Dr. Robert B. Marcus Jr. - Author

 

 

 

 

Shadow on the Stars

 

PROLOGUE

 

There was light where no light should be. In the depths between the stars, where space should be dark and empty, light blazed and moved; light produced by no physical source, but born of the intertwining of a life-force with the fabric of space-time.

For the light was alive, in a way no human could ever hope to understand. It was a member of a race that had survived two billion years past its first venture into space, a race not native to this galaxy or even this time period. In fact, more than a billion Earth-years would go by before the planet on which the light-being’s race would evolve cooled enough to produce the first proteins necessary for life.

The light-being had come a long way on this mission; it had much farther still to go.

There was a planetary system just three light-years ahead, and the light-being moved toward it. Eventually it reached the outermost of the small yellow star’s five children, but it ignored this world of frozen methane, as it also ignored the next three worlds whose orbits it crossed. Only when it arrived at the water covered innermost planet did it pause and drop down to hover over what little land was present, as though contemplating its next move.

There was life on the planet, but the light-being was not interested. Other planets in other time periods had more intriguing life forms. This was in no way a unique world now.

But it soon would be.

The light-being moved again, spreading out into a girdle of fire to encircle the entire planet. It had finished thinking; now was the time to act. Invisible forces clawed dark rocks from the bowels of the mountains. Invisible hands shaped the rocks, transformed them to a chalky white and assembled them. The light-being worked leisurely, and years went by before the structure was completed. But one dark morning, while the yellow sun still hid behind the eastern storm clouds, the last stone was placed.

This was not the end. Guardian forces had to be left to prevent all but the two who were meant to come this way from entering. That done, the light-being surveyed the work.

It would serve.

The girdle of light coalesced into a sphere less than a meter in diameter. Slowly it began to rise to the stars.

The light-being had now completed the first part of its mission—on this and another world two time-gates had been built—but the hardest part was yet to come and required another parsecs long journey.

The light-being probed the nearby space. It was alone. Nothing had seen. There were no shadows on the stars.

Someday, the shadows would come. In the not-too-distant future. And then someday, far down the pathway of time, the light-being’s race would battle those shadows for all the worlds to come.

But for now, the light-being could travel unmolested. It had forty thousand years to reach its next destination, and it would need much of that time to plan what it would do when it got there.


 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Edgeworld was not the planet Krison Camarch would have picked to die on. The entire world was eternally cold and damp. This small cell was cold and damp. Probably his grave—if anyone bothered to bury him—would also be cold and damp. The damp weather was the only permanent thing about Edgeworld. Everything built by man was certainly temporary, for the two million miners who came here briefly to make their fortunes and then leave cared little or nothing about constructing anything to last.

There was one exception: the jails. Camarch surveyed his cell again, from the single small vent in the plascrete roof to the solid titex door. The jails were undoubtedly the sturdiest buildings on Edgeworld. This one looked as though it might even outlast the ruins of C’hah Lai. Escape from here was virtually impossible, and unless he could escape, his future would be very short.

A snort from the corner of the cell broke his concentration. He glanced over at the scruffy old man who lay sprawled across the cell’s only bed. As usual, Edgeworld’s sturdy jails were overcrowded; so Camarch, an accused murderer, had to share his three-by-three-by-three-meter cube with a drunk miner who was sleeping off the effects of his overdose of pstilx, Edgeworld’s unique blend of poisons.

Camarch turned away from the old miner and reconsidered his own problem. Captain Sanphan had certainly wasted no time in having him arrested once the Sentinel touched down. The warp chambers were still glowing when the badges arrived in the warp room, blasters and squealers in hand. The thing that angered Camarch the most was Sanphan’s broken promise that Saldrator Dran’s death—however it had occurred—would be forgotten if Camarch would repair the warp drive.

