipulation ended in catastrophe. How will you meet them on the battlefield? How will you prevail? The plan you outlined rested on a swift victory, before troops so invincible could be deployed. We have no trick, no weapon left to use! Even you were not able to convince the Swift Death to bite First Men!”

“Not the men themselves, no. The Lethal Unit and I had a long talk about that. Very boring, talking to machines, but I was able to program a subroutine into it, one its logic-chopping ninny brain would accept. I told the Vengeful Widow it would work. God help us if it doesn’t!”

The centurion, an old, thickset fellow with a nose broken more than once, shouted to the remaining legionnaires: Clamo, aniculae! And they answered back in a choir: Domine, adiuva nos!

Grind pointed, “Nor will Swift Death smite beasts. We have often wished it to clear out rats and bugs from Threno, and it will not. Are yon behemoths not the same?”

Preston saw that the enemy, at long last, had committed all its forces. The rearguard that had been standing all this time before Xurac Phthia was in motion: thousands of prehistoric mounts in cavalcade were crossing the river.

On the bridge gigantic and terrifying birds of prey nine feet all, devil-eyed, plumed like ostriches but bald like vultures, with gold-painted bowmen or lancers on their backs, feathers adorning their weapons and headdresses. Behind came massive ground sloths, twenty feet long, with pairs and trios of cavalrymen in canopied howdahs atop. Other riders mounted lumbering and ungainly beasts. Each was like wooly rhino topped with a hippo head, but sporting the comically drooping nose of a tapir. The pontoon bridge dipped under their weight, and the knees of the beasts were awash.

The giant bird was called Phorusrhacid, Eremotherium was the multi-ton ground sloth, and the ungulate was called Toxodon. Preston knew the Cenozoic creatures from his amateur studies under paleontologists his institute had subsidized. (Preston realized grimly that these were men themselves dead so long ago that they would, by now, be fit subjects for their own science. That included the great Dr. Andrews, who would have happily given up a world to see what Preston was witnessing here).

But these were not the mightiest of the beasts of Pangaea: Three great brontosaurs were wading the river, pushing through the white water with ponderous dignity. The flanks of the titanic beasts that faced away from the waterfalls were awash with spray. Each bore a platoon of riders on towers on its back.

These behemoth riders wore plumed war-bonnets as fantastic as those of Vegas showgirls, half-cloaks of colored porcupine quills, padded tunics woven with slabs of wood or slats of copper protecting back or breast. In their hands were lances, javelins, slings, bolas, and oxgoads edged with obsidian blades. They were a dun people, but their war paint was canary yellow and mingled with thick gold dust, so the warriors glittered like statues come to life.

The first of the great beasts was already on the northern shore of the river, and nothing could save any troops caught outside the walls from being torn, trampled, or run down and snapped in two. This cavalcade of monsters, birds and sloths and thunder lizards, was unstoppable, and Preston wondered why they had been held for last.

“You are aghast at the sight of the riders? And rightly so! They come from Challenger’s Plateau in South America, the Golden Realm called Eldorado or Elelin, from the seven hidden cities so desperately sought by the Spanish explorers in your time.” Grind sighed. “They are the Imperial Janissaries! Tletl Tohtli commands them! This cavalry could break Threno by itself: our only hope was to win victory before they entered the fray. Now all is lost!”

“All is not lost!” Answered Preston. “Get me in range! Sail toward the city.”

“Sail toward death!” roared Grind in answer. “Look to the war in the air! Our skyships are overwhelmed by the air fleet of the Watchers! Do you think we can battle our way through a solid mass of Watcher vessels with a mere twenty fighting men?”

“We have the Siberians and Methuseleans who survived the Happy Fortune….”

“Not enough! I am giving the order to put about! To flee!”

“Wait, Captain! For the love of God, belay that order, man!”

“Wait? For what? To die? I must live long enough to kill my one surviving brother, and I have not done that yet! Why else would a Mighty One of highest birth cavort and conspire with filthy pirates and firstlings, eh?” Grind uttered an ugly laugh. “I had hoped to see him in this fight. But he is not seen, and the battle is theirs!”

Preston reached up to lay a hand on the giant man’s elbow. “You will have your chance! We will all have our chance! The battle is ours! Look at the beasts! Look at the clouds!”

Grind put his spyglass to his eye and followed where Preston’s finger, shaking with joy, was pointing.

*** *** ***

Episode 83 The Seventh Men Strike

The clattering corset of bone and shell Captain Grind Goldtooth wore in fight had been too badly damaged by Morlock harpoons and tong-blades. He had cut the shoulder straps and tossed it aside. Now he stood in the chill of the early morning wind, torso and breast wrapped in bandages, swathed in his blood-red captain’s cloak.

Preston’s face, for the first time since that day’s sunlight touched it, was now bright with hope. Grind looked where Preston was pointing, and saw the beasts, ridden by the plumed and gold-painted Elelin, the braves of El Dorado. He saw brontosaurs large as clipper ships, moving like ponderous swans in the water; lumbering toxodons huge as wooly rhinoceri with drooping tapir noses; mammoth ground sloths who could rear up and overtop giants, with sleepy eyes and cubit-long badger-claws sharp as sickles; running flocks of nightmare birds taller than ostriches and faster than a galloping horses whose kick could disembowel a man in one blow.

The brontosaurs were climbing the river bank, and now were among the soldiers, trampling them like grapes in a wine press, so that the flanks and feet of the lumbering behemoths were splashed with blood.

“So? These are the beasts of the El Dorado. Tletl Tohtli, the Fire Falcon, commands the Elelin. He is from a rival clan, the Nagual. He regards the corsairs of Threno as my fighting slaves, because it would never occur to him that I bow the knee to a Firstling woman. No doubt he rejoices to see our soldiers trampled and gored.”

Preston yanked the spyglass out of Grind’s wide, iron-studded leather belt, and proffered it to him. “Look closer, Captain. Those beasts have thrown their riders. The men they are trampling are theirs, not ours!”

Astonished, Grind raised the spyglass to his eye. Even as he watched, a pair of giant sloths closed in to the torso of a brontosaur, tore with their teeth the surcingle holding the tower atop the dinosaur, and, when the tower toppled, pried the wreckage open, to fall upon the golden warriors with their terrible hooked claws. The brontosaur, meanwhile, was trampling Morlocks, who could not fire plumes of green gas from tanks on their backs high enough to annoy the nostrils of the sauropod.

In another place, the few surviving charioteers of Irem were wrestling with their unruly steeds, who reared and plunged and kicked their chariot-poles to pieces.

The behavior of the gas was as treacherous as that of the animals. The Morlocks gathered near the gates of Threno, unafraid of the spreading fires and billowing clouds of black smoke, had been spraying gas into a great cloud into the doors, and around the base, hoping for the vapor to enter windows or wind up stairwells. But, instead, unexpected gusts of wind carried the gas back down the slope of the riverbank toward the pontoon bridge, to vex the Dark Conquerors. When the Dark Conquerors divided their lines, and quickmarched to the left and right to avoid the gas, the wind, likewise, divided the cloud and sent it after them.

Preston on tiptoe reached and pushed the lens of Grind’s spyglass higher, to point at the levitation vessels of the Eighth Men. They were still crowded thick as snowflakes in a snowfall, but now they were swirling and yawing as if the snowfall had become a winter tempest. There was something swirling around them, throngs of diving shapes, like crows harassing an eagle to drive it off. The soaring shapes had tapered wings like a swift or a falcon, but were otherwise were tall and slender men. This was merely the vanguard of a large squadron: Flying in low over the highlands to the north of the high canal wall, came squadron on squadron, cloud on cloud of winged men in their thousands. Grind howled with pleasure.

The sail-driven airships of the corsairs, normally outmaneuvered by the swifter motor-driven levitation vessels of the Watchers, held the advantage now, for the windstorm was aiding them deliberately and dramatically.

Sudden downdrafts would strike the upper hull of a Watcher battlecruiser offcenter, and sent it toppling end over end, or an equally sudden shaft of gale-force wind would fill the sails of a trapped pirate sloop, and rush her into clear skies, while her pursuit struggled with adverse headwinds, crosswinds, and turbulence.

Other winds, playful or malign, would raise dust from the battlefield not far below up into a vortex, and surround a levitation vessel, or pull down fogs from the cloud layer above, reaching like eerie, long-fingered hands, to engulf the enemy flotillas. In this confusion of cloud and wind, the coordinated maneuvering needed to enclose a skyship simultaneously from all sides to force her down was impossible.

“The Seventh Men have come to our rescue!” Grind exclaimed. “But why? They are the fiercest foes of skypirates, and prey on us as often as we on them, stealing each other’s plunder! What are they doing here?”

“It is far earlier than I had hoped,” said Preston. “Months earlier. A generation earlier!”

Grind lowered the spyglass. “It is foolishness. The Empire has been trampling the winged men for decades now, driving them ever farther into the Desolate Barrens. The Eighth Men in their flying disks have gravitational magnetism induction coils thirty feet in diameter: the coils in the finger rings of the Seventh Men are less than an inch across.”

“The winged men seem to be doing okay right now.”

“They can create minor gravity disturbances, by passing close beneath the vessels, or, when they act in concert, conjure the winds. But as soon as the Watcher crews recover from surprise, their vessels can adjust their magneto-gravity wave frequency, to set up a mutually destructive interference and…” He took the spyglass from his eye, and looked down at Preston’s upturned face, and frowned, and said, “The flying magic of the Eighth Men can overcome the flying magic of the Seventh Men.”

Preston said impatiently, “I know what antigravity is!”

“Really?” Grind squinted one eye. “What is it? What is the quantum derivation of the antigraviton cascade? How is it generated?”

“Uh… by magic?”

Grind displayed his shiny gold teeth. It was not a grin of pleasure. “The dreadnought has a pseudo-neutronium lens to cast a nullification beam from circumferential induction coils linked in parallel to collapse any such counter-gravity effects at a distance: I was serving my lazy brother’s term in the House of Speakers when the cost of building the damned thing was debated. As soon as it is spun up to speed, the Seventh Men will be swatted from the sky …”

“But the flying disks are scattered now! Our ships are pulling back toward Threno, unmolested, and the Winged Men have called a wind into their sails to speed them on their way!”

Grind said nothing. A look of suspicion on Preston’s face hardened into anger.

“You meant to run from the first!” Preston accused.

A look of dark cynicism gathered wrinkles about the piglike eyes and long lipless mouth of the Fifth Man. “You know the history of Threno. One generation of pirates is killed off by fighting men loyal to the empire, but then they, and any other escaped firstling slave seeking sanctuary in the one place no afterling can follow, become the next generation. This is the time for this generation to pass: I do not want my ship, my men, me, to pass with it. Before you came, I buried my gathered wealth on Skull Island, to the far north of the Sea of the Sea-Crone. It is the hour when the hag of reality calls you away from the drinking feast of false hopes. No one can defeat the Empire.”

“Victory is an inch away! Give the damn order!”

“This confusion is momentary: we can use it to escape.”

Preston was angered. “What the hell? You were the one asking me to release the Swift Death before the enemy were all gathered on the north bank!”

Grind half-lowered his eyelids, stony-faced, almost hiding the look of shame that was there. “One last departing blow. A farewell gesture. I thought Tlatoc might be among them.”

“Who?” The name sounded vaguely familiar.

“I told you my brothers were betrayed to the Grand Inquisitor, tortured and killed because we denounced the worship of our ancestors in hell?”

“You said all but one.”

“Tlatoc is that one. My eldest brother. He betrayed us. Now he wears the clan emblems of another clan, and wears the elk horn of the Nagual.” The huge, dark giant grimaced wryly. “The Seventh Men have been allies and subordinates of the Empire since the time of the Great Starvation. They would not dare turn away from the Empire! My nation, the Achto, control the First Men, just as Ozomahtli the Third Men, and Tohtli the Seventh Men. The Tohtli are far fiercer in their decimations and genocides than any Achto.” He waved his hand at the sight of falcon-winged men who were stooping and diving through the ranks of owl-winged men rising on the thermals above Xurac Phthia. “This is some sort of trick, curse my soul! Why should I believe the Winged Men have turned?”

At that precise moment, a tall, thin shape, with a gargoyle mask and glittering lenses over his eyes, fell down from blue above, landing on the bowsprit, which he gripped with his toes. Great purple and blue falcon wings fluttered and luffed in the wind, and, with an elegant swirl of motion, closed around him like a cloak, hiding his form from neck to heels, making his sparse frame seem even thinner than it was. There stood he, slender and deadly as an upright sword balanced on its pommel, and the lenses flashed in the dawn-light as he lowered his head toward Captain Grind.

“You should believe what is seen and what is not seen. What is seen is that the princes of phratry Achiyalabopa strike the craven men of phratry Daramulum and tear their wings in midflight, that they smite the ground and perish in the dirt, the most shameful death the noble winged men know! What is not seen is that the great spirit of crawling chaos, whom we Ascenders serve, has breathed chaos upon the Empire of Tethys.

“The greater part of the air vessels of the Eighth Men was dashed to pieces by the Last Immortal on his death day: from our towers and aeries in the Impious Mountains, our princes saw the strange lights of that day of wrath, and saw fires gleaming among the peaktops from afar.

“The greater part of the slaves of the Fifth Men have roused themselves in a great mutiny, from the iron peaks of Orogeny beyond the Mountains of Woe, and south to the Cold Wastes, all the lands are aflame, the thralls in arms, and the serfs march on the cities. A prophet has arisen among them, named Lambswool of the Lake of the Light, who speaks of the one Most High God, unbegotten and alone and undying, greater than all the gods of the air and the waters, hilltop and hellpit!

“His throne is fixed, unmoving, at the Ouroboros Point, where all timespace issues forth and into which it shall return! His footstool is the established earth! His canopy is the heaven above the starry heavens! From his throne, he speaks a word that cannot be unspoken: that no man shall bow the knee to idols hereafter, and all men are kin.”

He doffed his gargoyle mask to speak, and pushed the goggles up on his brow. Preston at first did not recognize the thin-faced nobleman, since his glittering eyes and his flushed, ecstatic features were elevated by some strange spirit. His voice was higher, stronger, more musical than it had been when Preston previously met him. It was Prince Cucuio.

Preston had been told that the Winged Men entered an altered state of consciousness when they flew, intoxicated by the excess adrenaline and other hormones granting their wings the superhuman strength needed to hoist a man-sized mass aloft. Now he saw it: it was as if Cucuio had two personalities.

Cucuio gestured toward the battlefield. “The Third Men, under their new Archoness, Lady Sinhika, convinced my brothers and cousins, and all their vassals and mighty men of valor, to join. They will prevent the Empire from escaping the north shore. All are gathered where you wished them to be, Colonel Lost! Now is the time to strike! Now!”

His eyes had a magnetism, his voice a charisma, Grind could not resist. Captain Grind bellowed out the order to Raad, “Hard about and head toward Threno with all sail! Prow down four from level flight! Look lively, you dogs! Raise every accursed scrap of sail!”

Cucuio smiled thinly. “The wind is mine.” And when he raised his hand, a vast gale buffeted the Tosspot, and she began to move, gaining speed as the frantic sailors, slipping along the blood drenched decks, raised more sails on groaning masts.

*** *** ***

Episode 84 Death of the Dark Conquerors

The Tosspot sailed rapidly above the River of Sluggish Death, high above her own rippling shadow streaming along the water surface, making her way back toward Threno. Preston looked over the rail.

The Seventh Men, together with the sky ships of the corsairs, had broken the lines of the besieging infantry. The Dark Conquerors and Morlocks and the dismounted men of El Dorado were falling back, unable to face the jets of gas or explosive pellets shot from the leg-weapons of passing Winged Men.

Now Han and Romans were issuing from rocky ground to the left and right of the city, unexpected reinforcements, which suddenly closed in on unprotected flanks.

The tunnels through which they marched had not existed four days ago. A relatively brief session between Preston and the literal-minded Lethal Unit had made it possible. Tunnels were delved from sewer beneath the city base to strategic points among the larger rocks and rubble mounds gathered up and down the riverbank.

The engineers among the Corsairs, armed with nothing but spray-bottles of whale oil and surveyor’s diopters on tripods, were able in mere hours to dissolve bedrock in long, glassy-smooth bores wide enough for four men to march abreast. The remotely controlled motes, swarming in the “first order energy source” of whale oil, were able to operate beyond the normal broadcast range of the Lethal Unit. The tunnels broke the surface beyond the semicircle of skulls that marked the thousand yard distance the Swift Death could strike. The Conquerors and Morlocks were caught unawares.

In addition to sword and shield and spear, the Corsairs from the tunnels carried torches and lamps.

The last remnant of the troglodytes of Catalhoyuk and berserkers of Ys still on the battlefield were beset by Methuseleans, and cut to pieces. Any Naacal shield maiden who threw down her arms was bound hand and foot in her own baldric and swordbelt by the Zealanders and carried back in the dungeons of Threno through the new tunnels.

The enemy still had the advantage of numbers and discipline. The Conquerors and any Elelin beastlords who had escaped or slain their mounts now rallied at the riverbank near the bridge head. The Conquerors, living weapons furled, were beginning to retreat along the pontoon bridge. The Conquerors in their glittering black cloaks moved so gracefully they seemed to glide. The Elelin, covered in the blood of the monsters they had raised and tamed, stumbled or limped, dazed. The Morlocks stood in ranks as rearguard, unmoved by the gas attacks of the Seventh Men.

Massive slugs now rose from the white waters of the rushing river. They heaved their huge bodies up onto the bridge, crushing men and coating them with scalding acids.

Preston saw the scene of horror clearly as his ship passed overhead. The weapons of the Dark Conquerors were made of a liquid metal that could solidify itself into shape of shield or blade, as needed. With inhuman calm and dancer’s poise the black-cloaked warriors slashed the towering slug monsters with steel ribbons that could unfold to three yards or more, flexible blades writhing like living snakes. Or their shapechanging weapons formed into wickedly sharp one-pronged gauntlets. Other Conquerors whirled their weapons into discus shapes and threw. The spinning discus blades sang through the air, banking and turning of their own accord. Any thrown disk that missed its target returned to the Conqueror’s hand. The wounded slugs silently writhed their stubby horns and tossed their oozy, faceless heads, while rips and tears in their soft substance dripped dark fluids.

But more, then more and larger of the soft, voiceless monsters rose suddenly from the waters, and clambered onto the pontoons, while others took the guy ropes lashing the bridge segments together in their lipless mouths. Rearing and plunging all in concert, the slug monsters set the whole bridge to rocking. The masts on the north and south banks of the river bent and began to pull free of their moorings.

The Dark Conquerors of A.D. 200,000 began cavorting oddly, limbs jerking in convulsions, heads thrown back, lips frothing. No cause was visible from this distance, except, perhaps, Preston thought he glimpsed a wisp of vapor or strange vibration issuing from mouth and eyesockets. When he adjusted the focus on his binoculars and looked again, the wisps were gone.

When spasms ended, each confused warrior would stare with blank eyes around him, as if waking suddenly from a deep dream, but then a look of shock and horror would contort his features.

“What is that?” muttered Preston, “It looks like rock and roll dancing.”

Grind overheard. “The entities possessing them abandon their forms to flee. They will ride on the wind, sobbing, to their electronic jars in the Great Temple of Science in Xurac Xuracuccac, the Fortress of Fortresses, throne and capitol of the Mighty Ones.”

The ghastly slugs reared up, noiseless, huge, and dripping acid. The Dark Conquerors could do nothing. The bridge capsized and broke beneath the monsters. The pontoons did not sink, being buoyant, but rolled and bobbed in the white foam, spinning any man who tried to climb atop them back down into the water. The rushing current carried the pontoons, and any drowning souls clinging in panic to them, over the lip of the thundering falls and into an abysm of air, surrounded by cool spray and bright rainbows glittering from the drops. The slugs could not battle the current: they sailed over the brink as well, pale shapes as serene and silent as icebergs. Down they plunged.

The men on the Tosspot cheered as their enemies fell in so many myriads. The and Winged Men dove near the waterfall brink, mocking, pretending to catch the twisting, shrieking tumbling bodies, but then unfolded their wings and let the updraft yank them up and away out of reach. Enough men struck the rocks below to stain the shore red for many hours, until the tide rose high and washed it clean again.

Preston was carrying a small flask in his pocket. When the motes within it came near enough to the broadcasts of the Final Unit hidden in a tower in Threno, the flask grew warm to the touch. Preston pulled it from his pouch and opened the cork, saying, “Abracadabra.”

The eye-dazzling light of the Sudden Death now erupted, first from the flask in Preston’s hand, and then from the torches and lamps in the fists of the fighting men down below, and finally from the windows and French doors of the chimneys of the city of Threno, floor upon floor.

These flames rose up from bottle and lantern and window like an army of bright ghosts, and rushed out onto the battlefield.

A sudden noise behind Preston made him turn. Here was Raad, his thin and bony hawk-nosed face expressionless, a strange glitter in his wolfish, yellow eyes. For battle, he had donned a leather coat of dark human skin, the same shade as his own. The coat was long and tattered, hems trailing on the deck behind.

There was a knife of black glass in his hand. He had left his post on the poop deck, leaving another hand to pilot the boat.

Preston saw it was too late: the other man was too close for Preston to draw his sword bring it up before Raad could gut him with a knife thrust. He was surely dead.

But, just then, Grind said, “Ho, Raad! You saved us all by plopping the keel down but a stone’s throw from the Happy Fortune ! Then to dodge the disks so well! You have a devil in your sail, do you not, boy?”

And he clapped Raad on the shoulder warmly, like a father might do to an undersized son, so that Raad grinned, clearly enjoying the praise.

“You’ve taught me well, master!” Raad replied, sheathing his knife to knuckle his forehead.

Preston, back to the rail and hand on his swordhilt, could not be sure he had not imagined the deadly intent in Raad’s eye. For the demoted First Mate now nonchalantly stepped to the rail and gazed down at the brilliant shapes and streamers of incandescence of the Sudden Death streaming across the battlefield.

Prince Cucuio spread his wings and leaped. With a great flutter and whoosh of noise, he glided from his position on the spar to the balance himself on the rail where Preston leaned. “How is it that it that the famous Sudden Death of the City of Sudden Death smites not me, nor Son of the Wind, nor any of the Third Men? You will see them presently. Yes, it is their influence that maddens the war beasts of the gold-painted men.”

Preston said, “I gave a command to the thinking machine that controls the Sudden Death. The command is specific. I could not change the basic programming, so you could not enter the city without giving a blood drop. But I could manipulate the identifiers so that any persons whose genes were not recognized as city dwellers can be struck.”

“Thinking machine?” asked Cucuio, puzzled.

Grind said, “It is a haunted stone of the Fourth Men, the Phantoms. The ghosts of their thoughts control the Death.”

Raad said, “What is the point? The Swift Death cannot hurt First Men. Threno would not be Threno, were this not so.”

“Look, and see,” said Preston. “No First Man is being hurt by the Swift Death. Not directly.”

It was true. Men yowled and blenched and fled in terror when the white flames licked their bodies, but not a hair on their head was touched, and not even the smell of smoke lingered on them.

But everything else: weapons, tools, ornaments, helm, tunic, boots, stockings, undergarments, ear-rings, gold filings, everything inorganic on or about their persons vanished, disintegrated in a wash of supernal fire into nothing. A whole army of naked men stood dumbfounded on the field.

Their banners, uniforms, trumpets and signal flags had vanished as well. There were no bright plume or coats on the officers, and no bugles for the buglers to blow. In one blow, the army was a mob, leaderless, unarmored, and unarmed.

It was the Morlocks who died first. Their breathing masks vanished, along with their pressurized tubes of green gas. By an unforeseen happenstance, the Lethal Unit did not disintegrate the gas itself. It remained when their containers vanished, or, rather, exploded like a bomb just behind the spine of any Morlock toting it. Plumes of gas blasted outward, and the ghastly viridescent cloud swallowed them.

Winged Men staring down from above, eyes hidden behind bug-like goggle lenses, began to swoop in wide circles about the field where the Morlocks were writhing and staggering blindly, and suddenly the winds gathered to concentrate the cloud, preventing it from dispersing, or else to heap up more in the path of any band of groping Morlocks groping for the edge. Preston had thought it was tear gas: but now he saw the silhouettes of Morlocks half hidden in the green clouds falling, never to stir again. Those few who broke free of the cloud to reach the open air were shot from above by the leg-weapons of the Seventh Men.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, the Romans were untouched by the cold, strange fires of the Sudden Death. They, like everyone else in Threno, over the last three frantic days, had donated a blood drop to the stone of the Final Unit, or been rendered immune by Preston.

Now the Ninth Legion closed ranks, raised shields, lowered spear and plowed into the mass of nude foemen, and started maiming and killing with remorseless efficiency. Each man was careful to keep pace with his neighbors, both in ground covered and number of slain, lest the centurion see any sign of laggardness or mercy. The bloody corpses piled up about their greaves.

The Han were less organized but more ferocious, rushing into the more numerous foe, cutlasses red-stained and whirling, blood-curdling battlecries rending the air.

Unexpectedly, there came a squad of Methuseleans to meet them. These were not the Corsairs serving under Captain Roc, but men of a different year, serving the Mighty Ones. Their long coats of tan, or brown, or black had not been disintegrated, for they were made from their own shed skin. These Methuseleans carried dirks and truncheons made of shinbones, and light shields of woven ribs. These also the Swift Death had passed by, being biological material.

The Swift Death also could not touch their voices. These Methuseleans opened their mouths to emit their wild, infrasonic banshee screams, which could panic, stun, or, close range, even kill a man.

They were swifter or foot and keener of eye than the Han, but they fought without passion, never hurrying to press the advantage, as if they had all the time in the world.

In fact, they did not. Swarms of wasps, coming in clouds too thick to peer into, now rolled over the battlefield, guided by the winds of the Seventh Men. The Methuseleans who did not flee were stung, and stumbled on numb limbs for a few staggering steps, before they collapsed. A flock of mantichores fell from the sky to rend and slay. The foe, either naked or clothed in skin-leather, could do nothing.

Preston now looked back across the river to the fortress-city of Xurac Phthia, confirming that no friendly craft was in the line of fire. Into the wine flask, he whispered, “Alakazam!”

And in a moment of deafening thunder and blinding smoke and the nose-numbing stench of burnt gunpowder, whole armies panicked, flinging themselves on their faces, and crying out for the rocks and hills to cover them.


*** *** ***

Episode 85 Fall of the Fortress of Phthia

There was no need for a primer or fuse when the motes of the Lethal Unit could be used to ignite gunpowder. Cannons could not be cast in a mere three days, of course, so Preston had instead bored firing tubes into the solid rockface of the towers of Threno herself.

Because the motes would obey his commands, he could bore a straighter and cleaner bore than any machine of his day, with the diameter exactly fitted to the mathematically-perfect spherical cannonballs he likewise carved out of solid marble by disintegration motes.

Rather than attempting by these strange methods to construct any sort of breech-loaded cannon, he merely dug one-shot bombard tubes, one above the next, in the stone facade of Threno, driven deep into the solid rock. The Lethal Unit had a surprising amount of engineering information on the structure and architecture of Xurac Phthia, and was able to pinpoint the locations where each artillery shot could be best placed. These impromptu cannons could neither elevate their muzzles nor traverse left or right. But they were shooting at a target that had not moved in countless centuries.

When Preston said the password into the motes, the command was transmitted by radio through the Lethal Unit to the motes mingled with the gunpowder in the bombard tubes. All the gunpowder so laboriously gathered by Grind over three days went off.

The panic among the soldiers on the field was without parallel. In a world of weapons that sang or crackled or whispered when they went off, the thunder and roar of a massive cannonade smote the ear like the end of the world. The clouds and licks of flame that rose up from Threno elicited a wail of despair, a sound as wide as the sea, from hundreds of throats at once, as corsairs, despite any explanations they had been told, beheld what surely was the fires of hell claiming their city.

But the roars of shock and terror from the garrison manning the city walls of Phthia rose even louder, for the cannonballs in flight moved too swiftly to be seen. To them, it appeared as if suddenly, and for no reason, the gates of Phthia were smashed, and also the watchtower above that, then breaks were suddenly present in the walls, one above the other, and gouges in the foundations.

Walls built to face cannon fire were low and thick, with slanted faces to deflect shots skyward. But walls built before gunpowder, or (as in this case) built long after its use had been forgotten, were tall and thin, meant to deter climbers and siege towers, and so were top-heavy with parapets and bartizans. When the stones beneath these massive, overhanging structures were shattered, their weight helped bring down the whole wall.

It was not very many shots, when all were counted, but the points to strike on the enemy fortress were well-calculated to break every major load bearing member of the vertical city.

Even so, Preston expected nothing more than to open a substantial hole in the wall, allowing the corsairs ferried across the river in sky ships to begin the long, slow, terrible process of room to room fighting, climbing each ladder and stairwell of a walled city held in a single building much larger than the tallest skyscraper of Preston’s day.

Instead, hell erupted.

A few of the cannonballs were made of wood, and carried packets of the microscopic motes of the Lethal Unit. When the motes had independent power (including such crude power supplied from burning wood) they could double or triple the range from the haunted stone they could venture while still drawing on the broadcast power needed to ignite their destructive, molecule-disintegrating fires.

It had been the defense of the City of Sudden Death for so long, that no one recalled what name the city previously might have boasted. In all those generations, the Sudden Death had only been used for defense, never to strike in attack.

Now it was.

Cold white flame rippled among the lower decks of Phthia, obliterating all human life not recognized as First Man. Preston had also programmed these motes to seek out and destroy anything they recognized as weapons.

Preston never found out what vital bit of machinery hidden beneath the walls of Phthia was evaporated by the Sudden Death, or what form of energy was released when it did. It could have been an arsenal or fuel dump, or some stupendous scientific weapon harnessing unimaginable forces, which the Watchers had been preparing against Threno.

But whatever it was, it exploded.

The damage did not stop there. It was well known that Phthia had force field generators able to coat the walls or cap the tower tops of the city in the face of any siege, or whenever the corsairs brazenly passed close overhead, hooting and mocking, waving banners written with crude slogans, tossing down fire-pots, explosive spline-balls, or skulls of Fifth Men.

Of course those generators were not turned on when no threat was near, for the air beneath any shield aura was hard to breathe and stale. And so, just then when all the forces of the corsairs were safely on the far side of an impassible river, these generators were still, and so there was nothing to stop the cannonade from striking their targets and striking hard.

The disaster happened in two steps, one quick, the other one lingering like a nightmare.

First, dragon tongues of fire belched from all the lower windows of Phthia. Smoke rushed up, thick and black. Second, with an eerie shimmer, the air one foot in every direction from each stone of the metropolis, each level, balcony and cornice-tower grew thick, looking at first like a heat ghost over a pavement, then like a gelatin, then like a solid crystal that continued to thicken and darken.

The cool, unnatural white fires of the Sudden Death vanished once everything in their radius of action was disintegrated. But the perfectly natural red and yellow and orange fires roaring up through the bottom layers heated stone, cracking it, melted iron-hard synthetics, and burned wood. First one slab fell from the middle face of the city, then several, then many. The supporting beams shrieked and cracked. The façade peeled away and toppled down. The exposed floors, one and then the one above, tilted and slid and broke, collapsing like so many giant drawers pulled from a bureau.

Slowly the flames in the upper reaches turned pale and died, lacking oxygen. The force field run amok seemed to weigh down the stones, for the highest balconies and towers now collapsed, blocks and bricks falling with dreamlike slowness, hindered by the force field. The dust and powder from the broken brick and mortar merely held still in mid-air, buoyed up.

There were garrison soldiers and officers, thin Second Men, bulky Fifth Men, and childlike bald Eighth Men seen falling as the levels collapsed, but no women and no children, who had been sent to safety before the fight. Some tried to swim in the gel of the air, but none could breathe. All were dead before any were slowly lowered to the smoldering rubble mound below, smothered.

Preston stared in awe and wonder at what he had wrought. He heard the ebullient cheers and roars of victory erupting around him, the brassy call of trumpets braying and clangor of soldiers clashing spear on shield. But he saw thousands of corpse piled pell-mell amid the broken stones and writhing columns of ash. Above them, he saw more corpses slowly drifting to the ground, twisting in postures of the agony death by asphyxiation brings, limbs splayed, silent as snow.

To his lasting surprise, the only thing that came from his lips was a hoarse whisper, “Dear God! Forgive me!”

The city-high force field of Xurac Phthia did not fail or fade. Instead, it hardened into a sheathe of opaque, glassy material, reaching from base to top, similar to the hulls of the levitation disks. Then it stopped shimmering. It was solid, with no breaks, no ventilation, anywhere. The treasures and arsenals and myriad dead bodies of Phthia all were locked behind the darkly crystalline surface forever.

The dull realization struck him that the effect he had been in his mind labelling force fields was not anything of the sort. It was something beyond Preston’s ken. It was black magic.

He tore his eyes from the grisly scene, and peered skyward. Crimson sunbeams fell across the cloud above at an angle that gave the formerly gray and flat expanse a vivid texture of knots and whorls, like a miniature landscape of hills and fold seen from afar, painted in hues of cerise, ruby, persimmon, salmon-pink, orange, and rose.

The rising sun cast erubescent sheen across the shining glassy shapes of the hundreds of silently hovering disks, large and small. All were rising. The frantic motions, dive and swoops and banked turns of the air-battle attempts to capture or elude the corsair sky ships had ceased. Instead, swift and silvery as bubbles rising to the surface of a lake, flotilla after flotilla of the disk vessels were diving upward into the ruby-lit layer of cloud above, glimmering like lamps seen through the fog, and vanishing from sight.

The red light also flickered off the semi-invisible layers of solid air cloaking the retreating ships as shields. The levitation vessels were tuning their shields to maximum, trying to keep at bay the unseen wind borne motes bringing the Sudden Death.

The pirate ships were now hovering near the towertops of Threno, and the enemy flying disks venturing too near flickered briefly with the cold white light of the Sudden Death.

The hideous, deadly energy was now striking at a greater range than ever before. No commander of the Eighth Men, howsoever well informed, could have predicted this.

A moment later, the first of the many unmanned, drifting disks was taken in tow by a warship of the Corsairs. She was the Vengeful Widow’s own flagship, the Yu-Shenzhou double-hulled like a titanic catamaran, fantastically decorated, with carved and painted prows of roaring tiger and dragon.

As they flung grappling lines around the prize, the Han crewmen called japes and taunts up toward the Eighth Man fleet, which was, even then, retreating to higher and higher levels, unable to interfere.

Meanwhile, below, issuing from buried tunnels, the Han and the Romans carrying torches and lamps raging across the battlefield were also spreading the secondary energy sources the motes needed to operate beyond their normal range. Any enemy soldiers that had by chance been too far in the rear for the Swift Death to reach, now found clothing, weapons, and gear vanishing in streams and clouds of cool white fire, as the invisible radius of action of the Lethal Unit expanded.

Looking down, Preston saw the grotesque scene of disks that had landed among the unclothed and unarmed soldiers of Empire, and opened their hatches, in a brave but doomed attempted to save the smallest fraction of the doomed armies. Out of the thousands of men trapped between the deadly river and its monster slugs, and the deadly corsairs, the thirty-foot wide vessels could each hold only two or three dozen.

But scores upon scores, frantic, desperate, unthinking and unarmed soldiers were clambering all over the curving upper hull of any disk that landed, heaping atop it a pile of living bodies three deep.

