Cover P 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Between waking world and Shadow

 

Deor spoke crisply: “Run!”

“Run away from a horse?” Thora said.

“It’s a crippled horse,” Deor said. “And it isn’t going to trample us. From what Pip says, we have to see it first before it can wreak harm!”

“Which way?” she asked.

Deor felt inwardly for a direction; as far as his eyes... you could call them eyes... could see they were on a featureless dirt road through scrubby countryside extending in both directions. But there was something like a silver thread running with light in his mind, or at least that was how his consciousness interpreted it.

“This way,” he said crisply, pointing down the roadway. “The Prince lies in that direction.”

It was the logic of a dream, or a nightmare, but that suited the place they were. Thora trotted off in the direction of his finger even as she complained; they’d been together a very long time, and she trusted his judgment in these matters as he trusted hers when it came to fighting.

“Watch where we’re going,” Deor said as the four of them moved off. “We’ll have to retrace our steps to return to the world of common day.”

It was like running in a dream, too. There were moments when he felt as if he were flying, not running; as if he were Láwerce hovering above a great yellow cat and the shambling sleek menace of the cinnamon-colored bear, and the cunning silent beady-eyed menace of the bushrat. Instead he forced himself to travel as a man, booted feet on the dirt of the road and sword slapping against his thigh.

The road stretched ahead through mist, and when the mist cleared the scenes to either side were never the same twice—nor were they ever something you wanted to see—but there was little sense of motion. It was as if they trotted on a strip that moved beneath them.

Toa lengthened his pace effortlessly, the huge muscles rolling like pythons beneath his tattooed skin as he moved ahead but his feet making little sound on the rutted mud. He held he great spear underarm, moving with his trot and ready to flash out in a gutting stroke like a frog’s tongue.

“If this isn’t the real world, why do we have to run?” Pip said, her pale eyes turning angry yellow for a moment. “Why can’t we just imagine bicycles or a nice well-sprung four-horse carriage with a cooler full of Saltie Bites Lager like King Birmo’s?”

Thora chuckled, and Deor grinned at Pip’s indignation. Her face had a certain rigid quality that showed how she was holding it thus by main force, but he liked the guts she was showing.

“That’s why we have clothes and weapons... and bodies... here,” he said. “But ours aren’t the only will and mind involved. Think of it... think of it as walking in someone else’s dream, one that only becomes fixed as we see it. Or the world of someone else’s mind... and that one, or Ones, are not of human kind. Not now, not for a very long time if ever. I wouldn’t recommend climbing into any carriage we found here.”

“Because we might not like where it went or what was pulling it. This is Someone’s dream that has that Hell Horse in it,” Thora supplied. “Hi-ho, we’re off to meet them, too. Johnny’s keeping bad company.”

“And do not take food or drink that any we meet offer as a gift,” Deor added.

Pip nodded. “I’ve heard those stories too. Oh, what fun. Some things are better kept in books.”

“Or sagas,” Deor agreed. “But we live in a world where such things walk. Perhaps our grandparents did also, though they denied it.”

The air around them grew darker as they wolf-trotted—jog a hundred paces, walk a hundred, repeating over and over again, the pace that humans could use to run any other beast on earth to death. Then the mists parted for a moment. Black cindered stars moved through the sky above, slowly, in chaotic patterns pregnant with meanings that plucked at the edges of his mind.

On a hill in the middle distance a tall fire burned, and stick-thin figures like a cross between human form and that of a praying mantis danced around it, heads thrown back in ecstasy as they pranced and whirled. Limbs raised on high moved twig-like fingers in unison, drawing patterns in lines of dark intensity. Within that white-crimson heat was a pillar, and other figures chained to it writhed against the bonds, shrieking ceaselessly in a high shrill note that scraped at his ears. A wild discordant music of flutes and drums and something that sounded like a steel barrel being pounded by a hundred tiny hammers wove through and around the screams of pain, and the dance went on without end.

Fit for the the halls of Surt, Deor thought, as the mist mercifully closed in again.

