THE SPACE-SHIP fled like a silver bullet across black nothingness. Rows of round windows stared outward from its curved sides. Beyond the windows whirled clouds of interstellar dust. An occasional lump of meteoric rock rebounded from the metal hull.
To port shone the triple stars of a constellation utterly foreign to those in the ship. To starboard gleamed the strangely altered pattern of the constellation Hercules. Straight ahead lay the great star Deneb, and circling around it, giant orbs shimmering in its light, were the planets it held in its awful grip.
Closer and closer swept the ship, trailing billows of space-dust Over one of the planets that closely resembled the voyager's home planet in size and density, the vessel thundered. It rocketed downward, sweeping side-wise into the gravitational pull of the planet. It dropped into swirling clouds, swept into sun-lighted sky, roaring gustily.
Inside the ship a voice cried hysterically, “Calling captain' Calling captain"
"Captain responding. Over to forward jet ports.”
“The forward jets are shot, sir! Unused for too long. Ever since we left Earth, they’ve remained untested. Can’t fix them now. No time. Inside gravity of planet. Over.”
THE MAN in the captain's uniform bowed his head, eyes tightly shut. There was bitterness in his heart, but no despair. Six hundred light years from Earth, farther out among the stars than any man had ever trespassed, and now, this! A hand squeezed his shoulder. He glanced up, found the blue eyes of his wife smiling at him, heard her voice whisper, “At least we'll go together, darling.”
He patted her hand.
Through the compressed quartz panels they stared at the world unfolding beneath them. Rolling plains covered with long grasses that swayed gracefully before the wind bordered high, black mountains that cupped mounds of snow at their peaks. In the distance was the blue of a sea.
“A lovely world,” he whispered.
“You were right, Jon. Your calculations proved the habitability of Deneb's planets. You would have been famous.”
He chuckled, “This is one consolation, darling. But I'd hoped for so much more than that . . . a land to bring the restless spirits, where they could dwell apart from the regimented ones, to form a new country to call their own . . .”
He broke off. The ship was quivering, 'shuddering in the mad pace of its unchecked flight. Thunder rolled like monumental cannon-fire behind it, as the air was displaced and rolled together.
The captain worked the controls feverishly. His hands sought by their swiftness, by their strength, to fire those frontal jets, to stop this deadly dash through planetal atmosphere. He bit his lips and shook his head, whispering, “No use— no use !”
There was desert under the silvered belly of the ship. Heat waves glimmered up from the hot sands, distorting everything. Far in the distance lay a round yellow thing. The spaceship headed toward it, as though at the bullseye of a target.
“We’re going to hit it,” said the man.
“What is it, Jon?”
Yellow and glittering, it lay like a giant's plaything, half buried in the sand. It was a prism with clean, straight facets fitted together that seemed to stretch out at every angle to gather in the heat from the desert. Like a yellow diamond, it coruscated in the sunlight.
“I don't know,” the man said softly. “It could be something that dropped from the skies to bury itself in this spot, or it could be the—the work of intelligent creatures!”
Their trajectory of flight shortened. The nose of the ship fell lower, aimed at the prism. The noise of its passage startled two white birds that ran on the sand. The birds ran faster, blurring along on the amber desert.
From behind the amber prism a two legged thing came running. In his hand there was a flash and glitter.
“It’s a man!’’ the woman shrieked, a red-nailed hand to her lips. “And he has a sword in his hand.”
“Poor devil,” sighed the captain. “We’re heading right at him. He can't get away.”
The ship came down with unbelievable rapidity. The man on the sand had taken only a few steps from the prism when a black shadow overhauled him. He had no time even to turn his head.
There was an explosion that ripped metal apart, that tore gaping holes in the smooth facets of the golden prism, that sent geysers of desert sand upward in dry showers. When the sands came down, there was only scattered wreckage.
Like a twisted, broken toy, the spaceship lay on the sand, partially obscuring the prism. Gaunt girders stuck up through the opened hull. Smoke swirling from the ship's insides mixed with the falling sand.
Somewhere in the wreckage, a voice wailed in agony and despair.
THE MACHINE stood in the domed end of the dark temple, gleaming dully. Above it a hemisphere of translucent metal filtered pale moonbeams that drew flashes of silvered fire from the great metal bulk. Against the black basalt walls, the Machine brooded sullenly. It was great, was the Machine. It was worshiped. It held power of life and death over all Klarn. It possessed all power. It was god.
