Lair of the Cyclops sample

The galaxy is full of life, but it is not evenly distributed. Some areas are teeming with it. Elsewhere the stars are almost devoid of worlds suitable for the development or maintenance of life. Except in scale, it is no different from conditions on a life-bearing planet, which has frozen polar regions, desiccated deserts, mountains with too little air, sea bottoms with too much pressure. That portion of the great spiral arm in which the Federation lies is one of those that is dense with life, with sentience, both native and colonized.

It is natural for people of different physical form or cultural origin to be somewhat in conflict with each other. Where cultures are very different, this conflict is less — they are not competing for the same things. Where they are very similar, the friction is often great, since each wants and values what the other has. It is much the same with physiology. Two humanoid races will on the one hand understand each other better than if one were a carnivorous arachnoid and the other a herbivorous mamalochordate, but on the other hand, those species that are different are not in competition, and neither views the other as prey or predator.

In those areas where intellect, and cultural integrity, proved strong, the differing species and cultures learned to get along somehow, though not without their wars and struggles. Where a culture was immature, or an intellect incomplete, a species usually died, exterminated by its adversaries. In the time of the Federation, most star nations were stable, and genocidal conflict was confined to only those systems where new species were first emerging into starflight, and then only if older and wiser people could not prevent the slaughter.

The Federation, however, was exceptional even so. It had far less than its share of troubles, compared with the other star nations. There was crime, of course, but that is a personal and individual aberration. There were governmental, philosophical, and artistic differences, of course, but they seldom caused any overt violence. Tolerance between differing species was extremely high in the Federation, and even similar and hence competing cultures tended to try to find some compromise to their mutual benefit. Some scholars speculated that it was the continuing influence of the M’Kade, whose advent some thousand standard years ago had brought about the current form of government known as the Federation, which was responsible for this enviable condition; others that it was something intrinsic in the stars themselves, similar to that which promoted life in the first place.

There were exceptions, of course. Frequently conflicts arose between peoples who were so similar to each other that an outsider couldn’t have told the difference. Sometimes war broke out within a single culture, which fought with itself far more bitterly than it ever had with anybody else. But these were the exceptions, and in other star nations were both more common and more violent. In large, the Federation was the epitome of peaceful coexistence.

Trokarion

1

In the pitch-darkness a blinding spark of white light appeared, at about head level, slicing down, leaving behind it an intensely glowing wormtrail of molten stone and metal. A second cutting torch began working at the same point as the first, slicing horizontally. As the two spots of fire moved, the cuts behind them cooled and dimmed, but still light shone through from the illuminated chamber beyond.

The first torch finished its long downward stroke and started to cut across the bottom, just as the second torch turned its corner and started down the other side. The first torch finished and winked out just before the second met it. The cut panel fell into the darkness with a shattering crash.

Two furry beings, clutching cutting torches, filled most of the impromptu doorway, silhouetted by the light from the chamber behind them. Their bodies were spherical, with no apparent heads. Four dog legs radiated from the lower portion of their bodies, and there were two arms, one on either side of the upper portion. They began to stow their equipment into carrying cases, sitting on the stone floor behind them, which cases also held their power packs, attached to the wands by heavy cables.

They wore no clothes, only a simple harness over their thick fur, a harness that supported pouches in lieu of pockets. The fur of one was black, of the other mahogany. Their bare dog feet each ended in two huge yellow talons, easily eight centimeters long, and their hands, working with the precision of long practice, had two fingers and one thumb, almost as formidably taloned as their feet.

The area in which they worked, illuminated by unseen lamps off to the right, was made of crudely dressed stone, and looked like nothing so much as a pre-steam-age sewer. Shadows shifted, greatly elongated, on the wall behind the two workers. There were other people present.

When the cutting torches were properly packed the two workers helped each other set the heavy cases onto their backs, hooked on to studs on their harnesses, right behind the heavily lidded, half-dome eyes that bulged up through the fur on the top of their spherical bodies. The eyes were green, as big as a Human fist, with round black pupils. Their mouths were twenty-centimeter-long gashes, just forward of and below the eyes, thickly lipped, and with fangs ten centimeters long projecting in a downward curve from each corner.

The black-furred one stepped away from the doorway for a moment and came back with two powerful battery lamps and handed one to the mahogany-furred being. The space behind them did not grow appreciably darker, there were other lamps in the care of the people behind them.