But when the Han and the Romans drew near, the Sudden Death flashed through the interior of the levitation vessels, bright as a string of flashbulbs igniting, slaying any non-Firstling man found aboard: not one cunning Watcher was spared for his intelligence, nor any sad-eyed Ipotane for his wise heart, nor any Mighty One for his puissance. All were obliterated in a moment of instantaneous disintegration, dead before any pain was felt, reduced to less than ash.

Perhaps if their human slaves had been numerous enough or well-trained enough to crew and pilot the vessel by themselves, some vessels might have lifted off again. As it was, the Corsairs rushed the landed disks, and climbed the sloping hulls, their weapons red with new-shed blood, while the defenseless piles of naked men surrendered, begging for life.

But other enemy soldiers, rather than surrender, fled from disk to the river bank, and threw themselves in the waters. If a single man was able to avoid the giant slugs and overcome the remorseless current to reach the southern bank, Preston did not see him. He saw dozens upon dozens carried helplessly over the brink of the roaring waterfall.

Back on the battlefield, Preston saw the Romans accepting the surrenders, but the Han butchered their cringing captives with hatchet and pole-axe. Preston reached up to grab Captain Grind’s elbow. “Look! We have to stop that!”

Grind uttered a curse, and spat, and said, “Were they my men, I would hang them! My Latins know discipline. The Widow lets the Han run wild, like mad dogs. So unwise! So unthrifty! It only makes the defeated fight harder. And no one buys a corpse on the auction block.”

“Can’t we do something?”

Grind rolled his eyes toward Preston and said cynically, “If you discover how to make enemy love enemy, tell us. Ha! ‘Twould be the greatest secret of all the time.”

The roars and clamor of victory coming from the corsair sailors boarding the unmanned the sky ships up above fell silent first, then the calls from the corsair marines and militia on the ground. A shadow fell across the sky ships, and filled the fields between Threno and the River of Death. The unarmed, unclothed and despairing armies on the ground looked skyward, and began to cheer.

Captain Grind and Preston Lost also looked up. Preston uttered a soft oath, and Grind a loud one.

The clouds were parting as an immense bulk, thousands of feet in diameter, lowered itself into view. The air fleet of the Watchers had not retreated, but re-grouped around the Dreanought, a disk that seemed as wide as a floating island. This vast ship was descending with slow, ominous, silent motion, passing before the sun and eclipsing it.


*** *** ***

Episode 86 Decimated by the Dreanought

A wide and silent lens-shaped leviathan of the air drove the clouds aside as it sank into view, and smaller clouds scudded across the lucid slope of its neither hull like little fogbanks, and mingled among the inverted turrets and towers lining the rims of the great ship. The cloud wisps trailed white fingers among the siege engines, grappling cranes, and rotating blisters crowning those towers, and embrasures from which the long barrels of spline-ballistae peered.

Midmost, like a stalactite, or an upside-down lighthouse, an emplacement depended from the hub of the vast levitation vessel. The tip of this structure held an armature like the arms of a gyroscope, in whose midst a black lens, shining like an obsidian mirror, but wide as the parabolic dish of a radio astronomy array, was free to turn in any angle in any direction.

Grind said, “I failed to tell you the reason why I thought the battle was lost.”

Preston stared at him, uneasily. Grind wore the expression of a man at peace with the inevitable. It was not the expression Preston wanted to see during a desperate battle, when fortunes were low.

Grind continued speaking. “This was the reason. That is why only a swift stroke at the battle’s beginning would have put fortune in our favor: but you delayed. Now the Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy descends in her strength, like a warrior queen adorned for battle, fair as snowfall, deadly as hailstorms.”

“Is that the ship’s name?”

“It is a Watcher name in the language their machines use to talk to us.” Grind tucked the Holland and Holland in the crook of his arm, and took out a clay pipe with the long stem, a flint and striker, and a tobacco pouch.

He spoke with the pipestem in his mouth, while he packed with pipe bowl. “In their view, gravity, decay, time and death itself are by-products of the inverted shape of spacetime, which causes entropy because we move from past to future, with our consciousness, in the wrong direction.”

Grind lit the pipe, drew, and breathed out a scented cloud with a grunt of satisfaction. Preston stared in wonder and hunger. He had been dying for a cigarette for quite some time now, ever since his advent on this terrible latter-day supercontinent. Tobacco was not extinct!

“The Watcher lore says originally another orientation was meant for human consciousness, not the direction of entropy.” He said between meditative puffs. “They believe the Omega Point of the universe, when all energy is exhausted, all light fails, and all particles decay, was supposed to be the pre-birth condition, and that the infinite energy of the Aleph Point, the Big Bang, was supposed to be the goal. Some primordial catastrophe created by you First Men in your first generation reversed the polarity of time, and doomed us all.”

Preston glanced up at the Watcher dreanought again. It was lower. It was closer. “You and I seem to be doomed right now. We cannot surrender!”

“We are not going to live to see the sunset.”

“Speak for yourself! This is no time to just give up and die … say, do you have any tobacco to spare? I’ve been, uh, kind of hankering for a…”

Grind pointed skyward at the vast disk-shaped vehicle passing between them and the sun. “What better time to give up? This great dreanought was built to defy not only gravity, but eternity itself. We originally meant her to meet and overcome the machine-servants buried in the mountain stronghold of the Last Immortal. When you went there, the Eighth Men panicked, thinking you were giving him the Tesseract, and they sent all the nearer ships of the air fleet ahead. Had they waited, out fleet might be intact.”

“You seem to have more than enough here.”

“Enough to patrol a supercontinent spanning a third of the world? Hardly. The Empire will not soon recover from that wound. This should have been the beginning of a golden age for sky piracy. Threno should have grown to be the queen of cities! But instead you came along, and the insane legends surrounding you. Bah!”

He gestured skyward with his pipe again. “Watch now. Look at the lenticular containment: it holds webs of energies meant to impersonate the strong nuclear forces present in an equal volume of neutronium, but without the mass. It can focus the magneto-gravitic spindizzy effect of the multi-parallel levitation-ring array of the Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy into a single coherent ray.”

Preston tore his gaze from Grind’s pipe, and looked up at the inverted lighthouse tower protruding down from the dead center of the dreanought disk vessel. Even as his eyes fell on it, Preston saw the black lens send out a beam of half-invisible ripples, like the heat shimmer above the flat, baked, featureless wasteland that deceives the parched wanderer with false hopes of water.

Like the finger of a ghost, this translucent ray swept from one Corsair sky-ship to the next, and cut through the thickest flocks of Seventh Men. Where this half-unseen beam passed, the sky-ships wallowed and listed, losing buoyancy. Seventh Men did not tumble, but they lost control of their winds. The wings, until now outracing and outmaneuvering the foe, were reduced to no more than paragliders. They were still in the air, but instead of the gravity-defying aeronautical acrobatics their magic rings allow, the Winged Men were merely as pterodactyls, but larger and slower.

The largest and most potent ship in the navy of the sky pirates was the Yu Shenzhou the Heavenly Boat of Jade. The peacock-bright gilded, carved and decorated warship was above Threno when she was struck down. Neither spline, nor arrow, not even the fiery arrows of the Lemurian alchemy, so far had scratched her gold and scarlet paint, for an invisible film of force slowed and repelled any incoming darts.

This protecting aura vanished when she lost lift. Almost casually a few of the emplacements placed along the curving rim of the dreanought shot bright and shining splines the size of lampposts into and through both hulls of the pirate battleship.

The Yu Shenzhou was pitched headlong from the sky, and fell among the towers and mansions of Threno, rebounding from one balcony to the next. The hulls cracked open, and the deck was shattered into timber. The shapes of Han crewmen, shaken free at each impact, could be glimpsed falling among their own houses. Debris of the broken ship smashed roofbeams and bridges, and balconies, and tore swallow-nest cottages from brinks, killing those cowering in the city, including, no doubt, the women kept by these sailors, and any children they had.

In retaliation, the Stormwolf rose high, swift as a rocket, and leaped to the attack. She smote the titanic hull with her three pronged ram. The black lens turned, and bathed the ship. The levitation rings of the pirate battleship failed, and the hull swung, twisted, and her keel cracked. She hung down like a herring dangling from a hook in its mouth, her prow trapped in the glassy substance of the hull she had pierced.

Captain Vanant was not cowed. He and a squad of long-haired, long-bearded Siberians threw grapnels through the break in the crystal hull overhead, and climbed, swaying alarmingly on precarious ropes.

A squad of Second Men serving the Watchers emerged from nearby openings, quick-marching across the hull surface as if it were a flat and upright plain, ignoring gravity. They fired overhead at the boarding party below them, cutting the lines with ax and bayonet.

Captain Vanant, in the lead, was high enough to leap upward, and reach the edge of the reverse-gravity effect. Instead of falling down the half a mile to the battlefield, he fell up ten or fifteen feet to the upside down hull surface. He landed in the midst of the Second Men. He drew his saber, and taking the knife from between his teeth into his other hand.

Captain Vanant, in the end, gave a good account of himself, slaying and wounding half a dozen solemn Second Men before their numbers overwhelmed him. In his last moment, he stood raging, his red coat made redder with blood, atop the warm pile of the soldiers he overthrew.

Two of the stalactite towers protruding down from the rim of the vast vessel now employed spline-ballistae and catapults, so that shafts of magnetic crystal longer than tentpoles now struck the hullplanks of the doomed sky ship like battering rams, and sheared off her rakishly slanted masts.

Captain Vanant had been wise enough to equip his men with parachutes, the only captain Preston saw who did. But as his men leaped into the air, squads of sharpshooters and bowmen from the towers riddled their bodies and canopies with arrows and crystal darts. Even so, some landed on the battlefield, where they were ripped to pieces by the unarmed armies on whom they slowly settled.

The Cockatrice also rose to the attack, passing swiftly upward, using the many lesser levitation vessels alongside and beneath the dreanought to prevent the black lens beam from striking. Once, then twice, the beam flashed out, an invisible flicker against the red clouds above, but the wily helmsmen of the Cockatrice jinked and jibbed and ducked beneath the hem of an intervening disk. At least three Watcher vessels were sent tumbling earthward before the gunnery crew manning the black lens desisted.

Up the Cockatrice drove, her golden prow blazing. Laser light, somehow heterodyned with potent static electric charge, delivered a miniature lightning stroke where the thin ray passed. A squad of archers, standing upside down on the deck, ignored by gravity, was struck and lost their footing. Gravity reasserted itself: the bowmen fell screaming. The laser beam passed beyond them, harmlessly flickering off the glassy surface of the hull, but striking a ballista emplacement, setting off the crystal ammo, and slaying the gun-crew.

Four or six other gunners fired back, and one put a crystal spear long as weaver’s beam through the central lens of the fantastic laser weapon mounted on the prow, blinding the deadly eye of the Cockatrice.

But now the corsair ship was close hauled to the mightier vessel looming above, and the black lens rotated ponderously in its gimbals and flared again. A phantom finger of force touched the starboard lifting disks of the Cockatrice.

She was a four-wheeler, and so she was able to lift herself on her two remaining portside disk, listing badly, her upper deck canted over almost vertical. But up she sailed, pursued by darts and bombards from the towers of the dreanought, including Lemurian arrows that ignited like incendiary bombs. Hullplanks shattered, masts fell. But still the bold ship sailed up and up.

Her sails aflame, the Cockatrice passed over the edge of the dreanought’s rim, enter the cloud bank above, and was lost to sight.

She was not seen again.

With the Yu Shenzhou and the Stormwolf lost with all hands, and the badly damaged Cockatrice lost to sight, no doubt retreating at full speed, the only remaining first rate ship-of-the-line of Threno was the Tosspot. She was badly undermanned, having lost most of her Roman legionnaire marines and most of her crew, even with the Siberian reinforcements from the wreck of the Happy Fortune, and a couple of Second Man sharpshooters. The Tosspot was over the river, not near the battlefield, and perhaps beyond the range of the dreanought and its invincible anti-levitation ray.

Grind was looking upward with a strange expression. He said, “You remember I said I debated in the Senate the issue of whether our air navy budget should bear the cost of this nullification weapon? Every now and again, I am reminded of what a great people we are, and what terrible things we can do. Look at that! None can stand against it! My cousins are men of vision!”

“You cousins are crazy!” said Preston grimly. “They could have won the battle in moments with this super weapon. They should have whipped it out the moment we launched a single sky-ship. Why wait until now to use it?”

“Thrift,” said Grind, “One lucky shot might break that lens, and the civic coffers would be drained by a ghastly sum. The thing was found in a haunted mausoleum of the Phantoms and restored by the Eighth Men.”

“You are kidding me.”

“Thrift and also prestige. There are heralds and criers among our High Command, or were, to note whose fighting-slaves fight best, and carry the tales back to the imperial court, and any gambling masters. Their report would change the betting odds at the Circus, and this also might change the balance of power in the Senate. We are the Mighty Ones! We take our wagering very seriously, especially our enlisted men. What else is there worth rioting over?”

The black lens now began methodically sweeping back and forth, driving sloops and cutters and lesser sky-ships of the corsairs from the air. Ten ships lost lift, then twenty, in as many seconds.

“I am out of ideas,” said Preston. “The Swift Death and the cannonade were my last trump cards. Any suggestions?”

“Resign your commission in the Corsair navy,” said Grind thoughtfully.

Preston thought he misheard. “What? What?”

“I do have my loot buried on Skull Island. We need only wait there a few years: rogues and escaped slaves will seek out Threno again, which is sanctuary for Firstlings, and soon a new Council of Corsairs will be born. It has happened before.” He turned to Raad. “Return to your post! Come about and hoist all sail! If the sky-ships scatter in every direction, the Entropy cannot chase us all!”

On the battlefield beneath, with no order given, and no one to give it, the corsairs were in full retreat, casting aside weapons and running back pell mell toward the great doors of Threno. Even the highly disciplined Romans were retreating, upon seeing the Tosspot in full flight. Only the Han refused to stir a step, but formed a hollow square in the midst of the battlefield, spears and blades facing outward in each direction. The disarmed and naked soldiers of the enemy gathered up weapons from the fallen that had been left untouched by the Swift Death, or stooped and picked up stones from the ground to throw.

Preston cried, “You’re running? We can’t! Cynisca…”

Grind grimaced, squinting as if in unspoken pain, and laughed an empty laugh. “In one moment, the Entropy has dashed half our fleet from the sky. The Yu-Shenzhou fell, and the Vengeful Widow is dead, her dream of revenge unfulfilled. She was the heart of the Pirate Lords. I am all that remains of the might of Threno, and my crew is mostly dead. No weapon of ours can reach or mar that ship. Running is all we have.” He laughed again, even more emptily. “And since the enemy ships can outpace us easily, all we have is not very much!”

A buffeting whirling thunder of wingbeats sounded from above the Tosspot approaching the fleeing ship rapidly from the rear. Preston turned and drew his sword, peering upward.

“What now?” he whispered.

*** *** ***

Episode 87 Man is Man

Plunging down from above was a mantichore: winged, fanged, ape-faced, lion-formed, with a scorpion tail lashing and twitching aloft behind. It swooped down past masts and rigging to the deck where Captain Grind, his gold teeth gleaming like daggers, stood with Preston Lost and the winged Prince Cucuio.

The creature was bedecked in a fantastic harness and barding, knobbed with gems and traced with gold. Here was a saddle adorned like a throne, complete with silken canopy overhead. Regally sat a diminutive woman of the Third Man race, with a tall red wig across her head and shoulders, and crimson hair extensions adorning the rest of her furry body, ringlet upon ringlet, brain upon braid in a fantastic maze of hair, red as a sunset at sea.

She wore a long green mantle that was covered with gold bezants, bangles and coins, with more on her many-colored undertunic, bib, vest, overtunic, skirts, hand-scepter, foot-scepter, and mantilla.

Flying alongside the monster was a Seventh Man dressed in a heavy coat of brown flecked with silver dapples, matching his wing-pattern. In his hands was a head freshly severed, neck stump still dripping red.

He landed, steadied himself by grasping a stanchion against the swaying of the deck as the helmsman, obeying Grind’s just-given order, was coming about, and turned the stern of the Tosspot  toward the battlefield.

The intruder knelt. His wings spread for yards to either side across the deck planks.

Preston saw that these were the spread-tipped wings of an owl, not the sleek sharp wings of a falcon. His face was round, and his expression one of misery. He was shorter and stouter than the lean, lanky, hatchet-faced Winged Men of Cucuio’s clan, and his wings and his flying suit were not the kestrel-blue hue of Cucuio. He was nonetheless as superhumanly strong as Cucuio, for the stout man had left fingerprints in the mental stanchion he had gripped to prevent a spill.

Preston could not remember the name of the clan, but this was one of the group of Ascenders who worked for the Empire.

The owl-winged man proffered the head toward Captain Grind. His voice was mellow, rich and deep, a voice of good humor.

“The Ascenders of the Citadel Unsurrendering yield this trophy of victory to you!”

Captain Grind snarled, “Us? Us who? Who in the dark abyss are you?”

The mantichore spread wide its immense wings, and then dropped as lightly and silently to the deck as a falling cat. The regal woman leaned from her jewel-spangled saddle.

“The Seventh Man comes at my behest, to bring you news of import!” Then, with the dignity of a queen, she dipped the head of one of her scepters to Preston. “You also, do I grant leave to speak and more, Colonel Preston Makepeace Lost! I suffer no prestige loss to treat with a livestock or thrall: such division of stature no longer obtains.”

Preston suddenly remembered how much he hated the little Terrors.

Captain Grind said to her, “And for that matter, who in the dark abyss are you?”

She said in a ringing voice, “I am the harbinger of victory!”

Preston glanced up at the titanic dreadnought called Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy, which was still slowly descending. The corsair sloops and lesser craft were being forced down, some crashlanding, some merely crashing, as the black lens turned this way and that. From the sheer size of the descending vessel, the air felt heavy, as it might feel before an approaching rainstorm.

Preston noted that the vessel was large enough to gather up the entire defeated army. Easily, in that volume, could be reserves in numbers sufficient to sweep the surviving corsairs from the field.

But the Tosspot was now making way downriver, her prow pointed seaward, abandoning Threno, and all the corsairs ashore or aloft to their fate. The sails belled out, and the sky ship was picking up speed.

Grind had also glanced up at the vast vessel above. He said to the regal lady of the Terrors, “Victory, eh? Hardly likely. Why are you really here?”

The lady said, “The one who sends me is also the master of Preston Lost, your first mate. He is a sacerdote of the old learning. Even as we speak, he boards the dreadnought. Not matter how high, it is within reach of cudgel he used to bewitch the giant slugs. Once aboard, he will allay the Phantom apparitions found within, including the black lens. When the black lens fails, be ready!”

“Ready for what?” uttered Grind with a bitter laugh. “No weapon aboard can harm the Entropy!”

“We have brought an engine called a negative energy catapult. It was given, without cost demanded or oath asked, from the hand of the Devastators who dwell beneath the ground to the princes of the Seventh Men. The catapult has no upper range, and can propel very delicate payloads, such as your winejars and oil pots that carry the Swift Death motes for you. You will be able to coat the decks of the dreadnought, and burn the officers to nothingness!”

Grind said, “How do you know the secret of the Swift Death?”

“The master of Preston Lost told us these things. Advance upon the dreadnought!”

Grind glanced at Preston in confusion, “What now? My little Runagate has a master? Who in the dark abyss is that? Who is she? How does a princess of the Third Men know you?”

Preston said, “When I was her slave, I carried the rear half of her chair on my back. I don’t recognize her face under all those wigs, but I know that voice. Her name is Sinhika. She’s a nursemaid.”

“Since last we met, my prestige has increased beyond measure,” Sinhika said proudly, “I now serve as the Proconsul and Ancilla Plenipotentiary to the Ideal Commonwealth of Man.”

Preston said, “Ideal?”

She said, “It does not yet exist, save in the world of archetypal forms. When it comes into being, my post will be so designated.” And, then, to Grind, she added, “The master of Preston Lost is named Maruti of the Old Ways.”

Grind squinted. “Who? ”

Preston heaved a huge sigh of relief. “You met him, Captain. The saber-toothed monkey-man who flew away on a Pterodactyl three days ago to go find if any Third Men camped upriver would help us. These reinforcements are his doing. Son of the Wind is his name.”

Grind said, “I thought he was your manservant.”

“He thinks I am his.”

And with this, Preston started laughing. “The little monkey just saved us all!” The strain of battle may have been more than Preston thought, for he found he could not stop laughing. Hiccoughing and gasping, he tried to say, “We have to turn back! Charge, not retreat! We can still win this fight!”  But it came out as gibberish.

Nearby stood a First Man named Flavius, the Roman Centurion in charge of the cohort aboard the ship. He evidently understood the conversation, for he said in the speech of the Fifth Men, “Sir? Shall I give the order to come about to the helmsmen? We are the last warship of Threno aloft. If we flee, Threno falls. Even unarmed men can overcome a force with no will to fight!”

But still Grind hesitated. Moment by moment, air passed by the keel, and the battlefield behind grew farther away. In the distance, small as ants, the fighting men of Threno could be seen abandoning the battlefield, pulling back toward the city doors, leaving thousands of enemies behind, unarmed but, in a way, victorious.

The severed head the winged man had proffered to Grind rolled as the deck pitched. Grind placed his foot on it, catching it, so that the dead eyes stared up at him. It was a Fifth Man.

Grind muttered, “Tlacatecolotl of Nagual. Good to see you again.”

Preston regained his sobriety. “What goes on? Why are we still in retreat?”

“He was the castellan of Xurac Phthia. The one who made Sing-Shi a widow. She would have been pleased.”

“That is not what I asked!” said Preston.

The owl-winged Seventh Man, face low, gestured toward the severed head, “I offer his life as a gift. I ask for life in turn, for my men.”

Grind said, “And just who are you?”

Prince Cucuio was standing atop the railing nearby, his wings spread wide for balance. He said to Captain Grind, “Sir, this is my cousin, Prince Basabasa of the phratry of Daramulum. He is the leader of the air phalanx assigned to guard Phthia, and an officer of the Empire. He is, or was, the personal bodyguard of the Castellan, charged with flying him to safety should sudden retreat be called.”

“My friends call me Basan.” Said the owl-winged man, bowing even lower. “The Castellan commanded me to carry him to safety once the smoke and fire struck Phthia, I took him into the air and decapitated him for his cowardice, leaving the great bulk of his body drop away. I am an Imperial Federate no longer, but a loyal servant of the Ideal Commonwealth. I asked Lady Sinhika to bring me to you. You are in no danger!”

Grind pointed up toward the dreadnought, which was growing larger, filling the sky. “No danger, indeed?”

Basan said, “I can tell you the true plan of the battle, on your promise to spare my men.”

But Grind said, “But why should I trust your tale, whatever it is?”

Cucuio said proudly, “Captain Grind, you do not know our ways. When a Seventh Man takes to the air, he nears the heart of life. We touch the unseen world. All falsehoods fall away from us in that state. An Ascender would not lie!”

Lady Sinhika said, “We Terrors can read the neuroelectronic cues and scent cues that accompany deceptive intent. Prince Basan speaks truth.”

Grind uttered a gush of humorless noise. “Ho! And who are you that I should trust you? A Terror and an Ascender as brother and sister? Who has heard of such a thing?”

Cucuio said, “It was easy enough to persuade the other Princes of the Impious Mountains that, with the Imperial airfleet cursed and blasted by the Last Phantom, the Empire could not retaliate against us if we took back from them our lost terrain. Whereas alliance with the Terrors, who know the secret of extending life, could enrich us, to say nothing of the other races willing to join the Ideal Commonwealth.”

Grind said, “Who? What is this Commonwealth?”

Cucuio said, “It is the first nation of all Pangaea to be founded not on bloodline or conquest, but on dedication to the High and Lonely God of the prophet Lambswool. This god is nameless. He loves the poor. He calls all men his sons. He frees the slaves. A disciple drenched me with waters from the wells beyond the world. I curse and abominate the gods my fathers served, and renounce all their glamour, pomp, and false promises.”

Sinhika said, “Captain Grind, you are the sole survivor of the Captains of Threno. How can you flee? Order your men to give the bottles of Swift Death to Cucuio and his men!”

Grind said to Preston, “What say you?”

Preston was exasperated. ” Our other options are dying while fighting and dying while fleeing! My friend is aboard that ship, about to sabotage its main weapon, so we have to be in position to strike!”

Grind seemed unconvinced. “Or be in a position to flee. Skull Island is very nice this time of year.”

Preston shouted: “Is there something in the water in Pangaea all you crazy posthumans drink? Something in the air? Why can’t you trust each other when a common foe is at your throat? Why are we even talking about this?” He pointed overhead. “Look! LOOK! There is the enemy!”

Grind looked ashamed. “To call the men of races brother whom my nurse taught me as a mewling babe were but underlings and slaves … that is hard. It is impossible. But Flavius says all things are possible with his god.”

Grind shook his head wearily. He continued, “Madness to call men equal! We have nothing the same, nothing shared! Not strength, nor stature, nor wit, nor virtue! Each man is below his superiors and above his inferiors! So it has always been on Earth! None of us are made the same!”

Cucuio, a prince of the Winged Men, spoke up, the narrow eyes in his thin, ascetic face glittering with strange emotion. “Untrue, my good captain! All of us, each of the races of Pangaea, were made by a parent race whose folly and shortcomings are expressed in us. We are all made marred! Except the First Men, of course, who marred themselves just after their own making.”

Grind looked astonished at these words.

Cucuio continued, “We dine on differing foods, but hunger is the same. We fight with differing arms, but wounds are the same. We live differing lives, but death is the same. Do you know the prophet’s words? No man shall any more bow and serve the false gods, for that makes man a devil. No man shall make his brother his slave, for that makes man a beast. Man is man!”

Even at that moment, a dragonfly longer than a man’s finger whirled on glittering wings out from the air. Sinhika sniffed it, and announced, “Maruti sends his signal. The black lens slumbers! Now is the time to strike!”

Without a word, Grind gestured to Raad, who saluted, and spun the wheel. The prow swung through a mighty half circle as the ship put her prow back toward the battlefield, raised at a sharp angle toward the dreadnought Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy.

*** *** ***

Episode 88 Ravage of the Red Tower

The Tosspot turned and caught the wind. The dreadnaught was above the battlefield across the river, large as a cloud bank, solid as an iceberg, round as a shield. The black mirror protruding from a barbette or turret below the hull seemed unchanged. The sky-ships and winged man had fallen to lower altitudes, or crashlanded, so that whether the cyclopean dreadnaught had lost the power to sweep other fliers from the air was unclear.

Nonetheless, Grind stood on the slanted deck as the Tosspot rose at a steep angle. His great boots were spread wide, his bare chest swathed in bandages. His red captain’s cloak was thrown jauntily over one shoulder, the powerful Holland & Holland double rifle, now his, perched on the other. His teeth were clenched in a metallic golden grin and clay pipe was still smoking like a firepot.

Grind snarled. “You heard the lady. Now is the time to strike. All sail! Show me, lubbers, how much speed can you get out of this old tub!” And he roared out order to his few surviving Roman marines, his crewmen, and the long-haired elfin Siberians and Second Men who had survived the wreck of the Happy Fortune.

These men, grinning, a new light of hope in their eyes, moved to the unfamiliar battle stations, readying arrows, counting the remaining glassy dowels which, when loaded into a spline gun touched off by a simple bar magnet, crystalized and expanded in the barrel with enough force to hurl itself like a bolt from a speargun.

Grind roared, “Shake a leg, you lazy dogs! Bring bottles or casks we have left holding the Swift Death, and bring them to Cucuio! And you! Cucuio! Let us see this boasted range.”

At Grind’s word, Cucuio leaped with a flap of his wings to where, strapped to the saddle of the mantichore from which Sinhika now dismounted, was a tripod-mounted long-barreled engine of wood, copper, bronze, and glass, that looked, to Preston, like an electric-powered version of am M2 Browning .50 as envisioned by Jules Verne and built by Nicolai Tesla.

The barrel consisted of a triangle of parallel rails wound tightly with bright copper wire to form solenoids. A sliding sabot sat between these bars. Behind was a fist-sized octahedron covered with trigrams Preston by now recognized as Fourth Man technology. Wired to this octahedron, honest-to-goodness vacuum tubes were protruding from the stock of the weapn. These tubes in turn were wired to a copper-zinc wet cell battery sitting in an acid flask made of solar power cells, complete with hand-cranked dynamo for recharging. The whole apparatus had a distinctively Victorian look to it. It had more metal parts than most of the weapons he has seen that day.

Cucuio set the tripod up at the bow of the ship, and lashed it firmly in place. Preston asked a question or two. Cucuio explained happily: “It operates by a vacuum triode amplifier and produces a straight ray of negative gravity that acts also as a linear accelerator. The muzzle velocity, while slow at first, is continuous, and continues to build as long as the payload stays within the ray, until terminal velocity is reached. There is no deflection and no windage.”

“A tractor presser beam, in other words,” said Preston.

Cucuio said, “No, that is not it at all…”

But Grind, from across the deck, said loudly, “Just say yes! Saves time!”

A Roman handed Prince Cucuio a ceramic jar filled with oil and motes. He hesitated. “If any of these motes escapes the jar when I fire it, it will destroy me and Sinhika, as well as Basan.”

Preston tapped Cucuio on the shoulder, saying “Tag, you’re it!” and he did the same to Sinhika and Basan. “Now you are safe. The motes grasp voice commands.”

The wind from the sea behind them ballooned out the creaking sails. Preston felt it on his face, as if the air were nipping and lashing him onward. He counted his arrows fretfully, wishing for more. This might be the final battle….

During all these preparations, the other Seventh Man, Basan, rose up on his knees and gripped Grind’s leg. “Wait! I pray you! ‘Tis not needed!”

Grind shook him off. “Down, cur!”

“You will not be in any danger if you strike your colors!”

Grind kicked him. “Rather would I strike out mine eye!”

Basan fell back, but cried out, “Threno is not under attack. Threno is not the target!”

Grind looked startled. “Are you mad?”

“The Advocates were not attempting to destroy Threno. They need your city: the excuse of battling piracy is useful to cow lesser kings and allied chieftains of all races into allowing naval fortresses and troops in their lands. Besides, Phthia buys Firstling slavegirls from Threno, and has for decades.

“No: the attack was meant to capture a woman named Cynisca of Atlantis, and bring her unharmed to Iaia Lord A’a, her betrothed. All they want is the girl.”

Lady Sinhika spoke up, “Basan surrendered to me with these words, and I brought him along that you might hear them from his lips. I know the amount given in trade to the Lifesmiths to prepare Cynisca of Atlantis for marriage. She is of paramount importance to them. I know not why.”

All looked eye to eye in puzzlement.

Then Preston broke the silence with a laugh. “Who cares why? The Lethal Unit is in the Window’s Tower with Cynisca: any non-firstling either afoot or afloat who comes within a thousand yards to her will be disintegrated.”

Even as he spoke, the shadow above them passed, and the red light of the rising sun struck their eyes. Preston shaded his eyes with this hand, staring, suddenly worried.

He said to Cucuio, “That dreadnaught seems too confident. Open fire!”

Cucuio bent his eye to the sites, and worked the trigger. With casual, underwater slowness, the oil jar in the sabot of the catapult was thrust down the line of the barrel, and, like a ball rolling smoothly down an invisible but utterly straight glass channel, it continued to move, speeding ever faster. It did not drop in the normal parabola of ballistics. It did not drop at all, but merely went faster and faster, until it was too distant to see.

Preston drew out a pocketwatch. “We should see a flash of light when it strikes and the Swift Death is released. Everyone within a thousand yards who is not a First Man dies. Including everyone aboard that dreadnaught… what’s it doing…?”

For the titanic dreadnaught of the Watchers was not descending toward the battlefield to rescue the stranded army after all. Silent as a glacier, serene as a cloudbank, the vast circle of the invincible warship moved away from the river, away from the battlefield, and came to rest with its wide shadow falling across the tall balconies and towers of Threno.

The glassy substance of the hull now changed, turning into an opaque mirror. The morning sun, reflected in the curving rim of the dreadnaught flickered like a ruby ember, making the outline of the ship hard to see, and the distance to the ship hard to guess. But to Preston, the dreadnaught now seemed to be descending with menacing rapidly toward the upper reaches of Threno.

Sinhika said, “Look! The dreadnaught stoops to the attack! Surely the crew are mad, for over-nearness to the City of Swift Death smites all aboard with the Swift Death!”

The glittering aura surrounding the vast disk now thickened and darkened, just as the aura around the fortress of Phthia had done, until it took on an opalescent consistency.

Grind said, “Watchers are clever sons of dogs. They have seen the motes burn their armies, and they know enough keep them off. The Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy has just assumed her suborbital flight configuration. First she made her hull opaque to radiation, and then polarized discontinuity as a meteorite shield.”

Preston, in spite of himself, was startled. “You have space travel?”

Grind laughed grimly. “Us? No. The dreadnaught? Yes. The hull is now impassive. No air, no particle, passes in nor out. Even the deadly particles caught in the radiation belts circling our world would not enter. The motes cannot strike any within.”

Preston said, “What is that effect? A force field?”

Grind said, “No. It is Van der Waals adhesion created as a side effect of the spindizzy. The molecules of the air form an apparent phase boundary due to the change in lightspeed. Without any temperature change, the fluidity of the air molecules decreases to a semi solid state. You see, by Fermat’s principle of least time, any photons leaving the warp zone…” he glanced down at Preston’s blank face. “…ah… Yes. It is force field.”

“I ran an engineering company back in the day. I understand science!” said Preston.

“Is that so?” Grind said, not rolling his eyes. “First Man science, eh? In that case, let us just say it is a magic shield, a protective aura.”

Preston raised his binoculars. There was a bright flash on one side of the dreadnaught, presumably where the little jar had struck the shield aura and shattered. The oil caught fire when exposed to air, for the motes burned it as fuel to remain active outside their normal range. There were shimmering, silent blasts of white fire dashed against the opal surface of the aura around the dreadnaught, but no other effect. Then the oil was consumed, and the flares stopped.

Cucuio straightened up from his catapult. Whatever high spirits had possessed him during flight were gone now. A dull, pedestrian personality, cynical and weary, was back. He looked with hopeless eyes at the unmarred, untouched dreadnaught.

“Now what?” asked Preston. “Their superweapon cannot knock us down, but ours cannot burn them. Stalemate.”

As if waiting for this confirmation of her invulnerability, now the Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy lowered herself to the tower tops of Threno. When she came within a thousand yards of where the Final Unit rested, hidden in the Widow’s Tower, she was in range. Unseen motes in the air ignited. A blinding flare, bright a dozen lightning-flashes, played across the aura where it coated the keel. But the opal aura surrounding the dreadnaught merely expanded.

Grind called the Raad, “Can you make more speed?”

Raad said, “We are running fair before the wind, Captain. We will be upon the enemy in a moment.”

“I have no idea what Shipleader Samyaza has in his group-mind,” Grind muttered aloud. “He cannot possibly hope to match a Phantom weapon …”

The dreadnaught waited patiently as the shield surrounding it grew burning hot. It glowed red as a coal, and then white as an iron ingot in a forge. The air had turned to plasma. Vents of steam began pouring from the upper part of the hull.

Voices from the city of Threno rose up cheering and calling, when the great cloud of steam poured out, rejoicing that the great ship was wounded.

Prince Cucuio said in exultation, “The ship cooking like a poached egg!”

