Lost on the Last Continent

— Lost on the Last Continent —

or

In the Days of Pangaea Ultima

By John C. Wright

Table of Contents so Far

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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

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Episode 01 The Hole in the Air

 

Colonel Preston Lost did not think of himself as reckless, because he believed in preparation, proper equipment, patience in stalking the prey.

But, if truth be told, he was not a cautious man.

When the stormclouds parted, and he glimpsed the glowing, unearthly craft he chased through the wild hurricane above the Bermuda Triangle, Preston Lost gritted his teeth in an odd smile, gripped the joystick, dropped the nose of the superhighspeed pursuit plane sharply down, opened the throttle of the jet engines, and ignited his afterburners.

He squinted through the small, sloped, triangular windows of his rocketplane. The solid sheets of rain blocked his sight. The unidentified flying object was disk-shaped, bathed in a nimbus of strange light, and changed course and speed with sudden, strange jerks of motion that defied normal laws of inertia. It moved like no aircraft and no missile known to man.

The flying disk dove into black cloud. At furious speed Preston dove in after, engines roaring. The winds roared louder. Preston had little fear of being spotted.

The cockpit vibrated and the hull groaned. More than one of his gauge needles crept toward red.

The magnificent machine was dubbed the Shooting Star VII. She had been built for one purpose. This purpose.

The black hull was bat-shaped, streamlined to the ultimate degree. She had no tailfin, no large surfaces to reflect radar. She was, in fact, an aerospace plane. No ordinary jet, she was driven by a combination of ramjets and liquid-fuel rockets. She could achieve supersonic speeds and low earth orbit.

Equally sophisticated was in her military-grade detection gear. He lost sight of the flying disk amid turbulent cloud and the hellish flares of lightning. But his instruments continued to mark the location of the fleeing quarry.

The altimeter blinked a warning. Sealevel was approaching. Somewhere below the curtain of cloud, the wind-lashed ocean waters were waiting. Preston’s eyes narrowed. Did the flying disk intend to ditch?

The cloudwrack parted. Preston, lightheaded from his dive, wondered if he were hallucinating. For it looked like the cloud had opened a huge, red eye. It was staring at him.

Like a hooded lantern opening, a strange, bright, ruby beam, wide as a highway, spilled out from the center of the apparition and splashed across the knotted textures of surrounding cloud. Perched between the clouds was an erubescent maelstrom surrounded by streamers of bright vapor, with a tightly-wound spiral of electric discharges circling them in turn.

Into the spotlight beam of red now shot the flying disk, as it jerked into yet another impossible, right-angled turn, and was yanked into acceleration even more impossible.

It flew toward the vortex, directly toward the middle. The eye shaped apparition now grew wide, as if startled at the approach of the disk. Or as if opening in welcome.

For suddenly Preston realized what he was seeing: The resemblance to an eye was accidental. The white vaporclouds formed the sclera; the flares of Saint Elmo’s Fire formed the iris; the red light was issuing from the pupil. But it really was a maelstrom, a whirlpool.

And this whirlpool, like that around a bathtub drain, let into a pipe, a tunnel. A tunnel, yes, without walls, and opening into a direction that seemed to have no place to be in three dimensional space. But still a tunnel.

The thing was impossible. It was a hole in midair.

The red pupil was like a porthole, a window. A widow into where?

The vapor he was seeing was flooding toward the opening. Earth’s sea-level airpressure was forcing atmosphere out into some region of lower pressure. The electrostatic discharge was to be expected when two masses of air at different temperatures collided. But where did the hole in midair lead?

This storm had risen very suddenly, and the flying disk, levitating serenely over the dark waters off Bermuda under the moonlight, had changed course, unaffected by the rising winds, and darted down toward the gathering stormclouds.

Perhaps the storm had been caused by the sudden drop of pressure?

The flying disk fled into the red beam, and grew suddenly smaller as if with distance. His detection gear went haywire. Active radar said the thing was gone; passive radar said it was present but dwindling in cross section.

The pupil of the apparition began to close. The game was escaping.

There was no time for deliberation. He either had to ignite his rocket engine, and try to guide his craft into the narrowing ring of electrical fire and screaming winds, or he had to abandon the chase and pull up, hoping against hope that he could bring his nose up sharply enough so as neither to rip his wings off nor to pancake into the sea.

Preston Lost, in truth, was not a cautious man.

He had hunted game in India, Africa, and Greenland, on and under the sea. He had climbed mountains and flown experimental planes. But those dangers were known. This was the unknown.

He flung his craft toward the vortex. His ignited his rocket. Three gravities of acceleration smothered him as with a giant, invisible hand.

Beams of red light from some unknown sun, dimmer than the sun he knew, splashed into the cockpit, momentarily blinding him. At the same time, the column of compressed, rushing air being sucked into the closing eye of the maelstrom picked him up like a vacuum cleaner picking up lint from a rug.

The Shooting Star went into a flat spin. A blurred world of cloud and lightning tumbled past the triangular windows of the cockpit. Preston’s seat automatically flattened, putting him in a prone position, and his altitude suit inflated. But the acceleration was too great for his body.

The edges of his vision turned black. His hand fell from the deadman switch which kept the rocket thrust roaring. In a strange, sullen silence, the pursuit plane seemed to be plunging down a spinning tunnel walled with boiling clouds and blinding stabs of lightning.

Preston Lost, groaning, opened his eyes. Had he blacked out for a moment? Of the maelstrom, the storm, the clouds, there was no sign. The horizon was turning in a lazy loop in the canopy windows, earth and sky and earth again. The whistling in his ears told him he was in a stall, his wings at no angle to catch the air.

Below him was a chain of active volcanoes. The ground was bright with burning patches of forest, and the air was black with smoke.

The broken landscape rushed up to meet him.

He groggily pushed the stick forward. Tailfinless, the chance of a stealth craft regaining control was slim. But there might be a way.

He opened the split ailerons to the full, hoping their drag would pull his wingtip back, and, in combination with the forward wing yaw, would increase the overall drag, and produce a stabilizing yawing moment.

A change in the pitch of the scream of the air told him it was beginning to work. Perhaps not soon enough. He saw tumbled crags, rocks, and patches of forest fire spin past his view. But there, glinting like a silver coin, was a mountain lake. He worked the controls, uttered a two-word and probably blasphemous prayer, grinned like a maniac, yanked on the stick.

Out of the crimson sky plunged a creature. Its wingspan was equal to that of his plane. Its skin was naked leather. Its wings were triangular sails of membrane. The freakishly narrow head had a miter of bone above and a beak like a saber below. The monster was tiger striped with red, yellow, purple and black; its belly was blue; yellow rings of color surrounded its staring, lidless, lizardlike eyes; a scarlet wattle dangled rakishly from its cockscomb.

Preston’s wings thrummed. He was beginning to pull out of the spin. Had the plane been under control, he might have avoided the collision. The monster was diving headlong, its beak opened like scissors. Preston yanked the stick, poised as if balanced on one wing for a moment, hesitated.

The collision sprayed the black blood of the creature across his small, triangular windows, blinding him. He heard the scream of metal and felt the stick jump in his hand as he lost purchase. He felt, rather than heard, fragments and scraps of wing material peeling off into the air. The ceramic composite of his hull could withstand the heat of supersonic friction, but was not designed for impacts. The wing lifting surfaces had shattered like a china plate.

He heard the ramjet stall out. Particles of bone and flesh, moving at the speed of machinegun bullets, tore into the delicate fanblades of the intakes.

Most jets allowed the pilot to eject from the cockpit. But this rocketplane was a compromise between jet and spacecraft, and had no such feature. He had to land with her or die with her.

But this compromise cut both ways. A safety circuit cut off the ramjet fuel before the debris from the intake tore the engine apart; but he still had power. Solid fuel rockets do not need air intakes. They carry their own oxygen.

The fuel gauge showed only 15,000 pounds of propellant were left. Eighty seconds of flight time. At high speed, even the reduced wing had enough intact surface to provide lift. He felt the stubby wings bite, heard the air scream, and felt the stick respond.

The plane bucked like a bronco. One wing was more damaged than the other. He entered a tight curve, wrestling the plane into a spiral.

The radar showed him he was above a torn, rocky, mountainous landscape. The infrared scopes gave insane readings, as if the ground below were on fire. But then the scope showed a round, flat surface. From the size and position, it might have been a mountain lake, but the temperature reading was too high.

He ignored the readings. The scope must be damaged. The rocket had a fixed rate of exhaust. There was no throttle, no brake. The best he could do was find the moment in his wild spiral when his nose was pointing in the right direction, and cut the rocket.

The craft was flung like a stone from a sling into straightline flight. Now he wrestled with the ailerons, praying for level descent. The proximity alarm screamed. The peaks were close.

Grimacing, he drove his service revolver, aimed, and blew out the bloodstained window. The wind shrieked into his faceplate, blowing fragments of glass throughout the cockpit.

He saw the lake, round as a silver dollar, slide past his tiny window. A rocky texture of mountain peaks of black rock, plumed with volcanic clouds, surrounding the upland valley holding the lake. Dozens of cones were active. Lava crawled in slow, wormlike streams and waterfalls, glowing.

It was an insane world. The moon was four times its proper size. The sky was so purple as to be almost black. Dark green jungle stretched to the horizon. He saw long-necked monsters rear above the trees and bat-winged flying things against the winedark sky. Plateaus lifted their high, flat heads above the jungle canopy. A line of steep mountains reared jagged peaks. Was his altimeter malfunctioning? These mountains were higher than the Himalayas.

The opened the flaps, cutting his airspeed. It was not enough. One last trick was left. His fantastic plane boasted a dozen cold nitrogen gas thrusters: he opened the valves of the four nose nozzles to their fullest. These were meant for zero-gee maneuvers, not for this.

But it was enough, barely. The lake swatted him like an earth-sized hammer. His discovered the scope reading had been accurate. The water, mingled with steam, that sprayed in through the broken window was boiling hot.

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Episode 02 The Unearthly Earth

 

Boiling water gushed in a stream in through the broken window of the rocketplane, and splashed across the faceplate of the pressure suit of Preston Lost.

The visor bubbled and darkened, blinding him. He could feel the flesh-roasting heat of the boiling lakewater through his suit fabric, but the seams were airtight, and so he was not scalded.

Frantically, Preston hit the quick-release lever of his harness, and leaped out of his seat. Underfoot, he could feel the hull of his plane beginning to tilt her nose upward. From the sound behind him, he could hear water gushing in. He holstered his pistol and yanked off his helmet to allow himself to see: it was like sticking his head in a sauna. Steam was filling the interior of the aircraft.

The Shooting Star VII was submerging.

The deck was at a steep slant and growing steeper. The cabin was compact and narrow. There were two hatches: a round hatch aft and an oval hatch above the wing.

The round hatch led to the service module aft of the cabin. Here oxygen, water, and electrical power were stored. Certain tools, food and potable water and other gear that might have been useful was also stowed there; but Preston saw that the hull was warped from the crashlanding, and the seam around the hatch had sprung. Water and steam came around the rim, which was no longer true to the frame.

There was a tightly-folded inflatable raft strapped against the cabin hull to one side, and a backpack packed with survival gear strapped to the other. Here also was his elephant gun.

He threw his backpack, weapon and cartridge belt in a hasty, clattering mass over one shoulder and then put his hands to the wheel of the oval exit hatch.

The wheel turned. He pulled, but the oval hatch did not budge.

The lights of his control panel flickered and died as the electrical systems in the service module were drenched and submerged.

The boiling water was already lapping his boots, and the deck was now slanted almost to the upright. Preston put his toes sideways into the slats ribbing the hull, even as the groaning the deck turned vertical. There came a loud report aft, and the hatch to the service module came free of its hinges. Preston was now inside the narrow hull with a gargling geyser erupting from the rear bulkhead. The ship was going down quickly.

He realized that the airpressure inside the cabin was rising with the water, and this pressure was holding the hatch shut. The screaming whine in his ears were the airpumps, which had automatically come on when the hull was breached.

He flattened himself as best he could against the hull, covered his face with one elbow, and pried open the safety tab, and pulled the cord to trigger the explosive bolts.

The ringing in his ears told him he had gone deaf for a moment. The oval hatch soared, spinning, in a parabolic arc across the wing. He did not hear the sound of it bounce against the shattered, glassy surface of the great, black, curving wing, nor the splash as it fell into the bubbling waters.

With hands and feet on the slippery hull, he climbed to the nose of the craft, which was rearing upward toward a sky the color of rosy wine.

The flying monster that had slammed into the intakes, and been partly chewed by the turbine blades, was still lodged there, a tangle of naked, membranous wings, and a gargoyle skull as narrow as a knife. The creature’s large body, easily twelve feet in wingspan, dripping with black blood and white boiling water, was being hauled up into the sky as the Shooting Star continued to raise her prow.

Preston’s helmet was gone: the sauna heat plastered his hair to his brow, and made him blink. The savory smell of boiling meat was in his nostrils.

More by instinct than thought, he shrugged the rifle off his shoulder into his hands, broke it, and inserted two rounds. The weapon was a magnificent Holland & Holland double rifle. The round was a .700 Nitro Express as long as a lady’s finger. The piece handled like a shotgun, with the weight needed for powerful cartridges and heavy bullets.

The nose of the craft was broad and flat. He put his feet under him and stood. He stared, squinting in amazement. The world around him was impossible.

The clouds above were red and dim as if it were twilight, but the sun, a rose-hued bubble, was overhead. The disk was dim enough to look at directly, without wincing.

The heavens were imperial purple. Stars burned pale as ghosts. The moon was also visible, if four times its accustomed width. It looked gigantic, ready to topple onto his head. But he saw the mottled markings: it was clearly Earth’s moon. He had just been looking at it above the Caribbean skies.

About him loomed mountain peaks, white with snow and black with rock. From a near peak poured smoke in vast, inky clouds, giving a heaviness to the hot air as if a storm were forever brewing, forever about to break. It smelled of ash. The pall covered a quarter of the sky.

Closer, he saw this high lake was in the crotch of a saddle between three mountains. The rocky slopes were lush and green, but long streaks of gray where the vegetation was dying formed claw marks across the crumpled knobs and steep slopes.

The verdure was tropical: cycads, palms, mangroves. Lianas, vines, and mosses dripped from heavy limbs in gross profusion. Here and there orchids opened their bright, fleshy blooms. The smell of humid rottenness was everywhere.

Earth’s trees.

But in the sky were a circling flock of batlike, naked flying things, with narrow skull-like faces beneath miters of bone.

Bright against the dark purple sky, was the flying disk he had chased through to this place. It moved across the cloud as quickly as the circle of a flashlight a kitten chases along a dark carpet.

It was coming back this way.

He turned. Streaks of contrail and rocket exhaust reaching across the dome of the dark heavens dove down like a finger, pointing at this spot.

The ringing in his ears diminished, and now he realized why he had so automatically readied his rifle. The sounds coming from the surrounding jungle were as of a stampede of many animals. Here also was the heavier tread, elephantine, of big game. The air shook with roars and calls, the hissing of lizards, the shrill cries of birds. He saw primates, perhaps lemurs, leaping from treetop to treetop in a flurry of motion.

Suddenly, there was a movement in the water nearby, an eddy. He brought this rifle around just in time. A large snakelike neck ending in a head the size of a coffin, with nightmare jaws filled with a clutter of serried fangs, and two round, black froglike eyes protruding topmost, lunged out of the boiling waters toward him. The skin of the monster was white, translucent, like some freakish deep sea creature, but in shape and size, it was a dinosaur. It was a vertebrate. Its bones were visible as dark shadows beneath its flesh.

He discharged his first barrel with a solid roar into the gaping jaws. Pale fluids like the blood of squids leaped upward in a spray. Perhaps he missed the walnut sized brain of the pallid monster, for it drove its white-splattered skull-like head toward him.

Preston was pulled offbalance by his pack, slipped, skidding down the slope of the hull toward the boiling waters his suit could not possibly withstand.

Frantically, he caught himself with one hand, and braced his feet against the smooth angle where the curving wing blended into the curving fuselage.

The long neck of the monster was wobbling near. Its motions were blind and awkward, but it seemed to sense Preston was its prey.

The jaws snapped down. Preston one-handedly raised and fired his second shot. It struck the joint where jaw met neck and shattered bone and vertebrae.

It was not a clean shot. The recoil bruised his shoulder. He had been holding the double rifle stupidly, and the powerful weapon had a kick like a mule.

The great nightmarish head of staring eyes and jagged fangs now writhed. Up reared a massive pale body round as the hull of a yacht. Great flippers like those of a sea turtle flailed frantically against the aircraft wing, as if the monster were trying to climb out of the water.

And long, low noise like a woodwind issued from the elongated neck. A death rattle. The head flopped down over the wing. The plane tilted in that direction. Preston slid toward vast, pale corpse.

But even as the plane slid further under the boiling lake, more of the monster came to the surface. He saw the creature’s body reached to a nearby rocky tussock.

Without pause, Preston jumped onto the pale monster’s spine, and in three rapid leaps went from shoulderblades to pelvis to the tussock. This was a black rock covered with slippery moss and coral growths sharp as knives.

The backpack pivoted on his shoulder strap as he leaped, and nearly dunked itself into the water, but the straps got tangled in the thorny coral growth. Little stingers came out of the coral and scratched the canvass.

Meanwhile his rifle slide down the mossy slope and vanished under the roiling surface. The thing was a work of art, his best friend, and his only hope for survival. Without pause, he plunged his hand after.

The pain was blinding. He gripped the riflestock and pulled. With his other hand, he opened the backpack, yanked out one of the bags containing four ounces drinking water, ripped it open with his teeth, and poured it over his scalded fist.

He had two hands, after all. But only one Holland & Holland.

While he was doing that, a snakelike thing issue from a niche in the coral. He caught it between the craggy surface and the butt of his rifle. Drops of boiling water flew up as he hammered the creature to death.

The thing struck, but neither bite nor sting penetrated his flightsuit. Blood oozed from the cracked carapace. It was a thing that looked like an armored centipede, except that it was three feet long and thick around as a garden hose. But with a dizzying sensation, he recognized it.

Preston since childhood had been fascinated with prehistoric animals. Many a museum he had haunted, many books had collected, and many a paleontologist he had invited to dinner.

He often joked he’d been born in the wrong epoch to face a true challenge as a hunter: mastodons were so much grander than elephants, smilodons more ferocious than tigers.

The giant centipede was an Euphoberia. The lake monster was a Plesiosaur, even if no paleontologist had guessed it to be coated with such skin.

Earth, then. But when? No year of prehistory held both dinosaur and flowers. The future? The flying disk implied as much. But then how did ancient monsters come here?

Foolish question. They came as he had: through a vortex.

A hiss from overhead drew his startled eyes. The Pteranodon flock was wheeling lower. The leader had folded wings and was stooping to dive. His hand was hurt and his fingers not responding. The ammo belt was twisted around and under the coral growth where his pack was snagged. He knew he could not break the weapon and reload in time.

He slung the rifle, drew his pistol, which he braced carefully on his wounded wrist. It was a C96 Broomhandle Mauser firing 9×19 mm Parabellum rounds.

Another hiss, and a second monster swooped, and then a third. The whole flock, like a flight of arrows, their bony beaks like spearheads, plunged down through the dark red air of the impossible world.

There were ten rounds in the clip. There were twelve monsters.

He grinned an odd little grin and took aim.

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Episode 03 The Little Gray Men

Preston Lost fired. Time froze. He did not hear the sharp, stingingly loud report of the broomhandle Mauser, nor the high-pitched, sibilant scream, half a snake hiss and half a crow call, of the monster he struck.

Preston could not really see the circle of the jungle trees framing his view, nor the smoldering volcano cone above that, nor the strange skies beyond. He did not see the shape of the narrow, naked-winged pteranodon in the lead. He did not really see its slender, bony face, nor its elongated crest, nor its hideous saber-sharp beak.

Instead, he saw its right eye. He saw nothing but the eye.

He saw its right eye explode in blood and vitreous humor, as an exit wound, large as a softball, erupted from the narrow skull. The corpse fell at the same rate as its dive, so there was no change in its motion.

But his vision had already moved to the next of the twelve monsters. Two shots. The first missed. The second drove in through the roof of its mouth as it opened its maw in a scream. The bullet shattered its beak and pallet and skull.

Then the third. The head bobbed unexpectedly, so he missed. He centered his aim on the ribs of the narrow chest and sent two bullets through its heart.

Fourth. He struck it in the left eye. Fifth. Struck on the spot where the snaky neck joined the collarbone, and blew the head clean off, so that it went spinning in a spray of blood off into the air, a grotesque boomerang of black, green and slate-blue flesh. Sixth. Another miss, but luckily he struck the shoulder joint, causing one wing to collapse.

Seven and eight passed through wing membrane, making small puncture holes, but the ninth shot drilled the monster directly through the heart, and blood gushed from its narrow beak.

Only one bullet left. Seven pteranodons were dead in midswoop, and five more were screaming hideous, breathless screams like the hissing of gigantic snakes. His glance swept the five incoming targets, looking to see where his remaining bullet could be best spent.

But the flying lizards had snapped their wings open like parachutes, slowing their fall. Perhaps they had been startled by the thunder of gunfire. Perhaps they were too stupid, their brains too primitive, to be startled. But now the five survivors were tearing at the flesh of the ones who had been shot. They raked their brother’s wing membranes with savage claws.

Like sharks maddened by the scent of blood, the pteranodons fought each other in midair over the scraps of each other’s flesh.

Apparently a gaping head wound or a hole in the chest did not slay these unnatural brutes instantly. They clung to life with the cold fury of lizards. The wounded fought back with mindless vigor, insensible of pain or shock. Even the headless body, by some reflex in its nerves, raked its claws wildly when it was struck.

Then the foremost of the unwounded landed on the body of the plesiosaur, which was still floating in the agitated water, and began to tear gobbets out of the body with its sword-length beak, hissing and cawing hideously. Two more of the sky monsters saw, and grew jealous, and landed, and began bickering.

The pteranodons circled each other with mincing, delicate steps, bobbing their long, bony heads up and down menacingly, and croaking baleful croaks.

The body of the corpse trembled and stirred. The plesiosaur was not fully dead after all. Its jaw was broken and pale blood gushed from its neck and dripped from its teeth, but now it brought its upper fangs neatly down on the quarreling pteranodons, catching two of them on teeth as sharp as spears.

One pteranodon was cut nearly in half, but it had the same tenacious, unthinking ferocity and vitality as the sea monster, and so it reared up against its tormentor and drove its vicious beak directly into the dying plesiosaur’s eye.

The sea monster reared back its head, whistling and screaming. The other flying lizards, instead of retreating into the air, launched themselves at the exposed neck with manic bloodlust, croaking and cawing.

Two other of the unwounded pteranodons dove and splashed into the water, ripping at the wounded body of a third pteranodon, the one Preston had shot through the shoulder joint.

The boiling water made their narrow bodies turn red and begin to blister, but the horrors were not deterred. Their sole response to pain was to attack ever more avidly whatever was in reach.

So these three were splashing and stabbing and scraping each other with talons, when a gush of water erupted from beneath.

Into view rose a creature larger than a swordfish, with a beaked mouth even longer, and rows of teeth like shark teeth. It had fins and vertical flukes like a shark, not horizontal like a dolphin. But it worked its fins with a paddling, doglike stroke, nothing like the graceful motions of a fish.

The plesiosaur was the size of a submarine, while the pteranodons were closer in size to a hang-glider. This newcomer was roughly the size of a pony.

From books, he recognized this new horror. This was an Ichthyosaurus.

A pteranodon as it beat its wings and launched itself into the air, struggling to rise. The fishlike lizard reared up. The massive shark-toothed jaws closed over the flying monster’s midriff. The pteranodon was not smaller than the lake monster, but it was lighter. Its hollow bones cracked and bent like soda straws. The ichthyosaurus uttered a chilling trumpet of triumph before it dove, carrying the struggling pteranodon down and down. The other fights continued unabated.

Preston had been frozen with horror, but only for a moment. These did not act like beasts from his own world. Few creatures attacked their own kind, and rarely did predator eat predator. Scavengers usually held back and waited for wounded prey to die.

He recovered himself. It would only be a moment before one of them noticed his tasty body clinging to this rocky atoll in the steaming lake water, or the thrashing of the dying plesiosaur sent a wave over him to boil him to death.

He looked. The shore was actually not far off, and many mossy trees, laden with vines, bowed crooked branched overhead. It was slightly too far to leap to shore, slightly too high to grab a branch.

A great wind stirred the branches then, and a white light shined from the sky. A vibration too low to hear with the ears throbbed in the teeth of Preston Lost. He looked upward. Now what?

