World of tiers 02 the.., p.8

World of Tiers 02 - The Gates of Creation, page 8

 

World of Tiers 02 - The Gates of Creation
 


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  He turned and stepped through the right-hand gate.

  VIII

  HIS FEET SLID OUT FROM UNDER HIM, AND HE FELL ON HIS SIDE. HE caught a glimpse of smooth glassy surfaces as he slid down the hill on top of which the gate was set. The stuff on which he raced downhill was dry and slippery, although it gave an impression of oiliness. No matter how he tried to dig his heels in, how strongly he placed the flats of his hands against the stuff to brake himself, he sped on down. It was like being on ice.

  He shot on, gaining speed. Throwing himself over with a convul­sive twist, he managed to face the direction in which, willynilly, he was going. Ahead was a gentling of the slope, and when he reached it his velocity slowed somewhat. Still, he was going at least sixty miles an hour with no way of stopping himself. His head was raised to keep his face from being burned and his hands were upheld. By then his clothes should have been burned off him, and his flesh should have been crisped and unraveling from the friction, but he sped on with only a slight feeling of warmth.

  The skies were purple, and just above the edge of the horizon, the arc of a moon-he thought it was a moon-was showing. The arc was a deeper purple than the skies. He was not inside any Lord's palace; he was on another planet. Judging from the distance of the horizon, this planet was about the size of the one he had just left. In fact, he was sure that it was one of the bodies that he had seen in the skies from the surface of the waterworld.

  Urizen had tricked them. He had set up the gate through which they had gone to jump them to one of the bodies circling about Appirmatzum. The other gate back on the waterworld might have led to Urizen's world. Or, it might have led to here also. There was no way of knowing now.

  Whichever way the other entrance presented, it was too late to do anything about it. He was caught helplessly in one of his father's jokes. A practical joke, if you could consider death as practical.

  He had traveled perhaps two miles when the incline began to turn upwards. Within a half-mile, he was slowed down to what seemed a thirty mile an hour velocity, although it was difficult to tell with the few references he had. Off to his right, at a long distance, were a number of peculiar-looking trees. Not knowing how tall they were or how far away, he could not determine just how fast he was traveling.

  And then, just as he slowed down to about ten miles an hour, and the incline sloped sharply upwards, he rose over its edge. He was in the air, out over the lip of the rise, beyond the edge of a precipice. He fell, unable to hold back a scream. Below him, forty or fifty feet, was a one hundred foot wide stream of water. The other side was blocked off by a wall of the same vitreous substance on which he had slid.

  He dropped into the canyon, kicking to maintain an upright posi­tion so he could hit the water feet-first. The water was not as far away as he had thought, however, being only thirty-five feet down. He struck with his feet and plunged into tepid waters. He went on down, down, then began to swim upwards. The current carried him on swiftly between the canyon walls and took him around a bend. Just before he was carried around it, he saw a Lord hit the surface and another halfway down the wall.

  Then the canyon opened out, and the river broadened. He was sliding and bumping over rapids. Fortunately, the rocks were smooth and slick, vitreous also. He escaped cuts but did suffer some bruises. Once past the rapids, he found that the current had slowed. He swam to the shore, which led up gently from the water. But he could not keep a handhold on the land and slid back into the river.

  There was nothing to do but swim along the shoreline and hope that eventually he would find a place which would enable him to scramble onto the land. His clothes and the bow and arrows and knife and beamer weighed him down. As long as he could, he resisted the need to abandon them. When he began to tire, he slipped off the bow and quiver. Later, he unstrapped his belt and holster and scabbard. These he dropped into the water, but slipped the beamer and his knife inside his pants. After a while, he rid himself of the knife.

  Now and then, he looked back. Eight heads were bobbing up and down. All had survived so far, but if the banks continued to resist grasping, they would all soon be drowned. All except Theotormon. He could outswim and outfloat them all, even with one flipper only half-grown out.