But he knew some corner of his self was storing images for the song he’d make of this one day. He shook his head as he dodged around the rusty wreck of an automobile lying canted in the roadway, at the foot of a heroically nude statue, headless and holding aloft the stump of a broken sword.

More and more of them cluttered the way ahead, a sight familiar enough to anyone who’d seen the lands around the dead cities of the ancient world. Hand-bones gripped a wheel seen dimly through dirty, impact-starred glass. Wisps of hair clung to the skull between them, and something seen dimly retracted itself into a gaping eyesocket. An ancient tang of rust and decay long contained in sealed places crept under the scent of acrid dust.

Ragged thornbrush crowded close to the sides of the road, a wall the height of a man laced together with oddly swollen, lumpy vines with thorns like bone claws; dead trees reared above the thickets. Tendrils of fog crept through the brush, and they had to slow to weave their way through more piled wrecks, sometimes clambering cautiously—there was nothing like rusty iron to give you lockjaw if you cut yourself on it.

Something else crawled through the brush, many things, with a faint rustling and chittering. If you looked closer you saw that wrecked automobiles were scattered through the undergrowth as well to either side, as if they’d swung wide to try and dodge the pile-up themselves. The charred trunk of a great tree lay across the crushed remains of one, where the impact had brought the oak down and they had burned together. The trunk of the car had burst open, revealing many small bones.

Ahead Toa swung up a clenched left fist like a small beer keg, and they all stopped. Fog hung over the path before them too, like a sluggishly moving gray wall pouring over the dead machines. The Maori went to one knee, peering about.

“Stuff moving in the bush,” he said. “Around those busted cars.”

“Toa, did you notice they’re all pointed in one direction?” Pip said. “As if they were all trying to get away from something up ahead of us.”

“Right,” Toa said. “Didn’t work, though.”

“And they look burned,” Thora said. “Half melted, some of them.”

Deor blinked and looked more closely, narrowing his focus for a moment from the wide-spread alertness you used in hostile country. Usually you didn’t notice wreckage of the ancient world much, not enough to see detail unless there was some reason to, when you were looking for valuable salvage or for something hidden among it.

The young woman from Townsville was right: they were all headed in the same direction, on both sides of the road, though he knew it had been the custom for streets this narrow to have two lanes moving traffic in opposite directions, keeping to the left or right—living cities used the same pattern where traffic was dense enough.

Thora was right too.

The rear ends of the cars were scorched and buckled and sometimes steel and glass had run, as if some flash of fire brighter than a thousand suns had hammered them all in an instant. Others were tumbled and crumpled by some great storm-wind that had accompanied the light. The ground crunched beneath their feet, as if littered with something thin and fragile. Looking down he saw that it was, but irregular and sometimes in the shape of the road’s ruts, earth itself seared to brittle glass.

“Odd-looking autos, too,” Pip observed. “Not like any wrecks I’ve seen. More like really old pictures or paintings of autos, from well before the Change.”

They didn’t look much like those he’d seen in his home in Westria or around the world amid the wreckage of the old world. In dry areas some were still unworn enough that you could get a good sense of how they’d appeared. These were boxier, more angular, and the wheels were narrower and higher—the way two different schools of craft might make the same thing, say a wagon or ship, the variance of tradition and place always there within the boundaries imposed by function.

“They didn’t just stop, either, I think,” Deor said thoughtfully.

That was why the roads of the world he’d grown up in were still littered with such; on that day nearly half a century before they’d simply ceased to function as the Change flickered around the globe in an invisible wave of alteration. Plenty had crashed as their controls and engines died, and burned then or later; then time and rust had had its way with them, or human hands looking for spring steel for blades, or mechanisms to be incorporated into a watermill, or glass to be melted down and blown into bottle and plate and sheet-metal to be beaten into shield-covers. In lands still peopled they’d long since at least been pushed aside to free the roadways for the modern world’s animal-drawn vehicles, and most salvaged down to the scraps.

