Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
THEY WAITED in the lessening shadows while Mizar climbed the distant skies, flooding Makkador with heat. It was a quiet, contemplative moment for them both. Peganna thought of her people waiting patiently on the worn-out planet they had called home for the past seven years, and her heart hungered to give them a pleasant, grassy world heavy with sweet water and hot sunshine. A world that belonged now to the Empire. Bran Magannon was remembering that he was an Earthman, a one-time Fleet Commander sworn to uphold the star cluster of the Empire against all foes. To his world, this woman standing beside him was an enemy, her people a threat to the security of his own.
Bran sighed and tightened the belt of his fur kilt. For the past half hour the sunlight had been moving across the stone floor of the cave entrance until now it almost touched his boot. It was time to leave the cave and venture into the brilliant light of Mizar.
He rose and lifted Peganna from the stone floor. He gathered and folded the blankets, draping them across one shoulder. The pouch at his belt was shrunken in upon itself, and he wondered if this might be symbolic of their chances. Shrugging off a momentary despondency, he caught Peganna by the hand and drew her with him out of the cave.
The skies were empty of Zads, the desert of soldiers.
Bran led the way up a sloping rock to a higher level where dirt lay piled in rock crannies, nourishing the evergreen life of the Makkadoran hills. Pine needles carpeted the rocks and the ground about them, making a cushion for their feet. Sunlight splotched tree boles and underbrush where it filtered through the high branches. It was a silent world through which they walked, hushed but for their own breathing.
When Mizar was overhead, Bran paused and made Peganna sit on a flat rock. “We cross an open space half a mile beyond this point. We’ll have to move fast in case there are Zads out hunting us. Rest a while.”
He stared south and east in the direction from which they had come. The skies were clear. Though he knew and reckoned with the speed of those feet searching planes, he felt for the first time that they might actually escape the manhunt. Once let them get off Makkador and he would lose the Empire soldiers with ease.
When they came to the two miles of open rock that lay between the evergreens and the tall pines higher in the hills, he scanned the air again. Peganna watched him, thinking. On this man rested all her hopes, not only for her own happiness but also for the future well-being of the Lyanir. He was no Lyanirn, however, but an Earthman. His loyalties should lie with Empire in any conflict between their races–and their disputation over living room on decent planets might well come down to open war. In fact, it probably would, she thought gloomily. Even supposing that the well of Molween might give her what she needed, she had no guarantee that the Empire would buckle to her demands.
Peganna slipped off her silken chlamys. She could run faster in the wool jersey and short, matching kilt that left her white legs so bare. The chlamys was rolled up and tucked into her belt when Bran swung around to her, nodding. “Run, Peganna. Run fast. I’ll match your pace.”
They almost made the distant trees. They moved swiftly, holding their breaths as long as they could, their shadows keeping pace beside them. It was another shadow–a dark moving blotch that came and went so fast that Bran almost did not see it–which alerted him to danger.
“Fall flat, fall flat,” he cried. When he touched the rock he rolled so that his eyes would be staring upward into the bright blue sky.
He did not see it at first, the Zad was so high. Only a vapor trail betrayed its presence. It was gone even while he looked. No living man could have picked them out on the gray rocks, but the reconnaissance camera would be clicking from the underbelly of the Zad and its high-speed films would catch them as they ran, mirroring forever the fact that they had flung themselves upon the hill stones.
When they processed the films, they would know where they had come, though they would not know why. Bran was thoughtful as he scrambled to his feet. These hills would be swarming with white uniforms in an hour, maybe even less.
By that time he must be at the tele-door and through it with Peganna. Or everything they were fighting for would vanish like smoke in a high wind.
“The Zad’s gone,” he rasped. “Come on!”
She staggered the last few feet and only his arm at her middle kept her upright. From overhead the tree branches embraced them in dark shadows, hiding them from further discovery. Bran let Peganna lean against a tree-bole to recover her breath while he told her what he had seen.
“They’ll be here as soon as they’ve seen those films. By then, we’ll be far away.”
“Through the tele-door?”
He nodded. “I’ll have to hide the opening I made when I came through it onto Makkador. Even then I’m not sure they won’t be able to track us. They have marvelous devices for hunting out a man they want, the intelligence services. Odd little gadgets that can follow a scent the way no bloodhound ever could.”
