Art by Vincent Di Fate.
From the author: Far in the future, an interplanetary civil conflict has ground to an uneasy halt. Kithri, abandoned on a desolate mining planet, meets Eril, shell-shocked pilot. A freak accident sends them back to a time when their desert world was lush and green, when an alien civilization stands on the brink of a war of total destruction. They must choose to remain outside the conflict or to stand up for what they believe.
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They dragged the spaceman from Brushwacker’s hold and laid him under a massive tree whose branches spread out like an umbrella from its knotted trunk. Although the spaceman was still unconscious, his breath came in hoarse grunts as he jerked his head from side to side. Eril knelt beside him. The shade felt cool and damp after the sun’s brassy heat and the crushed grass gave off a sweet, earthy smell.
Kithri touched the side of the man’s neck. “His pulse is faster. Skin temperature feels okay. Shouldn’t we do something for him, like get him out of his suit?”
“I don’t think so,” Eril said. If this suit was anything like the extravehicular gear he knew, it had its own life support function. It might be safer not to tamper with it.
Kithri gave him an exasperated look. “We can’t just sit here like a pair of brainless sand-hens! We’ve got to do something! Look, I’ve got some more water in stores. How about if we bathe his face? That can’t hurt, can it?”
The spaceman quieted as she wiped a damp cloth across his cheeks and brow. Slowly his breathing deepened, and the color of his skin changed from waxen to pink. His eyes moved behind his closed lids and suddenly jerked open.
Before, the face had been one of an ordinary, fairly young man, neither handsome nor ugly. When his eyes opened, so red-brown they looked auburn, they transformed his face into one of startling intensity. His pupils dilated and constricted as he shifted his gaze from Eril to Kithri.
Eril put his hand on the spacer’s shoulder. “You’re all right now,” he said, with his friendliest smile. “We’re friends.”
“Friends,” Eril repeated slowly. “Can you understand me?”
The spaceman wet his lips. “Whuh hept? Whirrmy? Whirrs the shih?”
Eril exchanged puzzled glances with Kithri, then tried again. The spacer seemed confused, although not frightened, as he answered. “Wirron—explorshon miss—Nited Therrin Spay Cummin—AlfaCentaw to Peers sunstar—we mit liestor—I win offboar—then I wek up here. Hoor yoo?”
“I’m sorry, we can’t understand you,” said Eril.
“No, wait,” Kithri said. “It’s like an archaic form of Pan-Anglish. Therrin, that’s like Terran, Old Terran! That almost-last bit was, 'Then I woke up here.’ Can’t you hear it?”
Now that she’d pointed it out, he could. Eril dredged his memory for the history lectures he’d sat through only because the Academy required them. He never thought there might be anything useful in them. “There was something about a Terran Space Cum-something—Command? United Terran Space Command?”
After a fraction of a second, the spaceman nodded vigorously and gestured toward himself. The movement was hampered by the bulky suit. He repeated in a louder voice, even more heavily accented, “Nited Therrin Spay Cummin—Cummind Pascal, Lennart Pascal.”
Commander Lennart Pascal.
“Eril Trionan, Kithri Bloodyluck,” Eril said, pointing at himself and Kithri.
Where am I? Not a bad question to begin with. Before Eril could explain that they didn’t know where they were either, Lennart Pascal tugged at the catches across his chest with his heavily gloved hands. “I’m bow too suffcay. Yoofol could hell me owtta this thin?”
Even though Eril didn’t understand all the words, their meaning was clear. “Just lie back and we’ll get you out of it.”
With Kithri’s help, Eril unfastened the complicated series of clasps and locks. Underneath, Lennart wore a jumpsuit with embroidered patches on the chest and upper arm—stylized rockets and lightning bolts ringed with unrecognizable script. He grinned at them as he sat up and gestured around him.
“Won thin shoor, thiz play naw AlfaCentaw. Beezmee whuh hept, maybe Einstein rie bow tie trav. Yoofol see fren enuh. Shors a pritt plan yoo gaw.”
“Look, I don’t know how much of this you can follow,” Eril said, “but when you popped out of—wherever you were—it seems we popped into this place. Do you understand?”
While Lennart clambered to his feet, Eril repeated himself, pointing towards the city, the deserted spaceport, and the scrubjet. Lennart nodded before answering, “Alnoo, yoofol too, heyh? Hot damm. Maybe niz we could bett unnerstan chothre, sin we stuh kere for why. Weefol splore lessgo citee, heyh?”
