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|TEXT 16 pages of LORDS OF THE
A. E. VAN VOGT
“Da,” baby Ylara crowed, “da!”
Hedrock smiled: He had held hundreds of infants, most of them his own, and he knew the sound was meaningless, just the first word babies bubbled. Still, it sounded like “Dad”.
Every baby was a miracle, he thought, the kick start of a brand new universe.
“Could I take her now, Lord?” the nurse asked. “It’s time for Ylara’s nap.”
Behind the window the sun remained a pale orb in the darkling sky. It was only half past noon yet several stars showed.
The alien ship crawled across the sky, a fat dot, trailed by a V of superdreadnoughts. After the annihilation of the first squadron they kept a careful thousand mile distance.
Hedrock slept alone that night. Empress Innelda was making her yearly tour of the great island continent of Astral-Hia. She ruled the sloe-eyed, pale skinned aboriginals as the Virgin Goddess of the Kauri Tree and her subjects took the virgin part rather seriously. A baby and a husband would have spoiled the illusion. In time of crisis it was more important than ever to keep up the appearance of normality.
Immortal didn’t mean invulnerable and Hedrock slept as light as a hare.
Suddenly he was wide awake. Had there been a sound, so soft as to be almost subliminal, a movement in the still air?
The bedroom was pitch black and he blinked twice, boosting the output of his optical nerves.
The room emerged in grainy black-and-white. A young woman stood at the foot of his bed, leveling a gun between his eyes.
Hedrock noted two things in the first split second. She must be family, however distant. Those proud cheekbones and the rather fierce nose were the hallmark of the Isher clan.
page 41 A. E. VAN VOGT
The second was the gun. It was an unknown model, strangely ornate, but clearly imperial issue. The energy cell sported the fierce two-headed condor of the House of Isher. The gauge was pushed all the way to “lethal”, so she must have come to kill him.
“Oh,” she said, “you’re awake.”
And that was her second mistake. An assassin should never talk to her victim. It made him human, no longer only a target.
Her fist mistake was of course not firing the moment she stepped into his room.
Hedrock saw her face change.
“I’m so sorry, sangra,” she whispered and pulled the trigger.
“I put suppressors in the walls of the palace,” Hedrock said when she kept pulling the trigger. “No atomic weapon can fire here.” He lifted his hand and a small titanium crossbow slapped his palm. “This one, though, works quite well.”
“You don’t understand!” the woman cried. “I come from the single future in three billion where the sun shines again. In all other timelines you and Innelda failed.”
Hedrock felt a stab of pure wonder: Someone had tamed the deadly seesaw effect. And then the full meaning of her words hit. “But in your future I died. I died in time and Inelda saved the empire.”
The woman nodded. “Seen from our time the past is inchoate, a maelstrom of possibilities. But yes, that is the single difference.”
She shoved the gun back in the holster and vanished like a popped soap bubble.
“She must have been your daughter,” the No-man said. "With a probability of seventy nine. Empress Ylara of Isher.” He eyed his friend. "You didn’t realize that?’
“No, she felt like family. But that close…”
“She called you ’sangra’,” the No-man said. “You don’t have teenage children like me but that term is just coming into vogue. It is a word of slightly condescending affection and means something like ‘good, old dad’.”
The Trickster was pure absence, a yawning hole into the deepest space, filled with motionless stars. In the upper right hand corner Hedrock noticed an electric green wisp of glowing gas. The human brain, though, always insists on patterns and for a moment a skull coalesced from the darkness, with the brightest star a single, blind eye. The star was close enough to show a disk.
“You killed us,” the Trickster said. “Every single larva and imago. You set the skies afire until even our bedrock melted. All Yidwara is a grave now, sealed in radioactive black glass.” The being stepped closer and for a moment Hedrock saw the flickering outline of a hand. A hand almost human but wrong in all minor details.
Convergent evolution, Hedrock thought. There are just not that many ways to grasp an implement, to manipulate and hold.
“We killed you larvas,” Hedrock said. “We set the sky afire.” Always echo your accusator. It forces him to elucidate and postpones the inevitable violence.
“A million years ago. But that won’t happen now.” The Trickster nodded, a chillingly human gesture because not even convergent evolution would produce the same body language.
He studied us. He studied us so intensely that he became almost human. Hedrock looked up to the hidden camera. `You have him, Edward?’
