Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Thalikar was a pile of ancient masonry.
Broken columns jutted into the sky, black and sinister. Here and there a lintel connected them, giving way to a dome that once had been painted in gay and vivid tints and now was backed the color of gray granite. So old not even a legend existed to tell about the people who were born here and died out of existence before mankind journeyed off the Earth, it lay bare to the hot sun and the shifting sands like a skeleton buried under dust.
There was an air of olden sadness to its stones and where the wind wailed between the fluted columns, lonely men sometimes thought they could hear forgotten voices whispering out of Time. The only city on Dakkan planet, it held no undiscovered secrets except for the fact of its own existence. Everything but its very stones had perished a thousand centuries before.
Carrick watched it loom up in the glass hood, black and sprawling against the red sand and yellow sky. It touched him with its mystery, its remembrance of the race which had built it long ago and had gone away into oblivion, leaving it behind.
The city occupied less than a quarter of a mile in length. “No wonder the Empire explorers never discovered it. The marvel is that anyone did,” he commented.
Mai nodded. “Smugglers found it, needing a hideout. They dug underground pits to store their dope and jewels. They began to save criminals abandoned on Dakkan. Criminals with loot hidden away, which the smugglers went and got for them at a high percentage.”
Carrick reflected that the dope and jewels would be safe enough, even from hardened criminals. Where on this barren world would anyone hide stolen goods, except in the pits below Thalikar? He watched the ruins grow larger, felt the shadow of a column cross his face. Then Mai was braking the sled beneath a stone overhang and sliding back the hood.
“Stir feet, Carrick. Than Lear wants to see you.”
“I can’t tell him anything.”
“Tell him that, at least.”
She went ahead of him through the red dust, kicking puffs at every stride. Carrick eyed her slim body in the tight black bolero and leggings. She walked with an inner arrogance, aware of her beauty and her elfin charm; there was challenge in the tilt of her head with its heavy yellow tresses. His heart thumped a little faster when his nostrils caught her faintly perfumed flesh.
Mai walked under a stone lintel and pushed open a wooden door. The door was imported, Carrick realized; there was no wood on Dakkan planet. A corridor lay before them, blue with inbuilt lights; beyond it was a room hung with maroon drapes.
The girl stood aside and made a little gesture with her hand. Carrick stepped into the room and stopped. Two men were bent above a table covered by a tridim chess game. One held a cruiser piece in his hand and turned his head, staring. The other man looked up and they away to glance at a big lounge heavily piled with cushions.
The man on the lounge was tall, thick through the chest and with very muscular legs revealed by tight blue leggings with red stripes down their seams. His blouse was pale blue, and there was a gold brocade sash about his hard middle. His eyes were hard black; his head was completely bald, as if shaven. Carrick thought his mouth betrayed a man fond of philosophy and plunder.
Than Lear swung his feet off the couch and put them flat of the floor as he stared at Carrick but he did not get up. A chuckle rumbled out of his deep chest.
“Found him still alive, did you?” he asked the girl.
“There was something wrong with the compass. I—”
“I did that. I wanted to learn something.”
“What?” Carrick asked sharply.
“No ordinary man could have remained alive as long as you did on the desert. Stryker gave you a damn good body. Why?”
“It was an experiment. He—”
Than Lear rasped an obscenity. He rose upward like a jungle cat stretching. Carrick knew instinctively that this man would be a match for any two men, even trained members of the killer guild. His arms were extraordinarily long and bulged with muscles. He seemed to preen, knowing Carrick watched him.
“A good body, eh?” he grunted.
“I’d trade it for yours, no questions asked. You know why?”
Carrick shook his head. Than Lear frowned. He glanced at the girl who made a helpless gesture with her hands.
“I could break your back, Carrick. I could carry you onto the sand and let you die for—how long? Three days? a week?—in agony. All I ask for saving your life is the truth. How much do you know?”
The big man moved away from the lounge toward a table that held a bowl of fruit. He selected a Denebian melon, broke it open and began to eat its savory pulp. His hard black eyes watched Carrick.
“Stryker found the Promised Land. I know it. You must know it.”
“He never shared his secrets with me. There was some sort of project—yes. He worked long hours on it. Sometimes he even went away for a day or two—where, I don’t know.”
“I do. He went to the Promised Land.”
Carrick was getting tired of the words. Irritably he said. “I’m not lying. I told Mai, I tell you. What this project was, he never informed me.”
“Then how do I know about it?” Than Lear rasped.
