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Sealed in a giant amber cell, two horned demons at Rainbow Bridge are the greatest discovery of all time. But now these creatures of legend have awakened and escaped--leaving an all-too-real trail of mutilated victims. The three major empires of the universe have no choice but to follow the demons. "Splendid adventure. . . ."--Publishers Weekly.
An anguished, ghostly spectre trapped in Hell had summoned them to this remote place, and, worst of all, it was a collect call.
"All ships... any ships... Exchange registry... This is Research Vessel Wabaugh. Coordinates based on special map frontier zone one one four eight two stroke five. Coordinates are Rainbow Bridge. Send assistance fast. They're all dead. They're all in there with the demons and they're all dead. Only one left. Can't leave. Approach with extreme caution! Power adequate for maintenance only. Any Exchange registry. Approach with caution. Demons at Rainbow Bridge! Coordinates..."
The blue and green world below them looked so tranquil, so placid, that it seemed as if nothing could disturb its quiet beauty, but they were an Arm of the gods of the Mizlaplan, a holy gathering in Inquisition assembly, and they had already risked much to get this far.
Although, by treaty, the Mizlaplanian survival suit was officially categorized as "gold in color," that was simply to get around different racial perceptions of color. The suits were not shiny, but rather dull, more a darker shade of yellow with just a bit of orange than golden. The form-fitted suits, customized for each individual, differed only in detail from those used by the other two great empires, the Mycohl and the Exchange, but for color, of course. Captain Gun Roh Chin, master of the Mizlaplanian freighter Faith oj Gorusu, graduate of the Naval Institute, now an Instrument of the Arm of the Holy Inquisition, looked at them all in their fairly bright suits and wished that the diplomats had insisted on charcoal; he felt like a beacon in the damned thing, or a very good target. They had been forced into this desolate and isolated frontier sector of space on orders; to get here, they had been forced to cross Mycohlian space at its narrowest point, and, narrow or not, were two empires away from home and doubly illegal.
Even though Chin timed his drop and his thrust perfectly, it took him close to thirty precious minutes to maneuver up to the Exchange ship, and, when he did, he found it with beacons and running lights off and no sign of power.
The ship was an impressive sight nonetheless, framed against the blue-green and white backdrop of the planet below; clearly a research and supply, rather than military, vessel, it floated suspended between the planet and the stars, looking very, very lonely.
"It doesn't look damaged," Krisha the Holy Mendoro, the dark beauty who was both priestess and Arm security officer, noted, trying to see what detail she could. "I am telepathically scanning, and I get nothing at all."
"Nor I," added Savin the Holy Peshwa, who was a powerful empath. Empaths often received things at far greater distance than telepaths, although, in both cases, they weren't expecting to feel or monitor anything intelligible-just some sign that there was life aboard. "It feels like a dead ship."
Savin was a Mesok, a huge humanoid creature with a hard, rubbery reptilian skin, nasty yellow eyes like some giant cat's, with big, bony hands whose fingers and toes ended in suckers at their tips, and big, bony, dish-like ears that seemed glued onto the top of his angular head. He was a fearsome-looking one, all green and black, with enormous teeth that showed even with his mouth closed, and his very sight was intimidating as a vision of Hell. There wasn't one of them who didn't give prayers of thanks every time they looked at him that he was on their side.
Manya the Holy Szin looked up from her instrument cluster. "It is a dead ship," she told them. "No power levels at all. Even the emergencies have been drained. Only the broadcast emergency transponder, which is opposite the planet's surface, shows any energy at all. It is inert. No life forms, no internal power. We will have to cut through an airlock just to board her."
Manya, the science officer of the Arm, was a Gnoll-short, squat, barrel-chested gnomes with snake-like forked tongues, huge pointed ears that stuck up on both sides of their heads, and with gray skin like an elephant's hide and twice as tough. But they and Terrans could eat the same foods, tended to share a liking for sweets, had similar biological systems, and weren't as far apart in the evolutionary way as they seemed on the surface.
"You're certain of that, Manya?" Morok pressed her. "No life, no internal power? It can't just be shielded?"