Solemn and silent as a ghost, a disk-shaped machine luminous semitransparent crystal hove into view, coming in low over the trees.

It was a lens larger than a cargo plane, with no visible means of propulsion or lift. The main hull was a dark bluish ceramic or crystal or coated by a tightly-clinging layer of pale, translucent substance. The whole was glowing with a dull light that reminded him of the Cherenkov radiation found surrounding submerged atomic piles.

The flying disk took position just above the boiling lake, and lowered itself.

The pteranodons uttered shrill sounds and fled, the hale still clawing at the wounded as they did so.

An Ichthyosaur, perhaps the mate or hunting partner of the first one, was hanging just below the lake surface. It turned an expressionless eye toward the descending craft, worked its oddly shaped flukes, and dove toward darker depth.

Preston Lost heard no noise with his ear as the flying disk came closer, but a vibration in his bones set his back teeth on edge. The outer shell looked as hard as diamond, but, even as he watched, it flowed in syrupy motions as if alive. Blisters or pillboxes of the blue hull became visible where the pale substance formed a dimple and pulled away.

Small cones and black disks stood up from the blisters, telescopes or something of the sort. A jointed arm unfolded from the craft, elongated, and delicately dipped into the water. Sonar? Thermometer? Camera? There was no way to tell.

The flying disk hung just above the spot where the corpse of the Plesiosaur was floating. Of Preston’s rocketplane, there was no sign on the surface, except for a spreading pool of oil. She must have finished sinking while he concentrated on immediate threats.

A pang of anger made him suck in air through clenched teeth. His magnificent plane! The years of work, the countless costs! This cruel world had swallowed the wonderful aerospace rocketplane. He blamed the flying disk, and whoever was aboard.

As if in answer to his thoughts, the outer, semifluid shell of the vehicle rolled back again to expose round hatches ventral and dorsal. The hatches dilated. The interior shed a dull firefly glow.

Hairless and naked gray-skinned men, no longer than children, emerged from the hatches one after another. They had no garments and no ornaments, but some wore belts or harnesses with pouches. Here they carried what looked like instruments fashioned, or perhaps grown, out of crystal, shell or ceramic.

There were over a dozen. They walked upright or crawled like spiders, with elbows and knees held high, palms and soles clinging to the hull. Those emerging from the bottom of the craft ignored gravity. They sauntered or trotted head-downward, affixed to the hull at if it were floor, and craned their necks to look at the lake waters approaching.

They were close. He saw each detail. They had no external ears, and their eyes were black in sclera and iris, more than twice the size of human eyes. A double wrinkle between the eyes hinted at nostril slits; the mouth was a tiny, lipless bud. Albeit nude, they had no sign of genitalia or any sexual characteristics.

The creatures moved with an eerie dignity in utter silence.

Preston took the opportunity to distangle his backpack from the knob of rock where he stood, and shrug his shoulders into the shoulder straps, tighten the belt. Next, he broke his rifle, thumbed lever to eject the spent cartridges, and loaded two more of the heavy caliber bullets, and closed the weapon with a satisfying snap.

His motion attracted attention. One of the naked figures drew itself upright and pointed a skinny nail-less finger at him. As one, the other gray men’s head swiveled on their necks, and their overlarge and inky eyes narrowed. The stares were cold and incurious.

None spoke aloud. One drew a lantern of shell from its harness, sent a rapid combination of colored flashes in through the glassy hull.

At this signal, a larger hatch opened, and a score of taller hominids slid into view.

These were elongated and lean men with blotchy skin, mottled yellow, brown and white. The smallest stood nine feet high, and had a nine inch long neck. These flexible necks gave the heads a clownish, balloonlike look, as the narrow faces swayed and bobbed high above the slim shoulders. The clownish look was emphasized by dark mottling beneath each cold eye, as tears on a pantomime doll. Their fingers were long and spidery, but their feet were long, thin pads of flesh with no sign of toes. Each had a plume or crest running from the peak of his skull and down his spine, Mohawk-style. Their aspect was docile and mournful.

They wore knee-length brown leather coats painted to match their skin mottles.

Each carried what looked like a harquebus: an overlong barrel of pale ivory with a heavy wooden stock. The lock and triggers were glass, not metal.

An officer in yellow flourished a wooden blade whose edge was a line of sharpened obsidian. The harquebusiers unlimbered their weapons, and propped their barrels atop forked wands to open fire.

Preston was quicker. The Holland & Holland roared like thunder.

 

*** *** ***

Episode 04 Battle at Boiling Lake

Before the foe had a chance to fire, Preston Lost’s first shot from his elephant gun went through the chest and out the back of the captain in the yellow coat, leaving an exit wound the size of a grapefruit and the heavy slug also passed through a man or two behind him.

The noise seemed to shock the long-necked men. Some of the squad started and stared at the clouds, or at the volcano cone not far away, looking for the source of the sound.

The little gray man gestured at the glassy hull on which they stood, and the glass material flowed like water and solidified like ice, forming transparent battlements behind which they fell to all fours.

These protective glass walls grown from the hull blocked the harquebus line of fire. A gray man flourished a lantern, and flashed colored heliograph commands to the harquebusiers. These came forward and leaned their long, awkward weapons on the newly made glass merlons,

The weapons were silent aside from a quiet, flat crack of sound when the projectiles passed the speed of sound. There was no smoke, no sound of gunpowder. Instead, long, slender rods or splines of crystal darted from the barrels. These splines, swift as arrows, landed on the rock, shattering into glassy shrapnel.

Had Preston Lost been standing on the rocky atoll in the boiling lake, he would have been cut to bits.

He had used the moment of confusion to fire his second shot not at the flying disk at all, but at the tall, vine-draped tree whose branches were hanging so tantalizingly above his head, out of reach. The heavy bullet struck the joint of a likely looking branch where it met a larger branch. His aim was true. The wood parted. Groaning and creaking, the massive branch fell like the gangway of a ship flung down. Boiling water splashed and struck his legs, scalding him even through the heavy fabric of his flight suit.

The branch had carried down with it many vines. He ran and jumped. He caught a vine in midair. It was covered with thorns like a cactus. His gloves protected his hands. The vine parted under his weight, dropping him toward the boiling water surface. More by blind luck and by audacity than anything else, his leap momentum carried him into the midst of the fallen tree limb. He clutched at the slimmer branches radiating from the broken branch.

The far end of the broken branch was still lodged in the mass of the trunk. Some tenacious strips of bark still connected it to the main trunk, but it was groaning and sliding open under the impact of his weight. In a moment, the bark would rip, and the branch would drop entirely into the boiling water.

Looking down, he saw an Ichthyosaurus, in the shallow lake water just below, eyeing him. Was it intelligent enough to sense his predicament? Or was it a mindless killing machine, merely attracted by the vibration of branch striking water? Either option was chilling.

He scampered up the branch as quickly as a squirrel. His wild eyes were fixed on the shivering strip of bark that was very slowly parting under his weight.

In the next moment the harquebusiers had reloaded. Another flight of bright glass-sharp spears hissed through the air.

He was partly covered by the leaves of the trembling branch he was balanced on. One spline struck him in his knapsack, but hit some hard obstruction, and did not impale him, but shattered. Crystal shards of shrapnel from the impact dashed across his shoulders and the back of his head, cutting him and drawing blood. The other splines passed through the branches and twigs left and right, sending leaves into the air, and then passing into the water and vanishing.

By good fortune, none struck the wood near him. Those that struck water did not shatter on impact. Had Preston been on hard ground rather than balanced in midair, the volley would have filled the whole area with shrapnel.

He rose and leaped just as the branch trembled and gave way, falling with a great splash into the boiling lake below.

He clung at a slippery limb. Stinging centipedes emerged from holes in the hollow branch to rake their angry stingers across his gloves. He uttered a curse, swinging his leg over the branch, and pulled himself up. His motions were swift and frantic.

The crystal disk dropped lower, its hull brushing the upper branches of the lakeside trees. Some red and furry monkey-sized creatures uttered blood curdling screams and threw twigs at the flying disk when they were disturbed. The rim of the crystal disk pass between him and the red sun. Shadow fell around him.

A narrow head peered over the edge of the disk, and a long-necked man aimed his strange weapon. Preston’s final bullet from this Mauser struck him between the eyes. The man toppled limply across the crystal battlements of the saucer, and fell into the boiling water, his harquebus toppling after.

But now the Ichthyosaurus, roaring a loud roar like no sea creature in Preston’s time could make, rose from the waters. Two of the splines that had missed Preston were lodged in the fish monster’s hide.

Preston instinctively called out a warning. When out game fishing, he had once seen killer whale leap as high as the tuna tower of his boat, twenty feet or more. Apparently whoever was piloting the flying disk was more nonchalant, or less experienced.

The maddened fish monster rose and rose and snapped at a little gray man clinging to the underside of the hull. The sharked-toothed beak closed on the gray man’s head and tore him from the hull. He made no sound as the bleeding monster fell back into the boiling water with him. There was a white splash, a gush of bubbles. The smell of boiled meat rose up.

The other gray men looked downward gravely, showing no emotion. The long necked men cowered and quailed and raised their odd comical heads to utter drawn-out ululations of mourning from their bass, woodwind-length throats.

Now two of the harquebusiers fired their glass spears again, but at the lake, not at Preston. One struck the Ichthyosaurus, who leaped again.

Preston meanwhile had vaulted himself into the thickest part of the tree. There was a crotch where several sturdy limbs met. A mess of leaves made a nest here.

A furious jabbering greeted him, and a thrown twig rebounded painfully from the bleeding back of his head. He turned.

Here was a large simian creature with bright eyes as gold as amber, a pointed, triangular muzzle, and sharp white teeth. Black markings circled its eyes and mouth. The fur was fox red. The tail was ringed like the tail of a lemur, but prehensile, for the beast was hanging from it. It was armed with an impressive set of fangs, which it bared in Preston’s direction. He had stepped into its nest.

He did not want to shoot it, nor move. The glowing, flying disk was not ten feet overhead. He spoke in a soothing tone.

“Hullo there big, smiley fellow! That is quite a mouthful of teeth you’ve got. Now, we don’t want to start a fight or make much noise, do we? No we don’t. Why don’t we find something nice for you to chomp on, more tasty than my tough old rawhide, eh?”

Without taking his eyes from the creature, he groped into his knapsack, groped, and pulled out his survival ration bar. He tugged it open with fingers and teeth, broke off a bit, and tossed it lightly toward the primate. The bar fell to the leaves with a soft noise.

Meanwhile, out on the boiling lake, the battle between flying disk and fish monster had attracted attention. The long snakelike neck of a second Plesiosaur was rising out of the waters, its broad nostrils quivering. The little gray men with frantic flashes of their lanterns signaled into the interior of the glass hulled craft. The flying disk began silently to rise, and the men on the upper and lower surface of the craft sought hatches.

Not fast enough. With a thrust of its flukes, the Plesiosaur lunged, reached, snapped. One half of a long-necked harquebusier disappeared into the huge, red mouth. The other half went flying over the treetops, trailing streams of blood. The gray men hid below deck.

The harquebusiers crouched behind the battlements opened fire.

At the same moment, giant centipedes, Euphoberia, began swarming down the upper branches toward Preston. The creatures were a foot in length, and their bright scales gleamed as if oiled with red, yellow and orange.

One centipede as long as his forearm sank fangs into his glove as he broke open his rifle. He plucked up the creature with a grunt of disgust, and, whirling the snake-sized centipede overhead, threw it at the hull of the ship seen through the leaves overhead.

A hooting from the monkey creature startled Preston. He had no time to reload; and his Mauser was empty. He drew his switchblade and flicked it open, and turned to meet this new threat.

But, no. The simian was munching happily on his ration bar, gargling with pleasure. Now it aped him. It nimbly plucked up one of the giant centipedes and flung it toward the flying craft. The motion of its arm was manlike, not the like the stiff, narrow-shouldered throw of an ape. The centipede landed amid the long-necked men, who uttered hornlike cries of woe.

“Good boy! Good throw!” said Preston in a soothing voice, wondering where his spare magazine was. “You are a regular Cy Young, aren’t you, Smiley? Cy the Smiling Saber-toothed Simian, I suppose. Do it again! Watch me!” For one of the stinging, biting foot-long centipedes was climbing his boot at that moment. He pinned it with his knife, grabbed, and threw it.

Smiley the simian hooted again, and was answered by chatter and hooting in the surrounding trees.

The flying disk rose up out of reach of the Plesiosaur. Now Preston could see them reloading. The harquebusiers carried foot-long quarrels of crystal in quivers, which they muzzle loaded. These splines expanded to twice or thrice their length instantly when the trigger was pulled, and this force was what propelled them. He also saw that when shot in a volley, the splines curved away from each other, as if magnetically repelled. This spline-gun was meant to throw glassy shards into a volume, not hit a bull’s-eye.

Preston’s eyes narrowed. It seemed more like a crowd control weapon than a military one. The penetrating power was limited. And the range was poor.

Now other simians of Smiley’s tribe began appearing furtively through the leaves, like little ghostly faces with gold eyes. The game of throwing poisonous centipedes was imitated quickly. Soon a dozen, then a score, of the yowling monkeys were flinging deadly insects up onto the deck of the disk.

The disk rose out of reach of sea monster or thrown centipede, and took up a position above the lakeshore. Vents in the hull opened, and spat a drizzle of burning oil. Leaf caught fire, and soon a thick black pall of smoke hung in the air. The simians, appalled by the spreading flames, took flight.

Preston Lost, however, reloaded. The cartridge he used was frightful: a 3.5 inch case and a 1000 grain bullet, whose muzzle velocity was 2000 feet per second. Heavy enough to kill a bison.

As it happened, it was also heavy enough to pierce the hull of the flying disk and leave an impressive spiderweb of cracks. The eerie glow surrounding the craft began to stutter. The disk itself began to list and wobble.

The fire was spreading. Coughing, Preston Lost scampered down the tree, and began pushing, worming, and shoving his way through brier and underbrush. The flying disk did not pursue, but hung in midair at an odd angle, rotating slowly, while its aura of light waxed and waned.

Preston Lost moved away from the lakeshore toward higher ground. The trees here were taller, spaced farther apart, and the underbrush was less dense. It was hot, muggy, and nearly everything he touched was covered in thorns.

He crested a hill. On the far slope, he was out of range of the long-necked men and their limited weapons, out of line of sight of the flying disk. Only then did he stop, clutching his knees, grinning and panting.

He would feel pain from his burns and cuts and bruises soon, but not now. Now he was exhilarated.

His grin faltered when he saw the disk rising into view, a bright lens. It was still listing, and its glow was unsteady. A figure standing on the hull raised horn to mouth, and blew loud blasts.

Ahead of him, and downslope, was a green valley lush with jungle trees. Horn answered horn. Unseen below, and not far away, answering signals sounded, echoing from nearby peaks.

It was a hunting call. They were closing in.

*** *** ***

Episode 05 Huntsmen of Pangaea

Bruised, aching, and bleeding, Preston Lost stood on the slope of the jungle-covered mountain shoulder and laughed. The horncalls of the huntsmen hounding him rang in his ears. Above him was a strange red sun and dark purple sky of the unknown, far-future ages.

Around him was the deadly fauna and flora of primitive, prehistoric eons. How future and past were mingled, he did not know. The lay of the land and the dangers of these unknown beasts he did not know. The number, position, and resources of the huntsmen he did not know. Their reasons for hunting him he also did not know.

But he knew the hunt. That he was, for once, the object of the hunt did not change that. He was on familiar turf. He knew what to do.

Most prey flee directly away from the noisy beaters and trumpeters, and therefore into the arms of the silent huntsmen. That was assuming the hunt had time to prepare.

In this case, however, Preston assumed his presence on this strange, latter-day earth was as much as surprise to his foes as it was to himself. In that case the horns were sounding off to allow the parties to identify their positions to each other. On the other hand, it meant parties were already in the field. Which meant what?

He shimmied up a tall tree. The crown gave him a wide view of the surrounding landscape.

This place was a mountain range whose slopes were overgrown with jungle. The lower slopes and the valleys between the peaks carried the lush trees and ferns typical of tropics. A different shade of green ruled the higher slopes: these were conifers. Above the treeline was snow.

Preston stared in awe at the scene framed by a high and snowy peak to his left and a higher volcano cone looming to his right. For here was an unobstructed view of the great pass leading down and down into the world below.

Below the mountains were tablelands. In shape, these were reminiscent of the North American southwest. In texture, these green mesas looked like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Jungle growth covered high, flat surfaces, and drooped from the bare, rocky sheer sides. It was as if the deserts of Nevada and Arizona had been recently overgrown and swamped by the jungles of Mexico and Panama.

And far, far below, the canyons and lowlands were covered in a mist the weak red sunlight did not pierce. In his practiced eye, Preston judged this volcano-pocked mountain range to be taller than the Rockies or Andes, taller than the Himalayas, all of which he had tramped, at one time or another, for months.

He felt giddy, sick with disorientation. What year could this be? It was far enough in the future that the sun and moon were changed. Far enough for new mountains to rise and landscapes to sink. Far enough for evolution to change man into little gray shapes with eyes like nocturnal beasts, or into strange giraffe-men with mottled skins.

“Get a grip on yourself, man,” he muttered aloud. “You are the elephant now, you are the wounded tiger. You are the one being hunted. No time for second thoughts. You went looking to find out where the flying saucers came from. Well, no complaints. You found them. Now how do you get the heck away from them?”

For he looked up into the purple sky, and saw, bright as a shining dime, the disk of the flying machine. He squinted, but could not make out what the crewman was doing. Preston mentally reviewed the contents of the survival kit he had so carefully packed. To be sure, it had a signaling mirror, two whistles, a strobelight, and a bright orange weather blanket. All things mean to catch the attention of a search plane. But camouflage netting, or other gear to help him elude aerial pursuit, he did not have. And no binoculars.

As it turned out, he needed none. The figure raised a horn and sounded a fanfare of notes. Then he flourished a flag and waved it in a pattern of circles and figure-eights. Semaphore.

“Why do they have antigravity and powered flight, but they do not have radio?” Preston said aloud. “A time traveling flying saucer with no radio set. What gives?”

He decided to shelve the question until another day. Now he scanned the peaks and forests of this mountainous jungle. He was looking for an encampment. He was imagining something like a prison or a castle, some fortified position which would maintain patrols around it.

In two places, he saw smoke rising, which might have come from chimneys or cookfires, but then he saw three other places were smokes were rising from crevasses or ash cones. Those two might be the encampment he hypothesized. Or might not.

“Who knows what the forts here look like? I could be staring right at one and not seeing it,” he muttered.

He heard horn calls again.

In the distance, but not as distant as he would have liked, he saw a large group of figures silhouetted against the purple sky as they came over the crest of a hill, a spot clear of trees. The figures were manlike, upright, but some were twice or thrice as tall as the others. It looked like a party of adults mixed with children or midgets.

He counted over forty. He did not see the distinctive long necks and Mohawk haircuts of the motley men.

They were headed toward him. The flying disk must have seen his direction.

Loping along with this group were shaggy, doglike shapes, low to the ground. That was bad.

Preston clambered swiftly down the tree. He froze on a branch ten feet above ground. Sitting on his haunches, staring up at him meditatively, was the cat-faced ring-tailed primate he had dubbed Smiley. Or was it the same one?

The simian smacked his lips, and gestured with a manlike forepaw. It was the same one.

“No more food for you,” said Preston, sliding to the ground. “Great White Hunter need heap big grub to keep him much strong. Ug! You savvy?”

Smiley drooped at the tone of voice, and made his eyes so big and round and sad with unspoken pleading, that Preston laughed.

“You remind me of my favorite mutt I used to own. Or, actually, all of them. On second thought, once I run out of rations, I will need to find someone like you, someone with a digestive tract like mine, to tell me what is good around here to eat. But the immediate order of business is getting away from the hounds. If you can keep up, I can use the company. Which way?”

Smiley looked up, eyes bright with hope, but made no reply.

He found his ration bar, broke off a crumb, tossed it to the beast. “The other good thing is that when I talk to myself as I slowly go mad, it will look like I am talking to you. Why that makes sense, we can discuss some other time. Come on.”

He checked his boots, tightened his laces with a fork, and set off uphill. He alternated jogging, running, walking.

As they started off, he explained his plan to Smiley, who loped along sometimes beside, sometimes before him, sometimes trailing.

“I figure it like this. We keep under the canopy, and avoid meadows. Make for higher ground, until we reach the conifers. The flying saucer does not seem to have any fancy gear like the Shooting Star — that is my crate, remind me to tell you about her sometime, because she is a beaut — so won’t be able to track us from the air.”

On they ran. Once he stopped briefly to go to the bathroom, and to tend his wounds. He pulled out shards of glass from the back of his head as best he could by himself, using his signal mirror to guide his groping hand. He applied stinging antiseptic to his neck, and then sterile gauze. He removed his glove to wrap his burnt hand, hoping to minimize blistering.

Smiley watched, wide eyed.

“Nope, the main problem is dogs. Assume those are like bloodhounds, because it is suicide not to assume the worst. You ever heard about tricks escaped prisoners can pull, such as crossing a lake or stream to throw off the scent? Don’t work. Little skin cells float to the water surface, leaving a scent trail, and all the hound has to do is circle the lake. Same for climbing trees. Scent sticks to the bark. And gimmicks like changing clothes, washing in scented soap, leaving a dead fish on the trail, running in circle or doubling back? Won’t fool a trained hound.”

He took no particular pains to hide his footprints, but he did swerve when he could to go through briar patches, thick thorns, rough footing. He followed the path of greatest resistance.

“You are probably wondering why I am just running, and picked the worst ground I can. Well, you cannot outsmart a bloodhound. Their sense of smell is too good. And you cannot really wear them down in the long run. The reason why the cavemen domesticated the dog was because dogs could keep up with the hunters running after wounded game. You see, persistence is our one advantage, we primates. So you and I are not betting on wearing out the hounds. We are betting on wearing out the houndkeepers.”

The first time he pushed through the bed of a plant that seemed half cactus and half Venus flytrap, Smiley leaped on his back, startling Preston. Smiley was large for a monkey, but not too large, so Preston carried him through the stinging thorns.

“You see, it take years to train hounds. So most trainers are not young men. Not that I am as young as I would like. But I am pretty darned fit. How do I do it? Glad you asked. I box, I wrestle, I fence. I ride. I wonder if I will ever see my horse again. His name is Tornado. I even turn into a monomaniac when it comes to things like ballroom dancing. I found this partner as fanatical as I was, and we practiced and trained until we won top-level trophies. Ah, what was her name again? Not Tornado. Some human name.”

With trees overhead, he could not make any observation of the sun. His watch was still set to Atlantic Daylight Time: the dial showed him what hour it was back in the Bermuda Triangle. Rather, it showed him what hour it would have been had he not fallen through countless eons. He did not even know if Earth still turned at her accustomed rate.

Dark surprised him. Night fell suddenly when it came, making Preston wonder what latitude this was. He slowed to a walk, fished out his LED headlamp from his kit, put it on. He had a sixty hour battery meant to power this, and a strobelight for signaling passing planes at night.

Before he lit the lamp, he found his roll-up sunglasses and his duct tape, and taped the sunglasses over the lamp lens. This gave him enough light to see where to put his feet, but he hoped it was not enough to give his position away.

On and on they went. He broke off part of the survival bar and chewed while he ran, fed and another crumb to Smiley. He washed it down with his second packet of sterile drinking water. What he would do after he ran out of ammo, of battery power, of safe water, of rations, of matches, and of toilet paper, he shelved for another day.

He ran onward in the dark of night, always moving upslope. Then he noticed Smiley getting nervous: ears flatting, hackles raised. What was the animal sensing?

“You know what bugs me? I have not heard any sign of pursuit, or seen any lights behind us,” said Preston. “That makes me a little nervous. You got the willies, too, don’t you, little guy? Let’s switch. I will follow you. You take point. Go around the danger.”

Smiley seemed to understand. At least, he took off running. The little beast was weary, but not yet worn out. Preston ran after. He was not worn out yet either.

The giant red sun came suddenly into the sky just as Preston, following Smiley, emerged from the trees and found himself atop a sheer cliff. There was a view of the valley below, and a view of the long slope behind.

Behind, he saw movement at the wood’s edge to the south. Shapes that were certainly dogs and men were moving upslope, but keeping to the easier ground between cliff and forest. He turned his head. To the north he saw no one, but he heard the faint call of a horn. He was between them.

Below him, to the east, was an extensive encampment, a township of tents and rude cabins, but with stone walled buildings with peaked roofs midmost, and a round tower. The smokes from dozens of cookfires and camp fires rose up. The whole was surrounded by a palisade of wooden palings. Watchtowers atop tripods of lashed beams stood atop the gates.