Peganna shivered and, unrolling her white chlamys, thrust her head and arms into its hood and sleeves. Beneath the trees it was cool. Putting back the hood she let that coolness lave her face while she slowly recovered her strength.
“All right,” she told him after a few minutes. “We might as well go on. If there’s any chance at all of losing them, let’s take it.”
They walked between the trees toward a high rounded hill where only sparse vegetation grew. There was a small black circle at the base of the hill. When they came nearer, it became the entrance to a tunnel, with charred splotches at its edges.
“The tele-door is under the hill,” Bran explained. “When I came through it, I found the exit blocked by the accumulated silt of ages. I burned a way out with my a-gun.”
Peganna had become archaeologist enough, during the searching of the Crenn Lir worlds, to recognize a tell when she saw it. Usually these tells covered grave sites or cities so ancient they had long since been buried under many feet of loam. The tele-door would be such an artifact, brooding here on Makkador for unremembered centuries as the detritus from space and the drifting dust from its own planet slowly buried it.
Bran was saying, “Many tele-door chambers are hidden underground, beneath tells or simply to protect them from discovery by enemies. This isn’t the first one I’ve had to shoot my way out of.” He reached for her hand to help her scramble up the dirt ziggurat. The black tunnel mouth was perhaps twelve feet above them.
“Long ago there was a staircase of sorts descending from the chamber,” he told her. “This one’s buried under loess, but others on different planets can be seen, and they all seem to conform.”
He had paused to drop the blankets, knotting two ends together to make a drag with which to obliterate their footprints. “To make it a little harder to find us,” he explained.
His palm pushed her into the tunnel while he stood in its mouth and began to claw down dirt to fill the entrance. Over his shoulder he said, “I won’t be able to do more than disguise it a little. Working from inside, I can’t hide the depression it will make. It’ll be spotted easily enough if anyone knows what to look for.”
“And if they find the entrance–and the tele-door?”
Bran shrugged. “Then they’ll come after us.”
He worked swiftly, knowing that time was a changeling ally. His fingers grew grimy but the dirt began filling up the adit, so that soon only a narrow space remained through which the outside light could enter. Within moments this was gone and they were in a darkened tunnel.
“Go on, straight ahead,” called Bran, working with the a-gun now, blasting down the ceiling of the tunnel, filling it with heavy dirt-slides He backed slowly before the flaring blue beam from the handgun. As he had shot his way out of the tunnel chamber, now he pulled it down behind him. The tunnel was filled with the acrid reek of atomic disintegration powder.
When his rump touched the cold bronze of the chamber doors he stepped into a rectangular room, putting his left hand to each door and swinging it shut. He heard the faint click of an automatic lock.
Peganna was staring around the chamber in awe.
“We’ve never found anything so well-preserved,” she breathed.
She ran to a mural that showed an ocean and an odd sailing craft cleaving its green waters. Gently her fingertips reached out to that brightly colored surface that had been created untold centuries before. Her hand hesitated in midair, then fell away. Almost shamefacedly she turned to smile at him.
“I’m afraid to touch it. The slightest contact might turn those paints to powder and obliterate them.” She whispered, “If only I had a camera, to record that scene.”
She found a trace of words painted in a lower corner and bent to study them. “ ‘A skiff on the ocean called Palandrus on the planet Keethan, the world where Thruul was born,” she translated.
Straightening, she said, “A skiff, I translated this word, coelzin. Our archaeologists have long known what the word meant, though we had no visual image of the boat it represented.”
“This must be a scene out of their far past,” Bran told her. “I’ve seen other murals on other worlds where their boats were driven by rockets.”
Peganna nodded, turning to study the painting of a vast city in the air above which queer vessels sped like wheeling birds. “Vasthor,” she whispered. “Vasthor, that was the Crenn Lir center of learning and culture. We always thought it a fabled place, but apparently it actually existed. Oh, Bran if we could find it, uncover just a few of the wonders it’s supposed to have housed!”
He caught her by an arm. “We have no time for that. Maybe someday, but right now we’d better get out of here.”
Bran brought her toward a glistening black oval set flush against the far wall, bordered by an edging of what looked to be dull gold. As they came nearer, Peganna, expected to see her reflection; instead there was only a dark emptiness, as though she stared into space itself unrelieved by starlight. It was frightening. She seemed to stand on the edge of a bottomless abyss.