Camarch scowled. Lady Justice was nowhere in sight when he needed her. On a routine warp jump between Nonna’s Planet and Edgeworld, the warp drive failed. That wasn’t anything unusual: the warp drive on the starship Sentinel had failed many times before and would probably fail many times again; it was practically ready for a museum. The fact it could function at all constantly amazed Camarch. Repairing it wasn’t difficult, but opening the warp chamber was always dangerous. Dran made one mistake, and the warp field still lingering in the chamber abstractly scattered his protoplasm around the warp room. And somehow, after a brief investigation, Camarch had been accused of murder. The reason, of course, was because he was a Tel.

But Sanphan, in charging him with the murder, had forgotten one thing: Dran’s death made Camarch the only warp tech left and, therefore, the only one aboard with the knowledge necessary to complete the repairs. Sanphan had been forced to promise Camarch clemency.

Camarch had never trusted Sanphan and was hardly surprised when the promise was not kept. Now he would die, because offenses occurring in space came under the jurisdiction of the ship’s captain, if one of the few overriding Federation laws was not broken. The only thing keeping him alive this long was that once the ship landed on Edgeworld, Sanphan was required to submit Camarch to the Edgeworld authorities for a three day imprisonment. If no one registered an objection during that time, he would be turned back over to Sanphan for whatever disposition the captain had in mind.

But Camarch didn’t know anyone who might register an objection on his behalf. And now the three days were almost up.

A key turned in the lock. A guard entered, heavy set, pale and solid, like the plascrete room around him. As he moved closer, Camarch could smell the pungent odor of one of the cheap local brands of pressorb. It must have been a new shift, because Camarch didn’t recognize this guard. The man kept rubbing his eyes methodically, as though someone had just jerked him from a deep, pleasant sleep.

“Which one of you is Dancot Bries?” he muttered.

The snoring figure did not move.

“I am,” Camarch said.

The guard’s bushy eyebrows twitched; then he shrugged and motioned for Camarch to follow him. Camarch obeyed without hesitation. Dancot Bries, Camarch had discovered from talking to the drunk before he lapsed into oblivion, was arrested only for public stupor. No one considered him much of a threat, which was why only one guard had been sent. Camarch wasn’t clairvoyant, but he was beginning to realize tomorrow might exist for him after all. He had only to shed this one sleepy guard.

Outside the cell, the hallway was constructed and decorated in the same drab plascrete manner. They passed only five more cells before the corridor ended at an open doorway. The small chamber on the other side contained a desk with a gray uniformed man sitting behind it. Across the room was a counter with another badge behind it. Talking to this man was someone Camarch had hoped wouldn’t be present…yet. Camarch bowed his head and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible; perhaps Sanphan would be too busy to notice him.

“You’re Dancot Bries?” the officer behind the desk asked.

Camarch nodded. A mistake.

The officer popped out of his chair. “You’re a lucky man, Mr. Bries. You’re lucky I don’t shoot you right now. You don’t nod to me; you say yes sir or no sir.”

Camarch said nothing. Without looking, he could sense that Captain Sanphan had turned around. It was only a matter of seconds before the captain recognized him.

“Do you understand?” the little officer bellowed.

Though Camarch was ten centimeters taller and ten kilos heavier, the officer reached across the desk and grabbed Camarch by the front of his shirt and pulled him over the desk until Camarch was almost in the man’s oral cavity. Then the man yelled, “What do you say?!”  

“Yes, sir,” Camarch replied meekly.

The officer smiled, showing a set of implants made by a blind dentist.

Camarch relaxed, thinking he was safe for a few moments. He was wrong. As the little officer sat down, he noticed Camarch’s hands. Slowly he reached down and picked them up, then turned them over.

“What is this?” he said. “These…they look like the hands of a Tel.”

