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The Man in the Maze
By Robert Silverberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Agberg Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Muller knew the maze quite well by this time. He understood its snares and its delusions, its pitfalls, its deadly traps. He had lived within it for nine years. That was long enough to come to terms with the maze, if not with the situation that had driven him to take refuge within it.
He still moved warily. Three or four times already he had learned that his knowledge of the maze, although adequate and workable, was not wholly complete. At least once he had come right to the edge of destruction, pulling back only by some improbable bit of luck just before the unexpected fountaining of an energy flare sent a stream of raw power boiling across his path. Muller had charted that flare, and fifty others much like it; but as he moved through the city-sized labyrinth he knew there was no guarantee that he would not meet an uncharted one.
Overhead the sky was darkening; the deep, rich green of late afternoon was giving way to the black of night. Muller paused a moment in his hunting to look up at the pattern of the stars. Even that was becoming familiar now. He had chosen his own constellations on this desolate world, searching the heavens for arrangements of brightness that suited his peculiarly harsh and bitter taste. Now they appeared: the Dagger, the Back, the Shaft, the Ape, the Toad. In the forehead of the Ape flickered the small grubby star that Muller believed was the sun of Earth. He was not sure, because he had destroyed his chart tank after landing here. Somehow, though, he felt that that minor fireball must be Sol. The same dim star formed the left eye of the Toad. There were times when Muller told himself that Sol would not be visible in the sky of this world ninety light-years from Earth, but at other times he was quite convinced. Beyond the Toad lay the constellation that Muller had named Libra, the Scales. Of course, this set of scales was badly out of balance.
Three small moons glittered here. The air was thin but breathable; Muller had long ago ceased to notice that it had too much nitrogen, not enough oxygen. It was a little short on carbon dioxide, too, and one effect of that was that he hardly ever seemed to yawn. That did not trouble him. Gripping the butt of his gun tightly, he walked slowly through the alien city in search of his dinner. This too was part of a fixed routine. He had six months' supply of food stored in a radiation locker half a kilometer away, but yet each night he went hunting so that he could replace at once whatever he drew from his cache. It was a way of devouring the time. And he needed that cache, undepleted, against the day when the maze might cripple or paralyze him. His keen eyes scanned the angled streets ahead. About him rose the walls, screens, traps, and confusions of the maze within which he lived. He breathed deeply. He put each foot firmly down before lifting the other. He looked in all directions. The triple moonlight analyzed and dissected his shadow, splitting it into reduplicated images that danced and sprawled before him.
The mass detector mounted over his left ear emitted a high-pitched sound. That told Muller that it had picked up the thermals of an animal in the 50-100 kilogram range. He had the detector programmed to scan in three horizons, of which this was the middle one, the food-beast range. The detector would also report to him on the proximity of 10-20 kilogram creatures — the teeth-beast range — and on the emanations of beasts over 500 kilograms — the big-beast range. The small ones had a way of going quickly for the throat, and the great ones were careless tramplers; Muller hunted those in between and avoided the others.
Now he crouched, readying his weapon. The animals that wandered the maze here on Lemnos could be slain without stratagem; they kept watch on one another, but even after all the years of Muller's presence among them they had not learned that he was predatory. Not in several million years had an intelligent life-form done any hunting on this planet, evidently, and Muller had been potting them nightly without teaching them a thing about the nature of mankind. His only concern in hunting was to strike from a secure, well-surveyed point so that in his concentration on his prey he would not fall victim to some more dangerous creature. With the kickstaff mounted on the heel of his left boot he probed the wall behind him, making certain that it would not open and engulf him. It was solid. Good. Muller edged himself backward until his back touched the cool, polished stone. His left knee rested on the faintly yielding pavement. He sighted along the barrel of his gun. He was safe. He could wait. Perhaps three minutes went by. The mass detector continued to whine, indicating that the beast was remaining within a hundred-meter radius; the pitch rose slightly from moment to moment as the thermals grew stronger. Muller was in no hurry. He was at one side of a vast plaza bordered by glassy curving partitions, and anything that emerged from those gleaming crescents would be an easy shot. Muller was hunting tonight in Zone E of the maze, the fifth sector out from the heart, and one of the most dangerous. He rarely went past the relatively innocuous Zone D, but some daredevil mood had prodded him into E this evening. Since finding his way into the maze he had never risked G or H again at all, and had been as far out as F only twice. He came to E perhaps five times a year.