But Preston said, “Not if that ship is a spaceship, and has ablative shielding able to withstand three thousand degrees of reentry heat! That exhaust looks like someone just vented coolant. I assume it would cool the ship as well, and carry any heat away.”

Grind looked impressed. “Your First Man science knows something, at least. Samyaza is still alive. But I cannot fathom what he means to do… his ship is resisting the Swift Death, but no port dare open for weapon muzzle or landing party to emerge …”

The river passed underfoot as the Tosspot flew. Her shadow slid across the piles of slain and pools of blood and heaps of broken weapons peppering the battlefield.

The scene grew closer.

No other levitation vessel meddled with the Tosspot or moved to intercept. Underfoot, the smaller levitation vessels of the air fleet had abandoned the attempt to rescue the armies of the Empire. Instead, the vessels that had been too far from the Han or Latin soldiers to be struck by the Swift Death were gathered around one company of men: the olive-skinned, dark-haired soldiers of Tamon-ten from the time of the Dark Conquests: calm-faced, cold-eyed soldiers, possessed by seven souls.

The remaining two hundred or so vessels were able to take up a dozen men each, rescuing all who remained of the three-thousand-man brigade. The remaining brigades, twenty-four thousand men of differing years and eras, hale or wounded, dying or dead, were abandoned to the mercy of the pirates, or left for the gathering crows and carrion-eating pterodactyls.

This done, the levitation vessels were all ascending, retreating straight up into the air, to vanish in the cloud above. Several passed within yards of the Tosspot, with no sign of hostility.

The giant dreadnaught now drove down through the air, and tilting until its keel was vertical. The white-hot layer of superheated plasma trapped in the shield was facing Threno and parallel to it.

Preston stared in horror.

The scalding fire, as if the sun itself were licking the city with its tongue, passed down the many mighty blocks of the city structure. Many of the blocks had been bored out with warrens for dwelling: superheated air blew into these doors and chimneys, and vents of black smoke poured out of trapdoors and windows. The richer houses that clung to blocks where an upper surface was exposed had their peaked roofs and carven pillars ignited as the fiery dreadnaught passed, trailing her train of red glare and black smoke.

Stones cracked. Glass shattered. Suspension bridges and pueblo-style ladders caught fire and fell.

Where soil had gathered on these upper surfaces where the great blocks were offcenter, or been laboriously hauled up, gardens grew. Now they were aflame.

Some mansions had one wing dug out of the solid stone, and one wing sitting atop decks cantilevered over the abyss on angled struts of timber. The aura of solid air surrounding the ship merely poured like molasses over those decks and balconies, cracking them into splinters.

Centuries ago, engineers had even built towers here: round columns of brick reaching from one brink of a great block up to the next overhand, like a stalactite growing into a stalagmite. In the midpoint of the city, halfway between the great doors at the base and the postern gate on the uppermost levels, farthest from any invaders, was a tower of red brick and black timber with barred windows. It was the Window’s Tower: the place where the Lethal Unit was kept.

With Cynisca.

The dreadnaught fell to a point below the tower. The Lethal Unit, no doubt calculating that a threat to itself was growing, doubled and redoubled the output of the unseen motes attempting to burn the great ship. The lightning danced and flared and flashed.

Suddenly, the aura coating the keel plates of the dreadnaught ship changed shape, becoming a cone, then a pointed rod, carrying the white-hot plasma with it.

This rod drove into the block just beneath the Widow’s Tower, melting the solid stone like an oversized acetylene torch, and cracking its heart, and shattering it into three huge fragments.

The great disk vessel rotated, bringing the cooler, upper hull (which was steaming, but not aflame) around to face the city, and, at the same time an arm of the opaque, opal aura rose from the upper hull. The opaque force field reached to the top of the tower, where the tower top was fastened to the great block hanging overhead. The opal substance oozed around the setting, and pried free the anchoring rods sunk in the stone.

The tower’s crown cracked. Brick broke. The whole of the Widow’s Tower came away from the blocks of Threno. The opal substance of opaque shield flowed over the tower of red brick, catching it, cradling it, keeping the whole structure together.  The great ship rotated end over end, so now the red tower was held in the now-solid shield above it, trapped like a fly in amber.

The vast levitation vessel rose into the sky as fast as a rocket. It entered the cloud as was gone.

Preston’s anguished cry rang out toward the indifferent sky. Cynisca!

*** *** ***

Episode 89 Ever Defiant of Entropy

Grind and Preston exchanged glances. Each read the same expression on the face of the other. Perhaps it would have been wiser to land, to render aid to survivors, to help the quell fires climbing through the city, to subdue the enemy armies (which, even if unarmed, nonetheless outnumbered the corsairs of Threno), and only then, after restocking supplies and refreshing the crew compliment, to seek out the fleeing dreadnaught. Wiser, yes, but…

Grind said, “The haunted stone is the heart of Threno.”

Preston said, “Cynisca is my heart.”

Grind said, “My brother is aboard. My heart is set on his death.”

There was no more debate. The Tosspot rose rapidly above the cloud layer, trailing fingers of vapor as she came free of the fogs, and entered a world of dark purple skies above, twinkling with stars, and the clouds like a wrinkled carpet below. The rose-hued sun of midmorning hung in the indigo like a bubble of wine. A pale, ghostly moon four times the size of that Preston had been born under, visible by day, hung low in the west, above its reflection in the dark waters of the sea, an image in an onyx mirror.

The boy in the crow’s nest called out. Preston raised his binoculars, and Grind his spyglass. The dreadnaught EverDefiant-of-Entropy was a bright oval in the near distance, shining with a blue aura. The vast ship was over the sea, travelling south.

Two thirds of the Watcher air fleet had survived the battle of Threno, roughly ten score vessels. Each flotilla of five disks was trailing behind and to one side of the flotilla before, so that the two great wings of the air fleet streamed high above the dreadnaught in the V-formation of a geese flock.

The Tosspot sped in pursuit. Preston watched in growing wrath and frustration as the enemy ship grew small with distance and smaller.

The wind was adverse. The Tosspot began to sail first on a southeast tack, then a southwest.  Meanwhile the motorized vessels of the enemy flew due south, and the distance between pursuer and pursuit continued to increase.

They were well out to sea before break in the cloud layer allowed them a glimpse of the cyan water so far below: The red brick Widow’s Tower, dust still trailing from its broken crown and broken foundations, now was dangling a thousand yards beneath the keel of the dreadnaught, like a plumb on the end of a string.

A slim glimmer of energy depending from the Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy, apparently the force-cloak attenuated to its greatest length, was holding the tower aloft, towing it along through the air. But it was at such a length that the Final Unit could not reach. There was no glimmer of white fire playing along the nether aura around the vast dreadnaught.

As she flew on, dreadnaught seemed to be having trouble maintaining altitude. The bottom parts of the red tower were dragging in the sea, and only for short periods did the dreadnaught climb above the three-thousand-foot level, to lift the base of the broken tower it towed out of the briny wave. Maintaining the force aura around so massive a target over half a mile beneath may have been a strain on the great engines.

Even so, the dreadnaught was faster than the sailing ship. The Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy shrank into the distance as the red sun climbed higher, and was lost in the dazzle where indigo sky met violet sea.

Grind said, “Lay on! The dreadnaught is bound for Xurac Xuracuccac, the Fortress of Fortresses. My home.  South away! A raised every accursed scrap of sail, you puny, unplanned sons of harlots!”

But Prince Cucuio said, “Abide here, and await my return, and I shall bring such a wind, as you will overtake even that vessel.” He darted from the stern of the Tosspot and fell like a missile toward the cloud below, snapping his wings out at the bottom of his dive.

Grind, standing at the prow of the ship, grimaced, but ordered the sail reefed.

Preston came to him and asked tobacco. As it happened, Grind had a spare clay pipe in his pouch. He broke off the tip of the mouthpiece, and handed it to Preston. In a moment, both were wreathed in the scented smoke. For Preston, the sensation felt glorious. Suddenly, he felt more clear-headed than he had in days. The weariness of three days without sleep, the stress of three hours of desperate battle, now descended upon him like a warm and heavy cloak. The two men sat.

“How do you know where she is going?” Asked Preston.

He meant Cynisca, but Grind answered by saying, “The Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy is going back to the imperial capital, Xurac Xuracuccac, because Tlatoc is alive! The glory he craves cannot be found elsewhere: that is where the court sits. He is a ranking officer aboard. The others are dead.”

“And how in the world do you know that?”

“Are you blind? The levitation vessels rescued the Dark Conquerors, and left all other Firstlings behind to rot. The Conquerors belong to Tlatoc. If any other Marshal or Intendant had been left alive, Tetli and Xipil or Ichtaca of Ometeotl, he would not have tolerated to have all his expensively bred and professionally trained gladiator stock abandoned on the battlefield.” Grind laughed great gusto, but no mirth. “My cousins and their families are ruined after this day’s work, and can never recover from debts to the gambling houses now. Ha! Threno may be burning, but Threno has served me well.” He tilted his massive head back and blew a plume of smoke. “Alas! If only the Vengeful Widow had lived to see this hour! Well, I will see her in hell soon enough.”

Sleep was closing Preston’s eyes, despite his fears for Cynisca. He saw the moon descending in the west, visible by day, a luminous ghost brighter than the moon ever could be in the day he was born. He wondered how it could be brighter while the sun was dimmer. That did not seem possible.

His gaze focused on the sails, which were even then being folded to their spars by the hands. The absurdity of a flying machine shaped like a sailing ship bothered him. “Your sky ships are insane. How do you tack, with no keel in the water?”

Grind said, “Telluric current, which is carried above the level of the old crust by earth’s magnetosphere, acts against the centerline when we are aloft just like water current when we are afloat. We can beat to windward against the friction created.”

“Telluric what?”


“And you have lift! So why can’t you use the same gizmo to create thrust?”

“The buoyancy caused by our lifting rings is the balance-point between gravity and antigravity pressure caused by overlapping warp manifolds. We only need power to adjust the buoyancy during a climb, by decreasing the gravitic curvature. That power we can glean from the atmospheric electricity directly. For thrust, we would need to bring in broadcast power from the master station in Xurac Xuracuccac. If we tried that, the power drain would be detected, the engineers would be revived, and the power would be shut down by the L’Ra-R’Lin-A’a.”

The sonorous technobabble was lulling him to sleep. Preston’s nodding head jerked up. “The who?”

“Their name means the Heaven-scorned Undreamers who Scorn Heaven. The Undreamers form the ruling clone-cadre of the Watchers.”


“The word A’a has several meanings. The Eighth Men refer to their makers, the Winged Men, and, by extension, all other races, as ‘dreamers’ or ‘deceived ones’ since we have moods and emotions, particularly sexual passions, they lack. They are proud of their realistic and practical outlook. The word means to face the world with no false hopes.

“The L’Ra-R’Lin-A’a control the dimensional energy dynamo buried in the Great Dome of the Science Gods in the citadel of Xurac Xuracuccac. Not only is the worldwide broadcast power array under their control, as well as the Terraforming, but also the Archive of Determined Futurity, which contain records of past expeditions through future time-portals. Since they know the future is set, they have no false hopes about human free will or supernatural interventions. They know their race is doomed. Look at how many races before them were likewise.”

“Doomed? Then why do they do anything?”

Grind shrugged. “Most likely, they are unable to conceive a hope to do anything else.”

“Surely there are things worthy of the human spirit.” Preston’s eye fell again on the moon. “What about space travel? In all these eons, no one has colonized the stars?”

“They are far away.”

“The planets?”

Grind sucked his pipe meditatively for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was grim. “Ere ever my race was born, it was true that, from time to time, when one of the deathless Fourth Man race wished to enter oblivion, he would travel beyond this world to be beyond the reach of any reincarnation machines. There, in some hell of fire or of freezing methane, in baked or frozen wastelands under skies of vacuum or of poison, he would study and explore until his centuries of curiosity were sated, and slay himself by standing still and willing his neural actions to cease.

“It is the tradition of the Fourth Men not to bury nor burn their bodies, but to let them stand upright where they died, that their memories and brain elements be preserved for later consultation. No germ, no carrion-eater, would dare approach such a one, so their bodies never grow corrupt as ours do, but wear away in wind and rain. On the moon, there is not even this.

“Hence, when the first expedition of my people, led by the legendary Meztli of Yohualticetl, landed a ship on the moon, in the Sea of Serenity, the crew gazing out the view ports beheld ten thousand of the godlike beings, standing still in the silence of the vacuum, untouched by time, their eyes still open.

“Of course all aboard committed suicide. What glory is there to go where a greater people have gone before, and made their charnel house? The captain’s dying word, radioed back to Earth, placed a curse on any who dared follow: in all the generations since have honored that curse.”

Preston might have had more questions, but by then he was asleep, and his brain was filled with images of a stark lunar surface beneath a blue orb that never rose nor set, and solemn figures standing silently, their own monuments. He dreamed he saw Cynisca, dressed in a filmy white garment, speaking with a terrible creature trapped in a cube. In a dreamlike way, he understood the trapped creature had not been yet born. It had seven eyes and nine pairs of wings, nine wounds in its body, and wore a crown of spikes and hooks that tore its skull. And yet as the cube turned, a different face of the trapped being came to the surface. There were twenty-four faces in all. How a six-sided cube could have twenty-four faces was a puzzle to him. It made no sense, even in the dream.

He was awakened by the familiar, whistling sound of incoming missile fire he remembered from the China War. Before he opened his eyes, he saw flashes made red by his closed eyelids, and smelled the whiff of gunpowder. For a moment, he was sure he was still dreaming, since no race of Pangaea had rockets.

Preston opened his eyes. He was in the prow, just where he had been. He could see Prince Cucuio standing on the poop deck, with two more Winged Men, one to either side, holding up his arms. The ring on his finger burned like a star. Behind him, in the air, two score Winged Men or more were flying, and their hands likewise burned with the light from their rings. The sky above and beyond them was a mass of shreds and tatters of dark cloud drawn in long parallel lines: a sight for pilots to dread. Thunderhead, shaped like an anvil, was on the horizon to the rear.  Hurricanic winds were shrieking through the rigging, and the sails were belled out, and the masts were bent and creaking ominously.

The Seventh Men had summoned a hurricane. The Tosspot was speeding along. Preston stood unsteadily, gripping the rail with both hands as the wind from behind him slapped his head and yanked his tunic. He estimated their speed at fifty knots, or maybe twice that.

Sea was below, a heaving and wrinkled of winedark purple hills and dales, whose crests were wind-torn into wild white foam. Off the port rear was a line of blue shadow, indicating a coastline. West was empty sea.

Directly ahead was the dreadnaught Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy. Fire and smoke were all around it. For a moment, Preston could not see who was firing upon her. Then he laughed and whooped for joy.

For in the sea below were moving shapes, larger than whales: some sort of green ironclad vessel, darting like barracuda and leaping like salmon. In the middle of this submarine fleet was a submerged dome like a tortoise shell, just below the water, her guns peering above like so many periscope tubes, firing upward. At this distance, it was not clear what was holding the dreadnaught in place, but she was rolling and pitching as fire and smoke was slowly but surely eating away at the aura shielding her. The red brick tower, unharmed, hung between the combatants, just above the sea.

The Watchers had been stopped.

“God bless you, Sobek,” Preston whispered in gratitude.


*** *** ***

Episode 90 Ships of the Sixth Men

The gale force wind made the madly rushing Tosspot groan and creak alarmingly as she sped on. The scene of war grew clearer as the Tosspot drove forward, coming out of the stormclouds into the clearer air.

Preston saw an ironclad submersible, sleek and shark-finned, her green and blue hull a handsome surface of rippling scale mail, leap from the sea. Thin, glittering darts shot upward from independently rotating blister-shaped nacelles mounted port and starboard, tiny spears meant to penetrate water. However, this was followed by a barrage never meant for submerged use: a trio of rockets erupted from dorsal launch-tubes. These were not the liquid fueled Polaris rockets such as Preston knew: They were black powder rockets affairs not much more advanced than the Congreve rockets whose red glare Francis Scott Key beheld above Fort McHenry, but with some simple improvements: combustion chambers and de Laval nozzles, with the exhaust offset to impart spin. The conical heads were packed with a jellied gasoline and a phosphorous agent that ignited on impact, and stuck where it splashed.

Preston looked on with a sense of immense satisfaction at the sight.

Two disk vehicles were struck. One absorbed the explosion into the layer of solid air shielding it. The aura grew bright red, and the disk fled to a higher altitude. The other was shattered like a clay pigeon by the simple rockets, dropping men, equipment and debris into the sea, while smaller shapes of Watchers floated upward in the wind.

Other submarines projected only a prow above the water, firing spline-throwing spearguns mounted as bowchasers before twisting and diving back down below, shooting stern-chasers as she retreated. The impacts were slowed and deflected by a half-unseen shield coating the disk, but any disk raising such a shield slowed dramatically, and did not return fire.

Closer still, Preston saw more.

Just below the water was a vast armored dome like the back of a sea turtle. It was the same radius as the dreadnaught above it, so, for a moment, it looked like a reflection in the sea. Only the tuning-fork shaped muzzles of this mobile half-submerged sea fortress protruded above the waves, shrieking with strange energy projections that struck with the concussive force of a thunderclap, not bullets. These giant sonic-energy guns pounded and pounded at the dreadnaught, and the aura shielding the vast ship flickered and wobbled with each blow, and cracks grew in the glassy hull.

And from a superstructure in the center of the dome of the sea-base was a ray, thin, hard, opaque, and opalescent. It was the same effect that shielded the dreadnaught: The Wan der Waals phenomenon that might as well be called a tractor-presser beam. The dreadnaught was anchored in place, unable to ascend or flee, and her shields were visibly shrinking in radius.

A flotilla of disks was diving in waves against the sea-fortress, firing spline-guns and ballistae, as cover for other disks landing on the dome itself, driving anchoring hooks on lines into the surface. Gigantic Fifth Men and black-cloaked First Men from the time of the Dark Conquerors, wielding amber wands, pickaxes and drills and shape-changing weapons of liquid metal, emerged from these disks and began sloshing and wading through the sea water, pounding at hatches.

The dome in retaliation descended two or three fathoms, so that the anchored disks were awash. Sixth Men emerged silently from hidden sally ports in the rim of the dome, seven-foot-long, sleek and scaly lizard-men armed with nets and tridents.

The green, swift shapes darted smoothly through the water. The boarding party was taken by surprise. Singly or in pairs the lizard-men seized soldiers, either man-sized or giant, in powerful crocodile jaws. In bursts of frightening power and force, a Sixth Man would roll himself in the waves, dragging down his prey, drowning and battering him, breaking bones, and ripping limbs asunder, muddying the waters with blood and entrails. Even the larger Mighty Ones had no chance of escape once the deadly jaws were locked and the dreadful spinning and battering began.

But when the dome submerged, the batteries of energy-weapons fell silent. Now a strange sort of tug of war began: beams of repulsive force reached down from the dreadnaught and braced themselves against the green dome, and started prying the dreadnaught upward, one unsteady yard at a time. Through the glassy hull, Preston could see reflections of lights blazing bright or flickering and dying as the internal machinery of the titanic flying craft overloaded circuit breakers or melted bus bars, or whatever the Eighth Man equivalent might be. Meanwhile, the opal anchoring-ray issuing from the submerged dome flashed as if with anger, growing brighter, vibrating and shivering, and the dreadnaught began to lose altitude.

Grind came forward, staggering in the gale the Seventh Men had summoned, keeping both hands on the rail as he did. He shouted over the wind-roar, “I slept in my cabin and ate a fine meal. Why you wanted to bunk on deck, I cannot fathom.”

“How long?” Preston shouted back.

“You slept all day. It is one sand-glass before sunset.”

Preston did not bother asking how long a sand-glass might be: the sun was nearly touching the horizon.

Grind said, “We are in the southern Tethys now, not far from Xurac Xuracuccac. I was not expecting this! Those are Sixth Men submersibles.”

Preston said, “You knew I was sending Sobek out to get help.”

“I mean was not expecting to see Descender submersibles armed. They hate fighting us. They flee when they can, and I have never seen them be merciless. And such arms! Sonic rays. Metakinetic rays. Those are Fourth Man technology, monkeyed and twisted by Ninth Men. Why would the Devastators be helping the Descenders?” He shook his head. “And fighting! Fighting us!” Grind shook his head in puzzled wonder. “Has the world gone mad?”

“Gone sane,” said Preston. “It looks like by dumb luck the air fleet of the Watchers met the sea fleet of the amphibians coming to relieve us.”

“Not luck. Whoever passes over the sea stands on the roof of their realm. Of course they marked the passage of the Watchers. It is why they intervene I cannot fathom. They are peace-lovers. They have already retreated before, going deeper into the water.”

“The Sixth Men are peaceful. They are actually civilized, complete with radio towers, jury trials, monotheism, monogamy, and every civilized amenity the surface people lack. The only civilized people left in Pangaea, I would say. That have been preparing for this for a long time, waiting for the day the Empire showed a crack in its armor. The loss of the air fleet to Eien the Immortal was just that crack. My message to them was an invitation to shove their crowbar in. I did not expect them to get weapons from those creepy cyborg anarchists. Looks like the Empire has cheesed everyone off.”

At that point, a group of submersibles leaped like dolphins into the air, concentrating missile fire at the dreadnaught. The aura flickered and weakened under the hammering impacts. Talk was impossible: the thunder of the black powder explosions was too great.

Grind peered at the dreadnaught. The Tosspot was still approaching at wild speed, and the huge ship grew ever closer.

When the sound died down enough to exchange shouted comments, Grind yelled, “And what are those flying fire-splines? That is not Phantom work.”

“First Man technology. I told Sobek the formula for gunpowder, and some of the principles of Goddard and Tsiolkovsky. He told me that they have factories underwater, some of which have Fourth Man magic boxes he called replication units. Amazing what civilized people can do in a short time. Why did your race create the water-breathers again?”

“Experiments with dimensional rifts went bad, and hellfire melted the ice caps. We needed servants able to maintain the drowned areas. And to be able to fight us.”

“Well, you got what you wished for.”

“Not for countless years! We wanted creatures free from the curse the Phantoms put on us, so no talking to spirits for them. They cannot see the deeper levels of the cosmos in dreams and no prophets speak to them, no stars bless their births, and no omens unveil. It was a terrible miscalculation! Instead of fighters, we made a race of meditators. They had no ancestral voices urging them to vengeance, and no devils fed their wrath.”

Preston said, “The Phantoms did what? What curse?”

Grind cocked his head. “Rumor says you serve the Last Immortal. Didn’t he tell you why his race, the Fourth Men, created the Fifth Men?”

Preston was distracted by the view.

The stammering anchor beam from the sea-dome grew steadier, brighter, thicker, stronger, and the straining dreadnaught was now pulled down sharply. White fire began to flicker into being along the lower surface of the glassy hull, which thickened its shield from a half-visible shimmer to an amber molasses to an opal and gleaming solid. Other beams from the dome had wrapped themselves around the red brick tower hanging so far below the dreadnaught, and began to lift the whole mass higher and higher, bringing the two closer.

Grind said, “The Lethal Unit is still lethal! The Window in hell will be proud. I will tell her soon. Why isn’t the Swift Death striking the amphibians?”

Preston knew the answer. “I asked it not to.”  Since there were Third Men and Seventh Men working for the Empire, he could not ask the Final Unit to grant a blanket exception to all men of those races. But Sobek’s race did not serve the Empire, not one.

“Ho! Perhaps they are worthy to replace us after all. But I was telling you the secret: First Men can see ghosts, and hear angels. So can we Fifth Men. No one else.”

“What?” Even on the brink of battle, fretting over the fate of Cynisca, Preston was distracted by the strange revelation.

“We listened to the fallen angels only. So we live for vengeance. We die for vengeance! That is why we hate you First Men so much, why we take your women, and take such joy to see you fight each other to death for our entertainments.” And, with these words, Grind bent over the tripod-mounted negative energy catapult, closed the double throw switch. The vacuum tubes flickered and very slowly, starting with one small ember of red, began to glow with pale light.

Preston looked over his shoulder. Cucuio, and the other Winged Men, had abandoned ship. In the distance, he saw V-shaped flocks of flying men, with the blue falcon-wings of Cucuio’s people diving against a rising cloud of owl-winged flying men garbed in the scarlet and gold of the Empire. The owl-winged men were rising in a column from bay doors in the hull of the dreadnaught, far from where the white fires attacking from below could reach.

His gaze returned to the front. Preston shouted in alarm. The dreadnaught was now very close, and the Tosspot had not slackened her speed by a single knot. He grabbed Grind by the elbow. “Hey! Look out! We are about to…”

“For vengeance, I say!” Roared Grind, his metallic smile flashing. “That is why we are ramming the vessel where my accursed brother hides!” And he pulled the line connected to the lever that triggered the catapult. A wine bottle went winging ahead, traveling in a mathematically perfect straight line, with no ballistic drop. It struck the upper hull, but was cushioned by the aura, which, on the top of the vast vessel, was still merely a vaporous hint of shimmering air. Grind worked the catapult again and again. Soon half a dozen bottles and jars were clinging, unharmed to the curving surface of the hull.

Hatches dilated along the upper surface, and giants in armor, Ipotane in leather coats, and first men in black robes began marching out, preparing to repel borders. A fusillade of white gleaming spears, hard as diamonds and sharp as glass, shot from the harquebusiers and thudded into the Tosspot’s prow and jibsail, impaling the painted figurehead. One spline impact struck off the figure’s hand and sent the carved image of a drinking bowl spinning away into the sea. Grind roared in outrage, and the corsairs echoed his cry.

Grind put an arm around Preston when the ship struck. The aura around the dreadnaught slowed the ship, lessening the impact, but the ram still broke through the hull and shattered it.

The Tosspot was struck with her prow half inside the hull. Preston’s inner ear spun. The Tosspot was now somehow balanced on her prow, or seemed to be, and the deck was sloping sharply down. A wash of flame rose up between Preston and the hull break, leaping up toward him. The flames here seemed smoky and dim in the thickened substance of the air here.

Preston, hands before his face, ran aft, clawing his way up the sloping deck.  Through the corner of his eye, he saw Raad in his leathery coat half-running and half-sliding down and forward. Raad flourished a glass knife, he fell on the negative energy catapult, cutting at the lashings, trying to free the weapon and pull it away before the flame claimed it.

The shock of impact had been carried through the thickened air inside the shield, and broke half the winebottles where they lay pinned to the hull. Grind raised the Holland and Holland, which a giant of his stature could fire with one hand. The shield slowed the bullets. Grind raised the barrel higher. He blasted the other winebottles open, releasing a cloud of motes.

The thick air might have smothered ordinary flames, but this was the combustion being used by throngs of microscopic motes communing with the Lethal Unit far below, and receiving from it a deadly power which then flared into physical existence, visible to all.

White flame roared up and leaped in each direction. It was a scene from hell. In a moment, the horde of Fifth Men advancing along the hull was dissolved into nothingness, screaming.

But in the flames, something was still moving. Preston heard a bellowing laugh. He saw the outline of a vast humanoid shape, untouched by the Swift Death, firelight gleaming from his antlered helmet, wading forward through the conflagration.

Grind whispered, “Tlatoc!”

And he strode forward.

*** *** ***

Episode 91 Brother Against Brother

The glare of burning was in Preston’s eyes. Dizzy, and squinting against the flares and flashes of the Swift Death, he was disoriented by the roars of smoky, oily fires, and by the cloud of shards of broken hull-glass flying slowly through the thickened air. The aura protecting the dreadnaught made moving and breathing difficult.

He nocked an shaft to his bow. Preston felt like a man underwater. He saw enemies advancing through the flames. He shot. But the slowed and sagged, drifted and fell.

The deck, which had been level the moment before impact, was now a steep slope. Preston slung his useless bow over one shoulder. Grabbing onto a line, he braced both feet against the deck, and climbed up and away from the flames now beneath him.

Raad was now perched above him, on the poop deck the Tosspot, and there had set the tripod of the catapult. Two of the long-necked motley-skinned Second Men from the Happy Fortune were aiding him, carrying a crate of ordinance salvaged from their original ship. These were glass globes charged with white phosphorous and Greek Fire. Longbows might be useless in the turgid atmosphere of the Van der Waals aura, but the negative energy catapult was designed to push a payload with ever-increasing speed through any resistance.

As he climbed, Preston’s inner ear told him that the Tosspot was thrust into the level surface of the dreadnaught’s hull at a jaunty angle like the knife in a mumbly-peg game, and that the expanse of ocean was a slanted wall to one side of him, and a storm-torn clouds a slanting wall to the other. But his eyes said the pirate ship was still level to the horizon, just as she had been when she rammed the dreadnaught just above the great vessel’s equatorial rim, striking with enough force to pass thought the zone of pressure surrounding it, and crack and penetrate the glassy hull.

Captain Grind might have gone mad, but he had calculated the force of the impact nicely.

Nicely, that is, if he had meant for no retreat: the keel was splintered, and the masts were down. The starboard lifting ring had broken free of its wooden moorings and was swirling away on the stormwind like a lost Frisbee.

Preston reached a spot above the artificial gravity radiating from the dreadnaught. He stumbled, surprised. The deck now seemed level. He turned. Before him (which, until a footstep ago, had been below him), the ram and the whole prow of the ship was thrust into an open crack, larger than a cave mouth. Beyond the jagged stalactites of shattered hull, walking on curving deck or bulkhead like flies, were bald little gray-skinned men, naked save for smocks or tool belts, looking up with expressionless eyes as eerie as coal-black full moons, or empty wells.

This was an enormous space, a cabin or bay larger than an aircraft hangar, dimly lit. And even this was not the full interior of the dreadnaught, merely one part of one deck. Through the opening, Preston caught a glimpse of something half-organic, half-machine reaching from wall to wall. It looked like a combination of seashell and crystal geodes, crisscrossed with wires of copper and silver and gold. Here also, of course, were the ubiquitous trigram-covered glowing cubes of cannibalized Phantom technology. Red lamps were flashing and steam whistles blaring, but the Eighth Men spoke no word, and made no hasty motions.

But then the flames of oil, burning wine, blazing napalm, exploded across the view, globes of Greek fire lobbed by Raad, followed by the white-hot lightning-colored light of the Swift Death.

Dimly, through the flames roaring before the prow of the Tosspot (but the flame tongues were pointed toward him, since, from their viewpoint, he was above them), Preston saw that over half the Eighth Men inside the hull had vanished, evaporated instantly, but the remainder had sheathed themselves in the opal aura of personal Van der Waals shields generated by glowing instruments on the harnesses they wore. The unseen motes could not come at them. White fire was lashing at them and pelting them. The surviving Eighth Men, eyes expressionless, floated backward, free of gravity, moving beyond the limited view Preston had of them through the break in the hull.

On the hull itself, having charged forth from dozens of hatches and openings that dilated suddenly, were troops of Fifth Men, towering monstrously high. With them were graceful archers and harquebusiers of the mottled, long-necked Second Men. On their flanks came the sinister, blank-faced and black-cloaked and yellow-skinned First Men from the time of the Dark Conquests.

But the Swift Death had decimated this foe in an eyeblink. The Fifth Men roared and laughed as their limbs and bodies dissolved, and the Second Men died with them.

Not all died. One of the Fifth Men, taller than the others, stepped forth from the flame. He wore a many-tined helm of antlers, and a bright red cloak woven with an image of a dragon encircling and consuming the sun. In one hand, the man held a wand of amber, shivering and crackling with electrical energy, and in the other, a great rectangular shield. Beneath the robe gleamed armor of liquid metal, a First Man technology, and on his war belt he wore the ornaments of the Eighth Men which projected a personal aura of solidified air about him.

Behind him came the Dark Conquerors from the white curtains of the Swift Death. As First Men, they were unharmed. Led by cunning sorcerer-scientists, they had learned from the last attack. Their glittering black cloaks vanished, but their gear had been somehow rendered immune: the liquid metal in their hands formed punching daggers, razor-sharp throwing-disks or long whips of steel, and similar metal coated them like living armor.

The Roman legionnaires and Siberian veterans leaped from the tilted deck of the Tosspot down to the curved semitransparent white surface or the dreadnaught hull of. It was a far jump, but they fell with dreamlike slowness, retarded by the shield aura, and landed on their feet unharmed.

There was a moment when the noise of the fires burning, the storm wind howling, was the only sound. The two forces stood for a moment, regarding each other.

Captain Grind Goldtooth had a hatchet in one fist and the Holland and Holland in the other. He saluted the Fifth Man facing him with a flourish of his hatchet, and greeted him by name: “Tlatoc!”

“Tecini!” replied the other. He turned his head. Preston saw the man had but one eye: one side of his face was a mass of scar tissue, the result of a heavy caliber bullet—in this case from an elephant gun­—whose glancing blow shattered cheekbone, teeth and orbital eyesocket.

Tlatoc pointed his wand at Preston where he stood on the wreckage of the Tosspot, looking down. “Give me that one. The Imperial House wants him. The Voice in the Dark wants him.”

Grind laughed. “Let the Voice in the Dark return to the dark where our forefathers burn forever. I want you. Come, brother, let us finish the business between us!”

Preston realized he recognized the man. On the day of his advent to the era of Pangaea, this was the man who had led the chase hounding him from the boiling lake to buried metropolis through lava flow and waterfall. He was the one Preston had shot in the face while climbing the cliffs above Xurac Tlal.

The one-eyed man pointed at Preston and shouted at Grind: “He killed your son! He killed Chaac!”

Grind gritted his bright metal teeth. “I have no son! That boy who betrayed his mother to the Inquisition to save his worthless hide, who kisses your privates, he was no son of mine. You took his heart from me! I will cut out your heart to repay it!”

A lightning bolt flashed from cloud to cloud above. The clap of thunder smote all ears. Grind raised his arm and called out a command none heard, but all the corsairs behind him, Romans and Siberians, lowered their spears and flourished their swords and ran into battle.

The foreign minds living inside the Dark Conquerors opened the mouths of their hosts and uttered in unison non-human chiming noises, like the trill of a xylophone. At that signal, they rushed forward.

At this sound, the Methuseleans aboard the Tosspot shouted out their defiance, meeting the eerie trill-tones of their ancestors with infrasonic and ultrasonic banshee screams.

Preston realized the rope he was holding was long enough to swing free of the debris of the shattered deck. He swung, leaped, and floated down to deck, which, thanks to the artificial gravity, now seemed like a flat surface underfoot, as if he stood on the apex of a slope of glass curving down and away from him to either side. Meanwhile the sea was a wall slanting up to one side.

He drew his longsword and waded forward through the thickness of the air.

Grind called out a curse, and began blasting to his left and right with the Holland and Holland. Any Dark Conqueror struck did not explode like a tomato hitting the sidewalk, but merely suffered the wound of the kind a smaller caliber bullet might have made. In Grind’s hands, this was still deadly. The shots punched holes through skull or chest. The aura slowing the bullets was not slowing them enough to make them harmless, but the enormous kick was gone. The Dark Conquerors parted, streaming to the left and right around Grind.

Grind strode forth on gigantic steps. He closed in on Tlatoc, grinning and firing as he came. But the bullets slowed and bounced from Tlatoc’s combination of personal aura and liquid-metal armor.

Tlatoc flourished his deadly amber wand, but Grind blasted it into shards with a roar of the elephant gun. Then let the gun drop to the end of its lanyard, and drew his second hatchet. Ax in either hand, Grind leaped. Tlatoc raised his shield, but when Grind struck, both men fell to the deck, and rolled into the mass of flames. Smoke billowed up. Their silhouettes were but dimly seen, struggling.