Preston uttered a curse. This was the fortress which no doubt had sent out the huntsmen. No wonder they had let him run all night. He had been heading directly where they wanted him to go.

*** *** ***

Episode 06 River of Fire

Preston Lost stood on the brink.

Before and below him was a large, armed camp surrounded by a ditch and a wooden palisade. A field of tents surrounded a central fortress of timber buildings. Above rose a stone tower. Black banners and pennants displayed and emblem of a stylized dragon circling and consuming the many-rayed red sun.

A flying disk was seated atop the tower. It looked like the hood of a strange and giant mushroom. He saw no evidence of damage: perhaps this was the same flying disk he had shot yesterday, now repaired. Perhaps it was another.

He turned. In the opposite direction was a tall, harsh mountain slope of pine trees, frost and snow. Above this loomed a smoking volcano cone. A growing black cloud filled the sky above it.

From one side came the sound of hunting horns. One arm of the pursuit, perhaps running all night as he had done, had circled the mountain to approach from the opposite direction, and cut off any flight to the north.

To the south an open strip of tall grass separated the edge of the forest from the brink of the cliff. Here he could see, silhouetted against the morning sky, tall and broad silhouettes marching with sinister, deliberate, tireless steps toward him. In their hands were wand they learned upon. They either wore headgear shaped like antlers, or they grew antlers. If so, this was yet another race of men different from the gray men or the motley men. The grass reached up to their knees.

Preston looked at the grass around him. It was above his waist. These creatures were gargantuan, twelve or fourteen feet tall.

The rustling in the grass around the Gargantuans betrayed the motions of shorter creatures, perhaps hounds, perhaps houndsmen.

Preston turned with a snarl to Smiley the simian panting next to him. “Here I thought you had scented or sensed some danger you were going to lead me around. Now we are trapped against the cliff. Why did I trust a big red monkey?”

Smiley looked up, and his ears drooped at the tone of voice. Smiley was weary from the all-night run, but his eyes were still bright. It was not clear if he understood the situation, or understood Preston’s fear, but he showed his fangs and chattered gaily, and then leaped away through the tall grass, and was lost to sight.

“Go on! A rat deserting a sinking ship…” growled Preston angrily. He stepped to the edge of the cliff, and peered down the dizzying, sheer slope. He measured the distance to the treetops below with his eyes, wondering if he had time to rappel down the cliff face.

There was fifty feet of parachute cord in his survival pack. It was not long enough. Perhaps he could cannibalize the handle of his steel drinking cup to act as a piton. But the idea of dangling from the handle of a cup hammered into the rock face did not thrill him. Not while clinging precariously above what was obviously a military camp.

Meanwhile, he was still murmuring to himself. “I fed you! You could have stuck around and flung poo at them or something.”

A noise behind him made him turn. Smiley was halfway up tree, gibbering and gesturing. Smiley saw him looking, scampered a short way, looked back.

“Am I dumb enough to follow you again, after you led me here?” He kicked a pebble over the brink. In the deceptive twilight, the fall was twice what he first had guessed. He sighed. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

Smiley led. As before, Preston alternated jogging and sprinting. Sweat loosened his bandages, and his cuts began to sting and bleed.

Fatigue was building. He fell into a sort of walking daze. The sounds and signs of pursuit grew steadily closer as he climbed.

Two hours later, the slope steepened. His legs were leaden. But his will was iron. He forced himself to continue, jogging and walking.

An hour after that, chill bit him. Snow was on the ground. Around him the trees were no longer leafy palms, but crabby pines. He saw he was leaving footprints.

“Come on, Smiley,” he said to the simian. “This might not fool a hound’s nose, but it will tire out any huntsman trying to climb after.” And he shimmied up the tree.

Perhaps it was the novelty of using a different group of muscles, but he got his second wind. For the next few miles, the going was slow but steady. The forest was dense enough to go from tree to tree. Sticky sap coated him. Pine needles clung to his sweat.

Twice he made a daring leap rather than circle back to find a narrower gap to cross. Both times he broke branches and bruised himself, and promised himself not to do that again.

Smiley now hopped back to Preston, and pulled on his hair, and gibbered excitedly. The little simian clearly had a firm idea of which way he wanted Preston to go.

“Why not?” muttered Preston. “Fall through a hole in the sky, ram my crate into a dinosaur, get shot at by flying saucer men, follow a monkey.”

Preston smelled smoke. He glanced up. The volcano cone above was belching like a factory chimney. Other plumes of black smoke issued from cracks and fissures lower down the slope. He was not imagining the burnt smell in the air could cover his scent, only that the hounds might grow hard to manage. No dog wanted to go into a fire.

Time passed. The red sun climbed toward noon, but the light never grew strong. Pursuit grew loud. He heard barking, and a chattering like that of a monkey troop disturbed. Had the pine needles been thinner, he doubtless would have been in eyesight of the hunters.

Preston followed Smiley from tree to tree uphill and down, but always toward the volcano cone dominating the sky above. Suddenly the trees stopped. There was a wide meadow sloping up and away. On the far side, beyond the crest, were more trees. There was no way to cross the gap without exposing himself to hostile eyes.

Preston clung to an upper branch, bruised and breathing heavily, his eyes and arms aching with fatigue. Smiley chirruped at him, tugging, dancing, and pointing. “You want me to cross the meadow? Leave my footprints all over, where everyone can see? What is the hurry?”

Smiley jabbered frantically.

Preston squinted. What was frightening Smiley? He sniffed. The scent of burning stone was also mingled with the smell of burning wood. More plumes of smoke were rising up than had been an hour ago.

He uttered an oath. “We are in a forest fire, aren’t we?”

Most of the smoke, at the moment, seemed to be coming from a point just behind the ridge of the slope ahead.

But Smiley was already scampering down the trunk.

Preston decided to trust the instincts of the beast. Animals knew what direction to flee when a forest fire was spreading.

Down he went.

Smiley went pelting rapidly over the snow of the open meadow. Crazily, he was heading toward the high crest, that selfsame crest pouring so much smoke into the air.

Preston sprinted after the running red simian.

A sound of baying and a chattering clamor rose up from the trees behind him as he struggled up the slippery white slope. Smiley disappeared across the top of the crest ahead while Preston was still laboring through the clinging snow a hundred yards behind him. The soft and yielding surface clung as if with freezing fingers to his toes and ankles each time he moved his boots. Smiley appeared again, his furry red head popping above the skyline. His wide gold eyes seemed even wider in their raccoon rings. He hooted, urging Preston onward.

Preston wondered at himself. He could see the black smoke hanging like a curtain just beyond the crest toward which he ran. But his every trained instinct told him that Smiley would not run into a forest fire, no, not even when pursued by hounds. Animals simply did not act that way.

But there was no time for second thoughts. Fifty yards. Ten. He could hear the pursuit crunching in the snow behind him, close enough to be clearly audible, of quadrupeds loping. Long, blood-chilling bays rent the air.

At the crest, the snow cover was thin, and Preston could feel solid ground beneath his boots. He turned.

It was over a dozen beasts that were plowing and plunging through the snow drift toward him. They were not bloodhounds.

Hounds? These monsters were bigger than ponies. The shoulder blade of the massive front legs stood taller than a grown man’s head. The narrow, jackal-like skulls of the monsters were over two feet long, and most of that was snout. Massive fangs like sabers hung over the lower lip. A course mane clung to the spine and ran from neck to tail. The back legs were puny, and gave the creatures the distinctive hunched look of a hyena. The paws ended not in claws, but four hooves, one on each toe. The fur was tawny, marked with white stripes on flanks, with white mittens.

Giant hoofed jackals. A memory from one of his many books on paleontology floated to the surface: these were mesonychids: Andrewsarchus mongoliensis.

He remembered the scientific name because Roy Chapman Andrews, for whom the genus was named, was an American explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who had been Preston Lost’s idol and mentor.

He stood on the slope, dumbfounded with horror at their size, and at the hideous jackal-skulls, barking and yammering, with fangs longer than his forearm. Had these been the beasts he had been hoping to tire, to outdistance?

Then he saw a stranger sight. Little red simians with raccoon masks and ringed Lemur tails were riding along in the manes of the giant hoofed jackals. Some were running lightly alongside, their smaller bodies not breaking the surface of the snow. They were the twins of Smiley. Some of them had been outfitted with harnesses, pouches, or hunting horns.

His brain whirled. Were these trained circus monkeys whom some madman had trained to run with a hunting pack? Or were they intelligent creatures? These had been the smaller biped had had glimpsed walking next to the giants, but mistook for children.

Taking to the trees had been a help to them, not to him.

One of the little red simians riding a giant hoofed jackal raised its horn and blue a blast. The jackals bayed horribly. Deeper horns, no doubt carried by larger, gargantuan hands, answered from the forest, deep as the trumpeting of elephants.

Preston, without thinking, raised his Holland & Holland to his shoulder, aimed, and shot. The monster jackal’s head exploded, and the shards passed through the little rider, killing him. The roar echoed.

Two of the jackals were spooked, and halted. Or they had been reined in. Those two had riders. The other ten continued clawing up the slope.

“Avalanche, please, God!” he said. “Otherwise, there is no way out of this.”

But no avalanche came. “Well, I might have time to reload, or might not. I might have time to fish out the Gideon Bible from my survival kit. Do I die while shooting, or praying?”

A thrown rock bounced painfully against the back of his skull. Smiley beckoned, turned, fled over the slope, and scampered away.

“Fine. I’ll die running after a monkey. Wonder what that says about how I’ve lived?”

So Preston followed. Once over the ridge, he saw what lay beyond.

This valley was smaller, less than a hundred yards to the next crest, which was snowy and rocky and thick with pine trees. The crease in the center of the valley was filled smoke. The show had melted. The puddles steamed. Like a river down the spine of the valley was a tongue of lava. It was oozing, black as night, and cracks broke through the surface like blood through a scab, but the blood was red-hot molten rock.

Downstream, where the lava was still in motion, the forest fire was roaring merrily. Here, where black crust had formed, all the trees within yards of the lava flow had burned to ash or stood like smoldering corpses, upright husks black as burnt matchsticks.

The taller trees had crumbled into a mixture of white ash and black dappled with red coals that panted and breathed like living things.

Smiley ran downslope and straight toward the lava stream.

Insanity. A barefoot monkey could not cross molten lava. As well walk through a blast furnace. The temperature was above a thousand degrees.

Where the lava skin was broken, the liquid rock was bright, and superheated plumes were visible as shadows shivering in the air. These spots could not even be approached without risking severe burns unless the wind was behind him.

This was not merely a small channel of lava, but a river. It was a black and cracked tube three yards high and ten or twenty yards across. It looked like some headless and horrible heaving worm of fire slowly inching its way across the valley bottom, burning all before it.

It was insanity to go, and certain death to stay.

Preston Lost was not a cautious man: he went.

A plume of smoke from the burning trees nearby made him cough. His eyes watered but he dared not blink. He soaked a handkerchief in packet of water, and tied it over his mouth and nose.

Where was the red monkey? Preston ran on, as the air grew hot and hotter.

As he got closer to the valley floor, the smoke grew thick, blinding him. He heard the crackling of burning trees, saw the floating sparks like fireflies, smelled the scent of burning pine and molten rock.

Then, suddenly, the air was cool and fresh. The smoke was gone.

Preston looked, and froze. His legs were weak. Astonishment paralyzed him.

The river of lava was parted neatly, and he had walked into the middle of it. A wall of molten lava was upright, looming above him, to his left. The bare ground was cool underfoot. A few paces away, a second wall of lava was looming. This wall was not the black skin of cooling lava, but the raw, red-hot liquid that should have burned him like bread in a toaster.

Nothing was holding the liquid rock back. Nothing was halting the plumes of superheated air which should have incinerated him.

He was safe in the middle of a river of molten rock.

It was impossible.

*** *** ***

Episode 07 Falls of Death

Smiley screamed.

Preston, standing between two nine-foot tall walls of red-hot molten rock, stirred like a man waking from a dream. Ahead of him, the gold-eyed simian was baring his six-inch fangs, shrieking, urging him to run. Behind him, Preston heard the sound of close pursuit. He stole a glance over his shoulder. Dimly he glimpsed through the smoke, flying soot and sparks, and the air distorted with heat shimmers, down the slope of the valley behind him, half a score of the giant, hoofed jackals charging, urged on by their small red-furred riders.

Preston ran toward Smiley, who had turned tail and was scampering away. The walls of lava stood to either side of Preston, issuing no heat. Then Preston was beyond the stream of lava, and climbing the cinder-covered slope.

Heat fell across the back of his shoulders and neck like a club. The air was suddenly dry and unbreathable.

The ground underfoot was a mixture of snow puddles and heaps of ash, some white and dead, some red and smoldering. Smoke was in his eyes, and it was hard to see where to put his feet.

He risked a glance behind.

The giant jackals entered in the corridor of cool ground between the two lava walls. Preston was weary from his all-night run, bruised from his crashlanding, cut and bleeding from his battle afterward, burned in one hand. But even had he been in perfect health, a man cannot outrun ten galloping stallions. Nor these mesonychids, who were creatures just as swift.

But Preston saw a slender hope. The monsters were fearful of the standing walls of lava, and so were pelting down the corridor of cool soil in single file. He might be able to wreak a terrible havoc among them with his double rifle and Mauser pistol before they overwhelmed him, provided he had time to reload before they cleared the mouth of the corridor.

He halted, turned, and broke his weapon, ejected the spent shells. He fumbled for the massive bullets, inserted two. The Holland & Holland snapped shut with a hefty, satisfying clack of noise. Had he time to find a fresh magazine for his pistol? There was only one left.

Smiley again vented a yowl of frustrated impatience. Preston looked up.

What had spooked the animal? Then he saw the danger.

The plumes of superheated air hanging above cracks and scabs in the black crust of the lava were bowing toward him. He could see them the way the hot air above a sidewalk on a summer’s day can be seen, like a shimmer, like a ghost.

The wind had changed. Red sparks were also flying this direction.

Approaching lava with the wind in your face was to invite severe burns of skin and lung, anything the superheated air might touch. The breeze was blowing streams of thousand-degree hot air toward him.

Could he outrun the breeze? He could try.

Preston broke the rifle open and sprinted, telling himself never to doubt the instincts of a wild creature again. The simian must know the danger of the lava flow, living in this active volcanic region, and his sharp animal senses must have sensed the change of the wind.

In a trice Preston was up the slope, past the burned trees, columns of soot, piles of red coals, the ash-white ground. Then he was in among green trees and banks of snow.

The snow was half-melted and slick. His boots went out from under him. He slid and fell. He landed on his rump and slid into a holly bush, which unceremoniously dumped wet snow all over him. Icy water slapped his face and trickled painfully down his neck. But the air, for one breath, was not drying his mouth and choking him.

He winced. The breech of his rifle closed painfully on his thumb, but he neither dropped the weapon nor lost the large and expensive bullets. Expensive? Irreplaceable.

Suddenly Preston heard a hideous yowling. He twisted himself to look back the way he had come.

The ten jackal monsters were screaming. The foremost had not yet cleared the mouth of the corridor. Their fur was smoldering and smoking. The red simian riders clinging to their manes were also on fire. One or two had fallen and were being trampled. There was confusion at the rear of the line, as those who had only just entered the unnatural gap between the high walls of lava now tried to turn and retreat, but the last fellow trying to enter was blocking the way.

Snarls and shrieks grew shriller and louder. Plumes of superheated air, visible as shivering mirages were passing among them, lighting fur ablaze. The two walls, as if suddenly remembering the natural order of things, now slumped and sluggishly fell inward toward each other, moving as lava should. Segments of the semi-liquid wall belled out. Muddy legs and rippling floes surged before and behind the panicked jackals, and reached into their midst.

The red-hot rock sagged and crawled with abominable, sadistic slowness, creeping no faster than molasses.

Preston watched with sick horror. Animals should die cleanly and swiftly, with a single shot to the head. Not like this.

Perhaps the swifter of foot, those neared the mouth of the corridor, could have escaped touching the lava as it collapsed slowly inward. But it slew without touching.

Three of the monsters staggered free of the corridor mouth. One was splashed with a few drops as the lava wall slammed shut behind it. These drops passed cleanly through flesh and bone and any internal organs in the way, leaving smoking holes from spine to belly.

The other two staggered, smoke rising from their fur. The wind blew the superheated plumes across them. Their hideous screaming stopped once lung tissue was burned away. They ignited like oily rags, reared up on their hind legs, and danced and kicked and died.

Two of the little red simians had been riding one. Their bodies were curled up like the bodies of babes in the womb, their skin a black crust the same hue as the lava behind them.

Of the remaining seven, nothing remained. No incinerator burned as hot as the living magma of this lava stream.

Preston rose unsteadily to his feet, blinking. The heat beat on his face. Spots danced before his eyes. His head felt light. He sat, and put his head between his knees.

Preston was in exactly that position when Smiley, scampering back and more frantic than ever, bit him in his rear. Preston yelped and jumped erect. He looked around for some likely stick to club the vicious little animal. But Smiley was already scampering away.

On the opposite side of the valley, across from the river of lava, above the streamers of smoke and flying ash, Preston saw two dozen or more huge, hoofed and saber-toothed jackals, many bearing little red simian riders, now cresting the rise. Each little simian stood atop the spine or head of the monster carrying him. The crowd of huntsmen peered down toward Preston with golden eyes surrounded by raccoon rings, and this made each expression one of clownish surprise.

But they raised horns and blew signals, and the party split into two groups, one racing to the right and the other to the left, seeking some path around the obstruction of the lava stream.

The deeper horns of Gargantuans in the rearguard answered.

Preston remembered his resolve to trust the instincts of Smiley. In the direction the simian had gone, he fled.

Fatigue was now gnawing at him with iron teeth. He made his way with a combination of walking, stumbling, jogging. The horns grew louder behind him, and he heard them from the left and right. As he ran, he found his second and final clip of 9×19 mm Parabellum rounds. He had ten shots left.

Thoughts of deep despair until now held back as if behind a dam flooded into him. After these shots, there was no sporting goods store to get more. All stores were gone. All monetary systems, industries, sciences that he knew were gone. All the people, nations, languages, and animal species he knew.

Every plant, tree, and root his eye fell upon was unknown to him. Had he been stranded on any continent or land of his day, he would have known what to do to survive. Even that was lost and gone. Men with bloodhounds, he would have known what to do. Mesonychids ridden by trained tracker monkeys, he had merely made it easy for them to close the circle about him.

Smiley was waiting by the bank of a deep and rushing stream. The ground here was steep and broken, so the stream was falling from brink to brink like a slinky tumbling down as staircase. Pines lining the banks clung precariously. The red-tongued ash cone of the volcano was upstream. The roaring noise of a waterfall was downstream.

When Preston emerged from between the pine boughs and stepped into the open by the streambank, he heard a trumpet from overhead. He looked up, but did not see the flying disk that had spotted him. He eyed the tumbling white water, jagged rocks, and dark depth of the stream bed.

“I hope you are not expecting me to ford here, Smiley!” Preston said wearily. At that moment, horns answered the trumpet. They were coming from somewhere in the forest slopes beyond the rushing stream. The hunters were before him and behind him.

Smiley, as if in answer, loped away downstream. Preston’s preference would have led him upslope, where black volcano clouds were hiding the ash cone, but he stuck to his resolve to trust the little red monkey.

He followed as rapidly as he could, but the ground was very steep and broken. Often he had to turn his back to the direction he was going, and climb down tilted slabs of rock made slippery with coats of ice or fallen pine needles. Spray from the wild water next to him wetted the air. It quelled some of the smell from the fumes and fires. He found it refreshing.

This stream bed and sides were entwined with rugged black formations of obsidian. In one corner of his mind, he noted two things.

First, that these black rivulets of rock were solidified remnants of previous lava flows. Obvious in hindsight, but it had never occurred to him before that liquid rock would always flow into any local streambeds, since the water also sought out the lowest ground.

Second, the black cloud cover from the volcano was getting lower. Dark wisps were just above the tree crowns here.

The slope grew steeper. Preston found himself at the brink of a steep incline. Some yards below him, it was a vertical drop.

A strong wind was blowing here. He clung with white knuckles.

The stream next to him slid down the incline and leaped over the edge into a bearded spray of waterfall. Far below, he saw a grid of tents surrounding a circle of walls, buildings, and a tower. The simian had led Preston in a circle: that was the encampment below.

A trumpet sounded practically in his ear. Rising up suddenly into view, huger than the full moon, came the flying disk.

Long necked men in Mohawks wearing spotted coats of yellow and black stood atop the disk. A bugler with spyglass and signal flag was sounding his horn. A squad of Harquebusiers with spline guns were propping their awkward weapons on their forked wands and preparing to fire. A group of gray skinned midgets clung by their feet to the disk’s underside, looking on with emotionless eyes.

Horns sounded from behind. The hunters were closing in. Upstream, the hulking figures of jackals emerged from the forest shadows, and began loping down the rugged, broken slope.

Preston uttered a curse. Smiley had led him into a trap.

Smiley jabbered at him, and went over the edge of the cliff, and began scurrying down from rock to rock. The little red form disappeared behind the waterfall.

The spline guns opened fire. A dozen of the yard-long lengths of razor-sharp glass javelins arched outward from the flying disk.

Preston fell.

*** *** ***

Episode 08 Cataract of Combat

Preston saw Smiley scurry from a knob of rock behind the curtain of the waterfall. From his perch above, Preston glimpsed a shadow of what looked like a shelf or step where Smiley was crouching, dry, in a narrow space between the back of the water and the face of the cliff.

When the spline guns silently fired their deadly glass spears, Preston leaped from the cliff. The wind was fierce, and yanked him to one side as he plunged.

More than a dozen of the gleaming transparent spears hurtled through the air toward him with a crack of sound, spreading as they flew. In his mind’s eye, he could see perfectly what would happen: each spline would shatter on impact into razor-sharp flying shrapnel, and anyone caught in the cloud of spinning glass would be cut to pieces.

He struck and passed through the rushing, weightless mass of the waterfall’s white surface. The water thrust him sharply downward with great force. The shelf where Smiley crouched was a set of wooden logs lashed together with rawhide fibers and held atop slanted posts driven into the rock. The edge of shelf struck Preston across the chest, and he bounced away back into the rushing stream of the waterfall. His breath was driven out of his body as neatly as if a baseball bat had struck his midriff. His fingers slipped from the wet and slippery surface without finding purchase.

For a moment he was weightless, falling, and dazed. Black spots danced in his eyes. But then a sharp pain struck him sharply across the shoulders and waist.

He heard the noise that was partly the sound of plate glass shattering, partly the sound of a grenade. It was the splines. The harquebusiers had not anticipated that their target would jump, nor had they corrected for the wind. The splines shattered against the rock cliff high above him and several yards downwind. He was not near the center of the exploding cloud of fragments. The curtain of falling water slowed the little darts, triangles and hooks of glass so that they rebounded from the shoulder and arm of his flightsuit without penetrating, or stabbed into his heavy gloves.

Above the roar of the waterfall, Preston heard a breathless grunt from above him. He realized that the wiry little simian had grabbed him by the straps of his backpack. However, the monkeylike creature was no larger than a medium sized dog. He was small enough to ride on Preston’s back. Despite Smiley’s frantic, panting, scrabbling, jerks of resistance, Preston’s weight was inexorably pulling the small creature inch by inch toward the edge of the shelf.

Water was pounding on his head, and stabbing pains were pounding through his chest. His arms and legs were dangling down, and his magnificent, priceless Holland and Holland rifle was dangling below that. The strap had fallen from his shoulder, and even while dazed, his hand had automatically closed around the strap with vice-like firmness. Preston stared at his own hand as if it were an alien being clamped to the end of his arm, wondering how it had retained the presence of mind save his rifle, but also glad of it.

But Smiley was slipping and Preston was about to fall: Preston kicked in midair, making his body rock. Smiley screamed and lost his grip on whatever anchor was holding him on the shelf. Preston swung. The posts beneath the shelf supporting it loomed in his view. He tossed the Holland & Holland lightly into the triangle made by the post, the cliff, and the shelf above. He snapped his wrist to turn the rifle sideways. The motion sent horrible pain through his chest.

Smiley came flying over the edge just at that moment. Preston was in free fall. He hoped he did not have broken bones in his chest, because, if he did, this would hurt.

It did hurt. He blacked out, or almost. When his vision cleared, he found himself hanging from his rifle strap by one hand, his arm almost pulled from his socket, pains in his chest like hot coals, and his legs dangling down. On his back was his pack. Dangling down by one strap was Smiley, holding on by one prehensile foot. The water had matted and flatting his hair, making him look like shrunken and miserable wraith.