“It is a space-time phenomenon,” came the voice of the No-man. “Like a mirrorless reflection. He isn’t really here. The atmosphere would scream away, a force thirteen hurricane, if there truly was an interstellar vacuum on the other side.”
“He can’t hurt me, you mean?”
“I didn’t say that. Down!”
The outline of the Trickster distorted, became a monstrous lens which concentrated the light of the nearby sun into a searing blaze.
The center flicked the edge of Hedrock’s left sleeve and the metallic cloth burst into bright green flame.
`Polarize the light, idiot. Reverse phase!’ It was the first time Hedrock heard the No-man scream.
“Done,” the carefully neutral machine voice of the palace defenses said and the light winked out.
When Hedrock rose the throne room was empty.
“We got several good spectra of the background stars, the position of two quasars,” the No-man said.
“You know where he is?” Hedrock eagerly asked.
“Well, our Astronomer Royal identified the sun as Rho Orphuichi, a minor star in the Northern sky.’ Edward Gonish paused a moment for even enlightened savants like their drama. “Rho Orphuichi as it was a million years ago.”
`There was a land bridge here,’ the archaeologist said. `Lemuria. All the way from Asia tot the Great Southern Island Continent. Not much to see yet. Let’s go a bit deeper.” He stepped back. “Yes…” The deep radar showed indistinct shapes, lines of static. The archaeologist moved a vernier, knocked on the screen and the picture steadied, became almost surrealistically sharp.
“Ruins?” Hedrock said. “It is almost a mile down!’
“It isn’t a real picture,” the man warned. “Eighty percent is extrapolation. But yes, it might be a city. See those hexagons? The optimum shape of an linear accelerator that operates in more than nine dimension. Hypercubes, you see and unfolded branes.” He nodded, gave an embarrassed cough. `Hyperspacial Imagining is something of a hobby of mine. And look, there is some residual radioactivity on every third corner. That proves it.”
‘A million years ago homo sapiens hadn’t evolved yet,’ Innelda objected. She frowned. ‘Aliens?’
The No-man shook his head. `The builders were human. Not our kind, but humanoid at least. Evolution is profligate: many types of human were tried and some, like the Neanderthals, owned bigger brains than the current model. Not that these people were Neanderthals: it’s too early.’
`Could they have invented a stardrive?’ Innelda now looked at the great scientist.
`When we tested the big engine we used a hexagonal accelerator,” Kershaw admitted. ‘It had sides of fifty meter.’ He spread his hands. `They could have moved whole moons!’
‘I don’t think the Trickster would see much difference between a homo sapiens and a Neanderthal,’ Hedrock mused. ‘If you have been bitten by a shark you want to kill all sharks.”
‘They were you!’ The subtly nonhuman face of the Trickster suddenly filled the whole screen. `Genetically the two species are ninety nine percent identical. That is good enough for me.’
‘We didn’t kill your race!’ Kershaw cried.
“O, they’ll live again. That was my deal with the Tomb-lords. But only if the human race is gone, erased. All humans, past and future.’ He smiled and it made his face more than ever look like an animated mask. `The Tomb-lords just concluded the Second Manipulation.”
The screen flickered and the Trickster was gone.
Hedrock froze. The deep radar showed folded strata of granite and sandstone, undulating slate. All the shapes were natural: the ruins were gone without a trace.
The transport could hold some thirty million colonists. The idling drive made the great ship light as thistledown and it was held in place by a spiderweb of unbreakable monofilament cables. A thousand new worlds are waiting! a mile high projection proclaimed. A new life with no questions asked.
'No questions asked,' Innelda said. 'That sounds quite attractive, eh? With half the imperial army and all the Weapon Shops looking for us.'
Hedrock stepped up to the counter.
`My name is Yaneck. Salheim Yaneck, and me and my wife, we would like to leave. Eruh, start over? We owned a lake of fine alga, a hundred fat sea cows and then United Chlorella moved in.' Hedrock had played thousands of roles in his life: the yokel from the hinterland was one of easiest because city people started smiling the moment they heard his broad Malderan accent. When people looked down on you they took you at face value: Hedrock was a destitute farmer and Innelda his long suffering helpmate.
Hedrock nodded to the other two man. `They worked for me. For years and years and they are out of job, too.