“Explore the city?” Eril guessed. “My thought exactly. No point in waiting for a formal invitation.”
“Before we go anywhere,” said Kithri. “I’m stashing what’s left of this haul.”
With visible reluctance, Kithri allowed the two men to help her unload the packaged jaydium and set it in a pile well away from the tree. She opened a safepocket in the scrubjet’s inner wall and drew out a small device. Eril recognized it as a guardsafe-field generator. She set it on top of the pile and stepped back. After a short delay, the field ignited over the pile, shimmering poisonous ocher for an instant before it flickered into invisibility. No sign remained of the jaydium stash or its safekeeping system. Lennart watched the whole proceeding intently.
Eril slipped the force whip into its holster and slung his small pack over his other shoulder. “Who do you think’s going to steal your jaydium out here?”
She paused, considering. “I don’t know—it’s just habit, I guess. It’s probably only a matter of time now until the stuff goes to junk.”
“Kithri, do you have some kind of weapon?” As he’d unloaded the insulated jaydium, Eril had considered the problem of self defense. He’d even thought of the lazer cutter, but rejected it as too heavy and cumbersome to be of much use. He found the idea of Kithri wandering unarmed through an alien city unaccountably disturbing.
She studied him for a moment before nodding, then brought out a battered stungun from beneath her pilot’s seat. Eril recognized the palm-sized gun, a combination short-range nonlethal weapon, heat beam—for cutting thin sections of metal and starting fires—and emergency beacon. He carried a survival unit very much like hers, only his had a hollow handle containing a back-sharpened knife blade, a length of permawire and three large-eyed needles.
“I’ve got the whip and my emergency kit,” he said. “You take your little stun-popper there, and the water container. He turned to the spacer and said slowly, emphasizing his words with gestures, “Lennart, I don’t have a weapon for you, so I want you to stay close to us. In fact, I want us all to stay together. No exploring on your own, and if I say 'Jump,’ I don’t want you to stop and ask 'How high?’ I just want you to do it. Understood?”
“You’re taking a lot for granted, throwing around orders like that,” Kithri said, lifting her chin. “We’re not a pair of recruits—or babies.”
“And I’m no nursemaid,” he said. “But we don’t know what nasty surprises the city-builders left for us. You haven’t had training in how to deal with such things, and I have. I may not have any fancy infiltration equipment, but I’ll do my best to keep us alive.”
A stormy expression flickered across Kithri’s gray eyes. “Okay,” she said after a moment, “you’ve made your point. You don’t have to rub it in. I’ll go along with you. For now, anyway. You too, Lennart?”
“Dun luh to me lie arm fortreh, buh I’m ease. Tever yoosay, baw.”
The parkland ended abruptly in a narrow apron of quartz-like stone. The grass grew right up to it, and on the other side lay pale satiny pavement that marked the beginning of the city. Eril kept to the cover of overgrown bushes and umbrella trees as long as he could, searching for any traces of automatic weaponry. There was no response when he hailed the city or rolled a clod of earth over the threshold. He took a deep breath, drew his force whip and stepped cautiously into the open.
He wasn’t sure what he expected to find or what he’d do when he found it. Neither his Academy training nor his wartime experience had prepared him for First Contact. If the city builders—assuming there still were any—were anything like the gentle, timid aliens known to the Federation, then the last thing he’d want to do was blast them away with the force whip. He slipped it back into its holster and adjusted the straps so he could draw it again quickly.
Eril started down a broad avenue flanked on one side by a lacy, pearlescent rectangle. On the other side sat a delicate spindle, two stories high and faceted like rubies. His boots crunched shards of multicolored crystals that littered the street. There was no other sound except for the rasping of his breath in his throat and the muted pounding of his heart.
He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hallo! Anybody out there? Hallo!”
“H-a-a-l-o-o-o...” His voice echoed down the spacious avenue. It sounded eerie, barely human.
He stopped in front of the spindle and studied it for a moment. It was about fifteen feet on each side of its square base, and deep crimson in color. The nearby buildings, pearly shades of pastel, looked anemic by comparison.
“Eril!” Kithri yelled from the bushes. “What’s going on out there?”