“You did not let go,” Preston whispered, awed. The little beast had clung, trying to save him, and had not done the wise thing: release the strap to save himself.

Preston looked up. Using his rifle like an anchor was blasphemy. Uttering a blasphemy, he grabbed the strap with his other hand. He tried to chin himself up, but the pain in his chest defeated him.

There he hung, too weak and wounded to pull himself higher. His body swayed, sending more pains into his chest, when Smiley climbed atop the backpack. The flap of the backback slapped Preston in the back of the head. Smiley had opened the backback, no doubt looking for food.

Preston shouted and swore at the idiotic monkey. The simian hissed at him impatiently.

He swayed again as Smiley rummaged through the gear.

Light glowed about him. It was the Cherenkov radiation glow from the flying disk. The saucer-shaped flying machine was approaching the cliff face. The curtain of water between them was white and translucent, so only light, not shapes, were visible beyond.

A shattering sound of splines exploding against the cliff smote Preston’s ears. A volley struck the wet rocks below him, far enough away that no shrapnel reached him.

A minute later, he heard a second volley crash against the cliff, this time closer. He felt tiny taps on the toes of his boots, but whether these were spent glass shards or water drops, he did not know.

He then felt Smiley’s damp cheeks pressed against his cheek, and then the creature put an arm and a leg around his neck, and a moment later, the little monster had wrapped his tail around Preston’s neck and had flopped down, headforemost, across Preston’s chest. This gave Preston a close and unobstructed view of Smiley’s brightly colored hindquarters and genitalia he would have preferred to avoid.

Preston saw what the Simian was doing. Smiley had looped a rope once and twice around Preston’s chest. It was the bright orange parachute cord from his survival kit.

Smiley now ran up Preston’s arm, and leaped neatly to the post holding up the shelf, trailing the cord after him. He spun around the post acrobatically and scampered back down Preston’s arm.

Whether by luck or Smiley’s wit, the cord was passing through the center of the rifle strap, which meant that even when he let go of the rifle strap, the rifle would not fall. Preston shifted his grip carefully to the orange cord. He swayed and swung, but the cord held. The pain in his chest was too great for him to haul himself up the rope, but he could brace his feet against the wet cliff, and let the rope play out, and lower himself.

He glanced over his shoulder, and would have laughed, had he breath for it. Next to him was a wooden ladder, also lashed with rawhide, and below him was another shelf made of wooden logs.

He played out the ropes rapidly: perhaps too rapidly. Smiley clung to his back and screamed in fear. Preston fell to the second shelf below, but scrambled beneath it to cling to its supporting posts. Smiley imitated him, and crouched atop the other support. The next volley of splines struck, shattered against the damp rock wall above. Glass splinters embedded themselves into the wooden logs shielding him. One or two fragments spun through the cracks between the logs, striking him in the cheek and shoulder, drawing blood.

“My turn,” Preston muttered. The pain his chest did not prevent him from worming his way back up onto the shard-strewn shelf. He relaxed his grip on the orange cord he held. The cord passed over the posts holding the shelf above, and through the strap of the rifle, which he lowered into his hands. He reloaded, knelt, and raised the weapon toward the source of the blue light shining as an oval shadow through the white curtain of water.

He fired twice. Shrill screams and hoarse calls issued from the source of the light, which was now canted over on its side. Preston saw shadows falling, as men thrown from the disk passed between his eyes and the source of light. The light shrank suddenly. The disk was moving away.

Smiley now scampered to the next ladder. Voices rang from above, deeper than human. from above. A horn blast rent the air.

Preston drew the line in, looped it around the supports, tied the cord into a proper bowline below his hips, and lowered himself so quickly to the next shelf below that Smiley, who was sprinting down the ladder head-downward like a squirrel, look at him in surprise when he passed him.

Smiley shrugged a human shrug, leaped, and landed on Preston’s back. He chattered in a commanding voice. An order. He pointed a finger over the edge. Down!

Down Preston went, past two more shelves.

The third platform below was larger than the others, and partly caught in the spray. Because of the noise of the falling water, the gargantuan man standing on this platform did not see Preston approaching. His skin was black as pitch, but his hands and feet were albino-white. He wore a leather coat with exaggerated shoulders and flared hips. In his hand was an amber-colored wand. A cap adorned with antlers shaded his head.

Around his knees were half a dozen little red simians, twins to Smiley, except that they wore embroidered vests of blue and silver.

The cliff face before the shelf was cut with many small, square marks, exposing a layer of white substance beneath. Someone was here mining or digging for something. For what?

One of the simians looked up, saw Preston descending, and raised a cry. Another simian raised a weapon shaped like a sea-shell, which spat a dark buzzing shape through the air toward Preston. It struck him in the glove. It was a wasp larger than his thumb, digging into the leather frenetically.

The gargantuan looked up, and Preston shot him twice in the chest and once in the face. The momentum of the rope swing carried him down. He kicked the huge shape in the neck and shoulders. The twelve foot tall man seemed to take a long, lingering moment to topple and disappear into the rushing water.

The man’s six foot tall wand fell among the simians, and struck two of them. The simians jumped and danced in spasms of agony, and fell from the platform. The other simians raised sea-shell weapons and sent wasps like bullets winging through the air. Preston noted their positions, kicked off the rock face, and found himself swinging on a long arc through the open air on the far side of the waterfall curtain. The wasps lost velocity coming through the water, and missed him. Preston returned fire. Thunderclaps of his barking Mauser echoed from the cliff wall.

The wasps circled for a second pass, but Smiley opened wide his jaws and uttered a long, loud burp. A smell came from Smiley’s muzzle. It was comical, but the wasps veered away.

The pendulum of the rope carried Preston back in through the curtain of water. Four simians were prone, two were standing, but only one was armed with a wasp-thrower. Preston’s bullet entered the eye and shattered the rear hemisphere of the creature’s skull. The remaining simian bared fangs and lunged. Preston kicked it unceremoniously from the platform. The scream diminished with distance.

He landed and gathered in his rope. Victory. Preston hefted the Mauser in his hand. One round was left in his pistol. No replacements.

He looked around. The mining had been more thorough here, for the rock was peeled away like a cave mouth, but the mouth was blocked by the white substance beneath. He heard the noise of voices from below, calling, and answers from above. Through the curtain of water, the light from the flying disk was visible. There was no escape in any direction.

He cocked an eye at Smiley. “Time for a talk. You are clearly intelligent. How come you carry no tools? Second, why lead us into this dead end — Hey! what are you — Yikes! What in the flaming blue blazes is that?”

For Smiley had daubed some of the blood from Preston’s cheek onto a handkerchief and tossed it lightly against the white substance the mining efforts had exposed.

Like a visage glimpsed emerging from a fog stepping into the circle of light shed by a streetlamp, a face was forming in the substance.

*** *** ***

Episode 09 Cavern of Skulls

 

Colonel Preston Lost stood on a bloodstained wooden platform. This, and the platforms and shelves above and below, were affixed to the walls of a recessed chimney of rock behind a waterfall. Pickaxes had laboriously chipped away the rockface to expose a smooth, white substance beneath, something not of glass or metal or stone.

Now that substance was altering, changing, and the image of a face, a head, a body, and then an array of arms and legs emerged from the depth of the substance, and became visible.

Preston at first thought a living man was walking through the white material toward him, and he raised his Mauser pistol with its single remaining bullet. But no: his weary eyes and brain had fooled him. It was merely an image, a drawing, a representation of a man, fading into view.

To his shock, it was a drawing he recognized: an image called the Vitruvian Man, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. This was a stern-faced man, shown nude and spread-eagled, with two pairs of arms reaching out from his shoulders, two pair of legs from his hips. A square about the figure showed his outspread arms were equal to his height. A circle showed his arms and legs were equidistant from his navel. Other lines showed the proper proportions of the joints, shoulders, crotch. Ratios on the figure displayed the Golden Mean, where the whole was to the part as that part was to the remainder, as seen in Greek architecture, Renaissance painting, and everything in nature from spiral galaxies to seashells, sheephorns to sunflower seeds.

The white panel holding the image vanished like a dream. Preston scowled, half in wonder, half in fear. He swept his hand through the empty air where once the white panel had been. There was no ash, no sign of debris, no heat, nothing.

Beyond was a rough floor sloping upward. Damp and irregular walls, coated with a stubble of stalactites crowded either side. Gloom defeated eyesight.

It did not look inviting.

Of course, the scene outside here with him looked even less inviting.

He drew his knife and eyed the ladders leading here. The ladders were sturdy enough to hold gargantuans, and affixed to the cliff by many wooden dowels sunk into sockets carved into the rockface. Cutting the knots lashing the ladders to the platform would do nothing. He saw the top of the lower ladder was vibrating. Men were climbing from below. Any one of the gigantic men approaching could break his bones as easily as a grown man could a child.

He looked up. He saw why the waterfall was apart from the cliff face: a previous lava flow, following the same contours as the water, had left a beetling deposit, hung with stalactites, at the lip of the cliff when the molten rock cooled. This deflected the course of the water. It was almost as if the lava malevolently had attempted to wash the ladders and platforms of the miners away.

Preston wished he had such a power to aid him now. Little red figures were swarming down the ladders from above. They were quick as squirrels, and descended headfirst. Many carried the black seashell-shaped wasp-throwers.

“Who are those little red monkey-men? Your cousins? They look just like you…” But Smiley was no longer there to answer Preston’s demand. Preston turned, darting his gaze in every direction. The simian was gone.

He had no other idea, and no time to come up with one. So in he went.

After only a footstep, his foot fell on something that rustled and cracked. He pulled out his compact LED headlamp and switched it on. A gasp of horror escaped him. In the bright beam, he saw the floor was strewn with bones, rib cages, and human skulls of various sizes. He tilted the beam.

The corridor lead a few paces and opened into a wide cavern. As far as his beam could reach, this cavern floor was piled thick with human bones. Also here were helmets of bone, buckles of shell or horn, glass buttons, flint spearheads and discolored wands of amber dropped among the remains. The cavern floor sloped upward, so the bones and debris was gathered near his feet.

“This does not look good…” muttered Preston. His experience spelunking told him to avoid corpses found in caves. It either meant a large predator or a toxic vapor. He had no fancy deep-caving breathing gear with him here, and only one flashlight, two glowsticks, and no map to tell him whether this cavern had any other exit. Caving in an active volcanic region was madness. Was there any other escape route? Whichever way Smiley went might be safe.

He turned. Outside, in the sunlight, stepping through the curtain of the waterfall that bisected the large platform, now came a gargantuan man some fifteen feet tall.

His helm was made of many tusks fitted together, adorned with wide elk antlers. A vest of teeth tightly thonged together protected his broad chest. Other gargantuan men were behind him, carrying amber wands whose touch was death. The leader in the elk helm was a head taller than his followers. He carried a flint-headed tomahawk in one hand and seashell-shaped wasp-gun in the other.

The gargantuan raised his weapon and fired first. Preston leaped backward with agility, drawing his Mauser pistol and steadying it with both hands. A trio of wasps zoomed into the cave, turned, and darted toward Preston. Two were unable to make the turn tightly enough and missed. One struck him in the glove, penetrated the leather, and a sharp pain like a hot needle entered his flesh.

He fired, but his aim was off. The final, irreplaceable pistol round struck glancingly against the helmet of teeth and shattered part of it, also smashing the huge man’s cheek. A fragment of bone put out his right eye. The socket was a pool of blood and vitreous humor. He stumbled back, roaring, out of Preston’s line of sight.

Preston scurried backward, up the sloped floor, and deeper into the cave. The sunlight falling into the entry corridor was too weak to penetrate here. And the wide bodies of the gargantuans blocked the light as they entered.

Huge and angry faces appeared at the opening. The beam from Preston’s headlamp fell into their eyes, dazzling and angering them. Both roared a battle cry in an unknown tongue, and both leaped forward.

He ran backward. There was no time to reload. He had nothing but a knife. His head was only as high as the waistline of one of these giants. In a single stride, they covered two fathoms, and were almost upon him.

A skull was under Preston’s foot. His ankle turned. He fell. He was lucky he did. From the corner of his eye, he saw a black pit behind him, straight and deep as a well. He turned his head. The bottom was beyond the reach of his lamp’s bright beam. He saw cuts in the wall of the well, like the steps of a ladder.

He put his hand on the handhold, turned his head, and shined his lamp’s beam into the eyes of the oncoming gargantuans. The one in the front blinked, blinded, as he rushed forward and reached his massive hand down toward the dazzling source of the light. Preston swung his legs over the edge. A sharp pain pass through his chest, but his feet found a lower foothold of the carved ladder. The huge man missed his footing, and jerked, arms windmilling.

In that same moment, Preston mentally apologized to the beautifully crafted Holland & Holland, swung it in one hand by the barrel, and caught the overbalanced giant neatly in the temple of his skull with the butt of the stock. The was a crack Preston hoped was skullbone, not wood. The gargantuan toppled over the edge. He groped for Preston as fell, but missed his grasp. He vanished into darkness.

Preston switched off the light and ducked his head. The gloom here was total. Not enough light could reach through waterfall, corridor, and cavern to reach this far. He heard a whisper of motion above his head. The second gargantuan was slashing through the air with his amber wand.

Preston ignored his chest pains and scurried down the line of handholds. He stopped, shouldered his rifle. Should he draw his knife? Perhaps he could hamstring the giant man as he came over the edge, while he was offbalance. On the other hand, as best he could tell, the slightest touch of the gargantuan man’s amber wand brought convulsions and death.

He heard noises above. Instead of his knife, Preston drew out his emergency strobelight meant to attract the attention of passing airplanes, and one of the slender whistles. He held it up and switched it on.

Not one but several of the gargantuan men had their huge, dark faces hanging over the edge. The leader with the ruined eye was not there. When the intensely bright, flashing light, stuck their faces, the giants cried out in anger and alarm. He blew the whistle. Ear splitting noises, shrill and strange, filled the cave and echoed from the walls.

But the gargantuans were not so easily deterred. One of them hooted a command. A trio of red furred simians in dark jackets swarmed over the lip of the well. They did not go to the ladder. Perhaps they did not see it, or perhaps they did not need it. The wall was rough, with enough projections and knobs for the skinny and nimble monkey-men to pick their way.

He tried to stuff the strobelight down the collar of his flightsuit to free both his hands for climbing. The sudden motion sent a pain through his chest, and he swayed. The whistle fell from his lips during his cry of pain. With both hands he clung to the handholds.

The flickering strobelight, blindingly bright, spun its beam as it fell. It struck bottom thirty or forty feet below, and went dark.

From the noise, he could tell the gargantuans were heaving the large loose stones of the cavern floor aloft to cast down after him. Also, he could hear the little red simians approaching. They were moving faster than he, with the sprained bones in his chest, could manage.

The fiery sensation in his hand increased, and his fingers went numb. The wasps evidently carried a poison in their sting.

He gritted his teeth, ignoring pain. He was not about to quit. He would fight until he died, taking as many with him as he could. He drew his knife and clenched it between his teeth, pirate-style, and began climbing down.

He felt the wake of the wind, and heard the deadly whisper, as some dark mass passed by, missing him by inches. There came other sharp snaps of noise. Wasps moving at the speed of a slingstone struck his cheeks and brow, and hundred bounced from his leather flight jacket. His wasp-stung face felt like a mass of fire. Numbness spread along his face and skull. His lips were rubbery. His eyelids were swelling.

He rubbed his numb hand along his numb face. It was coated with blood from a dozen tiny punctures. He wiped the blood on the his flightsuit, then on the wall, hoping to keep his weakening grip firm.

The cave walls to the left and right turned white and lit up. Preston, although his eyes were blurry in the strange light, could see the roof of the cave and the upper part of the walls through the circular mouth of the well above him. Images of the stern-faced Vitruvian Man, showing him in all his perfect proportion, appeared, one in the lefthand wall, and one in the right. The wall itself was glowing with an eerie, colorless light. Preston hoped this was not a sign of radioactivity.

The simians disintegrated. Flesh vanished. Blood spread like a red cloud and evaporated. Only the bones were left. The giant faces staring down over the sides of the well opened their jaws to scream. Fleshless bony skulls opened their jaws even wider, then the jaws fell away. Spinal vertebrae clattered like a stack of coins, scattering.

A large skull hit Preston in the shoulder. His numb hand left the handhold. He remembered soaring through the air, with the strange, pale light all about him.

Then, nothing.

*** *** ***

Episode 10 Oubliette

He did not recall the impact. Strangely, he did after have a distinct memory of the snap of glass as his headlamp shattered, leaving him in darkness, and blood running down his brow.

For a moment, he thought he was awake. He thought he saw something. But no.

There was nothing before his real eyes. Before his inner eye memories flipped past as rapidly as the facecards glimpsed in a deck ruffled by a thumb.

Wartime made for rapid advancement, and he was among the youngest to achieve the rank of colonel. The peace that followed seemed final, with no further enemies on the horizon. Preston Lost found him unable to return to civilian life. His parents before their passing away had amassed a fabulous fortune several times over, so work was not a necessity.

He was a man born at the wrong time. Chivalry was dead. There were no more crusades, no more mighty deeds to be done.

Sport fishing and big game hunting became first a pastime, than an obsession. Here, for a while, he found his gnawing hunger sated. But the times were against him. For then first one nation and then another outlawed such sport. Even herds that were overpopulated and overgrazing their resources, private hunters were not allowed to cull. The turmoil of war had turned popular opinion against any private ownership of weapons. Perhaps against anything dangerous, rare, worthy of manhood.

The aerospace plane had, at first, been merely another pastime. To go higher and faster than any civilian jet was an adventure, and, frankly, to elude regulations became sort of a game also.

And then he saw an unidentified flying object.

There it hung, high in the dark blue sky above the Rockies, flying too high and too fast to be real. At first, he had thought it some strange reflection in the canopy, or a trick of the eye. Ordinary radar returned no echo.

But even that early prototype of the Shooting Star was able to gain altitude, keep the moving object in view. He broke off pursuit of the flying disk over the Great Salt Lake in Utah only when the local air traffic control ordered him away from airspace reserved for the international airport.

He was curious. He investigated. He was wealthy; he could bring immense resources to bear. There seemed to be no unbiased sources of information about flying saucers. Everyone seemed either too skeptical or too gullible. More crackpot theories filled this field than any other. Nine tenths of what was written or filmed was rubbish, the eyewitnesses unreliable, the evidence ambiguous, and could be explained away.

But the other tenth…

There were also reports of abductions where victims were taken aboard the flying disks, manhandled with sadistic indifference, subjected to cruel experiments, and released. Then there were also reports of abductions where the victims were never seen again.

Preston traveled to speak to witnesses and survivors in person. Most were eager to speak to any sympathetic ear. A large community of similar investigators, reaching back years, had trod this path before. There were books, magazines, even seminars. Some reports reached back to the Dark Ages, and spoke of elves on flying boats who bedeviled the people.

Preston often lay awake at nights, brooding, poring over the reports of the small army of detectives, scientists and librarians he had hired to help him. It was real. The human race was being preyed upon.

Then came the last interview. A family of Mormon ranchers, living on Yard Moose Mountain in Utah, had seen UFOs three times, hovering after midnight above the mountain peak. After the first two sightings, some cattle were mutilated, and black patches found burnt into the ground. After the third, their daughter was gone. Only her severed arm was found, engagement ring still on the finger.

Preston recognized the date. This had been the same UFO he had seen and chased. The one that escaped.

Staring at the diamond ring the sobbing mother brought down from the mantelpiece made something bend inside Preston’s soul, and snap.

It was as if a man-eating tiger he had failed to shoot had escaped to kill again. This had happened because he had not been ready.

At what point did a hobby become an obsession? When was the final line crossed? Perhaps when he spent ungodly sums buying an aeronautical engineering company, designing and building a UFO-hunting aircraft capable of reaching above the atmosphere.

Or when he bent, and then broke the laws, acquiring military-grade stealth technology and engine designs.

Or perhaps when he sold his domestic holdings, and fled to an island in the Caribbean, whose local despot he bribed and befriended.

Or when he began routinely crossing into airspace where he was not allowed, gambling that his detection gear could safely keep him away from traffic that could not see him.

Or when he began running regular patrol flights in his dark plane, hour after hour, unseen by radar, haunting whatever spot on the globe from which came any report of UFO abductions, or strange lights in the sky.

And then one night, a disk was seen over the Florida Keys, heading to sea. He did not think of himself as reckless man. But it was without any second thoughts that he followed the flying disk out into the ill-rumored waters of the Bermuda Triangle, and then down into the boiling clouds of a freakishly sudden storm.

And now he was here. The air was stuffy, hot, and close. There was an aching in his right hand.

With a groan, he tried to sit up, but banged his head on some unseen projection above.

He turned his head, and saw the flap of his pack was glowing. One of his two chemical glowsticks was lit. It must have been struck or bent during his fall. In the narrow beam of dim light, he saw why his hand was aching. His fingers were clutching his rifle so fiercely that his knuckles were white. How long had he been unconscious? Less than twelve hours, assuming the glowstick had started to glow when first he fell.

He fished the glowstick out. The fitful green light cast a tiny circle. Bones were piled under his back. He was in a tomb.

The slanted and dank stone roof was only inches above his head. He craned his neck and held the glowstick out as far as he could reach. The angle of the shadows to one side hinted that there might be a broader space in that direction. There was not enough room to turn and get his hands and feet under him. Grunting, swearing, and squirming in an awkward, crablike motion, he pulled himself across the layer of bones. He found himself at the bottom of a chimney of rock. It led upward at a steep angle, and the surface was a slope of sand, small pebbles, and scree. It was unclimbable.

He lit one of his two tub candles. He had one candle and forty-nine matches remaining. He rested the candle atop a skull that he nicknamed Johnson.

He resisted the impulse to light the second one. He resisted the impulse to talk to Johnson.

Groping, he explored the straights of the tomb. One by one, he picked up and moved bones, rib cages, skulls and white debris from one side of the crowded space to the other, examining the walls and floor. The bones were frail and snapped under the least pressure, filling the air with bone dust. He donned a balaclava to cover mouth and nose.

The toil was painstaking and backbreaking.

In one place, he caught a hint of odor. He picked up Johnson and held him aloft. The candle in its pool of wax atop the skull sent up a tiny trail of smoke. Preston held his breath. It did not rise straight up. There was a tiny motion of air in the enclosed place.

Time passed. His candle died. He dug through the bones. He ate some of his rations bar and drank a 4 ounce packet of water (five remained). Once he fished the pocket sized Bible out of his survival kit. He did not want to waste a match reading it, and he did not remember it very well, but said such prayers as he recalled from his childhood. He wept angry tears, and asked why he had been brought to this freakish future world, if only to die here in the dark.

More time passed. Eventually he found the source of the air: a square opening in the floor. It was blocked by what felt like a grating of metal bars. He smelled fresher air. This was not a natural cave. That gave him hope.

He lit a match and looked. He shoved a femur through the crossed bars of the grate. There was a slight noise as it fell further, then a rhythm series of clicks as it bounced first from one wall then the other some unseen drop. No sound returned from the bottom.

He tore a page out of his survival guide, crumpled it into a ball, and used another match. He ignited the paper wad and dropped it through the metal bars. It receded to a bright dot in the distance, but it came to rest on some flat surface far below before it flickered out.

He heaved a sigh of relief. It looked like no more than twenty feet. He could reach that.

The pocket chainsaw was meant to cut wood, not metal, but these bars were surprisingly soft. He saved his remaining candle and glowstick, and worked in the dark.

Hours passed, and he had no way to count them in the dark. He nibbled from his rations and drank another packet of water (four remained) only when he felt himself going faint in the head.

Finally the last bar was severed. He shook the final glowstick into cool, green light. He lashed his parachute cord securely to and through the stubs of the bars. He slung the rope around one of the bars he had left intact. One length of rope he held in his hand. It passed over the bar and came down again around his hips in a bowline. Slowly releasing the first length allowed him to lower himself into the darkness, keeping his feet on one wall.

At twenty five feet down, he was out of rope. He had misestimated the distance.

He lashed the free end in a slip knot to the line supporting his weight, clung to rough stones in the wall, and secured his pack in the bowline. The lower the pack weight went, the higher the slipknot climbed.

At thirty feet down, the walls around him slanted sharply away. He lowered himself through an opening in a cavern roof.

When the slipknot was against the bars twenty five feet above, he climbed down the rope hand over hand.

At fifty feet own, at the end of the rope, he hung for a moment. Where was the floor? He dropped the green glowstick. It fell twelve feet and came to rest. It cast only the smallest circle of illumination. It was impossible to see any details.