Camarch felt the gaze of everyone in the room turn on him. He stared down at his own hands, the long, pale fingers with no nails. Without them he could almost pass for a normal human being. Few people would pay much attention to his green eyes, his high forehead, his thin lips and slender body—after all, none of those characteristics was particularly unusual. Nor would anyone see, under normal circumstances, that he had only twenty-two teeth, twelve uppers and ten lowers, and completely lacked a spleen. But people could see his hands and fingers, and these alone were enough to reveal he was a Tel. Being a Tel was enough to make people hate him. As Saldrator Dran had hated him. As Captain Sanphan still did.

He frowned. To be hated all his life for such a useless gift as his—there was something unfair about that.

“They are the hands of a Tel,” Camarch muttered, gazing straight at the little badge.

“But Dancot Bries isn’t…”

Camarch could feel the impact of Captain Sanphan’s surprise battering against his brain. Now was the time to strike.

What few people knew about Tels was that their hands were far stronger in fact than in appearance. The recessive genes in Chromosome 18, which gave him the rest of his Tel characteristics, also modified Camarch’s actin and myosin filaments to increase the contractility potential of his skeletal muscle. More often than not, his Tel abilities were a curse rather than an attribute. But at the moment, his strength would be useful.

In one motion he seized the astonished little badge under his arms and whirled, slinging the man against the stocky guard. From that point on, Camarch ignored both of them.

He saw Captain Sanphan reach for the guard’s blaster, which had landed in front of his feet, but Camarch knew he could be out the side exit before Sanphan fired. But there was something Camarch had to do before he left. He took two steps and inflicted himself with two bruised knuckles. The captain’s expression of pain and surprise was well worth the bruises.

The side exit led to the street.

Outside, it was night.

So few stars. Compared to the view from space, the night sky of every planet had few stars. Here, every quanta of light had to fight through the thick filter of the atmosphere to reach his retinas. Stars glowed alone, not in ragged clumps of light.

While half his mind was scanning the heavens, the other half was deciding on a course of action. The problem on Edgeworld was there were few places to hide. It was a world built by and for miners. They came, made their fortunes, and left for more habitable, warmer worlds. Their time on Edgeworld was spent working, drinking and sleeping, not necessarily in that order on any one day. In fact, the only thing Edgeworld had plenty of, besides mines, was bars. Temporarily, one of them might provide some concealment. Down the street was an open door.

The bar was dark and empty except for the bartender and two patrons, both of whom were trying to keep the business solvent by themselves. He wondered if he could hide in the darkness until the badges gave up their search. If more people were present, it might have been possible, but with only two patrons, he would stand out like a nova in a starless night sky.

Hearing soft footsteps behind him, he thought, for a fleeting moment, that the badges had found him already. He turned and saw a thin, dark man standing in the doorway. Though he couldn’t see the man’s eyes, he sensed they were staring at him. Without seeming to take his eyes off Camarch, the man walked over to the bar and leaned against it.

Concluding that the man did not represent the Edgeworld authorities, Camarch momentarily ignored the stranger and concentrated on the badges pursuing him.

Almost instantly, he regretted his mistake.

The stranger was not a badge. If he had been, Camarch would have been safer. The man was a Tel, and his mind struck like a knife, narrow and sharp at first, then widening as it gouged through Camarch’s consciousness, all the while sucking, draining him, as if searching for something, some fleck of information he couldn’t find. Camarch felt his emotions, his very being, start to slip from his grasp, and he clenched his teeth to force the stranger out. But the penetration was too deep. By diverting all his attention to his block, he was somehow able to prevent the intruder from ripping in any farther. A moment’s reprieve; that was all.

Behind him the footsteps of the badges pounded on the street, then in his mind, echoing around in the crater the stranger had made.

Camarch bore down harder, beyond what he had always believed to be his limit. Every artery in his head swelled as blood rushed toward arterioles and capillaries. The stranger had to be alien…his mind was so empty, so lacking in any emotion, so utterly void of human qualities. No human Camarch had ever met could even approach breaking his subconscious block. This being—whoever, whatever it was—had almost shattered it. Only sliver thin fragments held his block together, and they would not last long.