But these looked as if they’d been undisturbed since they were caught moving and beaten with a lash of fire. Or a wave of it. The word wave sparked a comparison in his mind.

“They fled from death with all the speed they had, and Death followed them still faster,” he said. “Not just foemen, but something terrible beyond common thought. Remember the beach at Topanga?”

They glanced at each other, remembering. Remembering the storm-clouds gathering in a clear sky like a churning funnel as lightning slashed through it in an endless flicker. Then it toppling towards them... not only the cloud, but the scourging wind, and the water towering higher and higher and crashing down as the ship’s stern rose and rose in a world gone black and actinic blue and the Korean warships tumbled and smashed like toys beneath a boot...

Deor remembered more; he had had the Sight to see what lay behind the physical things, and it had been like staring into the Sun, blinding the eyes of the spirit.

Vaster than worlds, he thought, and recalled tension like a steel band around his head until it snapped and left him feeling like a dust-mote tumbling in a hurricane. The wrath of a God.

“I think...” he said. “I think we walk among memories as well as dream. Memories of what was, or what might have been... perhaps what might be, also.”

Pip’s head came up, and then Thora’s and Toa’s. Deor heard it too.

Clip-clop, clip...clip clop, slow and maddeningly irregular. Toa’s thick lips curled back from his teeth, and he glanced towards the brush and then back over his shoulder.

“Let’s go,” he said. “Neighborhood’s getting too soddin’ crowded for comfort, straight up, and it’s not the types who show up for a vicar’s bunfight.”

Pip opened her mouth and then hesitated. A sound came from nearby, a metallic clunking chunk accompanied by a groan.

“What was that?” Thora exclaimed.

Pip spoke, slowly and her voice very flat. “That sounded very much like an automobile door opening and closing again. One of my graddad’s cronies kept an old Jag from before the Change in mint condition on his Station and had it pulled around by horses now and then while he tooled behind the wheel. It sounded just like that when he got out. Except not so rusty.”

“But there’s nothing in those cars except—”

The same sound was repeated, this time with a loud screech as of rust-bound metal breaking free into movement. And again, and again. The stink of ancient decay grew suddenly stronger.

“—nothing in them but the long dead,” Pip finished. “Let’s bloody go, shall we?”

“Too right!” Toa said, and trotted into the fog.

Deor took a long breath and plunged into the mist behind him. It seemed to press into his mouth and nostrils, choking; then there was an instant of unbearable heat and they were through it, skin still tingling from what wasn’t—quite—scorching damage. The heat had been full of screaming, too, as if from multimillionfold deaths that never died.

The others exclaimed—or in Toa’s case, grunted and cursed in his own language—as they felt pavement beneath their feet, and an unfamiliar brilliant cool light leaking into the narrow dark place they stood. They were in a city, a living one from the lights and murmur of voices and wheels without amid less familiar noises; in an alleyway smelling of uncollected trash in sheet-metal bins. He looked around; small red eyes looked back and then scrambled away. Scrawled on one surface of sooty brick in tall reddish-brown letters barely legible because of smearing and long dribbling trails was:

NOT UPON US, O KING! NOT UPON US!

Then they all exclaimed again, and louder, as they realized their clothes had changed as well. Deor felt something choking him and his hand flew up to it. Some very conservative parts of Montival still sent emissaries to the High King’s court in what the ancient world had called a suit and tie, and this was like that, only worse—the collar was starched and dug into his neck, and he had on a wool jacket and waistcoat too, and a hat much like the one Pip had called a bowler when she wore one. A quick look showed that Toa was wearing blue denim, a suit of loose pants with a bib-like extension that covered his chest over a collarless grey shirt and rough shoes and a flat floppy cloth cap with a bill over the eyes; he’d seen something very similar worn by farmers in New Deseret. The two women were in dresses that extended a little below the knee, light colorful fabrics and impractical-looking shoes with buckled straps bearing distorted skulls, and hats like bells made out of cloth with wool pompoms on top.