“Nothing so far,” he called back. “Stay where you are! I want to check—”
“The hell you are!” Kithri strode across the stone border, Lennart at her heels. She halted in front of Eril and set her fists on her hips. “We’re not going to wait back there while you go off by yourself!”
Eril, realizing the futility of arguing with her, turned his attention back to the spindle. Kithri followed his gaze, throwing her head back to stare.
“Wow,” she said in a hushed voice.
Lennart grinned, poked Eril with one elbow, and repeated, “Wow.”
Eril placed his flattened hand on the side of the spindle. The faceted wall felt hard and smooth, like gemstone. It was slightly cool, but warmed almost instantly. He jerked his hand away.
“What is it?” Kithri asked.
Eril shook his head. “Damned if I know. It’s not like any substance I’ve ever seen before.” His right hand went automatically to the hilt of the force whip as he began searching for a door. There was none he could identify.
After a few minutes, they gave up looking and went on. Several blocks southward, they spotted a squat lavender pyramid with a curious fuzzy surface that contrasted sharply with the smooth exteriors of the other buildings.
A few buildings later they came to a single-storied cylinder of light, clear blue, like blue topaz. A doorway gaped before them, wide enough for all three to pass abreast. They went in, cautiously picking their through the piles of splinters that had fallen from the causeway overhead. The doorway was slightly elevated from street level but there were no steps, only a smooth ramp.
Inside they found a single central room, about twenty feet in diameter and ringed with delicate fluted columns of the same pale blue. With the exception of some multicolored dust piled up along the curved wall, it was completely empty.
Eril took a few steps on the unexpectedly spongy floor. When he prodded it with one heel, it didn’t give perceptibly although it effectively muffled his footsteps. He glanced up and saw the blurred outlines of nearby buildings through the translucent roof. Kithri and Lennart spread out, examining the walls.
“What would you do in a place like this?” Kithri murmured. She wiped her hands on her dun-colored overalls, which looked even dingier than before.
“Space only knows,” he answered. “Hold a tea party?”
“Nobodd home,” said Lennart. “Nafor lon tie. Whoover bill thiss playz grayon dezih buh litt shor onth upkee.” He held up his hand, his fingers coated with rainbow-colored sparkles.
Eril nodded, getting the general idea that Lennart didn’t approve of the current standard of housekeeping. I hope we understand each other better before some crisis lands on us. Most of the time I’m only getting one word out of three, and it’s probably the same for him.
Beyond the blue cylinder they found a series of spacious, interconnected courtyards, lined with opal-tinted benches and abstract sculptures. The street slanted down into a broad trough lined by knee-high curbs. At regular intervals, round openings appeared in the lower part of the walls. They looked to Eril like water pipes rather than drains. He knelt to inspect them, but could discover no trace of liquid or other contents. Nor were there any discernible seams in the paving material.
Here, near the center of the city, the buildings stood closer together, their shapes and vibrant colors clashing. Eril thought them the visual equivalent of the Academy banquets he’d been forced to sit through, getting more glazed in the eye and queasy in the stomach with each passing course. The red of rubies, the purple of amethysts, the blues of sapphire and turquoise formed a riotous mixture of color, with only narrow corridors separating the towers.
Kithri pointed to the tiny tracks skirting a pile of grit-fine dust. “Something lives here.”
“Something the size of a lizard,” Eril commented.
“You’d think there’d be something more,” she said. “Weeds poking through cracks, the local version of cockroaches.” She grimaced. “Believe me, you never get rid of them.”
Eril ran his hands over the seamless paving material. He glimpsed something moving at the far end of the dust pile and bent to examine it further. He saw what it was and chuckled. Not one of Kithri’s cockroaches, but an ant. Every planet he’d ever been on had them. This one had eight legs and bright red antennae. It seemed to be a lone scout, quite uninterested in the dust granules.
They went on for a while, deeper into the crowded heart of the city. Some of the courtyards were sunken, accessible only by ramps. After a while they no longer exclaimed at each new building, as if their capacity for awe had gone numb with overload.
Eril knelt and picked up a fist-sized piece of flame-colored glass shaped like an elongated teardrop. Was it a sculpture, a thing of deliberate beauty, or only a fragment that happened to have a pleasing form?
Straightening up, he saw the sun had begun to dip behind the horizon. A chilly, moisture-laden breeze sprang up, whistling eerily between the towers. The crystal buildings seemed even colder and less human as daylight left the sky.
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