And yet, the Machine was—dead.
A figure slipped forward from the shadows that ringed the marble floor. From pillar to ivory pillar he crept, a hand ever on the stained leather hilt of his sword. Moonlight flicked over the close-cropped black hair and the tight uniform of the dulars that moulded his chest, and sheathed his long, lean thighs. Emblazoned on the chest of his jacket was the resurgent red dragon with fire spouting between its fangs, symbolic of his rank. A broad belt suspended his scabbard and blade, and sweeping upward from his shoulders were the metal epaulettes that bespoke his connection with royalty.
Flane looked around him, grinning.
He had eluded the mekniks. He could keep his appointment with Vawdar, unless the mekniks got to him first. Most of the mekniks were celebrating the death of his mother, the Princess Gleya. There would be rich liqueurs and much singing, and temple harlots to dance on the planked tabletops, sodden with the lees of spilled wine.
Flane was bitter, and savage. There was a fire in his heart that made him lust to kill. The mekniks were glad that his mother was dead, for she was all that held the mekniks and the dulars together. Now the mekniks would rule Klarn, with the aid of the Darksiders. Only Vawdar had a chance of keeping peace among the factions. And Vawdar was a hunted man, even as was Flane.
He came and knelt before the Machine, and touched his forehead to the cold marble floor. This was the ritual insisted upon by the mekniks, who insisted that the Machine was a deity, and there was enough shrewd caution in Flane to bow before it, just on the off chance that they might be right.
Then he rose and went to the grilled metal girdle that kept the Machine enclosed in its niche. He took out a strangely wrought key and dangled it in his hand.
Engraven on the sides of the Machine were a series of symbols. Diamond-shaped, they were, with the tracery of a star surrounding each diamond. One of those diamonds was the lock that would restore to life the dead Machine. Flane hoped that the key he held would unlock the slumbering power of the Machine. If not—well, Vawdar and he were as good as dead, themselves.
He inserted the key in the slit-like hole of one of the diamonds and tried to turn it.
He whispered curses, attempting to move the key by sheer force.
Another failure, he thought bitterly. Just one of the hundreds that had failed since that day, over a quarter of a century ago, when the Machine had hummed madly, and stopped. Those others had not mattered; every dular and meknik who thought he knew the answer had tried it. There was no penalty for failure. But now, with the mekniks hot after Vawdar who might still hold mekniks and dulars together, failure meant death if they should catch him.
Flane ran his fingers over the tiny hole. He saw the star pattern bordering the lock, like a frieze ornamenting it. He sighed. All the diamonds had holes.
Sound came to him as he stood before the machine, in the light of Klarn's three moons seeping in from the dome. He whirled, and half-drew his sword. Voices floated to him, riotous with laughter and derision.
“Vawdar! They got him at last. As he was trying to get out the Dragon Gate.” “Good news. Now if we could get the Princess' whelp, Flane!”
The man in the shadows showed his white teeth in a silent snarl of pure hate. His knuckles tensed on the sword-hilt until they threatened to burst the tightened skin.
“The dulars would be leaderless, then. They'd have to obey us, or we’d pull in the Darksiders—let them loot!”
One of the men grumbled, “If we have Vawdar, what use for us to miss the celebration? Why stand guard at the Temple here?”
“The council thinks Flane might try once more to make the Machine work. If he succeeded—well, that would mean that Klarn will spring to life. The Darksiders, though they outnumber us all, will never dare attack. They remember too well the weapons of the Klarnva.”
Flane stirred himself, stepped forward into the shadows, stalking toward the temple entrance where the guards talked. There were only two of them, and Flane had a great deal of confidence in his sword-arm, confidence that had been justified again and again.
He leaped from the darkness, his blade a thing of lightning in his hand. The guards came around on their heels, yanking out their weapons, laughing gutturally.
“Flane! We have him, too!” rasped one of them.
“Pig birds" whispered Flane.
His blade drove in like a beam of light, twirled the blade of the nearest guard in a circular envelopment, wresting it from his fingers to send it flashing high in the air. Sidestepping the lunge of the other guard, Flane slithered his blade through his opponent's neck, watched him gargle blood in his throat as he plunged.