Morok the Holy Ladue was tall, frail-looking, and quite bird-like in appearance, his tiny hands at the end of the long, leathery wings that could actually be used to fly-in the right gravity and environment-and the leader of the Arm. Still, there was also something reptilian about him, at least subjectively to Terrans, and this came across in his constant cool, seemingly dispassionate manner.
"No. If there were any attempts at shielding of that sort then the shields themselves would register," the science officer replied. "There is nothing alive aboard. Even its computers are out."
"Somebody survived whatever it was," Krisha noted. "Somebody sent that message along with the distress beacon."
"Yes, but how long ago?" Gun Roh Chin asked her. "Many days, certainly. Perhaps longer. With life support down, they might not have been able to find a way to keep going. They might have lost hope after nobody came. They might have gone mad."
Savin's huge eyes scanned the surface of the research vessel. "Holiness-the escape pods are still intact as well. Not a one has been fired. Not even the ones away from the surface that show some trickle charge-enough to use manually."
"Yes? So?" Morok was more spooked than irritated. They all were.
"Holiness-at least a few near the transponder are almost certainly usable, power drain or not. They weren't used. The first implication is that whatever happened here happened very quickly and to everyone. Everyone but one. He, she, it-whatever-survived, possibly by being in the only place near the transponder that's still active, and was possibly only knocked out when everyone and everything else went. They would likely not have a huge crew on this sort of ship anyway. That person is not aboard now, or, if aboard, died there. Died there right next to a getaway system. Or got away without using the pods."
Gun Roh Chin nodded. "The pod would have taken him to the nearest survivable planet. We assume that they wouldn't assign races to this who couldn't survive down there, since the climate, atmosphere, and the like have measured safe for us. It would have taken our survivor to the surface, with enough supplies and shelter for a month or more. That means..."
"It means," Krisha finished for him, "that he chose to die, either horribly or by his own hand, rather than go down to that world."
"There is a shuttle missing," Morok noted. "I saw its empty nesting bay on the underside."
"Within range of whatever it was, though," Savin pointed out. "I would assume that the shuttle was on the surface with the main scientific party. Since whatever killed this ship came from down there, I think it highly unlikely that anyone there risked flying up here to get that survivor off. Or was able to."
"Do you want to board her?" Chin asked them.
"Yes," responded Morok, "but not now. If there is no life aboard, we must first determine if there is still life below."
"Well, there is surely something below," Manya commented. "The energy pattern on the ship clearly indicates that it took a jolt of almost inconceivable power, pure energy, from a point below on the surface. It shorted out all the systems, shorted the computers, and most likely electrocuted almost everyone. Our survivor was probably the only one in some sort of insulated situation and so did not get the full jolt."
"If I am to be electrocuted, I should rather know who is doing it to me, and why," Morok said in a flat, hollow tone.
"Take it down, Captain. Land at their camp below. Everyone check suits and weapons. Yes, again. Now!"
It wasn't difficult to find the camp below. It was a world covered with trees and seas, but the camp appeared to be the only sign of any animal life on it. There were a number of temporary, prefabricated structures down there as well as parabolic communications antennae all of which were easy to spot.
"A standard scientific field station, not much different than the way we would do it," Manya told them. "The only thing I cannot understand is that large-house, or building, or whatever it is. It is of a totally different design than the others and looks quite permanent. In fact, it almost looks as if it were tooled from a single, unimaginably huge quartz-like crystal."
"More likely the object under study," Morok guessed. "Is it the odd light or my eyes, or does that-thing-seem slightly different, almost as if it moved?"
"I have been plotting it," Manya reported. "It does change, somehow. Not really in mass or even dimensions, but subtly, in detail."
"Could it be alive?"
"It might be-but if it is, it is like nothing we know as life in any form. I simply do not know what it is, and I suspect that they didn't, either. That is why they are here."
"The base station has normal power," Chin noted. "Looks rather cozy, in fact. But we're not being scanned by anything I can detect. It's as if everybody down there is asleep. Ah-see! Their shuttle's there, in that clearing. I think I can put down close to it. No use in sneaking up. If anything's left alive down here, it certainly knows we're here by now and should come out and welcome us with open arms."
There was no welcoming committee. They put on their helmets, pressurized, and went out, even though all the instrumentation said that the air was perfectly safe and the temperature was quite pleasant. Until they knew more, none of them wanted to take anything for granted.