The two shone the lamps into the darkness. The room now revealed was only four or five meters on a side, and completely bare. The material of the walls — stone? plastic? concrete? — was blackened as if by great heat, and irregularly corrugated as if compressed by great pressure. The wall through which the two furry, spherical beings had cut was the most distorted, especially near the ceiling that sloped down there, tinged with white along the join, and streaked with dark, grainy iridescent colors where the chemical composition of the structural material had been transformed by the heat.

After only a moment’s hesitation the two workers stepped through the newly cut portal and to either side, set down their lamps so that they illuminated the larger portion of the chamber, and began moving aside the rubble of the fallen section of wall. As they worked, a shadow separated itself from the others cast on the primitive stone wall beyond the opening, and a Human stepped up to the new threshold and stood watching.

He was taller than average by some centimeters, slender, and he moved with an easy grace, indeed seemed graceful even when he was standing still. He was not exactly handsome, but then it was hard to tell with the bizarre helmet that covered his head and the left side of his face down to his chin. Over his left eye was a camera turret, the wide-angle lense now in place, the focus working almost silently, controlled by direct neuro-connections. The ear on that side was covered by a microphone complex, with precision-close, general-surround, and directional long-range mikes, chosen at the wearer’s option, just like the camera lenses. A smaller mike curved around from his cheek to just in front of his mouth.

He was dressed in leathers and so, in spite of the recording helmet, couldn’t be mistaken for a mere reporter. These unusual clothes consisted of a well-fitting pseudoleather jacket — perhaps a bit long below the belt, with fancy stitching across the shoulders — and leather pants, snug but supple, tucked into calf-high boots, all of a rich tan color. He also wore heavy gauntleted gloves, of the same material and design, and on his hip there was a holster, in which snuggled the heaviest caliber revolver made in the Federation, the usually illegal, six-shot, .75 megatron. Not a reporter’s weapon at all.

The shadows behind him moved again, and another figure came to the portal, humanoid in appearance but with movements that were simultaneously fluid and clumsy, suggesting otherwise. Its clothing was a loose-fitting gray jacket and full-cut trousers that seemed designed to conceal its form and hence its species. Its head was wrapped in gray, as was its face. Goggles covered its eyes, and a translating vocalizer covered the area where its mouth and nose might be expected to be.

“The stories would appear to be true,” it said. Its tone was completely neutral, completely mechanical, with no hint of what kind of vocal apparatus might have produced it, though its pitch suggested a masculine gender.

“Of course they are,” said another of the four-legged, spherical furry beings, who had come up to stand behind the gray-clad humanoid. His fur was a dark brick color, his eyes slightly more yellow than those of the two workers, and unlike them his black leather harness supported, along with the power pack and such, a holstered pistol, pen recorder, communications equipment, and other things the nature and purpose of which could not be immediately determined by the casual observer. He pushed his way past the gray one as if he didn’t want to touch him, but stopped short behind the tall Human who was still recording every inch of this small chamber. The workers finished clearing the rubble, picked up their lamps, and stood on either side of the opening as if awaiting further instructions.

The tall man stepped forward first, followed and flanked by the gray one and the Kelarine supervisor, whose heavy toe talons clicked harshly on the heat-distorted floor as he walked. Then the portal behind them was darkened as a gigantic figure moved into the opening.

Its torso, bronze and green and deep blue, was, from top shoulder to waist, almost as tall as the individual in loose gray standing in front of it. A thick neck supported a head that was both wolflike and snakelike, with small bat ears set high on either side, domed eyes, and fangs that extended well below his lower jaw. On his head he wore a crownlike device, a circlet of black metal with curved spikes just in front of his tall, pointed ears.

He had four arms, one pair above the other, each longer than an average Human is tall, longer even than the man in leather. One huge hand carried a large case by straps, another held a device as big as a chain saw but without the chain of teeth and with a grip that fit his hand perfectly. In a third hand he carried a tapering staff, some two and a half meters long, with a knob at one end and a blunt point at the other, and in his fourth was a special lamp that shone with the light of wavelengths subtly different from those of the other lamps, less yellow and more blue and red at the same time, as if his eyes had evolved under a bizarrely different sun. And below his waist he had not legs but meter after meter of thick serpentine coils, bigger around than a Kelarin, extending back beyond the portal and out of sight.

“What do you think, Droagn,” the man said, though he didn’t look around.

~I can’t tell,~ the creature projected. He did not vocalize, but used a special kind of telepathy that was comprehensible by all present, though the language he used had not been heard in this part of the galaxy for over fifty thousand years. ~Even if this were Ahmear work, there’s nothing left to prove it.~

If the Kelarine supervisor had been a bit fastidious about getting too near the gray-clad humanoid, he was absolutely wary of the serpentine Ahmear. His ancestors had known the Ahmear, before that species had left this part of the galaxy so many aeons ago, and not all of the stories and legends that had been passed down were of the kind to instill confidence in the presence of this being, a freak survivor, unique within the Federation or any other star nation with which the Federation had general communication.