In a moment the second guard lay beside his fellows, lifeless. Flane stepped across their still legs, out into the cool night air. Above his head the three moons of Klarn whirled high in the heavens, flooding the court with light. “The Dragon Gate,” Flane whispered, and ran.
AS HIS FEET pounded on back streets and alleys, he dwelt on the threat of the Darksiders. They were like the Klarn, yet they possessed none of their scientific ability. Centuries ago, so many that the Klarnva had lost count of them, the Darksiders ruled all of Klarn. Then had come the Klarnva, who consisted of the dulars and the mekniks, in ships of the sky, from somewhere beyond the triple moons of Klarn. From where, had been lost in the shrouding veils of antiquity.
Their leader had been Norda, a thin genius with a mind as curious as a question. It was Norda who put the machine together, who directed that the people should live in walled city-states against the inroads of the vast numbers of barbarie Darksiders. In the machine Norda had stored power, endless quanta of it. That power gave the Klarnva their lights, their heat, their luxuries. They grew used to it. The Machine even furnished them with weapons, so far superior to those of the Darksiders that the latter looked on them with awe.
When the Machine went dead twenty five years ago, the city-states of the Klarnva went dead, too. There was no light, no heat. Gone were the power-driven vehicles, the entertaining-screens. People groped upward as from a fog, seeking the source, of that power. They recalled that the Keeper of the Machine had disappeared around the same time as the Machine stopped. Moreover, the vast prism in the desert was smashed. Something from outer space had crushed it.
All knew that there was a key to the Machine that would start it into motion. Many of them had tried to move it, from the Princess Gleya down to Flane. None of them were successful.
“Neither was Vawdar,” grated Flane, racing beneath a balcony, skidding on restless feet around a corner.
There was clamor ahead of him. Hearing the hoarse cries of men fighting, the rasp of blades meeting and falling away, Flane went forward like the arrow from the bow. His blade was naked in the night, a length of glittering steel. He could see the Dragon Gates now : tall red blocks of stone hewn into the royal emblem of Klarn, red dragons, with real flame spurting from between their teeth to light the gateway below.
In the crimson glare, men struggled. As Flane shot into the mass of men, he saw Vawdar, bound at wrist and ankle, leaning against the wall of a building.
“For Gleya!” snarled Flane, and ran his blade through a meknik's heart.
Now the hands of men were all around him, and their shoulders, smelly with sweat. He heard curses rasped in his ears, caught the glitter of a dagger raised to Smite. Flane went in low on steel-thewed legs, lurched a shoulder to catch a meknik off balance and send him reeling into others with the keen edge of Flane's sword across his throat, severing his jugular vein.
The sword in his hand sang a strident song as it slithered around steel and drank from the heart of men. The blade danced and leaped. The best steel in Klarn was in that sword, and the finest hand for a hilt was wielding it. The mekniks gave stubbornly, but the dripping point that sprang out of the night for throat and chest would not be denied.
Flane sliced a dagger across Vawdar's bonds, heard his swift, “They fight with strangers whom I do not know. Be swift, Flane, that we may escape!”
For the first time, the swordsman beheld his allies. They were Klarnva, all of them; muffled in long black cloaks from which only their arms that held their blades appeared. Klarnva, but unfamiliar to him.
In the press of battle, groups of cursing, fighting men swirled around Flane and Vawdar as they sought to back away. Five mekniks glimpsed his lean face beneath the black hair and howled, “Flane! Flane!” to the starry, three-mooned sky.
Now the dular fought for his life. With his spine to a wooden door, he snarled softly, green eyes following the points that faced him, his long-sword alive to each thrust. Parry, lunge, recover. Riposte and thrust. He fought five men in that doorway, and one stepped out untouched. Over five fallen bodies the swordsman leaped, to keep death from the throat of Vawdar.
The black-cloaked men reformed their ranks, swept around them as a shield. There was one of them who did not fight, who stood, still and silent, looking on. Flane went for him, crying, “Who are you? Why do you make our fight your fight?”
THE ARM he held in his powerful hand was soft and slender. The hood fell back, and in the moonlight Flane gazed into a white face in which red-brown eyes stared back at him. Massey coils of red hair that blew in the breeze came loose, and flicked across his face. He breathed in the faint perfume of the girl, and looked at her full, red mouth.