"Dead like the ship," Krisha said. "Nothing. I get nothing at all. Savin?"
"The same, although I do get some very odd intermittent sensations from the area of that object there. I can't really explain the sensation. It's not like anything I have ever experienced before. Whatever it is, I do not think it is directed at us."
"That will have to do for now," Morok told him. "Check out their shuttle first, then the prefabs, one at a time. Use caution, keep weapons drawn."
Gun Roh Chin took the shuttle. It wasn't difficult to enter, and, inside, he found it rather bizarrely arranged but nothing he could not have figured out. It was clearly not designed to be flown by humans, although there were two human- shaped seats in the rear. The rest he put down to different designs and a different shuttle design philosophy. Still, he could tell almost from the moment he entered that it was powered, fully charged, and could be operational with a few flicks of a few switches.
"Shuttle is perfect and operational," he reported through his helmet radio.
"Then it could have picked up our survivor," Morok came back.
"Unlikely. Without power up there, they'd have had to cut away the outer airlock faceplate to get to the manual controls. They didn't. This thing was here before and it's been here all the time."
"The square prefab! Come quickly!" Krisha shouted.
They were all there on the run as soon as they got their bearings, piling into the door and then stopping dead just inside.
"May the gods embrace their innocent souls and reincarnate them to a life of peace," Morok intoned.
Gun Roh Chin was not prayerful. Even protected from the stench by his suit, he still wanted to throw up.
Savin bent down over a bloody form. "Krisha, exobiology is not my strong point, but isn't the human heart mounted roughly in the central chest cavity?"
Krisha swallowed hard. "Yes, roughly. What...?"
The huge Mesok grabbed a shock of white hair atop the head of a Terran corpse; its face locked in a horrible and grotesque death mask, and yanked it up unceremoniously so that the chest was exposed.
The central area of the chest had been literally torn open, as if by some wild creature, possibly, even probably, while the man had been still alive. They all caught their breaths, but Manya scurried over and began using her portable instruments to examine the awful-looking wound. Even the tough, fanatical Gnoll seemed a bit shaky, though.
"It... has been torn from his chest," she managed. "Several of the others have equivalent mutilations. Something with great strength just pushed them down, like a child's plaything, and either ripped or tore key organs out of them."
"How long have they been dead?" Morok asked her.
"Seven days at least. This happened at least seven days ago. The bodies are dried up and beginning decomposition."
Gun Roh Chin wanted to avoid the sight of the research party, its nice little lab smeared in red human blood, and Zalerian green, and gray, and purple, and other colors of other races who had been here. He walked over to the far side of the lab and began to examine a huge hole that had seemingly been smashed into the wall around what had once been a window. He pushed away where the debris had bent inward and looked out at the strange, slightly changing, translucent structure just beyond.
In the small administration hut there was much the same, only here the door had simply been kicked or blown in. Here, too, were apparently several armed security officers, and this apparently had been, along with a couple found outside, the only armed members of the party. Some had clearly gotten off a lot of shots, and they looked, even in their present condition, to be the kind who didn't miss.
Whatever had come out of that thing and killed them was hardly subtle; it had just come, on and on, oblivious to anything that they could do.
He had been around, seen hundreds of worlds and races, seen violence and cruelty as well as gentleness and good, but he had never seen anything like this.
"Something big," Kelly Morgan had told him. Something perhaps too big, even for them.
Krisha called to him. "Captain, I hate to ask, but I need you. We've found the depository recordings and none of us can read the writing to tell which is which."
He returned to the ultimate horror scene, noting how peaceful and gentle this place was, how quiet, and re-entered the lab.
He scanned the cabinet full of small labeled cubes she'd found, then picked one out. "This is a good place to start," he told her. "It says 'Preliminary Report on Remote Autopsy of Unknown Forms.' "
"There's a player in the office over there," she told him. "And no bodies. The recording system is different than ours. I'm not certain I know how to work it."
He took it, went into the office, which looked as if it had just been left for a moment by its occupant, then found the small previewer machine.
Excerpted from The Run to Chaos Keep by Jack L. Chalker Copyright © 1999 by Jack L. Chalker. Excerpted by permission.
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