  It was then that Wolff got an idea. He swam against the current, al­though the effort took more strength than he could afford. He swam until Luvah and Vala and Tharmas were close to him. Then he yelled at them to also swim against the current, if they wished to be saved.

  Presently Theotormon's huge, oily, blue-black bulk was beside him. Behind him came Ariston, Enion, and Rintrah. Last of all, the most boastful but the most fearful to enter the gate, was Palamabron. His face was white, and he was breathing even more heavily than the rest.

  "Save me, brother!" he cried. "I can't go on much longer. I will die."

  "Save your breath," Wolff said. To Theotormon, he said, "We have need of you, brother. Now you, the once-despised, can help us. Without you, we shall all drown."

  Theotormon, swimming easily against the current, chuckled. He said, "Why should I? You all spit on me; you say I make you sick."

  "I have never spit upon you," Wolff said. "Nor have I said you sicken me. And it was I who insisted that you come with us. I did so because I knew that we would need you. There are things you can do with that body that we cannot. It is ironic that Urizen, who set this trap, and who also transformed you into a sea-thing, prepared you to survive in his trap. He unwittingly gave you the means to escape and so to help us escape."

  It was a long speech under the circumstances and left him winded. Nevertheless, he had to praise Theotormon; otherwise, he would leave them to die and laugh while doing so.

  Theotormon said, "You mean Urizen outwitted himself?"

  Wolff nodded.

  "And how can I escape from this?" Theotormon said.

  "You are swift and strong as a seal in the water. You can propel yourself so swiftly that you can shoot through the water and on up onto the bank. You can also shove us, one by one, onto the bank. I know that you can do this."

  Theotormon grinned slyly. "And why should I push you to safety?"

  "If you don't, you'll be left alone on this strange world," Wolff said. "You can live for a while. But you'll be lonely. I doubt that there's anyone here you can talk to. Moreover, if we're to get off this world, we have to find the gates which will lead us off. Can you do this alone? Once on land, you'll need us."

  "To hell with you!" Theotormon screamed. He upended and dis­appeared beneath the surface.

  "Theotormon!" Wolff called.

  The others echoed his call. They treaded water and looked de­spairingly at each other. There was nothing of the haughty Lord in their faces now.

  Suddenly, Vala screamed. She threw her hands up into the air and went under. So swiftly she went, she must have been pulled under.

  A few seconds passed. Then Theotormon's oily blue-black head appeared and a moment later Vala's red hair. Her brother's long toes were entangled in her hair, her head held by the foot.

  "Say you're sorry!" Theotormon shouted. "Apologize! Tell me I'm not a loathsome mass of blubber! Tell me I'm beautiful! Promise to love me as you did Palamabron on the island!"

  She tore her hair loose, leaving some dark red strands between his toes. She screamed, "I'll kill you, you blotch! I'm a long way from dying yet! And if I were, I'd go gladly to my death rather than make up to you!"

  His eyes wide, Theotormon paddled away from her with his feet. He turned to Wolff and said, "See! Why should I save her or any of you? You would still hate me, just as I would hate you."

  Palamabron began to yell and to splash violently. "Save me, Theotormon! I can't stay up any longer! I'm too tired! I'll die!"

  "Remember what I said about your being alone," Wolff gasped.

  Theotormon grinned and dived, and presently he was pushing Pa­lamabron ahead of him. With his head on his brother's buttocks, he pushed, driving with his flippers and his great webbed feet. Palama
bron slid from the water and two body lengths onto the glassy shore. There he lay, breathing like a sick horse, the water running from his nose and saliva from his mouth.

  One by one, Theotormon propelled the others onto the bank, where they lay like dead men. Only Vala refused his offer. She swam as hard as she could, summoning strength that Wolff would not have believed possible she had left. She skidded up a body's length and soon was nudging herself, very slowly, on up the gentle slope. When she had reached a level spot, she carefully got to a sitting position.