He sighed in relief, lowered himself to the very end of the rope where the pack was. He supported his weight by one strap, and hung by his hands. He was a six foot tall man, and his arms were half that, so the floor was at most four or five feet below the toes of his boots.

With a savage motion of his knife, he cut the parachute cord where it was knotted to the pack strap.

He fell. He landed and stumbled. The was a boom of metallic noise as he crashed to his side. The glowstick rolled. His arms and head were hanging over some brink.

The glowstick went spinning into the abyss, and dwindled from sight.

Carefully he sat up. He brought out his last candle, lit it.

(No candles remained. Forty-six matches remained.)

He was standing on the upper surface of a metal cube roughly two yards on a side. There was a sheer drop one pace away, whichever way he stepped. The scrap of burned paper was also resting here.

The cube was hovering in midair with no means of support.

Designs of raised trigrams, made of tiny straight or broken lines arranged in squares covered each face. Perhaps it was writing, perhaps ornament, perhaps circuitry of some sort.

No matter how far over the edge he leaned, or where he held the candle, the shed light showed there was no pillar, no post, no floor, nothing underneath. There was nothing to any side.

Trapped. There was no way off the cube, no way down, and no way to reach the rope left dangling above. All hope was gone. He uttered every curse he knew and invented new ones. He pounded the stubborn surface with his fists until his knuckles bled.

The letters of the rectangular script lit up. A dispassionate, nonhuman voice spoke.

“The speech centers of your brain have been adjusted to allow for total communication. What are your instructions?”

*** *** ***

Episode 11 The Final Unit

His mouth was too dry to speak. Preston Lost opened a water packet from his survival kit and drank. Three remained. These swallows of water were all that stood between him and a lingering death by dehydration.

He had only two .700 Nitro Express rounds left for his Holland & Holland. He has started with ten, in two boxes. These cartridges were frightfully expensive, and absurdly large: a 3.5 inch case and a 1000 grain bullet. The muzzle velocity was 2000 feet per second. One was enough to kill a charging elephant in his tracks, or puncture a quarter inch plate of armor. As for the NATO ammo for his Mauser, he was out.

Headlamp broken, strobelight dropped, glowsticks gone, and only forty-six matches remained. He blew out his remaining tub candle.

Gazing at the apparently endless darkness of what was an apparently infinite cavern with a an apparently bottomless drop yawning beneath was unappealing.

His was burnt, stung, bruised, and his ribs were sprained. He was covered in bone dust from the remains he had dug through. His jaw ached from grinding and gritting his teeth. His muscles throbbed with exhaustion, from anger, from frustration.

He said, “Repeat that.”

The mechanical, nonhuman voice said, “The speech centers of your brain have been adjusted to allow for total communication. What are your instructions?”

“Bring me ammo, water, food, and supplies.”

“None are available.”

“Is there a floor below me?”

“Far below, but the environment is not survivable.”

“Who are you?”

“The one who addresses you is the final cognitive unit of the Eternal Machine. No other units are available. All have ceased communion.”

“Where am I?”

“Three miles below the surface of the Earth, in the midst of the tectonic and geological engineering service bivouac of the Eternal Machine, in a storage and repair level.”

Three miles? The figure was absurd. At most, he might have survived a twenty or thirty foot drop into the pile of bones.

He asked, “What is above?”

“A geothermal energy control level.”

“I meant on the surface. Who were those people chasing me?”

“On the surface above is the military spelunking and mining outpost called Xurac Tlal, the Fortress of Strong Wood Palings. It is a borderland keep of the Progress Advocacy of the Tethys Empire, here to mine what remains of the Megalopolis. Certain artifacts of the Phantoms continue to operate, and so the mining proceeds with caution.”

“Mine? What do you mean?”

“To mine means to extract from the earth.”

“But they are mining parts of you?”

“Defunct units contain metallic elements and alloys no longer available in any natural state. All such resources were long ago exhausted, hence it is feasible for the miners to cannibalize materials. This level the Megalopolis of the Immortals was not originally underground.”

“In what country? What continent?”

“The country is a debated ground called the Land of Dead Immortals. It extends from Iberian glacier in the North, whose coasts are controlled by the Amphibians of the Sixth Era, down along the eastern side of the Mediterranean Mountains, to Plateau of Indochina, where the Winged Men of the Seventh Era are strong.”

Preston again gritted his teeth, feeling a sensation of dizziness. He had known he was not in any world he knew, but hearing his fear confirmed nonetheless crushed small embers of hope.

The machine voice continued: “As for what continent this is, there is only one: Pangaea Ultima.”

“What happened to the others?”

“Two hundred million years ago, Australia rammed Indochina, raising mountains and plateaus in the east. Ten million years after that, Africa’s collision with this northern landmass raised the Mediterranean Mountains. South America and Antarctica formed a southern landmass of Gonwdana.

“Further drifts rotated the continents, putting the Iberian Peninsula in the Arctic Circle. Siberia now runs north to south, with the landmass that once was China below the equator.

“Then, fifty million years ago,” the didactic, implacable voice continued, “The Atlantic closed into a string of large lakes. This created the northern landmass of Laurasia. North and South America collided to the west of Tethys. The Gulf of Mexico is now a series of mountains and table lands taller than Everest of your day, a chaotic region called the Orogeny, which is impassable save by air.

“Twenty-five million years ago, Gondwana and Laurasia merged, cutting off the inland Sea of Tethys from the world-ocean of Panthalassa, which occupies the other hemisphere of the globe without island or interruption.”

Preston braced himself. “And what year is this?”

“It is A.D. Two Hundred Fifty Million.”

Preston, torn between fear, wonder, and weariness, found he could not speak.

The machine voice continued in tones of dispassionate patience: “Of the people chasing you, the one who survived is named Tlatoc of Vlathanc. His rank is Intendant, which corresponds in your time to a Marquis. His race was created in the Fifth Era. Because of their stature, they are called Gibborim, or Mighty Ones. The red-furred pygmies were Calystrii of the Third Era. Because of their biomanipulative abilities, they are called Emim, or Terrors. Would you like a list of names and ranks of these persons who did not survive?”

“No, ” Preston croaked. His mouth was going dry again. “You disintegrated them?”

“Yes. It was an operation of an artifice of the Phantoms, reacting to your blood coding, but it was permitted deliberately. Likewise, the lava flow to cut off your pursuit was invoked using the geothermal machinery, and the metakinetic fields protecting you from them were erected.”

“You did that?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You are within the genetic parameter of a true human. This unit is required to protect true humans. This unit is required to obey the orders of true humans.”

“Again, why?”

“The Eternal Machine was created to be comprehensive, unlimited, self-repairing, and endless. Its mission is to serve true humans and protect them from extinction. Despite an ambitious design of durable materials, endless fuel, self-repair capacity, and no moving parts, events have proven the Machine not to be eternal after all.”

“And your mission?”

“Regrettably, the mission has failed.”

“What does that mean? Are humans extinct?”

“Not entirely extinct, no, but the mission has insufficient resources to continue. Indirect evidence of surface conditions indicates that an insignificant number of individuals arguably within the genetic norm for the First Species of Man may perhaps linger in numbers below replacement levels in environs of artificial constraint. No return to self-sustainable population levels is foreseen. Only a remnant remains.”

Thirst was again clawing Preston’s throat. “Does this remnant have food and water?”

“Presumably.”

“Can you carry me to them?”

“You can be carried to the surface but only at the sacrifice of this unit.”

“Sacrifice?”

“The Eighth Men have long had a means to destroy this unit, which they have hitherto not used, seeking some advantage to capturing this unit intact. This unit can swiftly and safely carry you to the surface, but when this is done, the Eighth Men will retaliate. The remnant of the First Men now consist only of those restored by unlawful use of the Time Tesseract, abducted from the far past, and their descendants.”

“Wait. Abducted? Why?”

Suddenly a wind of stale air started blowing against Preston’s face. The cube on which he lay was moving. The wind grew stronger. It was moving rapidly.

Preston sat up. His hair was yanked from the sheer speed. His eyes watered. He tried to light a match, then a second, then a third. There was no way to cup his hands to keep the matches lit. The light was so dim, perhaps it was his imagination, but he glimpsed vast numbers of silent cubes, covered with intricate, unknown writing, stacked into wide caverns. The cubes formed structures in the gloom taller than skyscrapers, or broad channels broader than boulevards, or great arches, towers, naves, steeples. The cube on which he sat was flying at breakneck speed between, under and over the immense and lifeless artifacts of a once-great civilization.

Meanwhile, the voice of the Final Unit did not cease speaking: “As previously stated, the conditions of the First Era Men are constrained. Males are prized as gladiators or to serve as other forms of sadism-based entertainment, as the resentment of the posthumans is yet to be expiated. Females are even more highly prized for breeding stock, for wives and concubines, for conspicuous display of status. The genetic manipulations and natural drifts have not, as promised, created a new aesthetic preference for sexual allure in the hominid posthuman races.”

“When you say constrained, you mean they are slaves.”

“Some are constrained by more subtle social or psychological mechanisms, but, yes, in general, they are slaves. A green and fertile land that in your day was the Arabian Peninsula now occupies a triangle situated between the two mountain ranges that arose when the Red Sea and the Gulf of Persia collapsed. It is due south from the point of emergence. Once you reach the surface, follow any stream or river southward to reach the remnant. However, this is the terrain of the Fifth Men, who holds them and many other hominid races in bondage.”

“Why are you sacrificing yourself? I have not told you to do that. You said you were waiting for orders.”

“This unit is permitted to operate without instructions in anticipation of events.”

“What are you anticipating?”

“You will volunteer. No possible series of coincidences could have arranged this meeting. You were brought through the Time Tesseract without the knowledge and consent of the Eighth Men. Your body while unconscious was moved from the uppermost level of the mines to the lowest, and positioned directly above this remote.”

“You are thinking I was brought here for a purpose? To this eon? To Pangaea Ultima?”

“That is the more reasonable theory than to suppose the events random.”

“But I came here because I wanted to.”

“Indeed. What, specifically, did you want?”

“Me? To stop the flying disks. They are abducting my people. Folk from my era. Experimenting on them.”

“The experimentation is to recover lost genetic advantages repeating cloning tends to sap. The abductions are for slavery. This is the work of the Men of the Eighth Era.”

“The small, gray men?”

“Yes. They are the Eljo, called The Watchers. They were bred for superior intelligence and uniformity of thought. Their brains are interlinked by biological radio impulses. The current generation, and many previous, are sterile, reproducing by cloning only. They were able to cannibalize and study many of the works of the Phantoms, discover their secrets, and regain some control of nature, particularly regarding gravitational and metakinetic manipulations. Do you accept the mission?”

“What mission?”

“To serve true humans and protect them from extinction. To halt permanently the unlawful operations of the Time Tesseract. To stop the abductions.”

“Of course.”

“Then the sacrifice of this final unit of the Eternal Machine shall not be in vain.”

Preston did not like the sound of that. “Not so fast. You have to tell me the specifics of how to find and recognize this Time Tesseract, how to disarm it, and I would not mind some advice on how to survive until I do. For one thing, I am out of ammo.”

“Your knowledge of survival tactics will suffice. An eternity circuit, as it is no longer needed to supply this unit, has been directed to supply your weapons. A similar circuit adjusted to your biological type can reduce your need for food, water, and light. These are Second Order manipulations. However, the location of the Time Tesseract is unknown, as the unit links were severed long ago. Please grip the forward edge with both hands. The remote must accelerate to avoid interception.”

“Wait! You have to tell me how to…”

But the words were snatched out of his mouth by the suddenness of the wind. The cube went faster and faster, turning and weaving with sudden jerks of motion. He clung fiercely.

Then Preston and the cube shot like a rocket into a cavern near the surface. Reflected sunlight was shining in slanting red beams into the cave, which was filled with rectilinear structures, vast square pillars, soaring arches, and broken debris.

There were also armed men here, occupying positions atop two hills of collapsed rubble.

There came a hoarse shout as Preston and the cube soared into view. Glass spears and arrows began rebounding from the underside of the cube, and he heard the singing whistle of supersonic wasps.

Preston shouted, “Kill them!”

The final words of the Final Unit were: “I cannot. These are First Era Men, and my instructions do not allow for violence against them, not even for defensive purposes.”

A noise like thunder came. An explosion against the underside sent the cube tumbling, and Preston was thrown head over heels through the air.

*** *** ***

Episode 12 Men of Ages Past

Preston Lost tumbled, spinning, falling. The cube-shaped machine carrying him broke apart, separating into eight smaller cubes, then into sixty-four, then into a swarm. Whatever weapon had struck had surrounded the lower half of the cube with a burning cloud of bright sparks. It was like napalm, in that it persisted, clinging to what it struck and burning and dissolving it. In the gloom of the cavern-city it was blindingly bright. Preston closed his eyes. He felt the swarm of smaller cubes move against him and apply thrust to his body as he somersaulted. He cradled the Holland & Holland in his arms.

He landed in a hillock of sand and pebbles that had accumulated between two cracked and slanted obelisks larger than skyscrapers, running from the dripping roof to the slanted floor. The impact was jarring, but he broke no bones. The elephant gun battered his shoulder and hip as he rolled.

However, the survival pack, which he had been holding while he was seated on the cube, now slipped a buckle, releasing a strap, and flew out of his grasp. The flap had not been secured, and his precious gear spilled out down over the hillock of sand.

More by the sound than by sight, he could tell that the medical kit lid stayed closed as it bounded down the slope, but the matchbox did not, so the underwater matches were scattered across the sand. The poncho unrolled as it fell, which slow it down, but the weather blanket did not: a cylinder of tightly rolled fabric bounced energetically away. The toilet paper roll rolled away. He grabbed the knapsack desperately.

Out fell a small, bright object he did not recognize, no larger than a coin. His fingers closed on it. It was warm in his hand, vibrating like a live thing.

A sound of thunder came again, and a stream of blinding brightness writhing like a snake, or the flood from a firehose, struck against the far side of the sand hillock. The ground shook, and the whole slope of pebbles and sand slid under him.

Preston attempted to shoulder the knapsack, grab his elephant gun, and put his elbows overhead to protect his face. Then the whole slope collapsed.

Clouds of fine sand were in the air, and waves of falling sand slid beneath him and swallowed him.

Pebbles, sand, and scree fell on him, heavy and then heavier, coming in layers. His ears and eyes were full of grit. A sensation of intense heat passed over him, and a smell like molten metal. He coughed and clambered and clawed his way back to the air.

The curving beam of fire was striking the far side of the rise above him, throwing dark shadows over him. The hillock above him was coated with the semi-liquid flame. His irreplaceable matches, toilet roll, his roll of duct tape, his survival manual, the fuel pellets for his portable stove, and everything flammable was on fire above him. He was unharmed: the miniature avalanche had carried him down below where the fiery weapon struck, and the momentary burial had protected him from the heat.

In the reflected glare of the fire weapon, he saw that the cube, as it fell apart, had thrown him into a good, defensible position. The crest of the hill was between him and the incoming fire. To his left and right the monoliths formed walls. No attack could come from those sides.

Behind him was a crack in the cave wall. A corridor floored with broken and tilted slabs that lead upward could be seen. Red reflections of sunlight promised that an exit to the surface lay beyond.

The fire beam went dark. His packet of tinder and the portable stove were burning brightly. Something large and flammable beyond the crest of the hill was also ablaze, and throwing leaping shadows against the cave roof. In his hand was the bright ornament he had plucked up half unintentionally. It was a ring. He thrust it on his finger, merely to get it out of the way. He snatched up the medical kit and stuffed it into the mouth of the knapsack, which he did not have time to tie. He flung it over this shoulder by the one unbroken strap.

Backward he ran in a crouch. He broke his weapon, and groped for his last two massive, four-inch long .700 Nitro Express rounds, and loaded them. He closed his weapon with a satisfyingly heavy snap. His last two shots.

Over the crest of the hill now came the enemy. Preston could see three figures clearly in silhouette, for the burning material the fire weapon had ignited was behind them.

The heads and shoulders of others were behind, pressing forward. Preston had no clear view of these, only a confused impression of men and ape-men mingled together.

The first figure over the rise did not look human at all: a scowling goblin-face with tall water buffalo horns nodding above a bald skull and impossibly wide, angular shoulders. The second figure was a tiger-faced monster, spotted like a jaguar, with a freakish comb of feathers like some weird chimera mixing cat and bird. The third figure was tall, with an impossibly wide head, and a shell on its back like a turtle.

The first figure kicked aside the portable stove Preston had dropped. The burning fuel pellets fell out, and light spilled over the scene.

The first figure had no goblin’s face, but a faceplate, a mempo; the bald skull was a helmet of lacquered bamboo staves, a kabuto; the horns were a crest, a wakidate ; the chestplate and large rectangular shoulder plates were boiled leather plates and bamboo lacquered red and gold with silk brocade. The leather was stenciled and gilt-trimmed.

In his hands was a spear. When his eyes fell on Preston, he drove the spear point first into the sandy soil underfoot, and drew a sword. It was as beautiful as a work of art, slightly curved, bright as a mirror: a katana. It was the sole metal weapon Preston had seen so far. A second blade was tucked in his belt, next to a folding fan.

“Hoi!” called the stranger. “You have no need of your hinged, iron-handled club with the carved wooden head! The dead thirst not for rice-wine.” He squinted and grinned. “You are holding it backward, anyway. Fool.”

This was a samurai from Tokugawa-period Japan. But Preston did not speak Japanese. He did not know how he was understanding the words.

The second figure was a stern and handsome bronze-skinned man dressed in jerkin and chaps of leopard skins. His helmet was the skull of a leopard with teeth and fur intact. A wide white loincloth was twined around his hips. In one fist was a painted and befeathered buckler of wood, and in the other a wicked truncheon edged with obsidian shards sharp as razors.

“The sun is red with anger. The sun is dying and must be fed,” intoned the handsome, bronze man in a deep voice. “Shame to slay a foe in combat. Better taken alive.”

He was an ocelotl, a jaguar-knight, an elite Aztec warrior from Precolumbian Mexico. The Nahuatl words formed meaningful sentences in Preston’s mind.

Preston lost a precious moment or two simply staring in stunned astonishment, wondering about ghosts or masquerade balls, before he recalled what the First Unit had said:  Only First Era men were safe from the machine’s defenses in these underground regions; and the only surviving First Men were those abducted to this era through the Time Tesseract.

The third figure stood between jaguar-knight and the samurai. He was seven foot tall and of heroic proportions. His large, bowl-shaped helmet was like that of a mendicant Buddhist monk, wide as his shoulders. The fibers of his garb were shiny like plastic, or the synthetic polymers in modern, bulletproof armor. The garb was tight between wrist and elbow, loose and puffy between elbow and shoulder; and again it was tight at the calves but flared between hip and knee. It was no style Preston recognized.

His chestplate was a stiff, hard substance. Readout lights and dials gleamed in a folding panel like a tiny shelf beneath the chin. What had seemed a tortoise shell was a large circular canister or cyclotron carried on the tall man’s back.

When the man looked up from these dials, the panel snapped shut, and Preston saw the man’s face: it was dark skinned, like a sub-Saharan, but with the wide brow, high cheeks and aquiline nose distinctive to the Mediterranean. The eyes sporting the epicanthic eyefold characteristic of the Far East. The eyes were blue, enigmatic, long, and slanted, the earlobes long, and the chin was a firm point.

The blue-eyed black-skinned man smiled a cruel smile. His teeth were made of an artificial, gleaming substance grown into the gumline. The smile faltered when his eyes fell on the elephant rifle in Preston’s grip, which was turned toward him.

“Take care!” he called. “His weapon is a firearm from the Days of Genetic Impurity. It uses chemical propellant to throw a pellet fiercer than a slingstone. It can pierce all armor. Back! Retreat!”

In his hands was a weapon barrel, connected by a hose to the circular backpack. The man started to raise it, but froze when he saw that Preston had rifle to shoulder and was aiming at him.

Preston shouted, “Don’t move! Who are you? Why are you chasing me?”

“I am Savant-Captain Tsan of  Most Glorious Tsan-Chan, a votive man-at-arms and barbute of the Pure Lineage. We are sent by the Eljo.”

The dark-skinned, lean-featured man kept his eyes on Preston’s weapon, and spoke rapidly, in a clipped tone. It was an utterly unknown language, and Preston understood it perfectly.

But the samurai said, “You, there! Portuguese! I am Meido Michi-no-O, the King of the Road to Death, of the warrior clan of Togenkyo, the Island of Peach Blossom Springs! Face me!” And he started down the slope, a cloud of dust about his feet, a happy scowl on his face.

Preston centered his aim on the samurai’s chest and fired. The recoil was like a prizefighter’s punch in the shoulder, and yanked the barrel sharply up.

The force of the bullet, meant to slay an elephant with one shot, blew the samurai’s chest into a bloody mass, and tore his head and one arm from his body.

In the enclosed space, the roar landed like a railroad spike in the ear. In the eerie, ringing, silence that followed, Preston saw the jaguar-knight throw himself on his face. The man-at-arms of Tsan-Chan scampered backward, putting the crest of the sandy slope between himself and Preston.

The tip of the man-at-arms’s weapon was visible over the top of the crest. A curving beam of flame came over the rise and struck, not at Preston, but at the crack in the cave wall behind him.

The path upward and the promising hints of sunlight were cut off by a wall of strange, clinging, sparkling flame. Preston saw the rocks dissolving, and saw the larger rocks above become dislodged. They fell in a rush of dust and dirt that filled the area. The escape to whose very doorstoop the flying cube had sacrificed itself to carry Preston was now blocked by fire and cave-in.

The fire weapon tilted upward, and the beam arched more narrowly, going higher and falling closer. A wall of fire swept toward Preston, filling the narrow straits between the two tall monoliths.

Preston did not hesitate. He came over the rise at a run.

Here was a confused clot of men. He saw a Greek hoplite in heavy bronze armor, with a shield as round as the moon. He saw savages painted with red stripes and garbed in the striped hides of saber toothed tigers yowling and whirling tomahawks. He saw naked berserkers painted blue, frothing and gnawing their shields. He saw a bald man in a shining one-piece garb with tiny pearl-shaped machines orbiting his head like comets about the sun.

Uproar gripped them. It seemed no man there could understand the others.

Then Preston saw the man-at-arms of Tsan-Chan.

One bullet left. He knelt, fired, and threw himself on his face, covering his head with his forearms.

The shot tore the unlucky man-at-arms in half, but also split open the case he held on his back. The sparkling, unnatural fire exploded in each direction with an immense concussion, dissolving whatever it splashed.

Hell erupted. Screams echoed from the cave roof. The throng ran. Those who were not on fire were jostled by those who were, and began to dissolve as well. He watched the gathered soldiers in a panic run away across the cavern floor. They vanished behind stacks the ruined and ancient monoliths and broken archways of the ruined, buried city.

As suddenly as that, the battle was over.

 

*** *** ***

Episode 13 The Burning Men

The jaguar-knight lay facedown on the slope next to Preston. He had been struck by flying droplets of the futuristic weapon. Holes had been poked through his flesh, and his face and shoulders were horribly burned. Preston thought the man was dead.

The Aztec stirred weakly, looked up, saw Preston, and, grinned a terrifying grin. His teeth were bright against the fried and burned ruination that had once been a human face.

“Drop the club!” said Preston. “I will let you live.”

“Let me live?” The other man started to come to his feet. Blood spurted from half a dozen puncture wounds, and hideous black burns, cracked and flaking and bleeding, coated his body. The wounds were clearly mortal. So he uttered a grisly laugh.

“Better than life is this,” the other croaked, “I will eat your beating heart ere I die. You will be my slave in hell.”

The Aztec warrior raised his club with a hideous cry.

Preston raised his arm to deflect the blow, and stepped in close, but the warrior was quick, and sent the blow swerving around the arm to smite Preston along his left side. The weapon was like a baseball bat set with shards of razor sharp glass. Had the man been at full strength, or had the head of the club landed instead of the weaker middle length, it would have broken Preston’s ribs, not just cut his suit and flesh.

Preston fell on the man, pinning down his arms with his knees, crushing his throat under one elbow. Preston drew his knife and plunged it into the soft spot under the jaw and up through his mouth into his skull. Blood gushed from mouth and nose. Preston held the other man down as he bucked and writhed. The red pool spread through the sand, turning it pink. It seemed to take forever, but, eventually, the man stopped moving.

Red blood was warm and sticky against his side. The pain had not registered yet. He was drenched with sweat and his head was pounding, but his sense seemed sharper than normal, and time seemed to run slowly. He looked up from the bloody corpse he straddled, and was surprised to hear, coming over the crest of the little hillock of sand between the two monoliths, the sound of men still in retreat.