To his right the converging lines of a shadow appeared, jutting from one of the curving glassy walls. The song of the mass detector reached into the upper end of the pitch spectrum for an animal of this size. The smallest moon, Atropos, swinging giddily through the sky, changed the shadow pattern; the lines no longer converged, but now one bar of blackness cut across the other two. The shadow of a snout, Miller knew. An instant later he saw his victim. The animal was the size of a large dog, gray of muzzle and tawny of body, hump-shouldered, ugly, spectacularly carnivorous. For his first few years here Muller had avoided hunting the carnivores, thinking that their meat would not be tasty. He had gone instead after the local equivalent of cows and sheep — mild-mannered ungulates which drifted blithely through the maze cropping the grasses in the garden places. Only when that bland meat palled had he begun to go after one of the fanged, clawed creatures that harvested the herbivores, and to his surprise their flesh was excellent. He watched the animal emerge into the plaza. Its long snout twitched. Muller could hear the sniffing sounds from where he crouched. But the scent of man meant nothing to this beast.
Confidently, swaggeringly, the carnivore strode across the sleek pavement of the plaza, its unretracted claws clicking and scraping. Muller fined his beam down to needle aperture and took thoughtful aim, sighting now on the hump, now on the hindquarters. The gun was proximity-responsive and would score a hit automatically, but Muller always keyed in the manual sighting. He and the gun had different goals — the gun was concerned with killing, Muller with eating; and it was easier to do his own aiming than to try to convince the weapon that a bolt through the tender, juicy hump would deprive him of the tastiest cut. The gun, seeking the simplest target, would lance through that hump to the spine and bring the beast down: Muller favored more finesse.
He chose a target six inches forward from the hump: the place where the spine entered the skull. One shot did it. The animal toppled heavily. Muller went toward it as rapidly as he dared, checking every footfall. Quickly he carved away the inessentials — limbs, head, belly — and sprayed a seal around the raw slab of flesh he cut from the hump. He sliced a hefty steak from the hindquarters, too, and strapped both parcels to his shoulders. Then he swung around, searching for the zigzagging road that was the only safe entry to the core of the maze. In less than an hour he could be at his lair in the heart of Zone A.
He was halfway across the plaza when he heard an unfamiliar sound.
Pausing, he looked back. Three small loping creatures were heading toward the carcass he had abandoned. But the scrabbling of the scavengers was not what he had heard. Was the maze preparing some new deviltry? It had been a low rumbling sound overlaid by a hoarse throb in the middle frequencies, too prolonged to be the roaring of one of the large animals. It was a sound Muller had not heard before.
No: a sound he had not heard here before. It registered somewhere in his memory banks. He searched. The sound was familiar. That double boom, slowly dopplering into the distance — what was it?
He placed its position. The sound had come from over his right shoulder, so it seemed. Muller looked there and saw only the triple cascade of the maze's secondary wall, rising in tier upon glittering amber tier. Above that wall? He saw the star-brightened sky: the Ape, the Toad, the Scales.
Muller remembered the sound now.
A ship; a starship, cutting out of warp onto ion drive to make a planetary landing. The boom of the expellers, the throb of the deceleration tubes, passing over the city. It was a sound he had not heard in nine years, since his self-exile on Lemnos had begun. So he was having visitors. Casual intruders, or had he been traced? What did they want? Anger blazed through him. He had had enough of them and their world. Why did they have to trouble him here? Muller stood braced, legs apart, a segment of his mind searching as always for perils even while he glared toward the probable landing point of the ship. He wanted nothing to do with Earth or Earthmen. He glowered at the faint point of light in the eye of the Toad, in the forehead of the Ape.
They would not reach him, he decided.
They would die in the maze, and their bones would join the million-year accumulation that lay strewn in the outer corridors.
And if they succeeded in entering, as he had done —
Well, then they would have to contend with him. They would not find that pleasant. Muller smiled grimly, adjusted the meat on his back, and returned his full concentration to the job of penetrating the maze. Soon he was within Zone C, and safe. He reached his lair. He stowed his meat. He prepared his dinner. Pain hammered at his skull. After nine years he was no longer alone on this world. They had soiled his solitude. Once again, Muller felt betrayed. He wanted nothing more from Earth than privacy, now; and even that they would not give him. But they would suffer if they managed to reach him within the maze. If.
The ship had erupted from warp a little late, almost in the outer fringes of Lemnos' atmosphere. Charles Boardman disliked that. He demanded the highest possible standards of performance from himself, and expected everyone about him to keep to the same standards. Especially pilots.
