Vestiges of Time, page 1
VESTIGES OF TIME
RICHARD C. MEREDITH
THE TIMELINER TRILOGY BOOKTHREE
“As for you, Eric,” the Krith said carefully, “we are not yet certain what you are—or what you have become.”
He stepped closer to Eric’s motionless figure, Two bodyguards flanked the Krith, the aim of their weapons never faltering.
“You cannot harm us, neither you nor your Shadowy Man." The Krith nodded to the two gunmen, who turned away. “Because we know about your physical condition—and its relationship to your, ah, replicas.”
The Krith’s voice was interrupted by the remote chattering of automatic weapons, the sounds of shattering glass and spilling liquids.
Even while fingers were pulling back on triggers, Eric felt himself dying, dissolving, as leaden slugs tore through the bodies of his helpless, cloned replicas. He felt the horrible agonies of their dying, a prelude to his own...
“Meredith tells a parallel universe story and does it exceptionally well. In my more than thirty years of reading science fiction, 1 have encountered none better.
— George Shestak, Omaha World-Herald
“A foamy brew of action and mystery.”
— Kirkus Reviews
1 The Slums of VarKhohs
2 A Visiting Shadow
3 From the Far World to VarKhohs
4 Into the Underground
5 The BrathelLanza’s Proposal
7 Of Replication
8 Of the Underground
9 A Conversation with KaphNo
10 Of EnDera and KaphNo
11 Of a Dream, and of Identities
12 Of OrDjina
13 The End of the BrathelLanza
14 Opening Corridors
16 A Shadow Visits
18 The First Confrontation
19 Downtime Again
21 The Sundering of Time
22 The Last Encounter
23 The Far World
The Slums of VarKhohs
The late afternoon sun should have been brighter and warmer than it was, for it had been a late summer day in the city of VarKhohs. But now the light seemed dim and cold, as if from an aged, weakened sun, as it fell into the dark and narrow streets through which I slowly followed a man I knew by the name RyoNa. Although he was still several blocks ahead of me, I could easily make him out, a large, heavy man in a rich, dark robe, one decorated with the symbols of his rank and caste, a man seemingly very out of place in the slums into which he had led me.
I tried to throw off the gloom that settled over me as I followed him farther into the decaying slums, past the ramshackle buildings that filled the quarter of the city nearest the river. I pulled my own robe more tightly around me against the imaginary chill, a robe not so dark or so regal as that of RyoNa; but then I wasn’t trying to appear to be a member of one of the ruling castes of NakrehVatee, the nation and society that dominated North America in the summer of A.D. 1972 on this particular Earth. I was just trying to get by until I could get my hands on what I had come so far across the Lines of Time to find. And I thought RyoNa could help me find what I wanted: a “time machine.” In a sense, it turned out that he was helping me do that, although he didn’t know it at the time, and I couldn’t have guessed just what that “time machine” was to be.
RyoNa turned a comer ahead of me, passing in front of a temple dedicated to one of the Dark Lords of
Death, the god Themfo-Okketho, by name, and for a ' moment he was lost from my view. I hurried forward a little more quickly, as quickly as the folds of the robe around me would allow, and placed a hand on the comforting bulge of an energy pistol under my left armpit, i wouldn’t have felt very comfortable in that section of the city without a weapon. I hadn’t been in VarKhohs long, but I’d been there long enough to have heard tales of what took place in those slums after dark, of what happened to well-dressed men and women foolish enough to be down there after daylight had gone and there was no longer even a pretense of police protection.
Finally I reached the comer where I’d seen RyoNa turn, and as I rounded the corner myself, passing through the shadow cast by the statue of the hideous death god, I saw RyoNa’s bulky figure, not as far away as it had been. Apparently he had slowed to make certain he didn’t lose me. He knew I was following him, of course. Only I wasn’t certain whether he knew that I knew of his awareness. Our understanding was a rather tacit one, if it could be called an understanding at all.
A small, ragged child, who had been standing in the open doorway of one of the crumbling buildings of gray stone and cracked brick, made a motion as if to accost me, perhaps to ask for a hand-out, or, equally likely, pimping for his mother or sister, but I held him off with a curt shake of my head, a hard look from my eyes. I’d never been what you’d call handsome, and the events of the past year or so had done nothing to improve my looks: I have an especially unpleasant-look- ing scar on my right cheek where it once was opened to the bone by a pistol barrel. I guess my face was enough for the poor urchin. He went back into his doorway. Silently I wished him well, knowing how .unlikely his well-being in this world was.
There were a few others in the streets of the slums
of VarKhohs, other tatter-clad children like the boy in the doorway, male and female alike dressed in the sexless rags of poverty, and there were adults as well, weary, disillusioned—if they’d ever had illusions—old before their time, too far down the ladder of this world’s society to concern themselves with the badges of their caste. When you’re that far down, it doesn’t much matter, except perhaps in the ingrown subcultures and the jealously guarded pecking orders that must exist even for the lowest.