“Where’s my damned sword?” Thora snarled. “I thought we could call weapons to us!”

Her left hand clapped against her hip on that side, groping for a scabbard where there was nothing but a narrow belt of cloth instead of the frog for her backsword. But there was a large embroidered handbag over her arm, and it clinked metallically. The red-haired Bearkiller froze, and then reached within it. They all recognized what she pulled out; it was a revolver, a massive thing with an eight-inch barrel.

What they’d never seen was one that would work as the old tales described, of course.

“Be careful where you point that, here, oath-sister,” Deor said, and she tilted it up. “Think of it as a loaded crossbow.”

Toa had something in his hand too, a wrench a yard in length ending in a knob crusted with stains they all recognized as well, and from their own experience. Pip was still carrying something very like her double-headed cane, and she looked inside a haversack-like thing slung over one shoulder.

“Mummy’s kukri-knives are in here,” she said.

Deor felt a catch under his left shoulder. He reached beneath the woolen jacket, and felt the butt of a weapon like the one Thora had just tucked away again in a complex holster arrangement designed to make it easy to draw but well-concealed.

“I think we have equivalents,” he said. “Ones that... fit... with wherever we are.”

Pip looked rebellious. “How did we imagine things we’d never imagined?” she said.

Deor was tempted to brush the question aside, but she might... would... need to make decisions in split seconds. A mind in turmoil was less likely to make the right ones.

“The High King, High King Artos, once told me that he’d been told by those who knew that time isn’t an arrow. Time is a serpent. Our world is one of many through the cycles of the universe. Many... many iterations. Some very different, some much the same, some just different enough to be like an image seen in a distorted mirror. Deeds and persons and places echo from one to the other; sometimes what is dreams or tales in one is sober truth in the next. And within each... iteration... more Powers than one, or more powers than two, many more, push to bring the cycle of things more to their liking.”

“That’s bloody indefinite!”

“That’s as definite as I can be. But we’re not alone here, let’s say, and we’re not entirely alone with the One whose place this is.”

Thora looked up and ducked her head outside the entrance to the alleyway.

“Those are streetlights,” she said, her voice soft with wonder for a moment. “Electric streetlights.”

They all stared at that light, so unlike the flicker of flame or even the glow of gas mantles. It was like stepping through into an ancient tale of wonders.

Deor closed his eyes and felt for the thread of connection that had tugged at him from the Prince’s side.

“I think we should keep moving,” he said.

Pip nodded and took a deep breath. “Look as if you own the place,” she said crisply, in that drawling accent. “Best rule in a strange town.”

“Yes, it is,” Thora replied dryly.

She’d seen full many of them, as she voyaged the world around in Deor’s company, and had fifteen years on the tawny-haired youngster.

Was I ever that heedlessly arrogant? he thought. I hope not... but then, after I left Mist Hills for the broader world, I wasn’t the Baron’s son any more—not even his odd younger son who liked boys. I was the bumpkin, the yokel, the hayseed from the place in the wilderness nobody had ever heard of; I had to earn every grain of respect I ever tasted.

The street outside was fairly broad, running between brick-faced buildings four or five stories high, floridly decorated in terracotta moldings, many with wrought-iron balconies. Cars—moving autos—dashed by, and crowds dressed much as they were moved thick on the pavements beneath light-stands shaped like the vultures holding globes of light in their beaks. The folk moved quickly, faces down and closed, avoiding each other’s eyes, and if you looked closely most of the autos, heavily laden, were heading in one direction.

The air had an odd chemical smell, like some laboratories he’d been in here and there, and an acrid burnt tint a little like forges or smelters. There was none of the usual urban scent of horse manure and stale horse-piss.

And fear, I know that smell. It smells of fear.

A man in a brass-buttoned blue uniform stood on the corner, with a pistol at his side and a yard of truncheon in his hand, a curious helmet like a cloth-covered fireplug on his head. Occasionally he would trot over when the autos got themselves into a snarl blowing a whistle and waving; once hauling a man out from behind the wheel and beating him bloody before throwing him back in. The passengers pulled him into the back seat, and one of them moved up to take control.