Concealing his irritation, Boardman thumbed the screen to life and the cabin wall blossomed with a vivid image of the planet below. Scarcely any clouds swathed its surface; he had a clear view through the atmosphere. In the midst of a broad plain was a series of corrugations that were sharply outlined even at a height of a hundred kilometers. Boardman turned to the young man beside him and said, "There you are, Ned. The labyrinth of Lemnos. And Dick Muller right in the middle of it!"
Ned Rawlins pursed his lips. "So big? It must be hundreds of kilometers across!"
"What you're seeing is the outer embankment. The maze itself is surrounded by a concentric ring of earthen walls five meters high and nearly a thousand kilometers in outer circumference. But —"
"Yes, I know," Rawlins burst in. Almost immediately he turned bright red, with that appealing innocence that Boardman found so charming and soon would be trying to put to use. "I'm sorry, Charles, I didn't mean to interrupt."
"Quite all right. What did you want to ask?"
"That dark spot within the outer walls — is that the city itself?"
Boardman nodded. "That's the inner maze. Twenty, thirty kilometers in diameter — and God knows how many millions of years old. That's where we'll find Muller."
"If we can get inside."
"When we get inside."
"Yes. Yes. Of course. When we get inside," Rawlins corrected, reddening again. He flashed a quick, earnest smile. "There's no chance we won't find the entrance, is there?"
"Muller did," said Boardman quietly. "He's in there."
"But he's the first who got inside. Everyone else who tried has failed. So why will we —"
"There weren't many who tried," Boardman said. "Those who did weren't equipped for the problem. We'll manage, Ned. We'll manage. We have to. Relax, now, and enjoy the landing."
The ship swung toward the planet — going down much too rapidly, Boardman thought, oppressed by the strains of deceleration. He hated travel, and he hated the moment of landing worst of all. But this was a trip he could not have avoided. He eased back in the webfoam cradle and blanked out the screen. Ned Rawlins was still upright, eyes glowing with excitement. How wonderful to be young, Boardman thought, not sure whether he meant to be sarcastic or not. Certainly the boy was strong and healthy — and cleverer than he sometimes seemed. A likely lad, as they would have said a few centuries ago. Boardman could not remember having been that sort of young man himself. He had the feeling of having always been on the brink of middle age — shrewd, calculating, well organized. He was eighty, now, with almost half his lifetime behind him, and yet in honest self-appraisal he could not bring himself to believe that his personality had changed in any essential way since he had turned twenty. He had learned techniques, the craft of managing men; he was wiser now; but he was not qualitatively different. Young Ned Rawlins, though, was going to be another person entirely sixty-odd years from now, and very little of the callow boy in the next cradle would survive. Boardman suspected, not happily, that this very mission would be the crucible in which Ned's innocence was blasted from him.
Boardman closed his eyes as the ship entered its final landing maneuvers. He felt gravity clawing at his aging flesh. Down. Down. Down. How many planetfalls had he made, loathing every one? The diplomatic life was a restless one. Christmas on Mars, Easter on one of the Centaurine worlds, the midyear feast celebrated on a stinking planet of Rigel — and now this trip, the most complex of all. Man was not made to flash from star to star like this, Boardman thought. I have lost my sense of a universe. They say this is the richest era of human existence; but I think a man can be richer in knowing every atom of a single golden island in a blue sea than by spending his days striding among all the worlds.
He knew that his face was distorted by the pull of Lemnos as the ship plunged planetward. There were heavy fleshy jowls about his throat, and pockets of extra meat here and there about his body, giving him a soft, pampered look. With little effort Boardman could have had himself streamlined to the fashionably sleek appearance of a modern man; this was an era when men a century and a quarter old could look like striplings, if they cared to. Early in his career Boardman had chosen to simulate authentic aging. Call it an investment; what he forfeited in chic he gained in status. His business was selling advice to governments, and governments preferred not to buy their counsel from men who looked like boys. Boardman had looked fifty-five years old for the last forty years, and he expected to retain that look of strong, vigorous early middle age at least another half a century. Later, he would allow time to work on him again when he entered the final phase of his career. He would take on the whitened hair and shrunken cheek of a man of eighty, and pose as Nestor rather than as Ulysses. At the moment it was professionally useful to look only slightly out of trim, as he did.
He was a short man, though he was so stocky that he easily dominated any group at a conference table. His powerful shoulders, deep chest, and long arms would have been better suited to a giant. When he stood up Boardman revealed himself as of less than middle height, but sitting down he was awesome. He found that feature useful too, and had never considered altering it. An extremely tall man is better suited to command than to advise, and Boardman had never had the wish to command; he preferred a more subtle exercise of power. But a short man who looks big at a table can control empires. The business of empires is transacted sitting down.
Excerpted from The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 2002 Agberg Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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