Read an Excerpt
Dawn for a Distant Earth
Volume I of the Forever Hero
By L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1987 Leland E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
In the west wing of the tower of time, abandoned as it is by the keepers of the clock, lies an ancient key. Not an impressive long steel shaft is this key, but a small volume, a compendium of pages enameled against the ravages of the decades and the centuries.
The book has no title, no preface, no table of contents, nor any title embossed on its black spine, nor even printed pages evenly matched and marching end to end.
What is it, you ask?
That question must hold for another. The other question? What is the tower of time? For there are no towers left on Old Earth, only the rambling farms, the sweep of grass, the ramparts of the west mountains, and a few score towns nestled into their restored places in history. There is only a single shuttle field ... without a tower.
This tower of time rears backward into history, not into the dark starred nights that are so cold to one used to the light-strewn nights on planets that once belonged to the Empire. Backward into history, you say? How far?
Far enough. Back to the time when purple landspouts raged the high plains, back to the time when boulders fell like rain, and when the devilkids were the only beings who dared to run the hillocks outside the shambletowns. ...
Yes, that far. Back to the days of the Captain. ...
The Myth of the Rebuilding
New Augusta, 4539 N.E.C.
Step ... pause ... listen. Step ... pause ... listen.
The boy crept through the thin bushes and scattered patches of ground fog toward the shambletown wall. The leathers of his tunic were ripped, and the thonging where the skins were joined was loosening. The rain stung his skin, as the chill wind froze the droplets before they struck.
Overhead, the thick clouds were barely visible in the gloom that passed for twilight.
Most of the torches on the shambletown wall had blown out and would not be relighted until the wind and rain abated. That would not be long. Beneath the west mountains, on the high plains east of the shambletown, the rains seldom lasted. Nor did the purple furies of the landspouts usually penetrate into the hills and gullies.
A single torch by the gate flared back to light, and the boy ducked behind one of the few grubushes left near the walls, just below the outcropping of old brick, powderstone, and purpled clay on which the shambletown had been raised.
In the gloom downhill from the wall, he would not be seen. Even if a sharp-eyed guard did sight the small shadow created by the torches, that darkness would be blamed on a skulking coyote, or even a king rat scuttling for his hole.
The boy's left leg hurt, still stiff from his encounter with the she coyote. He needed food, better food than he could grub from the plains and the hills, food without the poisons that the wild plants springing from the sickly soil carried.
Most times he could eat the yuccas and needle pears, but the coyote wound and its infection had lowered his body's ability to digest the wild food.
He froze behind a thicker grubush and peered through the scraggly leaves at the wall. Too high — more than twice his height, and even with a healthy leg, beyond his reach.
That meant the Maze. He had known that from the beginning, but had hoped ... He shivered, but there was no escaping the need for the cleaner food that lay beyond the shambletown wall.
Tightening his grip on the jagged blade he carried in his left hand, he dropped farther down the hillside and edged eastward, bit by bit.
Slide ... pause ... listen. Slide ... pause ... listen.
The pattern was nearly automatic, his ears straining for the click and scrabble of the rats, or the pad and click of a foraging coyote seeking a shambletowner out alone after dark.
The scattered grubushes grew more thickly as he neared the tangled mass that comprised the Maze. While they never crowded closely enough to provide a thicket or a constant cover, their numbers and sharp leaves and twigs slowed his progress. He checked each before sliding toward it to insure that no rat lay concealed there, no female coyote on the prowl for hungry cubs.
At last, the Maze towered above him.
He stopped, letting his breathing smooth. He sniffed, the thin nostrils in the narrow nose dilating to catch the scents nearby, and those from the Maze.
Crouching by one hole, he edged away as he caught the pungent odor of rat, all too fresh. A second entrance he rejected for the musty smell that indicated neither rat nor the air circulation necessary for an access to the less closely guarded eastern wall of the shambletown.
A third and fourth hole were each rejected.
A fifth was too low and reeked of land poison.
Click, click, scrabble.
The blade flashed. The rat darted — but not quickly enough.
The rat's purpled gray coat was scarred, streaked with silver.
The boy nodded. The rat, half the height to his knee, had been slow. Not sick, but old.
He left the carcass. While the hide might have been useful, only the shambletowners had the ability to turn it into leather. The meat was inedible, even for him.
Checking the hole from which the rat had emerged, he rejected it, and continued his slow movement along the Maze.
Deciding that none of the lower openings were likely to provide the access he needed, he switched his attention to the higher holes.
At last, he located a promising entrance, slightly above his head, but with easy handholds. He climbed to the left side, to avoid appearing in front of the dark opening. He let his nose test the scents, catching the mixture of free-flowing air, overlaid with the scent of shambletowners and their excrement, and the faint hint of omnipresent rat.
