Read an Excerpt
The low-angled daylight dimmed suddenly on the page of a poem by Alfred Noyes that Walter the InTeacher was reading. It was as if a little cloud had passed over the face of the late afternoon sun that was slanting its rays through the library window beside him. But when Walter glanced up, Earth's star shone bright and round in the sky. There was no cloud.
He frowned, set the antique book aside and reached into his now old-fashioned Maran robes to take out a small, transparent cube filled with liquid, within which normally drifted a thin pink strip of semi-living tissue. It was a cube sent to him here on Earth fourteen years back, from what remained of the old Splinter Culture of the men and women of Marathat with Kultis had been the two Exotic Worlds. In all those years, as often as he had looked at it, the appearance of the strip had never changed. But now he saw it lying shrivelled and blackened and curled as if burned, at the bottom of the liquid enclosing it. And from the implications of this it came to Walter then, coldly and like something he had been half-expecting for some time, that the hour of his death was upon him.
He put the cube away and got swiftly to his feet. At ninety-two he was still tall, spare and active. But he did not know how long the life gauge had been shrivelled, or how much time remained. He went quickly, therefore, along the library and out through a tall french window, onto the flagstone terrace, flanked at each end by heavy-blossomed lilac bushes and standing a sheer forty feet above the half mile of lake enclosed by the Mayne estate.
On the terrace, legs spread and big hands locked together behind him, Malachi Nasuno, once an officer and man of the Dorsai, but now a tutor like Walter, stood watching an eggshell plastic canoe and the canoeist in it, paddling toward the house. It was almost sunset. The sun, dropping rapidly behind the sharp peaks of the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains around them, was growing a shadow swiftly across the lake from its farther end. This shadow the canoeist was racing, just ahead of its edge on the dark blue water.
Walter wasted no time, but hurried to the flagstaff at one end of the terrace. He loosened the cord on the staff; the sun-warmed, flexible length of it ran through his fingers, burning them lightly, and the flag with its emblem of a hawk flying out of a wood fluttered to the terrace stones.
Out on the lake, the canoeist's paddle beat brightly once more in the sunlight and then ceased. The living figure vanished overside. A moment later, the canoe itself heaved up a little, filled and sank, as if it had been ripped open from beneath and pulled down into the depths. A second later the advancing edge of darkness upon the water covered the spot where the craft had been.
Walter felt the breath of Malachi Nasuno suddenly warm against his left ear. He turned to face the heavy-boned, deep-lined features of the old professional soldier.
"What is it?" asked Malachi, quietly. "Why alarm the boy?"
"I wanted him to get awayif he can," answered Walter. "The rest of us are done for."
Malachi's craggy, hundred-year-old face hardened like cooling metal and the thickets of his brows pulled close together.
"Speak for yourself," he said. "When I'm dead, I'm dead. But I'm not dead yet. What is it?"
"I don't know," said Walter. He lifted the cube from his robes and showed it. "All I know is I've had this warning."
"More of your Exotic hocus-pocus," growled Malachi. But the growl was only half disdainful. "I'll go warn Obadiah."
"There's no time." Walter's hand on a still-massive forearm stopped the ex-soldier. "Obadiah's been ready to meet that personal God of his for years now, and any minute we're liable to have eyes watching what we do. The less we seem to be expecting anything, the better Hal's chance to get away."
Far up along the shadowed margin of the lake, the gaudy shape of a nesting harlequin duck, disturbed from some tall waterweeds below overhanging bushes, burst suddenly into the open, crying out, and fluttered, half-running, half-flying, across the darkened surface of the water to another part of the shore. Walter breathed out in relief.
"Good lad," he said. "Now, if he'll just stay hidden."
"He'll stay," said Malachi, grimly. "He's not a lad now, but a man. You and Obadiah keep forgetting that."
"A man, at sixteen?" said Walter. The ready tears of age were unexpectedly damp against the outer corners of his eyes. "So soon?"
"Man enough," grunted Malachi. "Who's coming? Or what?"
"I don't know," answered Walter. "What I showed you was just a device to warn of a sharp pressure increase of the ontogenetic energies, moving in on us. You remember I told you one of the last things I was able to have them do on Mara was run calculations on the boy; and the calculations indicated high probability of his intersection with a pressure-climax of the current historical forces before his seventeenth year."
"Well, if it's only energies" Malachi snorted.