All red, she seemed, and the smooth sheen of her skin was like the satin-stuffs that came from distant Yeelya. Flane grinned at her.
“Girl,” he whispered, “you walk with death tonight!” and drew her with him out of the path of a thrown knife that clanked against a brick wall behind where they stood.
“Fall back!” a tall stranger cried to him, and Flane drew the girl and Vawdar with him into an alleyway.
“We have mounts beyond the Dragon Gate,” she said hurriedly, stumbling along. “We came for Vawdar, knowing the rebellion that threatens his life.”
Flane turned to Vawdar, seeing his face redden in the crimson light of the flambeau inset in the wall overhead.
“The key you gave me,” he said hurriedly. “It didn't work.”
“I know. I've learned the real key in the meantime—”
The girl whispered swiftly, “Can you use it? Turn the machine on tonight? That's why we came, knowing that any hope of using the machine depends on you, Vawdar!”
The man shook his head. A laugh sat in his throat, almost evil in his bitterness. Against the background of clashing blades and grated oaths, and the rasping breathing of men fighting in the street, it was hollow in despair.
“Tonight? No. And not for many nights after this, and perhaps never. Because, you see—”
A shout hurtled upwards from the throat of a man who was turning into their alley. Men raced behind him, shouting. With his naked left arm, Flane swept the girl behind him, grinning, whispering “Now they've caught us. Between two gangs, in this alley.”
“Can't we reach that gate with the dragons?” said the girl, “We have megathon stallions waiting there. We could go across the desert together, all of us—”
Flane disengaged his blade from the sword of the first mehnik, and lunged beneath his guard. As the man fell, Flane shoved him back into the others, working his blade, butchering calmly. In the closeness of the mob who rushed him, there was no room for finesse. He shortened his blade, and stabbed.
“Megathons,” Flane whispered to the night. “They are native to the southern regions. One-horned horses.”
There was only one city-state of the Klarnva in the South: Moornal. Yet Moornal was remote from Klarn; So remote that, since the Machine went dead, it was looked upon almost as a myth.
“Yes,” said the girl in answer to Flane's quick questions. “From Moornal. We, too, have felt the bite of Want without the Machine to feed us. We are desperate.”
The last man fell in front of Flane. He whirled and raced toward the blue-coated men who were fighting at the alley's entrance.
“To the gate!” he shouted, and broke The ring of mekniks and was in the clear, his redly-dripping blade like the darting tongue of a swamp-snake.
Flane fought like a man gone mad. His feet danced the incartata, even as his bare left hand swept aside point and blade; with lunge and caricado he played his blade in the torchlight, engaging the mekniks. They cursed, but in their breath was the fright of grim death. These men had seen Flane fight before; they knew his reputation, and the magnificent steel of his sword. They broke slowly, but when they finally did, they ran.
The girl was staring at Flane with dark moons for eyes, standing solitary under the stone lintel of the gate. He shot toward her, put out an arm and swept her up against him, racing beyond the gate.
The hooves of the megathons were stamping on the stone causeway as they came into the open. Flane saw Vawdar already high in an ornate saddle, gesturing. A horse reared against a moon, fore-hooves pawing wildly. A Moornalian shouted something, swinging his mount's head toward the gate.
But Flane only saw and heard these things dimly. For the girl that was in the crook of his arm, pressed soft against him, was working a strange magic on him. He saw her face framed by the wild red hair, and the dark, mysterious eyes, and the generous mouth. Under moonlight she was enchantment come to life.
He bent and kissed her.
Dimly, he realized that he was mad to stand kissing this girl while men shouted and horses whinnied, but he put the thought from him.
The storm broke, then.
There were men with swords all around them, shouting triumph. Shoulders bumped them, drove them against a horse. Flane heard Vawdar yell, saw him bend from the saddle and stretch an arm toward them.
“I tried to warn you. The mekniks have come in force. Man, move yourself!’’
Flane threw the girl high in the air, across a saddle. With the flat of his hand, he slapped the rump of the plunging megathon, Then Flane was leaping, grasping reins with sure hands, his foot feeling for the carven stirrup.
"We'll divide," Flane yelled to a Moornalian” The mekniks want us most of all!”