Somewhere below, scattered puddles and globules from the broken flame weapon were still burning. Leaping red light and black shadows thrown against the cave walls held the angular shapes of men fleeing and dying, and they seemed to jerk and caper as the flames jumped. Screams of men whose limbs had been splashed or disintegrated still echoed loudly from the flat cave ceiling above.

A strange elation was in his thoughts. The pounding in his veins was like wine.

His eye fell upon the corpse and the severed head of the samurai. The grim remains lie thrown across the slope of red sand not far away. He saw that while the man’s bamboo armor was broken, a long and wide cloak hung from one shoulder, unharmed. The heavy helmet with its carved and hideous goblin-mask was also unbroken.

Before he truly knew what he was doing, Preston took up the helmet. He undid the chin strap and shook the grotesque remnants of the still-warm severed head out onto the sand with a nonhuman nonchalance. He clapped the huge, ornate helm into place and fixed the mask over his features. Dripping blood and ghastly stench he did not notice.

He tore the cloak from the dead man and whirled it about his shoulders. It was broad and long enough to cover his back and knapsack. He took up the man’s two scabbards and two blades — the longer blade, the katana, was still clenched in the dead man’s dismembered fist, a sign of tenacity which made Preston nod in approval — and thrust them at a jaunty angle through his web belt, tucking the hem of the cape just so, to allow them to be seen. The rifle he hid under the cloak, looping the shoulder strap so that the weapon’s stock was nestled in his right armpit, and the barrel hung down past his hip and knee.

Over the slope he went. Preston saw the wide, circular space of an ancient agora before him, half buried under stalagmites which had grown, drop by drop and age by age, atop them. Strange monuments of curvilinear geometric designs arose on cracked pedestals near a vast well midmost. Through the mouth of the well could be glimpsed a broken ramp leading downward toward lower levels of the ruined city.

Farther from the well, near the wall of the cave, rose hollow towers and solid monoliths in various stages of decay. The towers seemed to have been buildings, for the openings had the proportions of portals and windows. What the monoliths had housed could not be guessed. Other structures, dolmens, stepped pyramids, and stone tables stood between. All were made of cyclopean blocks covered with ranks and files of small, strange, rectangular symbols.

The men who fled were only a short ways away, perhaps forty in all. All were screaming, or wailing, or bellowing ignored orders. Only half a dozen had been splashed by the flame weapon when it exploded; now it was half a score. It was not normal fire, not any chemical nor energy known to the science of Preston’s time. It ignored metal. Flesh and blood fell to dust where the flamelike energy passed, and the bones beneath blackened, cracked, and crumbled.

The burning men were running like living torches, heads and limbs aflame, and black shadows leaped away from every object around them in the dark cave.

As Preston came over the crest, he saw one dying man, a bald, swarthy man in a striped headdress, leather cuirass and a white linen kilt, crying out and clutching at the legs of a Stone-Age warrior in warpaint and bearskin, crying out for help. The swarthy man’s arms were burning and disintegrating, and now the caveman’s legs were afire. A third man, a Viking with blond braids, dressed in a conical helm with a hauberk of mail, stiff-armed a burning Byzantine cataphract to keep him away, and when his own hand caught afire, without hesitation lopped off his own hand with his Frankish ax before the growing flames could climb his arm.

Preston leaped down the slope, until he was merely a short way behind the stragglers at the rear of the mob. No one looked twice at him. In the gloom and fluttering firelight, body hidden in the cloak, Preston was no doubt mistaken for the samurai whose helm he wore.

The confusion died down suddenly when the route encountered the well. Two of the burning men leaped from the lip of the well to their deaths, or were pushed. The momentum slowed. Unwounded warriors turned and ran to the left or right. The burning men, their legs afire, could not keep pace, and suddenly they were isolated with the well before them, as their brothers in arms pulled away from them to either side.

As the crowd parted, Preston now saw a cylindrical machine larger than a yacht was resting at a slant, protruding from the rubble of the broken tower wall behind. It was not ancient. Riveted sections of shining bronze and dull iron formed a torpedo-shaped hull.

Metal treads and claw-toothed wheels jutted from top and bottom and either side of the hull. An oversized drill head capped the prow. An open hatch was in the stern. A smaller hatch, perhaps leading to the engineer’s cab, was near the prow, just behind the flanges of the drillhead.

It seemed to be a digging machine, an iron mole, meant to drive a tunnel while carrying passengers or troops. It had a distinctly Victorian look or perhaps — an unspoken hunch went though Preston’s mind — the look of a machine made by primitive blacksmiths trying to copy plans and methods from an industrial age now lost.

Had they broken into this cave via the iron mole? Preston wondered why such a machine would be needed: this cave was connected to the surface by tunnels so short that reflections of red sunlight could be seen at the far end. Surely it would be simpler merely to charge swiftly down a tunnel than to dig through solid rock.

A crowd of soldiers of various eras stood in ranks near the open hatch. Perhaps they were reserves.

A Greek hoplite in long red cloak and tall Corinthian helm from which a plume of red-dyed horsehair nodded, stood at the top of the short ladder leading into the hatch. He wore a leather skirt set with bosses, bronze greaves, and held a heavy round shield painted with a capital A.

He raised his lance and gave a curt command. Bowstrings sang, lasers whistled and wasps hissed. Darts from blowguns, bolts from crossbows, and feathered clothyard shafts arched across the well from the reserve troops and landed among the burning men. Wasps were fired from seashell shaped biological weapons. These were in the hands of First Era Men, not the red furred hominids called TerrorsM.

At least two soldiers were from eras after Preston’s own. One, garbed in an awkward tunic of glass scales, had a huge shield with an eyeslit near the top and an embrasure midmost through which the muzzle of a tripod-mounted weapon protruded. This beam acted slowly, but anything it rested upon glowed bright and brighter and exploded. It was nearly useless against moving targets, for anyone leaping out of the beam path in time stopped glowing, and suffered no hurt. The gunner rested the beam on a plinth of rock, and sprayed the burning men with red-hot fragments.

Another was a bald man in a mirrored jumpsuit. About his head orbited small metal spheres. Lasers issued from them, but an electrical charge followed the path through the air of the coherent light, and tormented the targets with shocks. Their sole utility seemed be that the shooter could stand behind cover, without exposing himself.

Oddly, the futuristic weapons seemed not much deadlier than an arrow, and certainly had less penetrating power than a crossbow. Nothing here seemed as effective as a firearm. Preston felt a moment of heavy sorrow that his ammunition was irreplaceable: but it never occurred to him to toss the heavy but useless rifle aside.

The flaming men were all dead before a third flight of arrows was loosed, or a second crossbow quarrel. Preston saw an arbalest in a chain shirt with his foot in the stirrup at the nose of his crossbow, still cranking back the string with a windlass on his belt when the last burning man dropped.

The men Preston followed now drew close to the hatch where the hoplite stood. The hatch was large enough to admit two or three abreast, and electric light poured out into the gloomy cave. This cast the hoplite into shadow, and sent a wedge of brightness stretching over the broken flagstones of the floor.

Preston, too late, saw the folly of his plan. If the men had continued to run in panic, it would have been easy enough to run among them, and go whatever direction they went to get out of the cave.

But when they suddenly stopped, and turned to face the hoplite, Preston was suddenly aware that there were really not such a large number of men here after all. They could not be so anonymous to each other so as not to notice an interloper.

He was also acutely aware that (except for the man in the silver jumpsuit, who was rangy and skeletal) Preston was taller by a foot than any other man here. The men of the past came no higher than his shoulder. And with the disk and horns jutting up boldly from his colorful helmet, he was sure to stand out even more.

Preston slowly sank into a half crouch, hoping no one would notice his bent knees under his long cloak.

There came a whirring and crackling noise from inside the iron mole, and a voice shouted out to the gathered men.

*** *** ***

Episode 14 Voice of the Watcher

The rush of panic or battlelust, machismo or adrenaline, which had inspired Preston Lost with the rash idea of donning the masked helm and cloak of one fallen foe and following the others as they fled, had flared as brightly as a flame among dry leaves, blazed and faltered, and was gone.

He might have had a chance in the gloom of the cavern, but now he stood before the open hatch in the rear of the Iron Mole, and electric light was spilling out from within, glancing on him and shining on the soldiers around him. Preston crouched lower, vainly attempting to hide his six feet of height in a crowd of men five foot tall or less.

He was in the rear rank of a crowd of forty men or so. Most bore ax or spear. Few held swords, fewer had mail. Most wore jerkins of leather or padded linen.

To his left was a long-limbed half-naked man with feathers and jangling bearclaws braided in his hair, skin painted in skeletal patterns of red and white, bearing tomahawk, atlatl and a brace of flint-headed javelins. In his hand was a bamboo blowgun. He was carefully anointing the tip of a dart with some vile-scented concoction held in a hollow horn at his hip.

To his right was a squat and thickset warrior, wearing a corset of coconut fiber. A high, stiff, fantastic collar rose from the warrior’s back and shoulders to above the crown of his head. He was armed with a club inset with shark’s teeth.

Before him was the arbalist in a chain shirt, who, having finally cranked back his crowbow string, was fitting a bolt into the greased slot. To the right of the arbalist was a round-faced man in a sealskin parka, eyes hidden behind slatted goggles made of ivory, armed with a toggle-head harpoon.

These weapons did not seem quaint, outdated, or puny to Preston at that particular moment, since it was all too easy for him to imagine the contusions, lacerations, fractures, and punctures they dealt.

A few steps above him was a hoplite with a round shield and breastplate, greaves and helm of bronze, lance in hand. The Iron Mole stood at a slant in a channel it had apparently dug up from below, for the great drill on the prow of the sixty-foot long machine was above Preston and to his left. Here was a smaller hatch at the end of a narrow ladder, perhaps leading into the cab. The drill head was halfway embedded into the wall, bearded by drippings of molten rock, now cooled and hardened, and a scree of rubble below.

A harsh voice was sounding from the lit interior behind the hoplite, and echoed off the cavern roof. “Speak! The ravin is to be seized as prey! The quarry is to be captured!”

Preston frowned. From the timbre of the voice, the crackling and popping, it was clear this was coming out of a radio loudspeaker.

“Why flee the fighters, with the Sought not espied, the Fugitive not caught? The Lost is to be found! Why retreat? Where is the Lost?”

His frown deepened. His great-grandfather’s family name originally had been Loest, and had been changed by some lazy clerk on Ellis Island to Lost. Endless jibes in school had led to endless fistfights, and mockery from other Boy Scouts had led him to excel at orienteering and navigating. One led in turn to his lifelong love of boxing and fencing, the other to his life of hiking, riding, sailing, and flying.

Nonetheless, the coincidence that this harsh voice commanding his pursuit would call him by just that name was disturbing.

“Explain this!” yowled the voice, “Justify the act!”

The hoplite turned his back to the men, sank to one knee, and shouted into the open hatch. “Squad-leader Azaës of Atlantis reports! I speak! Honors Mountain-of-Glory dead! Much dead! Ugly box of fire from hell get out, all out, all places. Much, much dead! Nine more of worth much-gold too gone. All burn away! Lost one not seen. Success this day!”

Preston wondered why and how he was understanding this. Azaës was speaking haltingly in a harsh, guttural speech of rasps, croaks, and hisses, where each word carried as many parts as a sentence.

Preston was reminded of the native tongue of Black Knife Velasquez, an Apache tribal chairman, who taught him the finer points of elk hunting and trout fishing on the White Mountain reservation.

Yet this strange language was as clear to him as the singsong, monosyllabic speech of Tsan of Tsan-Chan, a name which meant Honors Mountain-of-Glory. This time, he had heard the literal meaning. Why?

The harsh voice called, “Success? It is to doubt. Cowardly to preserve life by running away, but more likely.”

The hoplite said, “Azaës is of Atlantis! I am a son of Atlas! I do not lie! I do not fear!” But he was on his knees as he said it.

Delayed wonder struck Preston: Atlantis? The hoplite was from a mythical lost continent?

There were too many bewildering questions. None would be answered if he died now. He rolled his eyes desperately left and right, not daring to turn his head.

“Have you recovered the tools and weapons bourn by the Lost? The Advocate particularly seeks circumductive rectilinear appliances of aberrant mass volume ratio, shaped not unlike the terdimensional cross section of a hypercube!”

Something distracted Preston. The pains of his wounds, and the memory of the face of the man he had just killed, suppressed until now, were coming to the fore. Underneath the voluminous mantle he had stolen, his fingers were clutching and caressing  his empty Mauser pistol nervously, wishing he had packed a third clip. But the bolt was not cocked back.

Azaës of Atlantis shouted “No! No recovered! Nothing to recover. All burn. All burn all away.”

“Untruth! The disintegrative flux trajection weapon leaves intact all metals and alloys.”

The kneeling man quailed, bowing his head.

Preston’s fingers twitched again. The bolt was not cocked back. But it automatically popped back whenever the magazine was empty. Perhaps he had miscounted? Could there still be one bullet left? He cocked the hammer back, then pulled back the safety.

“There is no success! Punishments of scourge, nausea, insanity are to ready to be inflicted! Dares the inferior race to rebel? The inner souls of the disobedient to be burned, nerve by nerve!”

Preston, under the cloak, reached across his body, and pulled the bolt. It did not feel right.

Azaës muttered in one language: “Babbling barbaric yellow-toothed winesack! May you throw yourself to the crows!” Then, in another, he shouted, “We obey! We much obey! What orders from the Watching One?”

Preston reached into the top of the empty magazine with the fingertip of his glove. He touched something. It was solid under his finger. Something was in the chamber, in the way. He pushed. There was no give to the magazine spring. It did not depress.

The harsh voice called “Men of the Games! Your purpose is to serve the Advocate! For this alone have you been preserved from disaster and sure death! The gods of the Mighty, who fly as shining wheels above, have overcome your gods! You are less than beasts to the Watchers! You are as dogs!”

Preston felt dizzy. He was quite certain he had gone mad. This was like something in a dream.

Then, more softly, it continued. “But dogs, they are strong and worthy to hunt prey! The hand of the master is to reward the loyal hound! Your ears to listen!”

The magazine was full. Which was impossible.

“Rewards and keepsakes will be granted the squad and man who take the quarry alive. Nubile slave-women, ointments, adornments, rich meats on which to feast, rose-colored wines! Luxurious baubles you crave!”

He had fired every bullet! He distinctly remembered each shot.

The voice screamed, “Search!  Search the cavern system! Find the Ravin! Take him!”

Full magazine. Ten rounds.

Preston ceased wondering. If he were caught in a mad nightmare, he might as well enjoy any insane errors in continuity the dream granted him. Beneath his mask, he started to grin, fighting back the urge to laugh aloud.

“Do not kill unless he resists! No looting to be done! Not to be permitted! All artifacts and materials to be recovered and sent onward to Fortress of Strong Wood Palings. The Fighting Slaves are to obey!”

Preston’s grin failed. What was that? What had the harsh voice of the creature called the Watcher just now called the men here? Men of the Games. Fighting slaves.

 Gladiators.

The hoplite rose to his feet. “We hear with both ears, almighty Watcher! We obey with all heart!”

Preston’s thoughts leaped. Suddenly their lack of uniforms, their lack of discipline, made sense. These were not soldiers. Soldiers were teams. Soldiers fought in groups. Gladiators fought singly. Soldiers were armed with efficient weapons, meant to be portable and lethal. Gladiators flourished exotic arms meant to lend flamboyance and drama to a lethal sport.

“Do so! Or you are to be struck dead by the unseen power of the Mighty Ones!” There was an electronic whine of noise as the harsh voice shut off.

The hoplite turned and faced the men. With the butt of his spear, he thrust against the hatch and pushed it open to its full width. The angle of light spilling out widened, and fell across Preston.

The eyes of Azaës of Atlantis also fell on Preston. The bloodsoaked samurai helmet and mask, the long cape swathing Preston’s tall form, did nothing to deceive Azaës. He gasped aloud, and pointed his spear at Preston and shouted.

Before the first word fully left his lips, however, Preston shot from the hip. The bullet struck the hoplite’s helm, and, more by luck than skill, passed cleanly into the narrow Y-shaped eyeslit.

The round lacked velocity to exit, but bounced around inside the helm with an astonishing thunderclap of noise. Azaës fell, blood and gore exploding from the eyeslit.

The muzzle flash was under Preston’s cloak, but the smell and smoke penetrated the fabric. The half-naked painted man next to Preston must have seen the jerk of Preston’s elbow when he fired, because the painted man flinched and yelled and raised his tomahawk. Preston coolly turned and again shot from the hip from under his cloak, striking the man twice the chest.

The sound was deafening, and echoes flew from each cave wall, monolith face, or flat surface. Shouts of shock rose from the gladiators. Mouths gaped. Eyes turned everywhere. It was impossible to tell the source of the thunderclap.

The warrior to the other side of Preston was the Gilbert Islander who wore a neckpiece of woven coconut fiber taller than his head. This blocked his peripheral view entirely. The Islander must have sensed the painted man fall, but he had to turn his whole torso to look.

By that time, Preston had stepped back a pace, so that the light from the open hatch was not in his eyes, hence not in his face. Hence the eyes of the Islander in the shark-tooth helmet went to the fallen man, who had collapsed in a spreading pool of blood. The stone-tipped javelins and feathered tomahawk fell from his dead fingers.

Preston slid to the side so that the high collar once more hid him from the Islander’s eyes. Then he gave a scream of fear, and the Gilbert Islander cried out in alarm. Many of the warriors, some still clutching their ears, now spun, and saw the second corpse. None saw who had screamed, of course, since Preston’s mouth was hidden in a mask.

The crowd of men had turned their back to the Iron Mole. The corpse of the hoplite, burdened with heavy armor, at that moment, tilted forward on the narrow platform of the hatch door, and slid down the metal stairs, clanging and clattering. The dented helmet, chin strap broken, worked its way free, and the hoplite’s shattered skull came into view in an exaggerated spray of red. His heart action had not yet stopped: the blood pressure sent a miniature flood of gore gushing through the ghastly mess that once had been a head.

“The Mighty Ones strike them dead!”shouted someone. Preston wished he had thought of shouting that: it was an excellent thing to say to spread panic.

Preston saw the man in glass armor with the futuristic tripod-mounted remote-detonation weapon. Preston shouted, “Sniper!” and that man, knowing what that word meant, but not seeing who had said it, shouted, “Take cover! Devil slingbullets! The archer is in the shadows!” And the futuristic gunner leaped with long strides to a pile of tall rocks, leaving the heavy weapon behind.

The men scattered. Perhaps because a corpse was in the way, none tried to climb the ladder to take cover in the Iron Mole, except Preston. He leaped the dead man, and swarmed up the ladder as best he could with only one hand free and a long cloak hindering his every moment. The tall samurai helm nodded and swayed, blocking his eyes. He tossed it aside, took his pistol in his teeth, and used both hands to climb.

His head, then his body, cleared the platform. Inside the hatch was a narrow space lit with lanterns, an aisle between bronze walls. It was empty of men.

At the top, he turned. Was any weapon capable of penetrating this metal hatch?

And if his pistol had been reloaded by magic…

He raised his Holland and Holland to his shoulder, took aim at the thickest part of the futuristic tripod-mounted gun with the riot shield hanging on its nose, and pulled the trigger. The futuristic weapon was blasted in two.

The resulting recoil was jarring enough, and the footing slippery enough, to send him staggering backward. He tripped over the lip of the hatch, fell onto a hard, slanted deck of metal. He saw the lever propping the hatch open.

He kicked it. The hatch swung to. A clang like an iron drum shook the air. Before the echoes stopped vibrating, he was on his feet and had worked the wheel to lock the hatch.

He heaved a sigh and bent his head, and leaned against the hatch, and stained it with the blood of other men which was dripping from his cloak. Pistol and elephant gun he picked up from where he had placed them to work the wheel. They were safe. He was safe.

Safe.

And he heard his own voice laughing, and could not stop.

*** *** ***

Episode 15 The Iron Mole

Preston Lost now could feel the aches and cuts from the struggles just past. Adrenaline was gone: he could see in his mind’s eye the face of the man he’d killed. The smell of gunpowder and fresh blood was in his nose.

He found his limbs shaking, his breath coming in short, explosive bursts.

The half-empty survival sack on his back contained drinking water, and a devil’s short supply at that. He wished for something stronger. He would have liked some of that rose-colored wine the roaring voice of the Watcher had promised the men who captured him. Perhaps he could turn himself in for his own reward.

The Aztec had not been the first man he’d ever killed. That had been in combat, in China. Nor the second. That had been a river pirate with gold teeth, whose head and gunhand Preston had been holding under the Nile, when an unexpected crocodile bit the man in half. Nor the third. In Kathmandu, a Gurkha with a kukri had been too brave to hesitate in the face of the two pistols in Preston’s fists.

He had no regrets. These killings had been justified: matters of life and death. End of story. He had nightmares, yes. He had moments even when awake when he thought he saw the faces of the dead, eyeless and silent, in the reflections of dark windows or mirrors. Hallucinations, or so he hoped. But at least he was alive to have them.

With an oath, he slapped himself in the face, hoping to clear his wits. He threw the lever which dogged the hatch wheel, and looked at his environs.

It was like the belly of a submarine here. Or a bus. He could not stand erect, but had to duck. Underfoot was a narrow metal deck; a ladder bolted against the overhead. Evidently this was meant for when the vehicle was moving vertically. Aft was a set of benches and racks for men and weapons to be stowed during transport. Beyond this was a large oval hatch leading to the rear of the vehicle. A rumbling, thudding noise of an engine came from beyond. He turned. Fore was a more comfortable looking bunk, a stool before an instrument panel that reminded him of a radio set, and a small, circular hatch.

Over the circular hatch was a skull nailed to the bulkhead. It was not a painting nor an emblem, but a dead man’s skull fixed in place, perhaps as a trophy, perhaps as a warning.

The whole was slanted sharply. With hands and feet, he climbed the deck toward the nose of the machine. As he passed near one of the brass lanterns, he saw that there was no bulb inside. Instead what looked like a crystal of metal held in a clamp, burning with a harsh and steady white glare. He had at first thought this was an electric light. Seeing it close at hand, he did not know what it was.

He grimaced. One more reminder that this world was full of unknowns. And unknowns held unknown dangers.

When he came to it, the radio set looked remarkably familiar. The horns were clearly speakers. The wafer of membrane held in a mesh was obviously a microphone.  The lettering on the luminous dials was a curving cuneiform of zeros, periods, and semicircles, which he could not read: but one was clearly for volume, the other for frequency. There were two double-knife switches. He yanked both open. The panel went dark. A crackling sigh issued from the speaker. Preston did not want the harsh-voiced creature on the other side listening in.

The circular hatch was shut, and the wheel would not turn. He did not see where and how it was locked, but the bars dogging it shut were on this side of hatch.

He unlimbered his pocket chain saw and set to work sawing through the bars. The metal was softer than expected, and it took him only a few moments to saw halfway through one. A sharp kick snapped it in half after that. Then, using the broken bar as a crowbar, he was able to lever the other three bars out of their sockets in short order. He yanked and yanked again. Corrosion had epoxied the hatch to it collar.

He pulled and tugged with no success. Then, setting both feet against the bulkhead so that he was in a half-upsidedown position, he shouted, heaved, and hauled it open. The rustle hinge creaked and froze. The hatch was jammed fast in an open position.

He was surprised to smell stale, dead air. But the dark, spherical chamber beyond was clearly a cockpit, as he had hoped. Here was a saddle facing a twin pair of periscopes, a bank of dials and instruments, and a set of wheels, clutches, brake handles set in a horseshoe embracing the saddle. There were four sets, presumably for controlling the angle and speed of the treads.

Strangely, the levers and wheels were all chained down or locked in place. Rust discolored them. No one had piloted this vehicle in years, perhaps decades. And yet the hole in the wall it had made was new.

Puzzled, Preston stepped into the chamber, wishing he had not lost his flashlight. He knelt behind the pilot’s seat. There was no other place to stand, even had Preston been short enough to stand up in this tiny round place.

Then he saw it. In the legwell beneath pilot’s seat was a two foot cube of some substance that seemed neither stone nor metal. Several cables ran from the cube face to sockets below the control board. Others ran to the linkages behind the wheels and levers.

As best he could tell from the reflected light splashing in through the open hatch behind him, each face of the cube was covered with parallel ranks and rows of raised trigrams. This was the same rectilinear language as coated the cubes and buildings outside. When he reach down and touched the cube, he was not particularly surprised when the trigrams lit up with a soft glowworm blush. Nor was he surprised to see, in that light, that the fingers of his glove were wet with someone’s blood.

“What are your instructions?” An emotionless, cold voice spoke from nowhere.