  She looked down at the others and said with scorn, "So these are my brothers? The all-mighty Lords of the universes! A pack of half-drowned rats. Sycophants of a sea-slug, begging for their lives."

  Theotormon slid upon the bank and past the men. He walked on his bent legs past Vala and did not look at her. And when the others had regained some of their strength and breath, they too crawled to the level land. They were sorry looking, since most of them had slipped off their clothes and their swords in the water. Only Wolff and Vala had retained their clothes. He had lost all his weapons but his beamer. She still had her sword. Except for her hair, she looked as if she had never been in the water. Her garments had the property of repelling liquids.

  Luvah had scooted over to Wolff after trying twice to walk to him and ending on his buttocks both times. His color had come back to his face, so that the freckles across his cheeks and nose did not stand out so sharply. He said, "We were caught by our father as easily as children playing hide-and-seek are caught. Now, from children we have become infants. We cannot even walk, but must crawl like ba­bies. Do you suppose that our father is trying to tell us something?"

  "I do not know about that," Wolff said. "But this I do know. Urizen has been planning this for a long long time. I am beginning to believe that he made the planets that revolve around Appirmatzum for one reason only. This world and the others are designed to tor­ment and to test us."

  Luvah laughed without much merriment. "And if we survive the torment and pass the tests, what is our reward?"

  "We get a chance to be killed by our father or to kill him."

  "Do you really believe he will play fair? Won't he make the stronghold absolutely impregnable? I cannot believe that our father will be fair."

  "Fair? What is fair? There is supposed to be an unspoken agree­ment that every Lord will leave some slight loophole in his defense. Some defect whereby an extremely skillful and clever attacker can get through. Whether this is true in all cases, I do not know. But Lords have been killed or dispossessed, and these Lords thought they were safe from the most powerful and clever. I do not think that the successful ones were successful because of built-in weaknesses by the defender. The chinks in the armor were there for another reason.

  "That reason is that the Lords have inherited their weapons. What they haven't inherited or taken from others, they cannot get. The race has lost its ancient wisdom and skill; it has become users, consumers, not creators. So, a Lord must use what he has. And if these weapons do not cover every contingency, if they leave holes in the armor, then they can be penetrated.

  "There is another aspect to this. The Lords fight for their lives and fight to kill each other. But most have lived too long. They weary of everything. They want to die. Deep in the abyss of their minds, below the thousands of strata of the years of too much power and too little love, they want to die. And so, there are cracks in the walls."

  Luvah was astonished. "You do not really believe this wild theory, brother? I know I am not tired of living. I love life now as much as when I was a hundred. And the others, they fight to live as much as they ever did."

  Wolff shrugged and said, "It's only a theory of mine. I have evolved it since I became Robert Wolff. I can see things that I could not see before and that none of you can see."

  He crawled to Vala and said, "Lend me your sword for a moment. I want to try an experiment."

  "Like cutting my head off?" she said.

  "If I wanted to kill you, I have the beamer," he replied. She took the short blade from its scabbard and handed it to him. He tapped the sharp edge gently on the glassy surface. When the first blow left the stuff unmarked, he struck harder.

  Vala said, "What are you doing? You'll ruin the edge."

  He pointed at the scratch left by the second blow. "Looks like a scratch made in ice. This stuff is far slipperier, more frictionless than ice, but in other respects it seems to resemble frozen water."

  He handed the weapon to her and drew his beamer. After putting it on half-power, he aimed it at a spot on the surface. The stuff grew red, then bubbled. Liquid flowed from it. He turned the beamer off and blew the liquid from the hole. The others crawled over to watch him.

  "You're a strange man," Vala said. "Whoever would have thought of doing this?"

  "Why is he doing it?" Palamabron said. "Is he crazy, cutting holes in the ground?"

  Palamabron had recovered his haughtiness and his measured way of speaking.

  Vala said, "No, he's not crazy. He's curious, that's all. Have you forgotten what it is to be curious, Palamabron? Are you as dead as you look . . . and act? You were certainly lively enough a little while ago."