The alien struck again. Camarch’s body twitched; he released the table he was clutching and tumbled to the floor. The room blurred and filled with dark green and brown, overwhelming him with nausea.

“Are you okay?”

Camarch stared, seeing nothing.

“Are you okay?” the voice repeated.

His vision cleared and he felt the bartender helping him to his feet. He glanced over at the stranger. The alien was still at the bar; he hadn’t moved since the attack began.

Sweat poured down Camarch’s hands and face, and when he groped for the table, he slipped to the floor again. The bartender, however, was a sturdy fellow and he had Camarch on his own two feet in a few seconds, even without the latter’s help.

Camarch wanted to talk, to tell the bartender what was happening, that he wasn’t a victim of some unclassified extraterrestrial disease or having a drunken fit…but he couldn’t spare the concentration. Already his weakened state had allowed the stranger to pry open his mind a little more, and he noticed his head had begun to ache. It had never happened to him before, but he knew from other Tels and his own reading that the headache implied the imminent collapse of whatever mindblock remained. If he didn’t do something to change the odds immediately, his life-force would be sucked out by this dark, remorseless alien.

Camarch watched the alien standing by the bar and simultaneously felt the badges outside searching for him, still unsure how he had temporarily evaded them…and then Camarch felt fury, cold fury. He consciously diverted some concentration to motor activity and shook loose from the bartender.

“Wait, you’ll—”

The rest of the bartender’s words were drowned in the roar of fury in Camarch’s mind. All the anger and fear he had kept under control for the past few minutes suddenly surfaced. He stumbled toward the alien and found that he had overestimated the stranger’s power. The alien’s hands were clenched to the bar, his skin white and wet, his eyes closed, his teeth locked and bared. The eyes opened in surprise as Camarch approached, and his assault wavered. He was about Camarch’s height and weight, but at that point it wouldn’t have mattered if he were two meters taller. A bruised fist struck the attacker’s chin, and Camarch’s mind was silently alone once more.

The alien crumpled to the floor, and only by grabbing the bar was Camarch able to prevent himself from following.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the bartender yelled. Two large hands seized Camarch’s shoulders and spun him around. Even the two drunks, who had ignored his assault on the alien, stopped drinking and stared. Camarch was suddenly aware that the badges, by a process of elimination, had figured out where he must be.

But he couldn’t answer. The bartender wouldn’t believe. Camarch wasn’t yet sure he believed. He had to get away now. But where? The front exit led to a cemetery, and he didn’t see a back door.

Camarch finally spotted one, leading off from behind the bar. He jerked free of the bartender’s grip.

The door led to a small hallway, which subsequently led to a back exit. As he left the building he could hear the bartender running in pursuit and sensed the first sparks of consciousness in the alien’s mind.

Behind the bar an alley ran parallel to the street, and another led off it, perpendicular to the bar.

Camarch took the latter.

The first street was almost devoid of pedestrians, but this one was crowded. Every store, bar and pstilx room overflowed with drunks and shoppers. Several were aliens busy on some indeterminable task. On the far side of the street lay a body of phosphorescent water; whether river, lake or ocean, Camarch couldn’t tell. He thought he could see lights in the distance, however, far across the water.

He merged with the crowd and began to walk. Where on Edgeworld was he?

He wished he had been more attentive during the landing.

Obviously the city was near a starport but that wasn’t much help. There were fifteen starports on Edgeworld, since it was easier to bring the freighter to the mines than to wrestle the ore through high mountains or float it across the eternally raging seas.

What else did he know about his location? Well, he was near water, probably a river, since there seemed to be lights on the far side and the water was relatively peaceful. Only two of the cities he’d visited in the past were coiled around a river. Dantyren and Hosnes. Though he recognized nothing, he was probably in one of them. All plans for escape must be postponed until he determined his exact location.

If he lived that long.

He thought back to the alien in the bar, shivering with the memory of that dark mind, utterly void of any compassion. He had never felt such emptiness; nor had he felt such power. The stranger had to be an alien; no human had a mind like that.