“Step forward,” Bran said.
She drew back against him, trembling. To step forward into that dark nothingness was beyond the power of her muscles. She could not; her legs were quivering and refused to move. She would drop into an abyss without bottom in an endless falling that–
Strong arms swung her upward.
Bran held her firmly as he walked lightly and easily through the dimensional blackness of the tele-door. He did not know what the darkness was, though he suspected it was an as yet unknown-to-mankind form of trans-spatial energy. It was everywhere in that black dimensional-continuum and as soon as an animate or inanimate object came within its mutronic flow, he or it was borne elsewhere by its current.
Somehow, the Crenn Lir had discovered that odd type of energy and learned to control it. He himself had been on upward of sixty dead planets which once had formed the star empire of the Crenn Lir, but he always felt that he had only set foot on a small number of their worlds.
He stood an instant in darkness.
Then the blackness formed a roseate oval before him and he stepped through it onto the glassite floor of a chamber he had never seen before. It was a huge room, ornate with many carvings, with several tele-doors set flush to its walls.
He made a mental note of the spatial coordinates so that when he was entering a tele-door with controls–there had been none on Makkador–he would be able to find his way back.
From Makkador, the soldiers of the Empire, if they found the tele-door, would be teleported here. They might remain and hunt for Bran Magannon and Peganna of the Silver Hair, but their quarry would be far away by that time. Bran touched the control discs set into the wall beside a tele-door,
working them from memory.
Peganna stood beside him, saying nothing, a little overwhelmed by what she was seeing all around her. This tele-chamber was something of an art gallery as well, filled with statuary graven in stone and worked in metals, in free form concepts of dead thought and imagery that went on living while their creators were less than dust. Beyond the statues were other works of art. Her breath caught at their beauty–murals and hanging pictures which showed a world long since forgotten by the living. And a row of tele-doors with their sidewalls covered with discs and tiny dials were unspoken passwords to what had been the Crenn Lir empire, where other such treasures might be found!
If only she could turn her scientists loose in this room!
Perhaps there would be no need to force the Empire into granting them living room. Surely among all the old Crenn Lir worlds, there were some still fit for human habitation! Pleasant worlds with grass and flowing rivers and tossing oceans and burning, healthful sunlight.
Bran said, as if reading her mind, “There are none left. Peganna. Whatever force destroyed one, destroyed them all. It was a great tragedy.”
She glanced at him sideways. “By that you mean you’ve never found any. I can’t believe all of them were made unfit for living purposes.”
He shrugged. “There may be some. If they exist, why haven’t we heard from their peoples?”
“What about Makkador?”
“I don’t believe Makkador was a true Crenn Lir planet. It may have been explored by them, perhaps marked for colonization. But for some reason the Crenn Lir never got around to it. For that matter, what of the world your people live on now?”
“Miranor? It’s a dead planet. Worn out. Bathed as are all the Crenn Lir worlds by some deadly radiation. We have to take medipills two or three times a day to ease its effects on our bodies. Without the pills we’d die out in a few years.”
“As the Crenn Lir died out?” Bran wondered.
Peganna only shook her head and allowed Bran to take her by the hand and lead her into the tele-door. She was no longer afraid. Whatever force had gripped the Wanderer and held him upright would also support her.
There was no sensation within the blackness. It closed about her and cradled her gently, as might a suspension beam. Then the roseate oval was in front of them and with Bran’s palm at her back she moved toward it.
This chamber was small, almost dingy. The almost eternal uthium lights which had made the other chamber gleam with brightness were dull here, almost inert. She supposed the chamber with the statuary had been an important one; this room where she walked now might have been only a mere way-station.
“We aren’t going to stay here,” Bran told her, “but there’s something I want you to see outside the tele-doors–the machine on the Crenn Lir worlds that still works.”
Her curiosity was caught at once. Her every hope for her people was based on the assumption that somewhere in space she could find ancient artifacts of the Crenn Lir, a few of their formidable weapons. Perhaps this machine that Bran spoke of might be what she needed.
“Oh, yes,” she breathed. “Let’s go look at it.”
The same type bronze doors through which they had entered the tele-door chamber on Makkador were here. Bran pushed them open and sunlight flooded the room. Peganna shaded her eyes as she looked out over a landscape charred black as by some olden cataclysm. She saw gray rocks thrusting up through the ruined ground, but nothing else. No bit of color, no bud or leafy thing broke the dead monotony of the blackness and the rocks.