Than Lear grinned at him coldly. He tossed the melon into the floor disposal vent and came to stand before Carrick, legs apart and hands jammed into fists on his hips. They stared at each other, eye to eye.
“It would be real good fight between us, Carrick,” the bald man muttered. “Maybe some day it’ll come to that, but not now. Not now.” He flashed strong white teeth in a grin. “I don’t want to hurt you if I can help it. You’re a mighty valuable man to me, and pretty soon, maybe to a lot of other people as well. So if it makes you feel better to keep a muffler on your mouth, that’s all right with me. I have ways to make men talk when I want them to—even a man like you.”
He turned away, picked up another melon and broke it. As an after-thought he swung around and using the open half of the melon with which to make a wide, seeping gesture, said in a friendly manner, “Do what you want. The place is yours. You aren’t a prisoner, if you’ve been thinking you are. I saved your life because some day you’ll make me the most powerful man in all history.”
Than Lear showed his big white teeth as a he chewed a moment. “I’m not afraid you’ll run away. Where would you run to on this hellhole?”
He went and stood over the chess players, studying the many-layered board. He grunted and pushed at the shoulder of the larger of the two men. “Give me room, Pak. You were never any good in space. You can’t think about two levels.”
The man called Pak was in a poor position. He had allowed his cruisers to be bottled up, his warpers to be hemmed in. There seemed little that Than Lear could do. Against his will, Carrick found himself interested; he’d never thought Than Lear would take up a losing cause. He moved closer.
The bald pirate moved a protonigun. To protect his enveloping fleet, his opponent shifted pieces. Than Lear used a warper to extricate one cruiser, then another. The little man gnawed a lip, crouching lower; he was being pushed on the defensive. Than Lear was moving his pieces as if he were in a real fight. There was a pall of sweat on his forehead and his eyes shone with concentration.
The game was over in fifteen minutes. Pak was grinning, the little man growling under his breath. Than Lear looked at Carrick and winked.
“Never fight me out in space, man. I could have been the best damn Space Admiral the Empire ever had.” His thin brows knotted. ” I would have been, too—except for…”
His broad shoulders moved easily. Carrick had the impression that the man was as brilliant in his own way as Stryker was in his. No hulking bruiser, this one, but a giant with a brain. A cold feeling settled in Carrick’s guts. As he had said, he would be a bad man in a fight.
Mai Valoris touched his arm and Carrick jumped.
Than Lear chuckled. “Nerves tense? Thinking will do that.”
Carrick had to laugh. There was something likeable about the bald pirate. At another time, they might have been good friends.
Mai said, “Let me show you around.” Than Lear was setting up the pieces and Pak was moving over to sit beside the little man. Together, they would match wits with him, with five moves to every four of his. It lessened the odds against them, that extra move.
The girl was moving toward a curtained doorway, lifting the luminous hangings, holding them up for Carrick to stoop under. Impishness glinted in her eyes. “After today, you’ll hold the drapes for me, Carrick. Right now, you’re our guest.”
A narrow tunnel led into a series of interlocked chambers furnished in sybaritic luxury. There were rubbiplast chairs and lounges, tables of black ebony and gleaming stil. A bar hung on thin silver chains from the luminous ceiling in which diamond stars glittered deep in a transparent sheath against a black background. The plastic sheath must be a foot in depth to give such a perfect illusion of space, he thought, and marveled at the artistry that had conceived it.
Mai said, “Than Lear paid a fortune for that job. Brought a man all the way from Antares. he likes to lie back and look up into space and dream when he drinks. He’s got us in the habit, too.”
She went behind the bar and mixed colored liquids, holding out a tall, frosted glass to him that was fitted with a spout. Taking her own drink, she moved to one of the lounges and reclined on it. Carrick saw the reason for the spout as he watched her sip. A man could lie back and drink this way in perfect comfort.
When he joined her, she reached to the arm of her lounge and pressed a stud. The lights in the chamber faded into utter darkness; as they did, the diamond stars in the plastic ceiling began to glow, to twinkle.
Carrick gasped. The illusion of floating in black space was perfect, so perfect that his mind played tricks on him. He felt cold and weightless. All around him there were stars, on the walls—unnoticed until now—and even embedded in the floor tiles. He picked out Procyon, where he had been promoted to a captaincy on the field against the Evileen, and Regulus, where he had fallen in love with a catlike Priil girl before he got shifted out to fight the Vrallen. He wondered what she was doing now.
“How’s the drink?” a voice asked.