There was a stand nearby much like those used in some cities he’d seen to sell newspapers. Posters plastered the sides of it. One bore large letters:

NEW YORK HERALD.

“New York!” Pip murmured.

They all glanced at each other; that fallen city was a name of terror, at the heart of one of the greatest and worst of the Death Zones created when the world-machine stopped.

“Is this New York before the Change?” she said. “It’s not much like anything I’ve seen or read about it. Not in the details, at least—no hundreds of giant glass-walled buildings for starters.”

Toa was looking upward. “Take a dekko,” he said, his bass voice rumbling softly.

Not far from them—though perhaps farther than it appeared—was a towering structure like an elongated pyramid, stepped in at intervals and glowing with innumerable windows, and topped with a yellow-lit spiky three-armed sigil. Beams of light like gigantic spears picked out something at its peak just below the Yellow Sign, like a huge finned whale-shape floating in the air. As they watched it cast off and turned away with a purposeful motion unlike any balloon, a buzzing coming from it that still cut through the throb of street-noise.

“Anything about those in that fancy school?” he asked.

“That they weren’t around in 1998,” Pip said, but gave it only a glance.

She fished in the bag at her side and tossed a coin to the attendant in the booth, who sat in a wheeled chair behind the counter. He grabbed it and yammered; Deor saw the stub of a tongue in his mouth, and a line ran from a collar at his neck to a staple in an iron post at the back.

The captain of the Silver Surfer scanned the paper in her hands; it had more pages than any Deor was familiar with, even in Portland or Winchester or Sambalpur, a fantastic extravagance given what paper cost in most places.

“March 17th, 1998,” she said.

“The day of the Change!” Deor exclaimed.

They crowded around her to read the headlines.

Czar’s Bombardment Submersibles Off the Coast! one exclaimed. War At Any Moment! Uprising in Suanee, Special Action Groups sent in!

Pip began to read the print below in a murmur: “From our correspondent in the Capitol... which is apparently Yhtril, DC... District of Carcosa... Eternal Emperor Castaigne proclaims that in this time of crisis, all loyal subjects must come together and make sacrifices for the nation.

She stopped, and her brows went up, and he could see her throat work as she swallowed and continued:

He proclaims that one’s own children are the most desirable sacrificial burnt offering, though self-immolation in the Lethal Torment Chambers is acceptable. All patriotic Americans must kneel in servile adoration and worship before Divine Uoht and glut His hunger, that He may intercede for us with the King in Yellow and send the Pallid Mask against our enemies as He has before.”

They paused. “I really don’t think we want to stop here,” she said. “As you said... not a good place, eh, what?”

“I never thought we’d agree on so much, girl,” Thora said with a taut grin.

“Deor?”

“This is a past. Not ours, I think. Or the image of a past that might have been, or in some cycle of the greater worlds once was. The ideal to which that which rules here aspires, or something close to it. And for which it needs Prince John.”

“So, which way, oath-brother?”

He closed his eyes for a moment.

“This way,” he said. “The feeling of the Prince is stronger here,” he said.

So is the fear, he did not add aloud. We’re growing closer to whatever it is that creates and sustains this place.

They walked down the street, and turned onto another. That was a much broader highway, at least a hundred paces across. The sidewalks were broad too, laid in patterns of colored brick, with a double row of trees clipped into rectangular shapes on each. The buildings were all seven stories and faced with faded white stone, with a common cornice line but a pleasing variety of form and detail. Most of the ground floors were broad brightly-lit shop windows.

It would all have looked much more pleasing if several of the lamp-posts hadn’t had ropes flung over them and nooses holding bodies dangling and slowly turning as they hung swollen-faced and bulge-eyed. The pedestrians ignored them, faces tight with fear, or occasionally paused to spit and laugh.

Toa’s head snapped up. “Something bad coming... hear those voices?”