So the Kelarin kept well to one side as Droagn slid through the portal to join the others — or at least most of him did.

The two Kelarine workers moved across the room as the three came in, and when Droagn was fully within, two other Kelarins, one black, the other a pale terra-cotta with amber shading, came to the hole in the wall, carrying a variety of equipment and the last two lamps. In other circumstances they might have been considered tough characters who could take care of themselves and were equal to whatever situation in which they might find themselves. But keeping company with the Ahmear, a creature from their past thought mythical by most and demonic by some, made them more than a little cautious. They kept well clear of Droagn’ s slightly twitching tail tip.

There was no door set into the archway on the far side of the room, and only blackness beyond. The two lead Kelarins carried their lamps toward it while the tall Human followed gracefully behind. It was he who gave direction to the group, though without speaking, and the rest of his party accommodated him as they followed.

The next chamber was larger than the first, just as empty, just as discolored and distorted. “Gh’a-vaan ge’shlathik,” the Ahmear said, actually vocalized, as he came through the arch.

The man turned and looked up at him, surprised by this revelation of his companion’s excitement. “What was that again?”

~Sorry,~ Droagn answered, ~I just said, ‘This really feels weird.’~

“That’ s what I thought you said,” the man replied, and turned back to his recording.

He was thorough in his work, but even the most complete recording of an empty chamber cannot take long. The only thing to see here, opposite this open portal, was a closed door, twisted and warped by the same volcanic heat that had distorted everything else. The two Kelarins with the cutting torches did not need spoken instructions. They went to the doorway and started setting up their equipment again.

But Droagn just snorted and slithered toward them. They quickly backed out of his way, their green eyes glittering overlarge in the refleeted light of their lamps. The Ahmear put down his own lamp and the strap-bound case, pressed his two huge upper hands against the door, and pushed. The material of the door was a lot more fragile than it had appeared, weakened by heat and time, so that it crumbled with his first effort. Droagn coiled back and let the hired workers clear the rubble.

Beyond was a broad corridor, going to right and left. It was twisted and warped, as if the underlying structure of the building had suffered far more damage than was suggested by what they had so far seen.

The two workers shone their lamps, one in each direction. The tall man, with the gray-clad humanoid beside him, looked first down to the right. Some meters away a tongue of solidified lava protruded into the hall from what had once been a doorway. Beyond it another intrusion had been forced through a narrow crack in the wall. Farther on the shadows were too dark to tell.

To the left were other, similar intrusions. The black stone was frothy, streaked with white, sometimes half cutting off the corridor, and one tongue of lava dripped down from a gap in the ceiling, like some petrified theatrical curtain.

The Ahmear pushed through the door and paused a moment, looking first one way, then the other, while the tall man on his right, and the gray one on his left, waited patiently. ~That way,~ he projected at last, pointing to the right. ~The other way around is more direct, but the corridor is completely blocked off past the first turn.~ There was no visible clue as to how he came by this information.

There were other volcanic intrusions in the corridor past the first two, but nothing else. If there had once been any floor covering or wall covering, or furniture, or decorations, they had either been removed, or destroyed by the heat that had so warped and distorted the structure. Even so, the tall man recorded every step of the way, though he made his steps long and did not pause except once to duck under a tongue of black-foamed rock, its edges sharper than knives.

They came to a corner where the corridor turned to the left. There was less plastic deformation, but they still found intrusions and lava tongues from cracks in wall and ceiling, and once they came to a massive intrusion, from a doorway, that nearly closed off the corridor altogether.

Just past the second corner, on the inner side of the square that they were traversing, they came to an exceptionally large double door, set into a somewhat more elaborate jamb than normal, and here the leading workmen paused. Droagn came forward and put his huge hands against it to push it open, but this time the doors did not crumble or break. The Kelarins moved with a bit of a swagger as once again they set up their torches and started to cut. This time, however, they were working with security steel and not just structural materials and volcanic tuff.

At last the heavy doors fell away with a great crash and slid down a broad, steep ramp, which lay immediately beyond.

~It looks good, Rikard,~ the Ahmear said to the man. He gestured toward the floor of the ramp. ~Too coarse a texture for feet or wheels or sliders, but just right for’ snake bellies.’~

Rikard and Droagn stepped aside to allow the Kelarins to precede them down the ramp, but the workers held back, talking quietly among themselves. The terra-cotta one noticed Rikard looking at them, nudged the supervisor, and they all fell silent. Then the supervisor stepped up to Rikard.