The young woman offered them a dazzling smile. 'You came to the right place and at the right time! The Ark leaves at nineteen hours exactly.' She unrolled a piece of electronic paper with the two-headed-condor seal of the House of Isher. `Now look at the green cross for a retina print. Good. Confirm here with your fingerprint. A drop of blood for your DNA.' The recruiter leaned back in her hovering chair when the others had signed. 'The empress grants every emigrant a hundred hectares, a portable fusion reactor and a faber with a nineteen terabyte of blueprints. Anything from rake to a fusion-driven combine harvester. You want to become farmers again on Brandaban?
'Anything but a farmer!' Hedrock blurted. 'I want , I...' He spread his hands. `Some nice job inside, out of the rain.'
'Without heavy lifting,' Kershaw nodded. He must be a natural actor. 'Me, I want to become a scientist!'
`Well, anything is possible on a brand new world. You would have to study hard.' The nine meter high gate rolled open and they stepped inside. The gate closed with a rather definitive rattle.
`Welcome to the Ark,' a machine voice said. 'You are no longer citizens of the Earth and under ship rules for the duration of the voyage. Now take the second door to the left for mindwipe and indoctrination.'
`Mindwipe?' Hedrock said. `Nobody said anything about mindwipe!'
'You signed for a new life.' The floor grew vanadium teeth and they stepped back. `Second door to the left.'
It was the old story of unthinking male violence and female deceit, Hedrock mused. He now recognized the cultural pattern: Brandaban was based on a hierarchy of betrayal, with ninety percent of the population the dupes, the betrayed. Though they, of course, considered themselves players. He holstered his Weapon Shop gun, spread his hands.
`I’m all yours. Bring me to your Gubernator.’
`We should bind him,’ the woman, Arinne? argued. “Or at least take his gun.’
The man smirked. “It is coded to his DNA, my dear lady, a gun from from ancient Earth. It won’t fire for you.”
Ancient Earth. Hedrock felt a surge of joy. It is working. They really believe they have lived here for generations.
The road to the Fist of the Absent Empress palace was white marble, the slabs worn concave by the bleeding knees of pilgrims who had crept the whole ten miles to offer their devotion to the Green Dove.
Yes, quite a solid illusion. This city clearly was ancient, stable, and had endured for millennial. At the same time, Hedrock knew that the great colonization ships had arrived only three months ago. The mile long transports had landed in a carefully prepared stage set as big as the world. All colonists had agreed to the implantation of false memories. They had lived their whole life on Brindaban, just like their ancestors.
The High Council of the Weapon Shops had argued that the forced colonization of Mars proved frontiers just didn’t work for the common man. The only people that thrived on a frontier were sociopathic predators. Your man in the street, your Iddi Isdwar and his Lisette, they didn’t want new worlds. They wanted elbow room, all right, a place of their own but most of all they wanted stability, a centuries old civilization. As far as the Brindabans knew the Galactic Empire of Isher was three thousand years old, as ancient in fact as the Kershaw stardrive. Empress Innelda had finally agreed but insisted on time proven systems like theocracy or an eugenically modified aristocracy. Nobody had even suggested reverting to democracy where the vote of a fool carried as much weight as the vote of a trained savant or admiral.
Maybe this wonderful experiment will work, Hedrock thought. Even if we lose the Solar System all these far flung seeds will thrive.
The mighty blue sun above the spires and walkways flickered, dimmed to a brooding maroon.
Seeing the half molten interior of the giant ship, touching the dessicated corpses of the superspiders drove it home as not even the best touchy-feelie 3-D picture could: their enemies were more than gods. As the Trickster had said: The Tomb-lords were born in the very first microseconds of the Big Bang and they had never stopped learning since.
`We tried to dissect one of these critters with a fusion torch,' Arneld the xenobiologist said. 'A million degrees and the hair on their legs didn't even singe.'
`Yet they are dead,' Innelda said. `Killed.'
'I took a deep time picture of the hull,' the No-man said from the control room. `Quarks always remember their previous states. Three months ago all vanadium atoms of the hull suddenly reversed their polarity.'
`I see,' Arneld nodded. 'And their nervous system is based on microscopic strands of superconducting vanadium. Their whole memory was erased, including all autonomic functions. The spiders literally forgot how to live: all nine hearts stopped in utter confusion, their neurons no longer fired. Yes, a good trick but nothing godlike.'