Deor listened. Savage shouting and pounding feet, but not those of battle. Pip turned an enquiring face to Toa, but the scop answered first, memories taking him back to a place of fear and flight, and whitewash peeling from blank walls along narrow streets. Thora pulling his arm across her shoulders as he staggered reeling with blood running down his face, the sword naked in her other hand, and their desperate panting breaths loud in the alien night.

He answered: “That’s a mob, the snarl of a hunting mob, and it’s coming our way.”

Thora nodded, her lips narrowed to bloodlessness at her own recollections. There were a fair number of people ahead of them, and they were turning to look at the noise as well. Most of them ignored it, walking quickly towards wherever they were going. A few pointed and called out, mostly wooping wordless cries. Others laughed and put hands beside their necks and jerked them upward, miming strangulation with heads to one side and lolling tongue and eyes.

A figure burst through the spectators. It was a man with blood running down his bearded heavy-featured olive face, matting one of the long curls trained into his hair before his ears to the side of his face. He wore a version of the male costume that seemed to be standard here, but darker and with a longer coat.

Despair flooded his face as he saw Deor and his party standing in his way. He tried to halt, windmilling his arms, and a broad-brimmed black hat fell off his head as he stumbled and began to fall. He spoke then, in a choked whisper, words Deor had heard before and understood:

“Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad!”

Toa caught him easily, one huge fist knotting in the shabby black coat and whirling him around behind the Maori’s massive back. Deor caught what was almost a throw and found the man was lighter than he would have thought, skin and bone beneath the heavy cloth, smelling of blood and old sweat. What had looked like bulk of body was parcels beneath the coat, parcels wrapped in paper from the way they crackled.

“Quiet!” the scop snapped. “Behind me!”

He found the heavy pistol from the shoulder-holster was in his hand; it was the same impulse that would have drawn his sword, but transmuted.

As our clothes were, Deor thought.

And thought of One who was also patient and cunning and bided His time. He grinned, a fighting snarl.

Thora had also drawn her pistol, and then hesitated and looked at it.

“Oath-sister!” he said. “Don’t think about it, just use it as you would your blade.”

Pip and Toa poised, cane and wrench ready in their hands.

Other figures pushed through the crowd on the sidewalk. Some where men and women in ordinary street dress for this time and place, carrying baseball bats and a knotted hangman’s rope, and a can of liquid that smelled like the rock-oil they used for lanterns in some places. Leading them were two in yellow robes, with blank masks like a sketch of a face strapped across their visages. Another similarly masked was in front, but wore only a twist of yellow rags around his loins, and carried a seven-tailed whip whose strands were tipped with sharp-edged beads of pale gold. Blood dripped from them, and from his own back and sides where he’d lashed himself.

Deor looked into the masked man’s eyes and decided. He leveled the weapon, felt his finger squeeze carefully on the trigger. There was a loud crack and the pistol bucked painfully against his hand, startling him with its suddenness and the brutal power. A jet of flame split the night from its muzzle, and a black spot appeared between the brows of the masked man with the whip. The back of his head exploded in a spray of brain and blood and bone splinters, spattering into the faces behind him. The impact jerked the man he’d killed like no bow he knew, as if he’d been kicked in the head by a horse or hit with a war-hammer.

Reflexes he didn’t know he owned brought the pistol down again to aim, but Thora had her own pointed already. She fanned the spur of the hammer with the heel of her other hand, an astonishingly swift strobing crack-crack-crack-crack-crack and then click. Men twisted and fell under the brutal impact of the heavy bullets, and one struck the gallon can of rock-oil. It ignited in a gout of crimson flame that sprayed burning liquid across a dozen more.

Screams and blood and fire in the night, and one woman tossing aside the noose she’d been waving aloft and running away beating at hair like a flaming torch itself.

“Come!”

It was the dark-clad man they’d rescued. He plucked at Deor’s jacket. “In His name, come with me now or you die! Don’t run, but walk quickly.”