“This is as far as we go,” he said. “We’re already way beyond our depth.” A thick pink tongue flickered around his white fangs.

Rikard, taller than the Kelarin by a full head, just looked at him a moment. “That wasn’t the deal, Kath Harin,” he said.

“We’ve shown you into the ruins,” Kath Harm said. “We can’t give you any more guidance.”

“You can carry the equipment. That’s what you’ re being paid for too.”

“Yeah, and it’s enough for slog-work like that, and even enough for keeping Msr. Tail here company”  — he flickered his huge yellow eyes at Droagn — “but just barely. But it’s not enough for us to go down there.” He jabbed at the doorway with a heavily clawed finger.

“If these ruins are authentic,” the gray-clad humanoid said with his flat mechanical voice, “then what is there to be afraid of? This city has been buried for fifty thousand years.”

“We had a deal,” Rikard said to Kath Harin. “Ten kay apiece, down and out. If you won’t come down, there’ll be no pay coming out.”

~And the sooner we go down,~ Droagn projected, ~the sooner we’ll be out. Let’s do it.~

The Kelarin paid no attention to him but looked at the tall Human instead. “Hell, Braeth, you owe us for what we’ve done so far anyway.” He reached out a clawed hand, as if expecting coins to be dropped into it. The talons glinted in the light, long and strong and sharp enough to rip a man in half with one stroke.

Rikard Braeth’ s only response was to reach up with his left hand and carefully remove the optical helmet. His right hand, gloved and gauntleted, hung negligently by the butt of the heavy pistol on his hip. His face, now that it could be seen, was not homely, and was quite young — he was only thirty-one, given a Human life span of some two hundred years. His expression was bland, and his voice was neither loud nor soft as he said, “If I order a car and you deliver only the engine, you don’t get paid until I get the rest. How do you want it?”

~Take it easy,~ Droagn projected. He reached out one hand and gently placed it on Rikard’s shoulder. The ends of his fingers came almost halfway down the man’s chest. ~I’m supposed to play the heavy, you just make the decisions.~

Rikard looked up at him and snorted. “You can be heavy if you want,” he said. He watched the Kelarins. They had lost some of their fragile bravado. “I just don’t have much patience with people who claim to be such tough dudes and then quail at the sight of a dark ramp.” He gazed calmly at the Kelarine supervisor as he spoke.

Kath Harin lowered his clawed hand. He glanced at the gray humanoid, who was silent. The goggles the gray one wore revealed nothing, not even at what he was looking. The supervisor’s tongue flickered once, then he went back to his crew, and they spoke quietly together for a few moments. Then he turned back to Rikard.

“Look,” he said, “we signed on for one kind of job; this is turning out to be something different, a lot more dangerous than what we bargained for. The deal is this, we quit now or you double the rate.”

Rikard snorted again, disgusted this time. He stared at the brick-red supervisor until Kath Harin could no longer meet his gaze. “All right,” Rikard said, “twenty kay apiece. But no more chickenfooting, or you get nothing.”

The four workers bobbed in the way that was their equivalent of a nod. “All right,” Kath Harin said. “But you’ve got the heavy artillery. Be ready to use it if you have to.”

Rikard’s only response was to put his recording helmet back in place.

They went down, the two Kelarine workers in the lead with their lights, then Rikard Braeth flanked by the gray one and Kath Harin, then Droagn, and well back the other two workers with their own lamps. The textured floor of the ramp was canted from side to side, the walls were twisted, and in some places there were cracks running through the surface. But aside from that it was an easy descent.

There was no sound, except for their own footfalls or the equivalent; no smell, of mold or rot or char or even mustiness; no color, other than a multitude of shades of gray, no iridescent heat discoloration as they’d found above; no movement to the air.

The descending ramp turned one full circle, then leveled off where a door was set into the outside wall. They did not pause here.

“Notice the lack of dust,” the figure in gray said.

“What about it?” Rikard asked.

“It means that everything was removed from this place either immediately before or immediately after it was buried. I am impressed that the materials used in construction haven’t decomposed more than they have. This must indeed be Ahmear architecture, rather than that produced by a physically similar species.”

“Of course it’s Ahmear,” Kath Harin said. “Everybody knows that.”

~I don’t,~ Droagn projected. ~This place is too big. In my time we didn’t build cities, just private residences and the occasional orbiting station. We like to be roomy, of course, but —~ He reached up to touch the black metal circlet with its projecting spikes that sat on his head. ~This place is at least a hundred times bigger than any chateau I’ve ever known.~ It was the circlet that enhanced his natural telepathic abilities and gave him an extended sensing of the place they were exploring.