Yet the stranger looked human. That alone eliminated both known intelligent alien races. Neither the Rawellens nor the Quertyuans could ever pass for human, even in a dark bar.

Then where had he come from? And why, Camarch asked himself, had the alien been waiting for an obscure warp tech at the edge of human civilization? Not only waiting—the alien had also come seeking information. And death.

But Camarch knew nothing that would warrant his death. People such as Dran had tried to kill him before, but only because he was a Tel. He sensed the alien had a different motive. Besides, from his brief contact, he judged the alien was not capable of hatred. No, there had to be another reason. Camarch was a Tel, but a powerless one. The alien, possessing such superb mental powers himself, would have seen the truth immediately: all Camarch could do was put up a mindblock another Tel could not penetrate, at least another human Tel, and he could sense strong emotion. He could not read another person’s thoughts; he could not control another person’s mind—except in extremely unusual circumstances, and then only slightly—nor did he have any telekinetic powers. He was purely a de­fensive Tel, harmless to anyone who did not try to harm him. How could he possibly represent a threat to anyone?

The badges were still following him. Camarch had been aware of them for several hours now. Every few minutes a lifter would buzz overhead. So far he had always heard it coming and managed to fade into the shadows.

In truth, he wasn’t worried about them. What bothered him were the shredders, those scaly conglomera­tions of teeth and clublike forelimbs, so named because of the condition of their prey after they caught it. They had the noses of bloodhounds and, worse yet, had the uncanny ability to sense a Tel 100 kilometers away. Probably they possessed some telepathic abilities of their own. They were quite gentle to their handlers but merciless to anyone the handler didn’t like.

Camarch was tired; the shredders were tireless, and the badges no doubt worked in shifts. They would find him soon, track him down and let the shredders have him for a snack…unless the alien found him first.

For the alien was there in the shadows of Camarch’s mind and had been for some time. Camarch didn’t know exactly how long, because his complete block was up and this decreased his own sensitivity considerably. The alien’s touch was light, like a dust mote, and present long before Camarch noticed it.

If the badges had been closer—at least, if the lifters had been closer—Camarch might have surrendered to them. But by now the alien was the closest, less than half a kilometer away, able to track him far more accurately than even the shredders. He could reach Camarch long before Camarch could reach the badges. The alien realized this, and Camarch sensed he was trying to stay between him and the authorities. The alien wanted him dead—with or without the information—and was afraid the police might bungle the job again.

So far Camarch had decided on no goal, a problem to be solved quickly. Then he had a disconcerting thought. Maybe the decision was being made for him. Maybe the alien was directing his flight.

An hour later no doubts remained. Camarch was being directed. By then, he recognized the city and realized where the alien was directing him.

The city was Dantryen. One thing made Dantryen unique: on its outskirts stood the silent ruins of C’hah Lai.

It began to rain. Great sheets of water from the river blew into his face, his nose, his mouth and, ultimately, his lungs. It tasted like salty vinegar and burned his throat. Camarch spat it out, but the pungent aftertaste lingered. One thing was for sure. He wouldn’t want to swim in that river. And the oceans were worse.

There was no shelter now, just the open water on one side and the silent, locked warehouses on the other. Camarch veered toward the warehouses and away from the ruins ahead. Between the buildings the rain swirled in under the eaves, battering him against the slats. For a few seconds his battered mind forgot where it was. When he lifted his head the alien was there, not twenty meters away.

Camarch braced his mind for an attack that never came. And when he searched, not even a whisper of the alien’s mindtouch remained. But as the alien’s hand slid into his coat, Camarch realized he probably had a blaster.

He turned and ran, and almost immediately the warehouse wall next to him quivered, then burst into flames and collapsed, flinging burning remnants of the wall and roof between Camarch and the alien. By that time, Camarch was back in the street.