He frowned. `So they they didn't really die? It's more like they are in stasis, like a robot waiting for new programming or a reboot.' He looked at hologram of the No-man. `Could we do that? Reboot them?'
'It would be easier to unscramble an omelet,' Edward Gonish said. `Still, we can fake it. Connect their brains to a cybernetic unit and point this ship to the Hollow Worlds. Zombie spiders. Not intelligent at all, but moving, and best of all, their brains would be unreadable because they wouldn't think at all. The Tomb-lords'll see their ancient enemies alive again and this time unkilleable. You can't use the vanadium trick on our hardware.'
Half an hour later the first monster spider stretched her legs, raised her feelers. A web of pure light started to glow and, on a command of the No-man, the ship's engines grabbed the world lines of underspace, wrenched. The ice moon Hined-Adrar slipped to the left and suddenly was gone. Stars streamed past, each with his own tail of probability rainbows.
`How long?' Innelda asked.
'In theory a jump should be instantaneous,' Kershaw replied. `But there is a certain amount of noise, a doubling of worldlines. You could say that we already have reached the Heart stars a millisecond ago, while it will also take us several centuries to arrive.'
'Wildarbord's paradox,' the empress nodded. `Never really solved, but luckily we won't have to.' She frowned. `Three weeks?
`That would be about right.'
It is hard, almost impossible, to activate the death wish of a man who has lived for millennia. Hedrock was sane and a sane man just doesn’t give in to despair. Still there were ways…
The War of Wizards had a billion dupes marching like army ants across the continents. In the final years nobody had used plasma bombs or viruses: it had become a war of the mind, of symbols and memes. Flowers of light opened in the night sky and reset the mind of very onlooker to gibbering madness. Other symbols could stop your heart, strike you blind.
Hedrock touched a memory crystal and one of the most potent symbols appeared in front of his eyes. It was the Al-Kura, the symbol of selfless devotion. The Shinto priests from old Nippon had used a rather flawed version to urge soldiers to kamikaze. Other symbols promised eternal life after dead, paradise: Al-Kura didn’t need such crude motivators. It showed you that you were a very minor part of a breathtakingly beautiful machine, but minor didn’t mean useless. Your very death would fuel and oil this eternal machine and that was the glory.
The symbol grew along the pathways of his brain, like brand new dendrites.
“You don’t understand!” his daughter had cried. “I come from the single future in three billion where the sun shines again. In all other time lines you and Innelda failed.”
“But in your future I died.” Hedrock had instantly understood the implications. “I died in time and Innelda saved the empire.”
The memory blazed, a beacon of selflessness. I died and Innelda saved the empire.
Hedrock put the cross hairs of the life boat’s navigation system on the white dwarf, reached for the overdrive. It was only three million miles. The drive would cover that distance in less than a second and hurtle him in the heart of the sun. The row of synthetic rubies lit up with the eerie blue radiation of electrons accelerated to close to the velocity of light.
A hand reached past him, flipped the switch.
“Yes, Innelda saved the empire. Only she won’t, not without her consort.” Innelda’s lips were thin lines of pure anger. `You fool! You utter fool! Your daughter appeared from nowhere, vanished as abruptly. Doesn’t it remind you of someone? Somebody who can wear any face he likes, who travels through time?”
“But she called me `sangra’.”
The empress snorted. `So the Trickster did his research. Details counts, ask any conman.”
Hedrock materialized on the corner of the Street of the Dead Gods and the Husse Arhenius Speedway. He looked on his watch, pushed the stem to get the update from the orbiting atomic clock. A chime and the new date told him he had moved seven days into the future.
Children ran in front of a funeral procession. It must be an important personage who had died, one of the high aristocracy: Mutated elephants danced on their spidery hind legs and played the kazoo. Clowns clad in sea silk capered and the threw golden coins by the handful.
Hedrock stepped closer.
`Who are they burying?’ he asked a little girl on a tricycle. Her hair was a dandelion of tiny blond braids, each held up by a hummingbird.
‘It is that man from the Palace,’ she lisped. ‘You know, the Consort. Lord Hedrock.”