“Only a hundred?” Rikard asked. If this had been a Human city it could easily have accommodated fifty thousand people.

~Maybe two hundred,~ Droagn said.

They went down the ramp, level after level, until it ended, thirty floors below, in a roughly circular chamber, with nine doors around the sides. All the doors were closed. The floor here was nearly level. The walls showed no compression or burning.

“Are we at the bottom?” Rikard asked Droagn.

The Ahmear’ s dome eyes seemed to gaze through the walls. He turned his head, the light glinted off the points of the spikes on the circlet he wore. ~Nowhere near,~ he said at last. ~We’ll have to find another ramp.~

“So which way do we go?” Rikard asked.

~Lots of options,~ Droagn said. He tapped the black crown on his head with a finger. With it he could feel the difference between rock and air for quite a distance. He pointed to the fourth door on the left from the ramp. ~I’d guess that’s our best bet.~

Rikard adjusted the recording helmet, scanned the chamber one last time, then waited as the Kelarine workmen, taking their cue, went to the indicated door and started opening it. It was not fused shut, so a few moments’ work with prybars did the trick. Beyond was a broad corridor. The party resumed their previous formation and entered.

~The ceilings are right, though,~ Droagn said to Rikard. They were four meters above the floor. ~A comfortable height for an Ahmear.~ His own head rose to three meters above his serpentine lower body. ~For a private dwelling, that is.~

There were widely spaced doors along the corridor, but Rikard did not pause. The rooms beyond the doors were spacious by Human standards, cozy in Ahmear terms, and all completely empty. Those on the left had windows, now completely darkened by volcanic scoria and pumice.

The corridor went on for three hundred meters or so and then came to a tee. Droagn gestured and they turned to the right.

“This is older than fifty thousand years,” the gray one said as they proceeded down the slightly narrower branch.

“Well of course, Msr. Grayshard,” Kath Harin said, “it would have to be, wouldn’t it, for it to have been buried by a volcano that is well known to have gone off fifty-one thousand three hundred and twenty-one years ago.”

“Indeed,” Grayshard said. “That is to say, I believe this place to be more than one hundred thousand years old.”

“How can you tell?” Rikard asked.

“There’s something in the flavor of the dust.”

“This dust’s got no smell,” one of the black Kelarins protested.

“That is my point,” Grayshard answered.

The corridor ended in an arch, beyond which was a large chamber, its ceiling eight meters high. Their footfalls and talon clatters echoed in the open space, and the light of the lamps, broad-beam as it was, showed the far wall only dimly. There were two doors on either side of the arch. There were five doors in each of the other walls, more or less evenly spaced.

Droagn concentrated again, extending his senses through the black circlet, then directed them to the fourth door in the right-hand wall. Beyond was another, much smaller chamber, with one door in each of the other walls, and a ceiling once again only four meters from the floor.

After that it was a maze of rooms, chambers, short connecting hallways, and more rooms. They proceeded more slowly now as Droagn tried to find them the best way. It was a job for which the circlet he wore, a device called the Prime, and once thought to be the oldest pre-Federation artifact in existence, was not truly intended.

“You’re going by more than just ‘feel,”’ Rikard said to him once.

~I’m assuming that this was indeed built by Ahmear, and applying logic. That doesn’t always work, of course. What if you found yourself in ruins built by Humans even five thousand years ago, a different culture, a different people. Could you predict what each empty room might be, or where each empty corridor might lead?~

“If it were as empty as this,” Rikard said, “I’m not even sure I could tell it was Human.”

~Exactly,~ Droagn replied.

“But I’d know it wasn’t built by Atreef, or Belshpaer.”

At last they came to another door, massive and double, but when Droagn pushed the panels aside, all they found beyond it was the top of an elevator shaft.

Droagn turned to look back the way they had come. ~I’m not sure,~ he projected, ~but I think there’s an opening between floors that way.~

They went back around the corner and entered the first door on their left, toward the outside of the structure. The room was perfectly empty, with lava-sealed windows opposite them and a door to the right. They went through the door into another room like the first, but with two doors in the direction they wanted to go. Droagn directed them through the one on the left, near the outside of the building.

This opened into a relatively narrow corridor, barely wide enough for two Ahmear — or four Humans — side by side, with occasional doors on the inside wall, and no windows outside. Every forty to sixty meters or so the outer wall had cracked, and congealed tongues of black bubbly lava projected partway into the corridor, sometimes only a few centimeters, less often farther.