Meanwhile the Roman line engaged the Dark Conquerors. The long metal whips of the enemy had longer reach than the Roman pilums: the snakelike blades of the Conquerors darted over shield and helm and struck the legionnaires about the head or back, or wound around their bodies, cutting and snaring limbs.

Preston rushed up to the centurion, Flavius. “Back! Back to the ship!”

Flavius obeyed. The men fell back in good order, followed by the enemy. When they struck the steep ramp of the deck, Preston sent two men upslope to lower lines across the deck. A rearguard of five men held the foe at bay while the others climbed as fast as sailors can. Then the rearguard swarmed up after, cutting the ropes behind them as they went.

When the corsairs reached the part of the deck that was ten feet or so back from the prow, and hence away from the dreadnaught hull and above the antigravity effect, suddenly they found themselves on a flat wooden surface. Able to brace their feet and lock their shields, even few as they were, there were enough legionnaires and Siberians to form a battle line from the port rail to the starboard.

The enemy a mere yard before them were laboring, crawling on hands and knees, as if climbing a nearly vertical slope, with their shape changing weapons writhing impatiently in their hands. The line of legionnaires with spear tip and boot sole were able to dislodge the uppermost rank of climbers and fling them back across the deck into the face of the rear ranks.

Any of the lower rank who lost his footing on the slope of the deck fell, not back to the hull surface, but into the bull breach where the nose of the Tosspot rested, whereupon they bounced past the figurehead and the ramming prow, and landed, unhurt (for the fall was slow) but very far below, on a dimly lit bulkhead amid the seashell-shaped machinery.

Preston found the crate of Greek Fire globes, which he began lobbing toward the prow. As each globe passed the invisible boundary, artificial gravity took over, and the globes fell “down” onto the heads of the Dark Conquerors in the vast cabin, standing on the bulkhead. These unwisely struck at the falling globes with their long and whispering whiplike swords, breaking them open in midair. Cloud upon cloud of sticky napalm and naphtha ignited upon exposure to oxygen. Each globe’s explosion broke the globe in midair above it in a linear chain reaction.

These fogs of fire then drifted down slowly but terribly over the Conquerors.

The cry of victory from the Romans drowned out the dying screams.

*** *** ***

Episode 92 The Killing of the Captain

The assault wavered. There was a moment of respite.

Preston raised the crate of Greek fire overhead, and, with a cry, threw the whole of it over the heads of the Roman legionnaires, and into the artificial gravity field, which drew it slowly through the thickened air down into the hull breach.

Then his glance darted left and right in confusion. There had been half a score of Methuseleans here on deck a moment ago. Where had they gone?

Also, Raad was nowhere to be seen.

The two Second Men who had been helping Raad man the negative energy catapult were dead, stabbed in the back with glass knives. The catapult itself had been dismounted and carried off.

Just then, the globes in the thrown crate, heated by the fires already raging, broke open and ignited. A gush of hot wind, as if from the mouth of a suddenly opened furnace, made Preston squint and raise his hands to guard his face. The rearmost rank of enemies climbing the (to them, nearly vertical) prow of the Tosspot were too near the mouth of the hullbreach. They silently fled or silently died beneath the lashing tongues of fire.

Preston saw an Eighth Man, small as a child, surrounded by the opal aura of his personal force field, drifting on the rising air above the conflagration filling the hull breach. The little man floated “up”—that is, toward Preston’s position, until he reached the boundary of the artificial gravity. Then he was caught by the storm winds, and flung into the tangle rigging of the broken mast just over Preston’s head.

As had happened to Preston with his magic ring, any contact with a solid object broke the spell: the little man crashed to the deck. He was quite dead, slathered in his own blood, and with a Methuselean pickaxe buried into his chest. The harness holding the force field emitter was half torn from his body.

The story was clear. Some Methuselean had assaulted the little gray man to try take the aura emitter from him. If the whole squad had the same idea, then the Methuseleans had left the battle to enter the ship, with Raad leading the charge.

The brief respite ended when the flames growing at the back of the enemy drove them forward. Forming their shape-changing weapons into climbing claws and boot-pitons, the Dark Conquerors now came up the deck slope in force, pressing the Roman line. The whiplike swords now snaked between Roman legs, tripping, slashing, and hamstringing, slipping under shields to stab at groin and gut. Preston remembered Grind saying the Dark Conquerors were the most feared of all the First Men fighting slaves of the Empire. Now he saw why.

The Conquerors gained a foot, then two, shoving the stubborn Roman line back. Now the attackers could stand upright on a level deck, for they too were out of the reach of the artificial gravity. The aura from the dreadnaught did not reach here: blows could be swift and hard again. Preston climbed atop the binnacle behind the Roman line, and brought out his smartbow. One feathered shaft and then another he put through head or breast of the attackers.

With shield and shortsword in their aching arms, splattered with red stains, the grim Latins hacked and slew, until the deck was awash with blood. But the difference in numbers was telling. The Dark Conquerors pressed inward, step by step. When one fell, gutted by a Roman gladius, the one who took his places was fresh, unwearied, unbloodied.

There was no hope; the hardened veterans of Rome fought on without it.

Suddenly a strange fit overcame the Dark Conquerors. Strange notes, like the chime of bells, issued from their throats. It was the sign to retreat.

Seeing this, Flavius the Centurion called the charge. Across the level deck, which suddenly became a steep downward slope, ran, slid, and dove the legionnaires, falling upon the retreating Conquerors like avenging angels.

Only those foes who leaped left and right managed to escape the Roman wrath and find a way back to the glassy hull surface. The less fortunate fell into the hull breach, and landed, falling slowly but inescapably, into a lake of roaring flame, which burned and consumed them.

Preston was still at the poop deck, and so he could see the battle on the dreadnaught hull as if peering from the crown of a tree. Preston saw what caused the Dark Conquerors to retreat.

Tlatoc was dead. Grind stood, badly burned over nine-tenths of his huge body, grinning, blood gushing from stab-wounds and burn-wounds, but the severed head of his brother, Tlatoc, he held aloft, neck-stump dripping, by the antlers of his helm.

Grind did a massive, elephant-stomping dance of victory across his fallen brother’s corpse.

A cheer went up from the corsairs.

Then a shout of warning rang out. Grind started to turn. Behind him, coming around the edge of a wall of flame, now strode Raad, lugging the negative energy catapult. With a grunt, he heaved the barrel up. Raad fired.

Greek fire struck Captain Grind square in the chest. His massive form was coated in an inferno. He fell.

Raad had looted a personal aura-of-force from a Watcher, and wore a breastplate of glittering, flowing, liquid metal over this chest he had looted from a Dark Conqueror. His tattered leathery coat flapped and blew in the stormy winds. His gold eyes blazed like yellow fires.

“Ho! Captain!” Raad shouted. “Pass me over, will you? Put that pale stranger over me, eh? Well, Threno’s gone, so you are captain no more. Lord A’a be my captain now! He gave me a better cut of the cards!”

Grind, coated with flame, dying, raised the elephant gun. The gold from his teeth, melting, was dripping over his grinning lips. His hands were coated with sticky, blazing naphtha, and it must have caused him infinite pain to pull the trigger.

The sound was like thunder. The bullet was slowed by the aura around the dreadnaught, and the thicker aura around Raad: he was struck in the shoulder, and the bullet lodged in the shimmering metal of his breastplate, which had thickened suddenly to take the impact.

The recoil ripped the elephant gun out of Grind’s grip. Raad drew whole handful of glass knives and loaded them into the sabot of the catapult, when he then shot into Grind’s burning, fallen body. The lines of repulsive force from the negative energy catapult pushed the sharp glass shard slowly but surely through the thickened air and deeply into and through Grind’s flesh.

Preston had no better weapon, and nothing else he could do, so he shot an arrow. He was not aiming at Raad, who was protected by armor and aura, but at the delicate radio tubes glowing in the stock of the engine. Raad saw the motion, and swung the barrel around. There was no payload in the sabot, but the invisible ray of acceleration energy struck Preston in the midriff.

The bowstring sang as the arrow flew. Then the longbow went spinning off into the wind. The blow from the unseen energy ray was sufficient to throw him off the binnacle where Preston perched, and the gale force winds were enough to pluck him up and fling him overboard.

He was beyond the artificial gravity sheathing the dreadnaught, beyond reach of any line or safety net. Nothing but air was underfoot.

Down he plunged, and the lower hull of the dreadnaught was like a glass sky above him.

Hundreds of feet below, the wrinkled surface of the storm-tossed sea heaved and moved. Carrion-eating ichthyosaurs, sea-serpents, and sleek sharks, summoned by blood, writhed and snapped.

Then he was falling through the air above the dome of the sea fortress of the Sixth Men. Beams of energy from the sea-dome were in the act of carefully lowering the tower: but even at that moment, a flying machine left the tower.

It gained altitude, swooping near Preston. It was neither a sky-ship nor a disk. This flying machine was shaped like a streamlined glass arrowhead sitting atop a trio of lifting rings, but with a long tail aft, gleaming with unknown energy, humming with power.

Its hull was glass, like that of the flying disks. Preston saw clearly through the hull the slim and lovely shape of Cynisca, her garments torn, struggling fiercely in the grip of a pair of yellow-eyed, hatchet-faced Methuselean soldiers. Preston recognized them as the corsairs with whom he had just be fighting shoulder to shoulder, men of the squad Raad had led into the dreadnaught interior. But these men wore sashes or bands of gold and scarlet, the colors of the Empire, to show where their loyalties now lie.

Her eyes turned up and her face lit. Cynisca clearly thought Preston was flying to her aid. Her lips parted as she called his name, but the glass hull, the increasing distance, defeated all sound. Her woebegone look as he moved away, his outstretched hand getting farther from her, was a blow to his heart. Her lovely, tearstained face vanished when the rough Methuseleans pulled her deeper into the interior of the flying machine.

The flying machine was moving slowly at first, as if to taunt Preston with the sight, and to mock his helplessness.

When it passed him, Preston saw the aft of the retreating machine. Out from a rear hatch, he beheld a squad of Methuseleans heaving a large black cube out into the wind: red light flickered across the trigrams carved into its surface as it fell into the sea.

This was the Lethal Unit. The heart of Threno.

It plunged into the sea. The bright fire of the Swift Death playing against the aura shielding the dreadnaught above dimmed and vanished.

The flying machine, with Cynisca aboard, accelerated away. She was gone.

The ring on his hand lit up as he fell, of course, but he did not fall downward. Instead the world seemed to spin around him, so that the vast curving surface of the dreadnaught’s lower hull was now an endless cliffside standing at a slant beneath him, with the sea like a cloudbank hanging over his head.

Preston fell upward. Had the hull still be burning with the Sudden Death, he would have been burned to nothing instantly, but there was no residual heat: the air was clear and cool when he struck the aura coating the underside of the dreadnaught. Preston rebounded from the layer of thicker air, a stone skipping across a lake.

Again and a third time he bounced, and then he was sliding on his belly just along the invisible boundary between the normal atmosphere and the heavier, higher-pressure air layer, surfing without a surfboard on no water.

The world toppled end over end in his vision as he cleared the rim at the far side of the dreadnaught, but his inner sensations told him that the direction he fell, no matter what direction is seemed, was the downward direction.  Then he started laughing like a madman, because he realized exactly where and to whom his magic ring was pulling him.

He drew his longsword in one hand and took out the blade hidden in his belt buckle in the other.

Odd to think that, of all his gear from early Third Millennium, the punching dagger with its stubby three-inch blade, hidden in his belt buckle, was one of the few weapons still in his possession.

He laughed again when raindrops pelted him. Preston knew death was near, and his hope of recovering his lady was remote, but the refreshing splash of water on his face lifted his spirits for a reason he could not say.

The top surface of the dreadnaught zoomed past, a few feet past his nose. He felt like an arctic bird swooping past the wind-polished crown of a glacier. A dark spot on the curving horizon of glass came into view. The rain was thicker now, and grey curtains of pelting rainwater, driven sideways by the wind, obscured the view.

The scene leaped toward him as fast as a parachutist in free fall: here loomed a group of dark haired, yellow-skinned men with silvery, skintight armor protecting body and limbs, rippling at the joints when they moved; with them were the wolf-eyed thin-faced Methuseleans in their ragged cloaks made of their own shed skins, now adorned with Imperial colors. The nearer ranks were facing away from Preston.

They stood in wings to either side of Raad, who, with the help of a thin, bald man in a mirrored cloak, was manning the negative energy catapult. These soldiers faced the few remaining corsairs at the distance of a javelin’s cast. These few were all that was left of once-proud Threno, a city that defied the Empire.

The Roman legionnaires and Siberian veterans, roughly a score of men, were gathered about the fallen, flaming body of Grind, shields up and spears ready, but no one advanced.

The jellied gasoline coating Grind’s body had done the work of a funeral pyre: the flesh was already being consumed.

The muzzle of the catapult pointed menacingly at the empty space of hull between the two squads. Beyond them, the Tosspot was embedded in the hull like a dart in a dartboard. The fires had spread, climbing the planks and rigging, and smothering the ship in a column of wind-tattered black cloud.

When Preston entered the aura above the hull, his body slowed. Raindrops were hanging nearly motionless in the thickened air. He pointed the swordpoint before him as he swan-dived toward Raad.

He was being drawn toward the bullet still lodged in Raad’s armor.

This was the shot that Captain Grind had fired toward his killer in the last moment of his life. Preston Lost grinned an odd little grin as he fell down from heaven, and struck.

*** *** ***

Episode 93 Downfall of the Dreadnaught

Raad turned, warned by some noise or motion. He tried to bring the catapult around, but it was too bulky. Preston struck like a lightningbolt, swordpoint at Raad’s chest, legs trailing high in the air behind.

The personal shield around Raad slowed Preston’s longsword. Preston’s mass, pushing from behind, bent the magnificent blade and broke it. The point was driven into Raad’s armor and through it, entering his chest. He staggered from the wound and fell, but scrabbled to draw his glass knives.

Preston landed atop him. The wrestling that followed was brutal and merciless and brief. Preston held the other man pinned, gripping his head, and pushed the dagger in his fist slowly but surely through the thickening aura surrounding Raad’s body. The blade came closer and closer to Raad’s eye.

“Wait!” cried Raad. “I had cause for all I did! I had cause!”

Preston merely grinned and shoved harder. The aura grew thicker and thicker and turned opaque. Preston continued to apply pressure. The aura remained airtight. He held the man down until he stopped moving.

Then he waited, allowing many minutes to crawl by.

When Preston stood, and sheathed the blade, the aura grew transparent, revealing Raad’s body. There lay the corpse, blue-faced. The shield protecting him had choked him to death.

Preston unbuckled the harness holding the shield emitter. Only then did he straighten up, and see that the Holland and Holland, wooden stock singed but otherwise unharmed, was slung across Raad’s shoulder. The yellow-eyed man had not thought to use it when Preston dropped on him. Preston picked it up, firing a shell into Raad’s skull, just to be sure. He broke the weapon, and saw both shells were there in the tubes, waiting for him. He snapped with shut with a heavy click of noise.

Cold water touched his face. It was raining, but the water was pooling ten feet above Preston’s head, and only a slowly descending mist of droplets was lowering itself through the shield aura surrounding the ship.

He turned. The Dark Conquerors stood with punching daggers and whiplike swords idle in their hands. Not one had raised a finger to aid Raad.

The man in the mirrored cloak stood with his arms crossed. Preston saw that a number of small machines, no bigger than pearls, orbiting his head like the moons of Jupiter.

Only then did he recognize his face: this was the sorcerer-technician from Captain Roc’s crew who had ignited the mines buried in the causeway leading to the postern door of Threno, wiping out a whole enemy company.

Preston could not recall his name. Mugwit.  Nugget. Nutmeat. Something like that. He had the same features as the other Conquerors, slant-eyed and hawk-faced, but more refined, more patrician. How or when he had come aboard the dreadnaught, Preston could not guess, and did not care.

Little red dots of laser light from the head-orbiting pearls were flickering over Preston’s body. The sorcerer-technician said, “I could kill you now, if I wished.”

“The feeling is mutual,” said Preston, turning the elephant gun toward him. “You’re the one who told them where to find the Lethal Unit in the tower, weren’t you?”

The bald man raised his hand and gestured toward the other Dark Conquerors, “These men are from the Immra-La, the garden lands of Sahara, below the Mediterranean Glacier, and their souls are from ultra-telluric Yaddith, as are mine. We are of different generations, but the disappearance of the City of Dreadful Sorcery, Soth-Urthvas, as she was drawn up above the atmosphere with all her peoples and their libraries and treasures and vanished, is remembered as a legend among them. They know me to be a Dread One, and will obey. My word can compel them to surrender their arms.”

“I would rather just shoot you and be done with it.”

“No doubt, but my companion mind tells me you seek your external soul, the Mercury to your Sulphur, who is a sacred virgin.”

“You are a traitor and should die.”

“Again, no doubt. I betrayed Threno for the same reason I served Threno, to learn lore unguessed by man: such is the oath of mages. With Raad of the Five Hundred Years dead, and the Watchers and Gargantuans aboard this dreadnaught slain, they have no more to offer me. But I can offer you a sure path to find your woman again. Is that worth my life? I mean nothing to you.”

Preston raised his voice. “You men of the Sahara! You following this?”

One of the Dark Conquerors said, “Sir, you speak of the tongue of Immra without accent. Nug-Ma’at speaks the ancient tongue of the Dread Ones to you, which only scholars know. We hear your side of the talk.”

Preston said, “The Watchers and Gargantuans aboard this ship are dead. As First Mate of the Tosspot — ” He glanced wryly at the burning wreck “— I am the ranking officer here, which makes me a member of the Council of Rogues, and hence the sole survivor in charge of the City of Swift Death, where First Men are free. I can offer you freedom and pardon if you surrender. Join us! Or you die for nothing, serving no cause but the ghosts of your own enslavers.”

The Dark Conqueror said, “We outnumber your forces by five to one.”

“Those are Romans. Your ancestors. Tougher than you. They can outfight you by ten to one, so you are actually outnumbered! Decide at once. I have a bride to go save. Seconds count.”

The man said, “We heed the wisdom of the Dread One Nug-Ma’at. We heed no threats.”

At that moment, the hull at Preston’s feet formed a pinhole, that swelled open to the size of a manhole. Out come a tall, thin, bald man with jet-black skin. He had an oversized chest cavity and shoulders absurdly broad. His legs were thin as soda straws. He wore a robe made perhaps of cloth, perhaps of energy, that shimmered and shifted through a dozen viridescent shades of olive and emerald, jade and malachite, as if the fibers blushed and breathed with green. A smell of springtime air was around him. His feet did not touch the hull beneath him, but a half-unseen aura of force coated his body, and on his belt was an eight-sided antigravity ring, identical to the ones the Seventh Man carried, or Preston wore on his finger.

In his shadow, slithering up from the hatch after him, came a crocodile-headed Sixth Man, holding a two-pronged spear on one hand, and red-haired little man in the other. The little man’s monkey muzzle displayed an impressive set of saber-toothed fangs when he grinned. He carried the Compliant Gold-Ringed Rod in one foot-paw.

Preston exclaimed with joy. “Sonny boy! Son of the Wind! Son of a B— ! Dear God, am I glad to see you! I am glad you are alive.”

The little man jumped to Preston’s shoulder, and drew himself up. “I am glad as well that you live, Chattering One. I have need of your chatter. Hear me: The Phantom’s black lens would have struck you from the sky had I not caused it to sleep. Now I have caused it to wake: You must speak to the leader of the First Men manning this ship —” Son of the Wind indicated the weightless black man in the green robe ” —and tell him to direct the lens against the levitation vessels still surrounding us. The haunted stone of Threno has been thrown into the sea. Your mate has been abducted. We have no way to find her.”

Preston grunted. “Nutmeg here says he can find her for me. In return for his life.”

Flavius the Centurion was not far away. He spoke up, “Sir! The sorcerer is a traitor to Threno and to Captain Roc. The penalty for a slave betraying his master must be crucifixion! One of the masts of the Tosspot is not burnt: it will serve.”

Preston gritted his teeth, wishing he could hurry this process along. A single misstep, however, would end the talk and start the fight again. He looked at Son of the Wind, “What do you say?”

Son of the Wind shrugged. “I do not serve the city named Death. I serve one who is before all names and above all names. Revenge is not mine to take.”

The Sixth Man spoke. Preston could not recognize him by face, but his voice was distinctive. It was Sobek. “The Corsairs live with betrayal and retaliation as part of their social order. They are chained to woe and sorrow.”

Preston’s impatience boiled over. He uttered a curt oath. “Sobek! How is that helpful?”

Sobek spread his hands, “Men have the power to make men. The power to make worlds. If the world we make is a world of woe, what is to be done? Where is wisdom found? Not in the world. Not in the power of men.”

Meanwhile, the rain continued to gather. It still was not falling, not inside the aura sheathing the dreadnaught, but the fog of suspended water drops was getting thick, and turning the whole scene a pearly gray.

Preston’s resolve hardened. He knew what to do. He turned to the sorcerer, “Nutmeg…”

“Nug-Ma’at,” The bald man bowed politely.

“Whatever,” Preston slung the elephant gun over his free shoulder. “I will accept your surrender and grant you pardon for your crimes on one condition —”

The thin-faced slant-eyed man had a remarkably toothy grin. He looked like a Jack-o’-Lantern when he smiled. “To preserve my precious life? I will grant any condition!”

“Give up sorcery. No magic. No devil worship. Now and forever.”

The grinned vanished. “Any condition but that one.”

Son of the Wind said, “He is possessed by a shadow, him. The shadow will do him hurt if he steps to the light.”

Preston felt his impatience turn into rage. Cynisca was getting farther away every moment he stood here talking, and, as yet, he had no idea how to find or follow her.

He grabbed Nug-Ma’at by the throat with one hand, and with the other hand, fingers cupped, scooped a great handful of rainwater out of midair. The he dashed this handful of water against the sorcerer’s hairless brow, shouting, “I baptize you in the name of the Father! And the Son! And the Holy Ghost! In the name of Jesus Christ, you damned unclean spirit, come out!”

Nug-Ma’at yowled an unearthly yowl, and all the Conquerors began uttering metallic chiming noises no human throat should have been able to make, their eyes blazing oddly.

The pearls orbiting the sorcerer’s head now emitted rays of laser light, somehow carrying an electric charge along their lengths, flickered into view, drawing bright red, thin lines pointed at Preston.

The laser rays pointed at Preston, but none touched his skin.

Some were grounded against his jacket, others encountered rain drops hovering between the two men, diffracting the rays and shorting out the electrostatic shocks. Nonetheless, enough of a charge got through to knock Preston from his feet. It was like grabbing a live wire with both hands. Since he was holding Nug-Ma’at, the shock was transmitted to the sorcerer as well, and threw him on his face.

The Conquerors drew their long, whiplike swords, uttering chirps and gong-notes oddly menacing in tone. The Romans lowered their spears and raised their swords. Son of the Wind, who had leaped free of Preston’s shoulder, was now standing atop the Compliant Rod, which held itself upright, and expanded to ten or twelve feet tall, flourishing prongs and hooks up and down its length.

Things might have gone badly indeed, but the sorcerer called out in the great voice: “Halt! Here is one more dread than any Dread One! A magic deeper than sorcery! Avaunt! Put up your arms, or he will call upon his name of power, and send your companions shrieking to oblivion!”

The Dark Conquerors shivered and contorted oddly, and their faces suddenly came alive, their eyes began to glitter and shine, and a human appearance returned to the posture and stance of one and all.

Son of the Wind hopped off the Compliant Rod, which folded itself up, and fell into the crook of his prehensile tail, which he curled around it. “The shadows have fled.”

The floating, ebon-skinned man in the green robe spoke for the first time. “These wicked energy beings are without shape or substance, and they are true rulers of the Advocacy, and the Empire. They are fled. The vessel Ever-Defiant-of-Entropy surrenders. All aboard avow themselves to you.”

Preston climbed to his feet. “Who the devil are you?”

The floating man touched fist to heart, then made a sweeping gesture toward Preston, palm open, fingers spread. “I am Seven Score of Aleph Line, a Lunarian. My Christian name is Basil. Like you, O Lord of Threno, I am the ranking survivor, therefore Captain of this vessel.”

Preston said, “Can you overtake that flying machine that left just now?”

The man said, “Negative. That is the Emperor’s own patax, the swiftest currier ever recovered from the graveyards. If there is any way to match such speed, I do not know it.”

Preston’s eye fell on the negative energy catapult which was still sitting on its tripod, unharmed, radio tubes warmed and lit, sabot cocked, next to Raad’s dead body.

A mad little grin crept onto Preston’s face. “I know a way.”

*** *** ***

Episode 94 Wings on the Night Wind

Preston was having a flying dream, wings spread wide, and it was a nightmare, for as he sped weightlessly through stormcloud and midnight sky, watching the luminous dials of the instruments on his epaulets slowly count the hours and miles, the dread that he had lost what was most precious to him was a stuffy ache in his head, and a hollow emptiness in his soul.

In his nightmare, a dwarfish shaggy man with a monkey face was clutching his shoulder with hands and feet, like the familiar of a witch. The whole horizon ahead was afire. The shaggy man prodded him awake by stuffing a black forefinger into his ear.

Preston woke, and the dream, both the good of it and the bad, was all true.

The hairy man on his back was Son of the Wind. The fire was the dawn, but also more than that. It had been strangely easy, when floating in weightlessness, and after long sleepless days of frantic work, followed by desperate hours of siege and battle and loss, to fall asleep in the eerie silence of faster-than-sound flight. But zero gee distributed the blood more evenly in his body than normal standing posture allowed: so his head felt heavy.

He had wings. He wore a training suit as the Winged Men gave to their squires, with artificial wings. It was a suit small enough to fit his Firstling frame. He had proper flight instruments to measure altitude and attitude, artificial horizon, air speed and direction, made by the Sixth Men, compact and well made, clipped to his shoulders. He had night-vision binocular goggles made by Sixth Men built into his streamlined helmet, and a gargoyle-faced rebreather mask to protect him from the windlance weapons now carried in both his boots.

Beneath the wings, he now wore the bright red knee-length gold-braided coat of a captain of the Council of Captains of Threno, the City of Swift Death.

Perhaps the city would retain that name, perhaps not. Whether the Sixth Men could find the Lethal Unit sitting on the sea bottom of Tethys had yet to be seen.

Beneath his red coat, the shape-changing metal of the Dark Conquerors coated his body like a jump suit, turning liquid at the joints for perfect ease of motion, otherwise hardening on impact.

A longsword and living longbow to replace what he had lost rode his hip and were slung across his back, along with a captured self-refilling quiver of self-replicating Lemurian arrows.  At his other hip was a Third Man wasp-thrower gun shaped like a conch shell. Packets of little wasps in suspended animation were tucked into his leg pouches.

When he took off at dusk twelve hours ago, he did not think he needed so many weapons, but they were gifts from Flavius and Sinhika, Sobek and Cucuio, so Preston hardly could have turned them down.

Now that the great city called Xurac Xuracuccac hove into view as the looming shadows of domes and towers, ziggurats and obelisks, silhouetted against the flames of the rising sun, and he saw its size and strength, however, Preston realized how foolhardy his mission was, how mad, and how unlikely any pleasant outcome would be, and so he wished for more.

His precious Mauser pistol was holstered under one armpit. His more precious Holland and Holland was slung to the other side.

Attached to the harness holding all these weapons were a ring-shaped emitter the size of a drink coaster. When it spun, it glowed, sheathing him in a shimmering aura, darkened nearly to opal before him. This helped his magic ring to protect him from the friction of supersonic flight. The moon-man, Basil Seven Score, after tinkering with the Van der Waals emitter, had solemnly promised that this emitter was instructed never to made the aura airtight over all its surface but always to leave a breathing hole open. Between that, and his Winged Man mask, Preston was not worried he might suffer Raad’s fate.

Orbiting his head was a small machine shaped like a pearl, or an unblinking eye carved of ivory. The little thing was as creepy as all get out, since it could apparently could read his aura and know his intentions. At his unspoken command, the pearl would emit a thin red line pointing toward Cynisca.

Preston had asked the sorcerer-technician why he had planted a bugging device to track her movements. Nug-Ma’at was perfectly forthcoming: “When the Ever-Child, All-Stone of Nine Hundred Years, sold the promised bride of Lord A’a Ilvala to the Vengeful Widow, the Widow saw value only in her blood, to grant eternal youth. Alas for the uninitiated! Lead is as gold to the blind. I read the signs, and knew at once she was a dreamer of true dreams, a seeress and the daughter of a seer!

“In the seen world, she is a slip of a girl; but in the unseen, a titaness.

“It was easy enough to attune one of my imprecatory operative ur-neutronium stones to her aurenetic frequency: indeed, her Kirlian purity nigh overwhelmed it.

“Sir—!” the sorcerer’s eyes had shined fervidly. “— You think me a traitor and I do not dispute that name! But it burns my soul to see one of her station bought and sold like a brood mare.

“These after-men, they are artifacts, are they not? Despite their longevity, their immunity to madness and disease, despite that they ruled their home aeons far longer than our race, they have forgotten what every tribe and tongue and nation of First Men knows. Human nature is greater than nature! All save the Fifth Men forget this: And even they meddle only with the darker manifestations of the hidden lore, and entreat entities indifferent to mankind, or malign.

“I will aid your quest to recover the visionary lady with all mine art and all my heart.”

So he allowed the sorcerer-technician to attune one of head-orbiting pearl shaped machines, an ‘ur-neutronium stone’, to his life-energy envelope, whatever that meant. Preston took the time to do some target practice with the floating pearl.

Despite his need for haste, it was unsafe to take off until Basil Seven Score of Tranquility Citadel commanded guncrews to sweep the black mirror’s beam through the remaining sky-fleet, driving the levitation vessels into the sea, where rippling white wakes converging on them betrayed the motions of the scale-mail ironclads of the Sixth Men.

Preston was inside of the control cupola to watch Basil carry out the operation. The chamber was like something from an Escher drawing, with men standing on every surface as if it were down, and with ramps and stairs leading up and down and sideways in a fashion that dazed the eye. He saw men rushing along opposite sides of the same walkway, each upside-down to the other. However, Basil’s people, like him, carried their own gravity with them.

“The Watchers favor us, because, like them, we were gene-engineered for microgravity. Unlike them, normal gravity overburdens us.”

Preston said, “It is a relief to meet you! I was beginning to think that in all the future people from all the future years, there would be no spacemen. To have the space program from my day come to nothing would be just …. well, every science magazine I read as a kid would be so disappointed.”

Basil said, “And yet it comes to nothing, like all ambition.”


“The domed cities and warrens of my homeland were swallowed in the silent dust without a trace. Without a disaster large enough to erase all evidence of our fate, the Watchers would not have disturbed the time-stream to abduct us. Have you not seen the despair of Pangaea? To be here means our loss meant nothing to history, our lives were in vain. You and you alone might have hope that someone after you remembers you and honors your name.”

“Me? ‘Fraid not. Folk vanish in the Bermuda Triangle all the time. I never fit in that world anyhow. God know!”

“He knows.” Basil said solemnly. He made a gesture Preston recognized, unchanged across countless centuries: touching brow, navel, left shoulder then right. The sign of the cross.

After a few more questions, Preston discovered the moon-man hailed from hundreds of thousands of year after advancing glaciers buried the last remnants of the monstrous Dark Conquerors. Seventy thousand years of neolithic savagery followed before writing was re-invented and recorded history began again. The absolute world-state that arose afterward was the most stable social arrangement till then known. It lasted four hundred thousand years, until the Apocalypse of Darkness, the so-called First End of the World, marking the halfway point of the history of the First Men.

The span of years was dizzying. Preston was curious. “And they still have a Christian church in your days? In A.D. Two Hundred Thousand or so?”

“In my days, no. World-State edicts mandated worship of the Autocrat in thought and word and deed, and strictly forbade any other. In these days, yes. I heard the word: at hand was a kingdom not of this world, which, being unseen, cannot be unmade. I was bathed to cleanse my death-stain, as you did to the schizophrenic man. The name of Saint Basil was bestowed on me by God-Beloved Lambswool of the Lake of Light, the Prophet. You know him.”

“I don’t know him.”

“How can this be? He said he is your brother. His martyrdom is soon.”

“I don’t have a — Wait. What? Say his name again!” This time Preston listened with his ears to the sounds the man spoke, not to the meaning of the words appearing so automatically in his brain. Fyodor Poyarok ozera Svetloyar.

“He is my brother…” whispered Preston. He remembered Cynisca saying she had seen in a dream that Preston must rescue Fyodor. Apparently she had really seen the future. Apparently that was now.

Basil said, “He has been taken to the Hunting Preserve maintained in the great park in the center of the city. There he will be slain and skinned like a game animal, for the amusement of the Mighty Ones.”

At that moment, another hovering Lunarian turned and announced that the last of the air fleet was ditched in the sea: the way was clear for Preston. Preston turned as if to run back up the dizzying antgravity ramps to the upper hull again, but Basil gently took his elbow, negated all gravity, and soared up. The overhead parted to receive them into a short glassy shaft. In a moment, the two were atop the hull.

The sun had set. The storm clouds hid the stars. The moon was below the horizon. Save for the glow from the glass of the hull, all was dark.

Here Cucuio and Nug-Ma’at were bent over the negative energy catapult. Son of the Wind, with a flourish of the Compliant Rod, pole-vaulted onto Preston’s shoulder.

Preston said, “You coming? Why?”

Son of the Wind said, “To accomplish the will of the one who sent me. To undo the evil done when all days were marred. And what mother lets her untrained child wander the wild alone?”

Nug-Ma’at straightened up. “This is Fourth Man work. I can make it work, but I do not fathom how it works. So! I can adjust the beam to follow the earth’s curvature.”

Cucuio said, “There is no range limit, as I said. The beam will prevent loss due to air resistance, and you will be protected by the shock of acceleration, I hope, with the precautions of the ring you wear, and the Van der Waals aura tuned to create partial vacuum. If all goes well!” he laughed. “This is madness such as we Seventh Men feel only when aloft!”

Preston said, “A muzzle velocity of two thousand feet per second is something over thirteen hundred miles per hour, which is not quite twice the speed of sound. I should arrive first.”

Nug-Ma’at projected a thin red laser beam from a pearl he had hovering at the breach of the catapult. It receded off into the dark and starless sky. “Xurac Xuracuccac is that way. The ur-stone I gave you can triangulate the distance, and inform you of her approach.”

Preston broke his Holland and Holland and passed one bullet to Nug-Ma’at. He inserted it carefully into the sabot of the negative energy catapault. He fired. The unseen kinetic ray of the catapult maintained the bullet’s speed and direction.

Prince Cucuio said, “I would ask a blessing of our gods, whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos, but they care nothing for human doings.”

Son of the Wind bared his teeth. “Speak no ill word! The day is come. None may serve the old gods any longer.”

And Nug-Ma’at said, “At first to save my life, but now to save my soul, I serve the Lost Man’s solitary god, who frees the slaves, who has no name. I am free of the companion! I renounce the world and all its woe, and I renounce all fealty to the princes, powers, and high rulers of this present darkness. Their pomp and false promises I scorn.”