"Don't fool yourself!" said Walter, almost sharply for a Maran. "There'll be men or things to manifest its effect when it gets here, just as a tornado manifests a sudden drop in air pressure. Perhaps" He broke off. Malachi's gaze had moved away from the Maran. "What is it?"
"Others, perhaps," said Malachi, quietly. His generous nostrils spread, almost sniffing the cooling air, tinged now by the sky-pink of the sunset that was beginning to flood between the white-touched mountain peaks.
"Why do you say that?" Walter glanced covertly around, but saw nothing.
"I'm not sure. A hunch," said Malachi.
Walter felt coldness within him.
"We've done wrong to our boy," he almost whispered. Malachi's eyes whipped back to focus on him.
"Why?" demanded the Dorsai ex-soldier.
"We've trained him to meet menmen and women at most," whispered Walter, crouching under his feeling of guilt. "And these devils are loose now on the fourteen worlds."
"The Others aren't 'devils'!" snapped Malachi, not bothering to keep his voice down. "Mix your blood and mine, and Obadiah's in with itmix together blood of all the Splinter Cultures if you want to, and you still get men. Men make mennothing else. You don't get anything out of a pot you don't put into it."
"Other Men and Women. Hybrids." Walter shivered. "People with half a dozen talents in one skin."
"What of it?" growled Malachi. "A man lives, a man dies. If he lives well and dies well, what difference does it make what kills him?"
"But this is our Hal"
"Who has to die someday, like everyone else. Straighten up!" muttered Malachi. "Don't they grow any backbones on the Exotics?"
Walter pulled himself together. He stood tall, breathed deeply and with control for a few seconds, then put on peace like a cloak.
"You're right," he said. "At least Hal's had all we could give him, the three of us, in skill and knowledge. And he's got the creativity to be a great poet, if he lives."
"Poet!" said Malachi, bleakly. "There's a few thousand more useful things he could do with his life. Poets"
He broke off. His eyes met Walter's with abrupt warning.
Walter's eyes acknowledged the message. He folded his hands in the wide sleeves of his blue robe with a gesture of completion.
"But poets are men, too," he said, as cheerfully and casually as someone making light argument for its own sake. "That's why, for example, I think so highly of Alfred Noyes, among the nineteenth-century poets. You know Noyes, don't you?"
"I think so," said Walter. "Of course, I grant you no one remembers anything but The Highwayman, out of all his poems, nowadays. But Tales of the Mermaid Tavern, and that other long poem of hisSherwoodthey've both got genius in them. You know, there's that part where Oberon, the king of elves and fairies, is telling his retainers that Robin Hood is going to die, and explaining why the fairies owe Robin a debt"
"Never read it," grunted Malachi, ungraciously.
"Then I'll quote it for you," said Walter. "Oberon is talking to his own kind and he tells about one of them whom Robin once rescued from what he thought was nothing worse than a spider's web. And what Noyes had Oberon say islisten to this now
"'…He saved her from the clutches of that Wizard,
'That Cruel Thing, that dark old Mystery,
'Whom ye all know and shrink from…!'"
Walter broke off, for a thin, pale-faced young man in a dark business suit, holding a void pistol with a long, narrow, wire coilshielded barrel, had stepped from the lilac bushes behind Malachi. A moment later another gunman joined him. Turning, Walter saw yet two more had appeared from the bushes at his end of the terrace. The four pistols covered the two old men.
"'…Plucked her forth, so gently that not one bright rainbow gleam upon her wings was clouded…'" A deep, vibrant voice finished the quotation, and a very tall, erect man with dark hair and lean, narrow-boned face, carrying the book Walter had just been reading with one long finger holding a place in its pages, stepped through the same french window from which Walter had come a few moments before.
"…But you see?" he went on, speaking now to Walter, "how it goes downhill, gets to be merely pretty and ornate, after that first burst of strength you quoted? Now, if you'd chosen instead the song of Blondin the Minstrel, from that same poem"
His voice took on sudden strength and richnesshalf-chanting the quoted lines in the fashion of the plainsong of the medieval monks.
"Knight on the narrow way,
Where wouldst thou ride?
'Onward,' I heard him say,
'Love, to thy side!'
"…then I'd have had to agree with you."