In the distance, through the wailing storm, Camarch could see the misty towers of C’hah Lai. The ruins no longer looked as foreboding as they had even an hour ago. Increasingly, they seemed to be his only chance.

It wasn’t much of a hope. Thirty men had entered and never returned, and now he was quite calmly considering walking in there alone.

If the ruins had been a city, they had been a strange and lonely one, a city whose interior could not be seen from the outside and whose picture could not be taken from above. Since they were only a kilometer in diameter, the ruins would have been a small city. Standing in the darkness of the Edgeworld night, lit by the glow of a pale moon far above the clouds, C’hah Lai seemed more than a mere city—it had served some greater function. It suddenly reminded Camarch of the alien’s mind—empty and dark.

A wide band of barren ground surrounded C’hah Lai, and the rain had turned the sterile dirt to mud.

With each step, Camarch had to shake off the clinging black muck before proceeding. As he neared the opening that passed for a gate into the ruins, he began to weave his way around jagged chunks of stonelike rubble. Against the white background of C’hah Lai he made a fair target and the alien took the opportunity to get off another shot. The beam slipped by Camarch’s head and splashed against the rain streaked outer wall of the ruins. He ducked to avoid the showering of rubble, but none came.

It was strangely ironic to stand in the midst of rubble and watch a blaster beam bounce off the same wall that apparently had produced the rubble. It was as if the embroidery of rubble were only for decoration.

Silence. The gateway was a mere hole in the wall, wrinkled by time, but when he stepped through, Edgeworld became as much a part of the distant past as the builders of these ruins.

The rain ceased. Outside, it was still storming; he could see through the gateway. Here inside the walls, the sky was dark, foreboding, as it had been before the storm began. White dust lay on the ground, like dry snow. There was no wind in here, but the dust gently swirled around him, as if to protect him from whatever enemies he had.

There were three directions he could choose, now that he was inside: along the outside wall either way, or down an alley that arrowed away perpendicular to the wall. For no particular reason Camarch chose the latter. He took a few steps, then turned around to check the whereabouts of the alien, but the outside gate was gone. He was committed.

He walked. There were no buildings in C’hah Lai, only partitions and walls of white, stonelike blocks, five to seven meters high. The channels between them divided and merged, divided again, without a pattern, without making any apparent sense at all. Sometimes the path Camarch took came to a dead end and he was forced to retreat. Sometimes only a pile of rubble would block his way. Then he would scramble over it and go on.

The sky had changed now. There were stars like milkdrops, round and white. It made his head throb to look at them.

Always Camarch could feel the other’s presence. The alien could not enter his mind enough to pose a threat, just enough to locate him. Camarch began to fear he would never escape. This fear tread far beyond where the alien could go, deep within his mindblock, swirling there just as the dry white dust swirled around him. As he went on, however, he concentrated and managed to block out most of the fear. It was one of the rare times he used his unique talent for his own benefit.

Images formed in his head as he walked, wispy shadows of events gone by—the alien was there, but so was Thria, and Earth… He stopped and shivered. The images absorbed memories from his mind and took on life as he watched. His thoughts coalesced into substance on the street ahead.

He shook his head and strengthened his mindblock. There was no street in front of him, only the dusty labyrinth of C’hah Lai.

He was alone again, except for the presence of the alien mind.

It was fatigue. That was the only way to explain such hallucinations. Nothing else made sense. Thria had been dead for seventeen years.

Camarch started walking again. Ahead lay another pile of rubble. As he approached, it took on a different form. The sharp, angular pattern of the blocks was gone; now the edges were blurred. And the walls around him began to sag.

He gazed up at a blurred river of starry milk across the sky, splashing out a myriad of droplets toward the horizon.

At that moment he noticed the first waver in the alien’s mindtouch.

Camarch scrambled up and over another pile of rubble. Immediately he tried to stop, for below him on the far side the waves of an angry ocean lashed against steaming white rocks. But his momentum was too great and he slid down toward the water. Instinctively he closed his eyes…but there was no salt spray…and no water, no ocean, no rocks. Merely dry, white, powdery dust.