Preston said. “Wait, that was for real? I mean, how did I actually do an exorcist shtick?  But I didn’t — I don’t — I haven’t even been to worship service since the war!”

Nug-Ma’at said, “It is not the speaker of the name, but the name spoken, which does the work. To believe otherwise is superstition.”

Son of the Wind rolled his eyes. “First men! Blind to the unseen, but sharp-eyed to the untrue!”

Now he yanked Preston by the ear, so it smarted, and he said sharply, “You have been petted, Chatterer, like a child half asleep. That ends. Wake! Before us is the work! For this you were brought to this world!”

“Wait! Are you saying someone or something brought me into the world deliberately?”

“Are your eyes yet shut? Wake! Your mate, your brother, and your master wait no more!”

And with this, Preston spread his wings, and Son of the Wing unfolded the Compliant Rod, and the two were flung into the air. His ring lit, and he fell toward the bullet that the negative energy catapult was propelling at twice the speed of sound far away beyond the horizon. More speed and more he achieved. The wind fell silent when he passed the speed of sound.

Somewhere in the darkness of the starless night, floating weightless without the slightest shadow from the pitch-black environment to tell him he speed, and with no pull of gravity on his head to warn him he was nodding off, Preston fell into a daze, a sleep, and a deep dream.

*** *** ***

Episode 95 Fortress of Fortresses

Preston should have been terrified, worried, vexed, and nervous.

Instead, his spirits were buoyed up by the sheer physical sensation of flying, the joy of speeding along the wind like an angel (without the expense, the headaches, the endless delays of hiring engineers to build him an aircraft they all doubted would perform as designed). Some dream from childhood, or from a deeper, unknown source of desire, was stroked and fulfilled by soaring aloft on wings, all burdens of surly gravity cast away.

Below was the great city of Xurac Xuracuccac, a crazy quilt pattern of gold and black mansions, bone-white and blood-red walls and roofs, blue canals and gleaming pools, green arbors and brown-stained pyramids, shining acres of glass and stone, reaching beyond sight.

The suburbs, crisscross by canals and roads and punctuated by many thick-walled, overdecorated fortresses, consisted of walled houses, barracks, bivouacs, slave-pens, slaughterhouses, walled gardens, greenhouses, warehouses, depots.

The whole huge metropolis was adorned with the stolen wealth of millennia. The roof tiles were arranged into frescoes, the raingutters were enameled with bright colors, and the water spouts were carved into gargoyle skulls with drooling mouths. The capitals of pillars and posts, even the fenceposts of swine pens, were sculpted into caryatids and telemons, their crowns fretted into lace palm-fronds. Street lamps were set with silver mirrors and emerald lenses. Roofbeams were carved and painted like totem poles. Ceremonial masks twenty feet high of mythical beasts and tusked lizards, leering demons and screaming skulls, painted and gilded, hung along the eaves of skyscrapers like shields on the rim of a Viking warship. And everywhere atop tall platforms, obelisks, and dolmens were masked and helmeted images of squat and bulbous warlords, god-kings with goggle-eyes and grisly teeth, and man-eating monsters rearing skyward.

Nor was that all. Hanging in mid-air, blithely ignorant of gravity, were floating mansions, minarets, aerodromes, strongholds and counting houses. Here were vast ornaments shaped like orbs of metal and glass to mimic the sun and moon, flying in stately orbits beneath acres-wide platforms that held floral gardens where ponies ran, or circling an amphitheater with a glass-bottomed floor was flooded for mock naval battles.

But it was largely unattended. This mega-metropolis could have held the entire population of China in his day, had every house and manse and insulae been filled. As it was, he saw whole quarters empty, acres of dark windows and miles of desolate avenues, and stepped pyramids taller than the Empire State Building, unlit and abandoned.

Three walls of brass and iron and adamant, to which the Great Wall of China would have been merely a curb, surrounded the city on the landward side, one within the next.

Between the semicircle of adamantine wall and the sea, like the central tower in a castle, loomed the square miles of the inner city. Between two rivers rose a tall island of sheer cliffs, as wide as Manhattan, with the bay as its moat. A flat-topped mountain mesa rose from center of the great island. Beneath the moat, glinting lights betrayed the presence of undersea fortresses, railways and weapons to fend off Sixth Man attacks. Curving spans of bridges reaching from mesa top across the river waters to the other quarters of the inner city gave the whole the appearance of a cyclopean cathedral with flying buttresses.

Acres of windows and balconies, bays and aerodromes, reflecting the rising sun like fiery rubies, lined the steep slopes of the mountainous mesa, acre upon vertical acre, which told Preston that this was not a mesa at all, but an arcology: a single edifice, miles on a side, able to hold several nations’ worth of population. As he soared, he saw only a few windows lining the uppermost ranks were lit. The other stories were dead, perhaps unexplored.

Atop the mesa loomed ornamented edifices without number: monuments, temples, mansions, palaces, gardens, fountainworks and marble pools, fanes and stronghouses, shrines and museums, amphitheaters, odeons, gymnasiums and quadrangles. Tall towers, curved like the teeth of a smilodon, half a mile or more in height, ringed the brink of the mesa. Midmost in the city, atop a knoll of marble and worked bronze, arose a dome of black onyx, half a thousand feet in diameter.

His doubts returned when he saw the fires below. This was not just the gleam of the rising sun glinting off the glass windows, golden spires, and begemmed monuments.

Barricades of rubbish blocked off the narrow streets in many places, and barbed fences and wooden watchtowers had been hastily erected to block major roads and public squares. Fires were in the streets: burning rubbish, burning gutters, and smoke rising from manholes from subterranean sewer fires. In the firelight, corpses could be seen swinging from gibbets, or dangling from impaling poles, or lying unburied in the streets.

The light from the rising sun glimmered above the inner city and the mountain-island. Each had its own protective aura, as did many of the fortresses and towers in the outer city or suburbs. Some of them were surrounded by fires, all the buildings in the city block ablaze, and the shields were opaque, shining like opals.

Preston looked at the pearly ur-stone orbiting his head as it swung past his eyes. The laser line pointed back along his line of flight. He had passed Cynisca in the patax-flier sometime in the night.

Son of the Wind, perched on Preston’s back, saw the ur-stone’s light. He bent toward Preston’s ear, and said over the wind noise, “Your mate is not here yet. You knew that.”

Preston said, “They are in the middle of a civil war here. Or a riot.”

Son of the Wind pointed. “Fires among the servants. See? The big houses are black. Giants. The small ones are white. Not giants.” Preston saw that the fires were in the suburbs and in the outer city, between the surrounding wall layered in decorated plates of bright bronze armor, and that of black wrought iron. There were no fires in the inner city. All within the ambit of the adamant walls was peaceful.

“Trying to pry her out of this will be a nightmare. What was wrong with idea of attacking the currier ship in midflight?”

“I said before. Were you not awake? Were your ears closed?”

“You said they would kill her if I tried to rescue her, but that no weapons, no guards will be around, once they enter the Temple of the Science Gods. You did not tell me how you knew.”

“Phantom say. Eien say.”

“But he is dead! How can he say anything?”

Son of the Wind just shrugged. “He say save prophet first.”

Preston said, “During a riot, the Fifth Men would bother executing Fyodor? Why wouldn’t every man be out trying stop the fighting?”

Son of the Wind said, “Mad with pride, all Fifth Men. Here in the great city, more mad. It would shame them to say the doings smaller men can mar their entertainment. They will ignore it until the levitation vessels can gather, and send the Sudden Death down the streets, leaving all of their own unharmed.”

“They have the Sudden Death here also? Lethal Units?”

“Yes. Took from the places of the dead. The one in Threno remembered the Phantoms, and disobeyed them.”

“Won’t it destroy us instantly if we land?”

“Giants want not their slaves, servants and brides to die. Want not vassals, tradesmen and guests to die. Haunted stones awake only in most sacred places where no servants go. I will protect.” Now he pointed with the Compliant Rod at a great circle of parkland, many miles in diameter, surrounded by high walls, occupying a quarter of the outer city, encompassing many scores of acres of lawn and wood, hill and valley, with one of the rivers bisecting it.

He said nothing, but Preston understood. That was the hunting preserve where Fifth Men tracked and ran down First Men. Fyodor was there somewhere.

Preston remembered what Grind had learned about the elephant gun. Instead of firing it, Preston broke the Holland and Holland, and removed the one shell he found there, and tossed it casually away into the air. He closed the rifle and opened it again. Both bullets were reconstituted.

He put the enchanted bullet, the one that drew the ring to it, up to the ur-stone orbiting his head. They clicked together, clinging as if magnetized. It was a useful trick: for he could, with a silent thought, send the ur-stone ahead of him to the left or right, and his weightless body would follow. This allowed him to guide his flight without firing his weapon.

But it was not to work now. The difference between the lazy bumblebee speed of an ur-stone in flight, and the supersonic speed granted by the negative energy catapult was too great. He began toppling as he dropped below the speed of sound, and spread his wings to stabilize his flight. His instruments showed he was losing velocity and altitude rapidly. He cupped the wings to increase drag.

He decelerated as he began to pass over the hunting preserve, but his speed was too great. He saw he was not going to land within the miles-wide ring of greenery. Reluctantly (because he would have preferred no loud noise to herald his coming) he shouldered the rifle, and shot bullets toward the ground, back toward the hunting preserve.

The massive recoil sent his zero-gee body somersaulting, despite his wide-spread his wings. By the time earth and sky ceased whirling, he was not far above a stand of pine trees topping an artificial highland.  He was within the hunting preserve wall. His speed had dropped to subsonic.

Returning his guide-bullet to the ur-stone, he soared in slowly along at low altitude, studying the area. He did not flap his wings (for he could not) but altering their angle of attack allowed him to gain or lose altitude. The recoil from gas vented from his left or right wind-lance allowed him to make a banked turn port or starboard, but he wished he had a rudder.

The hunting grounds were broken into several terrains surrounding a central green, through which the river ran, swiftly at the southern end, slowly at the north. Tall cycads loomed over marshy undergrowth. Where the wall enclosing the ground crossed the river, a reservoir formed an artificial lake. A line of barred sluice gates allowed water, but not prisoners, to escape. Guard towers to either rose to either side, adorned with masked and enameled statues or squat figures. Black and gold huntsmen in antlered helms were carved into the gates and gate-posts of the nearer gate. Cringing figures in white marble and red being disemboweled by hounds adorned the far gate.

Preston wished for more speed. He fired his weapon again, shooting the guide-bullet toward the nearer gate. The world spun, and gravity pulled him in that direction.

Son of the Wind said, “They hear. They know you come.”

“Let them,” said Preston as he landed, light as a thistle, on the lawn. His great wings folded and retracted, revealing the bright red corsair’s coat beneath. “Just so Fyodor heard it, too.”

The ground before the black and gold gate was grassy and soft, and, as he had suspected from the decorations, the torn ground and trampled grass showed where Fifth Men, servants and beasts had gathered before dawn, with weapons and chariots. He recognized the prints which Son of the Wind had taught him during their long trip down the River of Sluggish Death: the hunting hyena beasts big as ponies called mesonychids; miniature equines called merychips, and, larger then elephants, mastodons. Unshod servants had mingled with the booted Fifth Men. The long, narrow feet without toes were prints from Second Men, the smaller feet with toes like fingers were from Third Men. Ashes from fires and dry drinking jacks told the story of their breakfast of ale and bacon while they waited for light.

His plan was simple: instead of trying to track down Fyodor, who no doubt was being as furtive as possible, he followed the hunters, who made no attempt to hide.

The first hunter he came across was a straggler who had fallen behind, an old and wrinkled Fifth Man with a walking stick, a bald giant seated on a rock in the shade and drinking from a wineskin. With him were two mesonychids and a Third Man dressed in livery. Silently, Preston rose from the grass and sent an arrow hissing through the air into the huge old man’s eye. The arrowhead ignited, and jets of flame gushed from ears, mouth and nose. The old man rose up, roaring, twelve feet tall, swayed, and fell like a tower, stone dead. Son of the Wind calmed the two prehistoric hyenas with a gesture. The Third Man servant ran off.

Not half an hour later, as they passed through shoulder-high grass, Son of the Wind tapped Preston on the knee, and pointed behind and ahead, gesturing with his fingers. Some of the hunters had detected the first murder, and were now lying in wait for him were the trail lead past and through some high rocks. At least one had circled around, and was closing in from behind, making noise and seeking to run him into the waiting ambuscade. Arrows or bullets required line of sight, but the weapon Lady Sinhika gave him did not: he sent a curving line of wasps from the seashell-shaped gun around the corners and crags in the rocks ahead, into the spots he would have selected to place a blind. He was rewarded with smothered noise of alarm and motion. He circled the rocks stealthily, arrow nocked, and came across four Mighty Ones writhing from the wasp poison. Arrows into their chest and skulls cooked them from the inside out.

Preston hid in a nook in the rock. With a silent thought, sent the ur-stone Nug-Ma’at had given him high into the air. When he heard motion in the grass, he directed the laser-guided electro-stun ray in that direction, sweeping back and forth. A body fell.

He raised his head, bow and arrow ready. One ten-foot man was down, shocked, but not slain. The others — he was in a group — raised their wands and pelted Preston’s head with electro-shock pellets. The aura around him slowed the pellets so they fell at his feet rather than touch his skin. Preston shot, nocked, and shot again. The arrows doubled and redoubled their numbers in midair, and struck like comets, lighting the tall grass afire. Preston’s breathing mask protected him from the smoke, and he peppered with arrows any huge form he saw attempting to lumber or crawl away from the spreading blaze.

A Second Man ran out from the cloud, and fired his spline gun. The glassy shafts penetrated Preston’s aura, and shattered into shrapnel, but the darts of crystal were defeated by the semi-liquid metal of the Dark Conqueror breastplate he wore, which hardened under impact.

Preston shocked the man with his thin red ray from the ur-stone, and Son of the Wind reached out with the Compliant Rod, and yanked the spline gun from his shaking fingers and threw it spinning off into the bushes.

Preston shouted at the man, saying, “Go tell your brethren! The Empire is no more! An Ideal Commonwealth rules here: in the name of God, I free all the servants of the Fifth Men.”  The effect of the ray passed. The Second Man ran off.

He bent to the ground. Now Preston was seeing, beneath the later, larger prints of the Fifth Men and their Mastodon, the footprints of a naked First Man hurrying, which passed this way before the dewfall at dawn.

The band of hunters had found Fyodor’s trail, and were closing in on him.

Preston followed the spoor.

*** *** ***

Episode 96 Hunter and Hunted

The trail led up to higher ground. Copses of trees dotted the slopes, and, higher still, the forest was thick, and tall trees shut out the weak, ruby-hued light of the latter-day earth.

The next ambush was much larger and better prepared, but the ten Fifth Men were still bearing mere hunting weapons, meant for slaying panicked, unarmed pray, and their Third Men serfs carried wasp-throwers. They were not geared for war. They did not expect to be hunted by a hunter themselves.

From their spoor, he knew their position. He strung his living longbow and opened his Lemurian quiver. Showers of flaming arrows turned the scene into an inferno. The ambushers were forced to rush out into an open glade where, hidden beneath a bush, Preston had set an ambush in his turn. He had seeded the grass with the blue nodules from wind-lance ammo: they exploded when trod upon, filling the air with clouds of gas, severed legs, bloody boots, and mesonychid beasts with broken backs and burnt paws, whining piteously.

The pursuers scattered when his elephant gun tore huge bodies in half. Preston had to come from hiding to chase them. The Fifth Men dashed electrocution pellets from their amber wands against him. Their first volley rebounded from Preston’s aura and armor. He answered with thunder and fire.

The survivors retreated back into the forest. He had Son of the Wind use the Compliant Rod to launch them both into the air. He perched Son of the Wind and a tree and swooped down.

Preston could soar to any bole into which he shot a bullet, but he used other weapons on the foe, as using the rifle changed his flightpath.

As he swept by overhead, he showered the lumbering and raging gargantuans with grenades and sprays of gas from the Seventh Man wind-lances strapped to his legs. His Sixth Man goggles allowed him to see their heat patterns through the opaque smoke, and his Seventh Man mask allowed him to breathe. He fired into the cloud again and again. Neither his supply of arrows waned, nor his supply of Mauser bullets.

A forest fire was starting where he had shot six Lemurian arrows, which turned in midflight into three dozen. The air held the stinging smell of smoke.

When he returned to Son of the Wind, the little man was deep in conversation with another Third Man, this one gray furred and close-shaved all over his body. Son of the Wind said, “This is Ketuman, a varlet of scenthounds. He knows where the quarry is at bay. He will lead us to your friend.”

Ketuman bowed and spoke. “What is my lord’s generous reward to his servant, if my lord finds what he seeks?”

“Name it,” said Preston.

“Freedom for your servant and your servant’s clan. Leave to go our way as we will, when we will, and live as we will.”


“And one thing more: My lord gives permission for his servant’s clan to loot this city of jewels of gold and jewels of silver, as much as we can carry.”


“And one thing more: My lord gives permission for his servant’s clan to enslave the Fifth Men, slay their children before their eyes, and torment them daily for hundreds of years, as they have done to us.”

“Denied. Learn to forgive. Makes life easier. Is liberty not enough?”

The little monkey man nodded gravely. “Vengeance is sweet, but to over-ask is uncouth. Come!” And he scampered away.

The glade beyond the forest rose to a high, wide knoll near the encircling wall. A tall stand of rocks was here. The gray Third Man, Ketuman, pointed silently. Preston thanked him. Ketuman said, “Spare my cousins. They will not resist.” And he disappeared into the tall grass.

Preston, from the air, saw a figure kneeling in prayer at the top of the rock plinths. It looked like a First Man. Surrounding the rock on all sides were snarling giant hyenas, who prevented any escape, albeit they could not scale the rock with their hoof-tipped claws.

Across the glade and up the gentle slope of the knoll came a mastodon, trumpeting, and a group of Fifth Men in a tower on his back, armed with spline guns and amber wands. A half a hundred more Fifth Men were moving through the grass alongside, either afoot, or in chariots pulled by merychips, a breed of miniature pony from the Miocene.

These Fifth Men were more ornately dressed than the others had been. They sparkled, they glowed with ornamentation. Artificial antlers on helms, gilded and bejeweled, flashed like fire. Roundels and apples of gold clashed from their cloak collars and dangled from cloak hems.

Preston swooped toward the mastodon. The pair of Third Men in lacy livery sitting on the mastodon’s head leaped clear and ran away on all fours. The bearers and servants following the mastodon, a hundred or more of First and Second Men, likewise turned and fled. The gargantuans in the howdah howled oaths and raised their wands, sending electrocution pellets after the fleeing servants.

Preston flew past. Behind the mastodon, he erected a curtain of smoke from his wind-lance leg-weapons, cutting off any view of the fleeing servants from their wrathful masters. He landed on the far side of this wall, shouldered his rifle, examined the heat-patterns of the several targets, and began picking off the Fifth Men wading through the grass to either side of the mastodon.

The thunder in his ears was deafening. He sensed, rather than heard, the change in the ground vibrations when the mastodon turned and charged. Preston flung himself to one side just at the last moment. The huge beast, trunk in the air, trumpeting, came thundering out of the wall of purple smoke like an avalanche. A rear foot came down within a cubit of Preston’s head.

Preston slithered forward in the tall grass on elbows and knees, and then rose. The huge pachyderm had passed him in its charge, and, tapped by shocking wands held in the hand of the foremost Fifth Man in the tower, began to turn.

Preston saw his shot. The beast was facing away at the three quarter’s view: Preston raised his rifle.

The shot struck home, passing through the ribcage and lungs from the rear quarter, and smiting the heart squarely. The great beast wobbled, stumbled, knelt, fell. The slope of the knoll was not steep, but it was enough to roll the mastodon onto its back, crushing the tower and those within.

One figure rose from the wreckage of the tower, bloody, his finery torn. The others had flung themselves atop this man as the tower fell, were pieced by debris and splinters, and died protecting him.

He wore a headdress wider than that of a Vegas showgirl, an elaborate corona of gold blades, silver lamps, and black ostrich plumes. A crest like the hood ornament on a fancy car reared from the three-tiered top of the crown: a dragon carved of ruby, smothering a sun made of amber and gold.

The man was twenty-one feet tall, the largest gargantuan Preston yet had seen. He levered himself upright on his wand of amber, and when his eye fell on Preston, he said, “We shall never surrender! Kill this body, and when all hell breaks free, we shall return, dragging our red-hot chains behind!”

Preston said, “I don’t care if you surrender.”

“In the Great Dome, the Gate of Eternity is prepared! We need only the tesseract, which even now our instruments detect within the city. The Voice from the Dark assures us that it shall come into the Dome. Dare you to kill our sacred person? The blood of fallen angels courses and burns through my veins. The counsels of archdemons echo in my skull. We are legion. We are Empire!”

“Goody for you. Go away.”

“Kill me, and I return within the hour, after the afterlife is conquered, and the gate breaks open. All hell breaks all bounds this day, and the Heavenly Spirit shall be my catamite!”

“You are a windbag. Go away, I said. I am not going to kill an unarmed crazy man.”

The man blinked in confusion. “Know you not who we are?”

Son of the Wind rose up out of the grass and perched atop a knob of rock six feet high. He said, “I know who you are, sir.”

The huge man turned ponderously toward him. He stiffened in shock. “It is you. The Holy Hermit.”

“Eien the Immortal sends his greetings and farewells with these words: the experiment in artificial evolution is over. The result is negative.”

And, with this, Son of the Wind flourished the Compliant Rod, and extended it into and through the huge man’s skull, breaking his headbones and scattering his brain stuffs to the winds. The decapitated body toppled stiffly, legs unbending.

The elaborate headgear was lodged, unharmed, on the tip of the rod. Son of the Wind partly retracted it, pulled the helmet, with its gold starbursts and silver lights and black plumes, into his reach.

Preston said, “Why did you kill him? He was no threat.”

“To speak a word against man can be forgiven. He spoke against the Wind.”

“What wind?”

“The Wind. There is but one. It is the sacred wind. It is the breath the one called He-Who-Is breathes out when he speaks, which brings light from night, shapes sky and sea, calls up firm earth and makes it green, makes sun and moon, breathes life into life, and breathes immortality into man.”

When this, Son of the Wind tossed the Gold-Ringed Compliant Rod away down the slope with a grimace of distaste. Preston, surprised to see so useful a weapon discarded so casually, took a step toward where it had been tossed, but Son of the Wind barked. “Leave it be! Once they taste human blood, talking weapons cannot be trusted.”

“I was thinking it might be useful to help get Fyodor down off that rock.”

Son of the Wind’s eyelids dropped to half-mast: a supercilious look. “You have wings.”

The hyenas circled the rock snarled as they approached, until Son of the Wind ordered them to sleep. With Son of the Wind on his shoulder, Preston was able to vault high enough, with the aid the wind-lances in his boots, to get airborne, as he had seen Seventh Men do.

Fyodor was dressed in nothing but a loincloth, armed with nothing but a stout stick. Marks of fang and claw marred his left hand, his feet and legs. He flourished the cudgel when Preston landed, but his blow slowed when it struck Preston’s aura, he was able to step back, and yank off his goggles and gargoyle mask. “It’s me! Preston!”

“Who?” Fyodor sank back down.

“I must have told you my name! Your brother! We drank on it!”

“God is merciful!” Fyodor laughed. “I prayed I would see you again, before the end.” But then his eye fell on the helmet Son of the Wind was carrying. “Or is it the end for another man? Not for me? Is the Emperor dead?”

Preston said, “I do not know who any of these guys are. I killed them, after I was loaded for bear by half the races of Pangaea. Amazing what folks can do once they pool their efforts.”

Without a word, Son of the Wind brought out a pouch that Lady Sinhika had given him. It contained a medical kit, or, rather jars and honeycombs and small clamshells filled with various insects and snakes in suspended animation. Son of the Wind began cleaning and suturing wounds. One snake licked the wound with its antiseptic tongue, another injected medicine via its fangs, while scorpions, spiders and silkworms sewed wounds shut and spun clean bandages.

Preston said, “You want a wasp-gun? Have some knives. Here. Take my coat. I am wearing two. What the hell goes on here? Why is the city on fire? What happened to you?”

But Son of the Wind interrupted, pulled on his ear. “We have no time! Your mate is come! Bring the prophet, and spread your wings!”

Preston squinted at the ur-stone. The thin red line point toward the black dome on the flat topped mountain looming over the city. Cynisca was in the dome.

“This is the fastest way, damn it!” Preston shouldered his weapon, fired a blast into the air. The Watchers might detect it, but he did not much care about stealth now. But he had to get airborne and teleport the bullet back into the gun before it fell earthward and struck some innocent bystander.

“I’ve got wings. I can carry you on my back,” said Preston to Fyodor.

Fyodor snorted, and rose up, and with the casual strength of a son of the Russian soil, hoisted Preston onto his back. Son of the Wind scrambled to his shoulder.

It did not matter who was carrying whom, since the ring made them all weightless once Preston stepped from the brink. A kick of the jets in his leg weapons gave him altitude. He shot and shot again, and raced toward the dome literally at the speed of a bullet.

*** *** ***

Episode 97 Lambswool of the Lake of Light

Wind tumult made talking difficult. As he approached the great onyx dome, Preston donned his Sixth Man bioelectronic sea-goggles to magnify the view, searching for some sign of Cynisca. He saw the kidnapper’s currier ship, shaped like a glass arrow, hovering at an aerial dock halfway up the vast dome’s circumference.

Then, as he came closer, he saw men standing atop tall minarets, or standing in midair. They were squat and huge figures, dressed in full armor, with plumes and pennants spread from helm and backplate. These were Mighty One, but buoyed aloft by the antigravity emitters of the Watchers. Like them, and like Preston, they were surrounded with a shimmering aura: the Van der Waals augmenting force fields.

“There are Mighty One soldiers standing in midair all around the Dome! Who are they?”

Fyodor said, “Varangoi. Sworn Ones. They are Fifth Men who have left their race and manhood behind, to become one with the Eighth Men.”

Some carried spline guns like Second Men, and the splines in their quivers were glowing like the explosive weapons of the Lemurians. Some had the shape-changing weapons of the Dark Conquerors writhing in scabbards on their war belts. Other wielded red-alloy gold-ringed instruments of war of the same workmanship as the Compliant Rod.

But there were more than this, a dozen other weapons, elegant or absurd, from other periods and technologies Preston had not encountered: one wore a helmet of fiery gems projecting a crown of fire; one flourished a brass instrument shaped like a sousaphone; another commanded a cloud of floating swords circling him in the air; another held a glittering rainbow shaped like a whip; a metal serpent coated in knives and spines of bronze writhed in the gauntlets of another one held a hoplite shield shaped like a crystal wheel inset with terrifying eyes inset within a second wheel, turning in opposite directions.

Preston could not guess what such weapons could do. But he could guess they came from all the races under the dominion of the Empire, forced to make weapons for their masters; or came from all the lost cities and lost continents in time raided by the Watchers.

“Great what folk can do when they work together…” Preston muttered aloud, and then cursed. Even with all his weapons and gear, he was outnumbered and outgunned.

Son of the Wind twisted Preston’s ear and pointed. “There! Six lamps of red and white! It is the signal!”

“Whose signal? What is — OW!” For the sardonic little monkey man simply twisted his ear again, harder.

Preston saw an outbuilding, a black marble building with a dome and a turret, tucked away amid the trees of a small garden on the outskirts of the compound where the dome loomed up. There was a tall wall between it and the central building of the compound. The outbuilding was nowhere near the dome, nowhere near where the laser light from the ur-stone was pointing out Cynisca’s location.

“What the hell,” said Preston wearily, “I followed this monkey through a forest fire and a lava river into an enemy camp and down a god-forsaken waterfall into a haunted city. Might as well keep on trusting him, or the dead Phantom, or destiny, or Providence, or whatever is in charge of my crazy life. If I had played it safe, I never would have chased a UFO into a storm over the Bermuda Triangle… ” And then he was silent a moment, for the thought occurred to him, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he might actually be a rather reckless man after all.

He used both the rifle and the ur-stone to direct his guide bullet. At a much slower pace now, floating along like an owl rather than like a falcon in a dive, Preston glided low over rooftops, followed the empty boulevards at head-height, and skimmed the tree tops of gardens, skipped over the spires of mansions. As best he could, he kept tall walls and peaks of pyramids between himself and the Varangoi in the air.

Now the black marble building with its turret was close. It was four stories. Rows of windows peered out, unlit and blank. But in one place were lamps were burning. One white lamp was in the middle, with red lamp in the neighboring widows above, to either side, and below. The sixth lamp was also red, in a widow on the bottom floor directly beneath, to make the shape of a four-armed cross, with one arm longer than the other three.

A hunchback in a hooded mantle was standing below the final lamp, in the muddy soil of a fallow garden, leaning on a mattock taller than himself. Preston landed, or rather, Fyodor’s feet touched the ground, and gravity returned, and Preston found himself in an embarrassing position of being carried piggy-back by another man. The hooded figure spoke without turning, strangling and gargling his words: “Come! Not safe here!”

And, with that, the hunchback stepped into and through the wall before him. The solid stone did not break, nor did the marble substance part, but the surface simply failed to impede him, no more than a fog bank.

Preston started to climb down from Fyodor’s back, but stout Russian lad stepped forward at the same time, so Preston found himself half-hopping and half-hauled along in his wake, and so was drawn into the surface of the seemingly solid stone before he could stop.

It was cool and black. Preston, blinking, staggered forward a few steps down a slope. When his vision cleared, and he found himself in a very high but windowless tunnel or drift beneath a barrel vaulted ceiling of stone. He turned. He touched the wall behind. It was stone, solid and tight.

This was some sort of underground aqueduct, since the water running in the deep channel underfoot was clear. The water was also warm: he could feel a tickle of steam on his face. Lamps were placed every few yards along the tunnel, but most had failed, so the round pools of dim light dotting the tunnel floor were a string of lonely islands in a sea of pitch black.

The hunchback was here. The wan light from a single lamp slipped beneath the hood and mantle, and glances from part of his gross features. The rest was knotted shadow, or pulsing half-suggestions.

His eyes were mismatched, and his teeth were made of steel, and a shell ran from his shoulders, giving him his hunched appearance. His had three arms of different sizes: one of metal, one of stone, and one of flesh and blood. He had two additional eyes on his chest where nipples should have been. Between these lower eyes, a wooden cross with an ivory figure of a crucified man was embedded into his breastbone.

Preston said, “You are one of the Final Men. I know you do not have names. But what do you want others to call you?”

“I am named and known. I am Peter, which means, The Stone. It is my Christian name. I am Peter the Delver. What I was called before is gone. You have brought the Prophet and the Priest? You must be the King.”

“No, my name is Colonel …”

Son of the Wind, perched on Preston’s shoulder, placed atop Preston’s leather flying cap the oversized helm he had recovered from the Fifth Man: The helmet slid down, and crystal wands and golden tines and black ostrich plumes unfolded from the helmets superstructure like a peacock spreading its tail.

The helmet metal was alive, and so the cheek plates and brow-rim and neckpiece expanded or contracted to fit snugly. Gun in hand, Preston could not push the huge and gaudy helmet off his head. He tugged ineffectually at the cheekplates with his free hand. The leather lining of the helm had a lingering smell of sweat from the previous owner, a hint of blood.

Peter the Delver bowed. “Imperial Majesty! As the first to honor your new estate, I claim the traditional rights for myself and my family, which I promise not to be merely clone of myself infused with brain information. I have left the ways of the Final Men!”

Preston said, “What the hell is going on? What is all this?”

The hunchback bowed again. “The Last Immortal conscripted me to this task long ago, since all was foreseen.”

“All what is foreseen?”

“The end of foreseeing. I go to prepare the way. No alarms, and no apparitions, will hinder your coming. But Your Imperial Majesty must be pleased to take care to follow the path where I go, and to stray neither to the left, nor to the right.”

And with this, the hunchback doffed his mantle, and, naked, slid into the waters. His tortoise shell protruded from the surface like the conning tower of a half-submerged submarine. A wake of ripples followed this shell as the Final Man propelled himself smoothly, swiftly and silently down the water channel.

Son of the Wind answered no question of Preston, but gestured impatiently, and scampered away down the dark corridor, keeping pace atop the stone walkway with Peter the Delver sliding through the water below him. Son of the Wind vanished momentarily into blackness, then emerged into the weak cone of the next lantern’s light. He turned, and with a sardonic eye and exasperated demeanor, beckoning Preston to follow.

Preston followed. The way was long and the pace was rapid, so he and Fyodor alternated walking and jogging.

While walking, they spoke. Preston told him a few highlights about the battle he had survived and how he had come to fly to the capital, and then asked Fyodor his story. Fyodor, who had been laughing in good spirits at Preston’s tale, now assumed a solemn demeanor.

“When we met you said this world was not hell. After, I thought long and deep on this. If so, I saw that heaven was not beyond the reach of prayer. It was such a blow to the heart when I lost Cynisca. For the first time since I woke on Pangaea, I knelt and raised my voice to heaven. I fasted, wept, and prayed very much. On day, I heard a voice in my heart, telling me to be steadfast.

“Upon return to the capital, I asked of other slaves and fighting slaves, and I found men of good will, including an Ethiopian anchorite from Prestor John’s kingdom, black as pitch; Chaplain Philip Nicholls from a place beyond the Western Sea, called Roanoke Island, and a Bishop named Baldwin from Avalon, where the wicked fairy queen rules. All these were holy men. Nicholls could read the Holy Book you gave me, and Baldwin had the authority to ordain priests.

“Baldwin laid his hands on me, and I received the gift of dreams. Citlalic and Coaxoch, the wives of my owner, Zipacna the Sportsman, were the first of the giants I baptized, and Zipacna not long after; and Asva of the Golden Tongue was the first of the domovoi—”

“First of the who?”

Fyodor pointed at Son of the Wind trotting ahead of them “— the monkey goblins. Asva translated when I spoke to Mighty Ones or Ipotanes.”


“Terrors. You told me they were men. This meant they could be saved, did it not? There was such hunger among the slaves for the Word of God. And I was given the power to see the hidden things of the heart, to heal the sick, to cast out devils. Nor was I the only one. Baldwin laid hands on many. Nicholls read to them from the Book. In secret, we met to share the feast of God. We ate the host and drank the wine.

“The work of gathering the lost, baptizing the sinners, none of it was hard, for Zipacna could buy and free them, or hide runaways in his plantations. We had twelve in a day. In a week, twelve hundred. In a month, twelve thousand.”

“So you started a revival meeting. But why is the city on fire?”

“We told them the Will of God.”

“What will?”

“As you once told Cynisca. No baptized Christian may own another Christian, and no woman be taken in marriage against her will; no second wife; no divorce; no slaves fighting to amuse the crowd; no more taking boys as a man takes a woman. The vice of Byzantium. You have heard of it? It is called buggery.”

“Yeah, it was kind of widespread in my day.”

The eyes of Fyodor grew bright, and his face seemed to shine.

“We told them that their mindless gods who dance and sway and wail in the outer darkness were devils, drunk on human blood. This was against their oldest law, which states that no slave, no little man can speak true things displeasing to the great and mighty. And all true things are displeasing to them.

“Zipacna could do nothing to save us when the soldiers came. Many of the faithful fled the city. Many were gathered up. When they bound us up to stakes to burn us in the town squares, twelve to each square, our ropes burned, but our garments were not singed, no, and not even a scent of fire was on us. We walked free, and the wind came and the whirlwind. It plucked up the fire, and spread it on the rooftops. It was a sign and a mighty wonder.”