Walter bent his head a little with bare politeness. But there was a traitorous stir in his chest. The magnificent voice, the tall, erect figure before him, plucked at Walter's senses, trained by a lifetime of subtleties, with the demand for appreciation he would have felt toward a Stradivarius in the hands of some great violinist.
Against his will, Walter felt the pull of a desireto which, of course, yielding was unthinkableto acknowledge the tall man as if this Other was a master, or a king.
"I don't think we know you," said Walter slowly.
"Ahrens is my name. Bleys Ahrens," said the tall man. "And you needn't be worried. No one's going to be hurt. We'd just like to use this estate of yours for a short meeting during the next day or two."
He smiled at Walter. The power of his different voice was colored by a faint accent that sounded like archaic English. His face held a straight-boned, unremarkable set of features that had been blended and molded by the character lines around the mouth and eyes into something like handsomeness. The direct nose, the thin-lipped mouth, the wide, high forehead and the brilliant brown eyes were all softened by those lines into an expression of humorous kindness.
Beneath that face, his sharply square and unusually wide shoulders, which would have looked out of proportion on a shorter man, seemed no more than normal above the unusual height of his erect, slim body. That body stood relaxed now, but unconsciously balanced, like the body of a yawning panther. And the pale-faced young gunmen gazed up at him with the worshipping gaze of hounds.
"We?" asked Walter.
"Oh, a club of sorts. To tell you the truth, you'd do better not to worry about the matter at all." Ahrens continued to smile at Walter, and looked about at the lake and the wooded margin of it that could be seen from the terrace.
"There ought to be two more of you here, shouldn't there?" he said, turning to Walter again. "Another tutor your own age, and your ward, the boy named Hal Mayne? Where would they be, now?"
Walter shook his head, pleading ignorance. Ahrens' gaze went to Malachi, who met it with the indifference of a stone lion.
"Well, we'll find them," said Ahrens lightly. He looked back at Walter. "You know, I'd like to meet that boy. He'd be…what? Sixteen now?"
"Fourteen years since he was found…" Ahrens' voice was frankly musing. "He must have some unusual qualities. He'd have had to have themto stay alive, as a child barely able to walk, alone on a wrecked ship, drifting in space for who-knows-how-long. Who were his parentsdid they ever find out?"
"No," said Walter. "The log aboard showed only the boy's name."
"A remarkable boy…," said Ahrens again. He glanced out around the lake and grounds. "You say you're sure you don't know where he is now?"
"No," answered Walter.
Ahrens glanced at Malachi, inquiringly.
Malachi snorted contemptuously.
Ahrens smiled as warmly on the ex-soldier as he had at Walter, but Malachi was still a stone lion. The tall man's smile faded and became wistful.
"You don't approve of Other Men like me, do you?" he said, a little sadly. "But times have changed, Commandant."
"Too bad," said Malachi, dryly.
"But too true," said Ahrens. "Did it ever occur to you your boy might be one of us? No? Well, suppose we talk about other things if that suggestion bothers you. I don't suppose you share your fellow tutor's taste for poetry? Say, for something like Tennyson's Morte d' Arthura piece of poetry about men and war?"
"I know it," said Malachi. "It's good enough."
"Then you ought to remember what King Arthur has to say in it about changing times," said Ahrens. "You rememberwhen Arthur and Sir Bedivere are left alone at the end and Sir Bedivere asks the King what will happen now, with all the companionship of the Round Table dissolved, and Arthur himself leaving for Avalon. Do you remember how Arthur answers, then?"
"No," Malachi said.
"He answers" and the voice of Ahrens rang out in all its rich power again, "The old order changeth, yielding to new…" Ahrens paused and looked at the old ex-soldier significantly.
"And God fulfills himself in many waysLest one good custom should corrupt the world," interrupted a harsh, triumphant voice.
They turned, all together. Obadiah Testator, the third of Hal Mayne's tutors, was being herded out through the french window into their midst, at the point of a void pistol, by a fifth young gunman.
"You forgot to finish the quotation," rasped Obadiah at Ahrens. "And it applies to your kind too, Other Man. In God's eye you, also, are no more than a drift of smoke and the lost note of a cymbal. You, too, are doomed at His willlike that!"
He had come on, farther than his young guard had intended, to snap his bony fingers with the last word, under the very nose of Ahrens. Ahrens started to laugh and then his face changed suddenly.
"Posts!" he snapped.