The poverty wasn’t all that new to me. I’d experienced conditions as bad, and even worse, in dozens of other cities of the parallel worlds of time. I didn’t like it, but I’d grown accustomed to it. Yet ... what did disturb me about the poverty of the people of the slums of VarKhohs was its total lack of reason. The poverty wasn’t necessary!
Only a few miles from the streets through which I followed RyoNa stood the wealthy center of one of the most highly developed civilizations I’d ever seen. It was a culture based on the technologies of nuclear fusion and plasma physics, a civilization with the wealth to send fleets of starships to Alpha Centauri and Tau Ceti, where human colonies flourished, with the wealth to build the shining, shimmering towers in which the upper castes of VarKhohs dwelt, soaring penthouses that seemed to reach the clouds and from the windows of which one could look out across the ocean and see the sleek yachts moving between the luxurious artificial islands that floated a few miles offshore, with the wealth to construct tombs in the southwestern deserts for its rulers that made the most lavish of those of ancient Egypt look cheap and mean by comparison. This civilization had the affluence to allow a select few of its members to live—and die!—in luxury such as human beings had seldom known before but didn’t have the wealth—or rather the desire—to give a decent meal to those who stooped at the bottom of the social pyramid tinder the crushing weight of all those who stood above.
Eric Mathers, I suddenly found myself asking silently, where in Hades did you ever develop a social conscience? And I didn’t have an answer for that one, nor really the time to speculate about it. I had something to do that I felt was even more important than concern over the lower classes of VarKhohs. I had to find the Shadowy Man. And that probably would require a time machine.
The man I knew as RyoNa had slowed a little more, allowing me to come nearer to him, and then turned down a still darker, narrower street, no more than an alley. I moved afte
I entered the alley, glanced back down the street from which I had come, and saw the statue of Themfo- Okketho, the death god, silhouetted against the deepening afternoon sky. For some reason it sent a chill through me and brought to mind an old phrase about someone stepping on my grave. I tried to ignore it and went on into the alley.
Now there seemed to be no one else around. Just RyoNa and me. So maybe it was time I caught up with him and finally spoke to him. We’d played this silly game long enough. Now I’d like to hear him say in no uncertain terms that he could get me one of the so- called chronal-displacement devices—a machine that allegedly could travel not horizontally across the Lines of Time from parallel Earth to parallel Earth, as does a skudder, but forward and backward in time, into the future and into the past—in short, a “time machine,” as one writer had long ago dubbed such a machine, but on an Earth very different from this one.
And maybe, I thought, RyoNa had decided on the same thing, for he still seemed to be waiting for me just inside the large doorway.
As I reached the doorway, RyoNa took a few steps backward into the darker interior and then spoke a word that I couldn’t make out, for it was hardly more than a whisper and, as it turned out, not directed toward me at all.
I could hardly make them out at first, those who came from even farther back in the darkness, several of them, men as big as RyoNa or even bigger, and more given to muscle than the plump, well-groomed man I’d been following. And I knew they weren’t jumping out to bid me good evening and welcome to their humble abode.
As I stepped backward, trying to gain the advantage of what little light there was in the alley, I did two things: externally, my right hand made its way through the folds of the robe I wore and found the butt of the energy pistol I’d been carrying in case something like this did happen; internally, I switched my body into combat augmentation. The world around me seemed to slow down; sounds dopplered toward the bass registers; what light I could see seemed to* shift toward the red end of the spectrum; and certain rods and cones of my eyes allowed me to perceive more of what was taking place in the shadows of the alley as they electronically shifted into lower-light modes.
The pistol was now free of the robe, and I brought it up, clicking off the safety, trying to get it up in time to foe, though even with augmentation coming into operation I wasn’t fast enough for that.
In the moments I had left, I could see that there were six. of them, as big as I’d thought, all clad in black, and with furious determination written on. their faces. What kind of men were these that RyoNa had sent at me? And why had he done it? Then there was no more time for speculation. . . .
An expertly swung, heavily booted foot came up
and knocked the energy pistol from my hand, for an instant stunning my right arm, but by that time I’d come up to full X5 and was able to lash back at the man before his foot was on the ground again. My halfnumbed, half-stinging hand was balled into a fist that must have loosened a few teeth and may have broken a nose as it skidded across his face. I didn’t have time to check. The rest of them were on me.
I think I gave a pretty good account of myself, all things considered, but there were six of them—now five, then four—‘but even with the advantages of augmentation, I’m no superman. While I was tangling with three of them, one having somehow latched on to my left arm with a grip I couldn’t break, the fourth got behind me and did his damnedest to break open my skull with something very heavy and very blunt. He came too close to succeeding for my comfort.
I was only half-aware of the sensation that knocked my head forward, brought a flash of lightning to my eyes, and robbed me of all ability to direct the actions of my hands and feet. I went limp and felt my augmentation automatically cutting itself out. I held on to consciousness for only a few seconds longer, just long enough to hear the voice of RyoNa, who came closer to me now, speaking EKhona, the language of this part of the local world. “I didn’t expect you to put up such a great fight, Harkos. I am astonished at your prowess. You are the man we’re looking for, I’m certain. Welcome, friend, to the BrathelLanza.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, or much care right at the moment, and let whatever consciousness I had left slip away from me.
