Chapter 23: New Planet, Old Problem
We left our heroes divided, in one case literally. Tom and 60% of
Salimar are light-years away, having fallen through a detour in the
Great Sucking Noise, while the rest of the cast, including the other 40%
of Salimar, are on the Munch. Using the chunk present, Kate dowses for
the rest of Salimar and gets a bearing. the next step is for the Munch
to fly athwart the bearing so Kate can take another one and we can
triangulate on Tom and the rest of Salimar.
The hyperjump snaps telepathic contact, so Tom and the greater part of Salimar say goodbye and settle down to wait for a day, during which the Munch will fly about ten light-years. Tom fasts, since he has no idea of the edibility of the local vegetation. Night falls. The cloud cover is too thick to see stars, but Tom glimpses a spot of light from some small moon. Fire continues to light up the undersides of clouds, over a wide sweep of horizon.
It's night here, but mid-morning by Tom's biological clock. In the twilight, Tom decides to pass the time by doing some dimensional survey work. He has the equipment in his backpack. Or he did. He landed on that pack when he and Salimar fell out of the sky, and some of the more delicate and magical bits are no longer functioning. And there's a bruise on his back marking the location of the plumb bob. Nevertheless, the simpler, more robust stuff has survived, so Tom does what he can.
Tom looks -- and usually feels -- like he's in his early twenties, but this is thanks to 26th-century medical care plus wafting in and out of Faerie a lot. He's actually around 75 -- he's tried to keep more exact track of his age, but it's very hard in his line of work -- and right now he feels it. He shuffles about stiffly, hanging plumb bobs and setting out synchronized stop watches in the vicinity of what he thinks of as "our tree," where he and Salimar whacked some branches off as they fell out of thin air. Eventually, he begins to wonder if the local gravity is rather high, or if he's just really stove up from his fall.
Salimar tries to help, but half her marbles are an unknown distance away in hyperdrive, and she keeps getting distracted. Tom gets the impression that she's reverted a bit to a more primitive state, and that her primitive ancestors found the concept of "straight line" quite novel. But she seems to be having fun, so far as you can tell with a blob of octarine goo. Just don't ask her to hold anything steady.
As night closes in, Tom looks at the results and finds a bit of residual warp to the local system of orientation. Rather what he'd expected.
Salimar, meanwhile, thinks ahead to how they will rendezvous with the folk on the Munch and tries sending an octarine flare into orbit. She comes nowhere near it (Remember the missing marbles?) but the effect is very pretty. It draws Tom's attention skyward. He sends a clairvoyance viewpoint up and looks around. They are surrounded by great tracts of burnt forest. The fires appear to be burning down, a relatively small portion still a-blaze. There are mountains off to one side, unburned.
Tom spots something artificial-looking and sends his viewpoint flying to investigate. It's a long way off. While he's busy doing that, Salimar samples the local life-forces. There's very little in the way of higher animals nearby. They've all run off away from the fires, as far as she can tell. She then tries a retrocognition, and gets a slightly grainy re-play of their arrival here. Tom, watching with two eyes while he steers his clairvoyance with the mystical third, notes that the "sound-track" on her epiphany doesn't match expectations. He decides that, oddly enough, that wasn't his voice screaming. Instead, it was several other people, far away, off camera. Thataway. They sounded human. Salimar sends some clairvoyance "thataway," but gets nothing.
Finally, Tom's viewpoint arrives at the ruins. They are so old, it is hard to tell if they are human-built. But they were not ruined by the current fire; that is just the latest disaster to overtake them. And they are large. The people were either big or grandiose.
Tom drops the viewpoint, conjures up a mattress, lies down, and waits.
A day later, the Munch drops out of hyperdrive, Salimar temporarily glues herself together telepathically, and Kate dowses. Bad news: Tom and Salimar.6 are so far away, a baseline of ten light-years doesn't give any appreciable parallax. So we're talking light-centuries or light-millennia. Or worse.
The only thing to do is take a longer baseline. But Tom hasn't eaten or drunk in a day. However, the Munch can timetravel. This is part and parcel of the weird inverse relativity you can get in hyperdrive. If the crew of the Munch are willing to take a week of their time, they can fly a light-century or so in a hour of outside time. This costs them nothing but boredom, so off they go.
An hour later, Salimar.6 tries calling Salimar.4. She melts, oozing into a mass of pine needles. Guess we're a tad early. She pulls what there is of herself together, spits out pine needles, and tries again. Success. Soon, the Munch crew is in telepathic contact with the stranded parties. Dowsing and triangulation reveal that they are many light-centuries away. The local year, you may recall, is 473. You would not expect to find Terran colonists that far away, that long ago, even if the local year is unusually short. Even nowadays, this world is far beyond the fully-explored boundaries.
It takes another week-long/hour-long voyage to increase precision on the triangulation to the point where Edvard can guess which of a half-dozen systems they are in, and a third week/hour to get there.
"There" turns out to be a big place. The star is rather bigger than the Sun; the planet is bigger than Earth (so Tom's bones were right about the gravity); the planet's orbit and year are bigger than Earth's. So 473 local years is even longer than it looks.
However, between more psychic triangulation and a few low-altitude octarine flares, the Munch soon zeroes in on the stranded crew members, and Salimar has a joyful reunion with herself. Tom totters into the autodoc.