What was happening to his mind? It wasn’t only fatigue. The alien? That was one possibility, but it didn’t explain everything. Camarch had been able to block him this long; there was no reason why he should be able to penetrate now.

Camarch regained his footing, reeling in confusion. His mind began to sing as he walked. Visions came. The street was here, then gone, dust replaced by a searing sun and a deadly summer wind bearing thousands upon thousands of poisonous insects. Falsaf. The crowded jungles of the prison world Falsaf. A hundred kilometers of fear, where a three meter square room was a luxury few had time to build, and fewer still wanted because of the danger of owning any luxury. Now the stinking smell of hate permeated Camarch’s mindblock. Two men attacked him ferociously. He seized one quickly and threw him away, then remembered: it wasn’t real. He ignored the one with the knife, ignored the deep, agonizing stabs, ignored the warm, rich blood that trailed down his chest and back.

Falsaf yielded to Earth—even more crowded. Earth, where starports were being torn down to make room for the mobs to live. Soon the planet’s only link with the rest of the Federation would be gone, and Earth would be left to smother in its own flesh.

He saw a house to his left, rather a shack, made of slivers of wood tacked together to provide a temporary, always collapsing, shelter from the hot Yucatan summer. His house, where he had grown up. Thria lived less than a kilometer and five years away. He watched her die again, slain by a collect because she was a Tel.

It isn’t real. It isn’t real.

He wiped sticky, coagulating blood off his shirt. It isn’t real.

Captain Sanphan staggered around the corner, his mouth bleeding where Camarch had hit him. Hatred gleamed in his eyes. Camarch sidestepped his swing and instinctively started to lunge back at him.

It isn’t real.

Instinct succumbed to reason, and Camarch closed his eyes and blocked the captain out of existence.

When he opened his eyes a minute later, Sanphan was gone and Camarch was standing at the edge of a fifteen meter deep chasm, sharp, ragged stones lining the bottom. A cold sweat oozed from his skin, and he realized he was trembling. Had he tried to hit the captain he would be dead now, perforated by the rocks below.

Camarch skirted the chasm, not trusting his eyes, gently touching down with his toe to make sure there was solidity before shifting his weight onto that foot. On the far side of the chasm he stopped, gazing back over the distance he had come.

It was the ruins themselves. He realized that now. It was the ruins attacking his mind. No wonder no one had returned from C’hah Lai. Even with his mindblock, Camarch had almost been lured to his death. C’hah Lai was certainly no place for the non-Tel.

Camarch smiled. Or the Tel with a weak mindblock. He recalled the waver in the alien’s touch.

He searched for the alien’s mindtouch now and physically retreated when he sensed its strength. It wasn’t possible. The alien should be feeling the effects of the ruins.

With concentration, Camarch found he could block out the ruins completely. He sought the alien again and found him. His touch was so strong and full, Camarch felt he could open his mind and be filled with warmth. Which was impossible.

Camarch remembered the alien’s touch from the bar, so cold, so empty, so void of emotion. A Tel’s mindtouch re­flected his personality; it could not be disguised. No Tel could make fire from ice.

There was only one conclusion possible: a third being was in C’hah Lai, again an alien, but perhaps not hostile. Camarch opened his mind and the new alien slipped in just enough to let Camarch know he was a friend; then he was gone, barely perceptible once more.

Camarch sat in the quiet by the chasm, completely confused. It was as if an unseen alien had been waiting for him. Why? The thought was incredible, but Camarch realized that more incredible things had already happened to him in the past few hours.

Had Camarch not been exhausted, he would have lunged deeper into the ruins, toward the spot where some ancient machine produced the field that twisted both his mind and space-time. But now he felt his enemy closing in on him, and he was content to await his adversary here, beside the pit.