The Shunhu-Datteck starport was a ten thousand mile wide bowl of spun glas that drifted in the atmosphere of a red giant. Hedrock saw the needle-towers of second stage Linders pierce the artificial sky like monstrous harpoons, each barb dripping waterfalls of venom. Squadrons of red Din-Mashji patrolled their boiling mating-pools.
So many kinds of aliens! Hedrock thought, and all as advanced as mankind. Why had they left no traces? Never visited the Solar System? The astronomers should have seen the skies crisscrossed with the false-light trails of a thousand starships. The orbiting space telescopes of the Empire could resolve solar spots on Aldebaran and had mapped the continents of a hundred oxygen worlds. How could they ever have overlooked the Dyson spheres, the space elevators, the green and blue haze of space habitats encircling so many nearby stars?
The Ulirian must have read Hedrocks thoughts because the sage now lifted his claws in the gesture of kind-correction-of-false-premises.
`You couldn't see us because we simply weren't there,' he said. `This universe, and my whole species, is only four days old.'
The Hollow Worlds hung like frosted glass globes in the light of a million suns. Here, in the Galactic center, the suns were mere light months distant, some even as close as Earth to Pluto.
The shields of the ship flared, glowing in the sleet of deadly gamma radiation. Some of the suns were made of contraterrene matter. They shone especially fierce and would burn out in a matter of centuries.
`For the Tomb-lords this is a frozen wilderness,' the Ulirian explained. `Horrible cold and dark.' He clicked his claws, gestured. 'Our whole universe, they see it as one enormous graveyard, filled with the corpses of burnt-out quasars. In their youth the universe was only half a light second wide and filled with pure radiation, all matter stripped down to their vibrating superstrings.'
Hedrock doctored watch buzzed against his wrist. Something had touched this worldline, had once again tried to erase him. No, not him. He felt a sudden emptiness, an absence. The other Hedrocks were gone: the smiling Master of the Thundering Fall and the cold one, the general who had ordered the genocide of the Yellow-green Dreamers. He felt horribly pared down, insubstantial. I'm the last of all Hedrocks, he realized. If I die, the Empire dies.
'I have charted a course through the reef of micro black holes,' the dead pilot announced. 'I'm moving in now.'
It was like double vision. Hedrock saw the vitrified continents of Yidwara rotate away beneath the keel of the stolen starship, the empty basins of the vaporized oceans. A second living world overlaid the cindery corpse, though, blue and red forests, superhighways, the lights of mighty cities on the night side. In the North and South ghostly images of polar ice flickered.
'The Second Manipulation put Yidwara in a state of quantum uncertainty,' the No-man said from behind the scope. 'Like the cat that didn't live or die.'
'What is a cat?' Innelda asked and for a moment Hedrock felt truly ancient. Cats had been extinct for five thousand years and their genetics had never been successfully reconstructed.
`Something is trying to take me over,' the machine brain of the ship warned. `Shutting down my defenses. I can hold out for nineteen more seconds.'
`Better move out then,' Hedrock ordered. `Jump!'
'It'll take me twenty-one seconds to activate the drive this close to a planet.'
The No-man looked up from the scope. 'A projectile has been launched from the second moon. A one milligram pellet of antimatter. Time to impact: seven seconds.'
`Sorry,' the ship said. `The intruder has just deactivated all my missile shields.' The ship actually sounded scared. `Great Transistor in the Sky,' the ship intoned, `stand ready to receive the pattern of my soul.'
“Maybe an universe that unstable shouldn’t exist,” Edward Gonish said.
“Is that your intuition?” Innelda asked.
The No-man shook his head. “I said ‘maybe’. In the absence of any real data I’m just guessing.”
“Edward would never guess,” Hedrock said. “He would rather cut his tongue off.” The plasma beam of his imperial gun hit only empty air.
“Fast, but not fast enough,” Ylara commented. “You are losing your native paranoia, my dear parents.” She snorted. “Trusting people just because you know and love them!”
The landscape was only minimally changed after the Third Manipulation Hedrock discovered. The mountains of the crater rim seemed perhaps a few degrees steeper, the central towers of the Tomb of the Ultimate God leaned now to the left.
“The forcefield is recharging,” Ylara said.
There was a flash of utterly cold fire, an anti-light that turned their flesh as transparent as glass and made their bones glow like neon tubes.
`Robert,’ Innelda whispered in utter horror. `The stars…’