Rikard had not consciously counted paces before, but it seemed to him that they had gone a lot farther back along this outside corridor than they had come on the inner one from the ramp. He was about to mention this to Droagn when the lamps picked out the end of the corridor just ahead.

There was a single doorway, at the end. It opened at a touch, into a chamber that was much larger than any they had yet entered, and far more distorted. The outside walls had buckled almost completely and were heavily corrugated, half melted. The floor and ceiling actually met in two places, and the rest of the floor sagged down in a shallow depression that matched the sagging ceiling.

Here and there in this room, for the first time, were low piles of ash and char. Grayshard went over to the nearest of these and knelt in a strange way that implied that his knees worked differently from a Human’s. He reached out one gloved hand and poked a finger into the centimeter-high pile of dust, spread out like a thick smear across the slanting and buckled floor. “A complex of organic materials,” he said. He moved his finger elsewhere. “Plastic or wood, I can’t tell which.” He stood, a flowing movement that still seemed clumsy, and went to another pile that differed only in being slightly more granular, and poked his finger into it. “This is much the same.”

“This room,” he said as he stood, “was so badly burned that there was nothing left to take away. If the inhabitants had evacuated before the disaster, they would have cleared this room too. That it was not, that the furnishings were left to burn to ash, conveys to me that the emptiness elsewhere was due to later salvage.”

“If there was anything to salvage,” Rikard said.

“Oh, there would have been. Or it would have been left as strews of dust, as it was here.”

“I take it that’s our exit,” Rikard said. He pointed to a fused doorway on the far side of the room, near the inner wall.

The two Kelarins with the cutting torches went over to it and unpacked their equipment. But instead of cutting through the door itself, Droagn had them make a new opening just beside it, where the material of the wall was a bit less melted and distorted.

Beyond was another, smaller chamber, with lots of ash and char, in smears and mounds, some of which were rather substantial, but all situated more toward the inner wall. At the outer wall the ceiling nearly met the floor.

On the far side of this room there was yet another door, and this time the workmen cut through it. And there, at last, was another ramp, leading down into silent darkness. This one was broad and shallow, as if intended for ceremonial rather than strictly functional use.

They followed the ramp around seven full circles, descending seven levels as they did so, and then it ended in a large open space with the feel of a lobby or an antechamber to it. There were doors and open arches in the other five walls, and even as they came off the ramp, from each door and arch came strange creatures, huge and spherical and covered with thick fur, nearly black above and shading to tan below, shambling on six legs, each with two heavily clawed toes.

They resembled the Kelarins as a bear resembles a Human, half again as tall and far bulkier. Huge eyes projected upward from the forward top of their bodies, and their mouths, at the front, were gaping slashes nearly thirty centimeters across, filled with a grotesque array of huge fangs. Shadows hobbled wildly as the Kelarine lampholders recoiled in near paralytic surprise and terror. The creatures, in turn, seemed confused by the light, and milled around the outer edges of the room.

“A pod of fathak,” Kath Harin choked.

The last two Kelarins began to back up the ramp as more of the fathak came in, pressing those who had first entered. The terra-cotta workman dropped his equipment, except for the lamp, and ran. The other three workmen followed in short order.

Rikard held his place, though the darkening of the chamber, lit now only by Droagn’s blue-red lamp, encouraged the fathak to surge forward. Grayshard drew his gun, while Droagn put down the case and the lamp so that he could brandish the staff and the chain-saw like thing. Kath Harin had drawn his own gun, and seemed undecided, whether to stay and fight or follow his vanished crew.

~They do seem to be hungry,~ Droagn projected softly.

That was enough for Kath Harin. He turned and bolted up the now-dark ramp.

“Wait,” Rikard called to him.

“You wait,” Kath Harm’s receding voice called back. “And keep your money!”

In the light of Droagn’ s lamp the thirty or so fathak moved more comfortably now, more determinedly, concentrating their attention on the three remaining adventurers. At last Rikard let his gloved right hand rest on the butt of his megatron. As he drew the weapon a pad of special mesh on the palm of his glove closed a circuit between a scar-covered implant on the palm of his hand and the contact on the butt of the gun. His perception of time slowed, by a factor of ten.

At the same time, concentric rings appeared, floating in his sight, in his uncovered right eye, and a small red spot, low and off to the side, showed where a bullet from his gun, if it were fired at that moment, would strike. The automatic ranging device, implanted in his head and arm and hand, compensated for the distance and motion of the fathak in focus at the center of the concentric rings. It showed him where to aim- no elevation at this range, no lead since the motion was directly toward him. As the red spot entered the innermost concentric circle, centered between the fathak’ s eyes, he squeezed the trigger.