The alien shortly came stumbling around a corner, eyes flickering wildly about, glazed with confusion. He did not seem to see Camarch as much as sense him. Camarch saw him stop and then felt the faint mindtouch leave. Camarch withdrew into himself, his mindblock wrapping around him in anticipation of the forthcoming attack.

Then he remembered the alien’s blaster. But oddly enough, the alien seemed to have forgotten he had a weapon. At least he didn’t use it, but attacked only with his mind.

The first assault left Camarch lying in the dust. But his block held. He almost smiled, for his confidence was returning.

He remained lying where he was. The alien could not harm him mentally—Camarch was convinced of that at last—but he might be able to cause some kind of physical damage if he could duplicate the first attack.

He could and did. Even in the dust Camarch was stunned.

This time the alien stayed, hammering away at Camarch’s mind. The dust cycloned around him; above his head the stars melted; to his left a stone tumbled down from the wall and rolled dangerously near his head; beneath his back a crack appeared in the ground, widened a few centimeters, then stopped. Worlds never seen by man entered his mind, worlds of cold and darkness, worlds empty of laughter, tall, dark people…and then out of the blackest darkness of all came a ship made of darkness, a hundred kilometers long and silence filled.

But his mindblock held; the alien could send only illusions.

Eventually the alien weakened; his strength dwin­dled, his own hallucinations confusing his attacks. At first it seemed as if the alien had been trying to pry information from his mind, but now Camarch noticed the original purpose had been forgotten; the alien’s touch had changed; the alien wanted nothing but Camarch’s death.

But the advantage had shifted, and Camarch knew the alien would not like the outcome of this battle.

Camarch slowly groped to his feet, easing his way toward the pit. The alien struck again, and Camarch staggered, grabbing the wall nearby to steady himself. The alien saw him and wobbled forward, his eyes wide open still, not in fear, because he didn’t know that emotion, but in surprise. Camarch wondered what he saw. His past, perhaps? How could anyone ever know what transpired in that alien mind?

The alien began to strike again, over and over, a dying rattler. Camarch fell to one knee. Still the alien came, advancing with his feet as he attacked with his mind. Abruptly he stopped, whirled about and swung randomly at nothing.

Two more steps, once more toward Camarch.

Camarch remained kneeling.

Behind the alien, Camarch saw light…brightness, and ruins, tall spires and dreams…a planet unknown to man. Then his eyes were blinded by a burst of even brighter light. He felt dizzy, sensing the dissipation of time. And there were more planets, burning like suns…but the suns themselves were dying, their fires ebbing as entropy increased. The planets joined, coalescing into a parsecs long wall of flame. And the wall moved…toward a wall of darkness, toward a shadow on the stars.

The light vanished and he was back in the ruins of C’hah Lai, watching the alien maunder forward: one step, two steps. Time moved too slowly. He tottered on the brink of the chasm, waving his arms in one last effort to regain his lost balance, then toppled over the edge. There was not a sound when he hit the bottom, but Camarch’s mind was suddenly quiet and alone. He stared down. His eyes closed; his own balance faltered; then he shook himself awake and crawled away from the pit.

Why hadn’t the alien used his blaster?

Perhaps Camarch’s earlier hunch had been correct. Perhaps the alien was primarily interested in information.

And at the moment, Camarch no longer knew nor cared, for suddenly he wasn’t alone anymore. Coming from the center of the ruins was a wispy, golden furred alien of a race Camarch had never seen before.

Too weary to feel fear, his Tel mind exploded with anger. Chromosome 18 betrayed him again. Fury rose, unwanted, unsummoned, as it always did, and he tried to regain his feet to fight off this new intruder.

He failed, falling back into the dust.

“This third means you no harm,” the alien said in easily understood standard Federation Spanish. Then Camarch felt the warmth of his mindtouch and his anger faded, gone as quickly as it had come.

That was the last thing Camarch remembered.

(End of Sample Excerpt)

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Copyright © 2013 by Robert B. Marcus Jr. All Rights Reserved.