A Visiting Shadow
I have only vague recollections of the next half hour or so, though I dimly recall being half dragged, half carried into the building to which RyoNa had led me, and down a long, dimly lighted corridor to the doors of what must have been a huge cargo elevator—at the time I could only vaguely wonder at the presence of the elevator in a decaying building in the city’s worst slums. The elevator doors closed behind us, I seem to remember, and then there was the sensation of dropping, going down, down, down. And that’s all I can remember for a while.
When I opened my eyes next I was lying on a cot in a small room illuminated by a single strip of light that ran across the ceiling, a dim light that revealed damp walls of concrete or stone. To my nostrils came the odors of stagnation and decay, as if this room had been long unused, and when it was used it wasn’t for the most pleasant of purposes.
RyoNa stood not far from the cot on which I lay, a vague-smile on his face. Behind him stood two of the black-clad apes, one on each side of the doorway, and they looked at me without kindness or sympathy. I thought that the big red bruise on the cheek of one of them might have something to do with their lack of friendliness.
At last RyoNa spoke, and the tone of his voice was more friendly than the looks I was getting from his companions. “It’s unfortunate that it had to be this way, Harkos.” HarkosNor was the name by which RyoNa knew me. “But I could hardly be certain of
your cooperation once—well, once you found out that I really have no connections with the chronal-dis- placement project at all.”
I suppose I should have been surprised, and if my head hadn’t hurt so much I might have been, but right then I was only disappointed. He’d lied to me, strung me along—not that such a thing seemed greatly out of character for him—but to what end I couldn’t then guess. As I was about to open my mouth and try to get my voice working so that I could ask him, he spoke again.
“Others will be coming soon to speak with you, some very important people, and they will answer your questions for you, so don’t even ask them of me. I was instructed to say that you are valued highly and that they would prefer that you suffer no more hurt.” “I’d prefer it that way myself,” I finally managed to say.
“I’m sure,” RyoNa said, then took a hesitant step forward and fished something out of the folds of his dark robe. “This may be of some help to you.” He bent forward, still more than an arm’s reach from the cot where I lay, and placed a small bottle on the floor. “Drink that. It won’t hurt you and may help to relieve the pain in your head.”
I looked at the bottle with suspicion and then back at RyoNa with the same feeling.
“If we wanted you dead, you would already be dead,” he said, with the hint of a smile on his lips. “And why should we waste time with poison?”
Maybe he had a point there.
Then he backed to the doorway and allowed one of the black-clad characters to open the door for him. As he disappeared between them, he said, “Please wait as patiently as you can, Harkos. The others should be here soon.”
The two men in black, still looking uglily at me, moved through the doorway and closed the door behind them. I heard the distinct sound of a heavy bolt sliding home. Clack! Sure, I’d wait. What else could I do?
I lay still for a while before I carefully lifted myself from the cot and went to get the little bottle of colorless liquid that RyoNa had left for me. Maybe it was something to help my head; with the passage of time the pain in it had not lessened much. It could have been something other than what he’d claimed, but, on the p
The simple movement from the cot to the bottle and back again was enough to double the pounding in my head and make me wonder if the blow had caused a concussion, or worse. I drank the liquid— right then I might have taken it even if I’d strongly suspected it to be something worse than it actually was.
There was an oily, fruity taste to it and the tang of alcohol, and it burned my throat as it went down, but almost instantly I began to feel better, or thought I did.
In a few minutes I could sit up on the side of the cot, feeling something not greatly worse than a moderate hangover, and that too seemed to be passing. I silently thanked RyoNa for the medicine, if for nothing else.
With the passing of the pain I was able to examine my new surroundings a little more closely, though I found them of little interest. The cot was the room’s only article of furniture. Three of the walls were flat, damp concrete, I saw now, with a slightly slimy feel when I touched them with my fingertips. The fourth wall was different only in that a door had been cut in it, a heavy door that seemed to have been made from a single piece of wood, which I knew to be bolted from the outside. The floor was made of the same concrete as the walls, and so was the ceiling, which was distinguished only by the dimly glowing
strip that ran from one of the side walls to the other. From inside the room there appeared no means either of turning off the light or of controlling its intensity. And exactly how the strip, which appeared to be made of translucent plastic maybe a quarter of an inch thick and three inches wide, produced its light, I didn’t know, nor did I concern myself greatly with it.
Having examined the room and discovered nothing that would help me out of my predicament, I went back to the cot, sat down, and was about to begin what I hoped to be a dispassionate analysis of my situation, when I became aware of something else in the room, something that had not been there a moment before.
In one of the two comers most remote from the door, in the shadows where the glowing strip illuminated to an even lesser extent, there seemed to be the beginning of the formation of a cloud of smoke, hazy wisps turning slowly in the air, extending from the floor nearly to the ceiling. There was also, in the atmosphere, even less tangible but nonetheless real, a sensation that had become an almost familiar one to me: a sense of electrical tension, a feeling such as one sometimes has at the approach of a thunderstorm, the sense of power that you can’t see or hear or touch or smell but that you know is there.