He started to choose a new target even as the bullet left the gun, its flat arc taking it, almost visible to his speeded-up senses, unerringly to the point where he had aimed. He picked and shot five more fathak with a physical speed that almost matched his subjective perceptions, imparted by the complex circuitry that involved not only his hand, eye, glove, and gun, but other circuitry in his brain and body as well.

As he was firing Grayshard wielded his own peculiar weapon, of a type and shape unknown in the Federation, a micropulse laser that fired multiple bolts of extremely brief duration. Each pulse was weaker than that produced by a Federation gun, but in a hundredth of a second a thousand of them pulsed out, and the fathak that was its target crumpled and charred.

At the same time Droagn wielded his chain-saw weapon, a forceblade in fact, an energy sword that added two meters to his reach. The body of the weapon was its generator, while the blade was its wave guide. Though it weighed nearly fifteen kilograms, he wielded it like a foil. It simply cut the fathak in half.

When Rikard’ s gun was empty he rocked it back in his hand to break the connection and return to normal time. As he had fired, with his left hand he had extracted a full clip from the cartridge pouch at his belt, and he now reloaded in one smooth motion. He had accounted for six of the fathak, Grayshard had downed four, and Droagn five.

Now he just watched as Grayshard fired again, and in real time the laser seemed like a shotgun, or a machine gun in its effect. Hundreds of tiny holes opened up in the body of the fathak in front of him, many of them penetrated dozens of times by succeeding microbolts. The creature fell and slid forward, stopped by the carcasses in front of it. At the same time Droagn swung to the side, the forceblade crackled, his reach took the end of the weapon over the stacked corpses in front of him to slice yet another bearlike monster from side to side.

The rest of the fathak tried to stop, but those behind piled into those in front, who in turn were piling up on the bodies of those slain. Rikard and his companions held their fire. The next three seconds seemed interminable as the beasts at last came to a complete stop, then began to run away. Another moment and, except for the dead, the three adventurers were alone again.

Rikard holstered his reloaded gun and went to the foot of the ramp. There was no sign of light from above. “Kath Harin,” he called. “It’s all over, come on down.” There was no answer, no sound of talons on the floor.

~They’re out of my range,~ Droagn said. The power was off on his forceblade, and the only light in the chamber came from his lamp, still on the floor.

“We can’t carry all this stuff.” Rikard surveyed the equipment the Kelarins had left behind. He hoisted one of the cutting torches onto his shoulder. He pointed to a leather case with a carrying strap. “Can you take that?” he asked Grayshard.

“I’ll try.” It weighed only about four and a half kilograms, but it threw him badly off balance.

Droagn picked up his lamp, tucked the big case and his staff under that arm, and with the other two arms picked up a number of the heavier bundles.

“Which way do we go?” Grayshard said.

Droagn paused a moment in concentration, then turned to the archway immediately to the right of the foot of the ramp. ~This takes us back inside.~

They left the chamber, no longer empty, stinking with blood and burned flesh. Since Droagn had the only light, he led the way.

There were frequent ramps, though they seldom descended more than three levels at a time. The thin layer of dust on the floor became minutely thicker with each level down, until at last they left obvious prints in a coating of ash that was perhaps as much as a millimeter in depth. There were more drifts of ash in the few rooms and chambers through which they passed. As they went deeper these became thicker, coarser, subtly colored varying shades of gray and dark brown and dirty white.

Then, an hour after the fathak attack, the nature of the place changed. Here there were large expanses of open floor, the ceiling was supported by free-standing columns, and the outer wall was almost completely window, though it was dark with the compacted volcanic ash.

Smaller chambers were set in clusters which formed broad columns or short partitions, which served to divide the larger spaces into distinct areas. The whole level had the feeling of being at ground level, though there were at least two similar levels below. Droagn got his bearings, then they started in toward the middle of the structure.

They left the area by a covered concourse, passed through another lobby with what might have been shops along some walls, and through another concourse, fractured and with intrusions of lava that had penetrated the deep layer of ash above. They went through a smaller lobby, a glassed-in balcony, a tubular passage that once had hung suspended, perhaps over gardens. On the other side was a glassed-in balcony adjoining another small lobby, with balconies on all four sides. From there Droagn led them down ramps into the service cellars.

Here they followed a corridor with pipes and machinery and cables along the ceiling to another lobby on that same level. From there they followed a broad, darkened concourse that ended in a very small lobby.

“You still think this is a chateau?” Rikard said.