Deor did, and the others followed; the man guiding them sank back behind the scop, looking at them in bewilderment then shaking his head as if putting something aside in a greater urgency. Deor found that he’d thrust the weapon back into its holster.

“Grab me by the collar,” the stranger hissed, when they were among crowds who had only heard the brief fight in the distance. “As if you dragged me along. Now, or someone will suspect!”

Quick-witted, Deor thought, as he obeyed.

The man led them away from the brightly lit thoroughfare, randomly at first to throw off any pursuit. Their path ran through streets like the first they’d found; the buildings grew taller and shabbier and the ways between them narrower as they went on. At last he turned down an alleyway where sagging iron stairs zigzagged up the sides of the buildings between blank windows, and thumped at a metal door in what Deor’s musician’s ear recognized as a complex rhythm.

It opened. A man’s face showed in a dim blue light, with the same strange hairstyle and a family resemblance to their guide, though his locks were a frizzy reddish-brown.

“These are Righteous Ones, Jacob,” the man said. “They saved me from the servants of the faceless.”

“Praise Him, Moses.”

Jacob’s hand came out from under his coat and he stood back. They all hurried down the stairs within into a damp cellar. A lamp was lit as soon as the door was shut and bolted behind them, honest flame rather than the eerie legendary brightness of electricity. Faces peered up at them from pallets on the floor, divided by blankets hung from cords. There was a heavy smell of wet brick and misery. A child began to cry, and was quickly hushed. The man his friend had named Moses unbuttoned his coat and handed out the parcels underneath, which turned out to be loaves of heavy dark bread and blocks of some pungent-smelling cheese.

The faces that had looked at Deor and his companions with fear now focused on the food with an intensity he recognized, that of folk very hungry indeed. Moses looked at him, weighing a chunk of the rye bread, and Deor shook his head.

“Thank you, but we have no need and you do.”

There were murmured blessings, and the food was divided with haste but scrupulous care. The children began to eat as their mothers handed out portions.

“What can we do to repay you, then?” Moses asked. “You’re welcome to share what refuge we have.”

“Guide us,” Deor said, trusting instinct. “Help us to escape.”

The man’s full-lipped mouth quirked. “Where is escape, in the world as it is? But I will do what I can, if you want to get out of the city before the end. Our little ones will have food today, at least.”

He turned to his companion. “Get them all down to the sub-basement, Jacob.”

“We shouldn’t wait for the warning sirens?”

Moses shook his head. “That might be too late. It can’t be long now. Make sure of the water, and the tools for digging out.”

He turned to the strangers. “Come, follow me.”

Lantern-light showed a stairway; they went down, and through a series of doors. From the way the levels varied and the look of the walls of narrow parts, they were being taken through a maze made by digging passages between the cellars of buildings. Once from the stink and the round shape, though a disused sewer.

Moses frowned. “Odd. There’s fog... well, the ladder and cover are just ahead. May the blessings of the Lord, King of the Universe, go with you.”

“And with you, my friend,” Deor said, and waved the others forward.

Their guide turned and disappeared around a corner, the light bobbing and fading. Near-total blackness fell.

“Link hands?” Pip suggested. “And let me go first. I’ve got good night-vision.”

“Sees like a cat,” Toa agreed.

They did; Deor felt one hand vanish in the Maori’s huge paw, and the other grip Thora’s familiar long-fingered callused strength. Occasionally he could hear the chink of Pip’s cane against a wall, then a more metallic sound.

“There’s an iron ladder set into the wall here,” she said softly.

Deor opened his mouth to reply—to urge caution—when an eerie screech sounded, muffled by the stone and brick around them but still shatteringly loud. For a moment he thought it was some huge beast screaming in rage and fear, and then he knew it was a machine, probably the warning sirens Moses had mentioned. The city above was about to meet its fate. Their only hope was that the trap-door above led somewhere else.

“Up!” he shouted through it. “Now, now, now!

 

@@@

Cover P 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Copyright © 2016-2017 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com