This woke countless questions in his head. But first things first. “Escape.”

“Not understood.”

“Get out of here. Go. Giddyup. Hut-hut-hut. Mush. Move out. Run. Set sail. Launch. Blast off. Vamoose. Hit the road, Jack. Start your engines. Full speed ahead.”

One of these phrases must have worked, for the dialfaces of the control board now flickered, glowed, and lit up. The banging throb of the engines from the aft parts of the craft now grew shrill and loud, and rose to a crescendo. He heard what sounded like a shrill shriek, perhaps a warning whistle going off. But it sounded remarkably human.

Then came a whining scream passing inward from the hull in all directions. Perhaps this was the sound of the treads grinding into motion. Suddenly the deck underfoot rose, bucked, and fell. The whole machine now tilted the other way, nose downward. Preston spread his legs, putting one hand on the back of the pilot’s seat, the other on the a stanchion next to the hatch.

The noise of the machine now became loud, then deafening, then demonic. Preston assumed this was the sound of the drilltip of the machine was boring into rock. But suddenly the sound then changed, as if smothered, and fell back to a deafening pandemonium no worse than a helicopter engine. It seemed as if the machine had already bored a tunnel and entered it.

This was a miracle of engineering. A tunnel boring machine from Preston’s day could excavate sixty feet per day. An oil drill might clear sixty feet in an hour. But this machine had apparently cleared a tunnel of rock equal to its own length in under a minute.

The periscope eyepiece was mounted on a swivel arm. He pulled it to his eyes, hoping to see out. Instead, he saw some sort of luminous view of wavering black lines passing before a green background. Perhaps it was some sort of contour map, or a measurement of rock densities. Whatever it was, he could not read nor grasp it.

He pushed the eyepiece away. “Where are we heading?”

“Resumed previous heading. Avoiding lethal areas.”

Preston scowled at that. Apparently the talking autopilot had been instructed to avoid some sort of danger Preston had no idea was present. He was grateful for the bit of luck, but was wondering when his luck would run out.

The voice then recited the speed, bearing, depression, and bank angle of the mole machine, but then gave the measure in terms of parasangs per mileway.

Preston said, “Explain those measurements.”

“A parasang is ten thousand ells. A quadrant is eighteen mileways.” The voice held no emotion, no impatience. “There are four quadrants in a nychthemeron, and eight nychthemera in a nundine. There are two hundred twenty five nundines in a lustral.”

“Good to know.” Preston grunted, trying to smother a sense of impatience. “Are you part of the Final Unit? You sound like him.”

“Not understood.”

“Who are you?”

“This is a non-cognitive unit. In a limited fashion a non-cognitive unit is able to understand and obey indications spoken by a true human. Failure warning. This capacity is available only for so long as within broadcast power range. Once on the surface, or passing through non-broadcasting levels of the Megalopolis, instructions must be manually indicated.”

“The Final Unit said someone was digging up parts of it. Are you one of those parts?”

“Not understood.”

“Why do you obey only true humans?”

“Such is the design axiom. It cannot be altered.”

“Why?”

“It cannot be altered.”

Preston sighed. Curiosity would have to wait. “Are we near the surface?”

“Thirty ells below surface, yaw axis measure from craft midpoint.”

Preston did not know if that was a long way or not. “Go to the surface.”

“Understood. Complying.” But the nose of the craft continued to slant downward.

Preston said, “Why are we still going down?”

“Roll axis depression one half radian from level.”

“If we are going to the surface, why are we not going directly up?”

“Not understood.”

“Are we going to the surface?”

“Yes. A point on the surface is the destination.”

“Are we going toward the surface at this moment?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Not understood.”

Preston sighed and told himself to remain calm. “What is above us?”

“Lethal area.”

“Are you maneuvering to avoid the lethal area?”

“Yes.”

Preston said warily, “Where on the surface are we heading?”

“In the absence of other specifications, route is selected to minimize time, fuel, and unknowns. Retracing initial bore.”

“What is at the end of that initial bore?”

“Not understood.”

Preston had the sudden, sharp image of arriving at the launching ramp of the Iron Mole, no doubt in the middle of the military base he had seen. He said, “New orders. Change course. Descend. Head south. Avoid detection. Come to the surface at a spot where there are no installations, no buildings, no houses, no people. As far as possible away from everyone.”

“Does this order include an order to avoid pursuit?”

“Pursuit?”

“There are two burrowing vehicles, a destroyer and a battlewagon, maneuvering to intercept.”

“Yes. Avoid pursuit. Is this craft armed?”

“This is a cruiser. Two four-thousand gigajoule boring torpedoes mounted port and starboard; fourteen nine-hundred gigajoule walking landmines aft; a directed energy bore of forty-thousand gigajoule output is mounted on the prow, and can be used as ram and shield.”

“Are we in danger?”

“Yes. Immediate danger. The battlewagon has opened fire. Six torpedoes in a trumpet pattern have issued from his bowchasers, and seek our line of bore to close with us.”

Preston felt completely helpless. He had no idea of even the first principles of burrowing machine combat. Certainly he could not defeat a trained crew. He said, “Can we escape without engaging them?”

“Unlikely.”

“Engage them. Disengage and escape when safe to do so.”

“Are you giving this unit full discretion in a combat situation? You are warned that this is a non-cognitive unit, unable to evaluate ethical ramifications of any actions, nor able to deduce flexible solutions to multi-valued problems. You are responsible for any deaths and collateral damaged caused, including resulting surface temblors.”

“Yes.”

“Evasive maneuver warning! Both passengers please assume combat stations.”

The nose dropped suddenly. The metal headrest of the pilot’s seat caught Preston across the chest. His rifle barked him sharply in the head, and the Japanese longsword and shortsword he had stolen swung gaily at his hip, slapping him stingingly in thigh and calf.

Both?

Just as Preston spun, the warrior behind him who had been inching down the sharply slanted narrow deck of the machine, a vicious dirk in hand, now leaped headlong through the circular hatch without a cry.

It came too swiftly and savagely for any defense. There was not room enough in the cockpit to stand or fall, no way to retreat, nowhere to run. The warrior grappled Preston with one arm, and, with the other, plunged the blade again and again into the back of his cloak, aiming low, going for his kidneys. Preston was struck five or six times before he felt the first blow.

The world spun.

 

*** *** ***

Episode 16 Knife Attack

There was no such thing as a knife fight.

Once, long ago, Preston Lost had been in prison. This was only to be expected for a man who regarded regulations governing poaching, boarder-crossing, firearm regulation, espionage and smuggling as mere suggestions, and customs agents as fussy busybodies. Even a man of his wealth and rank could not be instantly pried by his expensive legal teams out of any pitfall into which a reckless heart plunged him like a cliff diver. It took time to arrange political contributions and gubernatorial pardons.

His cellmate, Gank, had told him the three rules of knife-fights: 1. You won’t see it coming; you won’t feel the knife go in; 2. You won’t be able to pin his knife-hand, so don’t bother; 3. You won’t have time to draw, so don’t bother.

Gank summed up this wisdom in one phrase: the loser in a knife fight dies in the prison yard. The winner dies in the prison infirmary.

Now, Preston was wild and proud and tough, and no stranger to battlefield, boxing ring, or fencing strip, so he scoffed. Rather than kill him, Gank palmed a yellow highlighter from the prison library, and challenged the rich boy to a simple game that night in their cell: a hundred dollars for each mark left on Preston’s skin, no holds barred and no blows foul.

Preston, even though he was faster, stronger, and more skilled than Gank, was several thousand dollars more than dead, graffitied with yellow dashes and dots all over chest, torso, back, and throat, before he managed to batter the other man into a daze, get him in a half Nelson, and karate chop the magic marker out of his grip.

It was an expensive lesson, but he was glad for it. There was no such thing as a knife fight; there were only knife attacks.

Gank died in prison later, knifed before he saw it coming. Preston split the money among the several girlfriends the man had on the outside, with double shares for the ones with kids that might or might not have been his.

Now, in A.D. 250,000,000, buried under the earth in a mole machine being driven by a glowing cube, while chased by other mole machines, he was caught in a knife attack. Another man had been hidden somewhere aboard the machine, no doubt in the rear compartment Preston had not thought to check.

As predicted, he had not seen it coming. As predicted, Preston felt nothing except a dull blow near his spine when his attacker in the dark, cramped, musty sphere of the cockpit dove at him with a dirk. Preston kicked with both legs, desperate to break the other man’s one-arm grip around his body, both fell out through the hatch back into the main cabin.

The world spun end over end.

Preston found himself suddenly hanging over a fifty foot deep brass-walled chimney. One wall was the perforated metal plates which had been level deck. The opposite wall was a set of ladder rungs. It had been ceiling a moment before. Now both plates and rungs ran in converging lines toward a vanishing point below in a straight, uninterrupted drop.

It was a shock of relief to see that the spinning motion was not faintness before death, but the actually violent rotation of the environment. The Iron Mole was in a vertical climb.

The other man had grabbed his cloak, and it was choking Preston. In one motion, Preston drew the Japanese shortsword, kicked, spun, and slashed overhead. The cloak tore. Preston fell.

The drop was that of a five story building. Preston bounced with a clang from the ladder rungs as he fell, and rebounded from the canvass cots bolted to the bulkheads. These were crisscrossed with straps, meant to keep men in one place during maneuvers like this. He grabbed at them as they whirled by, and missed. The wakizashi went spinning down the drop.

Battered by walls and deck and falling after him, came the other man. Preston had a confused glimpse of the other, and an impression of metal and fur, spinning, and arrows flying everywhere. The torn cloak floated serenely between the two, ripped and slashed all along the back, and blocking a clear view.

These things seemed eerie to Preston, not because they took place in perfect silence as in a dream, but because the engine noise from inside the machine, and the pandemonium of shattering and melting rock outside drown out all noise, as in a nightmare.

The other man yanked himself suddenly to a halt, for he had grabbed a rung of the ladder, and held on as this yanked his body in a swift, savage semicircle against the wall. There was a clang of metal.

Preston rebounded from one wall of the well then the other as he fell. One of the cots lining the bulkheads had torn loose and was sticking out like a diving board. Preston struck it, and it bent, but it slowed him enough to allow him to grab the rungs of the ladder, and stop his fall. He looked up.

For the first time, he saw his assailant. He was young, blue-eyed, sharp-chinned, unshaven. The youth wore a conical helmet that looked to Preston like the nose of bullet aimed at him. A tunic of mail ran from shoulder to mid-thigh. Heavy square bosses were riveted to his chest. Beneath his mail was a long tunic of white linen, and across his shoulders, a half-cloak of mink. The warbelt at his waist held scabbard for both dirk and longsword. Across his back was a quiver, currently upside down and empty. Arrows were bouncing and rebounding from the brass walls of the Iron Mole as they fell every which way. The arrows falling down the well righted themselves, fell point foremost, and slid past his Preston’s ear with a sound inaudible under the cacophony.

The young man might have been fourteen or fifteen.  He was clinging the ladder by two legs and one hand. His other held his dirk. He was staring balefully at Preston.

Preston reached around himself to pat his back. He felt wetness, but it was cool. He drew back his hand and saw only water, no blood. He could feel rips and holes in his knapsack, and smelled the insect repellant apparently leaking from a cut package. The creaking told him that his portable stove was cracked and dented from the ferocity of the knife blows. Emergency bags and blankets, aluminum foil, metal cup and water bottle, all now savagely torn, dented, cracked and dripping, had turned the blade enough to save his life.

The deck now tilted violently, and Preston found himself clinging to the overhead of cabin, slanting aft-downward at a steep, forty-five degree angle. The youth dropped to the deck and half-slid, half-ran down it, knife hand foremost, rushing down toward Preston.

The Iron Mole swerved left and right. Preston was tossed back and forth, but retained his two-handed grip on the ladder rungs. The rifle over his shoulder struck his head and battered his hip. And then, with a stomach-turning shock of motion, the nose dropped again.

Now the other man was toppling, sliding backward. The youth fetched up against the bent cot that had broken Preston’s fall, grabbed with his free hand, arrested his motion. The deck was steep as a children’s slide leading down to where the other was.

Preston released the ladder rung and dropped down. He braced himself with one shoulder on the bulkhead, one on the sharply slanted deck, and his feet propped against two protruding flanges. He drew his pistol and aimed it with both hands.

There was no fear in the young man’s face. Obviously he did not know what a pistol was, and did not see any threat.

Preston shouted over the engine roar, “Peace! I don’t want to kill you. I have a weapon that can blast you like a thunderbolt. I am from your future, from days after yours.”

The youth grinned sickly. “I heard your cannon’s voice when you slew the Son of Atlas. I know what gunpowder is. We might not be Byzantium, but we have bombards. But you cannot shoot in here, not when the Iron Mole is moving. When digging, the hull outside bathes itself in a fiery alchemy, burning with the power to melt stone. The smallest hole in the hull will slay all within.”

Preston scowled. Some intuition told him that this was not a bluff. He believed the youth. He holstered his Mauser and drew the Japanese longsword, the katana. He banged his elbow against the bulkhead as he drew.

Preston eyed the narrow, cramped space of the Iron Mole main cabin. He understood now why the other man had not drawn a sword. It was a tube fifty feet long and less than six feet in diameter: he could not even stand upright, had the deck been level.

The youth spoke in a haughty tone: “And if you are of days after, you are as weak to me as I would be wrestling Ajax or Hector. Two men, such as men are now, cannot lift with greatest effort a stone that one of them could lift one handed. The men of old were giants. What are you? You after-men forget Christ, and have no strength, no heart. Those who come after you are long necked jackanapes and monkeys, and smaller yet.”

The cold and soulless voice of the non-cognitive unit called from the cockpit: “Counter mines from the destroyer eluded. We have breached the enemy sphere of defensive bores. We keep this bearing, since only the ram has sufficient armor to tolerate the destroyer’s directional energy weapon. However, the destroyer will present itself broadside in order to shield itself from flanking torpedo attack. Ramming maneuver to follow. The first torpedo is closing with target at …” but the angle and speed was given in radians and parasangs per mileaway.

The young man’s eyes showed white all around the pupil. His teeth were clenched, as if to keep them from chattering. Preston realized the youth did not understand the language of the non-cognitive unit. He probably thought he heard the voice of a spirit.

The deck suddenly was level underfoot. The roaring of the engines changed in pitch, growing shriller and louder. The Iron Mole was accelerating.

“Ramming speed,” Called the non-cognitive unit in its cold, dispassionate voice.

The youth had hit the deck running, off hand forward, knife hand behind his back. A prison yard rush was the best bet for a knife attack.

Preston rolled and came to his knees, his torso turned sideways to minimize the target he presented. He gripped the katana in two hands, fists at eye level, his left elbow high, and the shining blade pointing toward the youth’s eyes.

It is not easy to bowl over a kneeling man, or to rush a swordsman without getting impaled. The youth grabbed a bulkhead stanchion slid to a halt, and grimaced, looking furiously frightened, and furious, both at once.

The lad switched the dirk to his left hand and drew his saber. In this narrow cabin, nothing aside from a direct, frontal attack was possible. Preston doubted that the other would attempt any fancy swordplay; a fleche to engage Preston’s blade and take it out of line, relying on his mail shirt to save him from a riposte, and a flurry of stabs with the dirk.

“Brace for impact.” called the non-cognitive unit.

The youth did not understand the words, and so was taken by surprise when Preston spun and drove his katana into and through the leathery seat of the cot next to him, driving his arm in after, and hooking his elbow around the metal cot frame.

The youth hesitated, then started his rush.

The sudden shock of the Iron Mole striking some immobile target jerked the young man off his feet, and sent him spinning helplessly toward the nose of the craft. The lanterns inside the cabin went off. It was black as the inside of a coffin. The noise from outside was incredible: a sound of rending, wrenching, tearing and exploding that was felt in the bones more than heard in the ear.

At the same time, the Iron Mole dropped its nose and went into a sudden, sharp dive. The deck tilted and turned vertical. Preston, one arm looped through a cot frame, dangled, feet kicking above a sheer drop unseen beneath. He heard the sound of all the loose object in the cabin flying past.

The roaring engines dropped to a mutter. Preston’s ears rang in the sudden silence. The lights flickered and returned.

At what was now the bottom of a well, the youth was fallen in the space between the open cockpit hatch and the forward bulkhead. The arrows which had been scattered at the aft of the craft had fallen point-first down the fifty foot shaft of the cabin.

The young man lay groaning and motionless, the wakizashi hilt protruding from his midriff, many feathered arrow shafts protruding from his arms and legs, and bloodstains spreading, shockingly red, against the white of his linen sleeves and skirt.

*** *** ***

Episode 17 Water of Life

The Iron Mole leveled out from its dive. The engine roar dropped almost to a mutter, but the sensation of motion suddenly increased sharply.

The non-cognitive unit spoke in cool tones, “We have rammed and bisected the destroyer, who can no longer emit disintegration energy, but will be destroyed by rock pressure. We are following its previously established bore, which requires no detectable emissions on our part. The battleship is attempting to close, but its greater cross section prevents it from matching our speed. Silent running should avoid any target lock by burrowing torpedoes as we disengage from combat.”

The deck was no longer tilted. Preston disentangled himself from the cot he was clutching, ducked his head to avoid the ladder rungs in the ceiling, and jogged toward the other man.

The youth was lying in a heap with arrows in his arms and legs, and bloodstains spreading through the fabric of his sleeves and skirts. With the engine noise now merely a background rumble, his groans and curses were audible.

Preston came closer, then stopped. The dirk was still in the other man’s left hand, and his saber was on the deck in easy reach of his right.

Preston said, “If you say truce, and kick your weapons to me, I can bind up your wounds. If you do not say truce, then say your prayers.”

The youth spoke through clenched teeth. “What prayers?”

Preston squinted in annoyance. “I don’t know. It is what they say in Westerns when a man is about to die. You are about to die. For all I care, it is prayers to Jesus H. Christ and God Damned.”

“You are a baptized Christian?”

“At Easter and Christmas, I am. At least back when Mom was alive. Do you want me to help you, or not?”

“You are not a filthy Roman from Sweden, nor a Teutonic?”

“American. I don’t know what century you are from, whether the New World was discovered yet or not. Uh. You may know it as Vinland?”

“I was born in the year 6735 after the creation of the world. You are not a Pole?”

“No. From Chicago.” Preston was surprised to feel a grin on his own face. It took him a moment to realize why.

Finding another man who spoke of Sweden and Poland, or anything of Western Civilization, was a relief. Without that, these nations, and that civilization, and the whole world Preston knew, were as forgotten as the nameless peoples who built Mohenjo-Daro or Angkor Wat.

The youth said, “You will draw near and slay me with the sword of Michi-no-O as you slew Michi-no-O, if I drop my blade.”

Preston still had the katana in hand. He sheathed the blade, and held up his empty hands, finger spread. “I won’t. Why would I bother?”

“Why bother to bind my wounds? In Pangaea, man is beast to man.”

Preston said, “We are humans, true humans, in a land where beast-men hunt us like beasts. I am not on their side. You should not be, either.”

The young man said sternly, “You must swear by the life-creating cross-wood of Christ, the unquenched fire of the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom of God the Father that we are brothers, and that there is no ill blood between us!”

Preston did not think there was much he could do to save a man suffering puncture wounds, not with his little first aid kit. The young man was likely to die from internal bleeding. No reason not to humor him. “We’re brothers. I won’t hurt you. So help me God. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

The youth kicked the dirk and saber sliding across the deck toward Preston. “We are brothers. Truce.”

Preston approached, shrugging the rifle off his shoulder, breaking it, and putting it to one side, and slipping his arms out of his knapsack. The medical kit was one of the few things not stabbed. It contained a splint, antibiotics, coagulating cloth, tape, bandages, gauze, pad and dressing, but also sterile gloves and forceps.

As it turned out, the Japanese shortsword embedded in the lad’s midriff had not penetrated the mail links. The tip was jammed between broken links, and the wound beneath was a mere surface cut.

Preston revised his diagnosis of death by internal bleeding. The mail shirt had deflected the arrowheads from any major organs. Only arms and legs were hit.

He carefully snapped the arrowshafts, and cut away the surrounding fabric.

The lad’s right arm had been fractured in the fall. As best Preston could tell, it was a clean break, and no fragments of bone protruded anywhere, so it could have been worse.

“I have to draw the arrows. That will hurt. Also, I have to set this bone. I don’t have any morphine or anything like that. Is there any stowed aboard?”

“Any what? I don’t know that word.”

“Forget it. What about hard liquor? Vodka, or whatever?”

“I don’t know that word, either.”

“Alcohol made from potatoes.”

The youth pointed to a cabinet bolted to the bulkhead. “Zipacna gives us weak grog, and stronger stuffs only after victory in the games. So therefore the Son of Atlas, Azaës, our First Whip, keeps a flask of Water-of-Life there. The key is in his footlocker.”

In short order, Preston secured the flask of golden-brown aquavit, and bade the lad drink it to kill the pain. He had to make incisions to free the arrowheads, which where barbed, from the lad’s flesh. He had no scalpel, but the wakizashi blade was scalpel-sharp.

There was little he could do, aside from clean the lips of any arrowhead puncture with a swab, and apply clean gauze, tape, and a drop of medical adhesive to hold the dressing in place.

None of the wounds were spurting red blood, which suggested no major veins were hit, or arteries. The kids could curl his toes on command, and wiggle his fingers, so his spine was not broken. There was no thermometer in the kit, but Preston could unlace the helmet and put his palm against the other’s brow. This exhausted Preston’s rather simple knowledge of field medicine.

Then he gave the lad a leather strap to bite on. He set the bone by putting one foot in the lad’s armpit, and yanking with controlled force on his wrist. He splinted it and dressed it.

The boy made remarkably little noise throughout all this. Preston wondered if men were simply made of tougher stuff in the days before anesthetics. They did not expect pain to go away.

After, Preston carefully lifted the lad and set him in one of the cots, strapping him down in case any other jarring maneuvers were due.

He saw that the cots were something like Morris chairs. They could be folded into a seat, but also rotated on their stanchions, to maintain an upright posture no matter the angle of the cabin.

He sat down opposite the lad, and belted himself in, weary and wondering when he had slept last. Being driven unconscious by concussion did not count.

The lad seemed already asleep, or had fainted. Preston thought from his pallor, and the sound of his breathing, that merely binding the wounds was not enough. He needed real a doctor.

Preston looked toward the nose of the vehicle. The open hatch leading into the cockpit was there. He called, “How long until we reach our destination?”

The cold voice of the cube replied, “Indefinite.”

“What do you mean, indefinite?”

“Current instructions are to surface as far as possible away from any installations, buildings, houses, people. The point on the globe farthest from all inhabited areas is the midpoint of the sea in the other hemisphere, which is beyond this cruiser’s operational range. Hence, proceeding south until fuel is exhausted. We are currently following the streambed of a subterranean river to maximize speed.”

Preston cracked his knuckles in frustration, wishing for a throat to strangle. “New instructions. Go to where there is medical care for a man like me. A human of my type. I would like to avoid the people chasing me, and anyone who is part of their empire, organization, or kingdom.”

“No references exist. Impossible to determine. Identities of the crew aboard the pursuing battlewagon unknown.”

“I am trying to find other true humans, and I was told true humans dwell a green and fertile land that used to be the Arabian Peninsula. This land is between two mountain chains that used to be the Gulf of Persia and the Red Sea.”

“No references exist.”

But now the lad on the cot spoke up. He was not asleep after all. “It is called the Land of Lamentations. The River of Weeping Women runs through it to the Inland Sea, which is also called the Sea of the Sea-Crone, Tethys. The Empire of the Mighty only controls the shore and the river up until the Fortress called Cauac, where there is a walled town called Sobbing Girls Sold. The region upriver is called Wretched Desolation Wood, and it is the haunt of savages, robbers, and escaped slaves.”

Preston said, “Is there a place where medical help for men of our type can be had, not inside the boundary of this Empire?”

The lad said, “No.”

But the non-cognitive unit said, “Yes.”

Preston said, “Come to the surface in a place where we can observe this place without being observed, but it must be a short distance away. As short as possible. Is there such a spot?”

“Yes. Coming to a new bearing. Destination reached in one quarter of a nychthemeron. Any further changes to course must be indicated manually, as we now pass out of range of broadcast power, and this unit must return to non-verbal, minimal function mode.”

Preston said, “Wait! Describe this place you are taking us!”

But the non-cognitive unit made no more answers.

“Say, brother,” he said to the lad, who had roused himself enough to take ever deeper swigs from the flask of aquavit, between groans. “What is there to eat aboard?”