~Something like. There was one group of us, a culture called the Lambeza, who did in fact establish larger, shared communities wherever they were. They didn’t wander around as much and … ~ He stopped, put down some of the stuff he was carrying, reached up, and, grasping the circlet by one of its projecting spikes, took off the Prime with one hand and massaged his scalp where it rubbed against the metal band with another.

~There weren’t very many of them,~ he went on, ~and they didn’t live on many worlds, but they were fairly stable, and so everybody else sort of looked on them as record keepers and the like.~ He bent his head as if he were giving Rikard a sidelong glance. ~just exactly the kind of people you like to deal with. If this were a Tomiro townhouse, or a Rohmaiik chateau, there’d be nothing for you to find. Oh, maybe a small personal library, but what can you learn from a few best-sellers. No, if you’re going to find anything interesting, it would have to be in a Lambeza residence. At the most there’d be three or four hundred families here. They were different. But then, they didn’t survive into my own time.~

The far side of the small lobby in which they stood was all windows, fractured and crazed, bowed inward by the pressure of lava and ash. There were other, similar lobbies to either side. The one to the right turned a corner in the direction they wanted to go.

On the third side of the square they turned away toward the center of the ruins, but shortly found their route completely blocked. There was no covered concourse, no readily accessible cellars, and no side passages within the reach of Droagn’ s Prime. Only a lava-sealed window.

Droagn put down all the equipment he was carrying, and Rikard knelt to unpack the cutting wand. Droagn took the wand, which looked like a pencil in his huge hand, and quickly cut through the wall just below the ceiling, then down to the floor on either side of the door frame. By the time he and Rikard packed the cutter back in its case the metal had cooled.

Droagn gripped the cut edge on the right side up near the top and pulled back. The material of the frame bent toward him, then an uncut spot gave way and the whole panel ripped inward.

The surface of the scoria and pumice stone, where it had pressed against the window, was as smooth as the window itself had once been. Droagn picked up his staff and, thrusting it like a spear, struck against the black glasslike material with the blunt end. When it struck, the power of the blow, not inconsiderable in itself, was magnified by the staff and converted into a succession of vibrating shock waves. The volcanic stone shattered.

He struck again, and again, boring a tunnel. After about fifteen meters they came to another window, which they broke through into yet another small lobbylike chamber.

Beyond this there were only cellars. They passed through two fairly large rooms, then a long service corridor with side rooms, some of which showed signs of having been stripped of built-in equipment. At the end was a narrow service ramp, going up one full circle to a door that opened easily into a little alcove on the side of a large open space, with what looked like sales counters along one wall, and a complete window wall opposite the ramp, with an open portal beyond to a walkway, covered by transparent glazing, that crossed over a once-open space.

They hurried through the once-suspended passage. It went on for twenty meters and ended in another open area, subtly different from the first.

There was color here, or the remnants of color, darkened by heat and time. Columns supported a ceiling two levels overhead, around which were balconies. In the wall opposite the windows were a series of broad, shallow alcoves, each with an elaborate, wide, double bifold door, geometrically ornamented. On either side broad corridors went off into the darkness, with counters on the inside walls, mote arches farther on.

Droagn slid off to the right, to another series of alcoves up the broad corridor from the doors, and Rikard and Grayshard followed. In each of these alcoves, as wide as the others but about three times as deep, were three elevated floor sections, each of them shaped somewhat like a comma, with the “tail” starting at the floor and rising to the “head,” which was nearly a meter above it. They had once been covered with some kind of material, the texture of which was almost visible though now it was no more than fine ash.

Droagn slithered around to one of the commas and lay on it, his torso elevated, his serpentine lower body comfortably curling down the tail and then around the whole “couch” two and a half times. ~Get a couple friends,~ he said, ~and sit around and chat before the show begins.~

Grayshard shone the light around the walls of the alcove. “Look at that.”

It was a niche, within reach of the couch opposite that on which Droagn reclined, in which rested a small object. Droagn took it down.

~Just a cup,~ he said. He held it out to his two friends. Lamplight glinted off the crystalline facets. It had a foot and a short stem. It looked not much different from any number of other wineglasses Rikard had seen, except for its capacity, which was about a liter. ~Just my size.~

Grayshard had backed out of the alcove, and was shining the lamp onto the wall over the archway.” And this,” he said.

Rikard and Droagn went out to look. There was a plaque set into the wall above the center of the alcove arch. It might have been bronze or some similar metal. It was deeply inscribed. But whatever language it might have been, it was like nothing any of them had ever seen before. And on either side of the text, placed as if to hold it up, were the graven figures of two beings exactly like Endark Droagn.

~~~~~