He started and felt guilty; she laughed a little, softly. Hurriedly, he sipped and knew instant delight. The liquid was cold and fiery, sweet and tart, a masterpiece of opposites; it purred going down and it spread about inside him with a whisper of contentment.
Languor loosened his muscles. He let his head sink deeper into the lounge cushion that supported it. He said something of the way he felt, buoyed up and relaxed, alert in every sense, yet delightfully sleepy.
“What in Llar’s name is in it?” he asked.
Mai chucked. “The mixture of a dozen planets’ liquors. It’s Than Lear’s own special blend that somebody taught him while he was in space academy back on one of the Centauris. He won’t drink anything else.”
“I don’t blame him. Teach me the formula.”
“Than Lear says nobody—not even himself—can mix them the way I do.” He could sense the pixie laughter in her throat.
“Remind me never to get very far away from you.”
She was silent and Carrick stared at the stars. Then she said thoughtfully, “Llar is a Denebian god. You were born on Earth.”
“In a Kansas farmhouse. I grew up walking dusty country roads and fishing in a creek with a dog named Spots always at my heels.” Nostalgia overtook him as he remembered wheat fields in the breeze and long summer afternoons swimming bare ass in the deeper parts of the creek. He had never gone back to the farm, once he’d gotten his ensign’s bar. Things always seemed to happen so fast in the Fleet, a man had little time to think, to remember, to go back instead of forward.
“Llar?” she asked after a while.
“Oh, sorry. I was—remembering. I was stationed on Callaran, one of the Denebian group, for a long time. Battling the Swampers. Llar—well, Llar was one of the old gods there. I had a little statue of him—a girl gave it to me, actually—and it stopped a kaniray that would have finished me. I always felt a little closer to Llar after that.”
“What was her name?”
Carrick laughed, honestly amused. It was the first real laughter he’d made in a long time, not since before Stryker took him out of his basket. The drink and the nearness of the perfumed girl, her idle chatter, was making him feel more like a human being. Maybe he hadn’t thought of himself as human after Stryker had re-created him. He felt human now. Damn human.
“Hella.” he waited, then added, “And she was, too.”
They finished their drinks and Mai concocted more. With the frosted glasses in their hands, they moved on into the next room. This chamber was fitted with great windows that stared out over a lush, tropical jungle. Carrick gawked, then swung on the girl who watched him with delighted eyes.
“I helped make it,” she informed him. “Actually it’s only five feet deep. We—this character from Antares and I—had to use shadows and curved wood to give the illusion we wanted.”
“It’s perfect. If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were on a view terrace jutting out over one of the primal planets.” She clapped her hands in glee, saying, “Lincoln is the one we modeled it after.”
He sipped a while, staring. Then he asked, “Any others?”
She pouted, “You aren’t looking at it close enough. Go on over to the window.”
He humored her, then found himself staring down at a striped dilation, its feline body crouched as its eyes watched a red fallow deer dipping its velvety muzzle into a stream of flowing water. The scene was so lifelike he wondered for an instant why the big cat didn’t make its leap. His eyes moved on, touched another animal and another, then saw a pretty native girl moving along a narrow path, a water jar resting on her shoulder.
It was miniature jungle world, done to perfection.
Carrick drew a deep breath. “You could make a fortune back on one of the commercial planets. This is absolute artistry.”
She was pleased. She came to stand beside him so that her bare arm touched his. Her head was bent and her golden brows furrowed as she watched with him. “I used to think I had a career as an artist. I made all the little figures, the miniatures. It was a labor of love. It gave me something to do. Than Lear didn’t care. He had his stars. These others—the planet windows, we all them—he admires, but it’s the stars he loves.”
“Whatever happened in his life? He said he’d have made a space admiral and I believe him.”
She shrugged, turning away. “Someday I’ll tell you. Right now I have something else I want you to see, a new project of mine. It’s guesswork, most of it, but I want you to see it.”
He went with her through two more rooms equipped with picture view windows. Carrick would have liked time to study one that seemingly looked out over a watery world in which islands floated like toys on tossing waves but the girl was hurrying him on into a chamber fitted out with a number of beds, two vanity tables and mirrors.
“The girls’ quarters,” she smiled, and touched a wall switch.
A window that reached from floor to ceiling began to glow. Beyond it was a planet unlike any he had ever seen. In the distance, red sandstone cliffs lifted into a yellow sky. A great plain, covered with waving grass, made a backdrop for the faery towers and spiral columns of a golden city. There were little chariots in the streets and people wearing flowing robes. A statue or two had been erected in the wide squares. It was a peaceful scene.