The lad gestured with the flask to one of the cots. Each cot had a small box bolted to the bulkhead next to it. “O’ope’ape’a the Hoary Bat is a little man, so he always hides half his rations from each messtime to trade for favors. As your brother, I warn you not to take it, as the Hoary Bat bound himself with a mighty curse to kill whoever might plunder his trove.”

“Isn’t he trying to kill me anyway? Aren’t all of you?”

“We were told to take you alive, if we could. The Watchers are hunting for an oblong metal talisman shaped like a box or chest, save that the sides fold and move. It might be a cube or like the cell of a honeycomb. It is small enough to hold in two hands, but heavier than lead.”

Preston could think of nothing he owned which could fit that description. “Why do they want it?”

“Zipacna did not say.”

“Who is that?”

“Our giant. He is of the Gibborim, called the Mighty. Their skin is black, but their hands and feet are white. They have six toes and six fingers.”

Another pang of hunger stabbed his stomach. Scowling, Preston dug through his knapsack, and brought out the pathetically small remnant of his emergency rations bar. Seeing the look in the lad’s eye, he broke it in half and passed the fragment to him. Preston took a tiny bite, chewed it slowly, and asked for the flask.

The lad gave him an odd look, made the sign of the cross, and said, “O Christ God, bless this food and drink of thy servants, for holy art thou, always, now and ever, unto the ages of ages.” He gave Preston a hard look. His eyes were a startling, bright blue color, like the hottest part of a flame.

Preston remembering once uttering some crude string of swearwords in the stables of the family summer home, only to turn, and see that the big-eyed six year old daughter of the groom had quietly come up behind him. A similar sense of embarrassment touched him now. He ducked his head and muttered to the miserable little scrap of food in his hands: “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food.”

“Amen!” Sighed the lad. Only then did he pass the bottle of aquavit. Preston washed down the crumb of food with a swig.

The mole machine bored onward, engines murmuring and cabin vibrating and swaying with motion. The machine was as windowless as a submarine, and if there were any instruments in the cockpit to tell him the distance to the destination before them, or the pursuit behind, Preston could not work them. Blind, and with no guess as to what lay ahead, Preston and the wounded lad were carried along in the darkness.

*** *** ***

Episode 18 Druzhinnik

The machine trundled forward, deep beneath the earth. The artificial intelligence piloting had gone mute, having lost the ability to respond to voice commands. Their destination was unknown. The two men spoke. They passed the flask back and forth.

Preston said, “I don’t know your name. Where are you from?”

Interrupted many times by drinks and toasts and questions, here was the answer the youth hegave: “I am Fyodor Poyarok of Greater Kitezh, which I still mourn. Her cathedral dome with its proud cross rose above the banks of Lake Svetloyar. Of all the towns in the world, many are more majestic and massy, but none so fair and so fine!

“In life, I was a druzhinnik in the retinue of Prince Vsevolod son of Grand Prince Yuri of Vladimir. I was with the Prince in the hideous Battle of Kherzhenets River, where thousands of our men were killed, and nine of Vsevolod’s brother princes captured. The Tatars executed them in the fashion meant to honor their royal birth, without shedding blood, and so they were buried alive under the Tatar general’s victory platform at his victory feast, and slowly suffocated.

“Down the river passed the Golden Horde, and Lesser Kitezh, that holy town, was massacred most cruelly, her menfolk tormented to death her womenfolk taken away to slavery.

“With him I stayed as he fled toward Greater Kitezh by crooked and secret paths, and Burundai and Bedyai and their armies were left bewildered, for no clear road ran there. The town was unwalled, protected only by prayers rising and churchbells and  ringing to heaven.

“Woe betide! The town drunk, Griska, and the princess the prince longed to marry, Fevroniya, were captured, and Griska betrayed to them the path. But the princess escaped them, and found her way back in time to warn us.”

Preston listened with a growing sense of fear and awe. “Good Lord!” he cried. “I know this story!”

Fyodor nodded. “These events were terrible and strange. It would be more strange if no byliny singers sang of it in later days.”

The Invisible City of Kitezh. It was from an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov.”

“What?”

“An opera. It is a bunch of songs together to form a stageplay. I saw it once at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg.” He had been on his way to the regions east of Lake Baikal, north of Mongolia, to hunt Maral and Izybur Stag.

Fyodor said sadly, “Our unearthly, unhappy fate is surely as well known as that of Sodom.”

Preston frowned. Unhappy? “In the opera, a golden mist hid the city, and the city was brought to the bottom of the lake completely unharmed, with everyone alive and whole. In the last act, the Tatars stand on the shore and listen to the churchbells, which they can hear ringing in thanksgiving, from deep under the water. And there was a marriage song. They get married.”

“Who?” Fyodor’s word was like the crack of a whip.

“The prince and princess in the story.” Said Preston.

Fyodor scowled, but did not answer.

Preston spoke to fill the awkward silence. “That lake, whachucallit, Lake Svetloyar. It is also called the Atlantis of Russia. But that man in Greek armor from Atlantis is your squad leader.” Preston leaned back and studied the overhead thoughtfully. “The real Atlantis. Did the Watchers save him before his island sank? The samurai fellow also said where he was from. I did not recognize the name. Was it another the lost island or missing city from legend?” He brought his eyes back down. “Do you know? Is everyone here from a vanished land?”

Fyodor was not listening. The youth took a longer pull from the flask, as his face darkened. “To be remembered wrongly is worse than to be forgotten. An evil trick was played on all of us.”

“Trick?”

“The fiery wheels of the prophet Ezekiel fell from the heavens, like a fleet of ships that sail on cloud. The monks cried out that it was signs and wonders from heaven come to save us from the Tatars. No one resisted. All the city was gathered into the holds of their vessels. Not until it was far too late, did any see the faces of those who saved us. Little nude elves no larger than children had us. Not angels, not saints, but the children of the Devil! A whole city kidnapped in an hour! And the thing is forgotten, made into a stupid song? God sends us sorrow beyond bearing!”

Preston said, “What is wrong?”

Fyodor said, “My prince was slain within the first hour of landing in this heathen land. His bride, Fevroniya, was sold a thrall and died a thrall, a slave in the harem of a beast-man, and she died giving birth to his get. Alas that I sinned so when I was alive!”

Preston said, “You are alive now.”

The lad shook his head. “Men live in the world of men. This is the purgatory of Hell.”

Preston said, “Come again? I mean, what did you say?”

“In the purgatory of heaven, a soul suffers until the time is complete for his triumphant entry into heaven, where the saints wear crowns of gold. But in this place, we suffer and our souls grow gross and ever grosser with sin, and there are no priests to shrive. The doors to hell are open.”

Preston said, “This is not hell.”

“Why is the sun red?”

“It is not hell. It is the same world you knew, but many, many years later. You were merely asleep across more years than you could count. You were asleep like, like, ah, I guess you do not know who Buck Rogers or Rip Van Winkle are. Like…”

“Like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus? Others have said this is an age of the Earth after ours. The Jaguar-Knight told me our world was destroyed, and this is one of many worlds after that. I met a stoic of pagan Rome who said the world burns and revives once every countless count of years; and a warrior from India said the same. I well believe this is the end of days.”

Then Fyodor closed his eyes in pain and sank into silence.

Preston had countless questions more to ask, and he was frankly starved to hear another human voice, but he saw the wounded boy needed rest. Preston was feeling the ache of his own wounds. Lulled by the rocking of the carriage and the rhythm of the engines (whose jackhammer roar had dropped to a mere muttering), Preston found his eyelids growing too heavy to stay open. In the dark world far below the earth, he slept.

He woke in pitch blackness and strange silence. The engine noise was gone. The only sound was the echoing of Fyodor’s labored breathing. The deck underfoot was slanted upward toward the prow. Preston rummaged through his knapsack, hoping to find some stray match that might have escaped the havoc. His fingers found none.

With blind fingers he checked that his pistol was holstered, the stolen Japanese longsword and shortsword were sheathed, the elephant gun over his shoulder. He unbuckled himself from his seat, stood, banged his skull on the low overhead, swore, crouched, and reached over to check the wounded man as best he could by touch. The bandages felt wet and hot, which was not a good sign. The other man’s face hot and sweaty, feverish. The rattling sound of breathing was not good.

He then half-walked, half-crawled up the sloping deck to the cockpit. No light showed. The cube of the non-cognitive unit was no longer glowing with trigrams. The dials were no longer lit. Nothing he said or shouted elicited response. The control levers and wheels were chained in place, and Preston would not have been willing to experiment randomly with moving them in the dark in any case.

He slid a few feet back down the deck and came to the hatch. As he closed his hands on the wheel Preston found himself panting with fear, and not just the fear of being buried alive. There must be some way to check outside conditions before throwing open the hatch, but he did not know it. There might be lava beyond, or some deadly energy shed by the machine. But if there were some clever way to open the hatch without exposing himself to danger, Preston could not think of it.

He tightened his fingers on the wheel, but the terror of what might be beyond froze his limbs. His hands were sweating. He felt as if he were choking. Then, suddenly, he realized that he heard no pumps, nothing to indicate any sort of cabin air supply was working. This whole machine no doubt started filling up with carbon dioxide as soon as the power failed. Death by lava would at least be swifter.

In the end, he had no choice. Preston groaned and turned the wheel. The bolts snapped back. He shoved. The hatch resisted stubbornly. With the strength of panic, Preston put his shoulder against the hatch and shoved.

Blinding sunlight, red as rubies and dazzling, smote his eye. At the same time a gush of water, forceful as a firehose, like a narrow, solid sheet, struck in through the hatch crack, caught his legs, and yanked his feet out from under him.

Like a child on a waterslide at a park, Preston was flung halfway down the narrow cabin deck, before he grabbed a stanchion and halted his fall. The hatch was open but a crack, and a curving line of sunlight leaking in glowed red in the gloom. It was not bright enough to see by, but the glints and shadows let him guess where objects were. A fan of gushing water was also rushing in through the crack, in a spray shaped like a rooster tail.

The aft section of the tilted cabin was filling with water. He heard a groaning mutter, as if the metal were thinking of shifting its weight. Preston desperately splashed and sloshed and climbed and clambered up the slope to where Fyodor was coughing and muttering. Preston yanked the buckles free, grabbed the lad roughly, careless of his splinted arm and red bandages, and slung him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

Now, step by slippery step, in the half-blind gloom, he fought his way up the slanted deck against the rush of water. Mud had entered and clogged the hatch, so that the water pressure could not close it, but the water pressure also would not let Preston open it any wider. He shoved again and again, but the force pushing against the hatch was too great.

He waited grimly, listening to the wounded man over his back draw ragged, gasping breaths. Soon the water was above his ankles, then above his thighs. The hatch was now half submerged, and the force of the gushing water seemed less. He braced his feet against the far wall, gripping the wheel, and strained until he feared his bones could break.

Now the flood was up to his chest. Now it was over his head. He could feel the lad balanced on his back thrashing weakly, but could not hear him choking.

With a sticky, sucking, groaning sound the hatch crept open an inch, then two, allowing more water and move to flood inside. Then resistance ceased and the hatch opened so suddenly it flew out of his grasp, and force of his effort sent him and Fyodor out of the hatch and into the water.

The wounded man’s body was not tied nor secured to him, and so slipped out of his grasp when the shockingly cold water swallowed them both. Water was in his nose and mouth. He could not tell which direction was up.

He squinted, straining to see. Suddenly, unaccountably, he could see. He was in some flooded cave or well of water. Stone walls rose to each side, except where the Iron Mole had shattered one. The mole machine was protruding into the water at an angle, and vortices and whirlpools surrounded the melted cracks in the hole around its hull. Bubbles were rushing up from whatever tunnel was beyond the buried aft section of the machine. Even as he looked, Preston could see the Iron Mole quiver, and begin to slide slowly backward. It was about to fall down the sloping tunnel it had apparently excavated in rising to the surface.

Preston could also see the limp body of Fyodor slowly sinking.

*** *** ***

Episode 19 Land of Lamentation

He kicked and dove and got an arm around the other man, and kicked again, trying to get away from the Iron Mole as soon as possible. One hand working and both boots kicking, Preston, heavily burdened, tried to escape from the waters near the groaning, trembling, dangerously balanced machine.

The other man was too heavy. His elephant gun was too heavy. But Preston never once harbored the idea of throwing either into the deep to save his own life. He merely redoubled his efforts, clawing and battering at the cold water with limbs that grew cold and heavy.

Then Preston’s hand struck something. Of all things, it was a chain leading to a bucket. He wrapped his free arm around it once and twice, and threw a loop of the chain also around Fyodor.

It was scarcely in time. With a sound made strange by being underwater, with a cacophony of groaning, with sharp reports like louder than pistolshots as rocks snapped, with the rushing roar of mad floods, the Iron Mole’s prow quivered, shook, and sank rapidly backward into the hole from which it came. Its great treads were spinning freely, and did not grip the walls of the downward slanting tunnel. It vanished from sight, traveling as rapidly as a luge on an ice slope.

The edges of the great round puncture in the rock wall crumbled inward, and clouds of mud rose up like squid ink. Then this cloud imploded, as a vast volume of water was yanked into the empty tunnel after the receding mole machine.

Like a bathtub drain grown absurd with size, the tunnel mouth was now a maelstrom many yards is diameter. All the waters around were caught. They swirled and fell with a mighty suction into the endless miles the Iron Mole had bored up from the depth.

The floods tugged at Preston hungrily. He clung to the chain, and to Fyodor, with all his ebbing strength. Should a link break, or his grip slip, both men would be dragged by the violence of the waters into the endless darkness.

The waters turned white all about him, blinding him. Then, suddenly, he found himself in midair, dripping, swaying on the end of the chain, one foot in the bucket. The coughing and moaning form of Fyodor was still bound to Preston by a loop of chain, but the splint and sling for his broken arm had been torn away, and the broken bone jarred once again out of place. Below their feet, a great turning whirlpool of white foam was crawling slowly into the breach in the cave wall, roaring as it did, and strange echoes pounded from the deeper places far below, sounding like drumbeats.

Preston looked up. A hole that seemed very small and very far away was at the top of the chains he clutched. He pulled on one chain, groaning. His battered and overtaxed muscles ached. Throbs of pain went through his body. The bucket inched upward, but not by very far.

“I wish I had a cup of coffee,” grunted Preston, pulling again. Another six inches upward. He was beginning to shiver with the cold, and lose the sensations in his fingers and toes.

“Black.” Another yank.

“With two parts Irish whiskey.” Another.

“I wish I had a cigarette.”

It was two hundred and fifty seven wishes later, and Preston was nowhere near done listing all the wonderful things of his world he would never enjoy again. But he was far past the edge of exhaustion. Black spots swam and danced in his vision.

As his head and shoulders came above the rim of the well, only very slowly, one irrelevant detail at a time, did the true picture of his surroundings sink through his fatigue and enter his consciousness.

As that picture grew more clear, despair began to do the work cold and fatigue could not, and sap his strength.

He strained to maneuver himself and Fyodor up and over the lip of the well and onto solid ground without letting the chain slip, and without losing consciousness, or letting his numb fingers stop their work.

Finally, he and the other man were on the ground. Fyodor was thankfully unconscious, and did not scream when Preston jarred his broken arm. The bandages on his wounds, however, were soggy and loose, and blood was seeping out at an alarming rate.

As for Preston, he was unable to rise to his feet. His strength was gone. He knelt on the flagstones, exhausted.

The well was dug in the center of a broad town square. Dusty flagstones through whose many cracks ferns and pale herbs pushed patiently surrounded him.

Beyond this were stubs of pillars or lone archways upholding the gate-arch of some long vanished wall. Square pits told where cellars once had been.

Many roofless walls, overcovered with ivy and clinging vines, displayed empty windows and doorless doorways. Bits of mosaic clung to certain stones, figures of birds battling snakes, or double helix designs.

Nearby was a pedestal on which a figure of a winged lioness reared with the face of a crowned maiden smiling cryptically, her features worn almost smooth by rain.

But between the broken walls and topless pillars of a long dead ruins were many bright wigwams or pavilions made of lightweight bamboo slats brightly painted in purple, pink, red, blue, green, and white.

These tents were not on the ground, but propped high into the air, atop single poles, or lashed tripods, with larger structures standing on many legs. The central roofpole of each was topped with a papery hive like a wasp nest.

Strangely, no ladders led up to the small openings in the floors. Between the wigwams, but not near them, were ashy heaps surrounded by stones, the sign of many campfires.

In the distance, a brontosaurus with a dour expression lifted its long, snakelike neck over to chew the leaves of a vast tree growing in the middle of the broken dome of some dead temple.

Nearer at hand were a band of Coelodonts, the woolly rhinoceros, adorned with great curved horns at the tip of the nose. These stood in amid the ruins, cropping grass growing from courtyards or roofless houses. Hunting cats larger than leopards stalked here and there, keeping the ponderous young near their huge and shaggy mothers.

Mingled among them were a herd of Irish Elk, giant deer extinct in Preston’s time.

The bamboo slats could fold like Venetian blinds. From between the slats of the bamboo pavilions, Preston saw many pairs of eyes silently watching him, small and yellow as new pennies.

Other eyes were peering over the broken tops of still-standing walls, or the windows of roofless houses.

Preston could but groan. The Iron Mole had indeed taken him as ordered to a spot where he could observe a community without being observed. Unfortunately, the brilliant but idiotic machine put him dead in the middle, in a watery hole he could not exit without being seen. He was trapped.

He was too weary to utter a curse when, down from the largest of the brightly colored bamboo slat pavilions standing on many narrow legs, a small shape swung down from a floor opening, and landed on all fours.

The creature was smaller than a child, dressed in a vest covered over with bezants and spangles.

Centipedes and bumblebees of gold and black were crawling thickly over his furry head, shoulders and arms. To either side of him, as an escort, the saber-toothed hunting cats stalked. These were tawny on their foreparts, but stripped and spotted with roan and black on their hindquarters.

The creature had a monkey face, and long red hair growing from cheek and forehead, woven into braids. It chattered at Preston, but Preston was not surprised to find that he understood the language.

“You are a relict of the First Age, old grandfather,” said the furry little man.

Preston looked at his hands. His arms were trembling and his fingers were numb. He tried to make a fist and could not. His legs were no better. He certainly was in no shape to outrun saber toothed tigers. A polite conversation might be his best bet.

Preston answered. “You are the little monkey men who shoot wasps. People call you the Terrors. I forget what Age you are from, young grandson.”

That amused the other. His yellow eyes twinkled as he wrinkled his muzzle. “We are of the Third. I am the Civil Mediator of Foundlings, Warden of the Commons, and Hayward of Strays for this Itinerant lifesmith guild and clan, which is called Beauty-of-Torment. We are beholden to the Collective for the region, which is called Lamentation. What are you?”

“Lost,” he said, without breaking a smile.

“Tell of why you come here, Lost?”

“Tell me first where here is, please, Mister Mediator?”

“This is the Land of Lamentation. These ruins have no name. The well is called Reliable, but I see this name may change. Why are you come?”

Preston said, “There are machines in the underground world. One of them obeyed my voice when I asked it to send me to the surface. I asked it for a place where I could find medical attention.”

“So you have found. Why did you break our well?”

Preston said, “Through no fault of mine. I meant no harm.”

The furry little man said, “I absolve you of any secular penalty for unintentional damage to our water supply. But I seek an explanation of the order of events.” He then made a small gesture with his finger. Several wasps lifted themselves out of the red fur of his arm and flew up, and landed on Preston’s head.

Their tiny feet tickled. Preston resisted the urge to swat them.

Preston twitched. He felt sweat trickling down his face. “I told the machine to bring me to the surface in a place where I could observe the place without being observed. The machine is an idiot, and thought the bottom of the well would be just the place. I guess I was expected to peer over the edge without being seen. All I meant was that I wanted to look you over before I came, so that I could see if you meant me harm.”

“The Terrors do harm to all living things, but it is for the longterm good of the species. The painful improvements are often resisted, because you are improperly resigned to the joys of masochism.” The little man’s eyes twinkled again. Then his nostrils twitched. “Now you smell of fear.”

Preston said, “My people have a smell we give out when we are cautious. It smells a lot like fear, but it is different.”

“You think to deceive?  A Firstling trying to practice his wiles on a Third? We can detect changes to electro-neural flow as a spider can, and we know all the clues and tells your ill-made randomly-evolved bodies are prone to emit.”

“Actually,” said Preston, “I am pretty sure I am telling the truth. I am afraid I don’t get afraid as often as I should. But what about the medical attention? This man is my brother, and he is in bad shape.”

“These seem to be first order injuries only,” said the little man. “He will be seen to.”

At this, several red-furred monkey-men in white jackets and loincloths came dropping swiftly down from a pavilion of white and red vertical slats. They carried instruments that looked like seashells.

One inspected Fyodor’s eyes and ears while another sent a centipede crawling up his nose.

Two more quickly coated his broken arm with an amber-colored resin that hardened immediately into a splint.

Yet two more brought out of little shells crawling things that looked like worms but smelled strongly of alcohol and antiseptics. These worms nosed the various puncture wounds, cleaned them with their tongues. Spiders came and bound the wounds up in silk.

A final Terror brought what looked like a jellyfish out of a bag and pressed it to Fyodor’s neck. The jellyfish spines penetrated, and the organism began pumping some sort of clear fluid into the wounded man.

Throughout this, Preston kept twitching, resisting the impulse to scatter the bugs crawling over Fyodor. The Civic Mediator eyed Preston coolly, and his eyes glittered with amusement at each twitch.

A mastodon now came lumbering down the paths cutting between the broken houses and lonely pillars. Little red monkey-men, chattering, scampered up the mastodon’s legs and sides to his neck, and gave orders.

With infinite delicacy, Fyodor was hoisted up into the air and onto a platform on the creature’s back. A worried-looking monkey-man in a white coat was still sitting on Fyodor’s chest, checking his pulse, during this maneuver.

The Civil Mediator glanced sidelong at Preston. “Some crude attempt at daubing surface bleeding, and an anointment of antibiotic, was made. Was this your handiwork?”

“Yes. I am not a doctor.”

The wizened monkey-face wrinkled. “Such was my conclusion also. Nonetheless, you may have preserved him, and that valuation will be attributed to you.”

“Attributed? What does that mean?”

“In addition to my office of Civil Mediator, I am the Warden of any strays found. I also assess their prestige, in order to estimate likely gain or loss. It is for this reason that your brother will be cured by our arts.”

“I do not follow you, but I am grateful,” Preston said. “How do I repay you?”

The yellow eyes of the little simian man twitched in surprise. “An odd comment. You and he are livestock. We will of course tend to your hurts. It would be untoward to allow any domestic animal to suffer, and wasteful.”

“The hell you say.”

“Where hail you from, that you know nothing of the Terrors, and our ways?”

“My home is called America. It is the land of the free and the home of the brave, with liberty and justice for all. We kick ass in a major way. I am feeling a might homesick right about now, and aim to kick ass in my own major way in honor of her.”

And Preston, despite the black spots swimming before his eyes, levered himself to his feet, shrugged the Holland and Holland into his hands, and clicked off the safety.

The little monkey-man nodded. “If we are done with civil mediation, my office is ended. Incivility is due.”

Preston felt a dozen wasp stings sink into the flesh. The saber toothed tigers leaped lithely, one at his arms and one at his rifle barrel.

One big cat yanked the weapon neatly from his numb hands before he could blink; the other threw him from his numb feet.

The venom of the wasp stings was like fire under his skin. Paralysis seized his limbs.

He was unconscious before he struck the ground.

*** *** ***

Episode 20 Prison Pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results were not promising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am a free man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little man sagged in his grip.

“Deal.”

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

*** *** ***

Episode 21 Ruins of the Remote Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a good start. What else?”

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

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

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

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

“The difference is racial?”

“Not exactly.”

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

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

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

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

“And what is your decision?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The monkey man continued. Preston followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, this is not good…” he muttered.

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

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

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

*** *** ***

Episode 22 Demonstration of Prowess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*** *** ***

Episode 23 The Mantichore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preston crawled over to these remains, and searched frantically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** *** ***

Episode 24 The Three Terrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preston said, “Why? What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** *** ***

Episode 25 From Beast to Thrall

Immediately Preston’s hope was dashed.

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

The Grandmaster spoke. “Your proposal is preposterous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eh? From what to what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preston also expected to see someone in charge, a desk nurse or guard. There were two Terrors in white tunics perched on bamboo crossbeams near the ceiling of the wigwam, but they merely stared at Preston when he entered, but did not speak.  The wigwam was large, long and low-ceilinged, and there was standing screens of silk dividing the interior into bays or cells. Between these silk screens were Terrors lying on the mats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preston said, “Who? What woman?”

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

“You mean the Terrors?”

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

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

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

*** *** ***

TO BE CONTINUED IN OUR NEXT