“You think God did that?” Preston asked skeptically.

“Shouldn’t I? You told Cynisca that the Father would come and fight our battles. Why should I doubt my brother, or the word of my brother?”

It had come time to jog again, and there was no more time for speech. That was just as well, for Preston had no answer to give.

*** *** ***

Episode 98 The Narthex of the Eternity Gate

Preston and Fyodor continued down the dark tunnel, following the dimly-seen swimming form of Peter the Delver in the water channel underfoot. Preston wanted to bring up an awkward topic, but hesitated.

Eventually he said, “I found Cynisca in the City of Swift Death, caged by the Vengeful Widow. When did you talk with her?”

“She is alive! Wonder of wonders!” Fyodor laughed. “I last saw you when I was ailing. Cynisca, that angel, tended me, with her soft eyes and soft hands! We could speak to each other. I know some Greek. But you vanished during the attack by the Seventh Men. Cynisca told me that it was said the wind carried you away after you struck down a Seventh Man with a thunderbolt. We marched until we reached the City of Despair. The Terrors in due time returned me to the Fifth Men. We were driven south along the River of Sluggish Death in a well-armed caravan. Not well-armed enough! Cynisca was sent, too, for her bridegroom had bought her. I spoke much with Cynisca, and my heart grew toward hers.”

Preston scowled, wondering where and how to break things to him. But he said nothing, and Fyodor, not seeing Preston’s face, continued to smile, starry-eyed.

“Fairest of women! She was lost to me when the caravan was attacked by escaped slaves along the great causeway south of Xurac A’a. That was such a blow! Where is she now? I must find her!”

“I have a magic amulet that points to her.”

Son of the Wind had stopped. Peter the Delver was crouching on the brink of the channel, and pointed silently at a white archway blocked with black stone. Preston, whose thoughts had turned to Cynisca, silently invoked the slim red ray from the ur-stone. It touched the blocked archway.

Perhaps it was not blocked. Son of the Wind stepped into and through the black stone blockage as if it were mist. Fyodor said, “Cynisca is there?”

“She is getting married. There are supposed to be no guards around. A ceremony we have to break up!”

Fyodor uttered a great guffaw of laughter which was cut off in mid-laugh when he plunged with no hesitation into the solid-looking black surface.

A sudden sense of claustrophobia, combined with a dazed sensation of disbelief, made Preston unwilling to step forward. What if it was something that disintegrated whoever entered, rather than just rendered the body insubstantial?

Nothing made sense in this world. UFOs he could understand. For that matter, dinosaurs and force fields, living computers, talking weapons, and antigravity castles. They were just science fiction. A woman from Atlantis who could see the future or project her astral form across distances, that was just fantasy.

But all this Sunday School stuff? People walking away from being burned alive, unhurt? Was he supposed to believe this?

Behind Preston, the choked, gurgling voice of Peter said, “Fear not! I have made the way open, and the instruments are unaware.”

Preston looked back. “What?”

Peter pointed with his mattock at the arch. “Years have I prepcared. Matter nullifiers were introduced into the infrastructure slowly, surreptitiously. I have calibrated the vibrations to null. This discontinuity path cuts up through the foundations, and will take you to the very narthex of the Eternity Gate. All these events, up until now, where seen and known by records of these times, sent back from this date through the current gate, which is the last known lesion in timespace to open.

“Therefore what fruit this hour bears, for weal or woe, and who lives and who dies, and what kingdoms rise or fall, hereafter is unknown, and all tomorrows dark. One race will be established on Pangaea, for the great experiment of the Phantoms is over. It has failed. So I was told by the last of them before he perished.”

“You knew Eien, the green man?”

“Like Son of the Wind, I swore fealty to the one Eien serves. It is the cause you serve as well. Go, now! You must make all things anew, Lost King.”

“I don’t understand any of this!” said Preston.

Peter pointed at the black stone filling the white archway. “Your queen is beyond.”

“That,” said Preston, thumbing the tang-mounted safety off his elephant gun, “That is something I understand.”

And he hesitated no more, but stepped into the surface.

The cold and darkness of the solid matter passing though his eyes and brain dazed him. He felt a rushing sensation, as if an immaterial current were propelling him fathoms at a stride. He blinked.

Preston found himself alone. There was no sign of Fyodor nor Son of the Wind.

It was dark here, and from the texture of the air, he knew no widow, no door, had opened into the outer air for centuries. He squinted, summoning his night vision. A dim red reflection glimmered in the distance. From hints and shadows this reflection shed, he deduced that he was in a vestibule where two stone tables, adorned with obelisks, stood above square dry pits, one to either side of him. Before him, receding in the distance, he could pick out the shapes of a double row of black pillars of titanic girth and height. He crept quietly down this wide nave, keeping to one wall, moving from pillar to pillar.

It was well that he did, for when lanterns descended from the ceiling, the beams of light fell into the middle of the nave. He drew back into the shadows.

From a dark opening gaping in the ceiling of the nave, figures emerged silently. The passed along the roof heads downward, and then vertically down either wall in two columns, like a line of ants. The procession was as silent as ghosts.

These were Eighth Men, bald and no taller than small children, hovering three feet off the floor.

Preston slid behind a pillar. The line of figures moved down the wall, and then across the floor. The two lines met in the middle of the nave, turned, and passed down between the lines of pillars, approaching the pillar where Preston hid. He held his breath, hoping not to be heard. He could see them clearly as they passed by.

Each was surrounded with the now-familiar shimmering aura of personal force fields.

Those floating in front were nude, shorter than the others, and held conical lanterns glowing with a pale, colorless light, wearing only utility belts for tools and gear.

Next came taller, graver figures, each wearing a shoulder harness and smock, drifting past him, quiet as thistledown on a breeze. These had antennae, which may or may not have been ornamental, protruding from their wide skulls and draped over their backs, swaying like the whiplike tailfeathers of pheasants.

Each held an instrument that looked to Preston like a Chinese puzzle box. They were formed of black onyx inset with gold wire, with parts that rotated and slid, or folded open and shut. The objects changed from pyramids to cubes to octahedrons, icosahedrons to dodecahedrons and back again. The Watchers twisted and folded these onyx puzzle boxes in unison once every three seconds, as regularly as clockwork, so that each man in line held the shape the man before him had been holding three seconds prior. The silent, rhythmic, hand motions were eerie, hypnotic.

Next came lumbering figures from a nightmare, or something out of a Washington Irving yarn. These were huge, seven-foot-tall forms that looked almost human, wide-shouldered and muscled like weightlifters, but with no heads on their neck stumps. Instead was a plate-shaped appliance bearing a snorkel, with a cable of wires running into the neck stump at their spinal columns. Their skins were gray, and, like the Eighth Men, and, like them, they had no external sexual organs.

The headless muscle men were bearing two palanquins on shoulder-poles. Each team of a dozen bearers, six to a side, carried an ornate sedan chair made of metal segments beneath a canopy. These might have been thrones or might have been dentist chairs.

In the near chair, a figure dressed in white robes was seated beneath a red canopy. In the far chair, the figure was dressed in red, and the canopy was white. The long veils depending from the canopies defeated his view, but the figure in red was slender and shapely. He assumed this was Cynisca, which meant that the white-garbed one was her bridegroom, Lord A’a.

Finally, in the rear, were hovering, crowned figures of a different breed, as tall as young teenagers. Their heads were narrower and peaked, and their eyes were darker and larger. These also had wizened faces, with wrinkles gathered at corners of eyes and mouths. These wore overtunics of white with high, tight collars. This garb looked a bit like a lab coat.

Each one held in hand a slim wand with a curving head and foot, a compromise between a shepherd’s crosier and an integration sign.

Over their heads floated golden hoops, like the angel in a school Christmas play might wear. Each hoop shed a trio of yellow beams to illuminate the floor beneath and to either side of each floating figure.

The line of floating and walking shapes passed silently down the vast, dark corridor.

Preston followed warily, placing his feet as long years stalking prey had taught him how to do. The floating men made no noise in their motion, but the two dozen headless bearers did. Preston matched his footfalls to their rhythm.

Where was Fyodor? Where was Son of the Wind? Why hadn’t Peter the Delver delivered them all to the same spot?

The procession entered a rotunda. This was a vast enclosed circle of space, large as a football stadium. High overhead a dark dome loomed. It was an expanse of jet-black onyx freaked with flecks of white like stars. It seemed a sky of stone.

A ring of black cubes, each over a yard on a side, and covered with glowing trigrams, hung in midair just below the pendentive where dome rim met rotunda roof. The miniature lettering carved into the faces of these block shed an erubescent light no brighter than dying embers. This was the light he had seen from afar.

Archways larger than train tunnels mouths opened into chancel and transepts larger than boulevards leading away from the rotunda in the cardinal directions.

The procession floated along above their own reflections in the highly polished floor. This floor was a circular plane of black marble inscribed with labyrinthine gold tracery. These floorstones arabesques were as intricate as a printed circuits.

In the center of this, directly below the apex of the dome and reaching about halfway to it, loomed a pagoda of black cubes.

It was one hundred feet high, built up in a tall, narrow-based structure Preston recognized: a beehive shape composed of concentric courses of blocks, set one atop the other in rings of slightly different diameters. It reminded him of a Hindu stupa. He had seen Eien the Immortal seated beneath a full-sized version of a similar structure.

It was stolen Fourth Man technology, in other words.

The crown of the pagoda held itself at the focal point of the dome’s parabola. This crown bore two semicircular horns that faced each other like the brackets of a parenthesis.

Between these horns was a slowly-turning lens-shaped double spiral composed of countless tiny points of ghostly light, like a galaxy seen face on.  When Preston beheld it, he could almost feel the immensity of energy vibrating through it. Instinctively, without reason, his heart quailed; and yet he had no doubt his awe and fear were wise.

The procession parted, one line circling the pagoda to the right, the other to the left. A line of tall columns of opaque black glass ran in a circle all around the outer rim of the rotunda. Preston flitted from one to the next.

When he brushed up against one of the black columns, he felt a vibration crawling in his fingertips that made him uneasy. Something, something bearing immense powers was imprisoned inside, perhaps nuclear coolant pipes at high pressure or high tension power cables. He took care not to brush up against any columns again.

On the far side, he saw a bright silvery stairway that ached lightly from the crown of the pagoda downward. Each stair was likewise made of antigravity bricks, floating serenely and without support, with an inch of empty air between each step. The airy staircase touched the floor a spot between two altars.

Beyond this was a chancel, where, inset into an apse above a square pit opening into bottomless gloom, a cube of white glass floated, standing on one point. Within this cube was a smaller cube concentric to it. The corners of the inner and outer cubes were connected by lines of discontinuity, so that each face of the outer cube was the base of a truncated pyramid whose heads formed the inner cube.

This geometrical structure had the odd property that, whenever Preston’s eyes fell on one of the truncated pyramids, the head and the base suddenly seemed of equal size, and the converging trapezoids forming the sides now seemed parallel and square, and meanwhile the central and outer cubes, and the adjoining trapezoids, seemed slanted and distorted to compensate. He could not focus his eyes on the whole figure, and his depth perception kept telling him the inner cube was larger and farther away than it should be.

The line of Eighth Men, floating three feet off the ground, formed three concentric ovals around the two altars, so that one altar was at either foci. The inner oval were the crowned figures, and the outer were the smaller, nude lantern bearers.

Distracted by the cube-within-a-cube, Preston almost did not notice when the red sedan chair was detached from the palanquins, and placed atop one altar. The chair faced the pagoda of black cubes rising the center of the domed pagoda.

To Preston’s surprise, this was a dark-haired, clean-shaven man of startling good looks, lithe and athletic in build, with youthful features and deep, wise eyes of catlike green.

He looked like a First Man. And not just like any breed of First Man. His was a Mediterranean complexion and Hellenic cast of features so like Cynisca’s own that he might have been her cousin.

But this First Man was dressed in the combined uniforms of the Eighth Men: a long white high-collared coat, with shoulder harness, smock, and utility belt atop it. A curved crosier glowed in one hand, and gold hoop hovered above his head.

He stood, and raised the crosier. At this signal, silently, the white palanquin was lifted away, veils and all, leaving behind the chair and its occupant atop the other altar. The slender figure there had no glowing halo, and was in shadow.

Preston thumbed off his safety and started quietly forward, heart in his throat but steel in his eyes. He wanted a closer look before he started shooting.

He crept nearer, quiet as a cat, crossing the large unlit acre of space between the pagoda and the chancel where the two altars stood.

Unfortunately, at this moment, the energy spiral at the center of the horned crown of the pagoda shimmered and sped, rotating ever faster, and a brilliant light flashed from its heart. A throbbing pulse of raw power, too deep in pitch to be heard, rattled Preston’s teeth.

In this light flare, the fair features of the figure on the white throne were clearly visible.

Here was Cynisca, beautiful as dreams. She wore a silk garb of clinging, curve-hugging fabric, as bright red as new blood. Her face was fearless, but her skin was pink with emotion. Her bosom heaved with high emotion, and the line of her neck stood out with tension. Her eyes were bright; her teeth were white and clenched. The silk fabric shimmered with the rapid rhythm or her breathing.

She could neither stand nor raise her head. She was not wearing bracelets and anklets, belt and necklace and coronet, but fetters binding her to the throne, which looked to Preston suspiciously like an operating table, or perhaps an electric chair. The headrest of the chair had instruments as sinister as cobras with spread hoods poised above her skull.

The same flare spilling across the floor outlined Preston Lost. He was suddenly plain for all to see, in his fantastic plumed helmet and long-winged flying coat, rifle in hand. His shadow jumped and flicked in a long stream across the floor ahead of him, pointing toward the handsome, green eyed man.

Cynisca saw him, raised both eyebrows, and laughed a low, soft laugh. Her red lips curved in a confident, relaxed smile. She leaned back and closed her eyes.

It was just as well that she did, for just then, the green-eyed man twitched his feathery antenna aloft. The headless men raised their fists in wild circles overhead. They rushed at Preston in a thundering mass of footfalls.

The huge attackers ran directly into his gunfire. The air was filled with spreading sprays of steaming blood and flying clots of gore.

*** *** ***

Episode 99 Under the Great Dome of the Science Gods

Beneath the dark dome, in a swath of light illuminated only by the shocking, bright radiance flashing from the pinwheeling galaxy-shaped spiral atop the pagoda’s crown behind Preston Lost, the headless monsters rushed him, leaping and stumbling over their dead and maimed comrades, slipping on stinking pools of blood.

The marble floor was drenched like an abattoir. The air in this windowless, oppressive space was cold. The red rivulets steamed. The attackers were voiceless. The signals directing them were inaudible. No cry of battle, no grunt of effort, no scream of pain, rent the air, only the slap of footfalls, the deafening thunderclap of Preston’s elephant gun, firing again and again.

Preston assumed these were puppets, being controlled remotely by some observer, and so had no qualms. He leaped into the air and fired, first one barrel, then the other.

The recoil struck him backward just as his ring lit up, and his wings prevented a tumble. Instead, he soared gracefully upward, carried by the propulsion of the rapid gun blasts, and landed on the stairway leading up to the pagoda crown. He knelt and raised the rifle again. The stairs were a curving flight of silver slats of weightless metal, hanging motionless in midair, none connected to the next.

To the stairs the fearless, thoughtless bodies ran. The headless puppets had to come each body behind the next, two abreast.

He fired. The foremost headless figure on the arching stairway was struck in the knee, amputating his leg. The one behind was punctured through his pelvis with an exit wound the size of a grapefruit, through which his intestines poured. The third man was blown to shreds by the bullet impact passing through his chest. The fourth was missed entirely, but was swept off the stairs by the corpses above him toppling down.

His second bullet had a like effect. These stairs were slathered in blood and had no railings. The hulking bodies toppled to the black shelf-like slopes of the pagoda below, and rebounded from one narrow shelf to the next as they fell. The splattering trails of blood, wherever it touched the black cubes, ignited them, and linear inscriptions in the cube faces burst into flame, shimmering and winking.

Then, a surprise: the headless bodies fled backward off the deadly stairs, and knelt, and fell prone. None moved. The vast chamber was utterly silent, except for a soft peal of laughter from Cynisca.

The handsome, green eyed man slapped the face of the girl bound to the chair, a cruel blow. She fell silent. He turned and called up to Preston.

“I am Iaia Lord A’a, High Master of L’ra-R’lin-A’a!”

The man raised his crosier as if in salute. His voice was tranquil and dispassionate.

Preston said, “So I guessed.” And he fired.

Thunder echoed from the dome and re-echoed through dark vastness of corridor and floor and wall. Lord A’a had an aura that solidified into opal. Preston heard a ricochet strike a far wall.

Lord A’a seemed unperturbed. “Desist! Neither has a sure means of attack. Negotiation is advised.”

“Really? What is there to talk about?”

“You interfere at a crucial cusp. The final known aperture formed of the Time Tesseract is about to open.”

“So?” And he shot again.

Again the opal aura flickered into existence and again the ricochet dug a marble divot from the far wall. Lord A’a waited serenely for the echoes to die down.

“If the preordained event triggering the time paradox that leads to the original transcendental catastrophe in the past which created the Tesseract is not now carried out, then no additional apertures leading to any other time strata will ever become known, or, from our frame of reference, will ever seem to have had been known.”

“So you have a time machine that can make a tunnel through time. If I kill you, the tunnel collapses forever. If I don’t kill you, you think you can use the Tesseract to open new tunnels. So you want to talk me out of killing you. Is that ’bout right? But you don’t have the Tesseract.” Athos shouldered his elephant gun.

“The Tesseract which controls the creation event is now within this dome.  Observe: the final aperture has begun to form—” Lord A’a pointed with his crosier at the flare of spiral energy vibrating between the horns at the crown of the pagoda, shining at the top of the stairs behind Preston. It was getting brighter.

“The directional integration engine is standing by —” Lord A’a said. He pointed behind him, at the glass cube standing on its point in the apse. “The directional integrator can manipulate that aperture to bridge the interval between the first and final time-points of the Tesseract, hence bring about the self-creating cycle of events necessary for time travel to have had existed, and to continue to exist. All that is needed is that the proper commands be spoken and accepted. Your cooperation is necessary. It is advised that you stop shooting. Your weapons are not effective.”

For Preston, with his Mauser, had been firing bullet after bullet into Lord A’a aura during this speech, taking a step down the long silver stair with each shot.

“Free the girl.”

“We need her.”

“I need her. I came to this world to stop you, to stop the UFO abductions.”

“Our aim is noble: this justifies any expedient.”

“What aim? World conquest? Kidnapping girls? Devil worship?”

But he holstered his pistol.

Lord A’a said solemnly: “We are the Grigorim of the Egregorine Period, whom the vulgar call the Watchers. We once occupied the segment between sixty and one hundred twenty-five million years after your own. Neither wars nor tumult occurred anywhere in that span, due to the coherence of our social order. In the current timespace cross section, we serve as Advocates for the progress of the coordinated instauration of post-technological civilization and the concomitant assimilation of all forms of man into one. The Progress Advocacy advises the use of the Tethys Empire as an instrument proportionate to the goal. A unified and harmonious social order must be extended without limit, until all conflict and all self-will ceases.”

“World conquest. Got it. Thought so.”

Preston unlimbered and strung his bow. He took a Lemurian arrow from his quiver and twirled it thoughtfully between his fingers. He knew fire could seep through Watcher auras, and eventually cook anyone inside. But the result took time, and needed a continuous burning material to coat the aura. But was there anything flammable in eyeshot?

“So tell me!” he shouted down. “You want an Empire. Why steal my girl?”

“We are generally asexual, and perpetuate by cloning.  The instauration necessitates sexual union with Adamites, the so called First Men. To this end, my current body has been designed for sexual congress. The biological engineering feat was unprecedented in time allotted and resources expended. The pairing is needed to retain control of Rephaim intellectual artifacts, who have been instructed to obey Adamite commands, particularly the Tesseract, which grants us access not only to various time-layers, but also to negative energy strata of non-temporal conditions, where certain allied confederates familiar to us originate.”

“Not what I asked. Why her?” His eye fell on the tetrahedron-shaped lanterns the smaller line of Watchers held. With all the cordite and burnt gunpowder in the air, his nose was nearly as numb as his ears, but, nonetheless, he caught a whiff of the sweet scent of whale oil.

Lord A’a said serenely, “This subject enjoys the benefit of exo-dimensional transcendental neural-cognitive interactions and manifestations.”

“She has mystic powers, you mean. That’s the reason you want her.”

“Yes. But not the sole reason. Thanks to the successful biotechnological adjustments of the Emim, this subject enjoys an immortal body akin to that of the Rephaim, one able to be reconstituted from eternity circuits: Hence our confederate familiars will not be disadvantaged by human entropic decay when they enter her, and incarnate. You see why no other subject can be substituted. You see our aim.”

“I see your aim clear as day. Abducting girls, like I said.” It occurred to him that the ur-stone issued a visible light laser, which would not be stopped by a transparent force aura. Would it stop the electrocution ray? “So you need Cynisca, but why a wedding? Why not just take a cell sample or something?”

“The desecration of the sacrament was particularly insisted upon by our familiars, who will take possession during and after the wedding rite and nuptial impregnation. She is also regarded as fair and comely in their eyes, which will make the accompanying pain and degradation all the more commendable.”

“Familiars? Do you mean as in allies? Or as in family members? You don’t mean the Fifth Men. What damned familiars? What kind of familiar?”

“The Advocacy benefits immensely from our covenant with them. When not otherwise housed, the dimensional manipulation structures of the Gate of Eternity allow us to maintain manifestations of their presence here: look and see.”

And Lord A’a raised his crosier. At first one, and then more, and then all, of the black glass columns had turned transparent, revealing a large but hollow space within. Six-sided hexagrams, like the symbol on the flag of Israel, were imbedded in the capital and base of each column.

The air in the glass cylinders was transparent. At first, there seemed to be nothing there. Nonetheless, Preston quailed. He could feel the crawling sensation of hostile eyes glaring at him. The hate, the hunger, the disgusting sensation of something diseased and mad and wrong would not go away from him. There was nothing there. Nothing! But he was still afraid.

Lord A’a said, “Technically, these manifestations are not the entities themselves, who are more extensive than would fit into a three-dimensional continuum, but these representations allow them to interact with certain sensitive mediums.”

“These are the things the Dark Conquerors had inside them, aren’t they? You made a deal with … with them? You idiots! What did you do? What the hell were you thinking?”

“The covenant granted several benefits. First, the technique to constitute comestibles out of inedible materials.  This sustains a post-scarcity level of economy. Second, unlimited use of the of Time Tesseract to create the artificial singularity maintaining the broadcast power array. This array energizes our antigravity emitters, personal shields, levitation vessels, and thought-broadcast systems, as well as other tools, instruments, and weapons. These sustain a post-technological level of development. Third, universal domination without war, dispute, debate or compromise. This sustains our post-political social order. Expanding the ambit of that order is imperative.”

“So you can make bread out of stones, cast yourself down from any pinnacle and be born up, and rule over all the domains of the earth and all their glory. Do you have any damned idea who or what you sold yourself to?”

“We know many of their properties. Long ago, investigations into continued existence after death led to contact with ultra-intelligent exo-dimensional powers and principalities called macrobes.”

“How can you be so stupid if you are so smart?”

“They are purely intellectual beings. They are far superior to humans and to human scruples, hence exemplars of pure objectivity. They are beyond good and evil, and instruct their disciples in many dark arts, or explore techniques previously thought immoral. Rightly they can be called the gods of science.”

“So, devil worship. Just like I said. I am batting a thousand.”

He realized that while nothing swift could penetrate the aura of Lord A’a, slow things could. Tucking his longbow under one arm, he drew his seashell shaped wasp-throwing weapon, and began shoving the living ammunition, tiny insectoid bodies curled up in suspended animation, one by one into the magazine.

Lord A’a spoke calmly. “The process cannot be accomplished with another subject, nor at another time, nor in another way. We need the girl. Successful completion of the ceremony will allow all the powers and principalities stored here to be housed in her flesh, which is immortal and worthy of them. Her brain will be connected to our cybernetic neural interfaces—” his antennae twitched “— to give the principalities direct access to Watcher thought-communication, for ease of consultation. They will live within us, we will live within them, and be all-in-all. By dint of their greater intelligence and freedom from the constrictions of time, a perfect social order will emerge under their direction, excess populations culled, and mankind be unified into one race, a race destined to be elevated to a higher level of evolutionary energy.”

“Okay, that’s enough talk. Free the girl.”

“Did I not explain why that is not advisable? Even before birth, the mere existence of the child to be implanted in her will permit us to issue commands the intellectual artifacts, especially the Time Tesseract. You will tender it to us.”

“That again? I don’t have the stupid thing.”

“A false statement! Our instruments detect it is on your person, and has been on or near your person almost without interruption since the first hour of your advent to Pangaea. But no matter! The negotiation has failed. However, the interval of time thus occupied may prove useful. It allowed reserves to move into position.”

Down from the shadows of the dome now came a legion of a thousand armored figures, gigantic warlords of the Fifth Man race, floating down on wings of antigravity, shimmering with invulnerable auras, gleaming with living armor. Weapons to which his Holland and Holland was merely a toy gleamed in their fists.

*** *** ***

Episode 100 Murder of the High Master

Preston came to his feet. He holstered the wasp-gun and nocked an arrow to his longbow.

He stood on the high stairway of levitating, disconnected silver steps.A ring of warlords took position in the air surrounding him. More stood in the empty air above him. Others moved into position below.

Another, larger ring of more warlords hovered beyond that, and cubical clouds of reserves, rank upon rank, floated beneath the dome.

These were the Fifth Men he had seen outside, armed and armored more heavily than he was, with even more weapons of even greater power.

The nearest ranks were close enough now for their faces to be seen. Their eyelids and mouths were sewn shut. They were as dead. Feathery antennae had been driven deeply into their skulls.

A chilly sensation crept as if on spider legs into Preston’s heart. Not fear, but a sensation more like disgust, the instinctive recoil of a healthy soul away from something unnatural.

Even then, the glass pillars down below now issued an unseen pressure, a sensation not unlike being robbed of air and light. He realized that the unclean spirits imprisoned in the glass columns were reaching across the chamber controlling brain-dead but still living bodies.

The lobotomized giants flourished their weapons, but did not attack.

Lord A’a said, “Surrender is advised.”

Preston had failed. It was all over. Everything had been in vain, since his first reckless dive into the vortex of time hovering in the middle of a Caribbean storm. Earlier still, all his efforts had come to naught since the idle days when, big game hunting no longer legal, he slowly grew convinced that the whispers of UFO abductions had some truth to them. Designing and building a pursuit plane, interviewing witnesses and survivors, the legal maneuvering and illegal escapades: all of it. The power that had been behind all the misery and oppression of Pangaea had finally revealed itself. And he knew black despair.

He closed his eyes. “God help me,” he murmured softly.

Lord A’a said, “The interval of negotiation also allowed the primary time energy cycle to complete. We can now force open the aperture. It is the last one known. We now have opportunity to recreate the initial time-paradox catastrophe which created these apertures. The previous reports out ancestors read of these events are one and the same with the report now being generated, stored in the thought-imprint broadcast unit, and insulated to be hand-carried sent back through the gate. Observe.”

Preston opened his eyes, turned, and looked up the airy stairway.

At the top, between the horns of the ziggurat, the galaxy-shaped spiral of glowing energy dilated. A glare of red light opening in the center of the spiral, which widened. A mass of warm air began rushing and howling into the huge, cold chamber, and vapor began to condense around the spinning rim of the spiral energy vortex.

A trio of miniature Eighth Men floated up from the floor of the chancel and landed nimbly on the silver stairs above Preston, beyond the warlords surrounding him. The little men walked into the wind, solidifying their auras with each step.

These were two crowned Watchers and one with antennae bearing an onyx puzzle box. Preston realized that this onyx puzzle box was what Lord A’a called a thought-imprint broadcast unit.  This onyx thought-box was quickly connected to the two gold hoops the crowned Watchers doffed. Touching the thought-box with their integral-sign crosiers bathed it in an antigravity field and a protective aura. The crosiers also telescoped open, growing longer. The Watchers together used their three crosiers to thrust the onyx box into and through the whirling vortex.

Even as they pushed the thought-box through the gate and out of the universe, the head of a curving crosier appeared in the aperture, reaching out to touch the box. Its aura enfolded the onyx box. Whatever hand held the other side of this crosier remained unseen beyond the gateway. The thought-box was pulled by this new crosier into the vortex and out of sight.

“The cycle of cause and effect is now closed. The new task is to begin another cycle.” Lord A’a intoned, “The toleration of dissent is ended. The toleration of deception is ended. Your knowledge of the location of the Time Tesseract will be examined.”

Preston felt dizzy. The sense of hatred, of malice, and pressure beating on Preston’s head grew stronger. He saw nothing in the air around him, but Preston knew it was not empty air. The air felt too massive, too heavy, too thick for a human to breathe.

Preston groaned and sank to one knee. A sense of shame was in his heart, in his mind, a weight in his lungs. Why had he been chasing a flying saucer in the first place? What business of his was it whether little gray men kidnapped a few farmer’s daughters? What kind of madness, what kind of recklessness, had made him think he was going to save anyone from anything?

The mockery with which Cynisca, back when he first had met her, floated to the surface of his mind.

You cannot free the Terrors from the Mighty Ones. You cannot free your brother from the coliseum of the fighting slaves. You cannot free me from the harem of Lord A’a. You cannot even free yourself…

The pressure in his head grew greater and greater. His temples throbbed and pounded. With a feeling of disgust far worse than if he had found a bug living under his tongue, or a nest of worms in his intestines, he realized that the dark, angular, nonhuman thoughts of some cold and ancient malignity was inside his brain with him.

A wail issued through the air beneath the dome, a high, thin voice. It sounded more like the product of some crystalline musical instrument than anything that could come from a human throat.

Lord A’a tilted his head, puzzled. “You do not know where the Tesseract is. How is that possible? Our instrument readings show you have it on you. It is in your hand. Seize him! Bring him here! We must examine.”

The unseen sense of malice receded from Preston’s mind, but now the warlords hovering near him stiffened, and began to move, coming closer to Preston. Should he resist? But what would be the point?

Cynisca, bound and helpless in her execution chair, with deadly instruments poised above her skull, now looked up at Preston with her beautiful, flashing eyes, and she said in a loud, clear voice, “Beloved! Fear not. These enemies are already defeated.”

And her eyes twinkled and dropped, drawn by some other sight that made her dimples appear, one to either side of her brilliant smile.

That smile made him forget his fear and despair. He did not overcome the dark emotions smothering him. They just left on its own accord, driven off by the joy of seeing such joy, such bravery, such beauty.

The warlords landed on the stair to either side, and took him by the arms. The hands were cold like the hands of dead men, and stronger than iron clamps.

Preston ignored the warlords grabbing him, and looked down at where her gaze led.

One of the glowing black stones set into the base sloping, many-stepped side of the pagoda had floated out of place, revealing a square opening behind. Peering out was the wrinkled monkey-face of Son of the Wind. He was brushing dust off his red fur, and impatient, sardonic look in his gold eyes.

Son of the Wind twisted around his head, saw the hundred times a hundred zombie warriors hovering in the air, and his lips drew back from his fangs. “I have healed the sickness. The haunted stones are set right. Priest-town Make-peace Lost! After all your foolish chatter, are you struck mute now? Speak!”

Preston was barking out orders before he consciously realized the implications of those words. But something deep in him knew. “Lethal Units! Destroy all Fifth Men in this chamber! Destroy all Eighth Men in this chamber!”

Immediately the familiar cold white flames of the Sudden Death exploded like multiple lightning strikes throughout the chamber, flashing high and low, licking across the floor, sweeping along the upper dome like Saint Elmo’s fire. The whole scene vanished amid the shock and blaze of burning obliteration.

The warlords holding Preston did not ignite. Preston, arms immobile, could draw no weapon. But he could think. A thin red ray to darted from the ur-stone orbiting his head passed along the long antennae the warlords looming to his left and right. Sparks flickered up and down the long wires embedded in the skulls of the lobotomized men.

Whatever instructions they were receiving were interrupted. Preston shook himself free. He had not dropped the smart metal longbow shaft. With it, he struck one, then the other, sending both falling off the narrow silver stair. When they were no longer touching Preston, they, too, erupted into white fame.

But the cold fires did not slay. The warlords were sheathed in flame and protected by opal auras that had turned opaque. The Eighth Men surrounding the altarstones, likewise, were unseen behind their opaque shields, coated in flame, but unharmed.

Lord A’a was not touched. He said in a loud, serene, unperturbed voice, “The tachyon deceleration vortices cannot form aiming apertures in a medium where the intermolecular Van der Waals forces do not permit.”

As he spoke, he floated from one altar to the next, and landing where Cynisca was bound to the metal chair. She winced, but she had not even enough range of motion even to shrink away.

Preston realized he could not stand the man. The fellow was simply too handsome, too smug, and the unwavering serenity in his voice was annoying.

And now he was threatening Cynisca.

So Preston fired his Lemurian arrow, and jumped, fired the windlances in his boots, and swooped down, following the arrow. The longbow went spinning away over his shoulder as he tossed it away. He drew and fired the wasp-thrower as he flew. The bright arrows multiplied in midair, becoming two, then four, then six. He ignited the ur-stone with a thought, and a thin red line, crackling with sparks, lanced before him, bright as the horn of a charging unicorn.

Because of the uproar of the Sudden Death dancing through the chamber, Lord A’a heard no whisper of wings. Only when Preston called his name, and he turned, did Lord A’a see his death coming suddenly upon him.

The ur-stone beam, as it turned out, was not stopped by the aura. Electric shock stiffened Lord A’a. His legs jerked. The crosier fell from his trembling fingers.

Then the Lemurian arrow Preston had let fly formed six arrows at it flew. They struck. They did not penetrate the aura protecting Lord A’a, but slowed to a standstill. Nonetheless, all six arrowheads still flared up and exploded with red alchemical fire.

Then the wasps smote. The living streamer of insects slowed considerably when it entered a layer of thicker air, but the deadly bugs worked their little legs and flickered their wings, and burrowed through the resistance. Preston fired the wasp-thrower until its magazine was empty. The whole swarm, like a living waistcoat of stabbing and darting stingers, began to close and tighten around Lord A’a.

The Preston himself hit the man. Preston tackled Lord A’a at waist height, moving at the speed of a stooping falcon. Both men were flung away from the altar where Cynisca, still bound, was praying or chanting, first in Atlantean, then in Greek.

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,

Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with law, Hail!

The aura around Lord A’a prevented Preston from closing his grip. It was like trying to grapple a rubber waterballoon coated with oil. Preston could close his grasp only slowly.

For the same reason, there was no friction where Lord A’a struck the floor marble, for he did not strike it. Falling to half an inch above the black marble, both men slid as if on infinitely slick ice.

Preston reached up and grabbed the leg of one of the lantern bearers as he slid by. As his nose had hinted, the glowing cones were filled with oil little wicks floated on.

Upending a lamp-full of oil into the aura of thick air protecting Lord A’a was enough to revive, feed and spread the fire from the Lemurian arrowheads.

The wasps were agitated, and began to sting. Preston had not loaded the wasp-gun carefully. Which ones caused numbness or sleep rather than agony or death, he had not been able to tell.