So let's look over this new mystery planet. Edvard spotted cities on the way down. We zip over and look at the closest one. It's very burnt forest over old ruins. A quick orbital survey shows the same thing everywhere we look. In fact, this looks like Destine is going to look, though there is no funny radiation -- at least not anymore.
We look for the source of the huge fire. The burned area is very irregular, but it probably started from streaks on the ground. Edvard identifies them as the traces of very large energy discharges, as of huge blaster cannons.
Brunalf opens an airlock and looks out, witchwatching. He sees interesting activity in the flitters only cats see, so we consult the Map of Here. Yep, there are markers, including a big nearby pinkish area labeled "Ongoing Effect," just like the Great Sucking Noise back on Destine. And, in this area, there are similar kinds of radiation. Tom has the autodoc send out a remote, which finds micro-organisms "analogous" to the speed-rot germ we picked up on Destine. Probably from the same biosphere, which is not the local biosphere.
After some more poking around, we find evidence of a long history of disasters (= attacks). The most recent caused the present forest fire. There was a big battle about three months earlier. And the whole sequence goes back at least 200 years, in at least six periods of activity.
So this world has been fighting off the dragonfolk, it appears, for a couple of centuries. They don't appear to be winning, but it's more than Destine could do.
Tracking in the direction of whoever was screaming as Tom and Salimar fell from the sky, Edvard finds evidence of recent discharge of energy weapons. There's no sign of humans or campfire, but there are lots of caverns hereabouts. We head for a nearby entrance.
Salimar, perhaps a bit more cautious than before, bilocates (not the same as her recent traumatic mitosis, but psychically being in two places at once), and takes a grav pallet out to the area of the entrance (while also staying on the bridge). Robbie follows on a second pallet. She locates the entrance, which is sealed. So she tries a Knock spell she learned from Lorelei. This opens anything nearby.
Like mountains. With thunderous rumbles, the whole hillside comes sliding down on Salimar, who prudently liquefies. The shockwaves send Robbie and the grav pallets flying like autumn leaves. Fortunately, Robbie has built-in antigrav. Salimar finds that one of her loci is now a damp patch in the soil under tons of rock, so she gives up, drops that one, and is just back on the ship.
We gather our wits, our robot, and our grav-pallets, and examine the devastation. The whole mountainside was honeycombed with caverns and chambers. Infrared scans fortunately show no sign of anyone inside. Tom clairviews into the new ruins. The furniture is clearly for humanoids, and is rather sparse. Either these people were living Spartan lives or they cleaned the place out when they left, or both. There's traces of hi-tech, like power lines. However, it's all hand-made. It reminds Tom of his youth back on the Jack, when it was isolated and technology was failing. The result is a strange mixture of ancient and modern artifact. But while the Jack mixed from around 1800 to around 2300, this place looks like it's been forced even farther back.
There's no writing. Well, the Destinos cleaned out a lot of records, too. And the place reeks of psi residues. They mixed magic and technology. (Maybe Salimar's Knock spell "unlocked" some magic that was holding the mountainside together.) The Map of Here shows some markers, too, rather smudged by recent events, alas. But it sure looks like dragontroopers came gating in at the tops of these cliffs, some time back. The Map can no longer be definite about the dates of the intrusions.
We record all this and ask Braeta if any of it looks particularly nephilite. No, but it doesn't look un-nephilite, either.
It looks like the dragon-vs.-demigod war covers centuries and large stretch of the galaxy.
Tom consults his watch again. There's a "more" button that shows up on its screen when it has more data. It's there now. The local date is 14 Kronasi 473. But it is also known locally as 14 Kronasi 1298, and as 21 Kronasi 1711. This bespeaks social change, but also a lot of time for the change to happen in.
We look around for actual people, with both our hi-tech and our hi-psi, but don't find anyone. We do find another cave entrance, this time hidden behind some trees. Tom sneaks cautiously into it. It is smallish, unfurnished, and lit by light-piping through the ceiling. No, wait, those are magically glowing crystals. Clairviewing ahead, he finds a room of smashed furniture, with burns on the walls as of blaster marks. He drops the clairvoyance and asks Salimar to come in and do a retrocog, with Braeta to please come and watch.
The result is a fight scene. Two men and a woman, in homespun clothes of oddly modernistic cut (very Jack-like in that respect), are assaulted by dragontroopers, giving us positive visual ID on the attackers. One of them fights back with a small grenade launcher that shoots little rockety things. The others try chunks of furniture they break off. They lose and it isn't clear how many are still alive.
Braeta thinks the woman looked somewhat nephilish, and the man with the gun moved with the grace you see in people who get very old without physically aging. And the guy who snapped off a table leg for a club was certainly very strong.
By now, we are reasonably certain this is another nephil-led colony.
Tom does some arithmetic. The local year is 525 Terran days long. According to one of their calendars, this is the year 1711, so that calendar started 2461 years ago. This is 2516 AD, so their calendar started in 55 AD. Either they used magic to get here, or they've been time-traveling in order to arrive here long ago. (Or maybe they didn't arrive hear in the year 1 of that calendar.)
We also theorize that Tom and a chunk of Salimar got pulled here because the dragonfolk had just opened a new Great Sucking Noise here. And we aren't finding people here because the area has just been "harvested" of them.
Why didn't they get Tom and Salimar? Maybe they landed behind the front. Might there be other survivors elsewhere on the planet? Why weren't they totally cleaned out ages ago, like the Destinos? Because they were more magical, or more dispersed?
And we still don't know where the dragonfolk take them.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.