Blade in hand, he eased into the Maze, his hawk-eyes dilating farther to adjust to the gloom that was darker than the blackest of the clouded nights.
From behind him, he could hear the wind whistle as it shifted more to the north.
The passage branched, one dark pit stretching below, from where the scent of rat oozed upward, the other darkness twisting leftward, away from the shambletown. With the slump of his shoulders that passed for a sigh, he silently took the left opening, which, as he had hoped, again forked.
From his right came the definite smell of shambletown, although he could detect a gentle incline which bothered him. The last thing he wanted was to pop out high on the Maze wall in clear range of the shambletown guards and their slings.
Two more branches and he squatted just inside an exit overlooking the eastern wall of the shambles. He was higher than he would have liked — more than a body length above the wall and three body lengths above the uneven clay expanse between the Maze and the wall. His exit was to the north of the small eastern gate and the majority of the torches.
He shifted his weight to relieve the nagging ache and the pressure on his left leg and studied the wall. He would have to slip over the wall roughly opposite his vantage point. Unlike the northern wall, which was higher, the eastern wall, behind the bulk and protection of the Maze, also sloped outward as it dropped to its stone base. The slope might be just enough to let him make the climb quickly.
By now, it was as dark as it would get. The frozen rain pelted down in a desultory click, click, click that might cover any noise he made climbing down to the clay.
Only a single torch by the gate was lit, and the boy decided that the sooner he moved the better.
With a single fluid motion, he slid out of the hole and let his bare feet search for the outcroppings he knew were there, careful to let the bulk of his weight rest upon his good right leg. That brought him within two body lengths of the hard ground.
Ears, eyes, and nose all alert for rats, coyotes, or shambletown guards, he began easing himself down the Maze's rough surface as quickly as he could.
The animals avoided the freezing rain when they could, as did the shambletown guards, and he reached a position under the wall without an alarm being raised.
Again ... He stopped and listened, straining to hear, to see if he could sense anyone on the far side of the wall. Had he judged his position correctly, once over the clay bricks he would be opposite a narrow lane leading deeper into the lower shambletown.
No sound came from beyond the wall — just the click, click, click of the frozen droplets hitting the hard surface.
Flexing his fingers, toes, he sprang, scrambling quietly to the top, the abrasiveness of the sandpaint giving his extremities just enough purchase to support the effort.
He vaulted over — and down onto a covered clay barrel.
Even as the sound of his impact on the empty container rumbled down the cleared area next to the wall toward the guard post, he was dashing for the alley.
The boy did not stay to hear the debate between the two guards, but slunk down the narrow alleyway deeper into the dark, sniffing and listening.
He sought an empty dwelling. In all those he had passed, he could sense shambletowners mumbling to each other after their evening meal. Either that or sullen silence.
Dark was the shambletown, lit but by a few ratfat torches set behind salvaged glass, and by the dim glow from deep within the claybricked homes.
Another alley lane, across a wider street and to the left, beckoned. The boy darted a look, then melted back into the gloom as two figures trudged down the street, not looking to either side. The muted clanking told him they were the replacement guards for the eastern wall, and he shrank farther into the darkness.
Once they disappeared from view, he skittered across the dimly lit thoroughfare, such as it was, and vanished into the darkness again, more like a rat than a boy.
Three dwellings down, he found a likely place. Like all the others, at this time of night the window was sealed with a patched hide cover, but there were no sounds from within, and not even the faintest touch of heat radiating from the hide.
He looked up and down the alleyway, then raised his sharp and jagged blade. One cut ... two ... three ... and the bottom flap of the hide was free.
A glance under the hide and inside told him that no one was within. He needed no further encouragement to scrabble up the flaking sandpainted wall and through the narrow aperture.
The enclosed space was small, just two rooms plus the alcove used for food preparation and cooking, and the flat shelves in the now-covered front window that contained the plant beds.
As he saw the plants, despite the smell of excrement used as fertilizer and the musty smell of unwashed shambletowners, saliva moistened his mouth.
He checked the cooking area and found a small bin with three shriveled and raw potatoes. He took a bite from one, forcing himself to chew it slowly. One swallow of the mealy substance was all he could take, although the taste told him it was free of landpoison.
While he finished chewing, his eyes surveyed the two rooms. In the sleeping room was a single pallet wide enough for a man and a woman, centered on a raised clay platform. In the clay brick alcoves behind the platform where there should have been a few tunics and personal belongings, there were neither.
In the main room were only a table woven from grubush branches and two matching stools.
His eyes darted back to the pallet made of ground cloth, newly pounded into shape, and with no scent of shambletowner to indicate it had been used.