For good measure, Preston, while grappling the slippery body, pulled the other packets of sleeping insect ammo out of his leg pockets, and forced his hand slowly inside Lord A’a aura, and broke the packets open.

Despite his athletic build, Lord A’a apparently knew nothing about wrestling, nor did he have any ferocity. He slapped ineffectively at Preston, not trying to gain leverage, not striking any effective blows at any weak points. He had an athletic build. He simply did not know how to fight.

Preston stuffed one of the pellets from his wind-lance magazines into the handsome man’s mouth for good measure, followed by the muzzle of his Mauser, and he pulled the trigger. The aura may or may not have turned opal to slow the bullet, but, even so, the hydrostatic shock ignited the pellet. Purple smoke filled Lord A’a lungs and erupted out of his nose.

With his other hand, Preston found the ornament on Lord A’a belt emitting the Van der Waals aura, and ripped it away. The aura died. Preston drew his knife, slit the man’s throat, and stood up, smiling grimly.

Cynisca was chanting:

It is right for mortals to call upon you,

since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,

we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.

Preston turned. A zombie Fifth Man twelve feet tall, eyes and mouth sewn shut, coated in white flame was next to the altar. He reached down and put his hand on Cynisca. Immediately the white flame stopped. A burning warlord next to him touched his shoulder and stopped burning. In a moment, the thousand giants in the chamber had joined hands, and the Lethal Units ceased.

That was not good. Preston said, “Lethal Units! Stop firing. Instead, prevent any communication by radio or thought-broadcast into or out of this chamber.” He was not sure if it would work, but it was worth a try.

The dead body of Lord A’a twitched and heaved. His chest split open like window shutters. Out from a chamber in the chest of the body, an Eighth Man emerged, no bigger than a child.

Preston looked at the little bald, gray skinned dwarf in disgust. “So! You are the real Lord Ha Ha, aren’t you?”

The big-headed gray-skinned dwarf said, “Lord A’a and his appearance was a collective effort. This one you see before you is designated Gadreel, which means, Manipulator Thirteen. We are mentally interconnected via neuro-telepathic thought broadcast.

“You oppose, not an individual, but a race. Your actions are surprising, but no victory is possible for you. Surrender is advised.”

*** *** ***

Episode 101 All the Power of the Enemy

Preston stared down at the disgusting little man, bald and big-eyed, nude and sexless, who emerged from the gaping chest cavity or operator’s cockpit of the body of Lord A’a.

Preston said, “Manipulator Thirteen! Is that your name? If it is not you, who is the real High Master of Larry-Ruling-Uh, or whatever you call the group in charge of the Eternity Gate?”

Manipulator Thirteen said, “The social organization of the Eighth Men is decentralized. There are no high masters.”

“Someone makes your decisions.”

“We are mentally interlinked. We rely on gathered consensus opinion.”

“Meaning you are manipulated by your real bosses. Whoever runs your mass media or collects your poling data. The devils in the glass tubes, I am betting.”

“The exodimensionals do aid us in many ways, as you have seen.” The tiny gray man said, “For example, their information allows us to draw clear conclusions. Item: Our instruments cannot be in error. Logically, the Tesseract is on your person.  Item: You are ignorant of the specific location. Conclusion: It was placed there without your knowledge. Corollary: A companion of yours, anticipating the details of this moment, who placed it on you, is not ignorant of the specific location the location…therefore…”

A motion caught Preston’s eye. Son of the Wind emerged from hiding in a space beneath the altar, and now was scampering up the back of the metal chair holding Cynisca. Son of the Wind spoke softly to Cynisca in Greek, “Your mate is an idiot. You also have the power of command.”

Cynisca brightened. Her eyes flashed. She said, “Ghosts of the Immortals! Dissolve the bands imprisoning me!” And a spark of white flame passed quickly from her forehead to wrists and down her body. The fetters evaporated. Up she leaped, calling out in joy.

Manipulator Thirteen raised a hand. “It is advisable to seize and restrain! The Hermit knows the location of the Tesseract! Do not allow the woman to remove herself. She still must serve as a vessel for the exodimensional macrobes!”

The warlords did not move, but the Watchers did. Perhaps Preston’s order to block communication was being carried out.

But if the Lethal Unit, or whatever was listening to Preston’s commands, could jam radio, it had no power to hold the living malice of the unseen world. A sense of pressure, of endless hatred and misery once again filled the air. The warlords twitched and groaned, raising their many exotic weapons.

It was a thousand giants against a man, a monkey-man, and a slender woman.

Preston raised his Holland & Holland, and thumbed off the safety. He grinned. “Bye, bye, life! You were fun. God save me.”

The forces of the enemy closed in.

At that moment, there was a flash of brightness from the vortex at the crown of the pagoda. The head of a crosier snaked out from the red whirlwind of energy, touched one of the Watchers, and yanked him suddenly into the vortex. The little man vanished. The other two stood staring, owlish eyes wide, expressions grave.

The wind from beyond grew stronger. The light spilling into the chamber from the iris of the vortex now grew bright, then brighter, and turned a brilliant golden yellow, as strong as the noon sun on a summer’s day. A shadow in the midst of the vortex solidified into a tall manlike shape and stepped forward.

It was Fyodor, dressed in the bright red coat Preston had given him. Two golden rings, like a double crown, hovered above his head. In his left hand, was an onyx thought-box in the shape of dodecahedron, which he tossed in the air and caught again, like a child playing with a ball.

The light behind him was blinding, and his long shadow, like a river of ink, stretched down the curving stairway to the chamber. The polished walls caught the light like black mirrors, and bright reflections shed more reflections.

The Eighth Men hid their eyes behind their long, pale fingers, quaking.

Fyodor raised the crosier overhead, and struck, smashing the skull and dashing the brains out of one of the crowned Watchers. The little man’s aura did not stiffen to stop the crosier from striking. Perhaps it did not recognize the man’s own wand as a threat. The other little man, antennae twitching, stepped into midair, floating calmly up out of reach.

Without a word, without wasting a moment, Fyodor flourished the onyx thought-box on high, and, with his thumb, pushed on segment of the complex instrument into a new position. It unfolded into an odd, asymmetrical shape.

Then he cast it sharply on the ground, so that, and then he stepped on it, grinding the complex moving parts under his heel.

The other antennae-wearing Watchers in the chamber lifted up their onyx thought boxes, and quickly began to rotate, push, and pull segments into different alignments. But their finger motions were frantic, not in the perfect synchrony they had shown before.

Fyodor said, “When Simon entered into Rome, he amazed the multitudes by flying. And Peter, beholding it, said hasten thy grace, O Lord, and let him fall from the height!”

All the silver stairs lost their power of levitation. They fell. The steps struck the marble floor with a sound like an explosion in a xylophone factory.

The circular line of huge black blocks, glowing with lines of trigrams, for some reason, did not fall. They maintained their position in a large circle at the same height as the crown of the pagoda, just inside the circular line where the dome met the roof-arches supporting it. They did not even wobble.

The Fifth Men fell. None made any outcry. The bodies of men, dwarfish or giant, if they fell from ten or twenty feet up, might have escaped unhurt, or with only a broken leg or two. Might have, that is, if there had not been a nearly a thousand giants in the air, who plunged down atop them from forty or eighty feet above. Those who fell from a hundred or more were smashed like dropped watermelons. The blood was a lake.

The Watchers were hovering only three feet from the ground, so they landed and toppled comically to the floor near the altar stones in the chancel.

Fortunately for them, there were no giants in the air of the chancel, so those standing near the altar were unharmed. The giants who had been putting their hands on Cynisca now released her. They strode forward with huge steps to enter the pagoda, and raised their weapons, aiming toward where Fyodor stood atop the pagoda. The crown of the pagoda was flat and small, with nowhere to hide, and offering Fyodor no place to which to retreat.

He did not retreat. Instead, smiling a fearless smile, he called out, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven!”

Taking the crosier in his strong hands, he bent the two segments of the headpiece down one way, then the other, so that they formed a cross. This he held up on high.

“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. The spirits are subject unto you, for your names are written in heaven!”

Immediately the sense of dread filling the chamber, the crawling fear that unseen eyes, filled with hate, were watching Preston, ebbed and vanished. The warlords, left without instruction dropped their weapons, and became quite motionless.

And the glass pillars circling the pagoda went dark, and all sense of impalpable, crawling terror simply vanished.

Manipulator Thirteen stooped and picked up the crosier the human-sized body of Lord A’a had dropped. A light flickered into existence at the tip. “I have sent a signal to summon more reserves. You cannot fight a city. You cannot fight a world.”

Preston said, “Give it up. All the signals are blocked.”

“I do not dare believe you! Our racial existence is at stake. One report our ancestors received from the events of this day is that one and only one race of man will prosper hereafter. That means all others must go extinct. The Advocacy had intended to combine all races by bio-engineering, all minds by thought-broadcast links, and create a unity none could escape nor desire to escape. It would have prevented mass genocide! You have stopped this! Know you not what you have done?”

Preston said, “No one is going to commit genocide on anyone. If I have command of the Phantom machines, I can command that not to happen. In fact…”

He pointed at one of the blind, mute, mindless warlords. “Restrain him! Take that wand out of his hand!”

For a moment, nothing happened. Perhaps the hidden machines were debating or calculating. But then an odd thing happened. The plumes and golden starburst rays on the black helmet Preston wore flickered and spread. A strange sensation entered Preston’s brain. It was as if he could feel the position and posture of the warlord’s limbs. Like the ur-stone, the black helmet needed no spoken orders.

Preston had the warlords dash the wands and onyx puzzle boxes out of the hands of all the Watchers in the chamber. It was as easy as moving the fingers of his own hand. The scuffle took less than a moment.

“Damn, those things are gross.” Preston muttered.

Son of the Wind said, “They obey you because you are Emperor and King.”

“Or is this a magic helmet?”

“It is a magic helmet. They obey because you wear it. But it obeys you because you are Emperor and King.”

“As I recall, you killed him. Take the helmet. You can call yourself the Monkey King.”

Son of the Wind shook his head gravely. “I live a simple life. I took a vow.”

Preston said, “I am an American. Kinging is not our style. Besides, just killing a king does not make you king.”

Son of the Wind said, “Such is their law.”

Preston said, “A stupid law. If I take the fancy hat by murder, I am asking to be murdered.”

“There is no other way.” Said Son of the Wind gravely.

“No? Lethal Unit! Dissolve this hat!” And the crown vanished in a flicker of light.

Manipulator Thirteen, for the first time, showed emotion: he was awestruck. “You are an insane creature! A danger to yourself and others!”

The warlords did not fall over, since they were not dead. But they were brain dead, and so they simply stood as they were. One of the more daring Watchers, seeing Preston now had no army, stooped and plucked up a weapon from the belt of a motionless giant. Preston shot the little man dead, spraying blood and brain stuff across the floor. Preston spun the Mauser on his finger, and holstered the weapon.

“Stand down, you creepy little buggers! Nothing bad is going to happen to you! Besides, your toys aren’t working anyway.” Preston sighed wearily and turned to Manipulator Thirteen, “Well? Are we done here? It is time for you to throw in the towel. Give it up. Surrender.”

Manipulator Thirteen said, “Surrender is not possible! Such is the extinction of my race!”

Preston groaned in exasperation. “Who is telling you all this bull? It is just not true! I am not king. The kingship is hereby dissolved! There is not going to be one race to wipe out all other races. Where did you hear that?”

Manipulator Thirteen grew serene and grave again, “Without the familiars to possess the woman, without a working thought broadcast system, without levitation vessels, and without the time aperture to gather needed resources and expertise from other eras, epochs, ages and eons, we cannot commingle the races into one! Only the final generation of the Third Men possessed such knowledge, and no known aperture through time opened near any recorded disaster in those years. And now, unless you aid the Advocacy, and use the Tesseract as we direct, we cannot create another time paradox, or make another cosmos-wide disaster of the type needed to create additional lesions in the timestream!”

Preston looked thoughtful, then he turned and called up to where Fyodor was standing at the crown of the pagoda. Fyodor, meanwhile, was frowning down doubtfully at the craters and divots the collapse of the floating stairs had left in the blood-stained floor, piled with so many torn and broken corpses.

Preston called up, “Fyodor, what did you just do?”

Fyodor kicked the broken onyx puzzle box over the edge. It bounced down the sides of the pagoda, going from one narrow shelf to the next. “As the green man told me in a dream. That amulet — all the ugly gray elves carry them — give orders to their familiar spirits, and carry messages. He said I was to enter the magic gateway early. He would open it for me. A magic corridor would open, made of whirling light. I would step in and lay in wait for an elf carrying such an amulet. I was to slay him, take out one little bright gem, and put in the gem the green man wrote. Deliver it, come back here. Use it to curse the Watchers, and undo their power. The green man told me how to work it.”

“A green man named Eien the Last Immortal? I thought he was dead.”

“He is. This was a dream. I have the gift to see and speak to the departed.”

“And what did you do?”

Manipulator Thirteen answered for Fyodor, “He edited the message we sent to our past versions. That is why there is no record of you. He then broadcast the command signal to send random four-axis orientation values to the directional integrator. The receivers are out of synchronization. The time-energy that allows us to warp space is no longer being broadcast to our instruments.”

“What does that mean?”

“All our levitation vessels are operating on reserve power only. The electric punishment wands of the Fifth Men are dead. He then randomized the counter-code by stepping on the input toggles. No one can countermand the order without the Time Tesseract.”

“Which I am about to order it to self-destruct.” Preston shook his head wearily. “So you’ve lost. I will ask one last time: Are we done here? Give up. Say Uncle. I want to kiss the girl.”

*** *** ***

Episode 102 The Tesseract of Time

“It is not advisable to destroy the Time Tesseract!” Manipulator Thirteen said.

“Watch me,” said Preston. “Once I find it.”

“Consult your self-interest! The power to transverse eternity is paramount! The power of kingship is nothing to it!”

“I suppose, but I just threw the kingship into the trash.”

“The scientific value alone….”

Preston interrupted harshly. “The scientific value alone was enough to tempt even the Phantoms, who were apparently pretty danged upright guys, into meddling more and more into deeper secrets, until it turned around and bit them in their collective buttocks, and destroyed the whole race. Happened to the Last Men, too, unless I lost track of who did what to who. There are some things man was not meant to know! Don’t you watch old science fiction movies about mad scientists? You should. You’d fit right in.”

“We are a mature race,” intoned Manipulator Thirteen with quiet gravity. “The self-destruction that visited the Fourth Men and the Final Men, if you will note, never afflicted us. We are scrupulously careful never to change the past, lest we erase our origins. We examine all prospective change events thoroughly before attempting them.”

“Except I was not supposed to disappear out of the middle of the Twenty-First Century, was I? Or something messed you up. So you want me not to destroy the Tesseract, with the idea that I can use the power? Without messing up? If you cannot be trusted to play God, why should I think I can?”

Thirteen had no answer to that.

Preston said meditatively, “I realize that I am a pretty reckless fellow after all, too rash for my own good. But no way I reckless enough to mess with eternity.

“What the hell is time travel good for anyway?” he laughed, his voice getting louder. “Seeing the future? Playing the stock market or offtrack betting? That’s cheating.

“Using it like you all did to set your own future in stone rather than play it by ear? Well, where did that get you? Kidnapping girls and listening to demons.

“Seeing the past? I am not nostalgic.

“Changing the past? I prefer to live without regrets.

“No!” He shook his head. “The only thing time travel is good for is to bring the dinosaurs back to life so we can hunt them. But you’ve already done that. No, little man. It is no good. It is no damn good. For a godlike power, time travel sure sounds totally worthless.”

“If you destroy the Tesseract,” Thirteen answered, “Our energy system fail, our slave raids into the past cease, and the Empire must fall. Without the Empire, the Advocacy cannot maintain dominion.”

“Did I say it was worthless? It is worse than worthless. Look at what it did to you!”

And, when Manipulator Thirteen sad nothing in reply, Preston turned to Son of the Wind. “Hey! Monkey face! I have had a hard day and a long day, and I want to kiss the girl. You better not tell me Mister Thirteen here is telling the truth. Have I been carrying the Tesseract all this while?”

Son of the Wind said, “Eighth Men never lie. They read each other’s hearts.”

“Where is it?  Oh, no. Of course. You snuck it into my pack. That first day we met. I remember you climbed up my pack to get up on my shoulder. Then when Warden Ahara took it from me, you shaved yourself bald, infiltrated the Terror camp, swiped it, and sneaked it into the pocket of my flight jacket right under the nose of the Quartermaster.”

“It is this.” He held up his hand. The eight sided ring was on his finger. His feet were on the ground, so it was not lit up at the moment. “The flying rings of the Seventh Men are just cheap knock off copies of this, aren’t they?”

The Time Tesseract. He had been carrying it the whole time.

Son of the Wind pointed at the large glass cube standing in the apse. “It is also there. The Watchers had it all this time, and never knew. It is in many places.”

Thirteen was aghast. The hairless, big-eyed face wore an almost comically exaggerated expression. “So obvious! Because of its singularity-levels of mass, it can be folded into inverted-interval space. How did a naked primitive arrange this?”

“Phantom spoke. Large became small. Heavy became light.” Son of the Wind gravely told Thirteen. Then, to Preston, he said, “Now it is time for you to speak. Tell it to die, and it will die.”

Preston pointed at the bright swirling galaxy-shaped maelstrom hovering between the horns crowning the pagoda. “That does not just lead to the past and future, does it? It also leads to Hell. The familiars come from there. The ghosts of the Fifth Men were hoping to escape out from there.”

Son of the Wind said, “To escape out of there, and into this day, this hour. It is given to you to close the gate. I have done all else.”

“What do you mean, all else? Wasn’t I the one who…” But then Preston scowled.

Manipulator Thirteen looked back and forth between Preston and Son of the Wind. He said, “I do not understand. Please explain.”

Preston sighed. “No big deal. I just found out I was actually the sidekick in my own story. My pet was the real hero. A little humble pie is a healthy meal, but I don’t like the taste.”

Manipulator Thirteen said in surprise, “You did not know this was The Hermit?”

Preston said to Son of the Wind, “Why not tell me?”

Son of the Wind said, “When I was with you, I was not a hermit. Why tell?”

“No, I mean why you did not tell me I was carrying the Tesseract?”

Son of the Wind in a severe voice: “Your faith is weak. You let the Dark Ones look into your heart. You called upon no name to drive them forth. What? Should I put a secret treasure in your heart? A chest with no lid! It would have been taken. Silence was best.”

“So why was I carrying it all this time? Why me?”

Son of the Wind said, “You are the reckless one. Chaos goes before you and follows you. No one knows what you will do next. The Empire, long they hunted me, and many traps they set. Many a year I sat in the wild lands outside this city, carefully circling. My eyes were sharp. My nose was sharp. I looked. I smelled. How to go in? There is no crack, not even for a shrew.”

Son of the Wind than shook his head as if in astonishment or weariness, and his bright gold eyes were half lidded, sardonic. “But you! In the first hour, you destroy a levitation vessel. In the first day, you kill a high-born Mighty One, and strike out the eye of one of their Great Princes. When it is time for you to run from the Metropolis, what do you do? You make the First Men burn themselves, and steal their underground machine. Before the week is gone, the mighty air fleet of the Watchers is dashed to bits. Before the month is gone, one lesser city is smothered dead, and the great capital is on fire.” Son of the Wind shrugged. “You call yourself a free man. You are free indeed. Free as wind, wild as whirlwind. None can guess your mind. If only you did not talk so much!”

Preston said, “I thought you were an animal when I met you. Who are you, really?”

Thirteen spoke to Preston. “You do not know who the Hermit of the Third Men is? He is a great criminal. Years we have hunted him. A palace has been set aside for whoever captures him, and nine women of surpassing beauty.”

Cynisca said, “The Lifesmiths spoke of often of him. He is a priest of a god above the starry sky and older than the starry sky. He clings to the Old Ways. Princes and Masters of high prestige are shamed and silenced before him. He forsook all worldly belongings to live in the wood like a beast, and pray for the sins of man.”

Fyodor said, “The firstling gladiators and the little goblins in the infirmary never stop talking of him. He prophesied the downfall of the Emperor. To make such prophesies, the Empire does not allow. The Third Men sent assassins to hunt and kill him. He cooked them a meal, and sat waiting for them. When they struck, he struck back harder. But then he healed their wounds, and taught them high wisdom. They shed their clothing and their money bits and joined him in the forest where no one goes. It is said that he camps by a boiling lake, waiting for a sign from heaven, of a man who will come, a fugitive, a runagate, who carried the word in his mouth to shatter kingdoms make kingdoms anew!”

Fyodor threw back his head and laughed.

Preston scowled. “Why are you laughing?”

“Because you are the man! You are the runagate!”

“What makes that funny?”

Fyodor wiped his eyes. “We were sent into the haunted ruins buried beneath the Mountains of Cruelty. Only the First Men can go there: it is cursed. It was not until I met you that I heard you speak the word, that terrible word everyone feared, and I heard it, and I knew it. I knew it from my mother’s knee!”

Preston squinted. “Remind me. We drank toasts. I asked about your city, the one that sank in the waves of a lake. What word did I say?”

“It was the Word of God!”

“What? I —” Preston scowled. He remembered saying grace over the meal they shared in the Iron Mole.

Cynisca said, “You did not say it to him. You told me to tell him. In the medical tent. Remember? You said you both were demigods, sons of Zeus, and that Zeus would come to fight on your behalf. I saw the lightning bolts the sky-father threw when you called on him! Forgive me for doubting you.”

“Lightning bolts? No. That was gunpowder…”

“You destroyed Xurac Phthia, the Fortress of the Unwinking Eye,” she said with a feminine firmness of tone. “I saw it from the window.”

Fyodor called down from the crown of the pagoda, “The kingdom you brought was the kingdom of God. You even had a Holy Book with you! Only lords and bishops have the Holy Book! Your handwriting is too perfect to be human! It was a Holy Book written by the angels!”

“No, wait. There is this thing called a printing press…”

“I found a pastor who could read it, a man from Roanoke, and he also said it was the language of the Angels. Anglish, he called it. You gave me the Book! I knew then that this world was not hell, and I had sinned against heaven and against The Lord by all my doubts.”

Preston said, “Well, I guess that is kind of true….” Preston said to Son of the Wind, “So you waited for me at the boiling lake, because there was an aperture there. And you need me to give the self-destruct command. But the Last Immortal said he did know where the Tesseract was. That is was a trick to make the Empire want to capture me alive rather than kill me.”

Son of the Wind said. “He did not know where. He gave it to me. I hid it. On you.”

Preston said, “So all I need do is tell the damned thing to self-destruct?”

Son of the Wind nodded.

Manipulator Thirteen said, “The Familiars will give you rich kingdoms without limit and fair women without number if you do not destroy it but turn it over to the Advocacy.”

Preston said, “I only want one woman. Tesseract!” He held the ring up overhead, squinting at it. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, listen. I was told you have to obey my orders. Here they are.

“Disregard all orders from Eighth Men or agents of Eighth men. Do not do anything to create another time paradox or a create a disaster of that magnitude.

“When I say so, you are to destroy yourself in the way that causes the least harm or disruption to the time stream. This means leaving no memories, no record, no back-ups behind, no blueprints and no clues that would allow someone to reconstruct a copy.

“I will count three. On three, you are to carry out the order I just gave. Ready? And a one, and a two, and a …  wait a minute, let me get this damned thing off my finger first …”

He tossed the glowing ring tinkling to the marble floor.


Manipulator Thirteen leaped spryly across the floor, and snatched up the ring. “Halt process! Abort! Rescind that last order!”

A second went by, two, five, ten. The ring glittered. It was unchanged.

Preston said tiredly. “Give it back. You are still outnumbered and surrounded.”

“So you think!” Manipulator Thirteen crowed. “Your firstling brain cannot think in fourth dimensional variables! At this second, yes, I am disadvantaged. But even at this second, other apertures opening from the final aperture into the future become a possibility!”

“What?” said Preston. “What does that mean?”

“Any future traveler will and must be an ally of mine once he arrives, since to undo this moment of my triumph would prevent his time from ever coming into being! I have not yet used the Tesseract to create a time paradox catastrophe to open new apertures, but it is now likely that I shall … and so…”

Manipulator Thirteen looked up at the ring he held overhead. He scowled.

Preston said, “Sorry, what? I have always found time travel a little confusing as a concept.”

Manipulator Thirteen said, “Your inferior neural arrangement cannot comprehend! Before I touched the Tesseract, it was not a possibility! Now it is! If it could be, it must be! Therefore one might open now: Might it not? ”

Even as Thirteen said this, the dazzling yellow light pouring in through the open aperture grew dusky, and then dim, and then dark. It was like stepping from broad daylight into a black cave. No longer was there yellow sunlight behind Fyodor. Within the circle of vapor and swirling fire, now was an infinite night sky, diamond-flecked with stars. Preston stared.

Manipulator Thirteen gave out a groan. Preston looked at him.

The little gray dwarf was panting. He gritted his teeth, and raised his other hand, to grip the ring with two hands. His arms were trembling.

Preston said, “You having trouble there, pal? I did order it to self-destruct. It might blow up or something. Better drop it.”

At the top of the pagoda, from between the horns, a tall man stepped out from the swirling midnight-filled gateway.

He was green as jade. His features where sharp, his jaw pointed, his eyes narrow and long. A black moustache adorned the thin, stern line of his lip. His black eyebrows reached his hairline. His earlobes reached down to the corner of his jaw. His hair was jet black, hanging past his shoulders and shining with highlights, looking like a monk’s hood. He wore a white robe flung over one shoulder, draped gracefully. Like a glittering jewel of obsidian, a third eye peered from a vertical slit in his brow, glinting with lens within lens.

Manipulator Thirteen, and the various Crowned Watchers cried out in unison. The other Watchers, lantern-bearers and antennae-wearers, did not speak, but raised their hands in dismay.

Preston said, “You are dead! How can you be here?”

It was Eien of the Fourth Men.

*** *** ***

Episode 103 The Curse of Endless Life

Eien, the final man of a race of immortal and superhuman men, answered in a voice like a woodwind. “In my future days, when we meet again, you will see me die. Your coming will be a great comfort to me. To you, it is past. Yield to no sorrow! Only in this way do I discover the great mystery behind the veil. To lay down one’s life for another is not suicide.”

He put his arm around Fyodor, whose only came up to the green man’s shoulder. Eien stepped into the air, white robes fluttering, and strode down, walking on nothing.

Before he landed, Eien looked down. The vast floor beneath the dome was stained with pools of blood and heaped with gore. Eien said, “This is the time after my demise, so I may not command, but must implore. Must this sacred place be thus polluted? For the Dome of Contemplation of Eternity was not always a den of diabolism.”

Son of the Wind pinched Preston’s leg. Preston jumped, and kicked at the little man. He has not realized the monkey man was so close to him. “Sneaky little bugger! What was that for?”

Son of the Wind gestured toward the slaughterhouse heaps of scattered corpses. “Cleansing! The Phantom wishes to put his foot on the floor.”

“Oh! Okay.” Preston said. He cleared his throat. “Lethal Units! Eliminate the remains of the Fifth Men in this chamber, but leave their gear intact.”

A flash of cold lightning passed along the floor. All was clean.

Eien took a final step, and lowered Fyodor, who embraced Preston.

Preston looked Eien, “So you are same guy, different year?”

“One soul is one in eternity, but in time is chained by cause and necessity, so that particular appearances suffering continuous change participate in the unchanged architype, even as the changing shadow slides beneath the gnomon of the dial. What you see before you is but an aspect from an earlier time segment.”

“I watch movies. I know how time travel works. You are past-you.”

“Yet your gaze is puzzled.”

Preston said, “I told it to self-destruct. The ring, I mean. Nothing happened.”

“You also told it to wait a minute. I was delayed exactly a minute.”


“I am part of the self-destruction process. Eikyuu the Perpetual, Eisei the Ever-Living, and Eta-Niti, the Jewel of Eternity, we four, were the original architects of the Tesseract. The four darkest criminals of all time. We drained so much energy from the Sun, that she blushed red, countless eons before her time, and gravitationally unbalanced the moon.”

“Original architects? You make it sound like you were building a house, not a ring! You mean original jewelers…”

“It is larger than it seems.”

Manipulator Thirteen now cried out again. The ring in his hand was now a large cube like an oversized diamond growing from one face. It went from being larger than a die to larger than a jewelry box in one second. Then it was the size of a breadbox, then a steamer chest.

Manipulator Thirteen fell down, still clutching the ring to his chest.

“Hey!” Shouted Preston, alarmed. “Get that thing off him! Make him let go!”

But it looked like Manipulator Thirteen was trying to stay under it. Now it was the size of a refrigerator.

A gasp made Preston look back. Cynisca was staring behind her. In the apse where she looked, that confusing cube within a cube was shrinking. It was the size of an expensive television set, then a cheap one, then it was smaller than a hatbox.

Preston looked back. The thing had happened too quickly. He ran forward, and now tried to pry at the glassy sides of a giant cube over six feet high and wide, as large as a modest mausoleum in a graveyard. In the center a second cube could be seen. But when Preston focused his eye on it, it was the center cube which seemed to be the size of a mausoleum. The six truncated pyramids that surrounded the inner cube, likewise, when he stared, seemed to be cubes, regular on each side, but now the inner and outer segments were slanted rhomboids. It made his eyes and brain ache, as if something was making him see it wrong.

But it was clearly the giant cube that had been resting on its point behind him in the apse. Whereas, looking at the apse, Preston saw his ring, tiny and gleaming, hanging in midair. Which meant they were the same object of two different sizes in the same place. What that meant, he could not guess.

But he could see the red stain oozing from the lower lip of the titanic white cube. Manipulator Thirteen had been crushed to death.

The Watchers standing near now gave out an odd, long, low hooting noise. Preston did not recognize the sound at first. They were jubilant. It was laughter.

Eien drew himself up and raised his hand, “Vile Grigorim of the Eighth Age of Man! Again your depredations mar the universe! Death you deserve, but mercy you shall receive. I rob you of sight, and thought and motion until these matters resolve!” And when he lowered his hand, all the Watchers in the chamber fell like marionettes with their strings cut.

Preston was staring at the stain. What a terrible way to go. “Why in the world did he do that? He killed himself on purpose. He climbed under it!”

Eien the Last Immortal said, “It was an act of denial. When he saw me, he knew the self-destruction process was in motion. He knew I was willing to edit myself out of the time stream in order to close all apertures, and abolish time travel. But there was one last event which somehow was known to him, which is in the future of this moment, if only a moment or so from now.”

Preston said, “Come again?”

“He was to accompany me as I take the Tesseract back to its point of origin, and destroy it the only way a fourth dimensional time-travelling object can be destroyed, namely, by self-destruction. The Tesseract alone has the energy sufficient to create the Tesseract.”

“Come again… Again?”

“A time-travelling object can only be destroyed by being used to destroy itself. The self-destruction of the Tesseract from all frames of reference hereafter will be one and the same as the original disastrous paradox that created it. Nothing else cancels out all vectors so neatly.”

Preston said, “I still do not get it.”

“In the true version of this scene, he followed me, begging and pleading, attempting to negotiate the salvation of the Tesseract. But by the time we reached the Zero Point, Lord A’a had been cured of his despair, and saw the need. He has authority to give orders to the Tesseract. And I do not.”

“What authority? I thought Lord Ha-ha was a fake. That guy is named Thirteen. Or was.”

“He acted in the name of Lord A’a, and so partakes of Lord A’a.”

“What is the Zero Point?”

Eien said, “The Zero Point is the date when the disaster making time travel possible took place. It is the year A.D. Seven Million Fourteen Thousand One Hundred Seven. The moment when we Fourth Men in the peak of our power, might and folly attempted to force open an aperture leading to the eternity outside time.”

Fyodor said. “I know the story. You built a tower tall enough to pierce heaven.”

Preston said, “But no one needs to give the order again. I told it to destroy itself. I told it.”

“You told it to do so in a fashion that would create no paradox.” Eien said gravely, “Lord A’a knew just enough to create a situation where that is no longer possible. How he knew is a mystery to me.”

Cynisca said, “A demon told him. I saw it lean and whisper in his ear.”

Eien nodded gravely, “He sacrificed himself to prevent the Tesseract from being destroyed. I am now in a fork, a stalemate.”

Son of the Wind said, “What if one of us comes with you, in his place? Does what he would have done?”

Eien said, “It must be a First Man.”

Cynisca said, “I will go.”

Both Preston and Fyodor shouted, “No!” and, talking over each other, both blurted out sentences that had the same word in it. “…love!”

Both men stared at each other.

Preston winced. “Sorry, brother….”

Fyodor said, “Alas! I wanted not to tell you so bluntly, but…”

“… wanted to break it to you gently …. Wait. What the hell?”

Fyodor said solemnly, “The love between me and my angel is stronger than iron, hotter than the flame that forges the iron. Anything else you asked, I would give you, but, as you see…”

Preston said, “No, this is backward. I am apologizing to you, because I did not want you to find out so suddenly, that Cynisca and I are an item. She is my woman. Ask any pirate. She was stowed in my room.”

Fyodor blushed. He said, “Did you sleep in each other’s arms?”

“Well, not technically. I was not in my room. I slept in the mess hall, under the stove… But only naps, so…”

Eien raised his hand. “It must be one of the three of you, or else all we have done here comes to nothing, and the Empire revives. I must depart before another time traveler becomes likely enough to manifest.”

Cynisca said, “There need be no discussion. It is I.”

Again there was a clamor as Fyodor and Preston both spoke at once.

Eien raised his hand. Preston felt and odd numbness in his throat. He would work his lips, but no noise came out. He saw Fyodor wincing and blinking and sticking out his tongue, also noiseless.

“The maiden is to speak,” intoned Eien. “Answer! You are young and fair and fertile. Why seek death?”

“I am also cursed with a blessing. The satyrs did it to me.” She pointed at Son of the Wind. “His people. They gave me the food of the gods, ambrosia and nectar, to grant me eternal youth and endless life. How, then, can I wed? I shall be as the bride of Tithonus, ever as fresh and fair as the dawn, but my husband a withered and senile dodderer tomorrow, and burnt on the pyre in the day after. Then shall I be a widow for eternity. I will weep every day, for more days than there are days. And he? Any man I wed will have a young wife unaging, as all men desire, though some say otherwise.” She tossed her hair.

Eien looked at the two men, who were grimacing and gawping in silence. He said, “You hear the sorrow of her heart. You both love. You both would go in her stead. But if the one who loves her more departs for her sake, the one who loves her less is left alive to woo. That cannot be. Whoever cans solve the riddle, speak!”

Both their voice returned in a moment of yelling.

Preston said to Cynisca, “Now, just hold your horses. I mean, hold your horses, darling! I thought we had a deal, I mean, an understanding…”

She said regally. “So we did. My father the king is not here to demand a bride price for my virginity. So I asked in my own name. My price is that you kill Lord A’a.”

“Wait!” said Fyodor. “That is what you told me. If I killed your bridegroom, you would be free to have me. Well! He is dead!”

Cynisca said, “By his own hand, he is dead. Shall I wed him? He is the only one who paid over my bride-price. Shall I lower my price? I am the daughter of a king.”

Eien turned to Son of the Wind. “My good and faithful servant. You have done all things asked of you, and well. What is your wisdom?”