“It isn’t finished,” she told him. “I’ve been working on that building there but it doesn’t seem to come out right.”
Her finger pointed to a structure that looked strangely like a temple. Its flat roof was surmounted by a golden dome resting on thin pillars, giving the onlooker a view of an onyx altar before which tiny tripods burned blue incense.
There was something white above the alter. Carrick could not make it out, though he bent and squinted. It looked like mist.
“Maybe you can help me, ” Mai said.
She padded toward a night table covered with pads of paper, pencils and tiny vials of paint. Opening the drawer she took out a curving shard of what once had been a jar. She held it up. It was red, covered with a design in colors so badly faded they were almost invisible.
“It’s coated with plastiquid now, to prevent any more deterioration. The smugglers found it under the sand when they were digging these underground chambers. There are a few more in the storerooms, bits of vases and things with pictures on them.”‘
Her hand indicated the golden city through the window. “They helped me reconstruct the city. It’s this fragment that’s giving me a bad time. See what you can make of it.”
She brought it to him, put it into his hands. Oddly, there was a queer reluctance in him to put his eyes to the ancient painting. Afraid to stare too hard at what he seemed to know instinctively would be there, waiting for him. The plastiquid was smooth and hard to the touch of his fingers. It soothed his dancing nerves.
His eyes dropped and his skin crawled. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
—so long ago that we have lost all remembrance of it, there was an alien thing living in our galaxy. What remote cataclysm gave it a semblance of life no man can say. It lived and it went among the planets and there it…
The voice from the corner of his mind faded out. He knew those rich tones. They had been those of Hannes Stryker before he died. And yet—Stryker had never spoken of such things to him! He was sure of it. He would have remembered it.
The flat temple roof and a segment of its dome could be made out from the old paints. The altar stood as Mai Valoris had made it, of black onyx and with tiny tripods burning incense. Ah, and the white mist rising lazily upward over that altar, curling, writhing—
With alien life? Alien life that feasted on—human life!
He knew it as surely as he knew that his heart was hammering in his rib case, that his breath had come shorter, that his eyes had narrowed in a sullen, inexplicable rage. He did not understand the source of his knowledge, but he had been told about this thing, about this misty shape of horror. Sometime, somewhere, he had been told.
“Carrick,” said a frightened voice.
—known as Ylth’yl. It devours the life forces of…
He said from the depths of memory that was no memory but an implanting of suggestion, “The sacrifices stand between the tripods waiting to be—taken. No one can save them. They are given drugs to lessen the horror of what is going to happen. Ylth’yl will…”
Pain laid a fire on his wrist. Carrick shook himself, found Mai standing close to him, staring up into his face with terrified eyes.
“Who are you, Carrick?” she whimpered. “How did you know about the sacrifices? They aren’t on any shard I’ve found so far. You couldn’t have known about them.”
He tried to smile but her face told him it was a failure, if it was meant to reassure her. He freed his hand and put it over his eyes, pressing into them. “I felt as if—as if I were the cat and—and that white thing were the dog. Or I the mongoose and the mist, the snake. Ancient enemies. Foes from long ago. But—that’s nonsense. I’ve never seen this thing in my life.”
She whispered. “It’s evil, isn’t it? Somehow, I knew.”
He shook his head helplessly. “I suppose so. Something inside me seems to understand. It’s like a recollection buried under layers of forgetfulness. Racial memory, maybe. Or it could be that Stryker told me about this thing, though how he knew I can’t say, and I don’t remember his doing so.”
“What could Stryker tell you about it? Had he ever been on Dakkan planet? No, that couldn’t be. The smugglers found the shard. It was buried fairly deep.” Troubled, she turned to look at the golden city. “It’s gone now, thank heaven. Gone and—almost forgotten, except for us.”
“I have the feeling it’s still alive and—waiting.”
“Nobody’s ever come across it, and the Empire’s been opening up new star planets ever since Heikennen invented overwarp drive.”
He shrugged and tried to make it light between them. “At least you know more than you knew before. You can put it two men and two women, as sacrifices.”
“Why two of each?” she asked quickly.
“It just slipped out. No special reason.”
Her faintly slanted eyes that gave her an elfin look, brooded at him. She was a badly scared girl; he supposed it was because her artistic sense made her more perceptive, more imaginative than most others, as if in her mind she could see herself standing as one of those sacrifices before an altar where some mad being swirled in unconquerable strength.
Imagination, no more. Or—prophecy?