Tension sprang like invisible lightning across the terrace. Of the four gunmen already there, three had left off covering Walter and Malachi to aim at Obadiah, as he snapped his fingers. One only still covered Malachi. Now, at the whip of Ahrens' voice, the errant gunmen pulled their weapons almost in panic back to their original targets.
"Oh, you fools, you young fools!" said Ahrens softly to them. "Look at me!"
Their pale and guilty glances sidled back to his face.
"The Maran"Ahrens pointed at Walter"is harmless. His people taught him that violenceany violencewould cripple his thinking processes. And the Fanatic here is worth perhaps one gun. But you see that old man there?"
He pointed at the unmoved Malachi.
"I wouldn't lock one of you, armed as you are, with him, unarmed, in an unlighted room, and give a second's hope to the chance of seeing you alive again."
He paused, while the gunmen cringed before him.
"Three of you cover the Commandant," he went on at last, quietly. "And the other two watch our religious friend here. I'll"he smiled softly at them"undertake to try to defend myself against the Maran."
The aim of the pistols shifted obediently, leaving Walter uncovered. He felt a moment's pang of something like shame. But the fine engine of that mind of his, to which Ahrens had referred, had come to life; and the unprofitable emotion he had briefly felt was washed away by a new train of thought. Meanwhile, Ahrens had looked back at Obadiah.
"You're not exactly a lovable sort of man, you know," he told the Friendly.
Obadiah stood, unawed and unchangeable. Fanatic against fanaticism, apostate to the totalitarian hyper-religiosity of the Splinter Culture that had birthed him, the Friendly loomed almost as tall as Ahrens. But from that point on, any comparisons between them went different ways.
Face-to-face with the obvious necessity now of his own death to protect the boy he had tutoredfor Obadiah was no fool and Walter, from fourteen years of living with the Fanatic, saw that the other had already grasped the situationObadiah was regarding the terminal point of his life neither with the workmanlike indifference of Malachi, nor with the philosophical acceptance of Walter, but with a fierce, dark, and burning joy.
Grim-countenanced, skull-featured and lath-thin from a life of self-discipline, nothing was left of Obadiah in his eighty-fourth year but a leathery and narrow lantern of gray-black skin and bones. It was a lantern illuminated by an all-consuming inner faith in his individually-conceived Godthe God who in gentleness and charity was the direct antithesis of the dark and vengeful Lord of Obadiah's Culture, and the direct, acknowledged antithesis of Obadiah himself.
Oblivious now to Ahrens's humor, as to all other unimportant things, he folded his arms and looked directly into the taller man's eyes.
"Woe to you," he said, calmly, "to you, Other Man, and all of your breed. And again I say, woe unto you!"
For a second, meeting the deep-sunk, burning eyes in that dark, bony face, Ahrens frowned slightly. His gaze turned and went past Obadiah to the gunman covering him.
"The boy?" Ahrens asked.
"We looked.…" The young man's voice was husky, almost whispering. "He's nowhere…nowhere around the house."
Ahrens wheeled sharply to look at Malachi, and Walter.
"If he was off the grounds one of you'd know it?"
"No. He…," Walter hesitated uncertainly, "might have gone for a hike, or a climb in the mountains…"
He saw Ahrens' brown eyes focus upon him. As he looked, without warning the dark pupils of them seemed to grow and swell, as if they would finally fill the whole field of Walter's vision. Again, the emotional effect of the strange voice and commanding presence rang in his memory.
"Now, that's foolish of you," said Walter, quietly, making no effort to withdraw his attention from the compelling gaze of Ahrens. "Hypnotic dominance of any form needs at least the unconscious cooperation of the subject. And I am a Maran Exotic."
The pupils were suddenly normal again. This time, however, Ahrens did not smile.
"There's something going on here…," he began, slowly. But Walter had already recognized the fact that time had run out.
"All that's different," he interrupted, "is that you've been underestimating me. The unexpected, I think some general once said, is worth an army"
And he launched himself across the few feet of distance separating them, at Ahrens' throat.
It was a clumsy charge, made by a body and mind untrained to even the thought of physical violence; and Ahrens brushed it aside with one hand, the way he might have brushed aside the temper tantrum of a clumsy child. But at the same time the gunman behind Obadiah fired; it felt as if something heavy struck Walter in the side. He found himself tumbling to the terrace.
But, useless as his attack had been, it had distracted at least the one armed guard; and in that split second of distraction, Obadiah hurled himselfnot at either of the gunmen guarding him, but at one of those covering Malachi.