Only in the distance . . .
She turned to look up at Bran. “Is it one of their cities?”
“What’s left of it. The machine is there.”
“I want to see it, Bran. So much!”
He nodded, and they set off across the dead landscape. It was a depressing place, all gray rock and charred ground. No life of any sort existed here, as far as he knew. No intelligent beings or animals trod its surface. The destruction that had overtaken this planet had been a most deadly one.
As they walked, Peganna shaded her eyes while she blinked up at the sun. It was a red giant that filled half the sky but gave only a comparatively feeble warmth for all its size. She commented on this and asked its name.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he told her. “I stayed here overnight once, just to see the star patterns. There weren’t any. Only two stars were visible.”
“I had no telescope, just my eyes.”
“It must be a very remote planet,” Bran reflected, “set so far from the other Crenn Lir worlds as to be on the very perimeter of its empire.”
“Maybe this wasn’t a Crenn Lir world at all.”
“Perhaps, though the architecture of the city resembles theirs. My own belief is that this was once a distant Crenn Lir planet, the one most remote from its fellows and most liable to attack by an enemy. None of the other planets I’ve been on have this charred look.”
Black dust rose about their calves as they walked. The air was fresh, the wind gentle. Whatever tragedy had overtaken the planet–Bran had named it Deirdre of the Sorrows, he told Peganna–was lost in the folds of Time. Any radioactivity or other deadly after-effects had been dissipated long ago.
The city grew larger to their eyes. In olden times it had been a mighty metropolis. Now it was only a pile of rubble extending for many miles. Tumbled stones lay like giant play blocks standing on end or lying on their sides. Here and there part of some ancient tower rose upward like the finger of a dead colossus buried amid the debris. They found the shattered remnants of a road after a while and this made walking easier.
Soon they were in the outskirts of the city. Up this close the building blocks proved to be gigantic, carved by super-normal means out of solid granite. Here and there they could detect the outlines of massive buildings, even the twisted remains of a metal object, distorted by an unimaginable force into an unrecognizable mass of metal.
“It’s so gloomy, so sad,” Peganna whispered.
“Deirdre of the Sorrows,” nodded Bran. He smiled down at her. “Or don’t you know your Irish history?” He told her a little of that Irish maiden who had unwittingly caused the death of so many fine men and brought tears to the eyes of Ulster women. “Can you think of a better name for such a place?”
She shook her head, reflecting on the desolation which must have come upon this world during the terrible holocaust that destroyed it. Her sadness seemed to penetrate her body, creating a rhythm with her thudding heart before she realized this throbbing came from an outside source.
Bran touched her arm, pointing. “See there, Peganna.”
It was a great cube of shining metal that looked like highly polished steel. Fifty feet high, it was equally wide and equally long. It gleamed brightly in the sunlight and from it came the dull throbbing that formed an ache in the ears after a while.
Bran walked up to it, laid the flat of his hand against it. “It’s smooth and warm and something inside is pulsing away steadily . . . without stop, without pause.”
Peganna came up beside him and put her white hand beside his brown one. Now she could feel warmth and the sound that seemed trapped inside. There was no break in the metallic sides, no sign of an opening, even of a slit into which the edge of so much as a bit of paper might be thrust.
“What is it?” she wondered. “Has it any purpose?”
“I thought you could tell me, since your people learned the Crenn Lir language.”
Her silver hair quivered as she shook her head. “There was no mention of any such machine in the writings we saw. Of course, most of our translations were done from stone fragments. This machine might be a more recent invention, so recent that there was no public acknowledgment of it graved in stone. And every other writing material seems to have perished with time.”
Bran let his eyes assess the humming metal square. “It must serve a purpose. It’s been working now for a million years, I’d guess. Or however long it’s been since the Crenn Lir planets were destroyed.”
“And maybe before that. Maybe this is what powers the tele-doors.” She glanced at Bran. “Someday I want to come back, Bran, to study this more closely. But right now–I’m more interested in the well of Molween.”
“Molween is far away. We’d best go back to the tele-door.”
They turned and walked away. In their footprints black dust. stirred and shifted, then settled down to its eons-old rest.
The great machine hummed on.