Read an Excerpt
By L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1993 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Picture a man, or, if you will, a woman, standing in an empty room, a plain hall lit by slow-glass panels and green glowstone floors.
The person standing there wears a black jumpsuit with a four-pointed star on the left collar and wide silvered wristbands. The bands contain microcircuitry.
Suddenly, the man, or, if you will, woman, is gone.
The slow-glass panels still light the hall.
Some time later — a few units, a few days, rarely longer — the traveler reappears in the same spot and walks out of the hall.
That is all there is to it, the base action of the Temporal Guard at Quest, the single city of the Immortals of Query, that hidden planet circling a very ordinary yellow sun in a very ordinary galaxy.
There's no such thing as a race of timedivers, you say, Immortals who ride the paths of time a million years or more, who manipulate cultures, lift and cast down civilizations in their corner of the galaxy?
Let us lay that question aside for a time.CHAPTER 2
The child in the cradle is male, crying, and has a smooth head covered with red fuzz. Still in his first seasons, his eyes glitter the green of witch fire.
He howls because his mother has dropped him back into his cradle. She cries because she dropped him. She ignores the pain of the faint burns on her hands and forearms.
The man, who has arrived in response to her crying, puts his arms around her as she sobs over the infant and asks, "He did what?"
Through her sobs, she answers. "Sleeping. Wet. Covers were soaked. Thought he would be happier dry. Picked him up, and he burned me. Burned me ... me ..."
She turns out of his arms and twists her forearms outward to show him the light red lines arrowing across her skin.
The man shivers within himself, but remains silent. He studies the picture of his own father on the wall above the cradle, looks back at the baby, and sets his jaw.
The woman follows his eyes and nods, but she says nothing either. This pain will pass.CHAPTER 3
Call me Loki. It's as good a name as any, better than most, and besides, that's what my parents named me.
What better name for the grandson of Ragnorak, for the child of fallen heroes, fumbler in the complex intrigues of the Immortals, sometime god, timediver, and idiot-savant par excellence?
The dominoes of time have toppled, shoved into new patterns by the winds of change, those chill torrents that howl down the corridors of time, those black rays of timepath tossed carelessly out by each sun and vaulted and trod by the timedivers of Query in their ceaseless efforts to maintain their precarious position on the top of time's totem pole.
A too-florid description, perhaps, but accurate for all the verbosity.
I am serious. I have always been serious — too serious. Queryans are immortal, but nature balanced it nicely, since the genetic interlock required for fertilization, and the time-diving ability, kept births low — less than one per couple per millennium. And accidents do happen, time-diving ability or not.
Queryan timedivers ranged through time, and since time is space, so to speak, through space as well. As a precaution, all children were Locator-tagged at birth, although the talent didn't usually develop until later, nor fully until puberty.
Only a small percentage of us had innate navigational senses, and most Queryans never went far from Query. Backtiming or foretiming on Query itself is out. The Laws of Time are inflexible. If you dive at all on Query, you dive planet clear.
Still, all of this was far indeed from my mind on a spring day when I walked out of the house and across the ridge line toward the rocks where I so often played. How old was I? Old enough to speak, and not old enough to have received much schooling from either of my parents or from the tutors. Old enough to enjoy watching the birds soar over the valley below, and young enough that even small boulders were the ramparts of the old castles of Eastron — castles so ancient that they exist only in legend and in cryptic references in the Archives.
After the house was lost in the trees behind me, I stopped to watch a stone mouse nibble on a purple flower before I skipped a rock at him and watched him scamper between two boulders. The path I had worn along the ridge was clear enough to me, perhaps because there were so few paths, except close to our house, not that I saw many houses then. My parents preferred to walk, in contrast to many on Query, at least in coming after me or summoning me for meals or my beginning studies.
That day, there were no studies, and when I reached the higher end of the ridge, I scrambled over the rocks and up into the stone jumble that was my castle.
First, I stood on the highest flat boulder, pretending I was the High Tribune in the Tower. Or maybe I was merely the Emperor of ancient Westra. But the sun continued to beat down, and I decided to inspect the dungeons, a twisted cave almost directly beneath my high ramparts, but a cave that I could only reach by a shaded and narrow trail around the side of the rocky cliffside below the peak.
To think has always been to act, and I did, bouncing off the squared-off boulder and squirming through the narrow aperture created by an ancient fracture of another giant boulder and onto the trail. Holding onto various roots and branches, I scuttled along the trail until I could swing into the cool darkness of the cave — otherwise considered as the private dungeon of the Duke of Eastron, or maybe of the King of the Perrsions vanquished by my grandfather so many years earlier.