They were off in a clatter of hooves striking sparks from the cobble stoned driveway, leaning forward over the necks of the megathons, reins loose. Flane looked at Vawdar, positive that he grunted, but Vawdar waved a hand, and they went on.
For once in his life, Flane was glad that the Machine was dead. If it were alive, the mekniks could have swept their group with guns that would have turned them into drifting powder. But now only a few arrows fell and bounced on the stones behind them.
They were going away from the Moornalians now. Flane saw them, bobbing shadows moving into the night. He flung up an arm, and waved. There was red hair blowing free in the wind, over there, and Flane felt as though he watched his life ebbing from him, staring across at her.
The megathons were swift. Flane thought with surprise that they were even faster than the horses of the Klarn. Then he saw the thin horn protruding up from the forehead of the beast. It was filed to a fine point, and coated with metal. He grinned. This was a fighting megathon, spawned and bred for a special job. He gave the animal its head, and let him run into the night.
AFTER many hours, Flane became aware that Vawdar rode too silently. He himself was full of the flame of the red-haired girl, but Vawdar should be talking, revealing the secret of the key to the Machine.
He turned—and then cursed softly.
Vawdar lay across the neck of his mount. In the moons' light, Flane could see the haft of a dagger distending from the middle of his back. Up and down he bobbed, arms interwoven with the reins to prevent his falling.
With gentle hands Flane drew him down; made him easy on the sands, with cloak at his neck, and a flagon of wine at his lips.
Vawdar whispered, “They got me in front of the gate, just as we were clearing them. Someone threw a dagger.”
Flane was bitter. “My fault. Fool, fool! Forgive me Vawdar!”
The older man chuckled softly, “It is good for Klarn that there is one man who can stop to kiss a wench when men are dying all around him. It bodes high hope for the future, Flane.”
But the dark-haired youth would not be soothed. He said things about himself until Vawdar writhed suddenly on the ground, back arched.
“I haven't—much time,” the man on the sand whispered.
Flane bent, ear to his mouth.
“The key of the Machine. it—it isn't what—we think. It—”
Flane held his breath, staring at the closed eyes. The thought came to him that this man lying so still and silent on the desert at his knees was the last hope of the Klarnva. If he dies without speaking, the Machine will never work, And if the Machine does not work, then the Darksiders will overrun the city-states of the Klarn. The mekniks may call them in to fight the dulars, and that will hasten their coming; but come they will, some day. For the Klarnva were sliding back to their level, swiftly, without the Machine. There would be no rays to wipe out hordes at one swipe. Instead, there must be arrow to meet arrow, and Sword for sword; and there were few of the Klarnva who could match the Darksiders with these weapons!
He moved Vawdar with an arm under his shoulder, staring at the pallid face. “Vawdar! Speak to me!”
The man moved his head from side to side. His eyes opened, staring. They focused, after a moment. “The prophecy, Flane. The prophecy—”
Flane scowled. Prophecy? He knew no prophecy. Yet wait—
There was something Crazy words about a man who would come with stars in his hands, who would unite all Klarn, dulars and mekniks and Darksiders alike, who would bring them the blessings of the Machine, and lead them to greatness. But such a man must be a giant. Stars in his hands! Flane grunted disbelief.
There came to Vawdar that false strength that some experience before death. He said strongly, “The key is lost, Flane. It may never be found. In certain records that your moth—the Princess Gleya, rather—kept, there was mention of it. She never knew, apparently. When the Keeper disappeared so long ago, he had the key with him.
“If you can find the Keeper, he will have the key. Search, Flane, Search!”
The man stiffened, opened his mouth wide for air.
Flane said softly, “But what is the key like? Is it big? Small? Is—”
Flane opened his eyes wide and put out a hand. The flesh he touched was yet warm, but—
He sat on his haunches for long minutes, numb. The key was gone now. Only Vawdar knew what it was like, and he could never tell.
Flane buried him beneath a hillock of sand, with flat stones from a small mesa to mark the spot. Weary, Flane stood and stared at the grave, quiet with grief. He had buried the hope of all Klarn here in this lonely spot. Without Vawdar, the Klarnva were a lost race.
Light glimmered on the horizon. Flane stared at it uncomprehendingly, a still, lean figure leaning on a sword.