Malachi himself had been in movement from the first fractional motion of Walter's charge. He was on one of the two still holding pistols trained on him, before the first man could fire. And the charge from the gun of the other passed harmlessly through the space the old soldier had occupied a second before.
Malachi chopped down the gunman he had reached as someone might chop a flower stalk with one swipe of an open hand. Then he turned, picked up the man who had missed him, and threw that gunman into the fire-path of the discharge from the pistols of the two who had been covering Obadiahjust as the remaining armed man, caught in Obadiah's grasp, managed to fire twice.
In that same moment, Malachi reached him; and they went down together, the gunman rolling on top of the old man.
From the level of the terrace stones, lying half on his side, Walter stared at the ruin his charge had made. Obadiah lay fallen with his head twisted around so that his open and unmoving eyes stared blankly in Walter's direction. He did not move. No more did the man Malachi had chopped down, nor the other gunman the ex-soldier had thrown into the fire from his companions' pistols. One other gunman, knocked down by the thrown man, was twitching and moaning strangely on the terrace.
Of the two guards remaining, one lay still on top of Malachi, who had ceased to move, and the other was still on his feet. He turned to face Ahrens and cringed before the devastating blaze of the Other Man's gaze.
"You fools, you fools!" said Bleys softly. "Didn't I just get through telling you to concentrate on the Dorsai?"
The remaining gunman shrank in on himself in silence.
"All right," said Bleys, sighing. "Pick him up." He indicated the moaning man and turned to the gunman on top of the silent figure of Malachi.
"Wake up." Bleys prodded the man on top with his toe. "It's all over."
The man he had prodded rolled off Malachi's body and sprawled on the stones with his head at an odd angle to his body. His neck was broken. Bleys drew in a slow breath.
"Three deadand one hurt," he said as if to himself. "Just to destroy three unarmed old teachers. What a waste." He shook his head and turned back to the gunman who was lifting the moaning man.
They think I'm already dead, too, then, thought Walter, lying on the flagstones.
The realization came to him without much surprise. Bleys was already holding open the french window so that the wounded man could be half-carried inside the library by his companion. Bleys followed, his finger still marking a place in the volume of Noyes' poetry Walter had originally been reading. The french window closed. Walter was left alone with the dead, and the dying light of day.
He was aware that the charge from the void pistol had taken him in the side; and a certain feeling of leakage inside him confirmed his belief that the wound was mortal. He lay waiting for his personal end and it grew in him after a moment that it was something of a small victory that neither Ahrens nor the surviving gunman had realized he was still alive.
He had stolen several minutes more of life. That was a small victory, to add to the large victory that there was now no one from whom the lightning of Bleys' multi-talented mind could deduce the unique value of Hal. A value that, since it was connected to a possible pressure-climax of the ontogenetic energies, could be as dangerous to the Other Men as they would be to Hal, once they realized he might pose a threat to them.
It was this awareness of Hal as a possible danger that Walter had been so concerned to hide from Ahrens. Now he had done so. Now, they would probably search the grounds for the boy, but not with any particular urgency; and so, perhaps, Hal could escape. Walter felt a modest surge of triumph.
But the sunset was red, and deepening around him as well as around the other silent bodies; and the feeling of triumph faded. His life was leaking fast from him, and he realized now, for the first time, that he had never wanted to die. If only, he thought, I could have lived to think a little longer.
He felt a moment's unutterable and poignant feeling of regret. It seemed to him suddenly that if he had existed only a few more hours, some of the answers he had sought all his life might have come to him. But then that feeling, too, faded; the light seemed to darken swiftly about him, and he died.
The sun was now setting. Shortly, its rays left the stone terrace and even the dark slates of the house rooftop. Darkness brimmed in the area below the mountains, and the french windows above the terrace flagstones glowed yellow from the lights in the library. For a little while the sky, too, was light; but this also went, and left only the brilliant pinpoints of gleaming stars in a velvet-black, moonless sky.
Down by the margin of the lake, the tall weeds rising out of the black water by the shore stirred. Nearly without a sound, the tall, sapling-thin, shadowy figure of a sixteen-year-old boy hoisted itself up on the grassy band and stood erect there, dripping and shivering, staring off at the terrace and the lighted house.
Copyright © 1984, 1997 by Gordon R. Dickson