RRrrrrrr ... The low growl rumbled toward me, and I looked up and back into the cool darkness where two green-gold eyes set in golden-tan fur fixed on me. Time seemed to slow as I looked at the big cat, far bigger than I. Between his paws was a small animal — half-eaten — and blood smeared his jaws and yellow teeth.
I stepped backward, one step at a time, my eyes on the cat, for perhaps three steps, until the heel of my boot caught a rock and I flailed backward before landing hard on my backside.
RRRrrrrr ... The cat decided on another meal — or a larger and more tasty one — and sprang.
I wanted to be somewhere else — anywhere. High and somewhere away from the cat ... on top of the ridge. Why I didn't think of my house, I don't know, but I didn't.
There was a cold feeling, a sense of red and blue and gold and black, and I was teetering on top of my castle rampart, too close to the edge. I sat down. Then I shivered, and I could feel the tears rolling down my cheeks.
The faint puzzled growling from beneath convinced me that my sudden departure from the dungeon had been real enough. But what was I supposed to do next? Would the cat follow me?
"Very impressive, young fellow."
I sat up straight.
"Especially for a first time." She wore black, and she had a thin face, sort of like my mother's, but her hair was cut shorter, and it was sandy brown. Her eyes were a piercing green, almost as piercing as the cat's.
"I'm not a young fellow. I'm Loki."
"I know. That mountain cat is a very confused young hunter, and he might not attack you the next time, and you might be able to dive out of the way again. And you might not. But I would suggest that you leave the cave below alone."
"The cat is bigger than you are, Loki. He also has sharp teeth and claws." On her wrists were silver gauntlets that caught the sun as she turned and looked down on me. "It's time for you to head home."
For some reason, I obeyed her, looking back as I walked to the edge of the jumble and began to climb down. When I could see the top again, she was gone.
I burst through the door into the kitchen, where my mother was kneading bread dough. She even had an oven, not just a synthesizer. "You're back early."
"You'll never guess what I did. Never, never, never!"
"Then you'll have to tell me." She smiled. "Do you want some fruit? I have some pearapples here." She always pushed the fruit, and I always ate a piece or two.
I took the pearapple, but I didn't bite into it. "Don't you want to know?"
"Tell me, my hero." She kept kneading the dough.
"I ran into a mountain cat — a big one. He was in the dungeon ... I mean the cave."
"How did you get away, or did you kill him with a sword?" For some reason, I got angry then. "You don't believe me. It was a real cat, with green eyes, and it had a dead animal, and it jumped at me."
She stopped kneading the dough then and looked square in my eyes. "What happened then?"
I didn't really want to say, and I wished I'd kept the whole thing to myself. But I had so wanted to tell someone. "I wanted to get away, and I did. Somehow, I was on the top of the ridge again."
"What did it feel like?"
Again ... I didn't want to say, but I did. "It was blue and red and gold and black and cold, and then I was there. And so was this woman. She had on a black jumpsuit, and she had big silver bracelets on her wrists."
My father walked into the kitchen from somewhere. "Where did you see this woman?"
"On the ridge, Dad. On top of the rocks. That was after I got away from the cat."
He looked at my mother.
"Loki was exploring the rocks again. Apparently, he surprised a mountain cat with its kill, and it attacked. He place-slid to the top of the ridge."
"Damned Locators." Then he looked at me. "Let's go sit down."
My mother just left the dough on the counter, and we all sat down in the comfortable chairs in front of the big window in the main room.
"Do you know what you did, Loki?" asked my father gently. "It's called diving, and almost everyone on Query can do it, but usually they're older than your handful of years before they learn how."
"You mean, I can do it again?"
He nodded. "But you have to be careful. You have to think about where you are going — very carefully. What would happen if you wanted to see the bottom of the ocean?"
"I'd see fishes."
"You'd also die, unless you could breathe water, and the water is so heavy it would squash you into a ball smaller than my little finger." He held up his hand and wiggled his finger.
That was my introduction to time-diving, or more precisely, place-sliding. Of course, the lecture didn't end there, but it got very repetitious, and my father insisted on making me slide around the house, right then and there.
After that we had dinner, and then, because it was later than usual with all the lecturing, it was bedtime. I thought I was tired until I lay down in my bed.
"When you dive places, just be careful, Loki." My mother squeezed me so tightly I squirmed. "Just be careful." Her cheeks were damp, and she was breathing quickly.
"I am careful. The big cat didn't get me, and no one else will either." All I wanted to do was practice sliding from place to place, but saying anything about it then didn't seem wise, even on a spring evening when I had passed some sort of test.
My mother finally let go of me and tiptoed out of my room, although I was fully awake, thinking about where I could go now that I did not have to get there just on foot.
"They're watching." I could hear my mother's voice.
"They want another hero for the Guard." My father's voice was cold. "Another would-be god."
"Not my Loki ..."