The boy padded over to the largest plant flats, but only sprouts broke the surface. On the far left was a narrow flat with older plants. He sniffed, and could detect no landpoisons. Then he pulled a single leafy stem and attached bulb from the damp soil. Wiping it on his tunic, he studied the rounded white bulb and narrow leaves.
Finally, he nibbled on a leaf. While slightly bitter, the taste was better than yucca. Next, he took a nip from the bulbous part. Nearly tasteless, it was crisp and swallowed easily.
He could have wolfed down the entire plant on the spot, but he knew that that much food that quickly, even poison-free food, could cause his guts to rebel, and he contented himself with a series of small and careful bites.
Leaving the remainder of the bulb by the flat, he retreated to the sleeping quarters and slashed a section off the unused pallet, carefully cutting it to keep one corner of the bottom double-thonged section intact as a bag. After bringing his makeshift bag across the nearly pitch dark room to the slightly lighter area behind the leather hide front window cover, he began to pull out the bulbous vegetables one at a time until he had a small heap.
He shook his head. While he would have liked more, he could carry only so many. If he stayed, he ran the risk that the shambletowners would find and kill him, as they had his parents.
He hoped what he could carry would be enough to get him through the weakness. If not, he would have to come back, and that he scarcely wanted to do.
Every concentrated scent in the shambletown, every odor from the Maze, was an assault, an assault that made it difficult for him to concentrate fully and increased the danger of being discovered.
After loading the bag, he gathered it and tied it shut with a piece of leather cut from the rear window cover. Then he used another loop to hang it around his neck and under his tunic. That left his hands free, although it created a bulging outline — a dead giveaway were he seen. There were no fat people on the high plains ... anywhere.
A check of the back alley indicated no passers-by, and he eased himself out through the narrow window and onto the uneven stone pavement with only a slight scratching and muted thump. He replaced the window cover as well as he could.
Retracing his steps up the back lane, he came again to the single street he had crossed, and, again, he checked both ways, listening carefully, before he slid across into the darkness of the other side.
Instants before the cudgel struck, he saw it and tried to drop away, away from the flat-faced man who hammered it toward his skull.
Hands grabbed for his thin arms.
Fire burned down the side of his face, but even as his knees buckled his own blade slashed at the four legs around him.
"Fynian! Hold devulkid! Hades! Eiiiii!"
The boy whipped the knife from leg level toward the man with the cudgel, his legs recovering and supporting his spring. Though off center, the jagged edge ripped a thin cut in the underside of Fynian's left arm as he brought the cudgel around for another attack.
The fingers grasping him loosened, and the boy broke clear, avoiding the deadly club, and scrambled behind both men, running, regardless of the noise and the growing pain in his left leg, full speed toward the wall.
Still clutching the blade, his bag thudding against his chest, he pounded across the open space before the eastern wall and leaped onto the clay barrel just ahead of the two pursuers and a wall guard. Without slowing, he scrambled up and over the rough bricks to slide to the bottom of the wall with a thump, his left leg buckling under the impact.
His breath hissed from the pain of the fall, but he lurched to his feet and half ran, half scrambled the distance to the Maze, where he began to climb. Halfway up toward the hole, his fingers slipped as an old brick snapped in two under his weight, and he skidded down, the rough-edged rubble abraiding his already injured left leg, which collapsed again as his feet hit the purple clay.
Another wall torch flared into flame. Then a third, and a fourth.
The devilkid ground his teeth against the pain from his leg and scrambled up the Maze toward his escape hole, forcing himself to make sure the handholds were firm before trusting his weight on them.
A slingstone plowed into the rubble next to him, shattering a brick. The chips stung his uncovered right shoulder.
He forced himself upward toward the narrow hole that he knew the large shambletowners could not and would not fit into.
Another slingstone shattered under his feet.
He could see the hole just above him, could scent the odors he recalled from his entry and squirmed the last body length to it.
"Ooooo!" The involuntary exclamation was forced from him, expelled by the force of the slingstone that had hit his side as he had twisted inside the dark passage.
"Got devulkid, Fynian!"
Now it hurt not only to use his left leg, but his left side was bruised.
He slid farther down the winding way and behind an ancient beam to catch his breath.
While an occasional slingstone rattled part way down the hole, he could tell from the outside sounds that the shambletowners were not about to chase him tonight, not with the still-freezing rain, and not into the higher Maze holes. Not this time.
He rested. But before long, he began to pick his way back out of the Maze. He had to be clear of the shambletown, well clear, before the lightness of dawn.
Fynian, the broad man, he would remember.
Excerpted from Dawn for a Distant Earth by L. E. Modesitt Jr.. Copyright © 1987 Leland E. Modesitt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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