Son of the Wind bowed very deeply. “The Prophet must live to spread the fire. The King must live to settle the laws. The girl is a Fourth Man, for my cousins are heretics. They did wrong. Fourth Men must die, to make way for the True Men. But who can make True Men? Prophet? Or King?”

Preston said, “I am not the damned king. I threw the crown away.”

Eien said, “That act confirms your worth. None who crave kingship is worthy of it.”

Fyodor said, “No Man of God am I! A man of battle am I, a killer, a tippler, and a sinner. I cannot lead these people to Christ. We only have one bishop! And he is an accursed Frank! We only have one book! And I cannot read it!”

Eien said, “Each word proves itself untrue. True saints are too meek for sainthood.” Then Eien turned back to Son of the Wind. “Love, not wisdom, must answer this. The end will be tragic, no matter the case.”

Preston drew a deep breath. “I’ll go.” It came out as a hoarse whisper. He raised his head. “I will go.” And then, very loudly, “God help me! It must be me!”

*** *** ***

Episode 104 The Ghosts of the Future

Fyodor said, “Not you, brother! It must be me. I have killed many men for sport, or to win trinkets from Zipacna.”

Preston said, “If you stay, the Third Men might be able to reverse the process they did on Cynisca, and you two can be happy, have kids, grow old together.”

But Eien said gravely, “The Eternity Circuit interprets any attempt to disengage a subject as damage to be repaired, and nullifies the attempt. Were it not so, my brethren weary of life would not have found it necessary to travel to the moon or other spheres to seek surcease.”

Preston groaned exasperation. “Am I the only one in this damned day and age that understands sticking to your guns? If at first you don’t succeed, kick his ass again? Until he goes down and stays down? Whatever happened to the old Yankee ‘Can-do’ spirit?”

Eien said, “You come from an era of hope. This is an age where despair is high master.”

Fyodor said, “Not so! I have renounced this age, thanks to my brother. He said God would fight for us, and for all of us. Faith, hope, and love are the weapons of the saints. Faith is a shield and love pierces deeper than a two-edged sword, but hope is the anchor that holds us firm, so we shall not be moved. Because I hope in the salvation of heaven, I am willing to lay down my life for the woman I love, and for the brother I love.”

Preston said, “No, you are not listening! She does not want to be married for fifty years and then be a widow of for fifty million.

“So face it head on! Just tell her that your marriage to her, even if it is only for a day and a night, will be filled with so much love, that the memory will keep her warm forever! You will have so many children, that she will be the mother of nations, and minding the kids will keep her too busy to weep.

“Or tell her to get over herself! Why leave the decision to slipshod, sugary, female thinking? Show some leadership! Show some manhood!

“Or go to the Third Men and become immortal, too! If they did it to her, they can do it to you. Or try something else. Just solve the problem! That is what I would do! So what if her live is infinite? My love is infinite! I would do infinite things, until I found an answer!”

Fyodor said, “No, that is not right! Love the woman, yes, but love God more.”

Preston said, “Hold on. What does that have to do with anything?”

Fyodor said, “Love the woman, but you cannot do black magic to please her. Look at the green man! Black magic gave him endless life, and wishes only to find a way to die, any way to die.”

Eien said sternly, “Not any way. Suicide is unlawful. But a sacrifice of self in holy cause upholds the sacred honor of man, and does not demean it.”

Fyodor said to Cynisca, “I cannot follow you into an endless life, because, then, where is any hope of heaven? That immortality is true.”

Preston said, “But there must be an answer. One that does not use black magic, as you call it. Cynisca deserves a happy life. Our children deserve a happy life. You have a whole lifetime to keep trying! If you are not willing to devote your life to her, then don’t marry her!”

Cynisca now spoke up, tossing back her raven hair in a nod of pride, her voice like soaring, scornful music. “What vain imaginings prompt either of you to think my hand is thine? Have I not said my bride price is not paid?”

Preston said, “Darling, I love you, but be quiet! This is man talk.”

Fyodor threw his hands up in the air, wagging his head in an exaggerated, Slavic gesture. “You cannot talk to the daughter of king like this! She is too high for either of us …” And then he frowned, a deep look of doubt settled on his face. “… to wed either of us would undo her pride.”

Preston said, “Pride, schmide! If she marries me, I am an American, a free man with the right to bear arms, and all that good stuff. That is better than any king. In my country, no one can stop you from rising as high as talent and good luck can take you. And whoever is in charge of this place after this had better do the same.”

Cynisca turned to Eien, and she bowed her head. “I cannot be the one to go. The decision is made.”

Fyodor began silently to weep. He rubbed his eyes, and groaned with grief. “My lady, you are wise. You are cursed with endless life, and what happens to me if I take you in my arms?”

But Cynisca said, “No. There is no curse. I spoke to test you, to see which of you the fates mean me to give my heart.”

Preston looked back and forth in bewilderment. “What is going on here? What is decided? What do you mean there is no curse?”

Fyodor ignored him, and answered Cynisca, saying sadly, “My beautiful one! Even if your life is no longer than it should be, a king’s daughter cannot wed a mere druzhinnik, a fighting man from a Prince’s retinue, and surely not one as I. I am a vassal who failed to protect his prince. When I fell into this world of hell, and became a fighting slave and a dancing bear to amuse the giants. I did not lead the battle against the Fifth Men, or overcome their High Master in hand to hand combat, or save the bride from her marriage to a hundred devils.”

Preston said to Cynisca, “Hold on, princess! You mean you lied to us? You lied?”

Cynisca lowered her eyes meekly but said boldly, “The arrow of the love god flies by crooked paths, or not at all, my lord.”

“What gives?” Preston said.

She spoke without raising her eyes to him, but she stepped closer, until her head was almost touching his shoulder.

“Of course I threw away the ambrosia and nectar and other vile concoctions the Third Men gave me to drink. It would be overweening pride to try to climb to the throne of the gods. It not this green man here living proof? And I had to deceive the dark spirits into thinking I was immortal, and a proper vessel for them to take, so that when they slew my soul and took my body for their house, they would be trapped inside me, and grow old with me, and perish. They were the true rulers of the Empire. There was no other way to kill them.”

“Most bold a plan, my angel!” Fyodor laughed through his tears. “And a good trick on me. You wanted to see if I loved you for my sake, or for your sake. Was it your heart I treasured, or just a pretty face? Well, my eyes are opened!” He saluted Preston with a flourish of the crosier he held. “The better man is victor here. Earthly joy is yours. I go now to serve God as I am called to do. This day I shall be in paradise. The better joy is mine.”

Eien put his arm around Fyodor, and took a single step up into the air. Then Eien’s two narrow eyes narrowed further, and the vertical third eye shining from his brow widened in alarm.

“We have overdelayed,” he said grimly. “Timespace convulses. Eight additional infinities enter into this frame of reference. This bodes ill.”

All the trigrams shining from all the faces of all the blocks composing the many ranks of the pagoda now flared and flashed like the flashbulbs of an entire press corps, like the stormbolts of a dozen storms. The spiral wash of energy spinning at the top of the pagoda grew and grew, until it was the size of the eye of a hurricane.

The night sky visible through the opening now changed. The stars gathered together, growing blue and the blue-white. The light was too bright to look at, brighter than the sun in the years of Preston’s birth. Preston averted his eyes, and saw Son of the Wind squinting, and Fyodor and Cynisca covering their faces. Only Eien’s face was turned up, scowling like an eagle, and he stared into the heart of the brightness without blinking.

There came a thunderclap as a mass of air entered the dome, and then the light faded. The aperture was still overhead, almost as wide as the dome, but it once more was opening into a night sky.

Seven figures stood equally spaced, each one atop one of the floating stones that circled the chamber. Preston saw a manlike shape of heroic built, partly made of bright bronze or gold, and partly made of sun-bronzed flesh. He realized with a shock that this must be a Ninth Man, but one who had evolved beyond their grotesque junkyard-and-butchershop physiognomy.

A tall, thin figure winged like an angel but more handsome was also standing on a weightless block. Something of the air of mystic ecstasy Preston once or twice had glimpse as a spark, in his eyes was not just a fire, but a calm and controlled blaze. His was like the face of a zen hermit who had seen through all the illusions of life and death.

A giant was next, with huge limbs and massive frame, but not squat and distorted like the Fifth Men. He was titanic in proportion, but built like a Greek God. Armor made of solidified energy adorned him, and in his hand, a lightning bolt.

Then was a figure with an apelike face, but red-gold fur, shining and lustrous, with a white bird on his shoulder and a foxcub in his hand, and his crown was of living flowers where rotund bumblebees darted and played clumsily. His eye shone with the compassion of a lord of living things.

Then a woman with a swanlike neck, inhumanly graceful, with yellow and black markings trailing down her neck and sides, wisdom and compassion in her gaze. She held a balance scale and a two-edged sword.

Next was a mermaid, green as the sea, and in her hands an object too bright to look upon that glittered and pulse and dazed the eye.

Finally, there stood a figure of silver, seven feet tall and broad shouldered. The face was androgynous, as gentle as a woman and as stern as man. This form as naked as Adam, and had no sexual organs, no nipples, no hair. The eerie, streamlined beauty of an Art Deco statue hung about the limbs and features. The eyes were dark, and every part of the eye was black.

Eien said, “Woe to the Earth, and to all eons!”

Preston put his arm around Cynisca protectively. “What is wrong?”

Eien said, “I had hoped to free mankind from the curse of predetermination, and restore lordship of his own fate to him! Now it is too late. Tell me who these are.”

Cynisca said to Eien, “You know, lord. Reveal it.”

“They are the Archons,” said Eien. “They the ghosts of the future.  Each is an exemplar from the highest point of his evolution. There is one each for all possible timelines issuing forward from this moment.”

Preston looked from face to face. “There is one for each race of Pangaea. So this is each possible path of evolution, I take it. Each race at its best?”

“Yes. Each is the ultimate form of his race.”

“Why are they here?”

Eien said, “You know why.”

Fyodor said, “There can only be one race from now on. That is what the little gray men feared. And you are choosing, brother.”

“Not me!” said Preston. “Not anyone.”

“You threw the crown away, but you are the only one,” said Fyodor. “Who else can speak to all? Who else has command of the haunted stones?”

Preston said, “I do not see any Fourth Men here.”

Eien said, “Our attempt to achieve perfection was thwarted by our own folly. Time itself was fractured. We lured Ninth Men and then Eighth Men into following our path. It leads nowhere. This hour, this day, I had hoped to bring all the madness to an end.”

Preston said, “You mentioned eight infinities. Eight possible future universes coming out of this spot in time. Correct? I only see seven people standing here.”

Eien said, “There is one other. I cannot perceive it, for it is hidden.”

Preston said, “Why don’t they speak?”

Eien said, “Each believes his own form of perfection is self-evident, and mere words would detract. You need but say aloud what you deem the best aspect of man to be, and the victorious time traveler will alter events up and down the time stream to make the outcome leading to himself inevitable.”

Cynisca said, “Where is Evenor? He is the primordial man, first made by Prometheus. Where is Pandora? Why is the ultimate form of the First Men not represented?”

Eien said, “You see the Archons who represent the ultimate forms of First Man. Now is the choice, now is the judgment, I had hoped to escape.”

He raised his arm and pointed from one to the next: “The Second Men were made for justice, because the First Men so loved to destroy the world. The Third Men were made for compassion, to know life inwardly and outwardly. The Fourth Men were made for wisdom. The Fifth for fortitude, especially fortitude to look into beyond death and into the Eternal, where we Fourth Men could not go. The Sixth were made for temperance. The Seventh for a mystic clarity of vision, where alone true hope resides. The Eighth for unity that knows no private will. The Ninth for liberty. But each virtue in the world excludes the others! For now, and for all future time, you must condemn all others, and cleave to one.”

Preston said, “Everyone here, all three of us, said we were willing to lay down our lives for our friends, and to save the world from this nightmare and open up a better future.”

The green man contracted his brows by squinting his third eye. He seemed puzzled. Eien said, “An ominous remark! What exactly are you asking?”

Preston said, “Are these perfect people, each one a paramount of his world, are they willing to lay down their lives for something better?”

Eien said, “Each possible future disagrees on which race prospers; all agree there can but be one.”

Preston looked at him. “You are the Archon of your race, aren’t you? All the real Immortals killed themselves long, long ago.”

Eien lowered his gaze. “My race is a failure. Much wisdom brings sorrow. All life is vanity.” Then he lifted his head again. “Yes, I am the Archon of the Fourth Men. As such, I have the authority to withdraw my people from consideration. All the worldly wisdom in the world will not serve. Stay young and gay, as you were in childhood, First Men, when all possibilities were open.”

Fyodor said, “The ultimate form of First Man is here.”

Preston looked at him quizzically, puzzled for a moment, then he smiled.

“Yes,” said Preston. “He is here, and there, and in each one of them.” His smile grew broader. “All of us are made in his image and likeness, aren’t we?”

Eien said, “You have reached a verdict. Speak it.”

Preston said, “This is not my verdict. It was spoken long ago, by a man far more than I am or will ever be. You Archons! You are the rulers of the world, each in your own time! You will abide by my verdict. Listen up! There is a world beyond this world, and a forever that is after the end of time!”

Preston, with Cynisca still held protectively in one arm, raised his other arm to point at them, each in turn. “None of you are good enough! None of you are good enough, not just by your own unaided effort, to reach that beyond, or to enter that forever.

“The long experiment of the Fourth Men proved that. Mankind is not wise enough, none of us, to make man better by our own efforts. Each race tried to correct the original sin it saw in itself, and merely made more mistakes, making men less and less human, until the Last Men, who are entirely self-made, selfish, self-willed, and therefore entire monstrosities.”

Eien said, “I do not understand the verdict. Whom do you select? So you will obliterate all the artificial races, and return Pangaea to the First Men, to let evolution continue as nature meant?”

Preston said, “Not a bit. To hell with evolution and be damned to what nature means. Nature is bloody horrible, red in tooth and claw. I am a hunter. Me, I hunt big game, dangerous game, and I know. Nature is awful. Look beyond nature.”

Eien said, “But … but … then what race will by the one and only race to rule Pangaea? It is abundantly clear that no diversity of races can abide. That attempt ended today. It was the dream of the Watcher to assimilate all into one.”

Preston said, “They are smart as devils, aren’t? Pathetic little eunuchs. Smart as hell. All their smarts, and all their diversity and assimilation was just leading to hell. No. They did not see it. They wanted the physical and psychological properties of man to be blended together, to make a uniform grayness. Hell with that.”

Eien said, “So you select none? All races shall vanish, and man go extinct?”

Preston said, “You are a smart guy, maybe the smartest I ever met, but you cannot see it, can you?” Preston beckoned him with a crooked of his finger. Eien leaned down. Preston whispered something in her ear.

Eien straightened up, and smiled, his eyes gleaming. “I see.”

“Do you?” said Preston. “Then you should let Fyodor baptize you, if you pass any running water on your trip.”

Eien turned his face up. He raised his hand. “Archons! The verdict is made! No future you represent now can come to pass. What will be set in motion from this hour is more glorious that merely any one virtue, however elevated. Any good, no matter how good, if it goes out of place, and seeks with ambition to usurp the pinnacle of highest good, becomes an evil.

“Justice becomes tyranny. Love smothers. Prudence becomes cowardice. Courage becomes cruel folly, or pride. Hope becomes madness. Faith goes blind.

“Do you accept the verdict? Withdraw your claim, and yield to what is better than any single disproportion. Yield to what is best. It is not found inside time and space.

“The First Men knew this, or once did. Search your oldest memories. Seek out your most ancient records. The key to all futurity rests in the most ancient past, where not even the wise thought to find it.”

And, with that, all the Archons were gone as if they had never been.

Eien turned. “Take my hand, Fyodor! Now we are free to return to the zero point, and by this act, undo all the sins of my proud race.”

Cynisca said, “I understand none of this. Why must anyone die?”

Eien said, “Our sins were grave indeed. Time itself was twisted out of true. All must be put right. All must be made anew.”

Fyodor said, “Do not weep for me, beautiful one! Your man has outdone me, for he would do anything for your happiness, and, as I see now, you would do for his. I am willing to face this greater danger for the glory of God.”

Preston said, “Don’t do it! It is not too late to change your mind! You saw just now that things that look so inevitable, sometimes really aren’t!’

“If I die for the glory of Christ, it is martyrdom. My fathers did not flinch at martyrdom, but went to it singing. Shall I be less than they? I will carry the palm leaf of that glory when I reach heaven.”

Preston said, “That is not how time travel works! How can you go to heaven if you are erased, and never have had been? If you erase yourself from the timeline, Cynisca and I will forget you!”

Fyodor shook his head. “You of little faith! You underestimate the power of the Most High: and I see the lordly dead who came before me, and they are saying that you will not forget me, but that I shall return, and we shall meet again, and all be well.”

“Wait! Are you talking about visions? Voices in your head? How can you trust them?”

Fyodor shrugged. “How can I not?”

And, with no further word, Eien the Last Immortal took Fyodor by the hand, and they both walked upward through the air and passed through the swirling gateway into the night sky. The gate then shrank to a pinpoint and vanished, and the time-energy spiraling in wild dance around it dispersed, and no gate into time ever opened again.

Son of the Wind hopped up on Preston’s shoulder.

Preston looked askance at him. “What do you want, monkey man? I thought you were done leading me and tricking me? You are going to rush back to your life of solitary prayer in the woods.”

Son of the Wind twisted his ear painfully. “Still a child, you are! I will stay long enough to see your feet planted. You have an Empire to set in order, and anarchy to prevent.”

“I am not a king.”

“You are a chattering fool, but you must do what you must, crown or no crown. You have the gift of tongues and the right to command. You are the Lord of Threno by being the only one alive, and the Lord of Xurac Xuracuccac by right of conquest. Go higher. Look, and see.”

Cynisca said, “Take us out of here, my lord husband.”

Preston started to protest that he did not know how, but seeing the sardonic look on the face of Son of the Wind, Preston said nothing, but walked over to where a silver stair was sitting on the cracked marble where it had fallen. He stepped on it, holding her hand to lead Cynisca to step on it.

Preston said, “Open the dome, if it opens! If not, blast open a hole! Then restore power to this stair I am standing on, and lift us up.”

The unseen machines which only Preston could command heard his voice. Gentle as a drifting thistledown, the silver slab on which Preston and Cynisca stood arm in arm was lifted aloft by silence forces, and, without a sound, a wide round window opened in the dome before them.

The sun was in the sky. The wind was like wine. Light fell all about them.

Higher they flew. Underfoot were the streets and colored towers of the wide metropolis, where, already, shouts of joy and songs of praise were mingling with the wondrous clamor of bells and cries of victory.

*** *** ***

Episode 105 Epilogue: Found on the Last Continent

It was a week later.

The Cynisca and Preston were on the top of the dome, and all the city was spread before them. The pair was seated on a spot where Preston’s commands to the Fourth Era machines had summoned bottles of wine, bowls of fruit, bright candles (as it was growing darker) and a soft antigravity blanket to sit on, as comfortable as a dream of flying. Preston gazed over the city he reluctantly had to admit he was coming to love.

By the third day, the fires of the revolt had been extinguished. Men of several races, now freed, had acting together to quell any blaze and prevent its spread until such time as a levitation vessel was lowered, to smother the flames with its aura.

The first day and second had been busy with fighting. By that time, he had been without sleep for nearly a week. Preston had ordered the unseen machines to disarm any Fifth Men within their range, so the fighting had been hand to hand. He had to kill many of them, too many, until, late in the evening of the first day, he had discovered that the unseen machines could simply impose an enchanted sleep on them.

But the higher ranking slaves, the taskmasters, gambling lords, and harem-keepers, wanted to keep fighting. Equality with the lower slaves they had so systematically been tormenting and exploiting for generations was unthinkable to them: facing retaliation or even a fair trial was worse.  And Preston’s machines were not cognitive units. They could distinguish one set of racial gene patterns from another, but abstract concepts, such as political loyalty, or even who struck first, was beyond them. Preston could not stun the loyalists without stunning rebels of the same race.

The fighting ended in the mid-afternoon of the next day when the titanic dreadnaught under the command of Prince Cucuio hove into view.

His Winged Men, not to mention Sinhika and her animal armies, and the pirates of Threno, the Lunarian pilots, and other First Men, perhaps were not clear on what the Ideal Commonwealth was, or why they served it, but they had sworn fealty.

Aboard the dreadnaught were the remaining levitation vessel of the once-proud Watcher air fleet. None had been able to outpace the titanic vessel, nor escape its black lantern beam which could force them to ditch in the waves, nor the reach of the aura of force that could scoop them up off the water and drag them into a landing bay.

These disks had limited supplies of emergency power left, but it was enough to extinguish the fires.

Now the vast gleaming warship was hanging over the city, positioned so as to block the sun. This might inspire some deep introspection about their possible future on the peoples down below. Other levitation vessels, dispatched by Eighth Men from other cities and strongholds, from time to time were seen in the distance. Those who came too close were forced down and forced to surrender.

In the evening of the third day, the water of the bay turned white and danced as the mobile fortress and submersible navy of the Sixth Men came to the surface.

The next morning after that, before dawn, saw a fleet which had gathered from the fortress city of Xurac Xur, to the south, had come steaming (yes, with good, old-fashioned wood-burning paddlewheel-driven ironclad clipper ships) up to the relief of Xurac Xuracuccac enter the bay, in the name of Prince something-unpronounceable-or-other, apparently a third cousin once removed from the late Emperor’s niece or maybe his bootblack’s best friend.

The ironclads armed with catapults and spline-ballistae retreated in confusion from the first volley of black powder rockets from the dolphin-lithe submersibles of the Sixth Men, terrified and amazed at the unexpected weapons. No doubt they would be back soon.

But not very soon.

And then there had been some hours of rest, and some hours of peace, and on the fifth day, the newly-elected Archbishop Baldwin of Pangaea, Metropolitan of Xurac Xuracuccac, had overseen an impressive worship service of all the new converts at a dawn ceremony. The prayers and baptisms went on all day.

Thousands came, perhaps lured by the promises of the new religion, perhaps terrified by the prospect of any of the immaterial and exodimenstional allies of the Eighth Men, the so-called macrobes, being still at large. The various and sundry forms of ancestor-worship of the Third Men, the chaos-worship of the Seventh Men, and the death-worship of the Fifth Men did not even attempt to promise protection against such unearthly manifestations. One the other hand, as news of recent events were noised abroad, the God of Prestor John, Chaplain Nicholls, Bishop Baldwin, and the Prophet Fyodor who had preached the revolution was known to have a successful track record.

During the hectic sixth day, a meeting had been hastily arranged of all the allies, to hammer together a provisional government, and lend some organization to the Supercontinental Army being formed. Preston had been amazed at the sight of Son of the Wind chattering and scolding the unruly delegates, barking and snapping his teeth, chiding any violations of the abbreviated version of Robert’s Rules of Order Preston had explained to the assembly.

Whole tribes of Third Men and Phratries of Seventh Men sent emissaries to this assembly, and something called the Confraternity, which was an underground mutual aid society organized by the Second Men. It had been running in secret for centuries, aiding runaway slaves and maintaining hospitals and hostels in the wilderness.

The mild-eyed Second Man had a true genius for making peace and soothing ire, and somehow, without anyone making a specific deliberate decision, ending up staffing the envoy retinues of all the delegates.

The assembly was mostly uproar and confusion, with Second Men or Preston’s unseen machines translating for any delegates who could not speak the Imperial language, but some things were decided quickly.

A physicist from post-Mongolian Australia named Nevil Kingston-Brown was selected to lead the team of scholars investigating all the captured superscience of the Eighth Men and Fifth Men. This team had already started restoring the various Fifth Man political prisoners who had been lobotomized and turned into warlord zombies, with the help of Phantom technology. These men were remarkably grateful. Some included relatives of Grind, who, hearing the details of his exile, betrayal, and death, afterward went to Bishop Baldwin, to honor Grind by following him in his faith.

Dr. Brown had discovered how to deactivate Preston’s ur-stone. Preston was relieved more than he was willing to admit. Telepathy, even from a machine, was unnatural. He would rather aim with his own eye and pull a trigger with his own finger.

(But he kept the unnatural little widget on a ring he wore on his right hand, along with the reactivation needle, in case he ever needed it to smite a wrongdoer with a healthy dose of non-lethal shock. For example, next time he saw some young bravo chatting up his girl.)

At midnight of the sixth day, while they were still debating (and Preston was getting his first sleep in a week) the supercontinental congress was interrupted. The Vengeful Widow, Sing-Shi of Threno, who by some miracle was still alive, as well as Captain Roc and his crew of Methuseleans, arrived in a flotilla of flying ships, loaded with chests of plunder, eager to purchase the lifting rings from levitation vessels whose propulsion systems would apparently never operate again. The ferocious old woman was the current candidate for Lady High Admiral of the Aerial Fleet of the Commonwealth.

And there was one other vote, whose outcome Preston had not heard until he woke on the morning of the seventh day. It was now hours later. The sky was pink with sunset, and Preston was still smiling about it.

Cynisca was watching Preston smile. Her eyes were soft with dream.

“You are still laughing in your heart.” She said, delicately laying her soft hand on his breast, as if to confirm which organ she meant.

“Francis is a silly name! He should have stuck with Son of the Wind, or even Smiley.”

She looked puzzled. “It is a custom I do not know. After the lustration, why is the name of the initiate added to his other names?”

Preston said, “If Fyodor were here, we could ask him. It was his idea. I think the idea is that you get special help from the person you are named after, or it inspires you to follow his virtues. Me, I am not even sure who Saint Francis is. Maybe he was a guy who lived in poverty like the new President of our new Commonwealth. President-pro-Tempore, that is, until some sort of regular election can be held. Patron saint of monkeys, or something. But I was also laughing at the look on his face. Our new President’s face. ”

“Which look?”

“When he found out that he was the only guy everyone on our side trusted, and the only guy everyone on their side was willing to surrender to. And so he has to move into the Imperial Mansion, which is now our official White House. But I guess he had fun ordering them to upend that huge throne of onyx and gold with crowbars, and bringing in a hard, bare, wooden stump from the woodshed for him to sit on while he hears cases and petitions.

“He is there even now, sitting on that stump of office, trying to coordinate diplomatic efforts, and raise a militia, for whenever the governors of outlying provinces and Prince Whatsitsname get their act together enough to march on the capital. There is going to be fighting and fuming for some time to come, even if we do recover Lethal Units and Eternity Circuits and still-working levitation rings from our new best friends, the Carthusian Order of Eremites and Anchorites of the Final Men.

“I mean, think of it!” he laughed again. “The critters are anarchists anyway, and no two live together, so the life of a hermits and monks makes a sort of sense. But I am surprised at how fast they want to join up.

“Who would have thought so many people wanted to be baptized? I remember my Mom telling me about Billy Graham when she was young, and these big tent revival meetings that used to roam the country, back before they were made illegal. Never thought I’d see one.

“Never thought I would take up pipe-smoking either. Another thing I owe Captain Grind, may he rest in peace. Tobacco was also illegal back home.”

She said softly, “Do you long for your home?”

He shook his head. “My world was never meant for me. Too many rules. Too soft, too safe. Too many things it was not correct to say or think.”

“I miss fair Atlantis. It was a garden planted by the gods of old, and the mighty mountain Ypsiloron, cloud-veiled, where the first temples reared by Prometheus and Pronia would shine in the ruby light of dawn. How sweet the golden apples of Hesperides! How clear the living waters of the sacred river, Uranian, and how loud the fountains of that river, for they gushed up from the mountain cliff which the hoof of Pegasus had broken, as he spurned the Earth for the last time, and leaped into the Milky Way! And in the tumult of those fountains, the king in dreams could hears the voices of his ancestors, calling out warnings of the doom to come!”

“We can make a life here,” he said. “Plant a few gardens of our own.”

“All things have their time, and pass,” said she. “We have seen what happens to those who forget this lesson. The same gate that Fyodor was willing to give his life to close, was opened by ambitious men who wished to bring the dead past back to life, or loot the secrets of the years to come. Yet that same gate opened into Tartarus, and drew down a curse on them, and on all of us!”

“We deserve a day off!” said Preston, laughing once more.

“You said this was work. I was to help you. And yet you recline, you eat plums, grapes and figs, you drink pale wine not with much water mixed.”

“It is work! It just is not hard work. Thank God I do not have the headaches of President Francis Son of the Wind! As a mere Cabinet Secretary and Special Advisor on Life, Liberty, and the American Way, I am off the hook for all the meetings and jabber sessions going on now. Me, my only job is to remember as much as I can about how a properly civilized form of representative democracy works, for a report to the Supercontinental Congress. And who knows? They might reject it all, and vote in a king after all. Some people are set in their ways, and, damn it, they are the ones who will have to live with the result. I can only do what I can.”

“You also said you needed my help.”

“I do!”

“Aside from popping grapes into your mouth.”

“So you are helping me relax and remember. Eventually more will come back, but only if I relax as hard as I can.”

She pointed at the pen case containing quill pens, sharpening knife, ink stone and ink horn, wrapped in a quire of parchment he had tucked behind his head to use as a pillow. “So far, you have made not a single penstroke on any page.”

“That is not true!” He pointed at the words he had scratched on the bottom corner of the bottom sheet of parchment. She squinted at the letters. Some were the same as the Greek letters she knew. Others were not.

“I cannot read barbarian,” she said.

“It is a list of possible names.”

“Names? Whose names?”

“Names from the future. Boy’s names, girl’s names. What do you think of Theodore for a boy, Dorothy for a girl?”

She blushed, and lowered her lashes, but did not answer.

He was saying, “I also need a named for what to call the mansion on top of a green hill where I will retire, assuming I am not killed in the wars we have yet to fight. What do you think of Monticello Part Two? Or New Hesperides? The greatest man of my land, named Washington, was offered a crown, and he turned it down to go home to his farm. I am glad I have him as a model, or else I would not know what to do now.”

She squinted. “This is a word I can read. It means spiral wing.”

“Well, I need a name for the airplane and helicopter company I plan to open once I retire from my difficult job as Cabinet Secretary. The aircraft of this era stink. There is so much more you could do with antigravity rings.”

She put the parchment down. “This job seem not so difficult.”

“It is more than one man can do. You are still helping me relax to jog my memory.”

“Oh, I see.”

“We need a federal Constitution with three branches of government, checks and balances, rule of law, trial by jury, no cruel and unusual self-incrimination, all that good stuff. Each race is so different physically and psychologically, especially any clades of Eighth Men who surrendered, that nothing but a federalist system of independent sovereign states will do.

“But, heck, I barely remember civics class. The only Amendments I remember is the Second Amendment. That is the important one. And the First, I guess, because it lets people without guns at least the release of shooting off their mouths.

“And the think the Fifth allows you to stop talking until you have a lawyer to tell you what lies to tell. Or maybe a Fifth is what you drink once you get a lawyer’s bill until you are so drunk you cannot talk.

“And the Third Amendment…what the heck was in that? Honor thy father and mother? No due process without paying dues?

“And the Tenth Amendment was thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ass, nor his ox, nor any rights that are they neighbor’s, so any right not explicitly enumerated and granted the federal government is reserved by the states, or by the people.

“Or something like that.

“No matter. We’ll work something out.

“It will be messy and hard, because Pangaea holds races less like each other than any breeds or nations or languages belonging to the same race has ever been. And each one has an exaggerated version of whatever virtue the prior race thought it lacked, so everyone is jealous of everyone, and angry at their makers.

“And all of them eventually went extinct via some sort of racial suicide, so knowing that is going to cast a pall over the minds of everyone here. Survivors’ guilt, maybe. A sense of racial failure.

“And now there are no new immigrants coming in from times past, nowhere ever again but whoever is here now. Any one’s chance of meeting family or friends, or remote descendants who might at least be from the same century, now is zero. There is no hope there.

“Of course, some of these people are from groups the Eighth Men of nine hundred years ago abducted, and have never known any other world for generations. And then, at irregular intervals, ancestors or descendants born before Pangaea would drop down in their midst, including legendary figures long gone missing, or ancestral enemies from long-lost buried cities and long-lost drowned islands. I was just talking with Captain Vanderdecken. He married Amelia Earhart. It is just good luck that everyone on this whole damned supercontinent is not mad as hatters, all things considered.”

She said, “And yet you smile.”

“Because Francis is a funny name.” He grinned all the more. “And, for once, no one is hunting me. And I had big lunch.”

“Is that the sole reason you smile?” She asked archly, raising an eyebrow but snuggling closer in his arm.

He said, “Well, I still want that kiss. It has been a week.”

She said, “It is the custom of Atlantis that only two who are betrothed may kiss.”

He said, “I am pretty damned sure I asked you to marry me. Didn’t I?”

Her eyebrows drew together and her face darkened a bit. “You do not recall whether you have or no? The matter is, perhaps, insignificant to you?” She started to detangle herself from his arms. “If you will pardon me, I just recalled that today is a feast day to Hades, and I need to pour oil on the gravestone of my ancestors, and since they have been buried in the sea for eon upon eon, I should be too preoccupied with duties to be able to receive your calls for some time…”

It turned into a bit of a wrestling match, since he was unwilling to aid in the detangling efforts, and, after some grunting and panting, he had her on the ground with her wrists pinned above her head.

“Marry me.”

She turned her head to one side. “You think light of me. My father is not here to ask a bride price.”

“Set your own price. All I have is yours. All I am.”

“The death of Lord A’a.”

“He never existed. There was no such person. He was never alive so I cannot kill him.”

“Then tell me your darkest secret.”

“I am in love with an arrogant little snip of a girl who takes herself too seriously. Boy! Give a dame just a few magical powers, and it so goes to her head! That is my secret.”

“That is not dark enough.”

“I ate the neighbor girl’s pet goldfish when I was ten. She never found out. I blamed the dog. Still feel bad about that dog. I cannot remember her name. The dog was named Barnaby.”

“Not secret enough.”

“Ask me. I am an open book.”

She learned closer and whispered. “What did you say to the demigod? Glaucon?”


“That emerald man with three eyes? The one who stepped out of the night sky? He told you to decide which one race would prosper over all others, and yet, something you said satisfied him, and banished all the ghosts of the future.”

He released her and sat back. She propped herself up, arms behind her, watching his eyes, looking at his lips. His face was near hers, but a more serious note entered his voice.

“I told him what my experience here in Pangaea allow me to find. It was one of many things I never found in my world. Of course, I also found love. I have found everything here. Including the answer to the answer to the riddle the future ghosts were asking.”

“What riddle?”

“How to have race and nations with little or nothing in common, in body or in mind, become one race, but without losing the unique virtues that make each race distinct?”

“And? How is this riddle answered?”

“Not by assimilating all of them into one gray mass, like the Watchers wanted to do, and not by keeping them separate and feuding, like the Mighty Ones were doing, and certainly not by picking one master race and letting the other go extinct, like all the future ghosts wanted. Ghosts from dead end futures, none of which will now never come to pass, I am glad to say.”

She said, “Then how?”

“By seeing what they have in common not in body or mind. It is what is in their souls. It is in the fact that they are made in the image and likeness of a creator, who endowed all his children with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They all have this. Giraffe Men or Giants, crazy Winged Men or calm Lizard Men, mean, hairy Monkey Men or freaky bald Midgets, we all have the duty to shoulder the burden of being free, and freeing others, whether we like it or not. All of us.”

“So who is the one race who will inherit Pangaea? What did you say?”

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ.”

“I do not understand.”

“You will, after we are wed.”

And he claimed his bride with a kiss.