But I wanted to be a hero, the one who vanquished the Perrsions, the one who foiled the enemies of Query, and I thought about everything I could do for a long time that spring night.CHAPTER 4
My time with the Guard — and everyone's — started with the Test.
In time, and in Time, there are turning points, pivots from which the change winds blow. The Test, that trial to determine whether a Queryan gets advanced training, membership in the Temporal Guard, or whether he or she stays a planet-slider for a long, long life — that was my first deliberate turning point ...
On that morning that now may never have been, the sky of Query was green, with overtones of blue that made the hills circling the city of Quest and the peaks behind those hills stand out in even sharper relief than the clearest holo could project.
The morning was cloudless, as so many mornings in Quest are. I had place-slid to the park surrounding the Square, breaking out of the undertime with the thought-chill that always ends a planet-slide or a timedive.
The Tower of Immortals stands in the center of the Square, surrounded solely by grass and the low fireflowers that flicker scarlet under the golden-white sun. The fireflowers edge the glowstone walks leading to the Tower.
Although four portals open from the Tower, Queryans not belonging to the Temporal Guard enter only through the South Portal.
The Tower soars from its rectangular base into a dome which climbs to a spire. The Tower is out-of-time-phase, and the spire flares with the fires of a thousand suns captured in the timeless and untouchable depths of the faceted slow-glass facing. The oldest holos of the Tower from the Archives show no change, even though the mountains in the distance are a shade sharper and the nearer hills a trace harsher. While the city has altered in many particulars, the Tower of Immortals has not, except in name. Only a few records survive from the early days of the Guard, and they only mention the Tower.
As I stared at the Tower on that morning that may not have been, none of this crossed my mind. Too young to note the changes in the park or the buildings from century to century, and filled with the elation of becoming a Guard, I studied the Tower more as a present I was about to receive.
If you see a good holo of the Tower, you can see how the edges blur. That's because the walls of the Tower proper, except for the rectangular wings, are partly out-of-time-phase, which renders it effectively indestructible, as well as unchangeable. That's unless the Temporal Guard were to pull it down stone by stone. That's the way it was built, stone by stone, and, according to the stories, it took years, some say a century, but even then I found that hard to believe. Very little of the past is recorded, and not all of that is terribly precise or accurate.
I stood and stared, convincing myself that, red hair and all, I would be the first of my family in eons — that is, since my grandfather — to pass the Test and join the Temporal Guard. So few pass the Test who do not join the Guard that passing is regarded as tantamount to joining.
Wishing would not make it so, and, clutching my illusions, I began to walk up the glowstones to the South Portal. I could have slid right up to the entrance, but ceremony means much to all Queryans, particularly when a youngster elects to take the Test.
Readiness is a personal question, and no one, not my mother, nor my father, ever broached the question. Custom, I suppose.
The portals were dark, but the interior of the Tower was bright with slow-glass panels, glittering and lit with the light not only of golden suns but of red suns, blue suns, orange suns, and white suns. Yet for all the light, as I entered the Tower, I felt a sense of coolness, quiet, and peace.
Not that I hadn't been there before. With my parents, tutors, and friends, I had walked all the public corridors, the meeting halls, and the Hall of Justice.
Thinking about the Hall of Justice, I recalled the stories that Gerhalt had told about the trial of Orpheus, who used the Lyre of Heaven to bring down the Tribune Alcinor. Gerhalt told more stories than any of my tutors, and I suppose that they all had points. Anyway, the story was that Orpheus was sent to Hell and never arrived, but later I checked the Archives. The Archives were silent on that point. Mostly, the Archives contain scientific data, and records concerning other systems.
Before I realized it, I was at the archway to the Testing Hall in the West Wing of the Tower. It was called the Testing Hall by those not in the Guard, but the Travel Hall by Guards.
A tall woman, with white-blond hair and deep black eyes, waited.
I had heard that all the Guard participated in routine functions, and I concealed my surprise with a curt nod and a simple statement.
Query had no distinction between civil and military, between compulsory and voluntary. The Tests determined who could join the Guard, and the Guard was the government. Ability determined position in the Guard, and the Counselors directed the Guards to implement the policies laid down by the Tribunes.
Nonetheless, I was surprised that Counselor Freyda, rumored to have been a close friend of my departed and possibly late grandfather, whom many had said I resembled, would be my examiner.
"Loki," she responded.
It was not a lack of warmth, I felt. Rather we are a laconic people, except perhaps for me. That's what comes from living until some accident in a planet-slide or a time fluke does you in. When you contact the same people over centuries, tight speech and good manners prevail, and the Counselor had always been impeccably correct.
"You need not take the Test." Her eyes smiled, knowing that I would.
Excerpted from The Timegod by L. E. Modesitt Jr.. Copyright © 1993 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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