  Palamabron flushed, but he said nothing. He was watching the growth of tiny crystals on the walls of the hole and along the edges of the scratch.

  "Self-regeneration," Wolff said. "Now, I have read as much as possible on the old science of our ancestors, but I have never read or heard of anything like this. Urizen must have knowledge lost to others."

  "Perhaps," Vala said, "he has gotten it from Red Orc. It is said that Orc knows more than all of the other Lords put together. He is the last of the old ones; it is said that he was born over a half a mil­lion years ago."

  "It is said. It is said," Wolff mimicked. "The truth is that nobody has seen Red Ore for a hundred millennia. I think he is a dead man but his legend lives on. Enough of this. We have to find the next set of gates, though where those will lead us, I don't know."

  He rose carefully and shuffled slowly a few steps forward. The sur­face of this world was not entirely barren vitreosity. There were widely spaced trees several hundred yards away and between them mushroom-shaped bushes. The trees had thin spiraling trunks that were striped with red and white, like barber poles. The trunks rose straight for twenty feet, then curved to left or right. Where the curve began, branches grew. These were shaped like horizontal 9's and covered with a thin gray fuzz, the strands of which were about two feet long.

  Rintrah, naked, shivered and said, "It is not cold, but something makes me uneasy and quivers through me. Perhaps it is the silence. Listen, and you hear nothing."

  They fell silent. There was only a distant soughing, the wind rip­pling through the bushes and the stiff projections on the end-curled branches, and the slursh-slursh of the river. Aside from that, nothing. No bird calls. No animal cries. No human voices. Only the sound of wind and river and even that hushed as if pressed down by the purple of the skies.

  Around them the pale white land rolled away to the four horizons. There were some high rounded hills, the tallest of which was that which had sent them speeding down the hill. From where they stood, they could see its mound and the gate, a tiny dark object, on its top. The rest was low hills and level spaces.

  Where do we go from here? Wolff thought. Without some clue, we could wander forever. We could wander to the end of our lives, pro­vided we find something to eat on the way.

  He spoke aloud. "I believe we should follow along the river. It leads downward, perhaps to some large body of water. Urizen cast us into the river; this may mean that the river is to be our guide to the next gate... or gates."

  "That may be true," Enion said. "But your father and my uncle has a crooked brain. In his perverse way, he may be using the river as an indication that we should go up it, not down it."

  "You may be right, cousin," Wolff replied. "However there is only one way to find out. I suggest we go downriver, if only becau
se it will be easier traveling." He said to Vala, "What do you think?"

  She shrugged and said, "I don't know. I picked the wrong gate the last time. Why ask me?"

  "Because you were always the closest to father. You know better than the rest of us how he thinks."

  She smiled slightly. "I do not think you mean to compliment me by that. But I will take it as such. Much as I hate Urizen, I also ad­mire and respect his abilities. He has survived where most of his con­temporaries have not. Since you ask, I say we go downriver."

  "How about the rest of you?" Wolff said. He had already made up his mind which direction he was going, but he did not want the others complaining if they went the wrong way. Let them share the responsibility.

  Palamabron started to speak. "I say, no, I insist, that. . ."

  IX

  A WAIL CAME DOWN AGAINST THE WIND, AND THEY TURNED TO STARE upriver. Several hundred yards away, an animal tall as an elephant had appeared from around a hill. Now it stood between two large boulders, the head on the end of its long neck much like that of a camel's with antlers. Its eyes were enormous and its teeth long and sharp, a carnivore's. Its body was red-brown and furry and sloped sharply back from the shoulders. The legs were thin as a giraffe's, de­spite the heavy body. They ended in great spreading dark-blue cups. On seeing the cup-feet, Wolff guessed their function. They looked too much like suckers or vacuum pads, which would be one of the few means to enable an animal to walk across this smooth surface. "Stand still," he said to the others. "We can't run; if we could, there'd be no place to go."

 
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